June first was the seven year anniversary of my wife Robin’s suicide, on that day I wrote The Suicide Note as a response to the actual suicide note which she had written to me as an explanation for her actions. It seems to me like a lifetime ago that I wrote that my response, but in fact, it has been less than a week.Today I am writing something different about suicide, this one in response to a friend who read my letter and who wants to know what she can do for another friend who lost somebody dear to them a few years ago… the anniversary of their loss, their experience with suicide, is fast approaching. It dawned on me that a perspective of suicide that I had never considered was the position of the friends and family of the person, or the people, directly affected by the loss… what do you as our friends and family do for us in an attempt to ease our pain, to ease our suffering? Beyond merely “being there” when we need you to be and leaving us alone when we need to be alone… because the reality is that we will very likely need both presence and space from you at the very same time!
The first thing I want to share about being a “Survivor of Suicide” is that it is a label, an identity, a cause, a curse, an experience, and a “club” for which membership is something that I wish upon no other human being. Our perceptions and beliefs pertaining to suicide and actually life itself, will create the reality of our experience with suicide… for most of the people I have met, including myself, this will result in an extensive period of time spent feeling ashamed, guilty, angry, depressed and a myriad of other emotions, all of which are valid as they are part of the experience for that individual. There is no right and wrong way to feel, think, or act in response to suicide, because it means something different to every person involved. So please, please, please do not tell me or anybody else what they should be doing or feeling about it, especially if you were not directly affected by the loss because it is not your loss, it is theirs.
In my experience, no two people will experience suicide in the same way… but it seemed to me that I felt most understood by other people who had lost a loved one or close friend to suicide. Perhaps it is because I felt that they “got it” that they had been touched by it, and that therefore they were at least part of the club. I felt that people who were able to say, I’m sorry, I lost my ‘X’ to suicide” were at least able to appreciate the agony and frustration that I was experiencing… and perhaps there is some truth to this because they were the people who weren’t trying to tell me that things happen for a reason… that Robin was in a better place… that Robin is with God now… that Robin is in heaven… that Robin is with Niki… that Robin is anything, but dead. But is she, dead?
I don’t know… and that’s the challenge I have with most of the cliché things that people say to me when they find out that Robin killed herself, because nobody really knows, truly knows, what lies beyond this one realm. Now I also realize that this is all my own personal dilemma being challenged by the experience of my very own belief structure, I own it one hundred percent, all of it. But the best thing anybody who hasn’t lost somebody to suicide has ever told me is “this eff’n sucks!” because that was honest and it reflected my own opinion at that particular moment, that statement resonated with me.
Today I see things a bit differently, today I choose to think in terms of the theory of relativity which states that energy can neither be created, nor destroyed; thus the energy which I knew as Robin, merely transformed from one form of energy to another and lives on as something, or somebody, here or someplace else. This is my belief, it is shared by some people and scoffed at by others, it makes no difference whether it is right or wrong, whether it can be proven or disproved, whether it is supported by theology or not, because it is helpful to me.
Just as every person will experience a suicide differently, it is important to realize that each stage of life after suicide will be different and experienced differently by every person. There are no hard and fast rules for what the day after a suicide will be like… what the person will be feeling, experience or need the next week, the next year, or ten years down the road. But I can share my personal experience with you and tell you what helped, what I appreciated and what changed for me over time… maybe it will help you and maybe it will not, my hope is that by sharing my experience with suicide in a way which is open, raw, honest and real, is that something I say might possibly resonate with people who have either lost somebody to suicide and help them recover faster than I did and/or help you be a resource for somebody who is in need.
Immediately following Robin’s suicide, I measured time in minutes… literally in minutes, as in can I make it from this minute to the next? Would I be able to make it through the moment when people were trying to comfort me; tell me that it was going to be okay; tell me about the person who they lost to cancer, or an automobile accident, or whatever their experience with death happened to be… all the while, I was wondering what would happen, what everybody would do, if I just ran screaming from the room.
Then I began to measure time in full and half hours, could I make it through a meal or watch a television show… it seemed like every one of my favorite shows was written around a suicide, not the entire series, but just that particular episode… the same thing happened every time I picked up a book, suicide was everywhere I turned, because suicide was the only thing that I was thinking about.
It took some time for me to get through the night, quite some time actually. I always was a bit of a night owl, but after Robin’s death, it seemed like an amazing feat if I managed to stay awake for an hour or two without being heavily medicated. But eventually even sleep became possible, although sometimes it is more elusive than others.
Hours turned into days, days turned into weeks and soon I found myself facing the one month anniversary of Robin’s death. I remember that it meant something to me at the time, but to be honest my mind was so foggy back then that I don’t actually remember the day, or actually most of that first year… the one thing that I do remember very well, is the moment after her death when I realized that I had forgotten how to brush my teeth, seriously! I had my toothbrush in my right hand, I was holding the toothpaste in my left hand, and although I knew that the toothpaste needed to go on the toothbrush, I couldn’t get my body to perform the actions necessary to make it happen… so I walked out to the living room, my mother seemed to get it, she put the toothpaste on the toothbrush and off I went brushing my teeth – she’s never mentioned it, not once.
As with most losses, the initial weeks following my loss were kept busy with friends and family who rallied around me in support. Eventually everybody has to go home and we find ourselves alone, this was not a good time for me… especially at night. Thankfully I had two friends who took it on themselves to manage me, at least in terms of making sure that one of them was always with me for lunch and dinner, it took me at least a year to figure out that I was being managed and I am eternally grateful to both of them for their love, compassion and friendship.
I can’t really tell you how I made it through the first year but I did, sadly only a few friends actually realized that it was the one year anniversary of Robin’s death, and even then most likely because I mentioned it in passing. They probably noticed that I seemed a little anxious and asked me how I was doing, I really don’t remember… but I do remember that one close friend took it upon herself to make sure that I wasn’t alone on that day, she took me to a movie or drove me to the beach, I truly have no recollection of what we did, but I do know that I got through that day because she was simply there for me.
It is important to note that I have yet to experience a single day when I do not think fondly of Robin or our daughter Niki who we lost the year before, but I seem to measure time in years now… I mark the passing of each year since Robin’s suicide, by taking the day off and spending it with friends, it doesn’t matter what we are doing, just that we are together and celebrating life. This year, six days ago, I spent the first part of the morning writing my response to the suicide letter which she had written to me seven years before, and then I clicked the publish button on my blog and walked out the door to enjoy the rest of the day.
People often ask me what they can do for somebody they know who lost someone to suicide, what they should say or do as an anniversary date approaches… this is what I find beneficial at the moment, I might feel differently in the future, but this works for me right now…
The thing that means the most to me on the anniversary dates of Robin’s suicide is when people remember that the day has special meaning to me… and most importantly, when they remember her, because in doing so, they give meaning to her life. I don’t want to be comforted on the anniversary dates, I don’t want to hear platitudes about where she is and how happy she is… I want to be reminded of how special she was, of how she made people feel, of how her life was filled with laughter, of the positive energy which she spread around like a bee flying from flower to flower… and the reason this is so important is because for quite some time I allowed her final act of desperation to define her life and it was not her life, it was only a brief moment in the span of her entire life and yet it is a moment that I allowed to change my life.
Whether my life was changed for the better or the worse, is a philosophical discussion for another day, perhaps when we’re sitting around a campfire and enjoying each others company over a bottle or two of wine… which I don’t drink by the way, so maybe it’s a margarita, but the point is that Robin’s suicide did change my life… for some people losing somebody to suicide ends their life, for others like myself, it eventually launches us forward on a journey deep into the veil of darkness which surrounds suicide where we will try and lead others back into the light… perhaps we think that if we can give meaning to our loss, that it will somehow be all right. I like to think that the experience of losing my wife to suicide has made me a better person, a more compassionate person, somebody who sees the value in life and chooses to celebrate life to the best of my ability.
But I am seven years into my journey and things were different at one year, and two years, and three… I was still pretty numb for those first few years, still enjoying the loving embrace of the tender fog which rolled in at the time of her death in an effort to protect me from the reality of how everything in my life had changed… what worked for me then and works for me now, may or may not work for somebody else, so I can’t recommend that you take my advice, I only share it for the insight which it might provide because when things were still fresh it helped me to talk with other Survivors of Suicide who were five, ten and twenty years ahead of me.
The single best piece of advice I can give you is that sometimes the best thing a friend can do is sit beside us and say nothing, do nothing, but simply be there…