Life After Suicide

Have you ever thought what a panorama of your life might look like, how life changing events might appear? I have been contemplating the death of my son by suicide and how it might be captured. Would it be represented by an ugly scar on the landscape, due to an ecological disaster; or a steep escarpment, a sign of violent seismic activity; or a winding river, uncertain of its future, turning back on itself?

The suicide of a loved one is a defining moment. How we respond to a traumatic event, like suicide, reflects our character. But we cannot always guarantee a positive outcome, that living with tragedy will make us a better person.

The trauma of suicide can eat away at us if we let it. It can diminish our confidence and erode our happiness. We can begin to see ourselves as a victim, unfairly targeted, enduring the pain of suffering, the injustice of unexpected loss, the stigma of having to live with what cannot be explained.

Much has been written about grief. The work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is familiar to most people. She is perhaps best known for ‘the five stages of grief.’ Unfortunately, her compelling insights have been adapted and applied in ways they were never intended.

You cannot organise grief. Grief has a mind of its own and it will not be tamed. You do not progress from one stage to the next as ‘the five stages’ seems to imply, nor does grief ever reach completion. We do not work our way through ‘the five stages’ and then graduate to a life ‘post grief.’

In his book ‘A Grief Observed,’ C.S. Lewis writes about the ongoing nature of grief. He says,

“Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

Grief is forever. It is like a stone we never put down. We never stop loving the people we have lost. To remember them is to recall the happy moments and those that fill us with sorrow. If grief, particularly suicide grief, is ongoing and a continuing presence in our life, we need to grow in our understanding of grief, to recognise how it changes, and to learn what it requires of us.

In her latest book The AfterGrief,’ Hope Edelman dispels the myth that we are all supposed to get over the death of a loved one. She says,

“Adjusting to loss is a lifelong process, but it does not have to be a lifelong struggle.”

I gained five insights from reading her book. They are

(1) The language of grief is personal:

It is not easy to find the right words to explain grief, words that capture the depth of our pain and hurt, that reveal the nature of our loss and betrayal, that convey the emptiness and exhaustion we feel.

I have read several memoirs about suicide loss. The words used to convey the impact of a suicide on those left behind include shock, despair, numbness, anger, disbelief, sadness, fear, loneliness, pain, heartache, tearfulness, guilt, sorrow, confusion, exhaustion, shame, regret, restlessness.

‘Shattered’ was the word that came closest to capturing my experience. A shattered life knows the full force of loss and trauma. When I heard that my son had taken his life, it felt like I had been hit with a sledgehammer in the stomach, robbing me of breath, forcing me to my knees. I feared that the scattered pieces would never fit back together, that I would be forever diminished, that my hopes and dreams would lack purpose and no longer fire my imagination.  

We need words to express our grief. They help us understand what we are experiencing. They allow us to communicate our loss. They reinforce what we need to know to go on living.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare writes,

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knots up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

(2) Grief rarely adheres to a clearly defined narrative:

“Real-life grief is a jumbled, unpredictable fiasco. It refuses to take orders or follow rules. If grief were an art form, it would be abstract expressionism. If it were a type of music, it would have to be improvisational jazz.”

Hope Edelman

Grief is individual and unique. It defies classification and resists categorisation. It follows no pattern, nor does it conform to a singular plot. Writing about the unexpected death of her son Christopher, Carol Smith says,

“There are as many ways to grieve as there are people to mourn.”

Your experience of grief will be erratic and disjointed as it is impossible to quarantine your emotions. They will take hold of you when you least expect it.

Even though I have been grieving my son’s death for ten years I am still susceptible to ‘sneak attacks.’ There are numerous sensory triggers that set off a grief response – music, sound, smell, food, place, forgotten object, or person who looks like the deceased.

Hope Edelman suggests that ‘sneak attacks’ are not always negative. She says,

“Yes, they remind us of what was lost and of what can no longer be. But they also serve as bittersweet reminders of a love and a bond that was once shared.”

(3) Most people who grieve are not looking for closure:

Why would you want closure? Why would you want to close the door on your grief? Why would you want to forget someone who was special to you?

Grief is evidence of our love. We grieve because we love. When a friend or loved one is tragically taken from us, our love for them is not compromised and their influence on our life is not diminished. We cherish the memories, and we value the inspiration we gain from the positive aspects of their life.

‘Where love and loss remain, grief and sorrow are sustained.’

Non-closure allows us to be an example of ‘positive grief’, to show that meaning can be found in suffering, and to be able to offer comfort and encouragement to anyone who might be going through a difficult time.

Author Ann Voskamp lost her father recently to a farming accident. She says,

“Maybe non-closure is the way to stay open to really living: Suffering cracks open the heart to tenderly see and truly stand with the ache of all humans.”

(4) The face of grief is ever-changing:

“Grief starts to branch out and diversify over time. Like a water spill that finds different channels to follow, so does long-term bereavement find different pathways for expression.”

Hope Edelman

There are activities that assume added importance. Meeting together as a family at the Frankston Botanical Gardens on the anniversary of Adam’s death, finding ways to celebrate his birthday, writing about the different stages in his life, tending to the memorial garden in our front yard, and carrying a hand cross in my pocket, reminding me that there is life and death and life to come.

And then there is ‘proxy grief,’ mourning not for ourselves but instead on our loved one’s behalf for experiences missed – family celebrations, witnessing the joy and vitality of the next generation, the nephews and nieces, acquiring new skills, forming new relationships, growing and maturing and finding peace within.

(5) We grieve through story, but even more so, through story expressed:

“Stories are our compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of the world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.”

Rebecca Solnit

Creating a coherent story in the aftermath of a death offers a sense of control over what may otherwise feel like a set of unmanageable events.

Following Adam’s death, I felt compelled to write to make sense of what was a strange and confusing landscape. To a healthy mind suicide is unfathomable. It is at cross purposes with our will to survive.

Organising disordered thoughts into a coherent, manageable account is what helps us make sense of a crisis. But the ‘making sense’ is an ongoing commitment. As new bits of information become available, they force a revision of the entire story. Some facts will never be known, so in that sense, our account is never conclusive or complete. Our stories remain in transition.

Hope Edelman says,

“The more effort we put into developing a narrative of loss and recovery, the more likely we are to engage with issues of meaning and the more we engage with issues of meaning, the more we confirm and perpetuate that person’s importance in our own life stories.”

Adam’s death has brought added meaning to my life. His death has forced me to grapple with many uncomfortable issues and to evaluate my response to his personal crisis. It has made me stronger, helping me clarify my belief systems and the issues that warrant my support. It has made me more empathetic and compassionate, giving me a clearer understanding and ‘feel’ for the impact of trauma and loss on the grieving. It has made me more appreciative of life, valuing the little things and being grateful for the relationships I enjoy.

Our stories are to be shared. They provide a bridge, allowing others to enter into our journey, to form an emotional connection and to be instructed by our experience.

Without the opportunity to tell their story, no matter the method, a mourner may pull back from trying to connect with others and resolve to get through grief alone, which can lead to isolation and depression.

Hope Edelman emphasises the importance of awareness, of knowing when someone wants to unburden, to share the pain of their loss. She says,

“If sorrow yearns to be given words but no one ever comes along to hear them, what happens to a burdened heart?”

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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