Content preview: discussions of suicide loss, trauma, and grief
It took me two years to be able to walk down the path behind my undergraduate residential college, and when I did, I was pleasantly surprised to find a small bouquet of flowers at the grassy patch where I last saw my friend.
In those two years, my loss felt like helplessness and shame for not understanding more, not doing more, not seeing more outside of myself. It was this overwhelming sense of guilt that kept me from confronting the physical space of this loss.
An oft-cited and possibly apocryphal statistic is that every suicide impacts six other people; in reality, that number is closer to 135, meaning 135 different experiences of grief, loss, and significant trauma.
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is an event in which survivors of suicide loss come together to find connection, understanding, and hope through their shared experience. This year, International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is Saturday, November 19, 2022.
Suicide leaves a profound impact on anyone who has been exposed to it. Experiencing suicide loss often comes with added layers of the following feelings:
guilt for not doing more to prevent suicide from happening;
stigma from those who may see suicide as the “easy way out”;
and of anger that someone you love and care about would harm themselves.
Fast forward another two years. I woke up with an intense sorrow in my heart and a general numbness that I couldn’t quite shake. Nothing had necessarily triggered my emotional state and I was perfectly fine the next day. It wasn’t until I unpacked those emotions with my therapist that I realized the date; it was my friend’s death anniversary.
Suicide loss, as with any sudden, unexpected, and often violent loss, is a traumatizing experience. Not only is there the loss of a loved one, but there is also the loss of a world/paradigm we once knew. Managing the trauma of suicide loss is an important step in rebuilding and adapting to a new sense of normalcy to move forward in the grief journey.
It is easy to fall into the mindset of wanting to be “done with grieving” and be able to move on. The five stages of grief are familiar to many of us: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While we may mistakenly think that the grief journey will be this linear process to acceptance – spoiler alert, it’s not – what we often find is that at the end of the day, acceptance is not enough.
It was important to me that my friend’s life meant something more than just the way that they died. It was important that there be some kind of good that could come out of my grief.
David Kessler, who worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of the ‘five stages’ fame, introduced a sixth stage of grief: Finding Meaning.
In his book, Kessler writes about finding meaning as a way of being able to move forward and remember those we lost with more love than pain, and in ways that honor their memory, with the following caveats:
Meaning is relative and personal.
Meaning takes time. You may not find it until months or even years after a loss.
Meaning doesn’t require understanding. It’s not necessary to understand why someone died in order to find meaning.
Even when you do find meaning, you won’t feel it was worth the cost of what you lost.
Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift, or a blessing. Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.
Only you can find your own meaning.
Meaningful connections will heal painful memories.
Some questions that might be helpful to process the grief and discover some meaning from it could be:
What have you learned from loss?
What have you learned to value, and how is that different from what you valued before their death?
What did your loved one value?
How have you changed? How has their life changed you, and how did their love change you?
What do you know about life that you didn’t know before? What do you wish you knew before?
How could what you learned help others? What would you like to tell others?
Now knowing what you know, what can you do to keep this from happening to others?
How can you be inspired by the life that your loved one lived?
Suicide loss shattered many of the assumptions I used to hold, like social connections that I used to take for granted and spaces for mental health advocacy that I never allowed myself to take part in. It even shifted the perception I had of the person I thought I was and my place in the world.
I have since found immense gratitude for a support system that I was able to consciously cultivate over the years. The people in this system understood that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and no predetermined time for how long someone is supposed to grieve. They listened to me, were patient with me, and offered to be present with me through my grief journey. They understood that they did not need to shy away from mentioning the loss, or saying the name of the person I lost in fear of triggering an emotional response. Instead, it was always nice to have the space and opportunity to reminisce about my friend, and their ability to hold space for me validated the grief process.
Nowadays, there is still a twinge of pain that comes whenever I walk down the path behind my old residential college. But pain is not all there is anymore. Six years on, their memory permeates the work I do today and motivates me to keep moving forward.