When I hear about a suicide all of the air leaves the room and I am transported back in time to the moment we discovered my father had killed himself. I remember how all of my senses became more acute. The air felt like it had weight and moving took a lot of effort because it was like walking through water. I see my mother screaming and stomping her feet and I remember feeling very calm and very together because I had to be there for my mom as she collapsed in shock and grief. I briefly relive these moments and feel the same feelings flood through my body whenever I hear about another suicide. It is painful and jarring, but as the years go by it doesn’t surprise me anymore or leave me devastated for days like it did the first few years after my father’s death.
As soon as the process of reliving these first moments has passed I immediately think of the people who are going through this experience for the first time. Finding out a loved one has ended their own life is a shock to your body. Suicide is something that can affect the friends and family of the deceased for years to come. There are questions without answers, sadness, anger, and many levels of frustration to be endured. There is also more guilt than I can clearly articulate. All of these feelings are mixed with grief. It’s a very difficult process to get through.
When I first heard about Robin Williams’ death yesterday, and the probability of suicide, I thought about how even the people who seemingly have everything still cannot get the help they need. I am sure Robin Williams had access to the best mental healthcare available and yet our system obviously failed him in some way. I thought about how the media would run with this story and explain all of the ways our healthcare system is not adequately set up to deal with mental health issues. I knew all of the smart, passionate bloggers out there would be writing about how to improve our mental health system, eliminate stigmas, and how we should be focused on creating better interventions.
All of the discussions about preventing suicide are important and true, but my mind always wanders back to the living. I guess because that is my experience. I have lived through a loved one committing suicide. I have endured and witnessed suffering of epic proportions. I’ve watched my family fracture. I’ve seen the mess suicide leaves in its wake. I’ve witnessed the financial hardship and emotional devastation it causes. Suicide breaks you. You spend years putting the pieces of your soul back together.
I think living through a suicide is hard because somehow it seems like it could have been prevented. It should have been prevented, but you messed up. You didn’t come through. You failed in the biggest way you could possibly fail. There were things you could have said and done differently. All of the suicide prevention literature says so and you believe it. You take on the responsibility for your loved ones death and in some ways you feel like you caused it. You didn’t stop it. You didn’t say or do the right thing. That messes with you for years to come, if not for the rest of your lifetime.
Eventually you surrender. You just have to live with the scars and the pain and the guilt. As the years pass your perspective changes wildly and you go through the stages of grief multiple times and not in the order they are presented. As soon as you think you have made your peace with all of it something new creeps up on you and you have to work your way through it all over again.
You discuss the whole confusing affair with your family. People blame each other directly and indirectly. People disagree about what really happened and about what should have been done. None of it really matters because in the end your loved one is still dead. You are all still heart-broken. You just have to live with all of it and make the best of the broken pieces of your life. You can choose to feel resentment towards the other living members of your family, but that is really just a distraction from the guilt you feel because ultimately, they are no more to blame than you are. Why didn’t you stop this from happening?
You will try to understand your deceased loved ones frame of mind when they came to the conclusion that death was the best option. You will feel compassion and empathy for them. You will imagine how much pain, how much anguish, and how hopeless they must have felt. You will forgive them and cry for them. You will feel sad about what they experienced and the journey they were on.
Sometimes, when you are feeling philosophical you will think they were brave to choose death because death is scary and unknown. You will imagine them as a warrior making a big sacrifice to get to a better world. Other times you will think they were incredibly selfish and cowardly. That they threw everything away because they were afraid to face something that wasn’t as hard as they believed. You will feel guilty for thinking this way and wonder when you became so cruel or so romantic.
Because you are on an emotional roller coaster you will also feel sorry for yourself some days and wonder, “How could they do this to me? Why didn’t they love me enough to choose life?” You will wonder why your love didn’t overpower all of the bad stuff or why you weren’t enough to make them want to keep on living despite all of the pain. You will curse at them for leaving you in financial ruin or without anyone to help you repair the plumbing when your toilet starts leaking. You will look at your newborn daughter and know that her grandpa will never get to see her and you feel sad for what both of them are missing out on. You will cry for your own losses as much as you cry for theirs. You will feel more alone than you have ever felt even when you are surrounded by the people you love and care about most.
There will also be days when you will only remember the good times. You may even idealize your loved one. You may only want to hear all of the good things about them. Other days you will see them in all of their humanity and you will laugh about their quirks and imperfections. You will love them with all of your heart and wonder why you felt so angry before.
Life after suicide is complicated. It is exhausting. You spend so much time analyzing behaviors and tying to pinpoint the exact moment things started going wrong. You want to prevent this from happening to anyone ever again. You try to learn the right things to say and do when you hear someone hinting at how sad and hopeless they feel because you don’t want to make the same mistakes again. You find yourself monitoring the emotions of others and have the suicide prevention hotline number memorized.
Except, deep down, you know that you don’t really have that much power. You know suicide can’t always be prevented. You know that despite saying or doing all of the “right” things it could still happen. You know you could read the signs the wrong way again. You know the system can fail you because it has happened before. You know that if someone like Robin Williams can’t get the help they need the person you are worried about might not be able to get it either.
You know that the worst things you can imagine can and do happen. This knowledge changes you forever. It colors every decision you make from now on.
So, while everyone is speculating about Robin Williams, and the media goes into a frenzy over who or what to blame, my thoughts are with the living. I know their sorrow and what their future holds. My heart is breaking for them. I am so sorry that they have to go through this. It’s painful and unfair and changes everything you thought you knew about yourself and your life. I hope and pray that they have a lot of love and support to help them get through this in the best way possible. That they will have at least one person that loves them through all of it despite the emotional roller coaster, the perspective shifts, and the anger and frustration. We all need one person that will let us voice our feelings without taking offense or thinking we are just crazy because one minute we are angry and the next we are sappy.
If you know someone, one of the living enduring a suicide, please be that person for them. It makes all of the difference and makes healing our broken hearts a much faster process. We need a safe place to express what we are going through. Be that friend to someone. Please. It may be the most important act of friendship you ever do.