What now? Thoughts on how to survive a loved one’s suicide.

A few weeks ago, one of my friends that I’ve known for decades texted me early in the morning, waking me up. The text message jolted me out of my blissful and oblivious slumber with a shocking message that completely made me forget that I was a lady. A string of curse words came flying out of my mouth, in turn waking up my slumbering husband.

The text message was simple and straightforward and was the first communication I’d had from her in months – and all it said was “John* hanged himself last night”. No preamble, no reaction – just plain and straightforward as if she were telling me what she had for breakfast. I immediately called her. John was one of her brothers, one of the guys who used to hang around with us as teenagers. She was in shock, or “numb” as she called it – and so was I.

Needless to say, my day was spent reflecting upon him, the last time I’d seen him, how she and the family must have felt etc. Then I felt an overwhelming guilt, because the last time I had seen John, he looked much skinnier than I knew him, but I figured it was because of the recent hospital stays. I saw more than that though, I saw that desperation in his eyes. The scary desperation that those who have a mental illness themselves know all too well. The desperation that quietly screams “help me” while concurrently trying to disguise itself as happiness.

I saw it. I recognised it. I turned away. I kept my mouth shut and walked away. And now, he was gone, and I could not help but feel partially responsible because I saw the desperation, recognised it and did nothing. It plagued me for weeks until I realized that this really wasn’t my fault. Then whose fault was it? Was it John’s because he decided late at night to hang himself from his mother’s basement rafters? Was it his girlfriend’s fault for finding him? Was it his family’s fault or society’s fault?

I mean, John was well loved. He was sick and had recently gone through a divorce, but his life was getting back on track. He lived in his Mother’s basement apartment, had three siblings who doted on him, recently got a job and a steady girlfriend. He had loads and loads of friends, all whose eyes would light up when they heard his name or saw his face.

After weeks of contemplation, I realized these things aren’t anyone’s fault, and I decided that after a suicide, it is useless to reflect on the what ifs, to try to lay blame, to ask why. The reality is crystal clear – it just happened. Why or how it happened is irrelevant after the fact. All that is left, is a obliterating pain amongst the survivors who have to live through the aftermath – the ones left behind.

How do we as survivors move on? How do we heal from the hurt, guilt and pain that a loved one’s suicide leaves behind? Here are some thoughts that I’ve come up with to help you accept what has happened.

1) It’s no one’s fault, not even the fault of the loved one who committed the act. Forget the what-ifs, they are pointless.
2) There was probably nothing you could have done unless you were there at the moment of the death – and there is no way you could be with someone 24/7.
3) Yes, suicide is a selfish act, but all mental illness has a selfish side to it. Mental illness is just that though, an illness with symptoms like any other – this time, the illness won.
4) Allow yourself to grieve, but grieve because the loved one has passed, not the way he/she has passed.
5) Remember him/her as you wish to. Do you want to remember him/her as the mentally ill person or as the person you know and love during happy times? Choose who you want to remember.
6) Realize life must go on – as with any death, the world continues to turn
7) Pray.
8) Find something to remember him/her by. Make a scrapbook, put up a photo at work at your desk, change your Facebook profile, make a list of all the good things you loved about the person.
9) Closure – however you find closure, do so. Go to the funeral/memorial service, weep with others who loved him/her. Do something the two of you used to do together. Get a group together and swap fond memories. Light a candle every night for a week. Just do something that would help you accept that this happened and it is done and you can move on.
10) Even though the person is gone from your life, they will never be gone from your heart. That’s all that matters now.

Hopefully these tips, and time will help you to heal. Good luck.