My Journey with Grief
Less than a month ago, I lost my oldest living brother to suicide.
It’s important for me to say it. To write it. It’s important for me not to be ashamed. Because I’m a mental health professional. I spent years studying and practicing. I work with precious clients every single day, many of whom have expressed a desire to end their lives. So you can see why I might feel ashamed that I could not save my own brother.
His name was Paul, and he was gentle and sensitive and loving and good. And he was desperately hurting in a way none of us could fix.
I know you would probably say, as many have over the past few weeks, that I could not have saved my brother. And I have said the same thing to many people: “There’s nothing you could have done… Don’t waste time on regrets… You couldn’t have stopped this.” So I don’t want to carry any shame about this, and I don’t want shame to stop me from writing this to you. I want to freely share my experience, because it may help you with yours. And that’s the whole point.
In most cases, suicide is a form of mental illness. Please hear me: suicide is a form of mental illness. It is a disease. It is dis-ease. We must drop the taboo – the taboo of talking about it, of whispering “He killed himself”, the taboo of waking up to face each day knowing that someone you love took his or her own life. And none of us could stop it.
Anyone who reaches the place where the best imaginable answer is to end their own life has truly crossed over into illness. When the realm of possibilities – reaching out to a friend, seeing a physician, talking to a counselor or clergy person, focusing on the goodness in life, trying one more way to self-medicate – becomes so faint that the focus turns to suicide, we have illness. I don’t say this to shame anyone. Many of us have lived in despair and hoped we’d never wake up to face another day. But to actively plan and carry out suicide is another matter indeed.
Ron Rolheiser says it best: “We, in dealing with our loved ones, sometimes find ourselves helpless, without a strategy and without energy, standing outside an oak-like door, shutout because of someone’s fear, wound, sickness, or loneliness. Most persons who die by suicide are precisely locked inside this kind of private room by some cancerous wound through which we cannot reach and through which they themselves cannot reach. Our best efforts leave us still unable to penetrate that private hell.”
We need to understand, as best we can, the depth of pain involved. And the individual’s desperation to end the pain. We need to be available to anyone we suspect is suicidal. And if we are, as Rolheiser says, “without a strategy and without energy” ourselves, we need to call for professional help. For them, and also for ourselves.
Grief, no matter the cause, is a descent. Sometimes we descend into a deep pit of despair. Sometimes the descent seemingly has no end, no bottom. We just free fall. It is precisely these moments when we need some hand-hold to grasp on to. A loved one to hold us up. A faith in something greater than ourselves. A friend who understands grief. A professional who knows how to listen.
Kimberlye Berg, in her book “Schema of a Soul” says, “I felt the pull from the culture all around me to snap out of it, to not let the darkness envelop me. As if it were a choice. There seems to be great fear that if we engage with and fully enter into the heartache, we may not emerge out of it.” But in time, in most cases, we will emerge out of it if we know how to deal with it. If we know how to ask for and receive help. If we don’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt.
In the minutes after learning of Paul’s suicide, I reached out to a few friends to let them know I’d be out of town for a while. I told them briefly what had happened, and in my own shock and horror I hoped someone would be there for me. But I didn’t ask for that. I put one foot in front of the other and proceeded with merely being present for my family. But so many people came to me. So many reached out, visited, called, sent messages, sent flowers, sent cards, brought food, hugged me and cried with me for hours. People I never would’ve imagined just showed up.
I contacted my clients who were scheduled for the upcoming week and let them know the sudden death of a family member would keep me out of the office. I wasn’t specific, because how could I say, “My brother, your therapist’s brother, took his own life”?
But what emerged out of such darkness and pain has been life altering. My clients reached out to me.
(Now follow me here, because I’m not talking about being taken care of by my clients, which would absolutely be an ethical violation.)
But my clients did, kind of, take care of me. They did. I returned to work one week after Paul’s death, in somewhat of a fog but open and willing to listen to them. And they reached across the chair and squeezed my hand. They sent me messages saying, “Please take your time. Take as much as you need. I’m not going anywhere.” They sent me cards, just to say they were thinking of me and praying for my entire family. They asked if they could give me a hug on the way out the door. On a few occasions, I accepted.
These kindnesses were so powerful. But so simple. These clients let me know that I’m not alone either. They understand.
And this is the dance that happens when we’re connected to others. It’s the dance that happens in the therapy room so many times. Yes, I am educated and trained and held to a high standard of care, and all that business. But so many times it just boils down to connection. Healing connection. People of faith call it spiritual and give the credit to a higher power. So yes, okay, I’m a person of faith. I have no shame in telling that either. There is a flow, a dance, a movement of spirits in the therapy room that helps every one of us, even the therapist, heal. I’m a therapist, yes, but I’m a human being first. And I hurt along with my clients, just as I hurt along with my brother.
If you’re grieving anything, please don’t grieve alone. Reach out. Ask for someone to come. Just to sit, or cry, or hold you. Allow that dance to happen, even though we don’t understand it. If someone you love is suicidal or has, dear God, taken their own life, don’t allow the taboo of suicide to stop you from talking. You need to grieve. You NEED to grieve. And suicide is not shameful. It’s sickness. Grieve the sickness and the loss. Your loss.
“While there is much I do not understand yet, inexplicable sensations tell me there is something very important going on. I have no intention of camouflaging the pain.” –Kimberlye Berg