Suicide crosses all boundaries: age, race, gender, economic and social. No one is immune. Sometimes, there are no warning signs. Often, families have tried for years to get help. But suicide also can be an impulsive action, influenced by substance abuse or extreme stress. Partly due to misinformation or jokes surrounding mental illness and suicidal impulses, individuals with undiagnosed health issues of the mind and personality may not understand what is wrong.
People with a variety of cultural and religious beliefs, in every conceivable circumstance, lose loved ones to suicide. They may have set boundaries or decided to leave to protect themselves and their children. Maybe they stayed, putting their own emotional, physical and mental health at risk.
After suicide many survivors must deal with confusing emotions and unanswered questions by themselves, as this type of death can cause others to pull away. Whether from fear or uncertainty or a tendency to look for someone to blame, whole communities might — intentionally or unintentionally — leave individuals or families in isolation.
While it seems reasonable to blame a person or event that happened before the suicide, the “why” is usually more complicated than circumstances indicate. An argument or a decision to file for divorce, a lost job or an extended illness, a break-up, bad news or a failing grade … these and many more are life events that usually do not result in suicide.
When a person is suicidal, his or her thought processes can become distorted. Logic can break down and make suicide seem like a reasonable action. Emotional pain, loss of hope, childhood history, personality traits, genetic makeup, medications and other things can have an effect on the human brain. Perhaps there are as many paths to suicide as there are people who find themselves considering this drastic action.
Although many who are suffering can find the help they need and can live by learning how to balance their health with the demands of life, for others their pain is sometimes terminal.
All of this is very difficult to understand in the midst of all-consuming grief. Connecting with professionals and others who will take time to listen can bring hope. Healing comes a bit at a time. Those who lose loved ones to suicide must find a way to live with a striking duality that balances both sorrow and joy.
From the first days, when just breathing is an act of courage, to progress gained and lost, to the new life that is the last thing wanted, to compassion and a drive to make meaning out of tragedy, there is hope.
Information can help.
- Suicide is complicated and may be beyond anyone’s control.
- You had limited information and were doing what you thought was best at the time.
- You are human, and your reactions were human.
- You can do this. It just feels like you can’t.
- You are not alone.
What can you do to survive and to promote healing?
- Focus on one moment at a time.
- Take care of yourself.
- Find suicide loss specific support groups in your community or online.
- Realize that guilt may collapse into regret. Try to separate those feelings.
- Ask “Why?” until you do not need to ask anymore.
- Do positive things. They can help you build a new life.
- Be patient with yourself. It’s hard to feel like this, but it won’t always be this intense.
- Turn to professional help whenever it is needed.
Healing is not about forgetting but is a transformative experience that changes who we are and how we think about life and death. We survive, much as author Kristin Hannah wrote in her novel, Night Road. “In the sea of grief, there were islands of grace, moments in time when one could remember what was left rather than all that had been lost.”
What could this kind of experience look like?
For Iris Bolton, as she speaks at International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day gatherings and other places about her son’s suicide at age twenty, it looks like love. At the time of Mitch Bolton’s death, more than forty years ago, she was the director of The Link Counseling Center, the nonprofit she helped found in 1971. To each room full of new survivors who are raw with grief and searching, she speaks calmly as she tells her story. Boxed lunches on their laps, framed photographs of their lost loved ones nearby, they listen intently while she speaks of how she has spent her life reaching out to survivors of suicide loss around the world.
She stands there like a beacon of hope. Near the end, she sets a large basket of small stones on a nearby table, explaining she gathered them from every country she visited and inviting all to come forward and take one.
These are only stones. Of various shapes and colors, most of them had been smoothed by flowing water and might not have been noticed any other time, but as one hand after another reaches into the basket and selects a stone to take home, the room becomes imbued with strength, with something to remember.
“To survive the suicide of a child is amazingly hard work, and it takes time,” she says. “But if I can make meaning out the horror of Mitch’s death and maybe help one other person, it gives meaning and purpose to his life.”