Experiencing the death of a loved one to suicide, especially a partner and beloved, is a unique kind of loss with unique features for grieving. It’s an existential nightmare that rocks our very existence to the core. While as human beings we all have a shared language of emotions from which we can empathize feelings such as love, anger, guilt, heartbreak etc., experiencing the mind-blowing, heart shattering devastation and agony of surviving a suicide is a pain that cannot be imagined or fathomed unless you’ve experienced it yourself. It is not akin to breakups or deaths of other kinds; it is a Trauma and needs to be recognized and framed as such.
My intention is not to minimize anyone else’s pain, heartbreak or loss. As we meander through the trip of life, we each have our fair share of suffering; no one can determine whose pain or loss is the gravest, most painful, or most “special.” Ultimately, it’s how we handle and overcome our suffering and life challenges that makes us who we are and creates a life full of beauty, strength, and character. However, since this is a blog about suicide and I have experienced sudden loss of a beloved to suicide, I’ve come to know that surviving my beloved’s death was the hardest, most painful thing I have ever experienced and will ever experience. I am asserting, both on a personal and professional level, on behalf of myself, my readers, and my clients, that surviving a suicide of a close loved one, and the grief that ensues, is unique, different from other types of grief, death, and loss. And here’s why:
Based on my own experience and reflection (these are not clinically researched findings), I’ve identified 6 aspects of survivor grief that make this type of loss specific and different and color the experience with a unique intensity that unless experienced firsthand, the magnitude of the pain and intensity is quite unimaginable.
These 6 aspects are 1. terrifying, mind-blowing shock. 2. darkness. 3. confusion. 4. guilt. 5. loneliness, isolation, alienation (disconnection from the norm and from peers). 6. Suicide temptations.
I’ll explain the first three here and elaborate on the rest in the next post.
1. Terrifying Mind-Blowing Shock: The death of anyone or any traumatic life changing event causes shock. The actuality of the disappearance of someone you just saw, spoke to, touched or hugged does not make sense. One day they are here and the next day they are not; they have vanished into the ethers never to be seen or return again. While this concept can be understood conceptually and intellectually, it has a very different effect when it happens, in real life, to you. That alone is unfathomable and mind-blowing. With a suicide, however, the fact that your loved one conspired behind your back, presumably for quite some time, to take his/her own life and murdered his/her own body is a terrifying reality (and betrayal) that challenges the very biological/physiological, moral, social, intellectual, psychological fiber of our being. We are hard-wired to survive and the fact that a person over-rid this programming a) speaks to the amount of pain he was in, and b) is horrifying in the unnaturalness of this act. And even if you have an open mind about suicide and can understand on an intellectual or empathic level why someone would choose to take their life; even if you understand that being here is a choice and so too leaving here is a choice, it does not take away, minimize, or soothe the shock and terror of the reality that someone you knew and loved succeeded at crossing the huge invisible boundary between life and death. All the constructs we’ve held onto in order to make sense of the world come crashing down into darkness. All we thought we knew about life is over. Nothing is stable. Our minds are blown out as we try to make sense of a reality we no longer recognize.
2. The Darkness: There is nothing light about suicide. The act of suicide speaks to the amount of pain, darkness, and suffering our loved one felt. People who love life and who feel good simply do not kill themselves. Unfortunately, when our loved ones take their lives, they leave behind a legacy of their pain and suffering. We inherit their darkness. And it’s like a never-ending night with no dawn, no twilight; like a vortex of pain that swallows us up. And each time we try to understand the whys and the hows of what they did we get sucked into the vortex of pain that instigated their attempt and remains to haunts their act. Every time I imagined John walking to the train tracks and laying down beside them wearing his sleep mask, I was wracked with waves of terror and agony that plunged me deeper into the dark, deeper down into hell. In my quest to understand why he took his life I couldn’t help but review his death march in my mind over and over again. I must have relived the morning of his death thousands of times. This is a kind of darkness, existential and cutting, that knows no other. I’ve mentioned before in other posts, the darkness we experience is proportionate to the light and brighter sense of aliveness and joy we will feel when we come out of the darkness.
3. Confusion: The confusion following a suicide is tremendous. What happened? How did this happen? How could he really do it? Why didn’t he tell me about any of this? Why did he choose thatmethod of all the ways to kill yourself? How much pain and suffering was he in? Why didn’t anything I/we did or said help? Why wasn’t I enough? What more could I have done to help him? How could I have saved him? How could he do this? How could he really do this? How could he actually f*ing doing this? How did he do this? The stream of unanswered questions is endless. And will be, forever. Even if our loved ones leave a note, it barely answers our questions; questions that will never have answers. The confusion and terrifying mind-blowing shock reinforce one another until our minds become complete blanks and nothing is known anymore.
Added to the confusion about the motivation and execution of the suicide is a deeper layer of existential confusion. Who are we now that the limits of our own mortality have violently been challenged, erasing our minds into nothing? How do we actually have the capability to stop our hearts from beating? And what the f*ck does this mean? How important is our life, actually? Is it precious or expendable? How do we go on living without our beloved? How do we make it through the day knowing there is a way out, a pathway our loved one forged, and if we just follow it we can be with our partner/loved one again? Why do we bother going through the motions of life? Why do we bother trying to help ourselves, trying to function, or maybe one day healing and living a so-called “happy healthy life?” What’s the point? What’s the use? Why bother getting back to the world of the living when no one understands? Why get involved in another relationship when it won’t compare to the one you lost, no one can compare to the person you are permanently and involuntarily separated from? Why get attached to people when at any moment your beloved can disappear into thin air? How do we make meaning of this kind of loss, this kind of abandonment, and the irreversible permanency of what has been done? How do we assuage the gaping wound of missing someone we can never see again?
If you are a survivor, I’d love to hear about your experience and if what I’ve written rings true for you. I hope this helps give you a context for some of what you are experiencing. I hope you know you are not the only one in your own existential hell. If you are a therapist, healer, or friend of someone who has lost a close loved one to suicide, I hope reading about the experience offers you ways of being supportive and understanding that perhaps you hadn’t considered before.
In the next post I’ll expand on the other aspects of suicide grief, so check back.