My brother, Jim, ended his life late in the summer of 2013. I spoke to him on the phone a few minutes before he died. The conversation halted when he hurried off the phone in despair. Like a thief, suicide plunders our hearts and minds, robbing us of normalcy and replacing it with trauma. The aftershocks ripple for a lifetime. They can be especially profound at the holidays.
I was reminded of that recently, during research for a book I'm writing on maternal mental health. One source suggested that without the above-and-beyond efforts of her family and friends, she might not have survived. As she spoke, I revisited the summer of 2013, when Jim was struggling through a severe depression. We spoke nearly every day, and I visited him in person for a long weekend. Soon after Jim's death, I wondered if I should've gone for repeated visits, stayed for a month, maybe, and talked with his mental health care providers. Shreds of those thoughts returned after I talked with my source. Then I recalled a long text from Jim, saying he believed I had gone above and beyond to help him. That helped tame the pesky what-ifs, which can pester anyone who loses a loved one to suicide.
In the two years since Jim's passing, I've learned a few things. When it comes to suicide, there's no rulebook. By sharing our stories we can help each other heal and navigate the trickier times, like holidays. Here are five truths I've found useful at Christmas and throughout the year.
1. After you lose someone, the first round of everything -- birthdays, holidays, anniversaries -- isn't necessarily the most difficult. These initial days hold an ethereal, is-this-really-happening quality. Suicide is toxic. It so startles us that only time allows our bodies and minds to absorb its magnitude. Special days, when we're supposed to be filled with joy, grateful for abundance and celebrating, might be eclipsed by numbness. In the second and third years, we start to make sense of the loss. Emotional scar tissue forms. It's a painful, essential process we must forge through, not around.
2. Family relationships might wither. Each person has a unique bond with a lost loved one. If we have no regrets, and we feel as if we said everything we needed to -- this is not often the case, but some are in a better place than others -- our grieving process will differ significantly from a relative who had, for example, a splintered relationship with the person. That relative may be riddled with anger and resentment, which might be unleashed on other family members. It may feel as if he or she is holding us accountable for their actions. We can't hold ourselves accountable for their behavior. We can endeavor to love them where they are, and protect ourselves from what's emotionally unhealthy. That could mean our Christmas celebrations aren't what they used to be.
3. Children matter most. If a child loses a parent or a sibling to suicide, they must be our priority. We can't expect them to act according to what we think is right. They don't yet have a fully developed emotional framework. Their universe has been rewired by trauma, and they'll need a lifetime to adapt. As children, they won't entirely grasp what's happened. They'll cling to the familiar, and crave the constancy of life as it was when the parent or sibling was alive. Whatever our grieving process may be as adults, theirs will be more difficult. They deserve space, time and the most unconditional love we can muster.
4. The holidays won't be the same, but they can still be good. As creatures of habit, we readily believe that our traditional way of celebrating is the best way. Suicide, however, has an uncanny way of melting our traditions. Intellectually we know that, without our loved ones, the traditions we've long enjoyed are impossible. Still we strive emotionally to regain the same feelings evoked by those traditions. It takes time to find new ways of celebrating that feel comfortable and right. We must grant ourselves that time. Loss and grief will remain part of our holiday reflections and sentiments. At some point, they won't overshadow our ability to experience joy and gratitude.
5. Forgive. We need to forgive ourselves, repeatedly. What-ifs will hound us, those negative thoughts suggesting we didn't do enough to save our beloved. We can't let them gain ground. We should strive to replace them with positive, affirming thoughts about the love and support we did extend while the person lived. It's equally important to forgive others -- especially family -- who may grieve differently than we do. They might lash out at us, or stop communicating. Forgiving them doesn't mean we'll reconcile. We might not see eye to eye this side of forever. But releasing any anger or frustration we feel about them sets us free. It lets us focus on helping others with what we've learned about suicide: how to cope and heal, and ideally, how to prevent it.