Karen Heisig is one of the participants in this year’s Survivor Day film, Life Journeys. To find a Survivor Day event in your area, click here.
“Community. Connection. Resiliency.” I’m guessing these are three words that do not come to mind if you have recently lost a loved one to suicide. They are the meaning behind a bracelet my children gave me several years ago, with a single charm of four interlocking Celtic knots. But if I had to have chosen three words for myself in the immediate aftermath of my husband’s death ten years ago, they would have been: alone, broken, and devastated. I didn’t have the first clue as to how I was going to pick up the pieces of my heart, never mind putting them back together and asking my heart to beat again. I had embarked on a journey not of my choosing: alone at the helm, and unable to see the horizon.
If you were to describe your own lost loved one to me, it is likely I would simultaneously hear a description of Maurice: someone who was funny, loving, and smart, who picked others up when they were down, a person who lit up a room by entering it and made a lasting impression on most everyone they met. My husband loved to brag that he never met a stranger. All who knew him loved him. If someone had ever suggested that he would die by suicide, I would have laughed. Not Maurice. He was larger than life. He was my compass and I always said I’d follow him to the ends of the Earth.
I am not sure what the ends of the Earth look like, but I can tell you what it felt like: having to use every bit of energy just to put one foot in front of the other to somehow make it through to the next day.
My first Survivor Day was in November of 2009, nearly four years after Maurice had died. I was trying to find my purpose on this journey, and I found it that day. Surrounded by people whose pain I recognized, I knew I did not want my loss to define me. I knew I wanted to plant seeds of hope in other broken hearts. When I was asked to be a part of this year’s Survivor Day documentary, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I have learned a few things in the last decade without Maurice by my side, and I knew that maybe, just maybe, my experience could be a ray of light for someone else feeling lost in a sea of grief.
Here are some things I would say to a recent suicide loss survivor:
You will make it to the next day, and the next month, and the next year.
You will remember that joy is the color of sunshine.
In time, that deep place in your soul will open itself once again to light and laughter and love.
You will find a community of survivors.
Every year, more than 42,000 people in the U.S. die by suicide. That means there are more than one million loss survivors each year who join us on this journey. I have found my community through volunteering with AFSP, sharing my story, walking with fellow survivors, and most importantly, hosting the annual Survivor Day event where I live. It has been through reaching out, and helping others heal, that I have been able to stitch my heart back together.
You will find connection.
The first time you meet a fellow survivor on this journey, your heart will sigh with relief. There will be no need for false smiles or explanations. You will feel like you’ve always known each other when you’ve only just met. My connection with other loss survivors has become my compass. They are there to listen, to lean on when the going gets rough, and to gently guide me back on course when I go astray. I am deeply grateful for my fellow travelers.
You will discover resilience.
Following my husband’s death, I never knew what was going to set me off: seeing a happy couple with their children, hearing our song on the radio, finding an old letter tucked away. Time truly is the great healer, though. Eventually, I found I was able to bounce back from these moments sooner. The tears wouldn’t last quite as long. I learned that grief could be a sometimes companion, rather than a garment that was worn daily.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until later, when I bought the same Celtic bracelet my children had given me for a dear friend who I met on this journey, that I realized the meaning assigned to it — “Community. Connection. Resiliency.” – and that it had come to represent so much of what I had been through.
May you find community and connection on your journey, and remember always that your heart is resilient. If by chance you forget, remember what my favorite bear once said:
“If there is ever a tomorrow that we are not together, there is one thing you should always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is: even if we’re apart, I will always be with you in the heart.” ~ Winnie the Pooh
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