Share Your Story

(Written December 19, 2019)

We are afraid that if we normalize suicidal thoughts we are saying that suicide is okay. To the contrary, if we admit that having depressive or suicidal thoughts is a part of the normal human experience we can actually start to have a dialogue about suicide and perhaps have a real chance of making strides towards prevention. So I’ll start…

At first when my husband died by suicide I did not get it at ALL. I didn’t understand how he would see that as an option because that thought had never crossed my mind. But now I realize that I had just been one of the lucky ones. When things got to be too much for me I didn’t get depressed in the traditional sense, instead my perfectionistic tendencies kicked in and I tried to “fix” my way out of whatever was bothering me. I was pretty successful at doing that until Chuck died but I couldn’t fix his death so my normal coping strategies failed me.

I remember it very clearly. It was about a month after Chuck died and I was having dinner with my Dad at a restaurant that Chuck and I had gone to often. I was already feeling very anxious and uneasy and I went to the bathroom. While in there, darkness suddenly engulfed me and thoughts of dying swirled in my mind and momentarily I saw suicide as a viable option. At that moment I didn’t see any good in my life and I couldn’t envision it being any different in the future.

I have never been more scared in my life than I was standing in that bathroom. I was terrified that those thoughts were mine and I was so sad that Chuck must have battled those thoughts repeatedly before ending his life. But I was very lucky because my suicidal thoughts were transient and after I walked out of that bathroom they were gone and I haven’t had them since. I also feel very fortunate that I had that experience because it helped me to empathize with Chuck and others who have battled suicidal thoughts. It helped me to see that suicidal thoughts can come on very suddenly (and also leave just as quickly) and the importance of being proactive in my mental health.

I was already seeing a therapist following Chuck’s death and I shared my experience with her. She helped to normalize it and has continued to support me through my grief journey.

Let the Light Shine

4 Years Later ~ Let the Light Shine (written March 22, 2020)

“I hope one day you can remember me as the man that truly loved you.” When Chuck wrote those words to me almost 4 years ago before ending his life I don’t think he fully understood how hard that would be for me. He had never experienced the death of someone he loved so much and he had never lost anyone to suicide. So even though he knew I would struggle with his death, the magnitude of it was incomprehensible from his vantage point. I remember reading his words and being mad at him for even asking that of me. It felt like he wanted me to forgive him for leaving me and I thought that was impossible.

But now, four years later, I don’t think he was asking me to forgive him. He just didn’t want his death to overshadow his life. He didn’t want his death to define him. He didn’t want his death to define us. He was a beautiful person and throughout our 18 years together we had some pretty incredible times, and he was asking me not to forget that. He was asking me to remember the true essence of who he was and remember his light through all the darkness.

So although his suicide will always be a part of his legacy, his suicide is not who he was. As time has gone by and I’ve worked on processing my pain the good memories have been able to shine through. I’ve started writing them down because I never want to forget them and I want to be able to share them with our kids. Here are just a few of mine and I would love for his family and friends to share their memories with me:

In December 1997, it was our first winter in Auburn together. Everyone else had gone home for the holidays but we decided to stay in town. It snowed very unexpectedly (especially for Alabama) and we weren’t prepared. Chuck let me borrow some of his clothes so we could go out and enjoy it. We made snow angels in his front yard. I remember it being so quiet and magical. It felt like we were the only people on the planet.

When I was pregnant with Caleb we moved to Birmingham in hopes of getting higher paying jobs while finishing college. We got our first apartment downtown close to the UAB campus and I had no idea how we were really going to be able to afford it. But, a couple of months after we moved into our apartment Chuck became friends with the owner of our building and he negotiated a deal to manage our building and do the landscaping in exchange for basically no rent. After he negotiated this deal he admitted to me that he knew we wouldn’t be able to afford the apartment but he also knew he would figure out a way to make it work. This is a prime example of the type of person Chuck was. He made friends very easily, he was a very hard worker and he was super resourceful.

We were young parents and couldn’t afford a big wedding and a honeymoon so we decided to save up for an all-inclusive wedding/honeymoon by ourselves in the Bahamas. It took us about a year to save, but we made it happen. The night before our wedding we stayed up drinking too much cheap champagne at an Italian restaurant at the resort and we woke up just in time to throw on our clothes and make it to our 9 a.m. barefoot wedding on the beach. Our wedding was like our marriage, laid back and without pretense.

During our early years together we were always struggling to make it. We were in college, working restaurant jobs and taking care of Caleb. We worked opposite hours and rarely had time to see each other. One night while I was working, Chuck made me a mixed tape and put it in the cassette player in my car. When I got off work and started my car the tape was automatically playing. It was his way to let me know I was still on his mind. It’s one of the sweetest memories I have.

And one of his favorite songs which is so fitting now. https://youtu.be/lDPojZBgxHE

Cost of Losing a Spouse

The day after my husband died, I awoke experiencing all types of thoughts and emotions but the dominate one was, “How in the world are me and the kids going to survive financially?” Instead of being able to process the loss of my life partner, I was worried about how I was going to prevent our family from becoming homeless because when Chuck died, we lost over 70% of our family’s income. We had no significant savings, and to top it off – he had no life insurance.

Our life path was a bit atypical. When we met, I was 18 years old and he was 19 years old. We had our son the following year. We both thought finishing college was important, so Chuck worked while I finished my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Then I supported the family while he completed his degree. 

Although we knew it was important, saving was never at the top of our priority list. Like most families, we were primarily living paycheck-to-paycheck. We were focused on paying back our own student loans and not saving for our children’s college. However, after many years of struggling, we were both in our respective careers and making decent salaries. For the first time, we were financially stable and planning for the future.

So, just four months prior to Chuck’s death we bought our dream home. Two months prior, we bought our 17-year-old son a car. We were also planning for our son to go to college in a year, so we started a savings account and anticipated being be able to afford his tuition without having to take out any student loans. We felt like we had finally “made it” – but this feeling was very short-lived for me.

Immediately after Chuck died I knew there was no way I was going to be able to pay all of our bills by myself, not even for a month. I was in a panic! However, I was very fortunate. Our friends and family donated to a GoFundMe account and Chuck’s employer generously offered to help me out for the first 6 months after his death. So, that 6 months of support gave me a little bit of breathing room to figure out what I needed to do to survive. During that time, I sold our brand-new home, bought one I could afford by myself, and we moved. I also sold Chuck’s car, got his student loans and medical bills forgiven, and refinanced our son’s car. I also applied for social security survivor benefits for my kids and was surprised to find out the benefits would end when my son graduated from high school – so he would not receive any money while he was in college.

As you can imagine, I was stressed to the max! Just buying and selling a home is a huge stressor. I was doing it alone, while grieving Chuck’s death, trying to be a solo parent to my kids, helping my son apply to college, and still maintaining my day job. Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it.  I know money does not fix everything, but it sure would have made things so much easier then – and even now. If Chuck had life insurance, I would not have had to focus most of my time and energy on our financial survival immediately following his death. Instead, I would have been able to focus more on our grief and healing. 

The biggest problem was I never really thought about myself before Chuck died. I was worried about how he and the kids would manage if I died, so I had a large life insurance policy on myself. On a few occasions I asked Chuck to get his own policy and he did look into it, but he never followed through. In hindsight, I wish I had insisted that he get a life insurance policy. He wasn’t getting the policy for himself; he was getting it for me and our kids.

I am very fortunate that I am resourceful and have a stable career that I can continue to grow in. I am also very lucky that I have an amazing stepdad who has selflessly helped us, so my children can continue to do the extracurricular activities they love. He has also helped with college expenses. However, I would never wish this experience on anyone. We all think that we are young and bad things will not happen to us, but I am here to say they do. Since Chuck’s death I have met so many young widows like myself that had to struggle because their spouse did not have life insurance. So please make sure that both you and your spouse have life insurance, because money should be the least of your concerns when you lose your partner.

Stigma of a Suicide Loss Survivor

stigma2Does talking about my husband’s suicide make you uncomfortable? Well, that’s exactly why I continue to do it. In order to move past the uneasiness, you first have to be exposed to it. You have to sit with it, read about it and talk about it until it’s no longer the monster it once was.

Until I was forced to get upfront and personal with suicide, it scared me too. I thought it was something that only affected other people and somehow my family and I were immune. But after Chuck’s death, I quickly learned that not only does suicide stigmatize the person that took their own life but the stigma is left behind for the survivors to grapple with.

When Chuck died, I immediately felt like everyone was so concerned with how he died, instead of the fact that he was gone and his family and friends were mourning his loss. Chuck was a husband, father, son, brother, friend, coworker and so much more but almost instantaneously his identity became overshadowed by the way he died and the why.

His family and close friends knew he died by suicide, but it wasn’t general knowledge. I was encouraged by some people to lie or cover-up his cause of death and “just say it was a heart attack” or “he died unexpectedly.” I didn’t know what to say so I just didn’t say anything – for over a year. If anyone asked me, I would answer them truthfully but I didn’t write an obituary, talk about how he died at his memorial service or post anything on social media because I didn’t know what to say.

But, overtime I realized that by not talking about his suicide I was stunting my grief and my healing process. I was not able to fully express my pain or my love for Chuck without fully talking about his death. I also realized that if I lied or covered up how he died I would just be perpetuating the stigma of suicide. If I could not even talk about his death, how could I ever expect people who had suicidal thoughts to seek help?

I also thought long and hard about the relationship that I wanted to have with my children and what I thought would be best for them now and into the future. I wanted to be honest with them and have open lines of communication. I want them to know about mental health, that suicide is not the way to end their pain and how to ask for help. I want them to know it’s okay to talk about their Dad in whatever way they choose. I don’t expect my children to be advocates for suicide victims or survivors but I want them to feel empowered by their voice and not ashamed of their legacy.

I can’t say that it’s been an easy process but since I’ve opened up about Chuck’s suicide I’ve felt so much freer and I’ve been able to experience the multiple facets of my grief. I also never imagined how being open about Chuck’s death could possibly help other people but now I see how so many others are bound by the stigma of suicide too. I’ve had many people reach out to me who have lost a loved one to suicide, had a family member who struggled with suicidal thoughts and friends who have contemplated taking their own life. Being a suicide survivor was never an identity that I envisioned but it is also not one that I can ignore. So, I’m going to keep writing and talking about it until “suicide” is no longer whispered and we can have an open dialogue about its impact on individuals, families, and on our society as a whole.

Spring ~ Triggers of Traumatic Loss

springSpring is coming. There is a shift occurring inside of me. At a physiological level, my body is starting to re-experience the trauma of Chuck’s death while my mind still tries to block it out. Spring used to be my favorite season. It meant warmer weather, longer days, and blooming flowers. Everything was anew. Now, spring signifies the beginning of the end of my old life.

When Chuck died, spring was upon us. Daylight savings had just begun, soccer season was in full swing, Spring Break was quickly approaching and Easter was the coming weekend.  The day he died, it was warm outside. I had spent that afternoon on the playground with our daughter, oblivious to the news I would get that evening. The next breezy spring morning I laid with her on a blanket in the green grass. She was wrapped in her Daddy’s black fleece jacket starring up at the cloudless blue sky trying to make sense of what I had just told her. And she was asking questions any 6 year old would ask, “Is Daddy up there? Can he see us?  How do we know he is really dead? Is his pain gone? Who will be my Daddy now?”

I tried my best to answer her questions and reassure her that we would be okay, though not fully believing any of it. I laid there marveling at the beautiful nature around us while experiencing the stark contrast of the terror inside of me. I kept asking myself, how could Chuck leave all of this- this wonderful, beautiful, magnificent world? And of course, how could he leave us?

That beautifully horrific spring day was followed by many more just like it. Questions I couldn’t really answer, emotions I didn’t know how to process, sadness I had to hide, and the business of death dominating most of my days. My body was in shock. I could barely eat because images of Chuck’s death were swimming around in my mind. I could only sleep for short stints of time because our bed terrified me. I didn’t know how to be alone in a space that we had both occupied every night before. I couldn’t stand to see his things lying around the house, reminding me that he had left it all behind. His t-shirt on the nightstand, his slippers by the back door, and his towel on the bathroom hook flooded me with waves of nausea.

Eventually I bought a new home and a new bed that I could sleep peacefully in. And for the most part, Chuck’s possessions were packed up or given away. My shock and anxiety subsided piece by piece while I worked to rebuild our lives. However, last year when winter gave way to spring, I felt the anxiety creeping in again. It was a trigger beyond my control and it was completely unanticipated. Before I knew it, I found myself barely being able to eat again and at first I didn’t know why. Though, I soon figured out that the season I once loved was now tied to the trauma that I had buried deep inside. Today, I feel the weather changing and I know spring is near. My body has already started to experience a negative shift and it’s scary. But this year, I know what’s to come. Instead of letting the trauma take me, I want to try to untie the beauty from the pain of my past. Someday soon, I want to look at the beautiful sky, feel the spring breeze and reclaim the season I once loved.

 

 

Being Open to Love after Loss

I started dating someone last spring. At the time, I wasn’t looking for a relationship or anything close to it. I had finally started to figure out my new life as a widow. I hadn’t been single in almost 20 years and dating scared me.  I had no idea what it would be like to let someone else into my life. More importantly, I didn’t know who I would be with someone that wasn’t Chuck.

I had also become comfortable in my grief. Although I was lonely, my grief protected me from the possibility of any more pain. Chuck’s suicide shattered my sense of safety, security, reliability, and trust. Dating made me realize that I was struggling to let people into my life. I was scared that anyone I loved would ultimately leave me (thus proving their love wasn’t genuine in the first place).

During the first several months of my relationship, even though I was happy I was simultaneously searching for reasons why it wouldn’t work. At the first sign of “danger”, I was ready to flee. I was struggling with persistent fears of abandonment that suicide loss had engrained in me. But, in order to give this relationship a real chance I’ve had to allow myself to be vulnerable and open to the possibility of rejection and loss again.

While I still struggle, I’m glad that I’ve opened myself up to possibility of love in my life again. I’ve found a pretty remarkable guy. He’s not afraid of my widowhood and the fact that my husband died by suicide. He tries to understand my grief and support me however he can  He’s secure enough that he can handle me talking about Chuck on almost a daily basis. He tries to connect with my kids and he grasps the daily reality of me being a solo parent who never gets any days off.

Although I can’t predict where this relationship will lead, I’m still grateful. It’s helped me realize that my life is still full of possibilities. And I wholeheartedly believe Chuck would want me to find love again. But in all honesty, it’s doesn’t matter what he would want.  He left this world and now I have to live the rest of my life as I see fit. Dating and finding love again does not mean that I loved Chuck any less. It means that I’ve chosen to keep living.

Reinvention ~ Life after loss

It’s been 1.5 years since Chuck ended his own life. Since that day, death and suicide have been a part of my everyday consciousness. Thoughts of him, our life together, and the ultimate demise weave in and out of my mind throughout the day. But now, instead of his death instilling gut wrenching fear and shock, I’ve started to accept it as part of my evolving life story. 

I’ve finally realized that Chuck’s death will not define me, but I think it will definitely REDEFINE me. I will never be the person that I was before. His death has drastically changed the way I perceive the world, it has changed how I prioritize what’s important to me, and ultimately I think it has shifted my life course. I’m not sure where my life will  lead or who this new version of me will be, but Chuck’s death has awaken me and it has started to propel me out of stagnation. 

Since his death I now speak and write more freely because I don’t care as much what people think about me or my ideas. Part of being a suicide survivor is eventually accepting that your life/story is going to make many people uncomfortable. But, to live genuinely I can’t continue worrying about how other people perceive me. Not only has this helped me talk more openly about suicide, but it’s helped me be more honest and open in all facets of my life.

Having firsthand experience with traumatic loss has also helped me to see how fleeting life can be. So since Chuck’s death, I say “YES” more. I want to truly live NOW so I say “YES” to more life experiences. I say yes to adventures, yes to love, yes to dessert, yes to adult dance classes, yes to writing, and I say yes to anyone in need.

But, I also say “NO” more. Now I say “NO” to things that don’t bring me joy or don’t bring joy to the people I love. I don’t feel obligated to do anything because someone else thinks that I “should.” I say no to expectations of others, say no to societal conventions/pressures, say no to mom guilt, say no to pettiness and I say no to someone else’s version of me.

I wish I didn’t understand death so intimately and I wouldn’t wish my life experience on anyone else. But, there is no way to change the past so I’m striving to appreciate the perspective it’s giving me. I’m trying my best to own it and grow from it.

Daughter on your 8th Birthday

Dear Daughter,

This year marks your second birthday without your Dad and I KNOW it’s not easy. You are just now starting to comprehend his death and process what suicide means. I try to give you enough information without overwhelming you. I’m not sure if I’ve found that balance quite yet. But what I do know is that I don’t tell you enough how much your Dad loved you. Because of my own feelings of anger and resentment it’s often hard for me to remember his love, accept that it ever existed and share his love with you.

But this night takes me back to the eve of your birth. We tried for almost 3 years to have another baby and endured multiple miscarriages to finally be blessed with you. I remember that night so vividly. I went into labor and we made our way to the hospital around 9pm and you were born shortly after midnight. It was the best night of our lives (of course equal to the day your big brother was born :). “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train was the anthem to your birth and we continued to play it on repeat for months and months after you were born.

You were such an incredible addition to our family and we were (and still are) so in love with you. You were such a happy baby and you’ve grown into such an incredible little girl. I know that you hung the moon for your Dad, but I need YOU to know that. As you grow up I never want you to forget him or question his love for you. So, it’s my job to keep those memories and his love alive for you.

I’ve had my own major struggles processing and comprehending his death and I can’t expect that your young soul will experience anything less. In time, I hope to provide you the enlightened guidance you need on this path. Until then, I’m going to continue to try to be the best mom I can be (even though I fail repeatedly), strive to show you how we can become our best selves (not in spite of but because of the struggles we’ve endured), and how the world is a better place because your kind heart is in it. Happy 8th Birthday!

I Love You!

Mom

 

My Wedding Ring

I took my wedding ring off soon after Chuck’s Memorial Service. I didn’t know if it was the “right” or “wrong” thing to do. I felt like a bad wife, a bad widow and a bad person for even thinking about taking it off so soon after his death. I know widows and widowers who wear their wedding rings forever, some who switch it to another finger or hand, and some who wear it around their neck. But I wanted to take it off because every time I looked down at my hand or twirled the ring around my finger, which I did unconsciously throughout the day, it was a constant and stark reminder of what once was and would never be again. The ring felt hollow and insincere, but at the same time it felt like a weight binding me to a horrific past and a very uncertain future. It felt like betrayal, fear, and anxiety all wrapped into one continuous loop.

I also wanted to take my ring off because we had just moved into a new home in a new neighborhood and meeting neighbors at the parks, pool and just strolling around was almost an everyday occurrence and I didn’t want people to assume I was married. I didn’t want the questions that went along with that assumption. They’d ask me about my husband, when “we” moved here, where he worked, where “we” were from. I wasn’t ready to tell everybody I met that my husband had just died. Then I’d have to deal with their sad and shocked faces and dreaded follow up questions. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t figured out how to tell people that he died by suicide without crumbling in a ball of tears as the words fell out of my mouth. So I took my ring off, but I still tried to keep people at a distance and their questions at bay.

My finger felt remarkably empty without my wedding ring on. I’d look down at my hand expecting to see it or I would move my thumb over to twirl it and there was nothing there, except the indention of where it once was. My naked finger was a reminder of my vulnerability and the uncertainty of my future. But still, I decided that I needed to navigate this new reality without being bound to the promises that my wedding ring once represented.

Then on my birthday this year I received a ring as a gift. At that time, it had been 14 months since Chuck’s death and I felt like I was finally coming into my own as a person, as a woman, and as a solo parent. I was finally able to talk about my grief more openly and about Chuck’s suicide more affirmatively. I didn’t think I wanted to wear another ring, but as soon as I put the new ring on it felt like home. The ring was an emerald, my birthstone. This new ring filled a physical void on my finger but it has also helped to serve as a daily reminder of my rebirth – my identity outside of marriage and widowhood, and my beckoning future.

Love & Hate

Can love and hate reside in the same heart? This is something I’ve asked myself over and over again since Chuck died. How can I hate someone so much that I once loved whole heartedly? How can I hate the one person I literally grew into adulthood with? How can I hate the person that was always  “my person”? How can I hate my childrens’ father? Does all of this hate make me a bad person? Do I have to move past the hate in order to heal?

But I’m starting to realize that the Chuck who ended his own life is not the Chuck I knew and loved. He had completely transformed. The Chuck I knew would not have left me without even a goodbye, a hug, or a glance when he walked out of the door that morning. He would not have left me panically searching for him when he never returned. The Chuck I knew would not have left me to deal with his body, his funeral, his family.  

The Chuck I knew would not have left our kids fatherless, for me to raise alone. The Chuck I knew would not want me to explain to our kindergarten daughter what suicide is. He would not have left me with the responsibility to love them enough for the both of us. The Chuck I knew would have realized that our kids would never be the same after losing him.

The Chuck I knew would have realized that I would never be the same either! He would have known that his death would cause me irreparable harm. The Chuck I knew would not have left me to survive financially. The Chuck I knew loved me enough that he wanted to live for me, not die for me.

So the Chuck that I hate, is not the person I once loved. The Chuck I hate was a complete stranger. His suicidal brain had taken control of all rational thoughts and emotions. So for now, I’m okay with the hate that’s living in my heart. The hate has protected me, it has fueled me and it has kept me going when I might not have.