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.

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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.

WHY?

When someone dies by suicide, everybody wants to know WHY. So, in addition to the pure shock and disbelief I experienced when Chuck died, the endless thoughts of WHY circled around and around in my mind. “Why did Chuck leave this world – me, our kids, his extended family, his friends, a great career?” I thought there had to be an answer I could discover or figure out if I tried hard enough. I needed to make sense of something that seemed completely nonsensical. I needed to know WHY so the incessant thoughts could stop, so I could sleep, so I could breathe. I didn’t necessarily care what the WHY was, I just needed an answer.

I racked my mind day and night trying to remember every detail of our last conversations and interactions. I delved back into our past searching for any clues I could have missed. I read and reread the note he left for me OVER and OVER until it was etched in my mind. I read through his emails, searched his phone, examined his browser history, listened to his Pandora stations, figured out what he was watching on Netflix – but I still did not find an answer to the WHY. I went to therapy, read every book I could find, scoured the internet, and joined online suicide support groups – all in an attempt to try to figure out WHY Chuck ended his life.

Through this “research”, I learned that all suicide survivors struggle with the WHY and there are really only two ways to move past it. You can either accept that you will NEVER know WHY because suicide is so very complicated and there is no answer. Or, you can construct (i.e., make up) a story in your mind that you are able to accept as the “truth”. I tried writing many possible “stories” in my mind to explain WHY Chuck died by suicide, but I could not live with any of them. The “stories” were not our reality.

Eventually I was able to accept that I would never know WHY. I learned that people who are suicidal can become stuck in their past traumas, bound by their current state of mind, and lacking the foresight to see things being any different in the future. These variables collide at a specific place and time resulting in a horrific outcome. And, the ONLY person that can possibly know the reason WHY is the person that took their own life. Only Chuck knew what was going on in his mind at the time he died. I was finally able to accept that it wasn’t possible for me to figure out WHY and more importantly it wasn’t my responsibility. With this acceptance I’ve been able to move forward in my healing.  Possibly you can too.

My Metamorphosis

I woke up the morning of March 22, 2016 thinking it was just another day. BUT, that was the day that my forever changed.  It was that day I was left trembling, whaling alone on my living room floor after the sheriffs arrived at our house. They told me the unbelievable, unspeakable truth. This truth opened up the earth and swallowed me whole – Chuck had ended his own life. He had taken his future, our future, our children’s future and altered it permanently.

I will never forget the eyes of my children when I told them their Dad was gone and they would never see him again. It was the look of pure disbelief. The man that brought them into this world, who cuddled and played with them, who swore to protect them with all his might – was gone, and of his own accord.  I wanted to and needed to express my disbelief, my shock, and my pain – but I couldn’t. I was now their one and only, the one to stay STRONG, the one to hold everything together, the one with all of the answers, and the one to hold them tight when their pain was too much to bear. When they were shattering from their loss, I needed to be whole.

But instead of being whole, I became a shell of a person. I became a person to fix things, to plan things, to pay things, to escape things, to reassure others, to be socially acceptable, and to meet all the demands and expectations of everyone else- whether they were real or self-imposed.

When Chuck took his life he did not realize that his pain did not end, it was just transferred to us – his survivors, his family, his supporters, his champions.  We were left with his pain. We were left harboring, holding, fighting, processing, and trying to transform the pain into something we hoped we could manage. That was not his intent, but it’s the reality. Pain does not end.

So, I’m left here examining my life, my next move, and this space that exists between where I was, where I thought I would be and where I AM NOW. I was thrust into this NOW with no warning, no preparation, and no expectations. This blog is about my metamorphosis – it’s about me finding me, honoring me, and discovering me through my grief and beyond.