It's been four years since my dad took his life without warning. Some days, it feels as fresh and raw as when I first learned of his death. On others, it seems like a lifetime ago. I still shake my head in disbelief when I think about my dad -- my dad -- making the decision to die this way. We were two peas in a pod, how could I not see this coming?
I remember sitting in my first few survivor of suicide support group meetings listening to moderators who were five or ten years out from their loved one's passing thinking, "You have no idea how I feel right now, your loved one died years ago! How can you relate?" Now that I am inching into their shoes, I can appreciate that the passage of time really makes no difference when a suicide is involved. It leaves an imprint on your soul that even years cannot rinse away.
I now find myself reflecting on the lessons that have surfaced in the years since. I think it's safe to say that whether it's been 10 days or 10 years (or more), the effects of living through a loved one's suicide will continue to evolve and impact survivors in various ways. As a new survivor, I hated when I heard people say "time heals." I didn't believe it and I didn't want to hear it. However, I can say that time has molded my grief away from the sick, punched-in-the-gut feeling, into what I would equate to a backpack or dark cloud that I carry or pull along with me in the background.
And here's what I've learned...
• I eventually smiled and laughed again. This is something that initially seemed impossible. In the early days, I felt like I was seated on a roller coaster with enormous drops. I couldn't shake the physically ill, nauseating sensations that took over my entire body. From there, I moved into a dense fog. I existed but simply went through the motions required each day just to get by. Many months down the line, I surprised myself by smiling and laughing again. It may be too early to believe that now, but just know it will eventually happen.
• There came a night and a morning where my loss wasn't the last or first thought of the day. This, too, took quite some time. I remember waking up with my alarm clock hoping that each new day would reveal this was all a nightmare. And, at night, hoping I didn't have a nightmare about it. I still think about it pretty much every day, but it's not the only thing that enters my mind. Similarly, his date of death always felt like this looming thing on my calendar. I checked out some books at the library this week and noted on the receipt that the date due was the same day and it stopped there. Only 10 minutes later on my way home did the coincidence register. I actually look at this as a good thing. I don't think any of our loved ones would want us hanging our hats on their last day.
• I eventually regained motivation. I stopped working out, spending time with friends and pursuing my favorite hobbies for a while after my dad died. I remember asking a grief counselor if I could ever expect to get back to my usual self. While I still make other excuses for working out, I was able to shake the continual mantra that had been running through my mind at the time, "I can't do this because my dad just died."
• Time helps, but nothing fully "healed" the loss of my dad to suicide. I learned to lower my expectations for grief recovery. I remember wanting a magic answer to how long it would take to get over my dad's death. Unfortunately, there wasn't one. But now I know not to ever expect it to "go away."
• There's now life "before" and "after" the suicide. That said, many survivors, including me, now look at life pre- and post- suicide. There was life the way it "used to be" and life now in the new normal. "After" and "new-normal" doesn't necessarily mean bad or worse off. Suicide loss is just such a traumatic thing that it becomes a tear in the page of your favorite book.
• I realized I may never have closure. I still don't know what fully drove my dad to do this, or why he did it in the spot he chose or the method he selected, etc. I will never have those answers and as much as it pains me to not have that closure, I understand that it's part of this ugly thing called suicide.
• No one else will understand -- except fellow survivors. Friends and even extended family members who were so eager to help and provide support in the early days have now all but forgotten what I'm still dealing with. I'm shocked when I hear insensitive comments about mental illness or suicide innuendos and remind myself that unfortunately, no one else will "get it" unless they've experienced what I have.
• I need to look out for me. I am very mindful of how I'm feeling at all times and don't hesitate to seek help, in traditional or alternative forms, to make sure that I am feeling the best I can. At this point, I've dabbled into everything.
I know these are just a few of the lessons I will continue to learn as I progress forward as a survivor. I'm so thankful that support groups for survivors exist and the wonderful survivor friends I have made over the years who have helped reveal some of these teachings to me. Being a survivor of suicide is a title I never expected I'd bear, but I'm finding my way through this grief journey little by little.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.