As a licensed psychologist, I have walked with many a patient who has lost a loved one to suicide. I have attended seminars on warning signs and how to help those who are suicidal. I have treated suicidal patients that had pretty scary plans on how they had intended to do it. The most difficult thing I have ever done in my career was when I had to tell a little girl that her mother died. The part she knew without me telling her—her mom committed suicide. However, I had never had a personal experience or true understanding of suicide until September 30, 2017.
You see, we got up that morning with grand plans. After all, it was Yom Kippur, the highest holy day in the Jewish faith, and my husband is Jewish. We were planning to go to Temple to celebrate, and we started that Saturday morning like most—to our children waking us up way too early. That was when my husband checked his phone and noticed his stepmom had tried calling us a couple of hours earlier. Our initial thought was that she must have “butt-dialed” us. Then the nagging feeling came, what if something is wrong? His phone rang again, but this time it was his dad’s number. Our hearts dropped—something was wrong. His stepmother tearfully shared that his stepbrother had hanged himself in the middle of the night. We were in utter shock. This could not be true. They have a baby on the way. He is successful. His wife is amazing. We just saw them a couple of months ago, and they were doing great. Why?! What happened?! This must have been an accident or a terrible dream. This cannot be true. No way. Definitely not reality.
Tragically it was true. Slowly his story came out. There were a lot of things at play including underlying depression, possibly drugs, and, most strongly, fear of getting help.
The gamut of emotions that we all felt in the past several months has been crazy, to say the least. The ripple effect of his choice has been felt by so many. From the most obvious, his beautiful wife, his loving mother, and our family, but also by people who barely knew him like our friends, or friends of friends who knew of him.
I know the stages of grief by Elizabeth Kubler Ross—I could probably rehearse them in my sleep: (1) Denial, (2) Anger, (3) Bargaining, (4) Depression, and (5) Acceptance. I have felt grief before, from losing people very close to me. But the grief over suicide is different. Why is that? I think it is for many reasons: (1) The mind games we play in our head of the “if only’s” are so much more intense and frequent, (2) People do not know how to respond to you when you say your loved one committed suicide because it is so uncomfortable for them, and (3) The anger felt is so strong because you have this belief that it is preventable.
However, a few certainties have come to me in this new, raw, and painful experience. I truly believe at that moment—the one where someone takes their life—they cannot be thinking clearly. There has to be some type of psychosis that takes over that makes suicide the only choice they have. This leads me to believe that the person had to be very, very ill. Just as sick as a stroke, or cancer, or any fatal illness. I also know that God is with that person in his final moments because we serve a God who is with us at all times, even in our darkest hours.
The biggest certainty is that we cannot let the tragic ending define the person. You see, my brother-in-law had many wonderful attributes. He was a great dancer—creative, energetic, innovative. He loved, and I mean loved, dance. The movements, the people, the art—every aspect of it. He was world-renowned. I know he loved his wife—his face glowed when he looked at her. And this baby, when we talked about it, he was that soon-to-be parent: excited, nervous, giddy. But something happened that night. The sickness took over, and it killed him. Leaving those of us who loved him and others who knew him with questions, confusion, anger, and hurt.
As I work through my pain, which seems to vacillate mostly between anger and bargaining, I realize the grief with suicide has some of the same characteristics as grief over any major loss in our life, but it is also different. I find myself consumed with anger—anger at myself for missing the possible signs. I am not going to deny it; I am angry with him. Angry that he did not get help. Angry that he left his beautiful wife and baby to deal with this unfathomable heartache. Angry that he left his mother, sisters, brother, and all of his other family members behind. Angry at how this hurts the young, impressionable dancers who studied under him. And bargaining—if only he had gotten help. If only he had not been introduced to drugs. If only he had made different choices. If only he had called us so we could have talked him out of it. The list goes on.
The other harsh reality is the night he died, so many dreams died. Each of us had our own dreams that included him. Mine were parenting and raising our children together. You know, sharing those stories of comical things our children did. Watching our children interact together and spending time together as parents. Discussing parenting successes and failures. In essence, sharing this gift, called being a parent.
While the pain changes over time, that hole will always be in my heart. I have a new understanding and empathy for patients who share that they lost someone to suicide. I have a new determination to encourage people to get help. I have a new resolve to work to diminish the stigmatism and discomfort in talking about suicide. Maybe, just maybe, by doing so, I will have the chance to help someone else to do different—to not let that tragic solution win. If I can do that, then it offers me another step in the healing as well as hopefully preventing others from having the same heartache I now know too well.
Don’t miss this episode from our podcast that every woman should listen to: An Attorney Helps You Prepare for an Unexpected Loss – 012.
We also recommend My Dad’s Suicide and the Hole in My Heart, Posttraumatic Growth: Finding Meaning in the Pain, How to Talk to a Child About Family Problems, When Someone You Love is Contemplating Suicide, The Seesaw Aftermath of Losing My Husband to Suicide, and What Your Grieving Friend Really Wants You to Know.