Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
A little over six months ago my ex-boyfriend committed suicide. We had dated for five years and were actually trying to work things out so that we could get back together because we believed we were each other’s soulmates. After he ended his life, I couldn’t sleep, eat, get out of bed or do anything except for lay there and sob uncontrollably. For a couple of months I was doing fine. I stopped crying as much and thought I had come to a healthy spot that I could finally go back to my normal everyday life, despite thinking about him constantly. Now, ever since his birthday passed in June, I have been a train wreck. I cry almost every day over it. On the days I don’t cry, it’s because I can’t cry for some reason. I thought I was doing so well handling the situation and now it’s as if I’ve only gotten worse. I’m so confused and was wondering if you had any insight as to why this could be happening and what I can do to begin to move on. Thank you, Ros.
First it is important to acknowledge the unique impact of suicide loss, which is almost inevitably complicated by our human need to understand this seemingly incomprehensible act, and to sort through the anger, guilt and blame with which we often struggle as survivors. The great majority of survivors of suicide loss describe reactions like your own, with images of and thoughts about the death being preoccupying and intrusive, and the path to adaptation being long. In this respect, your report that you already have experienced a couple of months during which you began to find again your footing in the world is hopeful; you seem already to be finding a way forward, even if it has not solidified into a reliable path.
From what you describe, the major struggle you have now is figuring out what to do when the great waves of grief crash over you. Here, two things might be helpful. First, paradoxical as it seems, invite the grief, but on your own terms. By setting aside a safe time and safe place to spend some time with the pain, followed by a strategy for exiting from it (for example, by getting together with a friend, engaging in exercise, or doing something else that is self-healing and involving), you essentially give yourself permission to grieve this enormous loss of a person and a dream that this tragic death took from you. For example, many people find that by setting aside 30 minutes per day for journaling about the loss, they are better able to postpone the inevitable grief, and in this way find some measure of control over it. Importantly, making time to be with the pain also tends to give us permission to be without it at other times, as we learn to “dose” our exposure to the grief. By contrast, simply trying to suppress it indefinitely often leads to greater rumination and intrusive thoughts and feelings when they are not invited.
Second, it could be helpful to remember that suicide poses a particular threat to our system of meaning, that is, to our assumptions about the world, our loved one, and our future. Strong and preoccupying feelings and thoughts can therefore be a kind of signal from ourselves, to ourselves, and about ourselves, drawing attention to something that requires more processing. It might be that these feelings are pressing forward at this time precisely because you are more ready to confront them, to sort through the fragments of your assumptive world and dreams for a future with your partner, or to address the “unfinished business” of a relationship that had stumbled, and seemingly was trying again to move forward. In this, a compassionate counselor could be a useful ally, along with friends and perhaps members of a suicide support group in your area who are willing to stand with you in your loss. Be patient, be brave, and be hopeful about a life that can find new meaning, even in the dark shadow of this loss.