What I have learned about suicide grief:
Our son Adam died 10 years ago. I recall the moment I heard he had taken his life. A wave of grief swept over me, impacting every part of my being. This was a kind of grief I knew nothing about – suicide grief.
Suicide grief is like experiencing an earthquake. We had one recently. I heard the sliding door rattle and I could think of no obvious cause. The epicentre was in Licola, a small village on the Macalister River in Gippsland. Twenty years ago, Adam and I camped there overnight. The following day we fished for trout.
People were surprised by the tremor. They weren’t expecting it. There was confusion and uncertainty. Fortunately, the damage to buildings was minor and there was no loss of life.
The severity of the quake shapes our response. A major tremor causes fear and panic. The ground we stand on is no longer stable. Nothing feels certain. And it is the aftershocks that bring it all back, that stir up the traumatic stress.
And so it is with grief. It interrupts our life. It unsettles our routines. We lose our sense of equilibrium. We experience a loss of control. Our emotions are unrestrained. They cannot be dictated to. We feel spent, wrung out, empty.
In her novel, The Paris Library, author Janet Skeslien Charles captures the essence of grief in those early months. She writes,
‘Grief is a sea made of your own tears. Salty swells cover the dark depths you must swim at your own pace. It takes time to build stamina. Some days, my arms sliced through the water, and I felt things would be okay, the shore wasn’t so far off. Then one memory, one moment would nearly drown me, and I’d be back to the beginning, fighting to stay above the waves, exhausted, sinking in my own sorrow.’
Janet Skeslien Charles makes three important observations. They are
- Grief is personal
- Grief is exhausting
- Grief is persistent
Grief is personal. We weep for what we have lost. Our tears express the hurt. Sometimes it feels like we are drowning and all we can do is thrash about. Our grief is our own. It has its own voice. It must never be compromised by unhealthy and unhelpful comparisons.
Grief is exhausting. It never apologises for turning up and demands we pay attention. There is a price to pay, a physical and emotional commitment, to allow our feelings to have their way.
Grief is persistent. It demands our respect and will take as long as it takes.
Following the death of her husband, Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking. She says,
‘Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.’
The death of a loved one is a significant loss. It is important to find words to communicate what we are experiencing, words that express the desolation of what feels like abandonment. Words are a door, allowing access to our pain and sorrow. So often we feel frustrated at our inability to find the ‘right’ words. Grief is raw and unpredictable and that is often what we see. But grief is also internal, the unseen turmoil and sadness.
Robert Dykstra wrote about the death of his wife to suicide and how he survived. In his book She Never Said Goodbye he says,
‘Grief is a noisy business, even when we keep our mouths closed and our tongues still. Grief toils to express itself, verbalising even to the inner self.’
Grief can shut us off from the people around us, from our responsibilities, from our future.
When Prince Albert died in 1861, at the age of 42, Queen Victoria abandoned her royal duties for three years, refusing to appear in public. She became known as ‘the widow of Windsor’. Queen Victoria experienced an unbearable grief and chose to wear black for the rest of her long reign.
Fifteen months after Albert’s death, Queen Victoria wrote a letter of condolence to the elderly Viscount Gough whose wife had died. In the letter she talks about her ‘hope never to live to old age but be allowed to rejoin her beloved great and loyal husband before many years elapse.’
Her hope of an early death was never realised as she lived another four decades.
Words help us to reconnect, to re-establish our relationships and to renew our understanding of what our life will look like. Words are a way back to life.
Words also allow us to bring to life the one who is no longer with us.
In The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, a book I highly recommend, there is a conversation between Esme and her godmother, ‘Ditte’. Esme’s mother died at her birth so she is eager to know anything about her.
Esme – ‘And then I was born and then she [her mother Lily] died.’
Ditte – ‘Yes.’
Esme – ‘But when we talk about her, she comes to life.’
Ditte – ‘Never forget that Esme. Words are our tools of resurrection.
Our loved ones are never lost to us when we have words to remember them, and to engage with them.
Edith Eger survived Auschwitz. Her parents didn’t. In her book The Gift, she writes about ‘the prison of unresolved grief.’ She says,
‘Grief is not about what happened. It’s about what didn’t happen.’
It is the regrets we cling to, that influence the way we view the past. She says,
‘I’m a prisoner and a victim when I minimise or deny my pain – and I’m a prisoner and a victim when I hold on to regret. Regret is the wish to change the past. It’s what we experience when we can’t acknowledge that we’re powerless, that something already happened, that we can’t change a single thing.’
Any parent who has lost a child to suicide will know regret. It is how we punish ourselves for something that should never have happened. My regrets are many. I regret my lack of awareness and my lack of knowledge; my failure to speak and my failure to act; my willingness to hold back, to exercise caution, and to believe that Adam could get his life back on track.
But what do you do with your regrets? They feel like a heavy weight around your neck. They are an imposition, restricting your vision and your movement. Edith Eger counsels that the only way to free ourselves is to ‘let go’ of our regrets. We can’t change the past. It is not within our power to undo anything. It’s happened.
Restorative grief acknowledges the reality of what has happened, recognises that there were actions taken and decisions made that were not your responsibility, and accepts that the choices you made can’t be undone.
Grief changes, but it doesn’t go away. We can’t lock up our grief in a dusty cupboard and hide the key. Grief is deserving of our time and patience. It has much to tell us about our inner self. Make grief your friend and it will lead you to healing and wholeness. Deny your grief and you will be left to flounder, with little hope of resolution.
Grief is a gift. It may be difficult, but it is vital for our survival. It is given that we might have some way of managing loss. It is given that we might process what we cannot understand. How could we possibly accommodate a tragic death if we were denied the ability to grieve? Grief filters the impact of what would otherwise destroy us. Grief allows us to revisit the past, to engage with it, to know it. But we are not stuck in the past. We are here, alive to the present, grateful for every good gift.
Madeline Martin’s The Last Bookshop in London is a World War II novel. When Grace Bennett moves to London, she finds work at Primrose Hill Books. It is dusty and disorganised, and the owner Mr. Evans is grumpy. When the bombing starts, the death and destruction is widespread. Mr. Evans talks to Grace about his experiences in World War I. He says,
“I was in the Great War,” he said as she wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief. “You never forget, but it becomes part of you. Like a scar no one can see.”
Suicide grief is like a scar no one can see.