Sept. 11, 2018 - I was driving to work when a message came through from my sister to call her. I pulled over to call her back, and she informed me that our mom had taken her own life.
Christmas was just around the corner. I took the next three and a half weeks off from work, and was surrounded by loving family and friends. This was our second significant loss of the year, coming just seven months after my dad had lost his ten-year battle with brain cancer.
My family and I had been through the depths of pain and sorrow. There was now a significant hole in our lives without both of my parents, who were also the grandparents of four.
My family had put all our energy into helping my dad fight cancer. His illness had increased in intensity in his final months. Being his caretaker for so long, depression had set in early for my mom. Now, with his absence, she grieved deeply and independently, in a way that had pushed many of her closest family away.
My mother’s suicide came as a shock: my worst nightmare come true. Numb and overwhelmed for the first few weeks, I sought help from a therapist. I also spent many hours in the kitchen, baking from my mom's recipe book as another kind of therapy.
I don't believe there is a specific recipe to the process of grieving from such a loss, but here are a few “ingredients” that helped me most during this time.
- Knowing my purpose. I’m lucky enough to have two passions that challenge and motivate me. One is my career. The other is mentoring young adults at my church. Each week, I am challenged to provide a message and inspire conversation among 15-20 students and follow up with them throughout the week. During my grieving process, whenever I felt like staying on the couch instead, I gathered up all my courage and put my own feelings aside for a couple hours to pour myself into them. I came home exhausted, but with amazing stories of how these students inspired each other and me. Whatever your purpose is – it can be something incredibly mundane and simple – it can help keep you moving forward.
- Surrounding myself with good people. Over the years, I've found people who encourage me and whom I trust with the depths of my heart. During this tragedy, these were the people who asked me out to lunch, were kind enough to bring over a warm dish for my family, and checked in even months later to ask how I was doing. My friends helped provide just the bit of hope I needed when I felt emotionally drained. One act of kindness could sometimes plant a seed of joy and hope that sticks around for a long time afterward. Not everyone knows what to say or do following a suicide death, though – it’s okay to ask directly for what you need.
- Being comfortable with vulnerability. During periods in which I felt like I was doing okay, there would still be difficult days or new emotions that surfaced. My natural tendency is to work through my emotions myself. But I quickly learned that sharing my struggle with someone, rather than keeping it to myself, helped me move past it more quickly. When one friend offered to help by setting up a meal train, I swallowed my own pride and said "yes." I learned to honor my vulnerability during a vulnerable time, which helped give people an opportunity to connect with me.
- Finding the right physical and spiritual outlets. The grieving process is emotionally draining. I found that taking time for yoga and meditation enabled me re-center, and helped me to connect with what I was feeling. Yoga was an outlet I could look forward to, and helped me settle my thoughts. This article from yogajournal.com describes what I mean: "I realized that if I could stay with what was happening at any given moment, I could handle it. It's like staying with your breath in a difficult pose: In any situation, if you can breathe through it, you can handle it." I'm sure there are other outlets, but yoga was the perfect one for me and many trainers have specific sessions for grief or heartbreak.
- Being open to something new. Grief and loss can make you feel guilty for moving on or for finding joy in new opportunities. A month after my mom passed away, I went back to school to restart my master's degree. It’s a challenge each week to find the time to study and push my brain in a new direction, but it's also been rewarding. It's clear that a new journey has begun, and that there is a future for me. I can bring memories of my parents along with me while working through the grieving process at the same time.