How to Cope With the Suicide of a Loved One
Suicide continues to be one of the leading causes of death in the United States.
Once it touches you, it changes you forever. Suddenly, it seems as though everyone you know knows somebody who committed suicide.
This article is for the survivors. It's for those people who are just starting down the path of coping with the suicide of a loved one.
I hope this helps. Reach out to somebody to talk. Talking is great medicine.
Also remember this, time heals all wounds. As time passes, things will get better. I promise.
How has suicide affected you?
Time Heals All Wounds
After 5 years, I still remember the worst day of my life - not as though it were yesterday, but in a way one remembers a great moment in a horror movie. There's sort of an intellectual acknowledgment of the emotions involved, but the memory itself is kind of a compilation of facts, however horrible. Then again, maybe I've just insulated myself from the thing with the passage of time.
It was February 17 and it was the coldest day yet that year - negative five. My friend John had made me some pasta sauce and I still had his mason jars at home. Since I hadn't seen him in a few days, I thought I'd drop by his house and give the jars back since my girlfriend lived on that side of town and I was going to see her. I called him and got his answering machine. I called him the previous day too and got the answering machine and hadn't heard back, so I just decided to go over there with the jars and see how he was doing. Maybe it's hindsight, but I knew something was wrong.
It was dark and it was very, very cold when I parked in front of his house. I immediately noticed that his truck was sitting in his driveway partially covered in snow, which meant he hadn't used it recently. I walked up to the front door and rang the bell. No answer. I set the jars down near the door and planned to walk away, but something in the back of my mind suggested otherwise. Something wasn't right. I turned the front doorknob and it opened. I called for him. No answer.
It was then that I noticed his dining room table. Things started going in slow motion. Papers were laid out on the table in a very organized fashion and there were several bottles of pills near the papers. I walked up slowly, still calling his name, until I could see the piece of paper that formed the focal point of the array. On top it read: "To whoever finds my body..." I turned around and noticed the door to his garage open. I walked up, stuck my head in, and shifted my gaze slowly to the right. There, hanging from the rafters by a rope, was John's body. I turned away quickly and walked back to the table. I think I muttered an expletive of some sort.
Suicide Short Circuits the Brain
It's at that exact moment that one's mental state changes. It was like I took some kind of drug. Unfortunately, it was a drug that would last for the next six months or so. When I got to the table I read the instructions, which included calling John's mother and best childhood friend (and close friend of mine). I first called the police and told them what I had found. I then called his mother. She responded with a scream of horror. I then called the friend. He had caller ID so responded as though it was John calling.
"No, it's Jason."
"I'm sorry, Ray. I think I'm about to ruin your day."
And so it went. The police came, my girlfriend came, Ray came. I waited in Ray's car. I remember starting to shake because all the heat had drained from my body and I felt so cold. When John's mom got out of the car, I got out and we hugged. Eventually, the police let us all back inside and, one-by-one, the others were allowed to go see John's body after he had been cut down. Ray came back crying. I had never seen him cry. John's family apologized to me because they felt it was such a burden having found him and having to call them. They apologized over and over. I tried to keep cool because that's just the way I am and I thought it was the right thing to do.
The Five Stages of Grief
If you are familiar with the five stages of grief, you can be sure you'll go through every one of them when you confront the suicide of a close friend. For review, those stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Denial comes right away. The second I saw the body I thought to myself "this can't be happening." Bargaining probably comes next. I just decided I was going to get through what I had to get through. I had to make the phone calls. I had to wait for the police. I had to survive.
The most interesting of the stages when it comes to suicide are anger, depression, and acceptance. Depression comes first and it lasts awhile. The immediate impact is the sorrow - the overwhelming emotional impact of everything that happens. The lasting depression comes over the days, weeks, and months as the brain replays the sequence of events leading up to the suicide and everything around it. For me, it seemed as though every second of every day was filled with the imagery of driving up to John's house, walking in, and finding his body. For six months at least, the suicide was all I could think about. It dominated my thoughts and there was nothing I could do to make it stop. To top things off, I was also buying a house with my girlfriend. If you look up what the most stressful life events are: buying a house and the death of a loved one are the top two. To say the least, the months after John's suicide were not fun.
Anger comes on at various times. Maybe it's selfishness that drives the anger, but it comes. Suicide is inconvenient for anyone associated with it and it's overwhelming to the point of exhaustion. I was angry at John for the selfishness of the act, for not thinking of the impact it would have on everyone who knew him, for not talking to somebody, for not getting help. Damn him for just discounting how much everybody liked having him around.
Why did he kill himself? I probably understood John better than anyone. We had similar personalities - quiet, introverted, hyper-intelligent. I know why he thought he killed himself since he left a letter. He said that he had always thought about it and that, ultimately, he wanted to have control about how he exited. He definitely feared things like aging or the possibility of being crippled in an accident. But to kill yourself at 38?
Why? Why? Why?
His autopsy revealed that he had virtually no Thyroid function, so that may have been the reason - a chemical imbalance in his body that he couldn't control and was unaware. Besides that, he was definitely unhappy with life. He felt that he should have had more success than he had. However, in any suicide where the person isn't suffering from some kind of horrible disease, I suspect there's a common element. John was afraid of life. He felt that things should be coming to him that weren't - success, fame, wealth. Who knows? It was always like he expected so much and was unhappy it wasn't there, yet was unwilling to do anything about it.
Acceptance comes with time. I never talked to a professional and I never went to any support groups because I knew time would heal the wound. I probably wouldn't recommend this for others. A good therapist can be a vital component of healing. I did talk about it with friends and family as much as I could. Perhaps that wasn't fair to them, but it was therapeutic for me, to be sure. And what did I learn? The most surprising thing was how many people I knew who had direct contact with somebody who had committed suicide. They just didn't talk about it. The whole event is so taboo in our society. It's sad.
On the first anniversary of John's death, the wound was still open and it was a hard day. Two years later, and the whole event had faded considerably. Life goes on. Five years later? I don't think about it that much - certainly not in the same way. Suicide becomes like a scar. You can look down at your arm and see the scar, but it's the looking that's required to remember the event. The feelings aren't the same anymore. It's not on the surface. It's buried and it becomes much like any experience - it makes you who you are, but it doesn't change you as much as you think it's going to when it first happens.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Allen Donald