“…when she had those dreams at night, he was there, as if he had never died, although she knew, even in the dream, that he had. One day she would join him, she knew, whatever people said about how we came to an end when we took our last breath. Some people mocked you if you said that you joined others when your time came. Well, they could laugh, those clever people, but we surely had to hope, and a life without hope of any sort was no life: it was a sky without stars, a landscape of sorrow and emptiness.”
― Alexander McCall Smith, Blue Shoes and Happiness
Grief is akin to putting on your hip waders and walking into the deep, murky water of your psyche, the home of your inner life, where there are churning emotions and roiling thoughts along with forgotten bits and pieces. The footing is rocky, uneven, and unpredictable. You never quite know what will slide up against you or tangle your footing. There is so much you cannot see or discern beneath the waters. You move slowly and tentatively forward, sweeping debris and sludge away from your person, and choking back tears. Sometimes, you stand stock-still until there is enough fortitude to take another step. It’s an arduous, crazy-making process. And it’s a game-changer, too. Your worldview is forever changed, and your heart is re-assembled.
After you have lost a loved one to suicide, you feel anything but powerful or strong. Most likely, you are at your most vulnerable, full of heartbreak and deep grief.
Suicide leaves a trail of uncertainties and questions. Knowledge can help make some sense of the unimaginable. When we learn more, we have a basis for comparison. We realize, perhaps, that our situation is not so unusual. Plus, we can accept more fully the biochemical or psychosocial elements that have led to a suicidal action. When we understand more, we are no longer so confused, confounded, or upset. We find steadier footing, and we find ourselves more emotionally and mentally stable. Indeed, knowledge can serve as a powerful healing ally.
Peace can never be achieved by force.
It can only be achieved by understanding.
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:
Thinking of all of you who have walked this path, directly and indirectly. May your heart find peace.
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning down to its black water
to the place that we can not breathe
will never know
the source from which we drink
the secret water cold and clear
nor find in the darkness
the small gold coins
thrown by those who wished for something else
~ David Whyte ~
(Where Many Rivers Meet)
Your loved one’s suicide is the day you stop taking a full breath; the day you are left holding your broken heart in your hands; the day time stands still; and, unfortunately, the day people talk about, avoid or even blame you.
Suicide leaves you, the surviving loved one, holding the bag of squirming emotions and memories. There is the taint and taboo, guilt and remorse, rage and despair, confusion and regret, and the shame or guilt that somehow — in some possible way — you are responsible. You are left in a wake of jumbled emotions and self-doubts.
Suicide turns your life upside down. You find yourself vibrating with shock, disbelief, grief and, most likely, trauma from what you witnessed or envisioned in your mind’s eye. It is an enormous challenge to find yourself again and reclaim your desire to live fully after such a devastating loss.
How do you make sense of this kind of heartbreak?
Read more here .
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:
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,
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).
March 15, 2015 was the darkest day of my life. It was the day I lost my life partner, Steve Tarpinian, to suicide. We had been soul mates for over 33 years.
Have I made peace with his suicide?
If I separate the cause of Steve’s death from the tragedy of forever losing the love of my life, I can say yes.
I have come to terms with the fact there is nothing that I could have done that would have resulted in a different outcome. Steve’s mental anguish must have been so intense, so much so, that he lost sight of all the love surrounding him. He had already tried suicide once before and failed, so it seems out of his hopelessness, he was determined to try again. That is how insidious the disease of the mind is.
The first two years after losing Steve were filled with so many unanswered questions; ; “Why, he had so much going for him”, “What if I had said…” , “What if I didn’t say….”, “What could I have done differently?” , so there was no possible way for me to make peace with his suicide. At times these questions still haunt me, however, for the most part, I have accepted the fact that Steve made up his mind on his course of action and nothing anyone could have said or done was going to dissuade him. The suicide and mental illness collateral damage such as destroyed relationships, being blamed for his death, uncalled for vitriol aimed at me and judgments on how I grieved are fading from my memory. Hence, I believe I have finally made peace with his suicide.
Losing the love of my life is what I still struggle with even though I realize that this is now my new normal and that Steve and I will not grow old together and share the same pillow. There is a huge hole in my heart that can never be filled. Steve and I had a once in a lifetime relationship, filled with a deep respect and love for each other. When we love deeply, we grieve deeply. I am forever changed by Steve’s death. Yes, I still have days with meltdowns and not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, but, I am only human. My tears and sadness over the loss of Steve is now a part of who I am. As such, I have come to accept and embrace it.
My grief journey has taken me in directions that have helped me cope with my great loss. It is a daunting task and I must continuously remind myself to stay on track and not to fall back into the bottomless pit of despair. I realize that trying to make peace with losing Steve, regardless of the cause of his death, will be a lifelong commitment that will not come easily for me.
How do I cope with my loss?
Living in the moment and trying to pay it forward have helped me the most in moving forward in a life without Steve.
Within 7 months of Steve’s passing, I wrote and published his memoir; Slipped Away, a single minded task that did not permit me to wallow in self pity. Yes, it was draining, but, I was able to re-live many happy moments in my life with Steve. I wanted Slipped Away to be more a celebration of Steve’s life and how he positively impacted so many people rather than a book about suicide. The focus it took for me to complete the book truly allowed me to live in the moment.
Since publishing, I now do book talks, write blogs and use social media in an effort to inspire conversation about suicide and mental health issues. These topics, even to this day, are still stigmatized and most people are embarrassed to talk about these issues and would prefer to stick their heads in the sand. As a suicide survivor, I have experienced this first hand.
In an attempt to try and have something good come out of such a tragic loss, I wanted the telling of Steve’s story to allow him to continue helping people even though he is no longer with us. The proceeds of Slipped Away are donated to Project9line.org; a non-profit organization of veterans helping other veterans deal with depression and PTSD that provides outlets for them in the arts (writing, music, comedy etc.). It was through Project9line that I was introduced to AirborneTriTeam.org (ATT). ATT’s mission is to promote teamwork and endurance sports to help veterans “… better their life style, change their attitude towards life and give them a purpose”. There was a great synergy with myself and ATT since Steve was an Ironman triathlete many times over and the company Steve built was responsible for the foundation of the sport of triathlon on Long Island. Supporting the veterans of ATT in their mission gives me a sense of purpose.
Steve was not a veteran, however, even though the paths that lead our veterans to suicide are different than Steve’s, they shared the similar pain of hopelessness and mental anguish. The end results of suicide are the same, the tragic, sudden loss of a precious life and the loved ones that are left behind, feeling the terrible heartbreak of loss, with so many unanswered questions, wondering if they could have done something different to help their loved one.
Never in my life I would have thought I would be affected by the suicide of a loved one, let alone trying to make peace with suicide. The time has come for me to accept my reality and as a suicide survivor, I can now say I have made peace with suicide.
Jean Mellano retired in 2010 from a 37-year career in the Information Technology industry. After so many years in the computer industry using the analytical side of her brain, she decided the time was right to exercise the more visual and perceptual side of her brain. Graphic design was a natural next step. Jean began to do the creative work for the event business of her 33+ year soul mate, Steve Tarpinian, designing event logos and promotional print work.
When Steve took his own life on March 15, 2015, her world changed dramatically and her life was turned upside down. Jean began to take solace in writing about Steve and found purpose in trying to bring more awareness to mental health by telling Steve’s story and published his memoir, Slipped Away.
In addition to her goals of keeping Steve’s legacy alive and inspiring conversation about mental illness and suicide, she is donating the majority of the profits from Slipped Away to a non- profit organization that is focused on supporting veterans suffering from PTSD and depression.
The sadness will last forever.
—Vincent Van Gogh
I am now about to make the great adventure.
I cannot endure this agonizing pain any longer.
It is all over my body. Neither can I face the impending blindness.
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.
—Clara Blandick, age 82,
Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time.
I begin to hear voices.
I must end it. There’s no hope left. I’ll be at peace.
No one had anything to do with this. My decision totally.
—Freddie Prinze, actor
To my friends: my work is completed. Why wait?
—George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak
My pain is not caused because I am gay.
My pain was caused by how I was treated
because I am gay.
—Eric James Borges, part of the suicide note
from a gay, teen filmmaker
Sally and Pete had found each other. It was the second time for both of them. This time, they both felt like they had hit the jackpot. They simply loved being together and enjoyed their small adventures, like traveling to the shore for lunch or even playing toss in the grocery store. It was always fun, always a good time. Pete lived in the here and now. He was playful and spontaneous. He was Sally’s best friend.
In 2001, Pete was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent a radical prostatectomy. Pete never wanted to know the details of his medical condition; he focused on getting better and had Sally act as his point person. Sally researched his illness and did everything she could to keep Pete healthy and alive. The doctors finally convinced Sally to accept and believe that Pete could live a long life, given that his type of prostate cancer was slow growing.
In the fall of 2005, Pete discovered a sore in his mouth. The dentist sent him to an oral surgeon, who, in turn, scheduled Pete for a biopsy. The oral surgeon was vacationing when the pathology report came in. The pathologist called Sally and said, “What are you guys doing? You can’t wait. Your husband has stage 4 oral cancer.”
Sally was furious. Totally enraged. Pete had been smoking cigarettes on the side. She didn’t know. She was madder than hell at what he was doing to her and the kids. He was destroying his life as well as hers.
They were referred to a specialist for surgery. The surgery was botched. Pete left the hospital with an infection. There was chemo and radiation and a referral to an amazing doctor in New York City. There were more surgeries. They cut open Pete’s jaw and neck to take out the infection; they stripped muscles from his chest and wrapped and packed them into his neck for his body to absorb and fill the spaces where there had been infection. His neck was like raw meat. Over and over, there were surgeries—and there were infections. Through all of this, Sally had the utmost confidence in Pete’s doctors and knew they were doing everything in their power to save his life and restore him to health.
Sally learned how to dress and change his wounds with special gauze pads and sterile gloves twice a day. She dealt with doctors, as Pete never wanted to know the nitty-gritty. He was focused on beating the cancer.
Sally had returned to work when Pete got sick. She never missed a day of work. She couldn’t. She used her vacation days for surgeries.
There was unbelievable stress. “I wanted him to live. I wanted my life back. I did everything I could. My emotions were all over the place—I loved him with all my heart and soul, but at the same time I felt betrayed and was so full of anger because Pete continued to smoke after he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001. I totally believed he had quit. I had been working so hard to help him beat the prostate cancer that when the oral cancer diagnosis was delivered, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I had been fighting for his life and he was destroying his life with smoking behind my back.” It took a tremendous toll on them both.
In the summer of 2007, Pete realized he couldn’t beat it. He had no quality of life. He had already undergone several major surgeries, and more were on the horizon. He wasn’t going to live this way and be a burden to his family. Pete started talking suicide. Sally would hear nothing of it. This was too painful. Sally had lost her dad to suicide.
Pete took his case to the Ethics Committee of the hospital, and they ruled he could stop the feeding tube and refuse any artificial feeding methods.
Sally was beside herself, stressed, and furious with Pete. “It was hard enough watching him die.” Pete was unable to eat or drink anything from March 2006 until he died in September 2007. During the last few months of his life, it became increasingly difficult for him to talk; in fact, Sally’s nerves were so raw that it became difficult for her to understand what Pete was saying.
“We resorted to having Pete write out his part of the conversation and I would answer him. My nerves were shot. I had a hard time focusing and was fighting for my own survival. I was not in a good state of mind. At times, I was a total witch with him. I couldn’t eat. I was taking care of Pete, doing the best I could while working full time. I didn’t know which way to turn. I just wanted off the merry-go-round and a return to normalcy. I wanted my husband and our lives back!”
Another surgery was scheduled for early October, 2007. It was Labor Day weekend, Pete was home that Saturday, and Sally was working. Normally, Sally’s daughter would stop by unannounced to check on Pete. However, that weekend the kids were away. When Sally got home from work that day, there were notes on the doors.
Pete had left identical notes on both the front door and garage door: STOP. DO NOT COME IN. CALL THE POLICE. Sally knew immediately and ran to her neighbor’s, banging on the door, telling them to call 911 and saying, “Pete killed himself. I know he killed himself.”
The police arrived. They took Sally’s door keys, opened the front door, and her dog came flying out of the house. The police cut Pete down and put him on a stretcher. (Pete had used the most vulnerable part of his body—his neck with the tracheostomy opening and skin grafts—and hanged himself. He had been hanging there awhile.)
Sally was told that Pete was conscious and still alive, but the scene was too gruesome and they would not let her see her husband at that moment. They medevac’d Pete to the hospital. He flat-lined in the helicopter, and they brought him back to life. When Sally arrived at the hospital, she fully expected that Pete would be awake. It turned out he was on life support. The hospital kept Pete alive for another day so that the kids could make it home to say their good-byes.
When Pete died, Sally had so many emotions she thought she was going to die. Her weight had plummeted to 102 lbs. Sally was furious with Pete for taking his life. How could he? Sally was at a full boil, full of fury and deep despair following Pete’s death. She spent the next year living her life on autopilot, going to work, eating meals over the sink, walking the dog when necessary, and retreating to her bedroom. There was precious little relief.
For a solid year, every day, Sally looked for a note from her husband. “I thought he died hating me because of everything we had gone through. I was a witch, fighting for my sanity. My pregnant daughter needed a biopsy in July, and that was two weeks of torture. There was so much going on. ”
One year to the day after Pete’s death, Sally was in the garage, getting ready to do yard work. She noticed a police car driving around the circle of her street. She knew they were there for her. Sally went to the front of her house and there was the police car.
Chris, the police officer, told Sally that something told him to get the note and come today. “If you don’t want it, I won’t give it to you.”
Sally said, “I’ve looked for a year for a note. I thought Pete died hating me for everything I said and my inability to maintain my sanity throughout our ordeal.” Of course, she wanted the note.
Chris handed Sally the original note that Sally never knew existed.
Sally couldn’t read the note by herself. She read it with her daughter. Pete had written paragraphs to everyone—Sally, the kids, neighbors, favorite aunts, uncles, and cousins. He said it was his time to go. He told the kids how proud he was of them and reminded them that “Mom will need you now.” He thanked the neighbors for their help and support; he told anecdotes of happy memories with his relatives. And to Sally, Pete told her he loved her, he was sorry for all the hurt and pain. He apologized for his stupidity in smoking. And, if there is another side, he said he will be there waiting for her.
Given her initial rage, Sally later said that if she had found that letter when Pete had first died, she would have torn it into a million little pieces. Now, his note is very precious to her, and she is so thankful for it.
“My husband gave me the ultimate sacrifice: he killed himself so I could live. I owe it to him to live. It took me a long time. I was not sure I wanted to live. Now, I look forward to life…never thought I’d say that. There is happiness beyond it all. You have to want it and you have to work for it.”