I belong to several suicide grief support groups. One of them is near my home and meets in person. Our group has over a dozen members. Another group is online. The online group has close to 2,000 members. Both of these groups are invaluable to me in terms of my healing, and my understanding of what suicide loss looks like for others.
One of the things that is repeated over and over again in all of my groups is this sentiment: "My friends and family just don't understand what it is like to lose someone to suicide."
This often comes up when we are told that we need to shake off our grief, move on, or that we need to stop focusing on the past. Sometimes our friends and family tell us outright that they are tired of our sadness or worse yet, that we are feeling sorry for ourselves.
Other times, we are pressured to get rid of the belongings or mementos of the person we lost. Some will suggest to us that the person we lost is somehow replaceable. We are told we need to date someone new, or that we should appreciate our remaining children.
While many of these suggestions may be well intended, often survivors of suicide loss feel as if we are being judged for a process that has no timeline. It is as if we are being asked to prove that we are recovered, in order to make someone else more comfortable.
I have personally experienced versions of all of these unhelpful responses to suicide grief. Because of this, when my fellow survivors of suicide loss agonize over the fact that others just don't understand - I know that often they are right.
But, I am a writer. I live by this conviction:
If people don't understand, we have to tell them.
So I am writing this post on behalf of survivors of suicide loss. We are in a club that no one should ever have to join. Always, I will do anything I can to soften the sharpest edges of our grief.
Moreso though, I am writing this for all of you who know and care about us.
I am writing this for anyone who believes they know what is best for us.
I am writing this for anyone who believes they know what we should be doing.
I am writing this for anyone who thinks that a survivor of suicide loss needs some heavy-handed advice in order to move on.
These words are for you.
Dr. Deborah Serani, a licensed psychologist in New York, has been in practice for three decades now. She is a well known expert in trauma and loss. In her Psychology Today article, Understanding Survivors of Suicide Loss, she says this about why grieving a suicide loss is different from other kinds of grief:
Research has long known that suicide survivors move through very distinctive bereavement issues. Family and friends are prone to feeling significant bewilderment about the suicide. Why did this happen? How did I not see this coming? Overwhelming guilt about what they should have done more of or less of —become daily, haunting thoughts. Survivors of suicide loss often feel self-blame as if somehow they were responsible for their loved one’s suicide. Many also experience anger and rage against their loved one for abandoning or rejecting them—or disappointment that somehow they were not powerful enough, loved enough or special enough to prevent the suicide.Because of these things, it is important that you be patient with our grieving. Our grief will likely be more intense and complicated than other types of grief, and healing may take us a very long time.
That is ok. How long it takes us to move forward after a suicide loss is not a reflection of how hard we are trying. More often, the lengthy time it takes for us to re-engage in all of life is due to the nature of suicide loss, and not us.
In fact, after a suicide loss our lives will never be the same as they were before. We need you to understand that, so that we can begin to feel as if you understand and care about us.
I can not emphasize this enough. Please don't tell us that we have been grieving for too long. Please don't tell us we need to be further along. Please don't tell us that we are wallowing. Please don't tell us we are focusing on the negative.
All of these sentiments are the opposite of supportive, and all of them are inaccurate in their assumption that a timeline exists for processing such a profound loss.
Worst of all, these types of words will further hurt and alienate suicide loss survivors. Telling us that it is time for us to move on will delay our healing. Regardless of how strongly you feel about wanting us to be further along in our grief, if you suggest to us that we need to move on - you are actually prolonging our suffering and not the other way around. That is the truth.
If you want to help us heal, acknowledge that we are hurting.
Are there ever times when you can offer us advice? Of course there are. But let us lead. Let us tell you that we don't know what to do. Let us be the ones to ask for help figuring it out. And you can certainly say, "I care so much about you and I see you hurting. What can I do?" You can also ask us if we've considered counseling or a support group. Please tell us that you want us to have all of the support we can get. But don't tell us what we need to do. Let us make those decisions, and to make them at the time that is right for us.
What we are asking for is simple. Please don't disappear. Please don't get angry or frustrated with our process. Please don't stop reaching out. When you ask us how we are doing, we just want you to listen.
More than anything else, we need your compassion.