Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My husband of over 30 years killed himself over two years ago. I went through survival mode the first year, and now have my life “working” in a sense, but still ruminate too much about “why,” and what I could have done to change it. I want peace, to accept that this is what happened to him. But I am the one who has to suffer now, and our children and grandchildren who will never know him. How does one move on?
I suppose the answer is “with difficulty, but with resolve.” As a survivor of my own father’s suicide when I was young, I became intimately aware of the devastation his death left in its wake. The impact was prolonged and life changing, and my mother’s means of coping (numbing her pain with alcohol, and clinging anxiously to her three children out of fear of further loss), while understandable, contributed across many years to the complicated post-loss adaptation we experienced. Your ability to get the train of your life back on the rails in a far briefer period paints a more optimistic picture of the future toward which you and your family are moving.
But of course the corrosive and ruminative self-questioning continues. I have come to understand this not simply as a symptom of complicated grief to be controlled or eliminated (though it can be that, too), but rather as a signal of what we need in the aftermath of suicide loss—some way to “make sense” of a seemingly senseless death, and more broadly of the suffering that it introduces into the lives of those most intimately touched by it. In seeking this, we commonly have to do two things that are difficult given the reality of how our minds work: (1) develop radical empathy and (2) accept the limits of human knowing. Neither is easy, though both are possible. Let me therefore share a brief thought about each.
First, radical empathy means taking a “deep dive” into the mind set of the other, in this case that of your husband. As incomprehensible as his suicide may be from your standpoint, the challenge is to enter fearlessly into his emotional frame, which by definition made suicide the inescapable choice. However much we might disagree with the “logic” of his decision, or imagine other alternatives that could have produced a different outcome, the sad reality is that in that place and moment, he could not. Thus, doing a “psychological autopsy,” perhaps assisted by an experienced grief therapist, can give us a deeper, if still painful, understanding of the state of mind and heart that led to his fatal act.
Second, acceptance of the limits of human knowing means reconciling ourselves to the incompleteness of our understanding—even understanding what moves and motivates those closest to us. In this life we lack a “God’s eye view,” and instead “see as through a glass darkly,” in the words of one wisdom tradition. This implies that there are inevitably aspects of critical life events that we will never fully grasp to our satisfaction, and that we can rarely discern larger purposes that would “explain” or “justify” such tragedy. Coming to accept the limits of our knowing further implies self compassion for all we could not understand, predict or control at the time. And finally, it implies acceptance that life involves unavoidable suffering, and that, as the Buddhists recognize, this is not our fault.
But this stance of humility in the face of all that is unknowable does not have to lead to despair. It can also lead to learning, as we gradually relinquish asking the unanswerable and ruminative “why” and “why us” questions, and make way for others that can lead to life-affirming answers. What can I learn from this, about what contributes to despair, and to hope? What of value can I retain from my shared life story with my loved one, before the dark cloud of self-destruction began to overshadow him? What can I discover about what my children need, and I need, to go through this and emerge as wiser, more compassionate and intentional beings for having done so? And how can we affirm love despite or indeed because of this tragedy, in a way that connects us more securely to one another, and to the larger life purposes that will keep us going forward, even in the face of future difficulties? Seeking the right companionship in addressing these questions can reinforce and deepen your resilience, and help you find meaning in the wake of this tragic loss.