Suicide thinking: I want to be dead x

Dear Dr Neimeyer,

My attention was recently drawn to your website, and especially this section of it, and I now have a great desire to ask for your help.

My beloved husband wanted to die at home.  We had been married for over 50 years, and he had suffered with lung cancer and eventually dementia for nearly seven years.  With a little help, I looked after him at home, with the help of a nurse who I consider ‘midwifed’ his last hours in his own bed.

I cannot get over my overwhelming sense of loss and grief, despite quite a lot of counselling.  I always knew that my husband had rescued me from a childhood home of sexual abuse when I was a teenager, providing me with a sense of safety, reassurance and quiet steady love.   I had a good life with him, with interests and hobbies outside my home, although I was almost his only interest.    With his death I lost my sense of safety in life, and I know so clearly now that I just do not want to be alone.   Mostly, I want to be dead.    I have no religious beliefs and I find myself turning more and more to the idea of suicide, because, although I have tried to make a new life for myself, I don’t want one.   I have children, who seemed afraid of their father’s illness and did not help with the caring work when he was alive, although they visited regularly then.  Now they seem to prefer not to visit, even when I suggest I would like some help, telling me that I can look after myself.   And I can, I just don’t want to.

How can I turn myself around now?  Or rather, maybe, how can I make myself want to stay alive?

Andrea

Dear Andrea,

First, let me emphasize what should be obvious:  that my necessarily brief answer to your overwhelming grief and growing suicidal resignation is no substitute for direct, face-to-face professional intervention and support.  You refer to “quite a lot of counseling,” and I am hopeful that you are still engaged in that, and with a therapist you view is fully competent and trustworthy.  If not, I urge you to find such a therapist in your community, as well as a psychiatrist skilled in evaluating and treating depression.  It is clear that the loss of your dear husband has been devastating for you, and you need and deserve the same quality of care from a professional team that you and others provided to him during his own period of suffering.  Finding alternatives to the tunnel vision that leads to suicide as the only solution would be the first priority of such work, and you might well find that antidepressant medication makes a contribution to lifting the sense of hopelessness with which you may contend.  Medication is surely not a sufficient answer to the challenges this loss raises for you, but it can make it possible to stick around long enough to find the other answers that can appear.

Second, much of your letter underscores the very special sense of safety and security your husband provided for over half a century, against the backdrop of a harsh and abusive childhood.  No doubt that greatly accentuates the sense of aloneness you feel now.  I will not trivialize the impact of the loss of his physical presence in your life by suggesting that you can find someone to “replace” him; we both know that such love is irreplaceable.  But I would counsel you to look deeply within, in a quiet moment of radical honesty, and ask yourself the question, “What did my husband give me that has enduring value?  What did our 50+ years of quiet, steady love install or instill in me that is with me still?”  I very much doubt that the answer is, “Nothing.”  Almost certainly he gave you a unique sense of validation, of worth, a sense that you have value, preciousness.  What did he discern in you that goes even beyond his relational gift to you?  Meditating on these things, perhaps with a trusted therapist, could provide the strands of continuity–his lasting gift, your enduring value–from which you might begin to re-weave the fabric of your life now.

Finally, Viktor Frankl once famously said, after surviving the Nazi concentration camps, “He who has a ‘why’ for living can withstand nearly any ‘how’.”  In other words, to the radical questions posed above, you might add another:  “What now might be the meaning of my life, even as I work through this suffering?  What purpose might I pursue, of which my husband would be proud?”  This goes beyond hobbies or staying busy, as it requires listening for the clear note that resounds through the static of our grief, that calls us to what now is ours to do.  Perhaps this involves relational gifts of your own, like those your husband gave you, whether these would be conferred on a child, a grandchild, or someone in need who you have not yet met.  Finding this renewed or revised reason for living is the strongest bulwark against the tragedy of suicide, and the inevitable scars it leaves in the hearts and minds of the living.  My hope is that you will seek and find the compassionate counsel you require to do the hard work outlined above, and win back a life of richness and joy that honors your husband’s lasting contribution to your life, and invites the engagement of many relevant others–children included–in the next chapter of your ongoing story.

Dr. Neimeyer

Every Thursday we publish “AfterTalk Inspirational.” We invite readers to submit their own poem, essay, or suggestions for inspirational quotes for publication. If you are a therapist, you are welcome to extend this invitation to your clients as well. Please send your submission to info@aftertalk.com

2 thoughts on “Suicide thinking: I want to be dead x”

  1. Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

    Well, we wrap our spiritual arms around grieving Andrea. Her long marriage to the man she must hold in her heart as her hero. It’s sad that her children do not come by much.

    I’m glad she wrote to you because you have a wonderfully kind way of both hearing pain and directing the writer in distress to a place where some meaning in life is waiting to be discovered. It’s the only way one goes on: finding meaning once more and that exploration takes time, introspection, desire and yes, reaching out.

    I often quote you on my Mothers Finding Meaning Again Facebook group page to help suffering mothers who have lost a child. I’m sure they have found you here and the additional resources.

    Thank you for your enormous contribution to those who are suffering loss.

    Kindly,
    Mary Jane Hurley Brant

  2. Louise McOrmond-Plummer

    Andrea, I read your letter with tears, because I relate so well to it. My Ken died from cancer 20 months ago, and, like you, I met him at 19 after a lifetime of abuse. We were married for 28 wonderful years; he was my first experience of safety and unconditional love. My inner child is as heartbroken as my adult self, and yet the ferocity of her love and loyalty to Ken strengthens me. I have found the process of creating a “new” life exhausting; I don’t want it and I didn’t ask for it. Yet, I want to want it, if that makes sense, and I suppose that’s a good start. It does feel like a pale imitation of living, but I take heart from other widows who have said that it does get different. I actually don’t like the term “new” life – I mean, it is new, for sure, but I prefer to think of it as a challenging phase of Ken’s and my journey together. Because I believe our relationship continues, just in altered form. Have you read material on continuing bonds? I thoroughly recommend it.

    I have been very suicidal periodically, and I’m thankful that I promised Ken I would not take my own life – nor could I see myself inflicting that on my adult children. Andrea, it can feel so isolating, can’t it, to feel as if you are no use to anybody anymore. I do believe that as I dig my heels in and feel more like engaging with life, this is likely to change.

    I have a terrific counsellor who does not insist that I must “let go” of Ken to be healthy, and that has been a great plus. I hope that you can find help that truly helps you. I know you say you don’t have any religious beliefs, and that’s okay – neither do I, but I will say that I have read some excellent, sensible material on the probability of an afterlife, and I am coming to understand – in a way that goes beyond the desperate wishful thinking of early days – that Ken’s spirit survived his bodily death and that I will see him again. He will never completely leave me, and when I talk to him, I believe he hears me. That’s probably my biggest comfort.

    Andrea, darling, Megan Devine, author of “It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay”, asks grieving people to look at anything we have that can help it suck a little less, or even make the journey “a little bit good.” Adopting four rescue cats, while not comparable to having my husband here, has made it “a little bit good” at times. Taking a patchworking course with lovely ladies, some of whom are widows, so that I can make a memorial quilt from Ken’s clothes has been tremendously helpful. Also, reaching out to others who are hurting the way I have been hurt, helps me.

    I do hope that you will find hanging in worthwhile, sister, even as it takes time. I hope I will too. This is such a dreadful wound, but I have to believe it is not one beyond all healing, even if it may be beyond complete healing. I wish we could have coffee and a hug <3

    Dr. Neimeyer, I religiously follow your column and have found it one of the first lines of assistance I have engaged since my husband died. I have also recommended it to my counsellor. Even if your weekly correspondent isn't a widow, you frequently say things that resonate anyhow. I'm so thankful for the opportunity to consider the questions you raised with Andrea. What did my husband give me that has enduring value? Well, I don't think I realised until he'd passed, what a difference his love made to my view of myself. His love, and the way that it helped heal past wounds, has made me a person who isn't afraid to let go of situations or relationships that are not good for me. Because of Ken's love, I can believe I deserve better 🙂

    Blessed Be,

    Louise xxoo

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