I'm often emailed and asked this question by friends, friends of friends, and just last week, from a woman in South America who lost her boyfriend and found my story in The Courage Companion: How to Live Life With True Power. Near and far, we are all reaching out for someone to help us navigate this traumatic loss.
I decided that the research, grief work, and learnings from my boyfriend's suicide five years ago is necessary for me to share with all of you. Not only because doing this all cleaned my slate to start anew, but because my grief allowed me to seek out diverse methods for healing fully in all areas of my life, and to come up with a real prescription for what I believe might just work for many of us left in the wake of suicide. To be honest, there is also a selfish incentive to sharing what I've learned with other survivors. Each time I share what I've learned, I get to watch myself heal and grow even further. It allows me to chart my progress and then take what I've learned to support others along this trecherous path.
Before I launch into what a magazine would probably title, Top Eight Ways to Heal Your Loved One's Suicide, I want to say that I am so sorry for your loss. I truly mean that. If you are here, this may be the first time that one person can say to you, "I know exactly how you feel," and really mean it. It is the first time in my life when I've felt 100% aligned with others (survivors, that is) and the first time in my life when I've felt I truly belonged (even when I didn't want to). No one should have to experience the level of guilt, shame, anger, confusion, and trauma that comes with the messy package that is suicide. But what I have learned in just five years is that if you take the time to process your grief fully, go into the trauma instead of treating it as just another aversion, and care for your heart as if it's the sweetest guest in your house, then the possibility to grow and expand and become more compassionate in this lifetime is more available to you.
What I've learned for myself after Bryce's suicide is that suicide is incrementally painful for three reasons:
1) it is shocking and often unexpected, even if we happen to later see that the signs were possibly there;
2) often our peers don't have the tools to talk about it with us because our society doesn't;
3) it's a stigma death, one that's unnecessarily loaded with shame and guilt in our world culture.
I have had to work very hard to move through all of the above. But the only way out is through, and through has now become a purpose in my life, to help others navigate suicide as I did. This way, we can rid ourselves of the shame and the stigma, and then educate ourselves so that no one has to suffer beyond the loved one we lost who suffered too much already. We may only have one life, so let's save ourselves while we're living it.
Here is my prescription for how to survive after a loved one's suicide:
1) Join a Suicide Support Group - it doesn't matter how far or close you were to the person who took their life, suicide has a profound ripple effect. Suicide Support Groups (which I trained to lead and will begin next year) can be found through AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) here and through the American Association on Suicidology here. They both have incredible resource pages, as well. I did my suicide support group with San Francisco Suicide Prevention and they list their groups here. Being in a suicide support group or grief group gives you a community of people who are going what you are going through, so they understand your pain and they are the people you can talk to about all that you are feeling. They are the only people I can go to to talk about suicide, fully, even today. They are the only ones I feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of my loss, of the trauma, of the secrets that died in the shame. In fact, I had brunch with four people from my suicide group last month and it continues to help process our grief today. A suicide support group is grounding, it is safe, and it is necessary. Studies prove this fact.
2) Process your grief fully - I also did a grief group that had a mindfulness focus because the eight week suicide support group had not been enough. I feel grateful that I had seven years of meditation practice under my belt when Bryce took his life, and as I was comfortable with the topic of death from my meditation practice, the Zen Center where I live in San Francisco offered exactly what I needed in a mindfulness-based grief group. Help yourself by giving yourself the time to process the grief, no matter how long it takes. Many people will expect it *should* take you less time than it actually does. I have learned that often that is because they may be uncomfortable with their own ideas around death, or because your grief is too much for them. Let that stay with them, you have enough to deal with at this time.
During my loss, I had to teach myself and educate my peers by pulling back, hunkering down, saying no to outings, and to the needs of others upon me. Saying "No" taught me my limitations during my grief, and by doing so, I magically taught them that grief is personal and grief takes time. When I was soft with myself, others were softer towards me. It also taught my friends and family how to be with me during the grief years.
3) After you've helped yourself, help others - Early on in my meditation practice I realized that doing service always deepened my compassion. But I have found this to be particularly true with suicide prevention. This came much later down the road, after a few years, when I had worked through my grief quite a bit. How I did that is the following:
-Zen Hospice Project —where I worked for the last year as Volunteer Coordinator & serve as a Volunteer Caregiver at the bedside one day a week—was where I eventually landed to lean in toward death in order to heal my grief. This is not recommended in the first year from your loss, but can be an incredible act of service to another and to oneself when the time feels right.
There I learned by watching family members and residents that when we don't fully process the grief that happens throughout our lives, it shows up in our bodies, in our minds, in how we relate to our loved ones, and to others in our current day-to-day life.
-Overnight Walk & Community Walks with AFSP - these are healing opportunities to gather with other survivors and honor your loved one by walking overnight through cities in America. I did mine in New York City years ago and will never experience the camraderie and hope I felt gathered with other survivors as we made our way through all of Manhattan and Brooklyn in the middle of the night to great sunrise.
-AFSP's Suicide Support Group Facilitator Training - trains survivors to lead a suicide support group. I took the training and found that my own support group was invaluable, as mentioned above.
-Volunteering as an adult facilitator with Challenge Day - I was drawn to this work when I saw it on Oprah just after Bryce's suicide. As a volunteer adult facilitator, I join the organization when they go into middle schools and high schools and teach teens how to break down the barriers, the bullying, and talk to us about anything. Often they talk to us about their pain, their cutting, and their suicidal thoughts. For teens, these actions are often an extension of what is going on at home, on top of the pressure & bullying they now have in schools. It allowed me to learn how to be with teens and heal what Bryce first experienced as a teen himself.
4) Therapy and 12-Step family groups - I realized after my two grief groups that it wasn't enough. I still needed to talk out the trauma and the pain. I asked for recommendations in the field and sought out a suicidologist. The therapist I found taught suicidology to graduate students and had worked with survivors for years. She knew exactly the level of pain I had suffered and was a wealth of information. This one-on-one relationship was invaluable. When I finished my time with her (she had come out of retirement to work with me), I leaned heavily on Al-Anon, a 12-Step program for family members of alcoholics. People often assume that Bryce suffered from addiction when I am in "the rooms" (a term they use in 12-step regarding meetings), but this was not the case. What I did learn, through the opportunity of tracing the lineage of my desire to be with him while at a 12-Step based rehab treatment facility for a family member the summer after Bryce died, was that I survived too many codependent relationships. I needed to learn to live my life anew, and this time with the knowledge of recovering from the effects of the family disease of alcoholism, along with the support of others doing the same.
5) Grief workshops - One day I mistyped my blog address and magically landed on Nancee Sobonya's website for her documentary, The Gifts of Grief. Nancee and I both came to the conclusion that there are gifts in grief if we allow ourselves to process our grief in order to find them. I highly recommend the film and her subsequent workshops.
6) Create a ritual - Ritual around death is severely lacking in our culture. I feel fortunate enough to live in the Mission district of San Francisco where the Latin culture celebrates Dia de Los Muertos. Bryce's birthday is November 1st, and every year on his birthday or the day after Dia de Los Muertos arrives in my neighborhood. I join other mourners and walk the city by candlelight in a procession that leads us to altars that people in the community have created to honor their loved ones they have lost. It is an incredibly healing night for me. If you don't have access to such celebrations, lighting a candle to honor your loved one on their birthday-or doing something kind for yourself to honor your loved one on their death day-is incredibly healing. This year on the anniversary of Bryce's suicide, I took a bit of his ashes out to the beach and sprinkled him out there. How I received his ashes four years ago was a surreal experience, but I have vowed that since Bryce and I loved to travel the world together, I will take a little bit of his ashes whenever I go to places where he never went.
7) Trim the Fat - One thing I learned very early on was who I could and could not spend time with after the suicide. Some of my friends were very angry at what Bryce "did to me" and voiced their opinions, sometimes too honestly. Other friends had an ingrained sense in them to just listen, as much as possible, whenever I needed it. Guess which friends I ended up spending more time with after the suicide? Bingo. There are some friends that require more than we have to give on any given day. These were the friends that I knew I couldn't spend much time with, if only because all of my extra energy (of which I had little) was spent tending to my grief. I made sure to let people know how I was feeling at all times and made no promises that I couldn't keep.
8) Read, read, and then read some more - Some of my best understanding as to why people die by suicide was by reading books on those who have researched the topic, and by those who have survived a loss themselves. Below are the most helpful books I read on grief, death, & suicide. And there is a whole stack on my bed stand that I have the rest of my life to read. I often feel that homicide and suicide are so similar because they are the most unexpected ways to die, leaving survivors behind to pick up their pieces. Remember, your life may feel it's in pieces now, but I can assure you that will evolve over time if you tend to your grief. Hold those pieces with tremendous care - the pieces of your broken heart - and eventually, once put back together, the hole in your heart can be filled with new love and a new life.
Recommended books on death:
The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion is an articulate writer and this won the National Book Award. It's a stunning portrait into losing your partner and what you have to face.
Angel Catcher: A Journal of Loss and Remembrance - this journal written by a mother-daughter team who lost their son doing aid work for the UN in Africa is perfectly scripted to help you journal your loss and remember the details your loved one left behind for you. Fill it out so you don't forget. Read it later to chart your progress.
Tear Soup - this book is simple, kind, and it's perfect for kids. Or it's perfect for you when the heavy reading is just too much. I wrote an article for a magazine where I was staff writer entitled, "Serve Them Tear Soup, Kids Can Handle It", about how I discovered this sweet book and how deep inside me I somehow just knew how to talk to kids about suicide and death. Keep it simple. Kids do.
Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death - this was helpful regarding the trauma we face as humans when looking death squarely in the face.
On Death & Dying - the bible on death by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Half a Life - Darin Strauss' memoir about a tragic accident describes perfectly what life can be like while living it with unanswerable questions.
Recommended books specifically on suicide:
Touched by Suicide: Hope and Healing After Loss
No Time To Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One - Carla Fine does a *fine* job navigating the intricacies of losing your partner to suicide.
Why People Die By Suicide - a son who's father killed himself, so he became a suicidologist and wrote the best book that explained suicide in concrete terms for me.
Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide
An Unquiet Mind both by Kay Redfield Jamison - she stuggles with depression herself, is on staff at Johns Hopkins Medical School, and is also on the AFSP Board in NYC. She knows her subject matter deeply and lives with it everyday.
I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression - this book put the pieces together for me regarding men and suicide and insight to untreated early childhood trauma and how it can lead to depression later in life.
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron - he was a master in his time to write about his depression.
Go into your grief,
for there your soul will grow.
- Carl Jung
for there your soul will grow.
- Carl Jung