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.

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.