Being a survivor of suicide loss is a unique kind of grief. In the realm of mental health stigma, suicide is about as nightmare as you can get.
A survivor of suicide loss endures many days of bewilderment. While the momentum of episodic depression, anxiety, and substance abuse that often precedes suicide comes to a screeching halt for your loved one in their death, the hurricane force winds rage on for the survivor, now compiled with even more pain, confusion, and grief, as you process the sudden loss of your loved one.
In addition to your own sense of loss, you are forced to come up with euphemisms to describe to others what happened to your loved one. Even the most understanding of sympathizers will have difficulty concealing their shock if you mention suicide. Sometimes, it doesn’t always feel appropriate to explain your loss in full truth. Maybe there are young children present or it’s a professional relationship, and the survivor must think through the balancing act of honoring their truth and their grief without inflicting unnecessary interpersonal damage.
The survivor of suicide loss must live with a discrepancy between the loved one you knew, and the perception of their final act. People search for reasons, but there is no rationale that can make this make sense. Much like the transformation caused by drug addiction, and many suicides are intertwined with this condition, the unrelenting sadness that often motivates suicide does not match always up to the external profile known by people who knew your loved one. You remember your loved one in simple truths, their strength, their love, their warmth. Their death presents a complicated closure to reconcile with how you and others remember them.
The survivor of suicide loss must develop thick skin. All around our culture are colloquial reminders of suicide. When someone is frustrated and they pretend to shoot themselves with their hand in a gun shape, or when describing their lack of desire to do something and they sarcastically express it as, “I’d rather kill myself.” These are common expressions that are often unintentional and made in harmless jest. But it is a case of not knowing until you know. You cannot know the pain that is triggered by this type of reference until you have experienced that type of pain for yourself. A survivor of suicide loss must choose not to flinch every time someone says something offhandedly that seems to make light of suicide, because if we didn’t choose this, we would be constantly triggered.
Even programs about prevention can be difficult for a survivor of suicide loss to engage with. Last week was National Suicide Prevention Week. This annual event is so important, the work is valuable and needed, and may even save lives across our country every year. Sometimes campaigns related to this cause are spearheaded by survivors of suicide loss, driven to prevent as many future repetitions of the pain they know intimately as possible. For others, just hearing the word prevention is another dagger to the heart as they reflect on their personal experience that could not be prevented.
For the survivor of suicide loss, there is a small consolation gift, if you can call it that. It is a deep wisdom in understanding what is truly important in life. When a loved one dies by his or her own hand, suddenly the ones left behind develop razor sharp focus for what truly matters.
And what doesn’t.
Unfortunately, sometimes, it is only in the shadow of this all-consuming grief, that we dedicate our hearts and minds to winnowing away the useless distractions of life.
As a survivor of suicide loss, the questions you are left with are maddening, the silent answers are deafening. The nights you lie awake wondering if anything will ever make sense again never go away completely, though they spread themselves out over time.
Survivors of suicide loss are charged with an important endeavor: Living. Having the darkest possible night fallen upon their land, they must be the light that shines on with hope. In this unbearable darkness, having seen first hand the devastating effects of choosing death, they choose life.