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The Mental Hug I Needed

4 min read

By Becky Olson

Father and daughter

Grief Looks Different When You’re Young

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, also known as Survivor Day, takes place each year on the Saturday before American Thanksgiving, with virtual and in-person events in communities everywhere. Learn more and find an event near you.

Winter can be a difficult time for bereaved families, particularly those who’ve lost someone to suicide. If grief can be compared to a thermostat, the pain dial seems to line up in perfect sync with the cold outside world.

As the weather turns chilly, we hunker down and brace for the difficult reminder that a loved one will not be joining us for upcoming holiday celebrations. For people grieving the loss of a loved one, this can be an isolating time of year, with frequent reminders of family and togetherness appearing through the windows of people’s homes, and in festive decorations lining the streets.

Eight years ago, I was three months into my own grief journey when I participated in my first International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. My dad had just taken his life, two months after my wedding.

That first year, I was living in downtown Chicago. In the few months after my dad’s suicide I had attended support groups for survivors of suicide loss, and was generally trying to remain attentive to my own grief. By then, the memorials and friendly check-ins I’d received following my dad’s death had begun to subside, but I was nowhere near ready to “move on.”

While that period was rough – I felt as though I was living in a fog – I realized that talking with and relating to others who’d experienced a similar type of loss was a major help in my healing journey. It was one of the things that kept me going.

I decided to ask my family residing in the Milwaukee area if they would be interested in joining me for Survivor Day, held at an area hospital. I was so relieved and happy when they agreed at attend.

That day we joined dozens of other families in an auditorium, listening to speakers experienced in traumatic loss and participating in a conversation about our loved ones. Our loss was still so new, but a reading from “Tear Soup,” an illustrated book which guides readers through the heartwarming recipe for grief recovery, felt perfect.

As the floor opened for questions, I asked how long it might take for me to get back to the activities I once enjoyed, such as working out. I appreciated that I could be open about my loss without the worry of judgment.

Attending Survivor Day that year, I gained hope that I wouldn’t feel “like this” forever. I decided that I wanted to continue talking about and sharing my loss. Doing so in both support groups and through blogging has helped me, and I hoped it would bring comfort to others.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, I’ve come to appreciate the event’s proximity to the holiday season. Participating in Survivor Day serves as a reminder that we are not alone in our complicated grief, or in experiencing these heightened emotions. It provided me a supportive boost for the challenging weeks ahead. I am thankful that there are resources and community to keep me company along the way, particularly at this time of year.

I think about how far I’ve come in my grief journey since I attended my first Survivor Day. I used to believe that suicide “doesn’t happen to people like us.” In the years since, as I’ve been able to meet many other suicide loss survivors and gain a better understanding of the factors associated with a heightened risk for suicide, I’ve become more aware that suicide knows no bounds.

I’ve shared tears and hugs with loss survivors from all walks of life — parents, siblings, children and friends, who have become part of a club nobody wants to join. In sharing our stories, I’m reminded that I am surrounded by the compassion and understanding of others who know how difficult it is to experience a loss of this nature.

Reflecting on how far I’ve come in the past eight years also makes me think about how much further I want to go. Last year, I realized that I was ready to play a bigger role, and offered to speak at a Survivor Day event in Michigan.

I shared the lessons I’ve learned over the past eight years, which included granting myself grace to grow and evolve with my grief. There’s a myth that grief after suicide loss has a specific timeframe, but I live with my loss daily, and have learned over time that it is okay.

Survivor Day happened to be my entry point into a larger community of those affected by suicide, and I’ve since learned that that community and the many resources provided by AFSP chapters across the country are available all year-round. I feel inspired to give back based on the help and comfort I’ve received from loss survivors before me. We join together with the shared interests of prevention, education and awareness. Most of all, we appreciate that we do not have to navigate this difficult journey alone.

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day takes place each November. To get involved year-round, find your local chapter!

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