Thinking of you, survivors of suicide loss

November 23, is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. According to the World Health Organization, around the globe, on average there is one suicide every 40 seconds.

If you are a survivor yourself or you know someone or know someone who knows someone who lost someone to suicide. Suicide stops us in our tracks. It can be hard to wrap our heads around that much pain and anguish.

Suicide research originally indicated that each suicide left, on average, six people in its wake. However, there are new indications that each suicide could leave 22-26 people in its wake. The higher number is not surprising when you think of coworkers, classmates, neighbors and the like.

We humans are social beings. Our lives are filled with connections and relationships. It is hard to see our loved ones, friends or coworkers doubled over in grief and pain. We want to do something – anything — to help ease their misery.

And if you are a survivor yourself, you know all too well how treacherous the path is out of the well of complicated and traumatic grief from a death by suicide.

To help you as well as to help others, here are eight articles that hopefully will expand your understanding  and assist you in caring for those you love who are heartbroken:

When You Are the Survivor of Suicide

 This is What Grief Feels Like 

Understanding Teen Suicide Helps Make Sense of the Heartbreak

7 Things You Need to Know after a Loss from Suicide

When You Are Ready, This Can Help You Heal from a Loss by Suicide

Dealing with the Death of a Young Person

How to Help your Grieving Child

Shattered Hearts: Explaining Suicide to Children

Thinking of all of you who have walked this path, directly and indirectly. May your heart find peace.

The three common elements of suicide

From my perspective, all suicidal gestures and actions, no matter how large or small, injurious or lethal, share these three elements:

  • Pain
  • Disconnection
  • Disenfranchisement

Pain
Pain means any and all pain in all its permutations—be it physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or any combination thereof. Pain hurts. When we are in pain, we have one goal: to stop hurting. We do everything we can to get out of pain. Often, we don’t care what it takes to be pain-free; we just want the howling, can’t-take-a-deep-breath or think-clearly pain to be over as soon as possible.

Constant, chronic pain—of any variety—changes people. Pain is exhausting and debilitating. Pain makes us cranky and intolerant. Pain wreaks havoc with our sleep cycle. It rearranges our thinking as well as diminishes our ability to cope and withstand the vagaries of everyday life.

When we are in pain, we contract into ourselves. Our world becomes smaller, darker, and enclosed. We shut out the world. There is only so much bandwidth, and we use it to manage the pain. The only thing that matters is to be pain-free, now. And, unfortunately, that can sometimes result in a suicidal action.

Disconnection
Disconnection speaks to the separation between the self and others. Separation is the operative word. We feel unwanted and unloved, alone and isolated, misunderstood and alien. There may be no one in our corner or no sense of connection with another person, a group of people, or a higher power. We can even feel profoundly disconnected among family and friends, who do not understand us and, more pointedly, do not comprehend what we have experienced and what has happened to us. This can be the height of loneliness.

We know from research that people who feel socially isolated (i.e., divorced, widowed, etc.) are at increased risk for suicide as compared with those who have responsibility for family members and are part of some kind of social grouping, network, or organization.

With disconnection, it feels as if there is no tether to stay anchored and grounded on the earth plane. We are alone. No one gets us. This is particularly true of survivors of a suicide loss, the military and veterans, and survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Disenfranchisement
Disenfranchisement, in the psychological sense, is disconnection to the nth degree. It is the ultimate sense of disconnection; it’s as if we are looking at the world with our nose pressed to the glass. We do not feel that we belong, nor are we connected in any larger sense. We are no longer a part of the whole. We are a free-floating entity adrift in the world, alone, without value, purpose, or plan. There is no meaning in our life. We feel invisible and worth nothing. This is the utmost of pain.

All three elements — pain, disconnection, and disenfranchisement — take us to shut-down, closed-off places. This leads to inactivity, inertia, passivity, and powerlessness. We feel stuck. We have lost our abilities to be creative and expansive. There is precious little energy or flow. And, from that position, it is easy to become dispirited and hopeless, which is another kind of pain. And pain of all kinds can lead to suicidal thinking and action.

Suicide is a complicated and multi-factored issue, and yet there are three common elements that serve as the foundation to suicidality. These elements address the full spectrum of suicide. They can help us understand the ineffable “why” of suicide and, also, serve as warning flags for the future.

These three elements also underscore our need to find better ways to reach out and provide safety nets, support, and aid for our most vulnerable and traumatized.

Son, I won’t come to your grave by Diana DeRegnier

For twenty-three years I have grappled with my identity as a mother of a son who took his own life. I am also a woman, a sister, a child, a writer, an activist. I have met many life challenges, yet the scars and weight of the loss of my son make other assaults on the body or soul insignificant in comparison.

It is very hard for others to listen to someone stuck in the anguish of losing a child and doubly so when there is insatiable anger and guilt at ourselves and others, and when we aren’t yet reaching for peace because we think we have to do something about the anger and guilt in order to be worthy of healing. In my journey, I had to decide I wanted healing and peace and love even if I don’t deserve it; I cannot live in the vomit of my son’s suicide.

All losses of loved ones are inhumanely cruel, and suicide comes with an extra-large bottle of the toxins guilt and anger which some of us feel obliged to drink again and again—it never does empty. Some of us have an insatiable need to see everything, talk about the loss, to examine each aspect, to learn every detail of our child’s life that we can. And then many of us stay stuck in experiences of sorrow, disappointments, regrets, guilt, and anger. We may move so slowly through the totality of our story that no one, including us, can discern change within us.

When my son died, it was extremely important for me to see, hear, touch, and feel what happened from all available angles. I’ve done that now. I understand and know all I need to know of the circumstances. With work and self-tolerance, I finally arrived at the point where even without every detail, I see the large picture and each snapshot available to me, and let the rest go.

Not every parent of a child who suicides will feel this way, but when we do, it is excruciating and so rare to find the support of someone who will stand on the shore as we trek through neck-high muck. In addition, some parents whose child did not die by suicide will go through similar angst. For each soul has its own challenges.

Now, I have put the memories of my son’s death, linked with a part of my own death, into a secret room for which I hold the key—to lock myself out as well as others. I may enter for moments, or I may crack open the door to remind myself of some item or to grab something in there and retreat. I enter with great caution and do not immerse myself in the totality of that room.

That room is polluted with toxicity and danger. The evils of suicide beckon. Our children were not evil; they were poisoned by real and imagined demons in the harshness of life. They were seduced by suicide.

Greg Furth, author of The Secret World of Drawings: Healing through Art, said to me that my son did not commit suicide; suicide took him. My son became addicted to the idea and immersed himself in a romanticism of suicide. “Suicide ideation” professionals call it, but for me, giving something a catchy idiom turns it into a cliché that doesn’t do a suicide victim justice.

So much belongs here in between the beginning of my journey and where I am now, but what I want to tell you is that there came a time when I could no longer willingly jump into the well of despair—what a small word for what I feel. The climb out was killing me and nothing had changed when I reached the top. I was still in anguish and only more weary. I felt no relief. I felt no resolve.

In 1991, I wrote a note to my son on the anniversary of his death that explains some of my crossing:

Dear Son,
I won’t come to your grave today
I won’t do that to me.
If you have any kind of existence
You know the pain of my loss is always with me.
I don’t need to hurt more today
Though I can’t help it
My rational mind and my heart are not in sync
My subconscious won’t let me forget that this is the day I lost you
Flashes of memory and dreams of horrors come unexpectedly.

But your grave doesn’t offer solace
It only tempts me to follow
So if I’m going to live
In protest of the choice you made
If I’m going to see my life to its natural end
And fight my demons rather than lie down for them
I won’t come today.

I’ll go somewhere that comforts and strengthens me
In honor of you
The you that was music and beauty and genius and life
And in compassion for the beaten spirit who took your life
I will not condone your grievous error by following
I will keep reaching for life
And seeking its treasures with whatever strength I hold within.

All my love,
Mom

 

Diana DeRegnier, a former columnist for UPI and author of the children’s storybook, Mortimer Loses a Friend, is a wicked dancer,  cancer kicker and way-shower living in the deep green of the Pacific Northwest.

 

This essay was originally published in Making Peace with Suicide: A Book of Hope, Understanding and Comfort (2015).

The many faces of suicide

purplenightscapeSuicide is many things.

Suicide is not a sin, from my point of view. Some religions espouse hellfire and damnation; others ponder the intention of the suicidal individual. Since I see all of us on a path to open our hearts, expand our consciousness, and operate from our Best or Higher Selves, I do not believe that the Divine—in any form or moniker—is looking to punish us for being human. The Divine is all about love—unconditional love—and helping each of us find the pathway to that conclusion. Individuals who take their life by suicide are not punished. (Quite frankly, haven’t they lived through enough hell?) That is old school thinking to me. If you believe in heaven, they are in heaven. If you believe in past lives, their souls are being readied for their next assignment. Where we all can agree is that the soul has moved out of the constraints and limitations of the 3D world and moved to another non-physical dimension.

Suicide is not a crime. (For the record, suicide is no longer illegal in the Western world, where suicide has been decriminalized. There are, however, legal ramifications to assisted suicide and the like).

Some say the weak choose suicide. I disagree. “Weak” is not the operative word here.

Suicide can be a tipping point of pain or shame, a plea for help, a response to mental illness and haywire neurochemistry, as well as the last gasp of despair and resignation. Suicide can also be an impulsive mistake, a planned ending of life, a shredded soul, the death of the ego, or the ultimate act of rage and fury. (That rage and fury is often the much wounded child-self battling mightily for control or screaming in enormous pain.)

Suicide can be a choice that we may or may not understand on the 3D level, such as a teaching tool for our loved ones or choosing to do profound work from the Other Side.

Suicide can be a part of our destiny, our soul path toward healing.

Suicide can be the result of soul loss.

Suicide can be a game-changer. After the loss of a loved one to suicide, your view on life changes. Life becomes more fragile, more precious, and more cherished. This holds true for those who have attempted suicide as well. For them, the attempt may lead to a spurt of fresh energy and a re-engagement with life.

And suicide is definitely a societal, and, therefore, a political and moral issue. We human beings—and our organizations, corporations, or governments—can be terribly self-serving, ruthless, abusive, and tyrannical toward others. Acts of violence, war, and exploitation damage and destroy the very souls of our being. We lose ourselves and the meaning of our lives. Suicidal thoughts and actions are a part of the collateral damage of these polarizations.

Further, suicide can be a powerful teacher. It teaches us the great lesson of compassion. It opens us in ways we never thought possible. Suicide asks us to accept a loved one’s choice and circumstance. Suicide asks us to forgive ourselves for our perceived wrongdoings, including our inability to prevent our loved one from harm. Suicide requires us to face our guilt, anger, and shame. Suicide asks us to accept the unacceptable, the inconceivable, the horrific, and make peace with it. Suicide asks us to live with an open heart. This means no judgment, no castigation, and no punishment. We see one another through a lens of acceptance. We allow each other to be who we are—in all of our shortcomings and crazy-making ways as well as all of our idiosyncratic wonderfulness.

Gentleness, strength and grief

dandelion “The greatest strength is gentleness.” 

 Iroquois Proverb

 

In today’s world, gentleness is not seen as a virtue, much less a strength. I agree with the Iroquois; gentleness is an exquisite strength. It calls us to be present, mindful and caring, the complete opposite of the hot reactor.

Gentleness is a loving gift we give to one another when we really listen and hear and allow. Gentleness speaks of attention and awareness. Gentleness is a requisite in grief. Gentleness opens the door to grief in whatever manner and form it presents itself. Gentleness sets the tone and creates the environment, be it physical or emotional, for acceptance of whatever the grief-stricken needs at that moment in time.

I think it takes practice, patience and kindness to be gentle. We have to s-l-o-w down and not run roughshod over the person before us. And it is ever so important to be gentle with ourselves as well — to tone down the woulda/coulda/shoulda’s, to stop berating ourselves for the what ifs, and to cease taking ourselves apart, bit by bit.

With gentleness, we sit next door to compassion and we can begin to heal.

And so it is.

A very good ending

handsofchakraenergy-greenElizabeth, a mental health worker, arrives in Nepal immediately after the earthquake. There was total chaos. The ground was literally not stable as it shifted with tumbling rubble and aftershocks.

The first person Elizabeth meets is Prem, a young man looking lost and bereft. “Where are you going?” she asks.

“To the river to kill myself. Both my parents were killed in the earthquake. There is no reason for me to live,” Prem replies.

“Oh, no. You are coming with me. We will stay together until you feel safe,” Elizabeth states.

Prem follows Elizabeth and they set up a tarp shelter held down by rocks. He stays for 24 hours and tells Elizabeth, “I feel safe now.” They exchange contact information and Prem promises to text regularly. And he does.

Weeks later, Prem calls Elizabeth and happily announces, “My parents are alive! I found them in a tarp hospital some distance away. They are safe and alive. You saved my life. You saved their happiness. I am only alive because of you.”

Prem continued to text Elizabeth every day for many months to let her know how he was doing. We never know exactly how life will unfold nor understand the unique difference we can make in another’s life and how one chance meeting saved a life.

The thunderclap of sudden death

MT storm comingFrequently, suicides are sudden deaths. And sudden death hits like an enormous, out-of-the-blue thunderclap to the heart. Your world stops. This can’t be true.

And, then, your brain frantically engages. One minute the person is here; the next minute that familiar presence is gone. Like a flame extinguished, you are plunged into a darkness that is incomprehensible. You become wild-eyed with questions and uncertainties.

You try to make sense of it all; you retrace your steps. You race back in time to the very last connection you shared. You think of the “Goodnight, Honey” or the “Don’t stay out too late” to a family member or the “Have a good weekend” to the co-worker on his way out the door. The everyday words, the daily connections, seem so trivial and unimportant given the enormity of the loss, but they matter. They are the connective tissue of life.

Your mind, like a search engine run amok, comes up with all the related memories and associations. You remember the shared laugh over a quick cup of coffee. You think of the sharp words about keeping the curfew or who is going to pick up the quart of milk or why didn’t this-or-that get done.

You remember yesterday, your last week, last year, the day they were born, the day you got married, the day they walked into your class, your job, your life. Whenever and whatever those points of intersection, the moments of laughter and love, the hard times, the good times, the better times, the hang-out times, you want to remember it all — in vivid, painstaking detail.

Images and words jump to the fore. Your knees buckle at the image of reading him a bedtime story or brushing her hair. Bath time, bedtime, play time, work time, lunchtime, sleep time, making love time, finishing the project time; it all spreads before you—a diagram of your life with that person.

You find yourself choked up; words, memories, and feelings are caught in your throat and chest. It is difficult to take a deep breath. Everything feels so fragile and precious now. It is hard to navigate these uncharted waters; you lurch from side to side, feeling broken into a million little pieces. You have been shattered.

Sudden death leaves a trail of collateral damage. There is shock, complicated grief and, frequently, trauma. It takes time to accept the reality into your psyche. It takes courage to deal with the aftermath of sorting through a suicidal death. There is a deluge of every possible feeling.

Go gently. Go patiently. It takes clock time and it also takes as-much-as-you-need “heart time” for you to grieve and pick up all the shards of your shattered heart.

May you find peace. And may your newly pieced-together heart be awash in love and compassion for our very humanness.

 

 

The choice by Janie Brown

images (18)This is Janie Brown’s beautifully compassionate and loving response to a friend’s struggle with mental illness and later, suicide. The original piece was featured on Krista Tibbett’s “On Being” blog, where Janie Brown was a guest contributor.

Dearest you,

The phone message you left yesterday from an unidentified B&B somewhere on Vancouver Island said I would know by morning whether you had chosen to live or die. You said the pills were lined up, counted, on the dresser.

A month before when you were unraveling again, you asked us, your closest friends, what we thought about you choosing to end your life, and we all said the same thing: “You must be tired of it all after so many cycles of mental illness in your sixty-two years, but with medication and therapy you always get better.” We always had a “but,” a reason we wanted you to keep choosing life. We hadn’t accepted you had a terminal illness then, a terminal mental illness. If you had advanced cancer, we might not have tried so hard to encourage you to keep going, if you hadn’t wanted to.

Today, I know what I want. I want you to live so we’ll carry on being friends, as we have for twenty-five years. I want you to continue to sharpen my knives and bring me organic beef for the freezer when you come to town. I want to call and hear your business voice on the answering machine. I want to look across the room and feel your heart as wide as the universe as you play your ukulele with abandon, your voice belting out Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” I want to feel your love for me, your deep caring that my life matters to you.

Most of all I want you to be happy.

But I know it’s not about what I want.

If you choose to live maybe you’ll find a sweet little home here in Vancouver just around the corner from us, and we can have dinners, and music nights, walks, and late-night conversations. We can work together, cook together, and drink good wine together. Ultimately, we would see each other through and out of this life.

If you choose to die tonight, I will carry no judgment, just a huge ache in my heart of missing you. You have lived a beautiful life, and a tough one. You have had to encompass more internally than anyone I have ever known, and I have nothing but admiration and respect for the way you have conducted your life. You are a good person. You have tried. You have succeeded on so many levels. I hope that if you choose to leave, you will truly know what a life of devoted service you’ve lived, and that you have loved, and that you have been loved in return.

Whether you choose to live or die today, I will always love you.

She chose to live that night. She said she was too scared to be alone, as she died.

A week later her psychiatrist and her closest friends encouraged her to go to a hospital where she would be kept safe from harming herself, and hopefully receive the treatment she needed to heal.

Even though she persuaded the occupational therapist to take her grocery shopping so she could make mulligatawny soup for the other in-patients (being a nutritionist, she worried the hospital food wouldn’t help them to get well); even though we snuck her out to a restaurant for a big salad, and a hearty glass of Cabernet Sauvignon against hospital regulations.

Even though we took a guitar and songbooks to the common room of the acute psychiatric unit, and sang together, and doors opened and patients peeked out, slowly sidling up to join the sing-a-long until an anxious nurse shut us down for fear of over-stimulating the patients.

Even though she did her best to maintain her dignity as her body survived the cycle of acute illness — her soul withered, slowly and quietly, over those months committed to a psychiatric unit.

Six months after she returned home, she told me she was unraveling again. She didn’t ask her friends what she should do, or tell them what she intended to do. One year ago this month, she didn’t wait until she was too ill to make the choice to die.

The day someone you love chooses to die must always feel too soon. September 5, 2014 was too soon for me, but I know it was likely not a moment too soon for my beloved friend. That day ended a lifetime of living with the enormous challenge of mental illness, a lifetime of immense loving and whole-hearted living, and a lifetime that impacted me more than I can possibly comprehend yet.

 

Janie Brown is the executive director of the Callanish Society, a nonprofit organization she co-founded in 1995 for people who are irrevocably changed by cancer, and who want to heal, whether it be into life, or death. An oncology nurse and therapist for almost thirty years, Janie explores her ideas through stories on her blog www.lifeindeath.org and is working on her first book.

There is only one response

Too often suicide is met with judgment, criticism, shame, and taboo. Suicide is the result of a confluence of stressors, circumstances, and experiences. It is an individual response to pain of every shape, size, and dimension. Suicide leaves a rippling wake of shock, horror, and grief. Isn’t it time we pull suicide out of the shadows and meet it with compassion?

darkblue-compassion

My favorite healing story

images (18)This is my favorite healing story. I first heard this story from higher consciousness teacher, Caroline Myss, who, in turn, learned this first-hand from her friend and our protagonist, David Chethlahe Paladin. Conversation with the wonderful Lynda Paladin, our protagonist’s wife, added more meaningful background.

David Chethlahe Paladin is a Navaho Indian living on a reservation in Arizona. David would laughingly say that his mother was a nun and his father was a priest. It turns out his mother became pregnant by a visiting priest. She, in turn, decides to become a nursing nun and leaves her son in the care of the extended family of their tribe.
David and his cousin spend a great deal of time leaving the reservation and going into town. They drink a lot, and they think life is better in the white man’s world. The local constabulary is forever returning the boys to the reservation. By the time David is 13 years of age, he is an alcoholic.

David and his cousin determine that they are going to make it off the reservation once and for all – and they do. They find their way to California, wherein they lie about their ages and sign up for work with the Merchant Marines. Here David befriends another young man from Germany. He also begins drawing; some of his sketches include the eventual bunkers that the Japanese are building on the atolls in the Pacific Ocean.

World War II is declared. The US Army tells David that since he lied about his age with the Merchant Marines he has a choice. He can go to jail for a year or enlist in the army. David enlists. He is a teenager.

The army tells David, as he is a Navaho, they are going to drop him behind enemy lines and use him as an information gatherer in their special services. Given his native language is a code that the Germans are unable to crack, much less decipher, David is to relay his findings to another Navaho who will translate and pass along the intelligence.

David is dropped behind enemy lines. Ultimately, he is captured and interrogated for information. The German officers find him useless and direct that he be sent to a death camp and executed as a spy.

Imagine, if you will, the scenes we all have invariably seen of the railroad station and the platform filled with lines of prisoners being pushed into box cars for transport to the camps. Here is David. He is being pushed and shoved into a boxcar. There is German soldier behind him saying “Schnell, schnell” (quick, quick). David stops, turns around and looks at the German soldier. It is his friend from the merchant ship. The friend recognizes David and ushers him to a different box car that will send David to Dachau.

In the barracks at Dachau, David sees an older man, a fellow prisoner, drop something. David bends down to retrieve it. The guard, who has witnessed this moment, asks David, “Are you the Christ?”

The guard then orders that David’s feet be nailed to the floor and that David stand there with his arms outstretched for three days like Christ on the cross. Every time David would falter and crumple the guards would hoist him up again. In the middle of the night, someone would sneak in and cram raw, maggot-covered chicken innards into David’s mouth.

When the Allies open up this camp, they find David a mere shell of a man, weighing maybe 70 pounds, and speaking Russian*. They turn David over to the Russians. David later speaks English and gives his name, rank and serial number to the Russians who transfer him to the US military.

David is sent to a VA hospital in Battle Creek Michigan where he spends the next 2 years in and out of a coma. At the end of two years, his legs are encased in metal braces, similar to what polio patients used. David, a young man, maybe not even 21 years of age, is to be sent to a VA home for the rest of his life.

David asks if he can visit his family on the reservation. The answer is, “Of course.” David literally drags himself onto the reservation. He meets with the elders of tribe. They ask to hear his whole story. David tells them every horrible thing that he endured. He is full of anger, rage, and hate.

The elders confer and tell David to meet them tomorrow at a designated point on the Little Colorado River. David agrees and at the appointed hour he arrives. One of the elders tethers a rope around his waist; others remove the braces from his legs. They hoist David up into the air and as they throw him into the raging current of the Little Colorado River, they say, “Chethlahe, call back your spirit or die. Call back your spirit or die.”

David would later say that those moments in the Little Colorado River were the very hardest of his life. He had to fight himself for himself. And he was able to see the big picture; he understood why things unfolded as they did. For example, he realized that the raw chicken parts were meant as a source of protein to sustain him so that he might live.

David Paladin was thrown into the river as a very shattered man. David emerged out of the Little Colorado River like the phoenix out of the ashes. He had metaphorically walked through the fire, or, in this case, swum through the currents, and had come out alive. He was born again.

And, that, dear ones, is what I think healing is all about for each of us. It is calling home our energy; it is calling home our disenfranchised pieces and parts. It is letting go of the toxic and the outdated. It is reclaiming ourselves.

David no longer needed his braces; he became a shaman, teacher, and artist and went on to work with priests and addicts. He died in his middle years in the mid 1980s.

* Remember David sketching during his tour of the Pacific and speaking Russian when the Allies first found him half-dead at the camp? It turns out that David was channeling, i.e., the Russian artist Kandinsky. In fact, Kandinsky’s best friend came for a visit to the U.S. from Russia. The friend, the story goes, told the press that he felt as he had spent the day with Kandinsky.