A Walk in the Woods

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Definition: A prism is a medium that distorts, slants, or colours whatever is viewed through it.

Everyone looks at life through their own prism. Our outlook is shaped by the experiences of life. Our perspective is coloured by our origins, beliefs and attitudes.  Some of us look at life through the prism of race. For others their viewpoint is determined by their social standing or their profession.

Since the death of my son Adam to suicide I have looked at life through the prism of suicide grief. It’s as though I’m looking for confirmation that my life makes sense. Suicide has a way of unsettling the very fabric of your being. It’s like throwing the pieces of a jigsaw into the air and seeing them fall to the ground in random fashion. Suicide grief is about putting the pieces back together, knowing that the picture will be different, reflecting the permanent changes to your life.

I recently went to see the movie ‘A Walk in the Woods’. I had read Bill Bryson’s book some years earlier and wrote down the following quote:

“There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place in the woods. It’s where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods are one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mess.”

Bryson could have been talking about suicide grief. The grieving person finds themselves in a world of grey, a world of tempered joy and muted sorrow. Suicide grief asks for patience and perseverance. You may not feel that you are getting anywhere and the world about appears unspectacular.  You have your thoughts but they lack coherence.

The movie wasn’t great; perhaps three stars if I was being generous, but it did offer insight into the experience of those bereaved by suicide. Looking through the prism of suicide grief I was reminded of four important truths, ‘four shards of colour’.

Red – Preparation:

With no real wilderness experience Bill Bryson decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, an over 2,100 mile trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. Part of his preparation is to read up on the trail, discovering that the perils awaiting him include snakebites, bear attacks, poison ivy, flooding rivers, and a long list of injuries and diseases he might fall victim to.

People who lose a loved one to suicide have little idea what awaits them. Suicide grief is disruptive. It impacts on every aspect of life. It is all consuming. It gives rise to a plethora of confusing feelings, guilt, shame, anger, fear, disappointment, despair, and a sense of failure. It is relentless. When you choose to grieve, and I use the word ‘choose’ respectfully as there are those who choose to shut down their emotions and get on with life, you enter into ‘the valley of shadows’.

Soon after Adam died I was fortunate to come across the book ‘After Suicide: Help for the Bereaved’ by Dr. Sheila Clarke. It addressed many of the questions that were swirling around in my mind, it warned of some of the pitfalls to be avoided, it normalised my grief experience.

The grief process is a journey and it is beneficial to know what challenges await you.

Yellow – Companionship:

Bryson puts notes in his Christmas cards inviting friends and family to join him on his trek. He gets only one response, from an old school friend named Stephen Katz who although upbeat about the trip is out of shape and has a duffel bag full of Snickers. It has all the appearances of a disaster in the making. Bryson’s hiking companion is an abrasive, recovering alcoholic but it is Katz who keeps Bryson grounded. Katz is real. He can be reckless and infuriating but he understands adversity. He doesn’t hide his struggles and failures. His presence energises Bryson and keeps him walking.

During the emotional and traumatic experience of grieving it is essential that the survivor of suicide loss is not alone. Suicide is often defined by stigma and silence. Many people are at a loss about what to do when their friend or relative has lost a loved one to suicide; when this happens, their lack of support can be both painful and distressing.

Some people find support groups for those bereaved by suicide invaluable. Meeting someone who has experienced a similar devastating loss allows you to feel connected and to take courage. Dr. Gary Le Blanc lost his son to suicide. He says,

“Sharing our grief in a safe and supportive setting allows us to experience some release from the intensity of the feelings that can overwhelm our lives and can also provide the strength to carry on.”

Green – Wonder:

Bryson plunges into the mountain wilderness with one defining ambition – not to die outdoors. He finds the woods menacing. “Woods are not like other spaces. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs.”  And then without warning you step out into the sunlight and are greeted with a breathtaking vista – majestic mountains and dense forests, an unending sea of green.

Reason is not enough to help us navigate the peaks and troughs of our grief. Reason might warn you of the dangers of straying from the trail; reason might dictate that you pitch your tent out of the wind; reason might shine a light on what needs to be done when faced with adversity. But reason has its limitations. The death of a loved one to suicide throws up questions that reason will never be able to answer. As a consequence suicide grief has to contend with issues that can’t be resolved. It has to accommodate the unknowable.

What is needed is revelation, the opening of the mind to a perspective that is both reassuring and liberating.  We need a panoramic view of life that inspires and empowers.

Dr. Sheila Clark says, “When someone we love dies or when we are faced with a major loss situation we are confronted with one of the great challenges of life. The experiences of life and death which we tap during our grief open up a whole world of new possibilities to us. These will include our decisions about finding meaning from the disaster and the pathways which our future life will take.

Because we are human we are not driven by instincts, but by our own choices. We have the freedom to choose how to face this challenge. You can choose to integrate this experience into your life. You can choose to determine the future influence of your loved one.”

Blue – Completion:

At one point, Katz gets lost for nearly two days when he goes off-trail in search of a shortcut. When they are reunited Bryson asks Katz simply if he wants to go home and Katz immediately agrees. Back home, Bryson calculates that he hiked 890 miles, less than half the trail. He writes, “We didn’t walk 2,200 miles, it’s true, but here’s the thing: we tried. So Katz was right after all, and I don’t care what anybody says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail.”

It is not possible to sign off on suicide grief. There is no closure. The loss is what it is but I will continue to nurture the remembrance of my son in my heart. Psychiatrist Gordon Livingston writes,

“It is the nature of grief that we cling to it even as it lacerates our hearts. It is the last connection to our loved one and, even in the face of the awful pain of remembering, we are loathe to let it go. Deeper than the silence of death is the fear of forgetting.”

It has been four and a half years since Adam’s death and the sadness remains as I contemplate what might have been. I still reflect on how I could have supported Adam better. There are days when I feel melancholy but I’m comfortable with my ability to survive. I would like to think that I have grieved well.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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