“What if I had done more?”
“What if I had noticed earlier?”
“What if I had been more protective, less trusting, less scared?”
“What if I had told them I love them more?”
“What if I could have just one more day with them?”
Grief after a suicide is painful. It is devastating. It can be debilitating. It calls us to question everything, to assume responsibility, and to withdraw.
What happens when grief does not follow the pattern of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance? This familiar pattern is both ill-fitting and not enough to ease the pain of losing someone to suicide. For some, the anger or the denial never leaves. For others, depression stays and acceptance never comes. For many, guilt and shame are all-consuming – two overwhelming experiences that do not have a place in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief that provide comfort to so many other types of grief experiences.
I found myself in the throes of my own grief in August 2007 when a dear friend took her own life (let’s be honest, I am still in those throes some days). Her death came as a complete shock to all those that knew her. There were no signs, nothing that anyone saw that led up to her suicide. There was no time to be in denial: autopsy reports do not lie, and she was definitely no longer with us. There was no bargaining. It took years to accept. What was present was shame that felt like a massive barrier to overcome and navigate in a society that does not value grieving. Pervasive guilt set up a permanent residence. What could I have done differently to prevent her death? What if I had responded to my heart pangs to reach out more often? I will never get those answers. I will miss her dearly for the rest of my life, and I will always wonder.
Those of us who survive a loved one’s suicide do not get the societal hugs or the months-long casserole trains. We do not have people lining up to offer their shoulders for us to cry on. Instead, we are served up loneliness and we are greeted with fear and distance. Suicide grief can be a devastatingly lonely journey.
But when your breath begins to find its home again and you begin being able to place one foot in front of the other, there is a brilliant community of people with outstretched arms who want nothing more than to accept you into the secret club that no one wants to be a part of. It is made up of beautiful, smiling faces of all colors and ages who want to hear about your person and to tell you about theirs. This Secret Club of Suicide Grief is full of radical acceptance, warmth, kindness, and grace. It is the one place you are “allowed” to grieve openly, to process your pain, to see that there is nothing you could have done, to understand that losing your person is not your fault. In this secret club, you can love openly and love outwardly, while learning to companion the grief that may always be a part of you. After all, they say that grief is a byproduct of love.
Suicide grief does not follow the Five Stages of Grief. It follows its own labyrinth of shame, guilt, anger, and the deepest sadness some people ever experience. If we are lucky, if we look in the right places, that messy path also leads to community, companionship, and acceptance – the things that can light our souls back up and hold us when we need to be held. Our grief journey does not have to be lonely.
Find a support group by browsing the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) support group listings. Support groups are available all over the United States and are facilitated by peers who get it: https://afsp.org/find-a-support-group/
If you’re finding yourself in need of one-on-one support, contact us: https://thesemicolongroup.com/contact/
If you’re hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can’t feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you don’t like talking on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.
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