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Loss Survivors and the Aftermath of Suicide

In our case, suicide was the result of a battle lost to mental illness. But I was unprepared to respond to this woman, whose judgment and stigma surrounding mental illness is sadly shared by so many.
03/21/2016 12:47pm ET | Updated March 22, 2017
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I recently attended parents weekend at my daughter's college and found myself talking with another loss survivor, a mother who had lost her son to suicide just a year ago.

She told me of her struggles to keep her son alive from the time he was a child; he was born different from her two daughters, she said, melancholy from the beginning. Her family directed so many of its resources at their only son. He had the best care. The best doctors. Two supportive parents. And still they lost him.

What complicated her grieving and her loss was the response from her neighbors and friends. With every other illness and death, friends drop by casseroles, cards and get well wishes. With mental illness and suicide, people just don't know how to respond. And so they often respond inappropriately or not at all. Just a year since her son's death and her friends announced they want her to be further along in her recovery. They want their old friend back, the one they knew before the sorrow set in.

As she spoke, tears brimmed her eyes, "That person is gone for good."

I listened, which is perhaps the greatest gift friends and family gave me after my husband's death.

I'd learned how painful it is to hear unsolicited advice and opinion about suicide. It was two weeks after David's death, and I was sitting on the couch in sweatpants. I was a wreck and still very much in a phase that felt like an unproductive shock. I wasn't hyperventilating; I wasn't crying. I was so numb I expected my fingertips to turn white.

A close friend called and asked if I would please join them. She thought it would do me good to join friends for a glass of wine. I put my hair up in a ponytail, washed my face, and drove in a fog to her home. A friend of hers, a woman I didn't know well, opened the door and said bluntly, "It's so terrible, awful." She shook her head. "Don't you feel so guilty?"

I stood in the hallway, stunned.

It felt like a brutal attack at a time when the ground underneath me was already so shaky. I couldn't imagine someone saying those words to a person who had lost someone they love to cancer or kidney disease.

In our case, suicide was the result of a battle lost to mental illness. But I was unprepared to respond to this woman, whose judgment and stigma surrounding mental illness is sadly shared by so many.

"What a selfish thing to do," was the second most hurtful thing said to me. I know the people who said this were trying to be helpful, and to note the enormous gulf David left for me -- hundreds and thousands of dollars of debt, a 9-year-old to raise alone, and without as much as a note to attempt to understand his decision.

But the real tragedy is that David couldn't find a way to live out the rest of his life. Calling suicide selfish implies that our primary purpose is to keep our friends and family happy at all costs.

Our priority should be to convince those who are contemplating suicide that their lives are intrinsically valuable. Only when they've accepted that premise can they even begin to think clearly about their obligations and interactions with other people.

I asked the woman if she might be able to begin writing about her son, to reframe her memory and provide an account of his life apart from the way it ended.

In the aftermath of my husband's death, writing was the therapy I desperately needed but couldn't afford. I started writing All the Things We Never Knewthe winter of David's death, and my office overlooked a stand of trees that were also battered that winter by freezing rain and ice. The trees were twisted and bent, some of the branches dangling; broken limbs. Other trees had sustained deep frost cracks when the pressure of the ice became stronger than the wood. I imagined myself going dormant to the outside, and rooting down, exploring the earth to find the answers I needed to move forward. I read deeply on grief and suffering. The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus summed up my process:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
-- Aeschylus

I used my research ability to learn about the most promising aspects of treating mental illness. I explore book after book on suicide and mental illness. And when I couldn't find the type of book I wanted to read for survivors, and for caregivers, I wrote it.

That spring, the trees outside my window had grown again. The new leaf buds that were produced the season before had started to grow, slowly at first, but they were there, stimulating growth in the rest of the tree, leading to the gorgeous green canopy that arrived that summer.

Trees don't have the option of dispensing with inclement weather, storms, and diversity. Neither do we. Our most fulfilling growth may be inseparable from our greatest pain, lying awkwardly close to the uncomfortable question and unanswerable paradoxes of suicide.

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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.

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This post is part of CommonGrief, 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 strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.