How to Hurt a Suicide Survivor

Victoria with Mom

In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, there has been a lot of media dialogue about suicide. That’s a good thing, because it’s a topic that’s not discussed enough in our society. But it’s also a very difficult thing for those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide. (So if you know someone who has, maybe give them an extra hug this week.)

5 years ago, my Mom took her own life. She did it after 6 months of sudden-onset, undiagnosed, inexplicable mental illness at age 68…manic highs and depressed lows that forced our family to commit her involuntarily to psychiatric hospitals over and over again. Since her death, I have learned how to live with the reality of being a suicide survivor. I have managed to heal over the gaping wound in my spirit. But over the last 2 days, I have found that wound opening again. I guess it’s because much of the language society uses to try and prevent people from committing suicide is extremely painful to those of us who have lost someone to it, and it’s very difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of loss first-hand to put themselves in the place of someone who has.

These are some of the things that are most hurtful for a suicide survivor to hear:

1) Suicide is weak and cowardly.

There is nothing more painful in the wake of having lost someone you love than to hear someone insult their character. Not only does this lack compassion, it’s ignorant. My mother was NOT a coward. She was one of the strongest women I know, and she fought like hell to protect the people she loved. In the end, she lost her battle with mental illness, like a gladiator losing a fight with the lions. She was beaten by it…but she was not a coward.

2) Suicide is a choice.

I don’t pretend to understand what drives people to commit suicide. But I do know that my mother spent about 60 years of her life putting everyone else’s needs in front of her own. She was compassionate, nurturing, funny, and kind. She was the kind of person my friends went to for advice, or confided in when they were suffering in a way that nobody else would understand.

My mother would NEVER hurt me. She would NEVER hurt the people she loved. Not if it was a choice. And yet, her suicide hurt me more than anything else in my entire life. So IF suicide is a choice, it is one that’s made in a place of such delusion, such desperation and darkness that you can’t think straight. Is that still a choice? I guess so. But maybe we need a different word for it.

3) Suicide leads to damnation.

This is a lovely little stumbling block for the suicide survivor to try and navigate. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I have to admit that I spent my share of tears on this one. Let me just say that if there is one person in my life who deserved “salvation”…who deserved “heaven”…who deserved “eternal peace”, it was my Mom. I would have said that about her before she died, and I believe it even more now. So if someone tries to claim that suicide is an unforgivable, go-directly-to-hell act, I don’t buy it. Not for a minute. Where’s the compassion in that? Where’s the understanding? And I just can’t bring myself to believe in a God that isn’t compassionate and understanding.

4) Here’s another thing you can do…

Here’s something else you can do to hurt a suicide survivor: let the way their loved one died completely overshadow the way they lived. Let the darkness steal the joy that person brought to the people around them. Let their suicide outweigh everything good in their memory.

I’m not saying there isn’t a time to discuss it…as painful as it is, the dialogue is terribly important, and it’s natural to grieve. But we have to let it go. Eventually, we’ll need to watch a Robin Williams movie and laugh with pure joy again. We’ll need to laugh, so we don’t let his death matter more than how he lived.

I still struggle with this. I still find myself looking at pictures of my Mom holding me in her arms as a child – pictures that should make me happy – and sometimes I cry thinking about the kind of end her life was headed towards.

But here’s the thing: WE ALL DIE. For some of us, it’s a cancer cell that multiplies in our body. For some, it’s a heart attack. For some, it’s turning our car onto a specific street at a specific moment. For some, it will happen in old age; for others, it will seem to happen before our time. We are ALL ticking clocks.

So how do we deal with that? We laugh. We love. We live. We shine our light out into the darkness for as long as we can, as brightly as we can. And we celebrate the light in others, every chance we get. Even after they’re gone.

*****

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