By Carol Traulsen
Thanks to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross we are all familiar with the five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Just because we can name them doesn’t mean we understand them or know how to deal with them. When a loved one commits suicide it complicates the grieving process. This is something with which I have a great deal of personal experience, though I wish I didn’t. My brother killed himself a month ago. He is the third member of my family to do so. Each was very different, each was very shocking, and each was heart breaking. I haven’t gotten any better at handling it.
Two of my brothers and a niece have committed suicide over the last thirteen years. I know that I am not alone. According to the American Association of Suicidology in 2010 (the latest year for which there are statistics,) 38,364 people committed suicide. This translates to one suicide every 13.7 minutes. That’s shocking.
The grieving process changes when you are mourning the loss of a loved one to suicide. There is an initial shock that is more profound when it’s suicide. I spent the first five minutes screaming, “Oh my God,” when I heard my niece had committed suicide. I was equally stunned by my brother’s suicide years earlier. Brother #2’s suicide was preceded by years of legal troubles, addiction issues, and health issues including a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. I was surprised, and perhaps only a little shocked this time. With each death I’ve wracked my brain, asking myself if I contributed to their feelings of despair. Did I take the time to listen when they wanted to talk? Did I say something that hurt them? Did I do anything to help them? Could I have prevented it? Did they know I loved them? The answers don’t matter. They are still gone, and we are all left behind, trying to find a way to go on, again.
The sense of guilt and loss are more profound from what is called “Complicated Grief.” Dr Ann M Becker-Schutte defines “Complicated Grief” as grief that is out of context with normal, developmental losses. We expect a parent to die before a child; we don’t expect that child to kill themselves. That is out of context. Therefore, normal emotions associated with grieving may be felt with greater intensity or may last longer than expected.
What is equally shattering is that suicide is a choice. They chose to leave, to end their lives. Some people are never able to get past this and there is a strong sense of denial. Often it’s easier to blame an external source or become angry at being left behind. Sometimes we blame ourselves. We should have “known,” or “done more.” We always want more insight into the motivation behind the decision. Was there a triggering incident or a series of tragic setbacks?
The process of grieving is different for every person. Some find their way to acceptance quickly, while others find the only way to go on is to concentrate on the good memories. The most difficult to deal with is the intense anger the survivors may feel at the loved one who committed suicide. It can be so intense it may wipe out positive memories of the relationship, though only in the short term.
I know my brother made the choice to walk in front of that car, but I can’t be angry with him. Every day of his life was a struggle. The only way I can go on is to believe his soul is finally at peace. I struggled to talk about my older brother once he died. I thought it would be too painful for my mother to hear. I’ve since learned it’s a comfort and helps to keep their memory alive. I keep a picture of my niece on a bookshelf in the dining room and I talk to my sister about her daughter often. I have a golf hat of my brother’s to remember him by, and I can’t listen to Elton John’s Daniel or Ike and Tina Turner’s Rollin’ On The River without thinking of him.
This last one has been especially difficult and complicated; there is so much guilt. Mental illness and his earlier drug use had permanently changed his personality. He could be loving and insightful one minute, agitated, paranoid, and forgetful the next. Our relationship was okay but I wanted to be closer. I never got the chance. I’m mourning the loss of my brother, as well as our relationship and all that it might have been. There will be no improvements, no strides toward greater understanding, and no answers.
Grieving isn’t something you can easily get over. You can’t just snap out of it. You may find you need support. Here are a few ways to cope:
Lean on your family and friends. If not now when? Even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient now you may really need to lean on someone. Let them make your dinner or do your errands, or just sit up late talking with you. It will help, and they’ll feel better knowing they were there for you.
Draw strength from your faith. If you follow a religious tradition embrace the grieving rituals it provides. Spiritual activities such as praying, meditating, or going to church may offer solace. If you are questioning your faith or having difficulty talk to a member of the clergy or other in your religious community.
Join a support group. Grief can make you feel lonely even with loved ones around. Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced a similar loss can be helpful. To find a bereavement support group in your area contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling sessions.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor. If your grief feels like too much to bear call on a mental health professional with experience with grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through the intense emotions associated with grief as well as overcoming obstacles to your grieving.
If you don’t know where to turn try The Grief Recovery Institute 1-800-334-7606. A search of the web will net more than a few ideas, articles, and places to turn. You are not alone.
Very insightful articles available on this site. Resource to find services in your area as well as articles, blog and books on grieving.
This is an online support group for many issues including bereavement
This site has lots of helpful hints to get you through from herbal teas and yoga to prayer and breathing exercises.
Online grief support for kids or adults. Create a memorial find an online support group books and music also available. Great resource section too.
All images courtesy of Rich Traulsen Photography