Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Advice in a Time of Loss

Two days ago a friend reached out to me for advice on talking to her child about suicide. A friend, the mother of one of her son's classmates, died this week.

My friend was in shock and reeling. It's the kind of death that leaves too many unanswered questions, regrets, anger.

It will leave so many people in nearly unbearable pain. My heart aches for them, because I know that this is only the beginning. In fact, the beginning is almost easy compared to the rest, because your body and mind go into shock. It is a protection that doesn't last long, but while it does you can do what must be done. You can follow the steps that we, as a society, have chosen to follow when confronted with death. Visitations and funerals and easy dinners in casserole dishes.

Sometimes I feel as if I am someone waking up from a long coma. And maybe that's something I would say to people: Stay still for a bit. Breathe in and out.

My heart hurts for everyone who has to go through this.

My heart hurts when people say, "How could she do this to her children?" or "I would never do this to my children."

I need people to stop saying that. I don't just mean that I want it or it would be nice. I need it. I need it like a heart needs to beat and lungs need air.

So this is always my first piece of advice: Don't say those things.

I know you want to and I understand it. Of course, I do. But here is what I know for a fact: This statement only tells those children and the world that their parent didn't love them enough. And that is simply not true. It tells the child that if his father had only loved him enough, he would have stayed alive. This statement makes the child believe that he was not enough. Imagine how children blame themselves for their parents' divorces and how much that hurts them. Now imagine what they might do when you say, "I would never..." and they take on the weight of blame for their own parent's death.

My ex-husband loved his children with all his heart. He once posted a photo album online titled "My Life" and it was all photos of our two children. When he wasn't with them, he called them every single day to say, "I love you." He never once forgot.

So you can think it. Of course, you will think it. In private, in the dark, at night when the lights are out and you are wondering how this could happen. You will need a way to reassure yourself that this could never happen to you. And that statement - I would never - does the job. Hang onto it.

But it isn't really true.

In the years since Charles's death, I have been to the depths of my spirit. I have struggled with depression. During a really bad patch, I thought these words every single day: "I could kill myself." I would push it away, but it was there, this knowledge of something that might end my pain. I'm not really sure how I got through it. I think the line between those of us who make it and those who don't is much thinner than any of us want to believe.

That's how depression works. It lies to you. It whispers in your ear. It tells you that the world and everyone you love and know would be better off without you. It tells you that this pain will never go away. It tells you that life could go on for everyone else and that you could just rest. Because you are exhausted. You are emotionally bereft. You are lost in a darkness so black and unending that there is no "light at the end of the tunnel."

You can't just snap out of it. (More advice: Don't say that to someone who is struggling.) There is no perspective. (More advice: Don't say, "It could be worse." When you tell someone that their problem isn't that bad, that person will only feel worse for being so unbearably upset over something that's "not that bad.")

There is no thinking straight.

And so this is the other thing I share with people. When you talk to your children about someone's death by suicide, you must tell them that the person was ill. Because they were.

No one seems to want to talk about mental illness but it is no less important an issue and no less dangerous to the body than cancer.

When I told my children that their father had died - and please have no doubt that this was the hardest thing I have ever had to do - I told them that Daddy wasn't thinking straight. He was sick in his head and he was in pain. I said to them that he never would have done this if he had been in his right mind.

If you stop for a moment and think about it, you will know this is true. And you can find a way to explain it to children in this way. Your friend's mommy was in pain. She was lost. She was sick. Sometimes people make a decision that they never would have made otherwise.

I definitely understand the anger that comes when something like this happens. I spent so many nights wanting to scream at Charles. I would drive alone and, at the top of my lungs, I would yell, "Fuck you." Sometimes I would whisper it. Sometimes it still comes back at me, like a charging bull.

Speak about happy times to the children of those who die by suicide. Share your good memories. One of my favorite things is to suddenly be reminded of a funny story about Charles and to share it with my kids. It can be as small as Ice Ice Baby coming on the iPod and us laughing about how their dad used to dance to it, poorly and without rhythm.

It is with these stories that, while you cannot keep your lost friend alive, you can keep the LOVE of that friend alive. You can show that child that his or her parent was important and cherished.

Even when he was lost in a forest so dark it swallowed all hope, your parent never stopped loving you.

And if your child wants to talk about the sadness, let them. Take them to counseling and let them know that they can go back whenever they want to talk about things. Go to counseling yourself and say all the things out loud that you have been whispering to yourself at night. Let your counselor tell you that the night is full of lies. Believe her.

Christopher Hitchens once wrote of Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos, a series of etchings that included one "where a man in defenseless slumber is hag-ridden by bats, owls, and other haunters of the darkness." El sueno de la razon produce monstrous. "The sleep of reason brings forth monsters."

You must shine a light on the dark things that will attack you at night when your defenses are down.

Seek out friends who will listen. Do your own fair share of listening, too.

I try not to focus too much on all the things Charles is missing and will miss, but that doesn't mean the truth of it, the charging bull, doesn't knock me off my feet sometimes. That doesn't mean I don't wish every day that I could change the past. 

But mostly I think of Charles with love and forgiveness and understanding. And part of why I must do that is because I need kind of desperately to offer myself those same things. 

So that's my other piece of advice I give people when they ask. Don't look for ways to blame each other for what has happened. 

Forgive the person you have lost because you must do this in order to forgive yourself.

Love one another.

If you are in Shreveport October 20, please join us for the Out of the Darkness Walk to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. You don't need money or to train for a 5k. Click here to join our team. 


  1. Your words, are, as always, touching. I hope what you wrote can help someone experiencing similar pain. It says a lot about you that you try so hard for others while you keep up your own personal struggle.

  2. Painful. Haunting. Honest. Hard. Hopeful. Thanks.


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