October 10th World Mental Health Day. For me, it’s personal.
When I was young, cancer was often referred to as the “C” word. No one wanted to utter it for fear of pronouncing a death sentence upon the person who was unfortunate enough to be fighting it. With the advances in technology and medicine now, thankfully, cancer is often treatable and beatable, although many tragically still lose their lives to this disease.
Another unutterable word, which today still is difficult to talk about, is suicide. While we don’t like to talk about it, it’s impacting ever-increasing numbers of Australian families each year. In 2012 alone, more than 2,500 people committed suicide, and we know for every person who takes their own life, another 30 attempt it.
During the last 20 years, I’ve experienced the affects of suicide twice. The first was more than 20 years ago, when my 39-year-old uncle Rayner, took his life. The second was last year when my brother Dan took his life at age 37. This weekend, we lost another person in my social network to suicide, someone I did not know personally but who was important to a beloved friend of mine. She’s hurting. And so I write this for every person surviving suicide, who is grieving, scared and lost, because I’ve been there, and I hope my perspective might help others navigating the pain of losing a loved one to suicide.
1. It’s not a dirty word
To survive suicide, and figure out how we, as a community can prevent it, we have to talk about it. When my uncle died, I remember the discomfort and unwillingness of people around me to discuss his death. My uncle was mentally ill. He was schizophrenic. He was in pain. And he sought peace. I also remember my Oma and Opa and the anguish his death caused them. They often spoke of looking forward to the day they would meet him again in heaven. But they would not speak of the way in which he died.
Compare that to my brother. He was my best friend. He served this country four times at war, and he suffered from the pain of PTSD. He’s now at peace. Unlike my grandparents, I have insisted that we talk about Dan, about his life, and yes, about his death. By talking with his friends and colleagues, we are able to have a meaningful discussion on what factors may have contributed to his suicide, what needs to change and how we can protect the next generation of military personnel. My family and I still hurt. But the hurt is not shrouded in secrecy and silence.
2. It’s not your fault
I remember the day before my brother died, he called me twice. I didn’t answer my phone, busy with life. By sunrise he was gone. I could and would never be angry at my brother. His pain was beyond what I have ever experienced. But it was easy to blame myself. Intellectually I knew how ridiculous that was, but emotionally, self-blame came easily. It has taken a lot of strength, and love from my family to let go of that guilt.
It wasn’t my fault that my brother committed suicide, and it’s not yours either if your loved one decided to end his or her life.. There’s nothing you did or could have done . I remember someone saying to me “you could have sat in a concrete bunker 24×7 with your brother, and the one time you walked out to go to the bathroom, it would have happened”. You cannot blame yourself for the decision taken by another to stop living. It’s not your fault.
3. Stop asking Why
You may never know the answer to this. I have dissected and analysed and hypothesised. But the simple fact is I don’t know why my brother woke up that awful morning in January and decided enough was enough. I will never know. The Army Padre phrased in simply to me: “Michelle, you don’t get to ask why. Why is in the hands of the Lord (Insert your own personal belief here) and he will take this burden and own this. You get to own the way you love, the way you say goodbye and the way you live from this moment on. ” These words helped me more than I can say – and I hope in sharing it may also help you.
4. You need to find a new normal
Easter, Christmas, their first birthday following their death, your birthday – so many experiences which may have been defined by tradition and customs. These moments will never be the same again. For me, the hardest was my morning drive to work. We would call each other every morning and have a fabulous chat as I drove into the office to work. The mornings are quiet now. I have needed to replace his voice with music, often way too loud and way too obnoxious for the morning hour, but this is my new normal and it works for me. Christmas traditions and stress have all been thrown out. Gone is the excessive seafood platter and planning. I now go for a quiet BBQ with my husband and kids at the beach, a plate of BBQed meat and a soccer ball. I no longer strive for over-the-top celebrating – maybe that is a sad thing. I want to be with my husband and kids, enjoying a stress-free day together as a family. Surviving suicide means creating new normals, new family experiences, new ways of living. Here’s the part that will hurt the most: Just as they have chosen how to end their life, you have to choose how you want to live yours, without them.
5. There is no shaming in seeking help
For our family, we sought out counselling, to help our young children understand and experience the pain they were feeling. We were given tips and techniques to help work through the sadness and the fear. For my children, their biggest reaction was fear. The world that they knew and trusted was different. Suddenly, a thought had presented itself – that in life, one of the options was suicide. And this was confronting. We needed to work with our kids to deprogram them in many ways – to remove this as much as possible as a thought or an option in their life. We needed to work through their fears and make them feel safe. We needed to teach them to grieve, to show them that grief means you loved and were loved. That grief is not a process you work through with a start date and end date – that is possible to live happily whilst coexisting with this feeling called grief. That you can laugh and plan a happy life, whilst at the same time missing your loved one, missing their voice, their impact to your life, and wishing with all your heart for one more chance to talk to them again. We leveraged counselling and are grateful for it and the help it has had for our children. Asking for help is not a weakness – asking for help just means you don’t have all the answers and need a different lens to look through to find techniques to rebuild strength and rebuild your smile.
And my last and final piece of advise is
6. Be kind to yourself
You will never be the same. You will have good days, you will have bad days. You will grieve well, you will grieve badly. But you are doing the best you can and that is OK. Surround yourself with the people who lift you up. And celebrate each day with joy, and with meaning. You are on this earth. You are remarkable. And you matter. And no matter what, remember that someone loves you, someone always cares. If you can’t be nice to yourself today – let those people in. You matter. Always.