Important Information as You Travel Through Grief
By Michael F Myers, M.D., Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York and co-author (with Carla Fine) of Touched By Suicide: Hope and Healing After Loss, New York, Gotham/Penguin Books, 2006
“Death by suicide is not a gentle deathbed gathering: it rips apart lives and beliefs, and it sets its survivors on a prolonged and devastating journey” (Dr Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)
- You must protect your health. Make sure that you eat reasonably, even if you are not eating as healthily as you normally do. If you are not sleeping properly and you have tried everything you can think of (no caffeine after 6pm, no exercise in the evening, drinking warm milk at bedtime, no TV in the bedroom) then talk to your primary care doctor. She or he may prescribe a low dose of a sleeping medication for you to take over the first few weeks. Do not worry about getting addicted to it. This is just for a short time until you regain some stability. If you are up for it, try to get a bit of exercise– going for a walk, returning to the gym or the recreation center.
- Do not isolate. Try to return phone calls even if it is to say you’re not up for getting together just yet, it is good to talk to friends and family. Being in communication with others will give you some perspective on how you are doing. You are expected to be devastated and ‘feeling crazy.' But these feelings can become overwhelming, even exaggerated, if you are totally alone because you have no one to comment on your emotions or behaviors. Sometimes just talking to someone and sharing how confused and awful you are feeling takes the sting out of it.
- Look for and join a survivor’s support group in your community. This may take a bit of research but perhaps a friend or family member can help. It is unbelievably comforting to talk with people who have also lost a loved one to suicide. Remember that what you are experiencing is a unique type of loss, very different than losing your mother to cancer or your husband to a heart attack or your son in a car accident. Yes, these are horrific losses too but these are not chosen deaths like suicide. Remember that “chosen” does not mean “rational." Your loved one made the decision to die from a very hopeless and constricted mind that affected his/her judgment. If you can’t find a support group in your community or prefer not to, consider observing or joining one that is on line.
- If you have the opportunity and funds, consider going to a therapist. That enables you to talk about and attempt to understand what you are experiencing in the safety and privacy of a protected professional relationship. You will quickly know– after two or three visits– if your therapist is accustomed to and comfortable with working with survivors. If not, go elsewhere.
- Take care of your family. Try to preserve every day routines and rituals as much as you can. Do not sweep your loved one’s death under the carpet. Talk about him or her, including the ‘good, bad and the ugly’. Remember how your mother or son lived, not just how she or he died. Allow all of the emotions that accompany the grief of suicide– rage, disbelief, numbing, guilt, shame, sorrow, longing and so forth. Again, if you have the means and access, consider marital and/or family therapy. Having the perspective of a trained, seasoned, objective and compassionate professional can be invaluable as all of you progress with your individual and collective journeys. If you have children, do not hide the truth from them. Yes, you may feel the need to shield them in the immediate aftermath, but if you do, do not let this go on too long. Be honest. They will understand much better than you ever imagined. Seek professional assistance if you are lost for words.
- Most important, you will prevail. The first few months are the toughest. The immediate grief from suicide is very severe and lasts longer than the grief of losing a loved one to other causes. But it is best measured by taking a day at a time. Seek help from your primary care doctor or a mental health professional if you actually feel physically ill or psychiatrically unbalanced. If you feel suicidal yourself it is essential that you talk with a professional. This is not uncommon (and will pass) but it can be very serious and dangerous as well, requiring a thorough assessment and aggressive treatment by a trained professional.
- Finally, seek information. I mentioned survivor support groups above. But being educated gives you power. Read everything you can get your hands on. There are lots of books and articles. The best start is to visit the websites of the American Association of Suicidology (www.suicidology.org) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org). Both of these organizations have lots of information for survivors. They are dedicated to helping those left behind after the devastating loss of someone you love to suicide.