One thing I’ll never forget is the sound of my father-in-law’s deep voice.
There are very few people I let call me “Chels,” and the way he said it is something I truly miss hearing.
It’s been almost six years since we’ve seen him. On January 27th, 2014, he died by suicide. I remember all the details of the day like a bad dream. Taking a break from vacuuming to take the call from my husband telling me what happened. Immediately getting on the computer to try and find flights to Idaho that night. Calling my best friend and sobbing at the airport while my husband was waiting in line for a rental car. Driving three hours to the town where he lived because my husband couldn’t stop crying long enough to see the road clearly. Silently laying on a bed in the dark with my husband, two brothers-in-law, and sister-in-law that night.
The loss of a loved one to suicide is unlike a regular loss from a heart attack or cancer, because you’re left with countless questions that often don’t have any answers.
Why did this happen?
What could I have done differently?
Could I have stopped it?
Was this my fault?
What was going through his head?
How long had he been struggling with these thoughts?
Could it have been a mistake?
Feelings of shock, confusion, guilt, and of not having done enough overcome you, as memories of moments you shared race through your mind, and an emptiness unlike anything else creeps in.
Mental illness is an incredibly difficult thing for people to understand, and we may never know what goes through the minds of those we love before they die by suicide. If they had planned it, thought about it for a long time, or one day just lost touch with reality and couldn’t take it anymore.
Regardless of why people die by suicide, the healing process of those they leave behind is a long, uphill battle.
Almost six years later, and I still have unanswered questions and feel deep pain when I think of my father-in-law’s death. But there are lots of ways for loss survivors to make sense of what has happened and find peace in their lives.
Everybody copes with suicide loss differently, but we can all return to a sense of normalcy with time. Today, in honor of International Survivors of Suicide Day on November 23rd, I want to share six ways suicide loss survivors can work through their feelings, questions, and grief.
1. Writing. Even if you’re not a big writer, sometimes thoughts and feelings make more sense when you write them down. You can try writing about what happened for yourself to read, or you can try writing a letter to your loved one, asking questions or telling them things you wish you had said. It can be very therapeutic to get it down in writing even if you don’t say it out loud.
2. Group Therapy. I know group therapy doesn’t sound like fun, and at first you might just want to sit and listen to the stories of other loss survivors. But knowing that you aren’t alone can really help. And eventually, sharing your own story in a safe place like a suicide loss group can elicit comfort and empathy from people who know exactly what you’re going through.
3. Talking one-on-one. This might be to a close friend, a spouse, or a therapist. Bottling everything up inside isn’t going to do you any good, and it can help to have someone who can just listen and give you a hug if you need it. You might sit in silence for a lot of it, but it will help you on your path to healing.
4. Take it one day at a time. When a suicide happens, it can feel like the end of the world. Whether it’s a parent or a child or a sibling or a friend, suicide shakes your entire world. It will feel impossible to carry on after a loss, and if you think about what next month or year or even week will hold, it can be too much. So just get through one day at a time, and when you’re ready, move on to a week, then a month, then a year. Healing doesn’t happen overnight.
5. Celebrate their life on anniversaries/birthdays/holidays. Just like any loss, the loss of a loved one to suicide will be difficult on anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays. So instead of mourning on those days, try and celebrate and remember that person. We like to send balloons into the sky for Father’s Day in honor of my father-in-law, and we often watch the slideshow of his life that played at his funeral on the anniversary of his death. It’s hard and it makes us sad, but each time we do it, a little piece of us heals.
6. Don’t act like it didn’t happen. People are eventually going to ask what happened or how your loved one died. You should never feel ashamed or like you can’t tell people that someone you love died by suicide. But it is okay to wait until you’re ready to tell people. Unfortunately, people still act awkward, say the wrong thing, or ask the wrong questions when you tell them it was a suicide, so use discretion when you tell people until you’re comfortable talking about it.
It’s been five years, nine months, and twenty-six days since we lost my father-in-law. It still hurts to think about it, and we still miss him every day. But looking back, I can see how much we’ve grown, as well as how our experience has been able to help others struggling with suicide loss and even suicidal thoughts. I’m glad I can see the bright side of our loss now, but I would still give almost anything to hear my father-in-law say my name again.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has great resources for getting help, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.