The author hiking with her son in Canyonlands National Park. The piles of rocks (cairns) are markers to help you find your way.
Aug. 14, 2018 - Five years ago, I lost one of my closest friends to suicide. The days and weeks that followed were full of grief. As the time turned into years, I still struggled to find my way forward in a life that felt foreign. I found some clarity and hope by learning to look at the grieving process in a new way. It’s a lesson I hope will benefit others who are on a similar journey or supporting someone who is.
My understanding of the grieving process has been enlightened by my work as a physical therapist, assisting and strengthening those recovering from injuries in both hospital and inpatient rehabilitation settings. Understanding the healing of emotional wounds can be much informed by looking at the recovery process following a physical trauma.
Having someone close to you ripped away by suicide is akin to having your leg cut off, in that a part of you is permanently lost. You are now faced with the challenge of learning to live in a different way. It’s a trauma that cannot be overcome without the proper resources, and – unfortunately – without active participation in the process.
I say unfortunately because when a person is in the throes of grief, mustering the effort to try and move forward can seem impossible. Additionally, there are times that any attempt to move forward can feel like a betrayal of the person you lost. Active participation in healing is crucial, but far from easy.
It’s not nearly as simple as “time heals all wounds.” Time creates the opportunity for healing, but time alone does not heal emotional wounds any more than it might heal physical ones.
No one should expect to recover from suicide loss simply by thinking positively and waiting for time to pass. A notion like this minimizes the impact of the loss and underestimates the amount of personal effort required to cope.
So, if healing is not accomplished by simply waiting, how does a person go from the operating table to running a marathon on their prosthetic leg?
In the early stages, they will need assistance to move around. They will need to be taught how to care for their wound, how to clean it and let it heal. In the case of a prosthetic leg, they’ll need somebody skilled to meet with for periodic adjustments. They will need physical therapy to help them regain their strength, and to teach them how to move independently again.
With repeated effort and expert guidance, they will ultimately learn to stand on their own without falling. Then they will learn to walk again.
The process won’t be easy or quick. There will be setbacks, frustration, and pain. There will be mourning for the old way of life, when they didn’t have to concentrate on every step, or when they didn’t feel awkward just sitting or lying in bed.
Their whole way of life will be changed, but not hopelessly so. Things will be different, but they will be able to overcome each obstacle, to find a new way of doing things, to continue to live, and to thrive.
As suicide loss survivors, we similarly need to recognize and address the challenges we face. If I deny my loss, I am unlikely to make a successful recovery. If I deny the grief, the depression, the PTSD, or the anxiety without assessing and addressing my emotions, I may miss out on the different types of help that would benefit me.
There are valuable professional resources, including counselors, psychiatrists, and trauma specialists. There are support groups, and there is the solidarity of others who are walking a similar path. There is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which offers research and education, advocacy, and chapters across the country, with a vibrant community of people who have been affected by suicide.
For those of us faced with the reality of a suicide loss, or for those supporting someone who is, let’s not try to placate the grief simply by saying, “It will get better in time.” Let’s not pressure ourselves or others to merely wait and will their grief away. Instead, let’s offer support, and set realistic expectations of the grieving process.
Your life has changed, but with support and persistence you can adapt to this new reality. You’ve got a long and difficult road ahead of you, but you are not walking it alone.