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.

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

 

 

‘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