The Complicated Grief of Suicide
The path of grief is never a straight line, especially the complicated grief of suicide. One S&H editor shares her story, and an expert also has four suggestions for ways to make a difference in the suicide epidemic.
I got the call on a Wednesday evening from my husband. Earlier in the day, he had driven by a cliff where traffic was stopped, with helicopters and fire engines on the scene. He had heard that a truck had gone over the cliff, but that’s all he knew.
Suicide as an Epidemic
Later that day, he found out the truck had been driven by our friend. The place where it was driven off the cliff made it clear that it had been purposeful.
The day before, I had heard news of Kate Spade’s suicide, and that same morning, had heard statistics on NPR about the rising number of suicides in America, calling it an epidemic. The next day, I heard about Anthony Bourdain.
The collective confusion and grief was accentuated by the suicide of our friend, who was only 46, and leaves behind two teenage daughters who will never really know the big-hearted, fun-loving, extreme athlete that was their father.
Deep wells of grief sprang open inside of me for these girls—I know the pain and confusion of losing a father to suicide. My dad took his own life almost five years ago, and, yet it feels like just last week when I come across an old friend and burst into tears at the memory of him. I don’t know if those moments of raw tenderness will ever stop.
The Path of Grief
A friend recently told me that it is a sign of the love that I had for him—which is true—but I believe it’s more complicated. The path of grief is never a straight line.
My father had been ill for years—a complicated illness fueled by addiction and depression. Rabbi Ben Kamin writes in his book The Blessing of Sorrow: “What is grief, if not the most painfully informative experience we humans come to know? It is also a chance to visit with somebody who is gone from this world. We do best homage to our dead when we apply the truth to our visits—just as we tried to do when they were on this side.”
The service for our friend was held last weekend. Friends streamed to the beach, carrying flowers and surfboards for the paddle out. We all wished he could have seen how many lives he had touched, how much love there was—and is—for him. The family made the difficult decision to speak openly about his struggles and his death; I imagine this was not an easy decision, but it was a powerful one.
The Complicated Grief of Suicide
The complexity of emotions being felt were honored: Sadness for the loss, guilt that we hadn’t been able to help him, and anger that he had made the choice he made were spoken of in equal measure. I felt a palpable relief in the group around me as the truth of our complicated feelings were said aloud.
The takeaway for each of us was to love each other, to look around and see our community. If we feel hopeless, reach out. If we see someone struggling, take the time to help that person, or help them find someone that can help them. I know from experience that it’s not as simple as that.
Addiction and mental illness do not present themselves in an uncomplicated way. There are people who will feel there is not a way out of their pain. The last words from my father, left on a voice message, were “I just can’t take it anymore.” How I wish I could have helped him bear his burden, figured out a way to do something I hadn’t done.
In the wake of the suicide, I heard comments of anger and blame, “look what he did to his family, how could he?” My only response is that he clearly couldn’t see another way. Both our friend, and my father, loved his children more than anything. In that moment, as I imagine it, they just needed the anguish and the pain to be over—and felt they had nowhere to turn.
Rose McGowan spoke out after Anthony Bourdain’s death, offering these words for anyone struggling—I wish I could have spoken them to my father five years ago, and to our friend two weeks ago.
“If you are considering suicide, reach out. We need you here. You matter. You exist. You count. There is help a phone call away, reach out.”
Four Ways to Make a Difference in the Suicide Epidemic
On NPR, Dr. Nadine Kaslow, former president of the American Psychological Association, offered these four suggestions for how we can start to make a difference in the suicide epidemic.
- Reach out. Most importantly, says Kaslow, “ I think all of us need to do a better job connecting to each other—reaching out to our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors—and not just reaching out once, but continuing to reach out to each other. I think we all need to be part of the solution to this problem”
- Make mental health services more accessible and affordable. Often mental health issues go undiagnosed or left untreated because of financial barriers.
- Teach kids coping skills. Life stressors are only going to increase. When we teach children methods for handling stress, we are giving them a chance to make it through those challenging times.
- Ask for Help. Kaslow suggests reaching out for help if you are feeling lost and suicidal. She suggests hotlines, clergy, doctors, and friends—and even apps you can turn to that can be helpful. And, finally, she implores, “Please reach out to mental health professionals when you really are struggling—there is help, there are evidence-based psychotherapies that can really make a difference and help you feel better about yourself and your life.”
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800.273.8255
- For a Crisis Text Line, text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the U.S. anytime about any type of crisis.