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Support After Suicide: How Making Connections With Other Survivors Can Breathe Life Into a Dying Heart

It's been 19 months since Mom died. As I reflect on the weeks and months following Mom's suicide, I realize how precariously my life hung in the balance. Back then I couldn't envision a day when the color, focus, or meaning would return to my world.
11/11/2014 01:41pm ET | Updated January 11, 2015
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Have you ever wondered what it's like to move forward in the wake of a suicide? I can only speak for myself, of course, because everybody's journey is different. But here's my experience.

When I learned that my mom had died by suicide, it was as if a monster had jumped out of the darkness and beat the living crap out of me. Ill-equipped to handle such a beating, it pulverized every square inch of my being by repeatedly slamming my head against the ground, stabbing me repeatedly in the chest, then strapping weights to my legs before tossing my limp, lifeless body into a vast, turbulent sea without any sustenance, guidance, or light.

"Survive that!" the monster called out to me as I fought for breath, searched for strength, and lost all hope.

When the Good Is Gone
Broken, bloody, and battered, I gasped and growled. I flailed and fought. I sputtered and screamed. Then I lost consciousness and sank into a pitch black abyss where everything was senseless. I strained to see a ray of light but was met with murky darkness. I longed to relish a moment of reprieve from the constant pain but was met with denial. I tasted nothing but intense bitterness. I smelled nothing but utter defeat. I heard nothing but eerie silence, save for that one nagging word that played over and over in my mind: "Why?"

I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to find my way back to the top. Back to the light. Back to the land of the living. But I hadn't a clue how to do any of that. Everything now seemed impossible.

It would be so much easier to give up. After all, I'd already descended into the bowels of hell. And besides, how could I be expected to fight without benefit of energy, armor, or assistance? How could I move when I was weighted down? How could I propel myself forward when my mind kept turning back?

How could I survive?

The Absence of Light
Not long after Mom died, I started attending a support group for survivors of suicide (SOS). This group met twice a month, and it was my life support. It was where I felt understood at a time when even I couldn't comprehend the depth of my messed up head and heart. It was where I could cry, scream, curse, or vent without fear of judgment. It was where I could hug others who felt, at a cellular level, the same kind of anguish that tortured me. Not that I would wish such agony on anyone, but such unconditional support is priceless.

While at this group, I learned about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's (AFSP) Annual Out of Darkness Walk in which participants walk 18 miles throughout the course of the night to raise awareness about clinical depression and suicide prevention.

I loved everything about this idea. I was eager to raise funds to support suicide research so that one day we might figure out how to change the trajectory of suicidal ideation. I wanted to help squash the ugly stigma associated with mental illness and suicide. And I embraced the promise of connecting with others who struggled daily with the same emotional wounds as I.

Grieving a suicide is burdensome. It's like wearing one of those heavy cloaks that dental hygienists drape over you during X-rays. It's exhausting feeling so weighted down. I wanted to find a way to release the heaviness. So I made a promise to myself to register for the 2014 Out of Darkness walk -- no matter where it was held (locations change each year).

This year AFSP coordinated two overnight walks: one in Seattle and one in Philadelphia. I chose to participate in the Seattle walk. (The 2015 Out of Darkness walks will be held April 25-26 in Dallas and June 27-28 in Boston. Visit the AFSP page to register.)

Raising the Stakes
When Mom died, it felt like all good things evaporated from my universe. Music, laughter, conversation, and joy were all instantly replaced by the irritating buzz of the Emergency Broadcast System. That's how it seemed. A sense of intense abandonment settled into my soul. It was as if my mind was a machine that functioned on one of three settings: lost, confused, and scared.

I started my donation drive in January for my June walk, and ultimately I raised a total of $3,637. Raising that money was cathartic in a way I wasn't expecting. Every time a donation came through, I felt less lost, less scared, more accepted, and deeply loved.

If I'm to be perfectly honest, however, in the days leading up to my trip to Seattle, I was freaking out.

"Maybe this was a mistake," I told my husband, my stomach knotting in nervous anticipation as I considered the emotional deluge that was sure to greet me.

"No, this experience will be healing for you," he said.

Walking Toward Hope
Though getting to Seattle was a nightmare, complete with flight delays, mechanical problems, and hotel cancellations, as soon as I arrived at AFSP's registration table, I felt at ease. Just seeing the other folks, all milling around in the same blue Out of Darkness T-shirts, a sense of solidarity set in.

I met so many wonderful people at the event, including Deborah, Jeff, Dennis, and Chris. They were all walking to honor their children lost to suicide. I encountered folks who had lost mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and friends. I also talked to several people who struggled themselves with clinical depression.

I ended up walking the entire 18 miles with Deborah, and during those seven hours, we walked, we talked, we laughed, we cried. Though she was a total stranger the day before, by the end of the night, we had become soul sisters.

As we crossed the finish line, the sidewalk was lined with luminaries that participants had created for their loved ones. These luminaries went down the path, up the stairs, and around the building. It was breathtaking in a heartbreaking sort of way because each light represented a death by suicide.

Returning to Life
It's been 19 months since Mom died. As I reflect on the weeks and months following Mom's suicide, I realize how precariously my life hung in the balance. Back then I couldn't envision a day when the color, focus, or meaning would return to my world. I couldn't envision a night when I could sleep soundly without waking up covered in sweat and buried in guilt. I couldn't envision smiling or laughing or playing or singing. Breathing was all I could do and even that was a struggle. I was truly hanging on by a thread.

Over time, however, I worked to make connections and find support, and doing so has made all the difference in my emotional and physical health. Thanks to local and online SOS groups, the AFSP Out of Darkness community, and the observation of World Suicide Prevention Day, National Suicide Prevention month, and International Survivors of Suicide Day, hope has been restored to my life.

Nov. 22 is International Survivors of Suicide Day . If you have experienced a suicide loss in your life, I encourage you to connect with others who can empathize from a personal standpoint. The connections I've made have helped me battle the monster and return to the land of the living.

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 at http://christyheitger-ewing.com/.

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