In 1984 Robert Dykstra’s wife of thirty years took her own life. She gave no perceptible warnings; she left no notes. Dykstra, the pastor of the Reformed Church in Saddle Brook, New Jersey wrote about his grief in the book She Never Said Goodbye. It is a compelling book, almost harsh in its truthfulness and directness. He convincingly captures the desolation of suicide grief.
The grief process is always difficult, but a loss through suicide is like no other. Dykstra’s journey through ‘the dark night of sorrow and despair’ taught him a great deal. What he discovered changed his outlook on life. He learnt
(1) The solitary nature of suicide grief
Many bereaved individuals report that it can be difficult to talk to others about their loss because others often feel uncomfortable talking about the suicide. This can leave the bereaved feeling isolated.
Dykstra found that his journey in suicide grief was made essentially alone. He discovered that there was so little anyone could do for him.
If it is true that death condemns us to solitude, then it is equally true that suicide treats us like lepers, like pariahs. Not until after a month had passed did I realise that I was weeping to a tune different from all my companions. I was struggling with the sorrow of death and loss; they with the mystery of suicide. I felt pushed out of their lives and minds as though I were just one more irritating thorn in the flesh, one more annoying itch they couldn’t seem to reach in order to scratch.
(2) The reality of his own dying
More than any other human experience or emotion, grief puts us in touch with our own mortality.
Dykstra observed that the inevitability of our death is not something we dwell on. He found that having an awareness of ‘my own dying’ freed him to live.
Death is with me in a real and overpowering way… I must learn to accept this constant presence and all its nuances. I must welcome my own dying and the death of my dearest friends, the departure of my most precious love. Only then, when I have received it as a genuine part of life’s complete journey, will I be able to keep walking, not in circles, but to some genuine destiny.
(3) The questions that defy answers
With suicide, the search for answers about why their loved one died is central to the experience of many ‘survivors.’ The frequent absence of answers can be a heavy burden for the suicide bereaved. They may never understand why their loved one took their life.
Dykstra expressed his struggle to make sense of the inexplicable.
My confusion makes up a big chunk of my grief. It is a confusion that keeps asking through the tears: “Why?” “Where does this fit into the grander scheme of things?” “What, if anything, does it all mean?” In this present moment, I can’t tolerate life without certainty, experience without knowable cause, and questions without available answers. It’s so confusing.
(4) The search for a new beginning.
Dykstra was under no illusions. He knew his wife was gone. He felt the separation. He realised that someone ‘whose closeness constituted a fundamental and essential part of his own life’ had been wrenched away.
Dykstra understood that if he were to wallow in grief he would drown. He had to find a way of ‘starting over’, of ‘getting a grip’ on life. He says,
It takes courage to take charge in one’s grief, but the alternative is to be overcome by it. A resolution has its own price tag and I must be willing to pay that price or I will be forever paying. Part of that price is the willingness to let go in order to start over again.
Dykstra could see that hope was fundamental to his survival. In the early stages of his grief he writes,
It is in this present moment – in this my grief-stricken today – against the backdrop of yesterday’s memories that I must wait for the sun to rise tomorrow.
And then again some years later
Now, years later as I write, my sorrow has slowed down like some worn-out wind-up drummer boy. Sadness fades like an old print; grief yields the right-of-way to my getting on with life; a semblance of promise paints a rosy blush on the distant horizon.
Grief knows that for us to survive, we must take on a new identity, which is a formidable task.