There's a phrase, "Give me a minute," which I never thought much about until my mom took her life two years ago. Ever since her death, I'll sometimes be in the middle of doing something--writing, cooking, clipping the cat's nails--and I'll find myself frozen, unable to move. In that instant, I go numb and am filled with a kind of sadness that forces my body to momentarily shut down and take notice. I can't say for certain what's happening, but I'm guessing my heart is still trying to process what my mind already knows.
It's not like I haven't spent an inordinate amount of time trying to process my loss. I've written about it publicly for magazine articles and privately within the tear-soaked pages of my journal. (Admittedly, some of those journal entries are nothing more than a string of expletives that serve to release the toxic anger that simmers just below the surface of my being ever since that awful day.)
I've attended bi-monthly support groups. I've raised awareness about mental health by participating in Out of the Darkness walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). I've connected with other survivors, both in person and online, and together we remind one another that although we feel alone in our loss, we are among a community of others who can empathize and love one another back to life.
A woman in my local support group, who lost her father to suicide just five months ago, mentioned to a coworker this week that she was planning to attend group therapy. The coworker raised her eyebrows and asked, "Oh, you're still going to that?" Apparently to the outside world, five months is more than enough time to come to grips with the fact that your parent died by suicide.
It's been my experience that following a suicide, I'm allowed to grieve for several months or maybe a bit longer since this is considered complicated grief. But come that one-year anniversary, I'm expected to buck up, learn from the loss, and come out the other side a more evolved human being. And although I'm allowed to acknowledge that I'm no longer the same person in the wake of this tragedy, that's not to say that friends and family members will welcome the new Christy with open arms. In fact, several have pushed me away and told me I'm not longer welcome in their lives.
Have you read about those people who have applied to live in outer space? They're willing to leave behind everything they know to be catapulted into another stratosphere to see if they can survive. I don't know if that's gutsy or just plain stupid, but I do know that I would never volunteer for such a gig. Then again, perhaps that's because I feel like I'm already living on Mars. Ever since the suicide, I've been functioning in an alternate universe where nothing feels right or familiar. Though I yearn to return to the way I once viewed the world, that viewpoint has shifted and crumbled and can never be rebuilt in the same way.
As suicide survivors, we do our best to appear strong, stalwart, or at the very least stable even if inside we're feeling brittle, barren and broken. We power through and keep searching for bits of joy in the world that we gulp up like fresh water after wandering lost in the desert. Some days we find only sips and drips; other days we're fortunate enough to stumble upon a nourishing waterfall.
The man who leads our suicide survivor support group says that it can take five to seven years to recover after losing someone close to suicide. On the one hand, the thought of still having to feel this aching sadness for another three to five years is disheartening. On the other hand, it's a relief knowing that it's normal to still be struggling so intensely.
There's another phrase: "One day at a time." It's a mantra that for the past two years I have clung to simply because the notion of looking too far ahead has been completely overwhelming. Before Mom's suicide, my calendar was so marked up with activities, vacations, and appointments that the scribbles were barely legible. Now the pages are starkly blank.
While I have no plans to live on Mars, I would like to start living more fully on planet Earth. I'm sure I'll still have to "take a minute" from time to time as my head and my heart continue to sync up. But in the meantime, I'd like to work on getting back to looking forward. I'd like to pencil in some hope.
Read Christy Heitger-Ewing's award-winning book "Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat" (www.cabinglory.com). Visit her author website.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.