At the tragically young age of 59, my mother chose to take her life. She left us without any warning or explanation.
As if that wasn’t enough for my sister, our children, and me to bear, my father did the same thing 10 years later. At least, he left a note… addressed to the woman he was dating.
It’s Never Easy to Say Goodbye
Each of them had their own reasons for choosing such drastic measures. I can now accept that, for them, the decision was the right one. Regardless, their deaths left me with a toxic cocktail of emotions and a vast wasteland where family and friends had once been. It was like, if suicide was a communicable disease, my sister and I were carriers.
Don’t get me wrong, the withdrawal wasn’t over. In fact, it was years later before I even noticed. I was too caught up in dealing with the aftermath: my emotions, the financial considerations, and maintaining a sense of normalcy for my daughters who turned 16 the day after their grandfather died. Yet, when I was finally able to reach the ground zero again, I found myself in an emotional desert.
I’m not a very social person and tend to form friendships on the basis of quality rather than quantity. However, the rather large extended family, with whom I shared numerous holidays and vacations as a child and young adult, no longer found me and mine fit company for their own growing broods.
When I look back now on the weddings I’ve missed, the teenagers and young adults who weren’t even born the last time I saw their parents and grandparents, I can’t help but wonder that things would have been different if my parents died of natural causes. Is watching them suffer through a long and painful illness, or wallow helplessly in the depths of depression, somehow easier for people to accept?
Despite Us, Life Will Go On
By the time my dad passed, my mom had been gone for 10 years, yet it hardly seemed that long. Though he will be gone 13 years in September, my mind can’t wrap itself around the amount of time since I’ve seen his face or heard his voice teasing me about not visiting enough. Yet, I’m no longer the woman either of them knew.
I spent several years encased in a tight cocoon of suppressed emotions. I didn’t grieve, but I rarely laughed either. I made a lot of poor choices as if to punish myself for failing my mom. When I finally began working my way out of the safe compartment I’d formed, it actually created a rift with my dad. By then, his health was failing, though he never mentioned it. Had I been more aware, I’d have seen it in the way his personality changed.
I was focused on fixing what was broken within myself. Part of that process involved blocking out the emotional toxicity of others, including my dad. Just as his crankiness and negativity grated on me, my growing positive outlook was irritating him. Though we lived only 20 minutes apart, the visits became less frequent. This was just one of the many regrets I had when he was suddenly gone.
Learning to Thrive Again
It was a conscious decision to stop wallowing, feeling guilty, and berating myself for something I could not have controlled. I was not ready to curl up into a ball and let the world go on without me. So, I had to make some changes. A friend suggested me to watch The Secret, which had been released in a video available only via their website recently. I won’t say the movie changed my life, but it did give me some options and techniques to start making the necessary changes for myself.
To make a long story short, I did a lot of reading and worked on how I presented myself to the world. In the process, I began to work through the pain, anger, shame, guilt, and grief. It has not been a fast process, nor am I anywhere close to finished, but during that process, and with the help of thousands of pages, written both publicly and privately, I have learned a few things about healing after a loved one choosing suicide.
1. It’s not about you.
No matter what you do or say, when a person commits suicide, they aren’t thinking about how it will affect you or anyone else. To them, it is simply the only viable option they can see. It’s their own choice. Period. So, get over yourself and stop trying to take responsibility for someone else’s actions. You are only responsible for your own reaction. (Disclaimer: There is one area where this won’t necessarily hold true, but I am not addressing emotional damage that caused by bullying here).
2. Suicide is not contagious.
There is no suicide germ. In 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University thought they might have found bio-markers which predispose people to suicide as a result of responses to stress hormones. The issue is still being debated and no one has yet stepped up to definitively say you are more likely to commit suicide if one or both of your parents did. Even so, bio-markers are not contagious either.
3. You bear no shame for your loved one’s decision.
Society makes a lot of judgements based on who-knows-what. One of those is the shamefulness of suicide. Even worse, somewhere, someone decided that the shame of the victim is transferred to their grieving family like a scarlet “S” to be worn forevermore on their foreheads. If there is one thing I learned while working my way through the emotions associated with my parents’ deaths, it was compassion.
The choices they made could not have come easily. Each one spent considerable time in the darkness of their own thoughts before they actually performed the act which ended their life. As I wrote, read, and learned, I also tried to understand. I may never have all of the answers, but I formed enough of a picture (and the picture was drastically different for each of them) to be able to accept their decisions as the ones they believed with all their hearts were right for them.
4. Forgive and Accept
Two of the most powerful and cathartic things you can do for yourself are to accept the choices of others and forgive them for any pain you suffered as a result. However, that’s only the beginning. You also have to forgive yourself and accept that you had no control over the situation. WHAT? Forgive myself, you ask? Of course! Who else is wandering around in a fog, playing the what if game?
What if I’d noticed something was wrong and got them help? What if I’d spent more time with them? What if I’d been less impatient? What if…what if…what if…? You could “what if” yourself to death, but they’d still be dead. Suicide doesn’t come with second chances when the person is intent on success. Unlike many teen suicide attempts, most adults do their research and make sure they’re successful the first time. Forgive yourself for all of your failings, both real and imagined. While you’re at it, accept the amazing person you are.
5. Talk to people about your feelings.
People are naturally inclined to want to help others. I don’t mean they want you to dump on them, but humans (especially people who care about you) are compassionate beings. The worst thing you can do for yourself (and for them) is to wall yourself off and handle things alone. Trust me, I made that mistake.
Until one night, the dam broke and I collapsed into a soggy puddle of withheld grief. It wasn’t pretty and it could have all been avoided if I’d let someone in, instead of building walls and pretending I was fine. You’re also not a lot of fun to be around while you’re hoarding all of those unspent emotions.
Let someone hug you. Cry on their shoulders. Talk about the person you lost. Share the special moments, especially the ones that made you laugh.
Heal, So You Can Enjoy the Rest of Your Life
This isn’t a complete process, but merely a few things I discovered through trial and error. You can choose to spend 5 or 6 years in a darkness of your own making like I did, or you can take a few baby steps outside those walls, where you’ll find love and hope to help you getting past one of the most horrific life events a person can endure. The choice is always yours.
Featured photo credit: Charli Lopez via flickr.com