Sheralyn Rose has written a deeply personal account of her life following the death of her husband, Peter, to suicide. Peter served in the Vietnam War and witnessed firsthand horrific and gruesome killings. Like many others who served their country he experienced profound psychological damage. Decades later, Peter described his feelings as having an ‘aching heart’.
It has been argued that those left behind inherit the pain experienced by the one they have lost. I would like to reflect on Sheralyn’s pain, her ‘aching heart’. I have selected five quotes from her book ‘Suicide Tsunami: Living in the Aftermath’ that provide important insight into suicide grief.
I felt I had been swept up by an enormous wave, over which I had no control, no foothold, no means of survival. It seemed everything I knew had been washed away, and I was merely flotsam bobbing about, churning around in a hostile sea; in danger of drowning in the tempestuous waters.
When you lose someone you love to suicide your world is turned upside down. I recall writing about the impact of Adam’s death on my life. I described it in terms of a ‘violent shaking’. You are cast adrift, disorientated, confused, at the mercy of the currents. You search desperately for something to cling to. You recognise instantly that your life will never be the same. The tragedy forces itself upon you. You are defenceless. It places demands on you. It asks for an examination – of yourself, your relationships, your beliefs, and your priorities. You know you are vulnerable, facing an uncertain future.
The silence around suicide does not make it less real. It perpetuates stigma and secrecy; the twin burdens passed on to the loved ones left behind.
Suicide remains a topic many people are still uncomfortable with. We can be honest about a cancer death or a car accident, but we should be able to be honest about suicide.
Suicide has been shrouded in silence and stigma for far too long. Fears that talking about suicide will trigger similar thoughts in people who might be vulnerable are misplaced.
Social isolation is a common experience of those bereaved by suicide. The deeply ingrained taboo of silence and shame impedes the recovery of those left behind. Not to talk about suicide at all only reinforces the belief that it’s wrong to talk about suicide. It makes people feel like they are alone.
It is crucial for the community at large and for those who have been touched by suicide to talk about the issue. If a grieving family are to have any hope of healing, they must be able to talk about their experience. Being able to talk about their loved one validates their feelings and lets them know their loved one hasn’t been forgotten.
The stress of suicide challenges the subtle balance of our lives.
The death of a loved one to suicide is a profound sadness. The grief that comes from such a loss is intense and multifaceted, effecting our emotions, our bodies, and our lives.
Traumatic losses such as the death of a loved one by suicide are far outside of what we normally expect in life. The reactions of suicide survivors often include and go beyond normal grief reactions in severity and duration. Suicide grief can be preoccupying and depleting.
Many survivors experience symptoms of post traumatic stress. Many counsellors would say “these are normal responses to abnormal events.”
Common reactions to a suicide include distressing recollections of the death particularly where the person discovers the body; disturbing dreams about the event; feeling emotionally detached from other people; always feeling ‘on guard’; difficulty working; difficulty in social situations; difficult falling and staying asleep; and difficulty concentrating.
After a death we are left dealing with both grief and stress. The previous stressors you were faced with before your loss do not necessarily go away; they are still there to deal with. But the added burdens are immeasurable. The personal or economic implications of your loss may be overwhelming. The ‘abyss of darkness’ might threaten to engulf you. Recovery from these symptoms is at best a gradual process.
Without the external indication someone is grieving, others are not aware of their immense sorrow.
Our society goes to extraordinary lengths to deny pain. Indeed, many of our addictions are attempts to conceal or remove the pain. This attitude taints our handling of grief. We want to ignore, deny or cover up the loss. There is no escaping the fact that grief hurts. The pain can be overwhelming.
We need to give ourselves permission to grieve, to express the full range of emotions. Even so we tend stifle our sadness when in public. We feel embarrassed by any unexpected display of emotion. It might be that we are uncertain what our emotional response will be or we are ignorant of what circumstances might expose our vulnerabilities.
When I returned to work a couple of weeks after Adam’s death I told my manager I didn’t know how I would go. I knew I was fragile and was genuinely concerned about work stressors. I observed my sensitivity to any remarks that demeaned life. I noted my struggle in processing any criticism of my performance however obscure or insignificant. I needed life to be predictable, uncomplicated but I also wanted others to know the magnitude of my loss and the deep sadness I felt. Avoiding the subject seems to be the default position of most people as they assume talking will stir up your emotions and uncover your hurt. But transformation is only possible as we consciously work through our sorrow. Suppressed grief is a weight too heavy to bear.
“A secret grief living in silence is a very lonely dark place. The heavy burden of unspoken sorrow may become unbearable. A shared sorrow may ease the burden, shed light in the darkness, give voice to the pain, understanding to the hurt, comfort and hope for a better day.”Marilyn Koenig, co-founder of Friends for Survival
Suicide grief may never be put to rest fully…. I was living in a world that simultaneously was sorrowful and soothing.
The grief process takes a long time and may never be fully resolved. There are issues pertaining to a suicide death that can never be put to rest. The struggle to make sense of what has happened continues unabated. There are regular reminders of the impact of your loss on family life. The fear of forgetting is ever present while remembering brings back the love that you felt but also the loss. There is an underlying sadness that permeates every experience. The challenge is learning to live with a tempered joy but ‘joy’ nonetheless.