Survivor Stories: The Center of My Life

Man on a swing set overlooking sunset on a beach, he looks over at the empty swing set next to his

I lost the center of my life on Friday, July 13, 1984. Brenda, my wife often years, succeeded in killing herself during a full moon while I was at an AlAnon meeting (where I was trying to cope with her alcohol and drug problems). I had intervened on three previous suicide attempts, so I thought I was ready for the possibility of her death. However, nothing the many doctors and counselors we had seen, not the books I had read, prepared me for the devastating grief that overwhelmed my entire being.

For the first time since childhood, I cried bitter, angry guilt-ridden, frustrating tears for months afterward. I had virtually no energy, finding that grief demanded most of my physical, mental and emotional resources. My first wife, who also struggled with addiction, told me at the memorial service about Iris Bolton, her book, My Son… My Son, and The Link Counseling Center. Support from her book and her Survivors of Suicide group paced the way towards my eventual recovery and transformation, though too often I would ignore the loving advice given at those vital monthly meetings.
Survivors of Suicide and, at first, my Al-Anon group formed the backbone of my recovery. Talk and the expression of feelings openly in the groups were crucial to my one-day-at-a-time climb out of the black pit of my existence. Because of my background (strict family upbringing, Army training, and years in the corporate sales field), I was totally out of touch with my emotions. I found in the groups a living, non-judgmental acceptance of my needs. The group members who shared my pain, plus many caring and gifted counselors who coached me on letting my feelings out paved a winding, pot-holed, bumpy road back to feeling normal again. The road was often more like a roller coaster, though as I would sink back into self pity and denial in the early days, I had to learn about the phases of grief, and more importantly, the immense patience and forgiveness I needed to give myself.

There were precious few books then to ease my burden, but Iris’ book plus the works of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross helped immensely. Since then, many new books have become available to those of us who have to live on after someone we love chooses to die, including Dr. Threse Rando’s Grieving: How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, and James’ and Cherry’s The Grief Recovery Handbook. I was encouraged by Iris and others to write about my feelings and thoughts as a tool for recovery. I found great release in the exercise, which eventually grew into my book, Life After Grief and my now full-time occupation as a writer and speaker (one of the gifts that Iris said might come from my loss).

Long walks helped, as did extended soaks in a hot tub as I listened to quiet music. When I felt there was some pain needing to come out, I would look at pictures of us or play some of our favorite music, for I didn’t want to take the chance that suppressed feelings might cause physical problems. I treated myself to chiropractic adjustments and massages as my grief ravaged body cried out for relief. A lesson, and also another gift, became my program to eliminate or reduce, or just accept, some limitations in my own behavior. I learned of my own codependence (a compulsive need to please and help people, even though they don’t ask to be pleased or helped). I discovered how to get better rather than try to be perfect. Again with much help from supportive people, I rebuilt my very fragile self esteem.

Another important lesson I have learned: there is no right way to heal, just any way. All the advice from all the sources could not give me a timetable or prescription for my healing, I had to do it my own unique way, as all of us must. Even now, I sometimes talk to my wife, for another gift I received after her death was a firm belief in eternal life. She is alive in some dimension I cannot see, though I think she can hear me. Even if she can’t it helps me to be able to say what I must to her. Slowly, oh so painfully slowly, my world turned right-side-up again, as time healed my enormous psychic wound. Gradually, I could function again without the confusion so prevalent during deep grief. I began to date, probably too soon, but nonetheless a necessary step for me.

As the years passed, I discovered perhaps the most important gift of all from my wife’s passing. I found a new center for my life, the part of me that is a part of God.

By: Jack Clarke