Complicated grief

My father committed suicide two days before Thanksgiving. My mother threw out the turkey that year. It’s been nine years and we still can’t have Thanksgiving at home. Suicide ruins a lot things and demands a lot of rebuilding. We’ve rebuilt the holidays now, creating new traditions and new ways of celebrating with each other. There have been marriages and births, moments of hopefulness and joy, and yet there’s still a dark spot where my father once stood.

My father’s life was complicated and so was his death. My dad had a hard time knowing himself and knowing how to be with his children. It’s painful to know that he died alone and in his darkest mental space. With all of this sadness, it’s no surprise that his death left me in a state of shock and complicated grief.

Learn more about complicated grief: Depression vs. complicated grief »

Suicide is a still a taboo topic and is often brushed under the rug. For years I’ve kept the way my father died a secret and only shared the information with my closest friends and family members. I’ve silently mourned anniversaries, cringed when others made suicide jokes, and felt everything from sadness to anger to shame.

And yet somehow I’ve made it to the other side of my grief. I’ll always carry my dad and his death with me, but now I’m able to set the pain down. With time and a good amount of support, the grief has settled.

grief comes in waves

Memories

The memories immediately following my father’s death are fuzzy, at best. I don’t remember what happened, what I did, or how I got by.

I would forget everything — forget where I was going, forget what I was supposed to be doing, forget who I was supposed to be meeting.

I do remember that I had help. I had a friend who would walk with me to work every day (otherwise I wouldn’t make it), family members who would cook meals for me, and a mom who would sit and cry with me.

I also remember remembering my dad’s death, over and over again. I never actually saw his body, I never saw the place where he died, or the gun that he used. And yet I saw a version of my dad dying every night when I closed my eyes. I saw the tree where he sat, the weapon that he used, and I agonized over his final moments.

Shock

I did everything I could not to close my eyes and be alone with my thoughts. I worked intensely, spent hours at the gym, and nights out with friends. I was numb and I was choosing to do anything except acknowledge what was going on in my world.

grief is hard work

I would exhaust myself during the day and come home to a doctor-prescribed sleeping pill and a glass of wine.

Even with the sleep medication, rest was still an issue. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing my father’s mangled body. And despite my packed social calendar, I was still miserable and moody. The smallest things could set me off: a friend complaining about her overprotective father, a coworker complaining about her “end of the world” breakup, a teenager on the street mouthing off at her father. Didn’t these people know how lucky they were? Didn’t everyone realize that my world had ended?

Everyone copes differently, but one thing I learned in the process of healing is that shock is a common reaction to any type of sudden death or traumatic event. The mind cannot cope with what is happening and you literally become numb.

The size of my feelings overwhelmed me. Grief comes in waves and grief from suicide comes in tsunami waves. I was angry at the world for not helping my father and also angry at my father for not helping himself. I was deeply sad for my dad’s pain and also very sad for the pain he had caused me. I was suffering, and I leaned on my friends and family for support.

Starting to heal

Healing from my father’s suicide was too much for me to do alone, and I eventually decided to seek professional help. Working with a professional psychologist, I was able make sense of my dad’s mental illness and understand how his choices had impacted my life. It also gave me a safe place to share my experiences without worrying about being a “burden” to anyone.

In addition to individual therapy, I also joined a support group for people who had lost a loved one to suicide. Meeting with these people helped to normalize many of my experiences. We were all walking around in the same heavy fog of grief. Several of us replayed the final moments with our loved ones. All of us wondered, “Why?”

With treatment, I also gained a better understanding of my emotions and how to manage my symptoms. Many survivors of suicide experience complicated grief, depression, and even PTSD.

The first step to finding help is knowing where to look. There are several organizations that focus on helping survivors of suicide loss, such as:

You can find resource lists of support groups or even therapists who specialize in working with survivors of suicide. You can also ask your primary care doctor or insurance provider for recommendations.

What helps?

Crafting the story

Perhaps more than anything, therapy gave me the chance to tell the “story” of my dad’s suicide. Traumatic events have the tendency to get stuck in the brain in odd bits and pieces. When I began therapy, I could barely speak about my father’s death. The words just wouldn’t come. Through writing and talking about the event, I was slowly able to form my own narrative of my father’s death.

Finding someone you can talk to and lean on is an important first step to take following the loss of a loved one to suicide, but it’s also important to have someone you can talk to years after the loss. Grief never fully goes away. Some days will be harder than others, and having someone to talk to can help you manage the tougher days.

Talking to a trained therapist can help, but if you aren’t ready for that yet, reach out to a friend or a family member. You don’t have to share everything with this person. Stick with what you’re comfortable sharing.

Journaling can also be an effective way to get your thoughts out of your head and start to make sense of everything. Remember that you aren’t writing down your thoughts for others, including your future self, to read. Nothing you write is wrong. What’s important is that you’re honest about what you’re feeling and thinking in that moment.

Treatment

Some people are still uncomfortable around suicide, despite suicide being the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Talk therapy helped me for years. I benefited from the safe space of psychotherapy, where I could discuss all matters of the suicide.

When looking for a therapist, find someone you are comfortable talking to. You don’t have to settle for the first therapist you try, either. You’ll be opening up to them about a very personal event in your life. You may also want to look for a therapist with experience helping survivors of suicide loss. Ask your primary care provider if they have any recommendations, or call your insurance provider. If you’ve joined a survivors group, you can ask members in your group if they have any recommendations. Sometimes word of mouth is the easiest way to find a new doctor.

Medication may also help. Psychological issues can have a biological component, and for several years I used medications to treat my own symptoms of depression. Your doctor can help you decide if medication is right for you, and they may prescribe things like antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, or sleep aids.

Self-care

One of the most important things I could do was to remember to take good care of myself. For me, self-care includes healthy food, exercise, yoga, friends, time to write, and time away on vacation. Your list may be different. Focus on things that bring you joy, help you relax, and keep you healthy.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by a good support network who would remind me when I wasn’t taking proper care of myself. Grief is hard work, and the body needs proper rest and care in order to heal.

Acknowledge your feelings

True healing started for me when I began to acknowledge what was really going on in my life. This means that I’m honest with people when I’m having a bad day. For years, the anniversary of my dad’s death and his birthday were challenging days for me. I would take these days off work and do something nice for myself or be with friends instead of going about my day and pretending that everything was “fine.” Once I gave myself permission to not be OK, ironically I started to ease up.

What’s still hard?

Suicide affects people in different ways, and everyone will have their own triggers that can remind them of their grief or recall negative feelings. Some of these triggers will be easier to avoid than others, and that’s why having a support network is so important.

Suicide jokes

To this day, suicide and mental illness jokes still make me cringe. For some reason, it’s still socially acceptable for people to joke about wanting to “shoot themselves” or “jump off a building.” Several years ago this would have reduced me to tears; today it makes me pause and then I move on with my day.

Consider letting people know that these jokes aren’t all right. They probably weren’t trying to be offensive, and educating them about the insensitivity of their comments can help prevent them from saying things like that in the future.

Violent images

I’ve never been one to enjoy violent movies or television, but after my dad’s passing, I can barely see blood or guns on screen without flinching. I used to get deeply embarrassed about this, especially when I was around new friends or out on a date. These days I’m very upfront about my media choices. Most of my friends know that I don’t like violent programs and accept that without question (whether or not they know my family history).

Be open about your feelings. Most people don’t want to put another person in an uncomfortable situation, so they’ll probably be grateful to know what makes you uncomfortable. If they still try to push you into situations that make you uneasy, consider whether the relationship is still valuable. Being around people that consistently make you unhappy or uncomfortable is not healthy.

Sharing the story

Sharing the story of my dad’s suicide has gotten easier over time, but it’s still challenging. In the early days, I had very little control over my emotions and would often blurt out what happened to whomever asked. Thankfully, those day have passed.

Today, the hardest part is knowing when to share and how much to share. I often give people information in bits and pieces, and for better or worse, there are very few people in this world who know the whole story of my father’s death.

Don’t feel like you have to share everything. Even if someone asks you a direct question, you aren’t obligated to share anything you aren’t comfortable sharing. Survivors of suicide groups can be a safe environment to first share your story. Members may even be able to help you navigate sharing your story with your social groups or new friends. Alternatively, you may choose to share it with your friends first so that it’s out in the open, or you may decide to share pieces here and there with select people. However you choose to share the story, the most important thing is that you share in your own time and share the amount of information you’re comfortable sharing.

Suicide is a tough topic and sometimes people don’t react well to the news. People’s religious beliefs, or their own stereotypes or misconceptions can get in the way. And sometimes people are just awkward and uncomfortable around hard topics. This can be frustrating, but thankfully I have a strong network of friends to help me navigate through these moments. If you look hard enough and don’t give up hope, you can find the right people to support you.

Closing thoughts

My father’s suicide was the single most painful event in my life. There were times during my grief where I wasn’t sure if the suffering would ever end. But I kept slowly trudging along, and bit by bit I began to put my life back together again.

There’s no map to get back to the living, no one size fits all approach. You build your path to healing as you go, slowly putting one foot in front of the other. One day I looked up and I hadn’t cried all day, at some point I looked up and I hadn’t thought of my dad in several weeks. There are moments now where those dark days of grief feel like a bad dream.

For the most part, my life has returned to a new normal. If I stop and pause, my heart breaks for my father and all of the pain he experienced and all of the aguish he brought to my family. But if I pause for another moment, I’m also incredibly thankful for all of my friends and family for helping me through, and grateful to know the depth of my inner strength.