Friday, November 3, 2017

Love is the Answer

One word
Frees us of all the weight and pain of life:

That word is love.

― Sophocles

We need you. We need you to talk to us. We need you to listen. Often though, we don't need the pain that can come along with your questions. Questions that seem innocuous to you, may feel dismissive to us. Questions that are meant to let us know that you are there for us, may leave us feeling invisible and abandoned. And questions that are meant to lessen our pain, may end up making it greater.

Like much of my grief journey, it has been in speaking to others who have also endured a loss to suicide, that I have gained a fuller understanding of how certain words and questions impact us. There were striking similarities in terms of the things we found difficult to hear.

I learned that for all of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one, during the first few months after our loss, we are very tender and raw. Well intentioned words are easily misunderstood. Worse yet, misspoken words have the potential to further break our already broken hearts.

But we need you. We need you to talk to us. And especially, we need you to listen. 

So I will start by asking you to listen to me, and to what my fellow survivors of suicide loss have told me.

In the first few months after John died, it was important to me that people showed me that they cared about how I was doing. What was difficult for many to understand was that it was often hard for me when people asked how I was doing. 

When well meaning people asked me how I was, I'd bristle at the question. Here is why. I was doing horribly. Absolutely horribly. The first several months after John died, I was in excruciating pain, all of the time. I was struggling with a heartbreaking loss that went beyond words, and wrestling with guilt and shame that was unfathomable. 

If I didn't know you well, and you said to me: "How are you?" I felt that I only had a few options. 

Telling the truth would likely make us both uncomfortable. I didn't know you that well, after all. I was already stripped bare. I wasn't ready to share the extent of my pain with people that I didn't know well. I already felt conspicuous and broken down in people's eyes. 'How are you' seemed like an innocuous question but struck me as intrusive and sometimes I felt invisible. How was I? Why wasn't the answer obvious?

Another option was that I could lie to you. 

"I'm fine," I could say. Except, I wasn't. 
"I'm ok." I could tell you. Except, I wasn't. 
"I'm doing better." I could say. But even that was a minute by minute thing, not an answer I could commit too. 

So if I said these things in order to avoid additional questioning - I knew I was a liar. Instantly I'd feel guilty. I'd feel as if I was betraying myself and the grief that John deserved. 

You might think I could try to be as honest as possible:

"I don't like that question."

"How do you think I am doing?"
"I'm sorry, but what you are asking feels intrusive to me, given how poorly I am doing."

You might read the answers above and think, 'Bravo! Yes! Tell people the truth!' But every time I tried to do that, the person who I was speaking to would step back and look both hurt and embarrassed. The discomfort I felt from their having asked the question in the first place was immediately multiplied. 

No version of my telling the truth was fair to me, and no version of my lying was fair to me either.

In the end, I'd rely on one statement that was both true and a deflection at the same time. If people asked me how I was - I'd say:

"I'm here."

I want to acknowledge this. Many other survivors said that they appreciated being asked how they were. Many felt it was a reminder that they were cared about far and wide. They weren't caught up in the semantics of how to answer. Someone would say: "How are you?" and they'd reply "I'm ok. Thank you for asking." And the exchange felt good to everyone involved.

But, in no way was I alone in bristling at the question either.

Lisa, who attends a weekly grief group in Colorado, said that many of the members of her group had adjusted the hours that they ran errands in public. 

"We go shopping later at night just to avoid all those well-meaning neighbors/friends/acquaintances asking us 'are you okay'."

Another woman, Susan, explained what it was she wanted to say when she was asked if she was ok:

"No, I'm not ok and I'll never be. He's gone, my life is over, and I don't want to be here anymore."

So, instead of 'how are you?' try saying - I am so sorry for your loss - this simple and obvious statement works in many ways. In seven words you convey that you understand that we have suffered something deeply sad. You are sorry this has happened. And you open up the opportunity for us to tell you more, if we wish. 

Next, please, it's nice to know that someone empathizes with our pain, but always avoid saying 'I know how you feel.' 

Honestly, unless your loss is an exact mirror of my own - do not tell me you know how I feel. By having lost someone to suicide twice - and by being very close to other survivors of suicide loss, I can tell you this:

Every loss is different. The type of pain that I felt when my mother died by suicide is acutely different than what I've experienced as a result of losing John. And grief over other losses in my life has been acutely different than losing someone to suicide. 

I know that my loss is different from that of parents losing children, and I wouldn't dare suggest it was the same. And my loss is different than someone who's lost a sibling, too. When someone tells me that they 'know how I feel,' unless they have been exactly where I am, my feelings are being minimized. I am not alone in this conviction.

One of the women I talked to said that her divorced neighbor told her that she 'understood exactly what it felt like to lose a relationship permanently.'

Try saying these things, instead:

  • I can't understand your pain, but I am sorry.
  • I can only imagine how painful this must be.
  • I can't understand what you are going through, but I am here.

The key here is to let the grieving person lead. If you share a personal story with us, let us be the ones to tell you, 'I know that you understand how I feel.'

Some of the questions that are routinely asked of survivors of suicide loss are no less than shocking in their insensitivity. 

Please, please, unless you know the person well - avoid these questions (I'm using 'he' for brevity only, obviously those who die by suicide are of all genders): 

What was the method he used to die? 
Did he die right away? 
Were you there when it happened? 
Did you find him? 
Did you have to clean up afterward? 
What did he look like dead?

Some of these questions were asked of me, others were asked of fellow survivors of suicide loss I'd spoken to.

For what it is worth - I understand that when you hear about a suicide, there is an immediate urge to know more. Human beings often thrive off of morbid curiosity. I love the television show, 'Forensic Files,' myself. I love the nitty gritty details. So I get wanting to know more. I really do.

However, when we are talking about a direct loss in real life - unless you are very close to those left behind, or to the deceased - asking for specific details is deeply inappropriate. For many of us, when you ask for these details, you are not offering support, you are asking us to be retraumatized.

Some survivors want to talk about these things. Some need to talk about these things. Many others do not, or they only want to talk about them in safe environments. So let us lead these conversations. Do not try to elicit more information if your only reason for doing so is your own curiosity. 

Again, I absolutely can not emphasize how important this is. In grief and PTSD counseling, therapists get special training in this area, because asking for specific details has such a strong potential for causing a person's pain to be worse instead of better.

One of John's best friends since childhood called me soon after his death, and asked me for the details of how John died. That was ok. I understood. This was John's best friend. And a few of my closest friends, of course, asked for a few specifics. That was ok too. They were there to catch me or retract their questions if they could see that I was beginning to fall. Other than that, every other time a question of this nature came up, I was shaken and often sick to my stomach.

If you feel you must have more details - ask people who are not so close to the deceased. Let my friends field those questions for me. Not me. To be clear, I never felt like I didn't want people to know what happened. I just didn't want to invite the visual into my own head. 

Unfortunately, I was asked for these kinds of details numerous times by numerous people. One person who'd never met John and hadn't seen me in decades, asked me what method John had used to die. And he asked the question publicly, on my Facebook page. I deleted the question and never answered.

We don't have to be asked multiple times for it to be upsetting though. Tom, another member of one of my grief groups, said this:

"The worst question was 'How did she do it?' I only heard it one time, but that was enough."

Some of us have responses that are more pointed. Tina, who lost her husband to suicide, said:

"How'd he do it? Does it f**king matter? He's still lying in a box in the ground."

While that response may seem harsh, consider that some of us have already discussed these details with people in environments that are incomprehensible to those who have not been through this kind of loss. 

In cases where guns are used, for example, many people have had to go through painful and invasive direct questioning by the police or medical professionals. In my stepfather's case, when my mother died, he was locked in the back of a police car for hours, while the 'scene was secured'.

One woman in my grief group explained that she wasn't put in the back of a police car, but she was handcuffed and questioned by the police. 

"I was fingerprinted first," she explained. "And I had a GSR [gun shot residue] test done." All of this happened in the first hours after her husband had died.

Another had a similar experience:

"Same here with the GSR tests. They also had me remove my clothing - outside, behind my grandparents' car."

In these cases, we have no choice but to answer the questions asked of us by the police.

Do not ask us to answer those questions again.

It's true that many of us will want to talk about these details, but again, let us lead those conversations.

What can you say to us instead? Try this:

I am so sorry for your loss. I'm here if you want to talk about it.

I was also asked all of the following questions, and in my grief groups - the distress over this line of questioning was unilateral.

Why did he do it?
Didn't you know he was going to do it? 
Were you surprised? 
Did you try to help him?

Those questions may seem unrelated to one another - but they are not, in this one very painful way. They all have an undercurrent of accusation. 
If we knew our loved one might die, then why didn't we stop them? Many of us were aware of our loved one's suicidal ideation, but we didn't know what to do to help them. Or we'd tried but our efforts failed. Most of us are grappling with terrible guilt and regret over these things already. The guilt and regret is misplaced. While we can do our best to help our loved ones, it is never our fault when they take their lives. Don't add to our internal debate by asking the questions above.

Other similar information-seeking questions should be avoided, simply because - just as was the case prior to someone dying, they remain personal and private details now - It should be entirely up to the survivor to determine whether they want to share this information.

Was he depressed?
What medications was he on? 
What was his diagnosis?
Did he try to get help?
How could you sleep in the same room afterward? 
Why didn't you sell the house right away?
How can you live there still?

Again, there will be some people who want to share these details of their loss with you. But it should be up to the survivor to decide when and what they want to share.

Instead of asking the pointed questions above, again, try this:

I am so sorry for your pain. I am here if you want to talk.

Another line of questions is frequently asked of those of us who've lost a spouse or partner.

Were you even still together?
Did you guys have a fight?
I thought you'd left him?

Again, unilaterally, we felt the questions were dismissive of our feelings and accusatory in nature. Also, just as when our partners were alive, the exact status of our relationship was largely no one else's business.

One woman was asked a similar question by a good friend of hers. 'But you guys were fighting a lot. I mean, if he was still alive, do you think you'd even still be together?

I've been divorced twice and have had other relationships that have ended. I've been in a lot of pain around many of those endings. Broken hearts can be agonizing.

But, broken hearts are nothing compared to losing a partner to suicide. Nothing. Having been fighting with a partner who dies by suicide in the days and weeks before their death, usually adds additional layers of guilt and pain to an already unbearable grief. It does not lessen the pain. Fighting, having recently broken up, or going back and forth - as was the case between John and I, does absolutely nothing to soothe our profound pain. 

Two women in my in my grief group say they were asked the following questions:

I thought you guys were doing good? 

Did you have a fight?

Both of those questions overtly suggest that the fight was the sole reason their partner died. The implication is awful to consider.

Please, acknowledge our pain. Acknowledge the depth of our grief. Acknowledge the trauma we now have to endure knowing that many of us can never take back our final words.

More than one person had their partner shoot themselves in front of them during an argument. Do not suggest to these people that they were at fault. There is nothing about their partner having this reaction to a fight that is rational or fair, nor is the guilt the survivors of this kind of loss are left to contend with.

What can you say instead? Again:

I am so sorry for your loss.

Then, there are the comments meant to assuage guilt by suggesting that the deceased was selfish or that they purposely did something hurtful to the bereaved.

Don't you think he's a coward?
How could he have been so selfish?
Didn't he understand this was a permanent solution to a temporary problem?
How could he have done this to you?
How could he have left his children?
I'm so angry at him.
I will never forgive him for doing this to you.

In my case, I do not blame John, and I feel defensive and protective of him when I hear people suggest that his dying was a rational and therefore selfish decision on his part. 

John was not selfish. Anyone who knew him when he was stable, and even when he wasn't doing well, but was healthier - would tell you the same. John was not a selfish person. He did not suddenly become selfish. He had a disease that impacted his brain and his ability to see things rationally. Ultimately that disease took his life. 

My aunt died of cancer. Do not call her selfish. My neighbor died of a heart attack. Do not call him selfish. A friend had a teenage daughter who was killed in a car accident. Do not call her selfish. John died because of the impact his bipolar disease had on the pain he was in and on his thinking processes. Do not call him selfish.

If we as survivors of suicide loss need to feel angry, let us be the ones to lead that course of discussion. Do not offer it up, unsolicited. 

Anger toward the deceased can be a necessary part of grieving, but it's not always. And the duration of our anger toward the deceased is different for every survivor. Let us be the ones to tell you where we are in that process.

And finally, there is the act of blaming the bereaved. This is one of the most hurtful and damaging of all lines of questions and comments. 

My own experience with being blamed was absolutely horrific. Though I always had the support of John's family, my friends, and even many mutual friends of the person who was blaming me - the pain and humiliation of being blamed tormented me day and night. 

In my case, not only was the person blaming me vocal about it with mutual friends of ours, but she also contacted me directly, several times, sending me messages that were specifically geared toward hurting me as much as possible. I never responded to those messages. I did not want to make light of her feelings or disrespect her. Defending myself would have been ineffective. And I was unwilling to engage in an argument when her own behavior, on so many levels, was indefensible anyway.

The extraordinary ugliness of this kind of blame changed not just my opinion of the person who was blaming me, but often impacted my feelings about the goodness of people in general. The blame significantly contributed to my feelings that the world was unsafe and that people could not be trusted. This was happening at a time when I needed safety and to trust people, more than I ever had before.

I had no concept of how ugly one person could be toward another, until this happened.

Over and over again I have heard similar feelings shared by other survivors of suicide loss, if they'd also been blamed. Being blamed was a cruelty like no other.

Many people in my grief support groups have had to endure uglier treatment than I did. Entire families turning against one another. Young children caught in the crossfire. Family members and loved ones being purposely excluded from funerals and memorial services. Ongoing fights over estates and even fighting over the possession of cremated remains.

If you feel you must assign blame to another person, and you feel you must tell others about it - for the sake of everyone grieving - select people to talk to who only know you, and who will absolutely keep your confidence.

Do not pull mutual friends into the middle. 
Do not pull family members into the middle. 
Do not pull acquaintances into the middle.

I have never seen, heard of, or experienced a polarization between friends and family that occurs in such a tragic and heartbreaking way, as it does when a person publicly blames another for a suicide.

Know too that blame becomes gossip in the flash of a second. If you speak too loudly or you are careless about whom is around when you're talking about your belief that someone is to blame - your words will likely be repeated again and again. People find blame salacious. This is unfortunate but true. 

And remember, you are leaving many people with the impression that you find cruelty comforting, a characteristic in a person that few find endearing. If you are choosing to lash out and hurt another human being at a time when they are likely already in the deepest pain they have ever been in - you are making more of a public statement about yourself than you are about the person you blame. 

If it is very important to you that the person you blame is in pain, I can guarantee you that after a suicide, the people closest to the person who has died are already in unbearable pain and often they are grappling with extraordinary guilt. You do not have to be cruel to them in order to ensure they are suffering tremendously. They are hurting, I can promise you that.

Lives are ruined, children suffer, families are torn apart, and opinions of everyone involved are often changed forever, when one person blames another.

So what do you do instead?

Be a person who chooses kindness over cruelty. Despite your anger and even if you blame another, try to value compassion enough to not add to someone else's pain. 

Perhaps you can manage to care about the children of the person you blame, at least enough to find ways to be kind. This is the same regardless of if the children are young or are teenagers. Consider how your own children might feel if they were hearing from others that their parent was being blamed for something so terrible.

And if you are finding that you can't set your blame aside, speak about it only in private and to parties who you are positive don't have loyalties that might be compromised. 

Move on from your anger by taking the time to learn about suicide and its causes. 

Seek out private grief groups where you can ask for support and seek advice about how to handle your need to accuse another person. 

If you are unable to be kind to someone who is grieving and find yourself unable to control the urge to lash out and hurt them, speaking harshly to them in private, or being intentionally rude, giving them the cold shoulder, or silent treatment in public where it will be seen by others, get professional help to deal with your anger in a more constructive way.

Purposely hurting someone who is grieving a suicide is incomprehensibly cruel.

If you can't stop blaming someone, you can still choose to behave in a way that exemplifies integrity, instead of cruelty.

Be bigger than your need to be cruel.

Many people have asked me what is the best thing to say to someone grieving a suicide. 

The truth is, when I have struggled with harsh words and even downright cruelty, I do always return to that belief in the goodness of people that had been compromised. I do it by looking around and seeing how many people are reaching out in love, and how many people there are who want to comfort me, even if they are unsure of how to do it.

Above, I've offered suggestions as to the kinds of things you might say that would be helpful. But the most important thing you can do doesn't involve words at all.

Remember, we need you. We need you to talk to us. And especially, we need you to listen. Just let us know you are there. This is the thing that most expresses your support and concern. Your love is what we need more than anything else right now.

I know that I speak on behalf of all my fellow survivors of suicide loss here. If you have any questions about what we've lost, how you can help, or what we need, there is one constant.

Love is the answer.