Finding Your Way
Someone you love has died by suicide. In your heart, you have come to know your deepest pain. To be bereaved literally means to be torn apart. You have a broken heart and your life has been turned upside down. While it is instinctive to want to run as far away as possible from the overwhelming pain that comes with this loss, you have probably already discovered that even if you try to hide, deny, or self-treat your pain, it is still within you, demanding your attention. Giving attention to the multitude of your thoughts and feelings will lead to the unfolding of your eventual healing.
Setting your Intention to Heal. It takes true commitment to heal in your grief. Yes, you are wounded, but with commitment and intention you can and will become whole again. Intention is defined as being conscious of what you want to experience. When you set your intention to heal, you make a true commitment to positively influence the course of your journey. You probably know the cliché: “Time heals all wounds.” Yet, time alone does not heal the wounds of grief that come with suicide. Healing and integrating this loss into your life demand that you engage actively in the grief journey.
A Vital Distinction: Shock versus Denial.
Shock, along with elements of denial, is a temporary, healthy response that essentially says, “The reality of the suicide death of someone dear to me is too painful to acknowledge right now. Therefore I refuse to believe it.” While this is a natural initial reaction to suicide, you will hinder your eventual healing if you stay in long-term denial.
There are various forms of denial that, as a survivor, you must work to break through:
- Conscious Denial: This is where you hide the fact that the death was a suicide. You may tell people it was a heart attack, murder, or an unexplained sudden death.
- Innocent Denial: This is where you hold onto the hope that the findings that ruled the death a suicide were a mistake and will be changed at a later date.
- Blame as Denial: This is where the unwritten family rule is that you never talk about the death or use the word suicide at any time.
The motivation for these types of denial are multiple and complex. Often people don’t even realize they are in denial. If you discover you have gone beyond shock into some form of prolonged denial, do not shame or ridicule yourself.
But here is the problem: by staying in denial, you miss the opportunity to do the grief work related to your feelings. Until denial is broken through and the pain is experienced, you are on hold and authentic mourning cannot take place.
Embrace the Uniqueness of your Suicide Grief.
Your grief is unique. No one will grieve in exactly the same way. Your experience will be influenced by a variety of factors: the relationship you had with the person who died; the circumstances surrounding the suicide; your emotional support system; and our cultural and religious background. As a result of these factors, you will grieve in your own special way. Don’t try to compare your experience with that of other people or to adopt assumptions about just how long your grief should last. Allow yourself to grieve at your own pace.
Dispel the Misconceptions about Suicide. You and the people in your world may have common misconceptions about suicide grief. Misconceptions, in essence, deny you your right to hurt and authentically express your grief. Don’t condemn yourself or others if you find this to be true; simply make use of any new insights to help you open your heart to our work of mourning in ways that restore your soul. Here are a few common misconceptions:
- Grief following a suicide death always results in “complicated” or “pathological” mourning.
Research shows that those grieving a suicide integrate grief at about the same pace as those who experience any kind of unanticipated death.
- We can always determine the “whys” of a suicide death.
Why the person took his or her own life can be a painful yet natural question to explore, yet it’s a question for which there is often no clear, satisfactory answer. You may very slowly discover that it is possible to live with the uncertainly of never fully knowing the answer to “why.”
- All who are grieving a suicide loss feel guilty.
One of the most prescribed responses for people grieving a suicide loss is “I bet you feel guilty” or have the question, “Do you feel guilty?” In reality, as someone who is grieving a suicide loss you may or may not feel guilty. Unfortunately, someone is prescribing what you “should” feel rather than being open to what you actually feel. Healing from a suicide is not done by judging yourself or the person who died. The only person responsible for the suicide is the person who died by suicide.
- Only certain kinds of people complete suicide.
The reality is that suicide is a stranger to no race, creed, religion, age group, or socioeconomic level.
- Only a crazy person completes suicide.
Not all people who complete suicide meet some formal criteria for mental illness; they may have been depressed, anxious, or hopeless but most of us survivors don’t find comfort when people try to tell us the person was crazy.
- It is a sin to complete suicide, and the person who does goes directly to hell.
As one Catholic priest observed about suicide, “When its victims wake on the other side, they are met by a gentle Christ who stands right inside of their huddled fear and says, ‘Peace be with you!’ There are no limits to God’s compassion. God mourns with us. If God’s nature is one of steadfast mercy and love, then this is a misconception we need to keep educating the world about.
- Suicide is inherited and runs in the family.
Uninformed people may project this myth to you that, because someone in your family completed suicide, you may have the same fate. This is NOT supported by facts. Scientific research has not at this time confirmed a genetic basis for suicide risk.
Reach Out for Help. Grieving and mourning the death of someone precious to suicide is probably the hardest work you will ever have to do. And hard work is less burdensome when others lend a hand.
Where to turn for help: Finding safe people (those who will companion you/not try to “fix” you, those who allow you to feel and talk without judgment; those who embrace hope) is important. They may be fellow suicide survivors; select friends and family; support groups; your religious or spiritual community; a professional counselor or caregiver. With these people you will feel safe, you can be open and honest, and your spirit feels “at home.”
In large part, healing from a suicide death is anchored in a decision to not judge yourself but to love yourself. Grief is a call for love. As you gently confront the pain of your grief you will be open to the miracle of healing. Integrating the pain that comes with suicide death requires your willingness. Follow your willingness and allow it to move you towards healing.
Excerpts from various writings by Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition