Question and Answer series: What do I say?

Way for Hope is beginning a question and answer series of blog posts tackling some of the most immediate issues people face in the early days after suicide or other traumatic loss. Each person’s experience may be different. Even within a family, grief could affect members in unique ways. But most find comfort in knowing others have faced similar emotions and practical problems. You are not alone.

​First Question: What do I say?

When families and friends must be contacted, you might wonder what to say. In some places, suicide has a lingering stigma attached that is undeserved. Historically, some people have feared mental illness or unusual behavior. Today, we know that the human brain is like other organs of the body, susceptible to disease, imbalance, and the effects of stress, medications, alcohol and other drugs. The paths that lead a person to suicide are complex and not completely understood even by professionals.

Maybe you have never known someone who ended his own life. Maybe others will not understand. Try to focus on your own self-care during this time and, if you have children, on theirs. Depending on the children’s ages, give only what information you think they can understand, but answer as honestly as you can. Let teachers know what your child is going through when they return to school. Here is a page from the Alliance of Hope for suicide loss survivors that provides other suggestions.

It is likely you will be in shock yourself, whether you knew your loved one was struggling or not, so you may not feel like going into detail. You have a right to privacy and to do what you need to when you need to do it. A simple “I don’t feel like talking about this right now” should stop questions and speculation. On the other hand, if people want to help with errands, calls, or chores, let them.

One of the best suggestions I received was to prepare a sentence or two about the situation that can be used any time. I said something like “My husband fought valiantly against depression for a number of years until he was unable to do so anymore and ended his life.” No matter what your situation, you can speak of the love you have for the one you lost, how special he or she was, and how much this loss hurts.

 

Jan McDaniel creates projects for survivors of traumatic loss through Way For Hope. A former journalist and educator, Jan never expected her personal grief to lead to writing about suicide for people all over the world, but that is exactly what happened. Her greatest tragedy became a hope-filled mission to help others through the devastation that follows this kind of traumatic loss.

Decide to Heal, Again and Again and Again

When one is grieving it sometimes feels as though there are no options. Certainly much of the language that comes to mind and that we hear reinforces the belief that we are doomed to feel this pain forever.

What if that’s not true?

Let’s break it down a bit. The past is over and done, there is no doubt about that fact. While we cannot use a time-machine to go back and change an event, we can use change our feelings about the past by making deliberate choices. That is empowering.

Something I hear quite often is ‘I’ll never get over this pain, I’ll hurt like this for the rest of my life.’

However, we do have choice about our future. Understanding that we have choice about how we move forward is also incredibly empowering. But here’s the thing, we have to make that choice. Deliberately.

That’s right, making the choice to feel better is where healing begins. A powerful reason this matters is that each thought we think, each word we speak reinforces truth within our subconscious. We are literally programming ourselves to suffer or to heal, which do you prefer?

You’ve likely heard that what we focus on expands? Think about a common experience most of us relate to. Perhaps you’ve bought a blue Volkswagen Beetle. The car is new to you and you’re quite excited. Suddenly, it seems that just about anywhere you drive; you see similar cars, though you really didn’t notice them before. The only thing that’s changed is your focus.

In a similar way, when we are convinced that we must suffer deeply for an endless amount of time, we seem to be bombarded with messages that reinforce that belief.

On the other hand, if we decide today that we are open to healing, we are quite likely to notice moments that we feel better. The decision to be open to healing, to notice and appreciate progress reinforces our progress. This is power in action.

Does making this decision mean that the pain of grief will pass in that moment? Nope, it doesn’t work like that. However, making the decision to be aware that we have choice reminds us that we have some control. As we make the choice again and again and again to be aware of moments that feel better, we will notice more and more often that we are feeling better.

I encourage you to consistently apply this choice to your present moment. Remind yourself that your future is looking better and better.

Now, let’s circle back to the event which brought you this grief to begin with. Whether you are grieving a death, an ended relationship, financial loss, etc. I would encourage you to consider re-framing the event in your thoughts and language.

Decide, very deliberately decide how you prefer to think about this event, what story you are telling yourself and others. It matters.

This is not about lying, not at all; it is about shifting our focus. For instance, if I were to tell you about my son Mike, you can be assured that it’s not going to be all about his suicide death at 23 years old. Rather, you’ll hear how he made a bizarre quacking sound when he coughed for years; you’ll know that he loved knock-knock jokes and brewing his own beer and wine.

Now all of these things are part of the same story. I’m not about to deny my son’s death or the heartbreak that brought on. However, that is not where I focus; it’s not what I think about the most. My focus, my attention was then, is now and always will be on the extraordinary human that was in my life for 23 years. I decided on December 18, 2010 to make the choice to tell the story of Mike in the way that most accurately reflects my heart and his life. And the choice has been empowering.

Today, I encourage you to decide, to make the choice to heal. Remind yourself when you open your eyes, that you are making this powerful choice. Remind yourself when you shed tears that they are healing tears. Remind yourself all day long, that the hard work of grieving is bringing you healing with each and every breath. Decide to heal.

Namaste,
Sandy

 

 

Welcome, Fall!

Seasons change. For those who have lost someone they love very much, the changing color of the leaves, once thought so beautiful, may bring additional pain. It is as if the very earth is calling to attention the fact that what once was shared can become a painful reminder of how very deeply loss touches us. The tides of life roll in and out as they beat upon the shores of our hearts. Time won’t wait. However, one of the gifts of grief is that we do have time. Time to draw apart and heal. Time to regain a bit of our footing. Our grief legs. Should we welcome the Autumn season and those that follow?

I think so. If nothing changed, we might remain in the darkest part of grief forever. If nothing pushed us forward, would we go? Life calls and, though we should be tender with ourselves in early days, we are alive and ultimately – for most of us – we want to answer.

What pushes (or leads) us forward? Many times, it is others who understand, whether they have lost loved ones or not. Sometimes, it is our children. Counselors and other professionals, caring friends, grief coaches, those who write about healing or share research and resources.

I hear you. You’re saying now, “But how can I possibly go on with this giant hole in my heart? How can I live without this one who is gone from me? How could I ever be happy again?” I hear you. I do. I was you. My world was torn apart, destroyed. Over. “Then how?’

It comes in the form of connection with other people. A hand reaching out. A hug (even a virtual one). A look or comment that shows someone else cares, that someone else has been there and has survived. A peek into the lives of fellow survivors who light candles on Sundays, who lean into their faith, who give up, fall down again and again before standing upright.

It comes on wings. In the shape of butterflies and dragon flies. In a heart-shaped cloud or rock just when you need it. In a song. In dreams.

It comes in belief when there is none left, in putting one foot in front of the other. In children’s smiles and dirty dishes on the table. In countless other ways, that hole in your heart becomes part of you, not all of you. You become stronger.

​And, while you still remember and long for the one you lost, you count all of the colors of the year until you welcome Fall.

Do Your Best and let that be Enough

We hear about self care, and most of us really would like to take good care of ourselves. Having said that, when we are overwhelmed with grief, we are often quick to be harsh and judgmental about ourselves. Both in our words and our thoughts.

What I would like to suggest is that we take a step back and look at the situation as though the situation was about someone else.

Would we be critical of a man who was unshaven and had stains on his shirt if we knew that he had just lost his wife?

Would we speak harshly to the woman who didn’t use her turn signal if we had a way of knowing that she had just been fired from a job that she desperately needs?

Would we be short-tempered and unkind to the child who is unfocused and belligerent, if we knew that they were being bullied and were afraid to go to school?

Or would we instead offer a bit of empathy, compassion and understanding?

Is there any reason at all, why you are not deserving of that same tender consideration?

That my friends is where self-care begins. By offering ourselves the grace and kindness that we would offer to a loved one or a stranger. Because when life happens, we do the best we can. It may not be perfect, but it is perfectly human.

I encourage you to face a mirror for this next step. Looking at the person who is looking back at you, consider your own situation in this very moment. I ask you to notice all that you are dealing with right now. Perhaps insomnia is your nightly companion, overwhelm, concern about finances or other family members. Put it all in.

Take a nice looooooong, deeeeeeep breath. And looking at that person in the mirror, send him or her as much love and compassion as you would that child who is filled with fear. In fact, looking deep into those eyes looking back at you, see the small child inside who longs for reassurance and a kind word.

Allow yourself to feel that love on the deepest levels possible. And it’s okay if you tear up. It’s a very natural, normal and human reaction to having your innermost thoughts, hopes, fears and emotions witnessed. Keep sending that love.

Allow that feeling of warmth and caring to wrap itself around you like a warm blanket. You are loved. You always have been loved. And you always will be.

This is the perfect time to call to mind some of the blessings in your life. Big or small, they all matter.

Some things to consider, do you have a safe place to live? Do you have a companion, animal or human that makes your heart melt? Do the squirrels scampering about outdoors make you smile? What comes to mind for you?

The good things in our lives, and that is truly anything that is going right, are the things I encourage you to focus on and offer deep gratitude. It’s like a balm to the soul. Frankly, if we are able to come up with something, almost anything for which we are truly grateful, our mood lifts and we find it easier to be kind to that person in the mirror.

Please remember, you really are not intended to be perfect. On the other hand, being your authentic self is perfectly human and more than enough.

Namaste,
Sandy

Evidence

Guest blog by Jan McDaniel

I’ve always been fascinated by old photographs and films. Last Spring, when a cough was keeping me awake at night, I watched several historical documentaries. I knew the people I was seeing in black and white film on the television screen actually lived in color and that these captured and preserved moments didn’t really stop time, only slowed it for a moment, but it felt like they had found the secret to holding on to something precious.

A few days later I realized why. Evidence. Of what happened, who lived in that moment, that it was all real. That it was life that made sense. A baby riding on his daddy’s shoulder. An old man recalling a terrible war. Survival.

I think that’s one thing we seek from grief as we try to hold onto and remember those who are not in our arms anymore. Evidence that, despite the crumbling of our individual civilizations, they did exist. They were more than their struggles, more than the way they died.

They were precious secrets that belonged to us, treasures that held our worlds together. Suicide did come along and steal them. The normalcy of our lives was broken like shards of ancient pottery left behind to be discovered and marveled at – pieced together again – a little at a time.

They were real and greatly loved, and once we were happy.

Jan McDaniel creates projects for survivors of traumatic loss through Way For Hope. A former journalist and educator, Jan never expected her personal grief to lead to writing about suicide for people all over the world, but that is exactly what happened. Her greatest tragedy became a hope-filled mission to help others through the devastation that follows this kind of traumatic loss.

Vulnerability and Healing Grief

Several years ago I was part of a business networking group that met regularly. I enjoyed it tremendously and looked forward to these gatherings as they were productive and the people there genuinely cared about one another.

After my son died, something changed. It seemed that I had become invisible. If someone asked a question pertaining to a service I offered, someone else would respond. Not always the same person, but it was as if I wasn’t there at all.

This happened a few times and I really didn’t know what was happening. I spent only a very short time feeling hurt, that emotion very quickly morphed into anger. I got up a pretty good steam of irritation and asked someone in the group who was also a longtime friend if we could talk.

When I explained what I was feeling she understood as she was entirely aware of the situation. It turns out she was much more aware than I.

She quite patiently explained to me that she had noticed whenever someone would generally ask how I was, I would change the subject, turn the question right around and make it about the other person. The more specific any concern about my emotional well-being became, the more certain I was to shut it down, redirect or downplay my grief. The result was that these people I cared about and who I knew cared about me, learned not to engage me. I was pushing them away – with both hands.

As she gently shared these experiences with me, reminding me of specific conversations, I had to acknowledge that she was entirely correct. By deflecting or avoiding I was not in any way softening or healing my own pain. In fact, I was actually adding to my own suffering and hurting others at the same time. This was of course, unacceptable.

I had to really think about this and if I wanted to change things, it was entirely up to me. And fortunately I had this brave, honest friend by my side. I’ve always had a very difficult time allowing others to see my hurts. Irritation or anger was much easier for me to acknowledge and process, but hurt? Oh my, the vulnerability that brought with it.

Here’s the thing, when I lost my son to suicide, I didn’t have a choice. The pain was deeper than anything I had ever experienced. n order to receive the support that I so desperately yearned for, in fact needed, I had to allow myself to be vulnerable enough to acknowledge that pain. Not just to myself, but to others. I had to learn to trust people I cared about to see me when I was not stoic. Deep breath time. If I wanted to keep people I cared about in my life, I needed to allow them to care about me in return.

I realized in a whole new way what incredible strength it takes to allow others to see your vulnerability. To trust that they will be gentle with a broken heart. That they will see tears as shining symbols of love rather than weakness and that they would honor that love. To trust that they wouldn’t turn away from me (as I feared waaaaaay deep inside) but would rather turn in for a hug, offer a hand in support or simply be there. Just be there.

For me, trusting others to be supportive and loving and accepting that true caring was much more difficult that offering compassion and support to others.

It’s perfectly alright to be discerning about selecting what you are ready to share and with whom. Monitor those healthy boundaries and trust your intuition. It’s not healthy to share with everyone, but it’s also not helpful or healthy to hold everything inside. Pain needs to be expressed in safe, healthy ways in order to subside.

By the way, I am deeply grateful to my gentle friend. She was entirely right and knowing this allowed me to make some changes. No, I didn’t begin to pour my heart out to everyone, but I realized I was not without power in these situations. Deciding how I would respond helped me tremendously and I was able to rebuild relationships.

I have the greatest respect for those who bravely share their heart, whether it is filled with joy or pain. They are the way-showers.

Namaste,
Sandy

 

 

Changes

Guest blog by Jan McDaniel

Suicide changes everything. Yet, not all of the changes to come are negative. Trust that the pain will soften, that life will be worth living again. Since I can’t do anything to influence the passage of time and cause these things to happen sooner for you, I thought I would share my wishes for your healing.

Over the next week or so, I hope you will find a bit of relief in rest. Naps, especially.

I wish you peaceful moments in which you can hold onto the love you shared with that special person. Love outlasts pain, but when pain is deepest, it is difficult to remember that you never have to give up what this precious one means to you. Never.

I want the weather to be gentle where you live. Walking in natural surroundings or contemplating snow through the window can bring healing comfort. Let it.

I hope you will remember you are not alone, especially if your loss is recent.

I wish for you acknowledgment that this year is different, that someone important is missing. That hurts.

My hope is that your loved one will continue to be included in your life in some way. Through sharing memories and hearing others call his name. Through carrying on the work she wanted to do. Through photos that can cause pain but that can also bring tender smiles to faces streaked with tears. Feeling this pain is the way to healing and acceptance.

I wish you reminders that others do understand, do grieve with you, and will hold your hand.

Jan McDaniel creates projects for survivors of traumatic loss through Way For Hope. A former journalist and educator, Jan never expected her personal grief to lead to writing about suicide for people all over the world, but that is exactly what happened. Her greatest tragedy became a hope-filled mission to help others through the devastation that follows this kind of traumatic loss.

‘Why’ has been Visiting

I’ve been going through some old writings, reviewing and in some ways even reliving what my journey has been up to this point. When I came across the message below, it felt important to share. As I read my own words, I became aware in a new way that I had, in fact, personified the question that swirls within the minds of most who have lost someone to suicide. ‘Why?’

You see, we all walk this path one step at a time. Each and every breath, every thought and experience is part of our very personal grief journey. For some perspective on my journey, this message was written 3 years after my son Mike died. 

The time since we got the news until today has not revealed a reason for this decision. There are those who swear that only one who is mentally ill would take their life, and perhaps that’s so, but even hindsight doesn’t provide that clarity.

I would guess that there are fewer than a handful of times since Mike died that I have gone to bed without asking him why…why did he choose to leave this planet, this life with the people he loved and who loved him so much. Today, I still have no answers.

Mike loved his job, no one there had a clue. He had terrific friends, they were all totally blind-sided by his suicide. Mike spoke to each of his elder brothers as well as his sister-in-law a few times a week, no one could have been more surprised. He lived the last year of his life back at home with my husband and me, we are still unable to answer this question. Was he depressed? Was there something going on in his life that has yet to come to light? Was he physically in distress? Was he just “done”  with this life and ready to explore the next? I have all of these questions and so many more.

The question of Why has been with me since 4 am on December 18, 2010. Sometimes I’ve been haunted by Why. Other times Why has simply lingered around the edges of my world. Why is still there…not nearly as powerful or onerous as in the past…but still present. I almost have a visual of Why. A personification if you will. No longer terrifying or crushing, it’s much more gentle now. Just sort of hanging around. Not a threat in any way. At one time Why brought along with it recriminations for not knowing ahead of time that this could or would happen. All of that has eased and I think gone away, at least for the most part. Now, Why is simply a visitor, just there.

Others know why their loved one chose to die, I pray that knowledge helps them to heal. Still, I suspect that if I knew the answer to this lingering question that there would be another in its place. I certainly know that grief and healing is no easier for those who know the answer to that question, their grief is just a bit different than mine.

The presence of Why will ease, it always does, at least for me. In what may seem a strange way, I think I’m making friends with Why. I’m learning to be more forgiving of myself and others, knowing in a most profound way that we seldom really know what is in the mind and heart of another. Why is helping me to understand and be more at ease.

One step at a time, one breath at a time. We walk this journey of grief into healing together. For me, Why is a companion in this journey with whom I am becoming more and more comfortable.

Namaste,
Sandy

 

Understanding

Guest blog by Jan McDaniel

Information brings knowledge, knowledge brings understanding, and understanding brings peace. While it is not possible to understand everything about the complexities of suicide, it helps to know the following.

  • Suicide crosses all boundaries: age race, gender, beliefs, cultures, economic status, and social standing.
  • Stress, medications, and other things can cause physical changes in the brain, resulting in distorted thoughts, hallucinations, and/or a breakdown in logic and reasoning capabilities.
  • Most suicides are related to mental illness or behavior disorders, but some are not. Other things, like impaired impulse control, addictions, and physical illness, can play a part.
  • When hope dies, a person feels there is no reason to live, no matter how many people love him or her or how much support is available.
  • Often, thoughts are only of escaping mental anguish.  If family and friends are thought of at all, these thoughts may focus on death as a way to relieve loved ones of the burden of dealing with the person in pain.

Jan McDaniel creates projects for survivors of traumatic loss through Way For Hope. A former journalist and educator, Jan never expected her personal grief to lead to writing about suicide for people all over the world, but that is exactly what happened. Her greatest tragedy became a hope-filled mission to help others through the devastation that follows this kind of traumatic loss.

 

Grief – Anniversaries, Special Days and Events

Let’s just imagine for a moment. Perhaps a holiday is right around the corner. It may be a loved one’s birthday, the anniversary of the day that they died, or maybe there is a gathering that you are invited to attend. The very thought may make you cringe. You can feel the tension begin at the thought of being with others during this special time. What if someone says their name? What if no one says their name? What if I get teary? What if I meet someone new and they don’t know me? What if, what if, what if?

Whew, that was overwhelming, truly exhausting and I haven’t even left my chair. So, how can you move through these days and events?

Make a plan. Frankly, even the exercise of imagining who I may run into, what conversations might flow and here’s the biggie, what emotions I may feel, takes a lot of the stress out of an upcoming event.

I encourage you to take nice… deep… slow… breaths when thinking this through to help you be as calm as possible. And then begin thinking about what is coming up and imagine the time being as easy as possible. That’s where the plan comes in.

Personally, I found it incredibly helpful to imagine conversations. Including questions and comments that I may find uncomfortable or just too much to handle. I thought about and role-played in my mind, sometimes with others until I became more comfortable with responses.

Here’s an example of how that might sound. If I were at an event and someone who didn’t know me well asked how many children I have… what sort of answer felt right for me? I had lost my youngest son, so did I have 2 or 3 children? After playing around with possible answers for a while, I found a response that felt right for me. I generally answered that together with my husband we had raised 3 loud, messy, wonderful boys. Others I know answered in their own way. Some would say 2 kids with no mention of the one who died. This is not about denying the existence of the one who died, it is about deciding how much you are comfortable sharing in various circumstances.

Make a plan. I encourage the one who is grieving to enlist the support of someone who cares. A family member or friend. Think about places you can get a bit of privacy if things become too emotional. Think bathroom! You are seldom bothered if you duck in and lock a door for a few deep breaths and to splash your face with cool water. It helps.

Plan a getaway or set a time to leave. Arrange with the one who is supporting you to leave at a pre-determined time. Ask them to keep an eye on you and be willing to rescue you if you give a pre-determined signal. This will help to assure you that you can get away. This will also remind you that you are not alone, you are loved, you matter and someone cares enough to help you get through this difficult time.

Often I have found that having a firm plan in place makes the event much easier.

You can do this. You are not alone. Together, we can walk the path, through grief and into healing.

Namaste,
Sandy