A Different Perspective on Suicide
You probably think this is going to be another post about suicide prevention, and though you wouldn’t be completely off-base, I’ll tell you now, it’s not going to be what you’d expect from the words “suicide prevention”.
As I move closer to publishing my memoir, Forgotten Victims: Healing and Forgiving After Suicide, I’ll be using this space to both promote and share insight into a book that took more than 8 years to write, and a healing process which, while enjoying an immense amount of progress, will never truly end.
You see a lot about looking for signs of distress and depression in those you love and getting them help before they take the final step. What you don’t see is suggestions we apply that same level of compassion to those of us who have lost someone to suicide. Too often, we fall into a deep, dark hole for months or even years; a hole that’s not entirely of our own creation.
We Step Forward Here, But Backward There
Admittedly, dramatic inroads have been made into the de-stigmatization of mental health and suicide prevention. It doesn’t change the fact that suicidal adults often don’t exhibit dramatic behavioral changes nor do they wear flashing red warning signs indicating they’re in distress or in danger of impending suicide.
Yet, for some unknown reason, family members are expected to recognize subtle changes which have occurred over time and diagnose their loved ones as suicidal without any sort of training or degree. When they fail to do so (as occurs in most cases) their own grief and self-castigation is supposed to be subjugated as well-meaning mourners, friends, and even strangers ask them why they didn’t see the fatal event coming.
The opportunity to grieve someone with whom the relationship might, in fact have been strained for a long time is overshadowed by the need to try to answer these ill-conceived questions and even justify their failure to prevent the final act from occurring.
To Grieve or Not to Grieve, It’s Not Always a Matter of Choice
The lucky few are able to shrug off the questions, both internal and external, grieve properly, and get on with their lives. But for so many of us, we truly are the forgotten victims of an act we could neither predict nor prevent; an act which, in the end, had absolutely nothing to do with us. We may turn that act and the years preceding it over and over in our minds, looking for a time, a place, an opportunity to reassure the deceased that they were loved, they mattered, and that the world would not be better off without them.
We chew on that bone far longer than we should, doing ourselves a great deal of harm and very little good. How much sooner might we toss that bone in the garbage where it belongs if just one person said to us: “It’s not your fault. There’s no way you could have known.”
Changing the World With a Listening Ear
If one person offered to listen without judgment, without blame, and perhaps with a few comforting words, we might not internalize, and in doing so, put ourselves at risk of choosing the same path. But suicide is a stigma that takes on a life of its own. It’s as if people think it’s a contagious disease and the family of a suicide victim are carriers.
Do people avoid someone because a family member has cancer? Do they run the other way because a family member robbed a bank or committed a more heinous crime? Not typically.
Even when a brother, sister, or child comes out of the closet; though in some places, it’s certainly still cause for banishment or forced therapy, in more and more cases, we accept it as the natural path for that person, and continue to love all sides of the equation unreservedly. (perhaps I’m a bit naive about this one as I know there are places where people are still ignorant and resort to violence, but in the circles I travel, judging someone on their sexuality is actually the more repugnant choice.) There’s certainly not an assignation of blame or an expectation the person or their family will infect others with some gay virus.
Granted, homosexuality, unlike suicide isn’t a choice, in spite of those who still mistakenly believe the contrary. It is, however, a situation that has been and, to some degree will continue to be stigmatized by society. Yet in those areas where the stigma remains, the heterosexual family members are typically offered sympathy, not blame.
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
It’s time people understand suicide is a choice and often comes about suddenly and without warning. Even those closest to the victim are fooled by the false front many of us put up without even being aware of it. The smile on our face may not reflect what’s going on inside, but nobody will ever know unless they ask the right questions. For suicide victims and their families, the ability to hide the pain has been raised to an art form. We hide it from the world, but we hide it from each other as well. Often, we hide it from ourselves for as long as we can, but the deception has a real and often cataclysmic expiration date.
Yet is it ever completely hidden? If someone looked into our eyes, or at the way we held our bodies in more than a superficial fashion, would they see the stiff control we keep on ourselves, on our feelings and emotions?
Learning to Let Go of Our Fierce But Deadly Control
A few years ago, a woman said to me “You’re so buttoned up. I’d love to unbutton you.” At the time, I was offended, but I realize now, I was more scared than offended. She’d seen through that tight control I kept over myself; pulled back hair, loose, concealing clothes, to the vulnerability it hid. I kept an enormous wall around myself, discouraging anyone from trying to breach it and find the real me behind it. Nobody wanted to make the effort to see what I hid, and at the time, I liked it that way.
Today, as I share my friends’ lives; their ups and downs, joys and sorrows, I see how much I missed, because in sharing theirs, they also share mine. The burden is no longer borne alone, and most of all, I no longer have a reason to stay silent. While there might still be a subject or two we’d consider taboo, I’ve yet to discover what it might be. Whether it’s a family member who’s gay or one with mental health issues, we feel comfortable sharing our concerns and frustrations. Even suicide is a subject we discuss fairly openly, and in fact, I’m not alone in having lost someone that way.
Tuning in to the Uncomfortable Silence Within
Silence was never my friend in this healing journey. Even lashing out in anger when presented with cruel and thoughtless questions from people who thought I deserved to be blamed would have given me a healthy if unpleasant outlet. Writing, sharing, talking, crying, screaming in frustration—any or all of them would have shortened the time I spent falling into my own lonely, depressive state where I truly believed no one would miss me if I was gone. Is that what we’d wish on someone who’s just suffered the most devastating loss of all?
Sheri Conaway is a writer, blogger, Virtual Assistant and advocate for cats. Sheri believes in the Laws of Attraction, but only if you are a participant rather than just an observer. She is available for article writing and ghost writing to help your website and the business it supports grow and thrive. Her specialties are finding and expressing your authentic self. If you’d like to have her write for you, please visit her Hire Me page for more information. You can also find her on Facebook Sheri Levenstein-Conaway Author.
Be sure to watch this space for news of the upcoming release of “Forgotten Victims: Healing and Forgiving After Suicide”.