“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”Leonard Cohen
Just 10 months ago, I witnessed my fiance’s suicide by shotgun. To say the pain was practically unbearable, is the understatement of the century. Witnessing such horrors, and watching my love die right in front of me, forever changed me. It rips your soul apart and you literally have to learn how to put the pieces back together. I started this blog because in the early days of my grief, I desperately searched for someone who had experienced what I had. I needed to know I would be okay. I googled “witnessing a suicide” and other such phrases, desperate to know I wasn’t alone and to know there was hope. I found a blog of a woman who had lost her husband to suicide and finally, I found a message of hope. Someone telling me they survived this and are okay. I have poured my time and energy into healing and it is because of a few strategies that I am able to say only 10.5 months later, I am okay. Not perfect, mind you, but I am okay. Here are the 10 coping skills that saved me from my suicide grief.
1. Lean Into Your Support System
In the early days, you will be in a fog. That is understandable and necessary for you to go through. Think about it like this… your brain is working double time to process what just happened, to accept the reality of this tragedy you are now faced with and it can’t take any extra input. We can’t process that we will never see their face again, never talk to them again, never again be held by them. Our mind isn’t prepared for this new reality and so all it’s energy goes to trying to process it. Allow your mind to heal itself in these early days by leaning on your support system to help out.
The whole first 1-2 weeks after my fiance took his life, I was in such a thick fog! I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, had to actively force myself to just get from the bed to the couch, and hopefully at some point to the shower. My family cooked for me and took care of all of the logistics I couldn’t even process were necessary. They moved me out of my house my fiance and I shared, figured out which bills might be due, made sure I bathed, made sure I was fed, made sure I was never alone, and so much more. I hated feeling like a nuisance to them but I knew if I didn’t take the help, I would be swallowed whole by my depression. You aren’t weak for taking time off work, taking time to heal, and allowing your support system to step in. In fact, it takes courage to admit you need this! ASK FOR HELP! Trust me, they hate feeling helpless and they probably want to help!! Let them, it will make them and you feel better.
2. Talk About Your Loved One Often and Realistically
It is natural to talk about your loved one as a saint in the beginning. Everyone is different and this stage might be longer for you. But it is important to remember all of them, the good, the bad, and the beautiful parts. After all, no one is perfect. Let’s face it, most people that take their own life have deep rooted demons they always struggled with. I was in such denial for the first two weeks. I explained it away that he was under the influence and always very impulsive. And while that is true, my fiance also suffered from depression, unresolved childhood trauma, anger issues, and a myriad of things that can be per-determinants for suicide. Allow yourself the time to view them as a saint, but within a few months, you should be allowing yourself to accept the reality of all the things that made them wonderful, and human, which includes their flaws. Idealizing the dead is not healthy for you or their memory.
But I do strongly believe you should talk about them. Tell stories of them, the fun stories, the hard stories, when something reminds you of them, talk about it. Pushing these memories or feelings down won’t serve you or those around you. I won’t tell you when you should be ready for this, but I would say if it has been a year, and you can’t talk about them, it is probably time to talk to a professional and work through these feelings. Everyone processes things differently so if you aren’t ready, don’t force it and DON’T JUDGE YOURSELF. It’s okay to not be okay!
3. Don’t Become a Slave to Obsessive Thoughts
“How could this happen to ME?” “How could he do this to ME?” “How could his family mistreat me when all I ever did was love and support him?” “Why don’t my friends and family get how hard this is?”
You are allowed these thoughts and feelings! Actually, no. You are ENTITLED to them. It does fucking suck this happened to you. It isn’t fucking fair you are in this situation. Feel it, think it, and then let it go. I just wrote a blog about how beneficial meditation and mindfulness can be for this, so I won’t go into as much detail about this… but set a timer… feel those feelings, and then let them go. There is a reason why studies show resilient people have several traits in common, and a positive outlook and accepting that life isn’t fair is among them. Does that mean you should never think, “this isn’t fair, I deserve better than this, he deserved better than this”? NO! It just means you don’t obsess over these thoughts and let them consume you. Don’t let the anger fester in you. Accept that this is just the way it is. While it sucks, while it hurts like you didn’t know it could, it is the way it is and being angry or letting obsessive thoughts fester, won’t serve your future happiness. And you deserve happiness. You might not feel like you do right now, but you DO. Unless you are a cold-hearted, murderous, wretch, you deserve happiness.
And I will tell you right now, if anyone is blaming you, you are not at fault and you are not alone. People want a scapegoat. They need to blame someone, anyone other than their loved one that is now gone. You are an easy target. Maybe they say you drove them to it, or maybe they even say you did it. It feels so personal, right? How could they think of you that way? How could they think you are a monster? Guess what, it isn’t personal. It isn’t about you AT ALL! They are hurting and trying to find logic in an illogical situation. Their brain can’t accept their son, brother, or grandson would take his own life. So, you must have done something. Don’t become obsessed with their actions, words, or feelings. Expunge your life of this toxicity. Delete them from Facebook. Block them on all social media. Block them from texting or calling. Protect yourself and don’t get caught up in the obsessive thoughts that come with their hate or anger. Free yourself from it by surrounding yourself with positive people and finding things to be grateful for. Which leads me to my next tool…
4. Practice Gratitude
Now, some of you might want to slap me in the face for saying, “be grateful” and I get it. You might not be ready to find things to be grateful for, especially if you are weeks in to your grief. But at some point, you do need to try to find even one or two things you have that you are grateful for.
Days after it happened, my family said “I am so grateful that you didn’t die too, he could’ve killed you and then himself. Aren’t you grateful for that?” I found this strange in the beginning. I said, “It’s not like I would’ve known if I died, so it doesn’t matter. And honestly, this would be so much easier if I had.” That is how much I cared about anything to be grateful for, even my own life. That is a normal stage of this. But 2 weeks later, I knew what they meant. I saw each experience in my life as a GIFT. I saw a hug from my sister as such a blessing. After all, she could die tomorrow. I could die today. Witnessing death made me all too aware of how fragile life is and what a GIFT each day is. I lie awake at night, when stress creeps in, and I repeat all that I am grateful for. It has transformed my attitude and re framed everything in a more positive light. It’s as easy as thinking of three people, an animal, a job, an experience, a place, anything you have that you are thankful for having. I wish I had practiced more gratitude for my life with my fiance, and even though I did always tell him how much he meant to me and how much I loved him, I wish I had shown him more gratitude. So feel gratitude and express it openly. Thank people more for their love, tell them how grateful you are to have them in your life.
5. Find Time for Self-Care
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you practice self-care. This can be as easy as taking a bath, taking a walk, exercising, reading a book… anything that makes you feel at peace and brightens your mood. You cannot heal if you don’t actively take steps to care of YOU. Take a trip you’ve been meaning to take, go to that restaurant you wanted to try for so long. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will? And if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t ever offer anything to anyone else. And hopefully, you are lucky enough to be like me where you don’t have to give anything to anyone else for awhile. But if you have kids, you can’t take care of them if you are not taking care of yourself. You cannot pull water from an empty well. Put yourself as a priority for 10 minutes a day to an hour a day. Put the kids to bed, get a bath going, light some candles, and take some time for yourself.
6. Question Yourself… “Is this helping me, or is it hurting me?”
“I can’t stop going on Facebook and reading their comments, how are they calling ME a murderer?”
“I can’t stop looking at his photos and crying my eyes out.”
Ask yourself every time you do anything (this is helpful in all aspects of life. really) does this help me or hurt me? I thought I needed to see everything they were saying about me on social media, to know every lie and threat they posted. But guess what, all it did was hurt me. All it did was lead to obsessive thoughts and hurt my heart. So I stopped. It took several weeks (and even months later I caught myself texting friends about what was being said) but I finally stopped. I realized it only hurt me. So, if looking at the pictures makes you happy and you smile with tears in your eyes, look at the pictures. If reading people’s comments of condolence helps you, do it. If it hurts you, don’t.
7. Talk it Out
I highly recommend you talk to a professional to work through your emotions as they come. I came to so many realizations during therapy that changed me so much. I realized I wasn’t allowing anger at Andy at all, but instead I had projected it onto all of the people that accused me or said hurtful things on social media. Did they deserve some anger, yeah. What they did was wrong and cruel. But who really deserves the most anger, the only one truly responsible… my fiance. Talking things out, recognizing patterns, being aware of your emotions, they will only help you process your grief in the healthiest way possible. Take your time, but I personally believe don’t wait longer than a year to talk to them. If you don’t like the first therapist, try a different one. There are so many different personalities, clinical approaches, methods, and just overall vibes when it comes to a therapist. So don’t give up if you don’t like the first one you go to. In the wise words of my therapist friend, Billy, “if you walk in that door thinking therapy won’t work for you, guess what? It won’t. You have to be willing to do the work required for it to work.”
Therapy does require introspection and deep diving into your self, but the rewards far outweigh the struggle. Only you know when you are ready. But I promise you, when you are ready, when you find the right therapist, when you put in the work, you will benefit from it immensely.
8. Find Positive and Meaningful Ways to Honor and Celebrate Them
October 4th was the day that my fiance and I were supposed to be married. I could have stayed home that day, stayed in my sweats, and cried into a bowl of ice cream. I can’t lie, drinking mimosas and eating ice cream sounded tempting. But instead, my friends & family and I packed our bags and headed to my fiance and my favorite place: Yosemite. On October 4th, we hiked a 6 mile steep hike and I felt so accomplished going as far as I did. At the top, I sat and meditated. I said my goodbyes to my love as I sat on a rock and cried. I cried tears of joy, love, and gratitude for all the time we had together. The next day, we planted a Pine tree (we loved Pine trees so much we were going to change our last name to Pine) in his honor and we all cried a few tears, but we all felt a shift in us afterward. It felt like the closing of a chapter and the start of a new page. It was such a beautiful feeling. To honor him in a meaningful way, felt like such a celebration of his life, rather than just looking at the loss, we focused on new growth. We focused on his love for nature and the parts of him that enriched our lives so very much.
I suggest you find anything that is special to you, anything of meaning that celebrates them and honors them in the best way possible. Spread their ashes, light a lantern and watch it float away, name a star, anything special to you and to them.
9. Have Self-Compassion
Please, resist the urge to compare yourself to others. Resist the urge to dwell in the sorrow because you think you shouldn’t be happy. Resist the urge to judge yourself in any way. One day, you can be okay, and the next you aren’t. There is no road map, no reason to why each day is so different. Be kind to yourself. On days you aren’t okay, accept it for what it is. The more you say, “what is wrong with me, I should be ____” the more terrible you will make yourself feel. Don’t get me wrong, if it’s been two years and you can’t get out of bed, you don’t want to live anymore, and you know something is really wrong, reach out to a family member or a professional for help! You know when you are in serious need of help. But even then, be compassionate to yourself. Know that you aren’t weak and there isn’t something WRONG with you, you just need a little extra help right now. Have grace for yourself and take it at your own pace. Don’t let anyone guilt you for grieving in your way or not “moving on” fast enough. (How I hate that term by the way. We never “move on”, we just move forward!)
10. Turn Tragedy Into Purpose
If you take this and decide to let it sink you, it most certainly will. But if you decide to take this and use it for a means of growth and change, you will find so much more happiness. Maybe that is by joining a support group and finding one person in need to reach out to and offer your support. Maybe that is by doing something epic like creating a company like Annie’s Kindness Blankets. Three daughters lost their beautiful and kind Mom, Annie, to suicide and decided to spread their Mom’s love and kindness by sending blankets to people who were in need of a little extra love.
I personally have decided to do what I wanted to do since college but was too afraid to do, I decided to go back to college to become a therapist. I hope to help others with their grief and hopefully prevent someone like my fiance from taking their life.
But your positive outcome doesn’t have to be a grandiose gesture like creating a charity (major hats off to those girls) or something like a change in your career. It could be a commitment to do an activity you two enjoyed together. It could be volunteering at a suicide prevention hotline. There are so many things you can do to make the loss not feel in vain.
Look, I will never be grateful for what happened. I will never look at Andy’s death as anything but a tragic horrible accident that should have never been. Oh, and side note, don’t EVER tell a suicide loss survivor (or anyone grieving in my opinion) that everything happens for a reason. There is no “reason” that makes Andy’s death acceptable. NONE. But I will always find the bright side of my circumstances, and you can too. If you read this blog it is likely because your heart was broken into a million pieces by grief. You lose more parts of your heart each day as reminders of the loss punch you in the gut. You have seen dark days where you probably didn’t care if you saw another day. But there is ALWAYS another day, another laugh, another beautiful sunset, another adventure, another reason to live. And guess what… because of the loss and the tragedy you have experienced, when you are ready, the shiny moments of life will feel so much brighter. Seeing the darkest of the dark, will make the bright moments that much more radiant. Your heart will expand in infinite ways. You will no longer think, “gosh I wonder what that person who lost someone is going through.” You will be able to tap into your well of experience and feel what they are feeling and therefor be a far more compassionate and empathetic person.
There’s a book called, “Bearing the Unbearable” by Joanne Cacciatore and she explains this so perfectly:
“To fully inhabit grief is to hold the contradictions of the great mystery that loss shatters us and we become whole. Grief empties us and we are filled with emotion. Fear paralyzes us and we lend courage to another. We mourn our beloved’s absence and we invoke their presence. We cease to exist as we once were and we become more fully human. We know the darkest of all nights and in so doing can bring the light of our loved ones into the world. We are the paradox. We are the bearers of the unbearable.”Bearing the Unbearable
As always, thank you for reading my blog. Be kind. Be kind to yourself and others.