20 years ago today began what I have always referred to as the long weekend where everything stopped.
The weekend where someone I loved deeply disappeared into themselves, and then from me, and then from the world. For two days it was anxiety and unknown and “that” feeling – where you just feel the worst is about to happen, but you also absolutely don’t want to believe it. Then, the call came that dropped me to my knees. And even though I had “that” feeling, the surprise of it all rocked me to my core.
That was the weekend when suicide became a part of me. Losing Greg to suicide meant suicide was now a companion I didn’t ask for but nonetheless was living in the entirety of my being.
My thoughts, my conversations, my journals were all consumed by suicide. The pain, the grief, the guilt, the emptiness, the what ifs of suicide.
I knew then that I would never be the same. And I am not.
The way I processed my grief was doing what I had always done – turned it into an intellectual research project. I read everything I could find about the disease of mental illness and the suicidal mind. Then, I knew I needed to be around people like me – people who had lost loved ones to suicide. Members of the club no one wants to belong to. A dear friend, also a member of this club, told me he had reached out to Didi Hirsch in Los Angeles and suggested I contact them to reserve my spot.
20 years ago there were NO Survivors After Suicide Loss support groups in my hometown city or county – where I found myself again, living with my parents and trying to figure out how to put my life back together. There were grief groups – one specifically for widows at the still largest Christian church in the community. Attended by mainly congregants but open to others, the head members told me after my first meeting and while helping to tidy the meeting space, that I really shouldn’t return the next week. That while it was for widows, which I was, it was for those who lost spouses to disease or illness or tragic accidents – my husband chose to die. That was the second blow to me from the Church.
Weeks earlier, my own church, where I had been baptized and had my first communion and won the Bible School award for being the first in Sunday School to memorize all the books of the Bible (Old AND New Testaments, by the way), where my husband and I had attended whenever we were in town, lectured me on the sin my husband had committed and how that would color the somewhat newly installed priest’s ability to eulogize his life. So, I demanded the priest who had baptized me be granted permission to travel from his new church and perform the rites at the memorial service. It was granted, begrudgingly, and likely only because my father was a member of the vestry, but my faith was tested then and continued to be whenever I openly discussed suicide. My relationship with the church (in all forms) has never been the same. I often tell people that my church is personal, and one where love, kindness and acceptance abide. I find I still struggle, all these years later, to enter a church without anxiety about how I will be viewed. Sometimes I wonder if those women have any idea the hurt and damage they did with their words all those years ago. Sadly, I believe they never even had a thought that their words were grossly inappropriate.
So after realizing my hometown wouldn’t provide the support I really needed from people who were walking my path, I drove to Los Angeles weekly to attend The Didi Hirsch Survivors After Suicide Loss support group. It saved me. It gave me a place to feel all my feelings. I didn’t feel shame. I didn’t feel like I had to hide how my husband died. In fact, I was encouraged to really dive into it. So, like the good student I have always been, I did.
20 years in, I have continued my work with Didi Hirsch, co facilitating support groups for the last 19 years. The hardest part about leaving Los Angeles last year to move to Tennessee was leaving my Didi Hirsch family and the advocacy work that had become such a part of me for so many years. I am finding my way here in Tennessee, and I am relieved to find organizations here that do this important work of bringing awareness, acceptance and support to those who are struggling, either from suicidal ideation or suicide loss.
20 years in, my heart still breaks every single time I read about a life lost to suicide. My heart still breaks for the loved ones left behind and the road they will travel. So many people argue that we are in a Mental Health Crisis brought on by the pandemic. I would argue the pandemic simply shone a really bright spotlight on our systemic failures when it comes to mental health and access to care, failures that have been ignored and even normalized for years. The numbers can’t be ignored. We have to do better.
20 years later, I still carry grief. People who have not walked this path probably look at that as dramatic or stunted. What I have learned is that grief is truly something you carry – forever. Sometimes that grief is light and you barely feel it. Sometimes, something else will trigger feelings of loss or trauma, and there it is, an elephant on your chest. You have heard me say it a million times. I will say it a million times more. You don’t get over the loss of a loved one. You integrate the loss into your daily being and your new normal. That new normal can also shift a thousand different ways. You can be incredibly happy and grateful for how you have healed, and the love you have in your life, yet still think and be moved by the loss that created the space FOR this life.
Grief has been my greatest teacher. 20 years in, I know that people wonder why I still talk about it. Why do I even give it space? Because in the last month alone, I have had some degree of connection to 6 souls lost to suicide and their family and friends left behind.
As long as people suffer, I will not be silent.
(If you or someone you know is in crisis or in need of resources, please know the National Suicide Prevention/Crisis Line is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. Or, you can text TALK to 741-741)