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Posts from the ‘The Suicide and its Aftermath’ Category

The Photo

Each year since my husband’s death in 2016, when August rolls around I dread it. It is creepy, and while it is getting better, it is still something I am dealing with. Earlier this month I posted on my Instagram account. When I saw this shot it gave me the creeps. I have been in this creepy, stormy place in my mind. Having to go in once again didn’t thrill me. Then something happened.

When I showed this photo to a friend, he exclaimed: “I’ve stood in this very place!” He proceeded to tell me about this spot, which was in Maine, where the villagers watch the storms that come in. As he talked about his childhood, and what that place meant to him, I began to see life and love in the photo.

Maybe it was time for me to attempt a rethink of August. In having these thoughts, I wondered how that could happen. When I think about August now, the rush of memories of where we were and what was happening during those weeks leading up to his death assaults me every time I open the calendar on my desktop. Was it even possible to consider a rethink as an option?

In my personal work around his death, I’ve reached the place where the good days far outweigh the bad days. My appointment book and calendar are filled with things that make me happy and inspire me.

So, I got thinking that this round of August was going to be so much better. It was—until my individual appointment with the person I work with on a spiritual level. She took me into this familiar place. As the tears came, I realized what I’d been fighting and I talked through it. Several hours later as I sat at my computer, the depression crept up strongly, and the urge to shut it all down was great. But I didn’t.

As I sat on my bed dripping soothing eye drops into both eyes, it hit me: This is not where I want to be now! My calendar and appointment schedule are doing what I hoped they’d do when I returned to work. I’m happy about where I am and the work I’m doing. Four years later I can accept the awful that I’m feeling in the here and now, but it doesn’t have to stay around. While I know what that dark, stormy place looks and feels like, I’m not in that place anymore. I’m seeing things in new ways!

I can’t tell you when the shift happened. I can’t tell you how it happened. What I can tell you is that it was slow and gentle, and it involved my willingness to stay on this path that I’m walking on. It involved confronting the old self, being willing to engage with questions, and visiting change. Some things weren’t new to me, and others were.

Grief and loss call us to an encounter with ourselves that can be rather revolting at times. As we look in the mirror, we are asked to converse with the person staring back at us. Sometimes we must admit that what we are seeing is not something we like. At other times the image we see is one that we accept with surprise and amazement. Is this really the real me? In the moments of amazement, we are greeted with the realization that yes, I’m really doing this! Yes, what I thought would never change is changing. Then we’re taken to that place where we ask the “how” question: How did this come into being?

I believe it is a combination of both actions and events that propels us into these new spaces. Small successes that build self-esteem and allow us to reconstruct what might have been damaged by death or loss, or in other ways. The courage to dare to stick the toe into the water and test it to see if the water will tolerate the tiny toe. When we discover that first level of safety, we can progress. The testing of the waters is a small event. It is one that signals safety and that it might be OK to consider a tiny action. For some people the tiny action might be making a meal, going out to lunch, or picking up a book to read. It really depends on our personalities. My first foray back into the land of the living was a three-week trip to visit the U.S. and it was huge in so many ways. I returned knowing I could navigate places that were foreign to me: new public transit systems and other new places. Just shy of the month of August 2017, I realized that Jon would say I’m “rockin’ this!” To tell you the truth, I was terrified! It was a huge first, and it would take another year before I’d do it again. But this time, much closer to home. The second trip was a journey to Glasgow and Wales. It was all new and, once again, with the support of new friends, I made it—and I did well.

The landscape I called life changed with that trip. I wouldn’t trade it for anything! It opened up my mind and heart to new experiences, and as the next year unfolded and 2019 rolled around, the tears lessened, the new friendships began to take root, and now my legs were immersed in that water. It would really take all of 2019 for me to fully begin to swim in life’s waters again.

Now, as I write this with August in full swing, and 11 days left in the month, I stop, take a breath, and rethink the photo I posted earlier in the month. Yes, my life has really changed. Yes, Jon would love that I’m “rockin’ it.” Yes, the tiny events turned into larger actions. Yes, it has been hard. Yes, I’ve found ways to move on. Yes, I’ve met the old me and have kept much of her. She is new in many ways. I choose to stand tall and strong in this new place I call life.

Revisiting Being Heard

This blog has a title that dates back to an incident with my husband’s psychiatrist. At the end of our conversation, when I thanked him for listening to me, he replied, “You needed to be heard.” His acknowledgement that this issue had to be addressed was huge for me. I left his office with my husband and realized that I had a title for the blog I was working on publishing. That exchange created a bridge of trust with me. I would need that trust as the years went on.  

That one incident opened me up to a new understanding of how validation through truly hearing with the heart and mind can alter someone’s life path. A good decade or so later our exchange still stands out in my mind. That doc really took the time to hear, respond, and accept my truth.  

Having said all of this, I’d like to share more on this subject as it relates to another healing moment in my life.  

Something happened to me after Jon’s death that was so hurtful I had to put it on the back burner for two years. I won’t share what happened because to do so would expose several people who, to this day, think they did a really great thing. It wasn’t a great thing. In 2019 I began to address that hurtful act. It took one year to completely resolve the issue. It wasn’t fun, and I’m glad it’s over.  

The catch—and there always is a catch—is that I had a well of pain that was connected to people’s behavior towards me. That wasn’t so easy to wipe out of my mind, or to repair. The reason why is that several misguided people thought that they were helping me in my loss when they were, in fact, doing great damage. The key to the resolution was, and is, gaining enough perspective over time to be able to step back and decide how to best handle the matter.  

This is complex in that telling someone what they’ve done isn’t always the best resolution for them. They most likely won’t view the event in the same way that you do, or have the insight to think it through. You might come up against strong resistance when explaining how hurtful such actions are. I tested things out with one of the parties involved. This person couldn’t understand why I was so angry. I realized that it was not productive to force the issue.  

The rage and pain were very much present. What can you do in a situation like this? 

Death rearranges the address book. In my case, Jon’s death did a grand Viennese Waltz through the pages of my book. People who I believed to be friends disappeared. Family who couldn’t cope with my new reality disappeared. It left me staring at once-full pages wondering how—and if—I could rebuild with new people in my life. It served as a witness that grief, and the lack of comfort others have with it, brings great pains to those who must walk through the lonely terrain.  

Fortunately, I’ve begun to build a community of new friends who view life as I do. I’ve paid a steep price for these new beginnings. It was towards this new group of people, who are becoming friends, that I turned, seeking a listening ear. But I needed more than just a listening ear; I needed to be fully heard. I found that person. I was heard in a genuine and caring manner. It allowed me to let go.  

Not being heard can cause someone to become stuck in the quagmire of pain, loss, anger, trauma, disappointment, and so many other things that I won’t list here. Not being fully heard can cause us, as humans, to shut things down, to cling so tightly to the pain in our souls that we can’t find the ladder out of the quagmire.  

Being heard—and truly hearing another person—may require that we face some painful places in our own souls while accompanying them through a darkness they want out of.  

Being heard means opening ears and stopping the responding and questioning, in order to allow for understanding. Hearing and being heard involve authentic empathy from the person doing the hearing. It is a skill.  

I am by no means perfect at doing this. Sometimes I blow it. When I realize I’ve blown the “hearing,” I go back, apologize, and work even harder at doing a better job during the next hearing.  

If you’ve been fully heard, you understand that one of the feelings that opens up for a person in this process is liberation! We are liberated from our burden, the trauma, the pain, the struggle of the choice we’re making—we’re set free to explore new and colorful options. Maybe we are enabled to take that first step on a road to someplace new. This hearing might allow us to stop the repeating “sound bite blasting” in our heads about what we could—or should—have done.  

Being heard entirely is a gift. It is one that we unwrap with joy, understanding that it is not as common as it should be. It frees our spirits, calling us forward to new ground. It opens us to new relationships of understanding and trust. When we engage in the power of complete hearing, it changes us because our views and hearts are altered. We can no longer choose to unhear or not see what we’ve become a witness to. Each time a person is truly heard, it changes the world.   

The Path to a Peaceful You

Peace? Right now it seems elusive.  

I’ve been thinking about the ways we all look to find peace in our lives. Some isolate and hide in their own inner worlds. Some turn the news off so they don’t have to hear the crazy. I’m noticing that lack of thought is also giving people the illusion of peace. People hide in their vacations, shopping, as well as their food. Some people hide in moods, achievement, knowing, religion, and belonging. Starting to see a picture here? How do you hide?

One of the things that has been affected by my husband’s death has been the need to travel alone to places I’d rather not go. The process of going began with me sitting at the dining room table with a group of people and being totally freaked out (“freaked out“ in this case being a technical term). I was panicked, I was uncertain. I was getting drunk on chocolate because people around the table kept feeding it to me and I kept eating it. I couldn’t even envision the path that I’d be facing during that first 24 hours. I believed that I couldn’t do it alone. Who would walk with me? The walker came later.  

The second full day brought with it a discovery that I wasn’t alone. I was able to reach down into a place that I didn’t understand and sit in the moment, finding peace within. For a brief period, I understood that I’d pull this off. But, I didn’t understand how at the time.  

I think that inner peace comes from being still and listening to our bodies and our hearts and trusting our guts. We should also allow for some “out-of-the-box” thinking.  

When we understand our inner compass it can guide us to places that we would normally not go. I had to learn to trust in what I had and to build it up as I journeyed on a new road. Getting through grief, loss, or transitioning to a new place is all about being able to walk a new road. It is about understanding that when the roadblocks appear, you can find ways of getting through them. When I would begin to doubt, a friend would remind me to “look for your options.” As I did this one thing, I could bring myself back to a place of knowing, understanding, and calm.  

I had to learn to sit with the uneasiness of things I didn’t like. That is just one of the lessons I’ve learned because of the life transition I walked through in dealing with Jon’s death.  

Sitting with stuff you don’t like is hard. The urge to get up and move back to the safety of the old ways can be strong. Seeing the new path and discovering the new ways will change your view permanently. Once you see the new, you cannot retreat to the old.  

I don’t have a magic answer for how to pull this off. I can tell you that the longer you sit in the new space, the better it gets. It’s the equivalent of breaking in a new pair of shoes. The first few wearings can be difficult and then the shoe begins to mold to you and soften itself to your foot. Suddenly, like the shoe, sitting with the new way of being feels comfortable. It isn’t a foreign thing-a-ma-jig hanging around begging for recognition. You feel it, see it, and understand that it is now a part of who you are.  

The catch to doing the above is that it is hard! This is where a good therapist, or coach, can come in handy. It can be helpful at times to have an objective third party who can come in and become a part of your team to cheer you on towards the inner peace you desire. 

Discovering that peace comes in the silences of the journey has been valuable to me. Spending my first hour in the morning slowly waking, thinking, and reading has also calmed my soul. I get that I have the luxury of doing this because of my age and not having children at home. Now you may be thinking, That is all well and good, but that won’t work for me. Yeah, I know. So here are some ideas for you to snatch at as a beginning.  

If you have kids, you can: 

  • Create a family time to sit and share 
  • Eat together and talk about the day and one good thing each person learned 
  • Claim one day per child when the two of you know that you will be together and do something you both enjoy 
  • Create an end-of-the-day ritual that closes out the day and sends kids off to bed. Make it enjoyable 
  • Read together 
  • Turn off the TV 
  • Go for walks, bike rides, hikes, or another free activity that you all enjoy 

Those are just some ideas for kids and families having to walk new paths. 

What about you?

  • Start by claiming five minutes to just sit  
  • Light a candle and just… sit 
  • Swap time with a friend to get out once per week—even for only 30 minutes 
  • Discover reading, art, or music  
  • Find a podcast you enjoy and tune in  
  • If you enjoy a bath, have one  
  • At some point in time you might want to welcome a cat or a dog into your life  

I’m hesitant to make this list too long, or too specific. It’s just meant to get you thinking.  

My parting words to you are that inner peace comes after the tears, the hurt, the anguish, and the doubts begin to be purged. There is no magic formula for any of this. What is there? There is the knowledge that those who have courageously walked and sat where you are now, have found their path to inner peace and a new way of being that will look different than where you started from. This is a good thing!  

To work with Gail, use the Contact form to request a session.

No More “I’m Sorrys”

My first real experience with loss was when my grandfather had to be hospitalized and then died after having a heart attack. It was the first funeral I attended. I wasn’t more than ten or eleven. I understood that he was really gone. We had family around and, as a child, I took it well.  

Death touched our family several times, and in several posts I’ve talked about how I was affected by the different deaths that took place in my young life up until my early 20s. Forty years later I realize how sheltered I have been from grief and its realities. You don’t see the real stuff when you are young—I didn’t. 

Several years ago, after observing how many people would respond to someone’s loss with “I’m so sorry,” I decided to use my Facebook page to conduct some nonscientific research. I asked people “Why do you say I’m so sorry?” and the response I got was “I don’t know what else to say.” This response saddened me.  

As I’ve journeyed through the loss of my husband, I have noticed some things in ways that I’d let slide before. One hundred and eighty-three words into this post, I’m going to talk about what I’ve noticed and what it can do to those who suffer from grief and loss. 

Death Is Out of the Home 

I now live in The Netherlands. One of the huge differences here vs. the USA is that it is still common after death for the body to be viewed in one’s home. This isn’t always possible, but it still happens in many situations. Having attended such a viewing, my first thought was In the home!? My next thought was that by being in the person’s home and being with the loved ones, one could relax in his or her own surroundings as friends came by to show their love. By the end of my time there, it felt like a great way to mourn the death of a guy who kept us on our toes. It was peaceful and joyous. There were no “I’m so sorrys” said. We spoke of him and shared quietly. The Dutch are able to do this well.  

My husband’s viewing was not in our home and it wasn’t even suggested that I hold it here. However, it was a wonderful experience. People who knew him came, and by the end of the evening, I was “high on really good chocolate.” Once again, the talk was honest and we laughed and I felt supported. 

For some time (until I said “Stop”), people I knew brought me meals and it was wonderful. Then I told them that I needed to cook for myself and everything stopped. As long as they were cooking for me, they knew what to do and say, but after that…

Death moved out of the home to someplace else.  Because of the trauma surrounding his death, I really didn’t pick up on what had happened in the way I might have. Slowly, people who didn’t know what to say, or do, moved or distanced themselves from me. They didn’t want to talk about Jon or hear me talk about Jon. The first year was hard, and over that year people drifted further away until by the end of the first year, I was more alone than I would have liked to have been.  

Death Reorganizes Your Address Book  

This is a fact, and it is something I’m coming to terms with as I live through year four of life without Jon. I think this is a complex issue. This is not just about knowing what to say, but also understanding how to kindle a solid relationship. I think we’re failing in this area.  

One of the things I learned from one of my aunts was the value of real friends. She had one real friend. She and Dot had been friends for… forever, and even though they were separated geographically, they were very much in each other’s lives. They went through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Dot’s children were a real part of things as well, and when my aunt and uncle celebrated 50 years of marriage, Dot’s kids came! Like a really good marriage, Dot and my aunt Lois really worked at friendship. “I’m so sorry” was not uttered in that relationship. When Dot was diagnosed with a serious illness, words of comfort were exchanged.  

I’ve often thought that maybe it was just a slower time. Maybe it has to do with the fact that you became friends with those in your immediate surroundings, and when they moved, you wrote or called them. Was there more social necessity to make relationships work so that they would last?  

Maybe it is none of the above, or all of the above, and I’m not wanting to say that since the world has “shrunk,” and distances are smaller, we aren’t valuing things in the same way as we once did. I don’t want to blame social media for the demise of friendship. But, I have to admit that social media has affected the way we, as a world, interact with one another.  

Yes, grief reorganizes your address book, and it does so because there are many people who don’t understand how to support such loss as death, divorce, illness, or other life events.  

I’ve posted about what to say and do in the category “What Do I Say.” Yet this issue still gnaws at me. Why? My first thoughts are that people react to grief and loss in the way they want to be treated when it happens to them. It is as if all logic and reality blow out the window, and instead of saying anything, people say and do nothing. I got particularly angry about this in RAW (The Suicide). Has our social IQ dropped that much? Have we, as a society, drifted from understanding empathy that much? Brené Brown says it well in this video.

I think we’ve lost some of our ability to empathize. Maybe it has to do with the growing need to state our individual pain while forgetting about the pain of others. Therapists are in the business of pain. What I hear when I listen is the deep pain of others not being completely heard by those they feel should be hearing them. This thought causes me to recall a conversation with my husband’s psychiatrist and his ending remark to me: “You needed to be heard.” And I did need to be heard! His comment to me reminded me that with all the hearing and caretaking I was doing, I needed listening to as well.  

As I look at hearing, and being heard, from the perspective of having or getting needs met, I can’t blame people for the lack of empathy. Here’s why: There are so many forms of grief and loss that to show proper empathy for all of them might not be possible.  

I don’t know what it is like to come out as LGBTQ. I don’t know what it is like to have a miscarriage. I don’t know what it is like to have a child show hate for a parent. What I do know is that deep pain hurts, and that I can show empathy for others by tapping into places that are not so pleasant within my own life experiences that contain things I can use to empathize with. I might not understand perfectly, but I can understand. Sometimes that means doing a great deal of listening and then asking questions that will deepen my understanding of someone’s experience. I’m not expected to know it all; I’m expected to know that I can ask and learn.  

When life was less expansive than it is now, we didn’t have the “experts” to tell people what was, and wasn’t, normal. The truth is that those thought of as “experts” now may, or may not, have known what to say. My aunt and her friend Dot had to rely heavily on empathy and questioning to really understand each other. They were present in ways that mattered because it meant something to both of them. So, maybe trauma as a whole rearranges address books because people think they have to know before they open their mouths and friendships are lost. Personally, I’d rather have someone say to me “I don’t know what to say and I’d like to say the right thing.” While this puts it back on me, it also opens up a pathway for me to say “Thank you” and “This is what I need.”  

In saying all of the above, I must admit that writing this post has been a thoughtful challenge. Here is why: In conversing with several people, I’ve discovered that we really have lost the skill of empathy. The “I’m sorry for your loss” remark really is the best they can do. People are overwhelmed with all of their own stuff, and the balancing act of trying to support another person when you don’t have the skills to do it well causes you to shut down. It may also have to do with loneliness in our Western society.  

Don’t hate me for saying the following because it is not something I wanted to say in this piece, but I’m finding that I have to say it: Social media has moved many people into a state of social detachment. What I mean by this is that people know how to react to a photo or meme, but they can’t, and don’t really have the skills, to thoughtfully react to substance in long form. Knowing this may mean that right now, as you read this, you may want to engage a wee bit more than the average. You aren’t looking just to “get in and get out,” and want to say you have really connected with a thought or an idea. Think about your own social media pages; what gets the response from you? 

Facebook marketers tell you to use photos and limit words. Why? They’ve dumbed down for a faster pace. They’ve dumbed it down because people aren’t reading thoroughly.  

Gaining Empathy Skills

In most healthy family situations, it begins at a very young age: “It’s mine” is followed by a parent saying “You must share.” Slowly, the young child learns the social graces that allow for becoming friends. By four years of age, a child has enough insight to answer the question “Do you like it when…?” By the time a child enters school, the building blocks are laid for social connection, and those kids who have learned rudimentary skills in the first years of their tiny lives are ready to test their newfound skills on the larger stage. As the child grows into adolescence, the skills of childhood are put to the test as relationships deepen, friendships broaden, and exploration expands. By the time the 18-year-old enters the adult world, the lesson is done but the learning is just beginning.  

Some of my most valuable learning came about from moving out of my parents’ home at 18 and going away to school in another city. On my own, I screwed up some relationships, but also had successful ones. I came to understand things as an adult that being under my parents’ roof could never have taught me. It was hard! When I returned to my hometown in late 1990, I’d had some disastrous and some good experiences. I’d built up some life experiences that would allow me to understand deeper feelings and understand in a credible fashion: things that I could use to empathize with others.  

I share all of this to tell you: You get the skills by experiencing life. You gain empathy by blowing it, learning from it, and using the learning you acquire to reach out to others.  

You discover empathy by finding a similar feeling or experience within yourself. You don’t share the experience, but rather you recognize the power of this experience and quietly listen in order to understand. You might have “been there, done that, and have the T-shirt,” but in this case you only mentally put that T-shirt on and remember how hard it was to get through the experience so you can empathize. It is then that the questions come and the understanding and connection follow. Now two people understand, by more than words, the experience that one is having. Empathy is a marvelous thing. No more empty “I’m so sorrys.”

Through it

*Note: The four posts in this category are posted from the firstpublished to the most recent.

The last entry I made on this blog was one of hope and gladness as I had come back from an illness that left some side effects. I was looking forward to returning to work. But that didn’t happen and the blog went silent. Why?

In August of 2016 the man that I’ve been posting about in “Being in the Room” (Part 1 and Part 2) decided to leave the room. He completed suicide. I’ve taken a year off to sort out my feelings and begin the healing process.

My husband Jon and I had many long talks about his situation. We both cried and we both knew that this could happen; it finally did happen.

I will be doing a podcast on this subject, so I won’t go into all of the details here. I may talk about the specifics in future postings. However, today I want to talk about getting through it. I don’t mean getting over it, I mean THROUGH it.

Let yourself imagine a mountain. You have some options, and they each have an outcome that can be managed. Some are better than others, and so, in making the choice of how to approach this landmark, a considerable amount of thought is needed.

In the first hours and days of Jon ending his life, I had to make some radical choices. I think I made some really good ones considering the fact that I was grieving, stunned, and without family physically present. However, I did have some friends who came and gave much-needed support. They cooked, cleaned, advised, and tried their best to show up in a nasty situation.

In the first days and weeks, that mountain loomed large, and I knew that I had to decide how to navigate it. I could go over it, around it, or through it.

Each of these thoughts caused me to think of what would happen if I had made the journey in that manner. I’ve never liked the term “get over it,” as it seemed condescending, judgmental, and uninformed. I discarded OVER right from the start. In thinking about it further, I didn’t want to track OVER the mountain. I didn’t want to miss things that I would miss by going over it. It didn’t seem like the thorough way of facing this situation. While hiking a mountain can be beautiful, this wouldn’t be that type of journey.

Going AROUND the mountain implied denial, and that wasn’t an option. I thought about how this seemed to imply that I’d view the scenery, but not touch anything, and that wasn’t appealing to me. Going around the mountain would leave the mountain intact, or untouched, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. As I mentioned, suicide is messy and requires some hard work to deal with the damage and ruin that it leaves in its wake. While I knew suicide could happen, I had hoped it never would come into being.

I thought about tunnels. I like the technology that creates them and the stories of their builders. I like everything about driving through them, if they are well-lit. I watched with great interest as the Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland was dug from inside the depths of the earth. My first visit to London was not taken on a plane, but through the Chunnel. Yup, I like tunnels and no, I haven’t gone through the Gotthard Tunnel yet.

So, in thinking about what I needed to do, the choice for me to tunnel THROUGH this mountain, and thinking of my journey in those terms, was a natural one.

As I chose to go through the mountain, I chose to be intelligent, wise, weak, vulnerable, and fearless. I realized that I could not control this situation. I could no more control it than control the crazy weather of the Netherlands. I do, however, have options even in tunneling through the mountain.

The First Option: Realism

For me, this has involved planning and visualizing, as well as allowing myself to feel the messiness of the entire situation. It also means that if I’m having a bad day, I allow myself to feel the bad day in all of its glory and pain.

When I say that I’ve planned this journey, it means that I allow myself to think through life scenarios and to imagine the outcomes. For example, the celebration of Christmas could have been really hard. But, thanks to friends, I was not alone, but rather surrounded in a house of love. Rather than letting the day simply come, I opted to take hold of the day. It wasn’t easy; it was better than waking up to not knowing what would be involved with living through the day. But, trying to maintain a certain amount of control is a good thing.

In visualizing and thinking ahead to the obstacles that come my way, I create positive scenarios. I remember the first “everything” that I’ve celebrated without Jon as being mostly happy. Yes, of course I wish he were here at times, but the reality of it is that he isn’t suffering, and for that I’m so thankful.

I’ve cried, or should I say, sobbed. I’ve questioned and wondered if I did a good enough job of supporting him. And after the crying is over the answer is a resounding yes!

I would not wish this on anyone. Going through hell is not fun, and in the past year I have faced hell more than once. The thing I’ve learned about this particular hell (and there are many such places) is that there is respect required in that place of darkness.

The Second Option: Receiving and Acceptance

My great-aunt was wonderful at giving to others, but she wasn’t very good at graciously receiving another person’s kindness. From a young age I became aware that not only did I need to be a great “giver,” but I also needed to learn to accept kindness with graciousness. This week, I had this lesson driven home to me when a friend came by to see how I was, as I’d failed to respond to her emails. During our conversation she said, “Oh, crap,” in hopes that I wouldn’t hear it. (I’m not that deaf!) Then, when I reacted to that remark, it clicked, and she, in an imaginary shaking of Gail, said, “I want to help!” She was hurt and angry, with good reason. I realized that I wasn’t receiving the service she was offering. I had been sick for two weeks with some kind of illness that had been going around, and I’d become hard to reach. We talked about it, and I admitted that having her come by was a good thing. It raised my spirit. It also forced me to realize that I need to assert my needs and let others determine whether or not it is possible to help out. Asserting one’s needs also means allowing others to think about what they are able to do for you.

I realize in talking about being a recipient of kindness that this isn’t always the case. People get confused and they don’t know what to say or do. They overreact or underreact. Sometimes, the best they can do for you is to do what they think they’d want done in your situation. They are only human. This isn’t easy to deal with, and I will admit that one of the lessons I’m still learning as I travel through the mountain is that I need to accept not only the kindness, but also the fact that the kindness might not always be there when you need it. It hurts deeply, but when I last checked, there were, and are, no perfect human beings on this planet! We are all doing our best, or so we like to think. However, sometimes our best isn’t good enough. When you are the recipient, accepting what is offered is an art that most of us need to learn to be better at. So, there are failures in this process: the hard thing is letting the failures stand on their own merit.

The Third Option: Patience

It is going to take time. It isn’t going to happen speedily.

Nobody wants to remain in grief and pain forever, and yet in order to get through the grief, it is essential to remain there until you can move forward. Forward movement is done in steps. If you try to force this forward movement, it actually sets you back. Facing the good days along with the bad, or not-so-bad but not-so-great days, is moving forward. This is not a science but rather a journey. Crossing the milestones, understanding that there will be many such milestones, and allowing them to come naturally is part of the process.

Being kind and gentle with yourself is also needed. Show yourself mercy. Come to understand that you are enough and that simply getting through the death of a loved one is enough. This has been my process. It would be accurate to say that this has been a roller-coaster ride and that I’ve been flipped, raised up, sent flying down, and jerked around. I’ve taken a couple of “Gs” and I suspect that I’ll be hit again. Smoother riding will come. (Is life ever completely smooth?) So, be merciful to your soul and it will pay off.

There is so much to be said about dealing with someone’s suicide. I have time to say it in multiple posts. But, the last thing I will say is that I’m at peace with my Jon and his death. I spent 22 years of my life loving and supporting Jon. I got to know his pain and the fact that each day he struggled to find shelter from the depression and pain that he lived with for 30+ years. There are times when loving someone means that you come to a realization that loving them entails letting go completely. Jon walked a pathway of life for years that held struggle and sorrow. Jon did not end his life impulsively, but rather with thought and an understanding that he had done all he could to heal. In his notes, he grieved that this would cause me pain. But, he also expressed his love for me. I respect that and honor his death. And in that, I have peace.

The Boring Machine

*WARNING: This gets detailed and somewhat graphic for the imagination. Please read the post “Through it” before reading this post. 

Deep into the earth I go. Deep into the darkness where hell lives. I go in deep because where I am now requires me to be there. In order to go through it, I must first face it and expel the debris. I’ve had to think about not only where his head was at the time of his completed suicide; I’ve had to think about what I was thinking before I knew he’d done, as I call it, “the deed.”  

We had a deal. At least I thought we had a deal, and for my part, it seemed like the right thing to do. (Had he kept the first part of the deal I’d now be in jail!) The deal was that he’d come and talk to me and tell me that he was going to attempt and complete suicide. The second half of the deal was that I would not be the one to find him dead. The deal wasn’t realistic.  

Had Jon told me about his plan, I would have been legally obligated to stop him. I would have needed to get him to the hospital. On August 28th, that is where my head was. I was going to have him forcibly, if needed, hospitalized. The numbers indicate that those who go into the hospital come out with more energy and, actually, in a place where they are more likely to carry out a plan. In Jon’s mind, going to the hospital wasn’t an option. Going there by force was, most assuredly, less of an option. He spent all day Saturday and Sunday morning making the final decision to leave. From his notes, it wasn’t an easy choice. In the end it wasn’t a long letter that he left on the dining room table, but rather a short note that said he loved me. The letters were his thoughts on the “Why now?” I had to read between the lines to understand it, as even in dying, he couldn’t show it all. He had, over the years, shared everything; thus, I was able to understand what he couldn’t even write. The note was two short sentences. In small print, so as not to detract from the content of the note, he told me where to find his body.   

He kept the second half of our agreement. I did not open the door to the shed where he was. The police broke the glass to open the door, which had been locked from the inside. This kept me from using a key to open the door myself. (Yes, on realizing where he was, I grabbed the key that hung by the door and went out to attempt to open the shed.) 

When the police came shortly after I had called them, I went out with them. They sternly, once the door was open, told me to go inside the house. I’m told it was messy; I didn’t look and I’m glad that I didn’t look. The shed had to be sanitized and most everything in there was lost.  

The police were required to check for criminal activity but there was none. They came into the house and there I sat on the sofa, stunned, and wondering how he could have done this. As I mentioned before, this was a shock, trauma, and a bunch of other stuff all rolled into an afternoon that I had never wanted to have to live through. The police were respectful, kind, and that is all I felt while dealing with them. I was actually able, and I don’t know how, to ask what he’d done. Jon had told me years earlier that he’d decided on a method that would be decisive, swift, and not too painful. The officer told me that at the most, he had one second of pain and three seconds till death would have come. He did not use a gun.  

To give you some idea of where my head was during all of this, I asked a really stupid question: “Did he hang himself?” OK, I knew that there was no way to hang himself in that shed, and we didn’t have the type of rope that would have held for hanging. My head was pretty discombobulated by that time. His body was whole, and for that I’m thankful.  

I share all of this because I had to begin from this point and go forward. I’m grateful that I had been spared the trauma of finding him. I was lucky that way. 

What is the Boring Machine now sending out on the conveyor belt to be dumped into the earth? Pain, deep pain, loss, sadness, questions of whether I did my best and enough. Could I have done things better? And, in typing these words, the tears return. The answer is YES! But it was, and is, enough. Maybe that is what haunts so many people in this situation. This might be the hardest of all the questions to resolve. I was lucky because Jon and I had spoken about our relationship and he recognized, and told me, that I’d done enough. Yet doubts still come because that is the nature of this beast. 

Why didn’t I see it coming? Sometimes you just don’t see it because the person is extremely skilled at hiding it from you. Sometimes the words are too scary for the person to utter. In so many ways, what a person who is seriously planning suicide is going to have to speak is the truth that says “I’m going to take my life. I’m going to go to a place that is so unthinkable, that speaking the words is a hard act to contemplate. I’m taking so much control that when I complete this act, I can’t reverse it.”

Personally, I don’t think that you can remain sane and complete the act of suicide. I say that because I do know what it required for Jon to go to the place where he could complete suicide. It wasn’t a calm place. He had once told me that if he could ever bring himself to complete the act, he’d have to take himself to a place of hate for me. That is what he did. For less than four minutes, he took himself to a place of hate that enabled him to separate from all that was good, kind, dear, and loving to him. Having committed such an act towards me, he could no longer live, because it went against his value system. If you are reading this and saying to yourself that this is crazy-making, you are correct; it was, and it is. BUT, for him, it worked. In those four minutes, he managed to alienate me in a way that I couldn’t imagine. It worked; I wanted nothing to do with him.  

This does not mean that everyone who completes suicide takes themselves to a place of hate for those who they love. I don’t think most souls who complete or attempt suicide would think in this manner. There is some evidence that points to those who attempt and complete suicide having tears in their eyes. That tells me that they don’t go where Jon went.  

Suicide leaves a legacy of damage. Your spouse, partner, parents, siblings, children, extended family, and friends are left to sort out the mess and damage.  

I am left holding a life that is shattered by an act that, when you pause to think about, causes an existential crisis for everyone involved. How could he go to that ultimate place and contemplate such an act? How do I deal with all the crap that gets pushed out by coping with this issue? Maybe the hardest of all is this: What can a friend or family member say to make it better?  

Let me start off with the “what to say” response. Firstly, this is the unthinkable act. The reality is that people do consider the existential ultimate power. People who hurt badly enough, perceive the solution of suicide as a fix-it for a life with too much pain of whatever type it is they are dealing with; these souls do go to the ultimate place. They do consider suicide, and for some, they act.  

So what do you say to someone who is faced with processing their loved-one’s completed suicide?  

In writing this, I wrote a list of the do’s and don’ts. The problem is, the list is of MY do and don’t items. So I’ll keep it simple. Do show empathy. That means do what THEY need, not what you think you’d want. 

Be honest and tell them that you don’t understand, but that you will listen and try to learn and be in the moment with them.  

If you offer support, make certain that it is support you can follow through with. 

My one huge DON’T is this: Don’t abandon them because you don’t know what to say. Say you love them, say you care, SAY SOMETHING! 

Secondly, I’ve been through one traumatic death before, and having survived that, I can tell you that this is different—which leads me to explain what I call “the death bubble.”  

All death sends you into some kind of bubble. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but rather the bubble has to exist in order to give you time to process the event. For some there is time to say goodbye, and for others the death is sudden and unexpected. Still, others must process some form of trauma along with death. Then there is completed suicide, which is very different to process.

Each of these deaths causes us to go to a place of time standing still, or ‘the bubble.” While the rest of the universe continues on with life, we are stopped midtrack in whatever place it is we are. We do what must be done to either bury or cremate, we plan a funeral, memorial service, or wake. Most importantly, we gather as family, friends, and colleagues, and we grieve, celebrate, eat, drink, laugh, and cry. After the service and immediate mourning period, we exit the bubble to play catch-up, and realize that life moves on. We might be in slow motion for a while, but we do move forward. 

We go home to an empty home, someone missing at the table, someone we can no longer speak to, or in some cases we go home relieved that person is no longer there. But still we leave the bubble. 

With the death of an older relative or parent, you know it’s coming. With younger deaths we may or may not know that they will die, but we may have time to prepare for it, making it somewhat easier. Traumatic deaths are an entirely different thing altogether.  

Heaped on top of the normal grief and pain, you have trauma, loss, anger, rage, questioning, disbelief, and guilt, and this can go on for months. I must also say that I haven’t exhausted the list of what someone who deals with traumatic death deals with. The bubble either explodes, implodes, or it remains forever.  

There is no right or wrong way to experience and process death. People grieve differently. People think differently, and their learned experience combines with all of this to create an individual experience. 

Having said all of that, it takes time to get over the death of anyone.  

My greatest plea in all of this is to have others recognize that grief takes time. Show compassion, and please do not shame someone for their process. They will get through it when they get through it. Their time, their rules, are what matter here. 

There are some helpful “do’s” that you can engage in IF you are committed to supporting someone who is grieving the death of a loved one.

There are times when you may need to offer feedback. Take your time and be gentle. By this I mean create a conversation and ask questions and listen to the responses. Don’t offer feedback until you have learned more from someone. It might be great feedback, but if you listen, you may learn something that makes it altogether wrong for that particular time and individual. 

For instance, I realized about six months into my journey within the deep earth that I might benefit from working with a psychologist who specializes in grief. What I was going through was hell, and you should avoid going through that place alone. Friends have been supportive, but sometimes you need to talk it out with an objective third party. I was clued into myself and what was happening well enough to grasp what I needed. It took me another month or two to follow through on it, but it was on my radar and I eventually acted. In some cases, someone might not know what they need. Had someone told me that I needed to talk with someone, I may, or may not, have been receptive to the idea. I could have said “I’m fine on my own,” and pushed the person away. Timing and understanding are everything. 

So, deep inside the mountain I go. Deep into a place that I wish I could have avoided. Deep, and in some cases, very alone, because I’m the only one who can do this work. When the tears come, I let them, knowing that tears lift pain in ways that I can’t do without.  

At some point in time there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Logic tells me this, and hope lights the candle that I hold in this space. Each turn of the Boring (but necessary) Machine brings me closer to the other side. For now, that is enough. 

Raw


***in the spirit of this post I’ve left it unedited. 

I’ve been thinking about this death, grief, life and recovery-from-it-all-thing. After 22 days of being in a snarky and angry state I will speak. 

December sucks. December sucks worse than raw lemons.  December has been my undoing this year. Why? I have first lived through our anniversary day. Now I must face Christmas alone for the first time in my life.  This must be faced alone because that is how growth intends for it to be: I can’t run from it. Growth isn’t easy. Deep growth requires that we look at painful stuff head on and go through it alone. Some things just ARE.  

In my closet, the Christmas decorations are in a large box. The tree is packed away in a box and secured to the pipes that run through the house.  It could be reached but I have no desire to inflict pain on myself. I do have a smaller tree that sits atop a cabinet. This I’ve decorated with the few things that Jon and I have purchased or been given.  Amsterdam, Salzburg, a wedding present…these items represent the sacred. It isn’t that the sacred is not on the large tree it is rather, that I know that putting up that larger tree is not a place I can take myself emotionally.  Maybe next year.   

I just want this to go away.  I want it over with. The season to me is dead. It hurts to be alone with this and there is no fix for it.  People don’t try to fix it. This fix that I have to wade through is only for me, myself and I. I’m not afraid of doing the wading as I’ve done lots of wading through awful stuff in the past year plus several months.

In talking with others who are making the journey to someplace else after being left by a loved one who completed suicide I’m finding that at least I’m not alone: this is common. Some of us know what we want or need and some of us don’t have a clue.  We all want it gone.

I’m finding that family and friends distance themselves because, for the most part, they don’t really understand what to say.  SAY ANYTHING. Say that you love me, that you care! Say it with cookies and chocolate. Say it with an Audible gift card. Say it with a phone call or an email. JUST SAY SOMETHING and don’t run from me.  Don’t run from us. We don’t have the plague! We’re surviving the worst death that can be had. We’re sorting out a mess of trauma and conflicted thought. We’re doing it while the world is getting happy.  We’re doing it as many of you are busy wrapping gifts to place under trees that for some of us will not be decorated. We just want to get through it. We don’t want to think about the missing gifts, the person who should be present, but that is no longer at the table.  And yet, we remember. We can’t stop remembering and the tears that are bitter, come.

For us our landscapes have changed: permanently.  We can’t get it back, and in my case I wouldn’t want it back because of what Jon suffered. 

I miss the sneakiness of the plans. I miss the thoughtfulness of finding his gift.  I miss his joy of opening it up. I miss him torturing me with the suspense of hiding something delightful from me until Christmas morning…he was so good at that.  It is no more.

In time December will take a new form in my mind and my heart.  For right now it is bleak, empty and frozen. RAW seems to be the theme for now.  It is raw at its worst and soft at its best. It has to stand in this manner right now.

In the future I will create a new landscape that is uniquely mine but for this year, I must get through the hell that is: RAW.

From The Netherlands Peace to all and to all a good 2018

Gail

He Let Go Too

What I’m about to share with you is personal. This is a complicated post to write precisely because this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, or ever expect to do, in my life. While I’m sharing the experience, I’m not going to dissect what I did. It would take away from what happened. It has been a 3K-plus word project, and as I type this, I think, Why not just type three words and leave it at that? While that would make for rapid reading, it wouldn’t get the facts across. So, brew up your favorite drink, hot or cold, and happy reading. I don’t know what the final word count will be.  

When I first met my husband Jon, he was recovering from a single manic episode of bipolar disorder. It had been triggered by medication, and now he was working in IT and relieved to be back doing life. In the years that followed, I would learn how mental illness can traumatize the soul.  

The longer we dated, and by the time we married four years later, I was only too aware that I was involved with a man who could take his own life. It scared me. Bipolar disorder is a killer. It is estimated that 30% of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder will attempt to take their own lives. I now get why. I had become involved with someone at high risk. 

The only way to make a high-risk situation work within a relationship is to develop solid communication whereby both parties are committed to honesty. It isn’t easy work. Marriage, at best, is hard, and this only threw a wrench into the mix. We had resolved early on in our relationship to talk things out even if it took days to work it out. We both valued the hard work of making things work. 

While the first ten years of our marriage had challenges, his mental health was mostly stable. As I learned how to listen to the language of bipolarism better, I was becoming aware of how I could lower his stress levels. When I talk about this, the best way to help you, the reader, to understand is to say that it looked a great deal like “emotional violence.” He never touched me physically, but the pain and experience of seeing someone in a type of mental anguish takes a unique toll on the soul. I had to set boundaries, and when someone is in a rage, that isn’t always easy. I had to learn to get beyond the fear and hold my own. I couldn’t do everything, but I could do many things to ease his stress. With some good coaching from the psychiatrist, I learned to disengage. By doing this, he learned to calm himself, and I began to trust that he would calm himself. It was a difficult journey for both of us because I wanted to fix it and he needed me to pull back and not fix it. Fixing it can take away a person’s dignity. This way he claimed the right to know what he could do for himself.  

In 2010 the slide began and this time there was not much I could do. I watched as a severe depression crept in despite a well-constructed cocktail of drugs and a great deal of talk therapy. In November of 2011 he hit rock bottom. He was in bed and barely functioning.   

It was this episode that caused me to call his psychiatrist. It was this conversation that forced me to rethink my attitude towards holding on to the fear of “what if he does it?”

As a therapist I knew the statistics. I also knew when, and where, dangerous things could happen. When he was not functional there wasn’t an issue; it was when the energy returned that all hell could break out. As a wife, I didn’t want to hear any of it. I wanted assurance. And then the doc said, “Gail, you have to let go.” This comment, and thought, took me on a three-year journey. For three years I asked myself what this meant to me. Letting go has many meanings: which one was I looking at and struggling to unravel and understand?  

Did I need to let go of the relationship? Let go of the thoughts that he would fully recover and be able to return to work as he had previously done? Did I need to let go of the fact that there was a 30% chance he would attempt suicide and succeed? Was I looking at a higher probability that he’d do something?  

I knew that there were things I knew and understood. Mental illness, at its more intense levels, operates on the theory of “thirds.” One-third of diagnosed bipolar people will never improve no matter what. They’ll struggle with medication and hospitalization, never seeing improvement. This is called “treatment resistant” bipolar, or depression. Another third will be revolving-door patients. They’ll swallow the pills and when they are feeling great, they’ll quit the regimen and wind up back in the hospital and in crisis. For this third, if you can educate them about staying on the drugs and staying in treatment, there is hope. This is hard work and I’m not stating that there is much success with this third. The last third will seek treatment and do everything they need to do to stabilize themselves. My husband was in this last group. My nightmare was that something awful could happen. My fear was that something bigger than either of us could deal with would show its ugly head, and what would, or could, be done at that point in time? My fear was that in a reckless moment of time, he’d do something I couldn’t reason him out of.   

After sitting with the question of what letting go mean to me, and going through a three-year thought process, I came to the conclusion that “letting go” meant giving up the idea that he would never seriously consider, or act, on suicide. That he’d want to live above all else. What did this mean in terms of how I looked at him and our relationship?  

As I sat with this question and explored it deeply, I realized that if I was to fully let go, there were two things I needed to ask Jon to do for me. I had to be very clear about them because once they were out there, I couldn’t retract them. 

The time finally came for me to broach the subject of letting go fully and completely. He cried, I cried, and an understanding was reached between the two of us. He promised to honor my request. It was liberating for the relationship and it caused deeper healing to occur for both of us. While it took me until 2014 to say the words, the deeper work of healing had begun previous to this disclosure. During 2011–2012 he made some connections that enabled us to trust more deeply, and because of that, things smoothed out for us and peace set in. During June of 2016, I reminded him that I meant what I had said in 2014. I think it was a deep knowledge that he needed to hear the words again that caused me to repeat them to him. On the 28th of August, 2016, the pain proved too great and he did end it after a weekend of planning. (I was unaware that this planning was happening. That was not part of what I’d asked for, and therefore he felt he could withhold this from me.)

What I discovered was that my value system would not allow me to hold on to someone that was suffering so much pain, and that to hold him here would have been selfish on my part. As I spent time thinking about my needs and his needs, I came to understand that I had to turn this over to someone far wiser than myself. You can call it your higher power, or God, or whatever you will. I let go of holding on to him. I had to trust that he’d act in a way that would be good for him and for me, even if it was the hard thing to do. 

What I came to understand in hindsight was that I had done everything in my power to love and honor my husband. I had cared for him in the good times and the hard times. Despite the trials of the bipolarism, I had done well. Letting go of him has made my recovery a wee bit easier, as I’ve not felt the guilt that I might have felt otherwise.  

Having said the above, let me also say this: My husband was in his mid 50s when this happened. This was not something he did on a whim. He spent a good 31 years of his existence trying to make life work. He did his best at living. Sometimes the only way to end the suffering is to stop it completely. As I understood all of this, the ability to let go, while hard, became clear to me. He deserved someone who would let go.  

I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about all of this. It is complex and hopeful, and a plea that we do as much as we can to understand why suicide happens, and come to an understanding that not every suicide can be stopped. Stopping suicide is beyond our ability. Putting resources in place to enlighten others IS within our capability.     

Did my husband do the right thing? Yes, I believe he did. He spent years living, and when the relapse hit, he made a choice to end the suffering. He had lived a good, but hard, life. THAT being said…

I’m aware that so many people are working to prevent suicide among one group or another—LGBTQ youth in particular. This has made me stop and think. I would not wish what I’ve been through on anyone. I didn’t want this to happen, but I can accept that it did, and that is OK. It has made me think about others who find the note, the body, or hear of the death, and wonder why it happened.  

I’ve asked myself what I would say to a parent with a child between 12–25 who expressed a desire to leave this life. I don’t think there is an easy answer, but there are things that can help along the way.  

I’d take into account that there is so much going on in their young lives and that they aren’t fully developed mentally or physically. I’d try to remember that for most kids, this time of life can be a real hell, and that life is lived intensely from minute to minute and day to day. I’d offer a safe place to fall. Sometimes Mom and Dad are too close and not the option they are looking for. Sometimes parents are the right option. I’d try to remember my own explorations and struggles. I’d try to shovel up every resource possible. Mostly, what I’d want to do is create safe havens for these kids and their parents. It really is all about the resources!  

I think what helps the most is to listen when it scares you, and to accept when it challenges you. Questioning for understanding and motivation will then be open to you. Be willing to learn the pain of their reality. Never assume that you know what that pain is, because most likely it is what we least expect.  

By opening the door, you open up the options! YOU might need to be the one to do the research. You might be the one that needs to take the lead. Keep in mind that you are raising an adult who is in a child’s body.     

Rather than shutting them down, I would want to hear their stories, and in hearing and then understanding, offer alternatives. I’d go down the suicide rabbit hole with the understanding that sometimes talking about it can do amazing things for everyone involved. I’d set some huge ground rules to let them know how keeping themself safe works. I think there is a huge misunderstanding that if the person talks about it, they’ll do it. Talking about it helps someone to explore their fears and the reality of what is in their head. We’ve gotten away from serious conversations about death, and by not speaking about death, we also fail to speak fully about life and what it means to become engaged with it.  

I’d tell them that they are valued for who they are and, even more so, for who they can become. Telling someone they’d be missed might sound good, but telling them why they’d be missed provides reasons for remaining around and engaging in life.  

One of the huge things I learned in my 20-plus years with my husband is that suicide takes only three seconds and happens when the person can’t see any resources to bring to the situation. In my husband’s case, the time for the resources to become effective this time around were too long of a wait. He wasn’t willing to remain in the pain.   

I offer all of this up for consumption in hopes that you, the reader, will not face the experience of walking downstairs to get lunch, only to find the note on the table telling you where the body is located.  

I offer this up in an attempt to bring some understanding that the pain survivors live with is real. This is traumatic. But, you can recover and move on. I believe my recovery has been smooth in many ways, but rocky in others.  

I offer this up to bring comfort to those who struggle to let go in life and death. There is hope and a pathway to peace. It takes time and the companionship of those who understand and can walk with you. Letting go leads to self-exploration. There is no schedule. There are no stages. In facing grief, remember that grief just IS.  

I offer this up because in my letting go, I was able to understand that I had no control over another human being, as much as I wanted to hold on to someone I dearly loved. But, this is the contract of life. We all are born into others’ hopes for us. We hope for a long life, a safe life, a healthy life, or many things in life. We come to believe in all of these things. We hope for them, and even plan on them. We learn all of this, and in our learning we become deluded! It is our delusions that cause things to come crashing down on us when the ultimate, whatever it may be, happens.  

I offer this to the reader because I understand that letting go is complicated and not something any of us can do easily. I admit that in sorting this out, I found myself in some scary and dark places. I wish that I’d had someone to talk it through with. I didn’t.   

I offer this to the reader so that those of you who have become victims of a loved one’s death by suicide will understand that you are enough. You did your best and it was good enough and nothing could have stopped your loved one from completing an unthinkable act. Give yourself credit for where you were in your thinking and understanding then, and the movement to where you are now.  

I offer this up to reinforce that the only thing we have in our control is the power to move through and beyond. I recognize that we will never get over this act of violence in our lives, but we will get through it. If you have not faced this awful situation but fear it could happen, seek a safe place to explore your feelings and fears around this subject. Get to know these particular monsters that dwell in the dark cave. Befriend them, and they will teach you in ways you least expect them to.  

I write this to honor those who have found constructive ways of celebrating those who chose to leave this life. I accept that their reasons were their own. I will not judge anyone’s decision for making the exit. I am thankful to know families who remember with courage and grace.  

I write this in the hope of informing people that peace can be found.  

I write this believing that while we may not be able to stop suicide from happening, we can offer up solid solutions for others so that they can live long and productive lives.  

I type these words knowing that I had to let go. I don’t regret having done so. He also let go, and it was the right choice.  

Please Do! Suicide and Trauma

When someone takes their own life, what do you say to those left behind who must rebuild, pick up the pieces, and move forward?  

If natural death is difficult for people to deal with, traumatic death and death by suicide are far more complex. This post is about what I call “the death bubble” bursting and making a mess. Oh, what a mess a traumatic death can be! And a death by suicide is far more complex than any other type of death. Why? Maybe it has to do with the unthinkable, and that the person taking their own life, in a sense, is “playing God,” or choosing to control a process that society says, and believes, should come at a natural end-of-life sequence. To so many, it is “taboo.” 

Maybe this taboo is what makes others pull back and not say anything to those affected by the death. In so many ways, those who are faced with a death caused by trauma or suicide need different support than others. I’ll try to say some helpful things here.

This Grief Is on Steroids 

The grief that surrounds suicide is intense and feels like a volcano erupting. The catch here is that it erupts in stages, each of them violent. It quakes, it steams, and at some point in time it will explode, and then all that lava slowly runs down the sides, burning everything it touches. Everything about the event and its aftermath will alter how most people who survive those they love will alter their world view. This subject matter can be addressed in another post. For now, the reader can choose to accept that the above-stated fact is fact. 

As I’ve stated in other posts, grief does not have stages—it never has. Grief, at its best, is messy, and grief that surrounds suicide is best likened to a catastrophic eruption in slow motion.  

During the first days, people might have to deal with a biohazard team cleaning up a very unpleasant mess. There might be a loss of possessions. These possessions could be meaningful to family and friends. The biohazard team takes it all away. If authorities in the area the person resided in still place crime tape at the scene of a suicide, there is that added burden on loved ones.  

There may or may not be a viewing. There may or may not even be a funeral or memorial service. The closure that these events offer to those who mourn can be shadowed by the difficulty of these events.   

During the first few years, those who mourn are forced to come to terms with their own lives, deal with the contents of a note, or the lack of a note, ask the “Why,” say over and over “I should have,” process guilt, come to terms with the death on a spiritual (not religious) level, as well as process any religious beliefs around suicide and possibly confront them. Simply stated, many survivors of a loved one’s suicide face an existential crisis. Supporting such a crisis is challenging.  

What Can You Do?  

Everything I stated about death still applies here. There is more, and here it is:

The First 24 Hours 

If the death has occurred in the family home, please, if possible, provide another place for the survivors to sleep. Try to keep everyone together. Ideally, a hotel should not be on the list of places to gather together. 

If sleeping somewhere else will not work, the next best thing is to move in with them for the first two nights, make sure the family is fed, cared for, and assured that for right now, they aren’t required to show up for life. They are going to need to deal with arrangements for the service if there is to be such an event. They will need help on so many levels.  

If there are young children involved, and if schools are in session, ask the children what they would prefer to do and arrange for it. YOU be the one to make school calls. Empathetic staff will understand the gravity of the situation and support the children in their needs. 

Assistance with meals and errands can be helpful. With meals, consider the fact that clean-up needs to be kept to a minimum.  

The Death Bubble 

If you’ve been through a death, you know what I’m talking about: that place where the world stops for you, and the focus isn’t about getting it done. And for however long it takes, you are in this place, or state, of surreal being. The world has stopped. Then the memorial or funeral happens, and society tells you that you have to get back to the races. You step outside, see the cars and people whizzing by, and you think, I have to get back on this grand people mover that is whizzing by me a million miles an hour! How? So you jump for it, and maybe you make it, but most likely you fall off again and wonder, Why? What is wrong with me? Then you stop and you think, I forced myself to move, and I tried to leave the bubble, but I’m still really in the bubble, and HELP! With suicide, it is as if you jump into the people mover, but you are hanging in the air and you miss the people-mover, and you get all banged up. Re-entry into the bustling world happens at a slower pace.  

When someone finally reaches a place of resolution and forward movement, it is because the hard work of grief has been journeyed. And while all might not be as it once was, a new normal is emerging.  

I tell you all of this so that you, the reader, who have not been in this place, can be aware of how to help in the beginning, the middle, and the continuing future. You get through it, but you don’t get over it. For those of us who have faced this in our personal lives, there will be differences in our process, but the understanding is there.  

Please Do! 

1. Look with your eyes. Act with those eyes and be proactive about bringing in meals, coming to clean the house, take the children for playdates, or whatever else is needed. In other words don’t ASK when; TELL your family, or friends, when you will show up! Then show up.  

2. Listen to, and provide a place for, someone to talk—if and when they want to do so. 

3. This is about them, not you. If someone is behaving in a self-centered manner, they are doing so because the pain they are facing is raw. Gentleness is needed. 

4. Keep in mind that no two suicides are alike. Once again, make no assumptions that what your friend or family member is now dealing with is anything like what you dealt with. Ask what the experience is like for them. 

5. Never ask about how the suicide happened. It isn’t any of your business. If the person wants you to know, they’ll share it. The fact is that you might not really want to hear the details that would be shared. This is not violence on a screen—this is real.  

6. What was in the note? Once again, this is private. Some people leave a note, and others don’t. Some notes give detailed reasons, and others don’t. To share a personal example, my husband worked on several versions of a note which I have. In the end, the note I found was only for me, and it was short and signed in a way only I understood. The note doesn’t get shared with others for that reason.  

7. Please stay near your friend and family member. Now, more than anything, they will need you to be present. They won’t need “fixing,” just lots of love and support.  

8. Please support them and remind them that while they may have the urge to make major life decisions, now might not be a good time to do so. If a major life change has to happen before the first year is completed, be present to support it.  

Why is #8 important? If you are in a place of dealing with trauma, the chances of making a good decision in your life is slim. Staying in a routine can help to calm the eruption that is occurring during the first part of the process. When a volcanic eruption happens, you are in “fight or flight” and survival modes. This means that cognitive functions might not be functioning as they need to in the realm of competent life choices. Offer to be a sounding board and sit with them to help them flesh out the “why” of the process.  

9. While there are no set stages to this process, there might be some feelings that are common to suicide. Some of the most common feelings and emotions that arise are anger, guilt, shock, hurt, “If only I’d known,” and being stunned into inaction by what has happened. This is normal. You don’t fix it; you listen to the survivor. In understanding this, you might also be better placed to listen as someone works through #8.  

10. Could this suicide have been stopped? This might seem strange, or out of place, on a tips list. It isn’t. I’ll share some things I learned from living with a man who was bipolar, and who discussed his ideas about why some people decide that suicide is an option.

People in emotional crisis need resources that work. They need psychiatric and other mental health people to be fully present and fully willing to serve as holding containers for their pain. The family and friends that surround them need to be open to serious listening. For instance, I had to go to some very dark places with my husband. It was going into these places that enabled me to understand the magnitude of the pain he was in. He had a workable cocktail and a great psychiatrist, and psychologist, who were extremely supportive. It wasn’t enough. For this post, it doesn’t need to be explained.  

One of the things he shared is that when the urge comes, it could be just that: an urge. I would remove what he asked me to remove from the house and get him calmed down. Those three seconds of non-access to tools made all the difference for years. He knew that I understood.  

I’m glad that places like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and Suicide Prevention are around. They do good work. I’m especially glad that they are present for children, adolescents, and those in early adulthood. When the brain isn’t fully developed, understanding the consequences can be challenging at best.  

I’ve said it often: no one should have to find the note or the body.  

The above is complex. No, not all suicides can be prevented. There are several reasons why this is so. I’ll list them in no particular order: 

  • Lack of accessible resources
  • Lack of support, or ability to get to the resources
  • Undiagnosed mental issues that could have been treated had the person sought help
  • Family structures that are too rigid and do not tolerate outside assistance
  • Religious beliefs that prohibit mental health consumerism 
  • Lack of understanding by others of what the person is really dealing with 
  • The person masking the severity of the symptoms
  • Secrets that are thought to be so terrible that they can’t be shared with another person
  • Intense mental health issues that are so painful and untreatable that the only way out for that person is to end it
  • Uncontrollable impulsivity
  • Isolation that has gone on for decades

I’ve listed just a few of the reasons the person who completes their suicide chooses this route.  

I’d like to make a plea to the Western world: Please do take the time to know your family and embrace them for who they are. Please recognize that while we can’t save everyone, we can support and help those within our reach. A smile, a hug, sincere concern, and understanding go a long way to stopping the flood that causes so many to cross over and reach for whatever they have that will end it forever.

Please Do!

Please Do! Death

As I was out walking today, I got to thinking about how many times I’ve been asked “What do I say? What do I do for someone who is experiencing grief?” Those are great questions, and as the words hit the screen, I found this post one of the hardest I’ve ever written. Why? Read on and I’ll try to lay it all out for you. 

So, here goes! I’ll write from the first-person perspective and you can consider my words as if they were also coming from others. The catch? It isn’t so easy because pain is universally messy and anyone who says or thinks otherwise needs to rethink that view. However, I’m not trying to make this any more challenging than it is. 

Consider Grief and Loss as a Complex Process

We aren’t limited in our grief to the death of someone. A move, a change in schools, a friendship that goes bad, a failed relationship, an act of God that destroys everything you owned, a shift in belief, growing up and moving on: it is all part of the cycle of grief and loss. For this post, we’ll journey with death.  

Please consider your feelings as you think of others who face the unthinkable in their lives. Please credit them for facing what they are dealing with in their own way, just as you do the same. Please consider their minds, hearts, souls, their physical needs, and the relationship you have with this person. 

You never know what will happen to you to set you on the path into grief and loss. You never know how your life may suddenly transition along paths you thought you would never be walking.  

We as humans tend to think of ourselves as indestructible until we are well into adulthood, and we still avoid the thoughts that it—whatever “it” may be—can, and will, at some point, happen to us. When it does happen, we are caught ill prepared. Few people think about the “what will I do if” scenario seriously. True, you might let your mind wander, but most people don’t really go there because they don’t want to think in those terms until it blows up in their face.  

I’ll admit that I was rare. I was forced to think about it at age 14 and again at 16 when my younger sister underwent heart surgery. I thought about her possible death, and when it actually happened shortly after my high school graduation, I still wasn’t prepared for what actually happened. But, having thought about it earlier helped. Living through it was another thing entirely.  

Some Handy Things to Know 

The catch is that what might work for one person may not be the right thing for another person. So, with that in mind, I’m going to lay down some general guidelines and a few specific things you can say and do for people in emotional pain after a death. 

The first rule is that we all miss those we care about. To say that we will never think about them is an untruth. We get through the process, but we don’t, if we’re honest, ever get over it completely. No matter what you believe about death and an afterlife, we miss those we care about being with us! Yes, at some point in time we move forward, but that movement is a process. It is normal and OK to miss and hold on to the memories. Someone just got removed from our life, and whether it has been a lifelong relationship, or a shorter one, that person is irreplaceable. This is why the “at least you can” comments, or “God must have needed an angel,” hurt so much. Regardless, these people can’t be retrieved.  

Who we are is formed by our relationships: our memories, the love, the pain, what we’ve gained, or lost, by having them. Death happens, and we can’t replace that person. I won’t delve into the negative side of a loss. I know it exists.  

The next rule is there are no other rules, because everyone’s grief and pain and journey look different. So, the first big “to do” is to remember that there is no such thing as “fixing” someone’s grief. There is nothing wrong with anyone who is grieving that a good cry and lots of caring won’t help.  

Another thing you need to understand is that humans can react like injured animals to grief, loss, and pain. We might feel the need to defend our territory aggressively. Like an injured cat or dog, it might be important to secure the wound/person in safety, and let them know you are aware of the loss they have experienced. They still might snap and react. Stay calm, keep a cool head, and give them a wee bit of space. Don’t abandon them: tell them you are still with them.  

I know, now you might be saying “Snap?” (Any label might fit this behavior, but I’ll use “snapping” here.) I don’t think I want to deal with a snapping person. Why should I have to deal with snappy behavior? You need to deal with it because at the core of pain, depression and uncontrollable reactions camp out like an ugly monster. This monster is in attack mode until it understands that it can let down the defenses it has erected. Many times this is when people turn and leave, abandoning their family member or friend. Knowing why a person is reacting violently by displaying intense emotions toward you is helpful. Hopefully they are also letting you see them in this state because they trust you enough to let you into their space. Reserve judgement because you don’t know enough to have an opinion yet. When they calm down, ask gentle questions. They’ve just let you into a dark and scary place and sympathy is needed here. Remember that empathy can allow reflection in a gentle manner. What both of you have just witnessed was powerful. You may both be sitting with strong emotions. Your reactions, both verbal and nonverbal, can be crucial here.     

Keep in mind that they might be triggered by something that they don’t understand yet. Helping them by listening as they talk it out will bring both of you closer to an understanding. Remember, this is one of the things that friendship is all about. Remember, you aren’t there to fix anyone. You are there to support and listen.   

Setting healthy boundaries is also helpful. For instance: “I think that this is pretty scary for you and I can tell that you are showing it by snapping at me. But, please don’t snap at me. I’m willing to sit here with you. I know you need someone to sit and hear the ______ that you are feeling, and when you snap it causes me to want to back off.” I actually had a friend remind me of this after I told him not to interrupt me. It was, for our relationship, the right thing to say, and I was relieved that he could keep a cool head when my emotions and pain were tumbling out in ways that I would have rather not hurt him with. At the time, things were raw, but I recognized that I did need what he offered me.  

Boundaries, set in a gentle manner, tell the person being heard that you will be patient with them, but that you are also needing to protect yourself so that the urge to leave when the hard stuff hits the fan is safe for both of you.  

This next part is tricky. In setting boundaries, you may have to go to some places and hear some stuff you don’t want to hear. If someone has to let a string of words fly that you don’t like to hear, sit with it. Sometimes the use of multiletter words is shorthand for the stuff that, in the moment, the person can’t verbalize. It buys some time to be able to return to the thought and rephrase it. Sometimes it is all someone has. Don’t set too rigid a boundary in this. Be tolerant.  

During the first days or weeks, people are in hypersensitive mode. Everything is a trigger. Relationships and boundaries get tested in new and horrible ways. This test can go on for weeks or months. I’m not excusing awful behavior. I’m saying that you can gently set some healthy boundaries so you don’t feel like running away. You can do this by acknowledging the pain you may both be feeling. The two of you are feeling it differently, and there is no correct way to manage pain. It just is.   

For some people, the depression around their grief and pain hits them hard, and for others, it is a gentle, oncoming cloud. They may or may not see it or feel it coming on. They might get defensive about it. Part of the defensive behavior is that they might not fully understand what they are dealing with. This might be a huge first for them. Don’t try to fix it. Sit with it. Our feelings and thoughts with grief aren’t always worked out quietly and gently. Trying to fix something disrupts the natural process of things.  

There Are Some Helpful Things to Know in This Process   

Please…

Tell me you respect me for getting up every day and facing the nightmare I’m living. 

Tell me that you don’t understand, but you want to understand, and mean it. Tell me this even if you’ve been through something similar. I’ll tell you what it feels like for me. Most likely it will not feel, or be the same version of grief, loss or pain. 

Tell me that you will listen to my stories, no matter how many times I need to talk about whatever it is I’m dealing with, and follow through with this promise. I’ll move forward in my own way and in my own time. Don’t expect to see me on a schedule, because it doesn’t work that way.  

If it is OK with you, tell me I can call you when I’m in a bad place, and then be there for me when I do get courageous and risk calling you. I’m not going to be in a good place, so you will need to drop what you are doing and create a safe place for me to let it all out. 

Tell me I can fall apart if I need to, and mean it.  

Tell me you will sit with me until… (This might mean different things to different people. This sitting business is hard.)  

Get Curious

Sometimes what ails the soul needs exploring and understanding. So ask if you can question me about what it is I’m struggling with. Your healthy curiosity will cheer me on. I may, or may not, be desirous to share my experience with you. Ask open-ended questions that require a sentence, paragraph, or even a page to answer; be patient. Grief, loss, and pain aren’t contagious, so feel free to learn about what I’m willing to share. The things I’m not willing to share might change over time, so be open to a changing landscape.  

This means that you might ask some very basic questions. Tell me in advance that you are wanting to understand me, the pain I’m in, and you, just like me, are summoning up the courage and bravery to explore and learn. Turn towards the unknown. As you face the pain with me, I’ll still struggle, but I won’t be as alone.  

Understand that when I’m alone, I may still dissolve into a ball on my bed. I might shed tears that I can only cry in privacy. This is normal and part of the healing process.  

Consider that the “first” of everything will be hard. I don’t know how I’m going to feel, so ask if I want company on a holiday, birthday or anniversary. If I say that I need to be alone, ask if there is anything that you can do to help ease the day. A simple phone call might do the trick. I might not be ready to do lunch, or anything, in public. Respect my wishes. On the flip side of this, keep me in the loop. I might be one of those people that needs to know what’s going on in the world despite not being able to pull it together enough to get out. However, I might want to get out, and then when I’m there, I find it was the wrong choice, so allow me to exit stage left gracefully.  

Sometimes someone’s struggles might require a meal six or twelve months after the grief has set in. (The grief might not set in for over a year.) Bad days come at different times. They are not predictable. This is also true for being able to provide self-care for oneself. While the thought might be appealing, the energy needed to actually pull off the self-care might be lacking. Making the coffee or tea and cleaning up the mess is a huge help. Running the bathwater for the much-needed soak and cleaning up the mess might be necessary.

Sometimes the person can tolerate reading, or being read to, and other times, the sensory overload is way too much for them. It is the same with music. This is not abnormal. The brain can get messed up during this process, so be gentle and sensitive.  

Fixing Me and Fixing “it” Doesn’t Work 

Fixing me or fixing it—whatever the “it” is—can’t be done, so instead, learn to sit with the uncertainty that the ugly pain brings to our doorsteps. I think it is the idea and desire to fix the pain that someone is feeling that leads to all those “don’t say this” articles, as those comments, no matter how well meaning, cut like sharp knives and cause deep wounds to be opened. If you want to offer reassurance, offer the reassurance that you will walk with someone through their grief and pain for however long it takes. Saying something like “Get over it,” and other comments like it, tells the hearer of the comment that you are wanting to fix it and rush them through a process that can’t, and shouldn’t, be rushed. “Fixing it” is more about your needs. I think this is also one of the reasons why “at least” and “they are in a better place” comments are so unwanted. While it might reassure the person who says it, such things are insensitive to the loss that is on the surface. It feels like a fix and a “I need you to exit your grief and get back to the way things were” kind of thing. Things won’t ever be the way they were. 

What Do I Say? 

Start with “I don’t know what to say, but I’m really sorry that this has happened in your life. I can’t imagine what this is like for you. I’m bringing dinner over tonight/tomorrow.” (Then show up—no excuses!)

Make this about the grieving person. Ask about sharing memories of the deceased. Many times people hold back with this. Sometimes when people lose someone, they want to know about the things that others remember, and reminisce. There is a desire to share what we loved about them. “Gone” doesn’t mean it’s a taboo subject. “Gone” can mean that the need to remember is vital, and it should be present in our relationships.  

Sometimes it’s actually the “doing” of something. One of the hardest things for widows or widowers to do is to grocery shop. There is something about roaming the aisles that sets the mind, the memories, and the grief flowing in ways that nothing else does. Maybe it’s all the stuff they loved to eat, or the fact that you won’t be fixing it for them anymore. Maybe it is all the stimuli going by that causes people to abandon grocery carts and head for their cars without having purchased anything. The cupboards may remain bare. So, offering to help with the shopping might be useful. Offering support for this task might be just what is needed, but then again, it might not be easy for the person to tell you what they want and need. It might be helpful to go with them and have a list, so if they need to leave, they can, and you can finish the job for them.  

Keep in mind that it is embarrassing to have laundry pile up and not take out the trash. Offering to help with this, if you know them well, might really hit the spot. Brew up the tea or coffee, or whatever it is they are drinking, and let them relax. The fact is, a cleaned-up space can help them relax. Actions count!  

There is so much, but I think I’ll leave the reader with these parting words: you can’t fix it, replace it, or rush it. Speak words of gentleness and care. If the words don’t contain your own need for fixing, replacing, or rushing of the process, you are on the right track.