For some reason, reacting to a suicide and making comments on it brings out the worst in some people. While only those who are either practiced or lucky seem to make comments that are helpful, the rest of us may blunder through with words spilling from our lips before our brain has thought them through. I know that I fell into the second category before I had a suicide loss and still find myself there occasionally.
There can be a period of numbness immediately following the death when the mind remembers nothing. Perhaps that is a blessing. Later, survivors are often able to remember, with clarity, things that either helped or hurt them. They may latch on to these words and keep them forever. That means they can be forever thankful or forever non forgiving. When asked to recall helpful or non- helpful comments, most survivors can come up with a few that are stuck in their minds.
It is useful for a survivor to be aware that their loss brings vulnerability and to learn the skill of anticipation and practiced answers. This is an area where we help each other and there is true value in a support group. From the first time that someone asks, “Why?” or “What Happened?” survivors are called upon to answer what may be unanswerable. Our answer may be one of defensiveness or despair. The question can come at us so often that we may become sarcastic or complacent. The need that others have to know doesn’t always match our ability to tell. We do get to choose how brief or detailed we are in our replies. With even the most intrusive questioning it may not occur to us that the most honest answer might be, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care to talk about it now”.
My first awareness of insensitivity came almost immediately after Bill’s death. The coroner wisely advised me that I should get my children home from grade school so I could take charge of telling them of their father’s death. It was a difficult assignment but I agreed I should be the one to make the call. When I called the school, the principal answered. Calmly, I stated that I needed to have the children home from school, recited their room numbers, and said I was sending someone to pick them up. “May I ask why?” was the first question. “There has been a death in the family” I replied. “May I ask who?” was the next question. The tough answer came out for the first time, “It was their father”. The next question left me stunned and unprepared. “May I ask how?”
Without an answer, I hung up the phone. In looking back, I suppose the woman was not just curious but needed to fill out some kind of form to explain a student’s partial absence. The part of the encounter that made it more difficult was not that I was caught off guard, it was the fact that for the remaining eight years that the children attended the school, the woman never spoke to me nor did I ever feel comfortable approaching her. My own sensitivity led me to believe that it would have gone differently if it had not been a suicide death.
Words of shock, dismay, despair and comfort were all intermingled in the first few hours, days, weeks. Some words reverberated as though they were shouted in an echo chamber. There were other times I felt that I saw people’s mouths moving but had no idea what they were actually saying. There were those who had nothing to say. They simply stood there as their mere presence spoke volumes. Their hugs or tears were easily understood.
I made a decision not to have a formal visitation thinking it would be awkward and difficult. No one suggested any other plan at the time. In looking back my thoughts about that decision have changed. Therefore, following the funeral service friends and relatives lined up to speak to me. I remember looking down that row and seeing the people in our life waiting to comfort me. As folks passed by one by one I got stuck on the phrase that was used over and over again. With affirmation it was repeated, “Hang in There”. I could not imagine people being so insensitive as to offer up those words when only two days before I had found my husband hanging. It was a common statement that had now taken on new meaning for me. My sensitivity was surfacing again.
As cards and letters arrived, I sorted through, looking for words of comfort. I dismissed words that didn’t make sense or seemed inappropriate. I know I could reread those messages today and feel very differently about them.
About six weeks after Bill’s death an evening seminar was advertised in the newspaper. The subject was Grief. Mustering the courage to check it out, I arrived to find that I was the only one in attendance. It made me think that I might be the only one grieving. The two gentlemen who were presenting were quite cordial as they shared their material and then sat with me to listen to my story. It was healing to be able to find a new audience who would listen to my rambling version of what had happened. I was able to share my feelings, reactions and questions. When I finished, I heard some of the first words that made sense to me and seemed well thought out at the time.
“I am so sorry you have lost your husband. There are many ways to die. Some people die when their kidneys fail, some when their hearts fail, some when their lungs fail, some in tragic accidents. It is sad that Bill died when his emotional system failed.”
At that moment I found those words making sense. There was something about the statement that normalized Bill’s death for me. I didn’t feel vulnerable, I felt comforted. It was all part of a process of putting pieces together. Making sense of the senseless.
As time passed many statements and questions would make me shudder and retest my vulnerability:
“How do you feel about Bill committing murder on himself?”
” I think that Bill just thought he had a good idea. He was always and idea man.”
“Are your kids OK or are they a little nuts?”
“Bill selecting Thanksgiving time to kill himself really ruined our holiday.”
“How do you live with the guilt?”
Every survivor can recite a number of these types of comments in their own personal experience.
It may not seem right that a suicide has to bring with it a heightened sense of rawness and sensitivity. It may not seem fair that even our method of communication is shaken. It may make us angry that everyone cannot be aware of our plight and comfort us with the right words. The reality is that we are plunged into the task of being a survivor in an imperfect world. Every phrase is not always composed with our loss in mind. People’s lives go on without always waiting for us to catch up. However, we do get to sort and sift things that are said. Taking what is helpful and dismissing what hurts. We do get to try to read, discuss and learn from other survivors. We do get to move away from rawness and develop skills in talking about a suicide loss.
This loss requires of us an extra measure of patience. Patience with the insensitivity of others who may say the darndest things. Patience with our own sensitivity. Patience with the process of surviving. It is a comfort to look back and know that the process works!