[Editor: Today is World Suicide Prevention Day]
Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I lost my oldest son nearly 8 years ago to suicide at the age of 24. He shot himself in our home. Friends and people from church were very kind to us after it happened. We have three other sons. They are all grown now, but one has had a drug problem and is currently incarcerated. We have stayed in our home as it was my husband’s childhood home and he didn’t want to leave. Anyway, now it seems as though friends and family avoid us, and I’m wondering if it would have been better if we had moved? My husband and I are raising a granddaughter, but outside of that, we don’t connect either. I feel very isolated and misunderstood. Any advice would be helpful.
Your direct and honest account presents such a litany of loss, from the vivid and traumatic death of one son in your home, through the heartbreak of another’s drug abuse and incarceration, to the seemingly unexplained thinning of relations with friends, family, and even your spouse. As much joy and meaning as raising your granddaughter might bring, I can well imagine the sense of aloneness that otherwise pervades the house, which seems in too many ways emptied of the life and love it must once have held.
No “quick fix” can make this sad scenario instantly better, so I won’t insult you by offering you one. But I am moved to offer at least a few principles that might help as you navigate this sea of losses, and try to find your way back to safe harbor and human companionship. Think of them as possible responses to the sometimes stark and sometimes subtle grief you encounter, and consider whether one or more of them feels like a step that you are (more than) ready to take.
1. Acknowledge the stigma, and push back against it. Suicide loss in particular tends to be heavily stigmatized and “disenfranchised,” in the sense of being uncomfortably ignored or invalidated by much of the social world. In your case, you were fortunate to receive a much kinder and more compassionate response from your church and community after your son’s death, but it is often the case that the outpouring of support that survivors receive in the immediate aftermath of tragic death evaporates after a few weeks, leaving mourners with a “silent story” of suffering that cannot easily be shared. It is for this reason that Survivors of Suicide groups can offer uniquely valuable mutual support for people in your position who might well be troubled by this traumatic event even many years later. Trauma-informed therapies can address residual images and feelings, and resources like those offered by the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention to long-term survivors can often pick up where local and limited support leaves off.
2. Voice the unspoken losses, and find an audience for them. Your other son’s incarceration, and very likely a turbulent history of drug use that preceded it, must have introduced their own losses, perhaps in the form of a loss of control over the situation, the loss of trust in your son, and perhaps even the loss of hope for a meaningful life you must have harbored for him in more innocent years. In facing such ambiguous losses, it is often helpful to “name them and claim them,” putting yourself in a quiet, reflective frame of mind, during a period of privacy, with your phone turned off, as you ask yourself repeatedly and honestly, “What have I lost?” Then pause, and patiently let the answer come to you, writing it down in a word or phrase. Then repeat the question, and wait for the next answer, recording it, too, when it comes. Do this 10 times. Then survey your list and ask, “What do I most need in relation to each of these losses? And what would be the first step I could take toward getting this?” Take action on three of these steps, and in the loss journal that you have begun, record the results of your efforts. Where you see some signs of success, do more of that, or ask yourself, “What’s the next step here?” Where you are disappointed by the results, learn from them, and ask, “What step might I try instead?”
3. Re-weave the ties that bind. There was a time that you were held in loving arms, in a tender gaze, in the caring concern of a faith community and friendship circle. Spend some time reflecting on what happened, without resorting the the morally satisfying, but ultimately futile tactic of merely blaming the loss of this connection on the failings of others… true though this may often be. Instead, try to understand the thinning or sundering of these ties usefully—what do they teach you about what is required to keep a relationship in good repair? Consider how you might restore, renew or replace strained or broken connections by reaching out to others in their own pain or grief—which inhabits every life, in a degree large or small. Or is a bolder step needed, in the form of joining a new congregation, or simply engaging a community of people who share an interest (perhaps in the arts, cooking, a book club or civic organization) you once indulged, but in your years of suffering, have allowed to atrophy? And perhaps most centrally, take the risk of speaking frankly to your husband about both your appreciation for his co-parenting, and the lonely part of you that misses the intimacy and closeness you once shared. Whether with the help of a couple’s therapist or through creative reengagement and the cultivation of shared interest, strive to recover some of what you have lost, so that the rest does not have to be borne alone.