A month after the death of my daughter, I was in the midst of learning the landscape of grief. A friend of mine who’d lost a son to suicide told me,
“Grief is in the present. Suffering happens when your mind wanders to the past or the future.”
I held onto this and knew it was true. I attempted to allow for grief and to stay in the present. Which was so hard. If I stayed entirely present, I simply experienced grief – tears and sometimes physical pains. But wandering into the past and thinking about her and things we did together or how she looked or how she laughed, that brought true suffering to me. And, of course, if I thought about the future, I was never really sure how I could live in a world without her. This was very dangerous territory. So I worked hard to keep my mind in the present.
I wasn’t at all ready to take on a meditation practice. It would be years before I did that. I survived each day, proud of myself if I did the simplest of tasks. No one expected anything of me, and I was always so grateful for that. People brought our family meals for months. I didn’t have to shop or cook or do dishes. I let others fully care for me and my family. This was a blessing.
The challenge was that people didn’t know what to say to me when they dropped off flowers or a basket of food. When I hugged a person, I could feel their heart hammering in their chest — fear. I wanted so badly for them to not be afraid, but I was the thing they feared, a mother who had lost a child to suicide. The worst blow that life could deliver.
Ultimately, they didn’t want to be me. I didn’t want to be me. And with all of this fear running through them, most certainly they would say something awkward and difficult. Things like, “Well, at least you have other children.” Or, “She’s in a better place.” No, she was definitely NOT in a better place. I believed that she needed to be here with her family and friends. Her better place was with us.
So, I looked for ways to help people speak more intentionally. After all, that’s what I do. I’m an executive coach, and as I know from my work with leaders, being able to say what matters and what makes a difference is a skill set that can be learned. I also knew that our family, friends and neighbors were compassionate and concerned people and they simply didn’t know what to say to me.
This was what I shared with them:
- Don’t try to make me feel better by offering words of reassurance like “It’ll be okay.”
- Allow me to cry and cry — or to shed no tears at all. Don’t panic. The tears will stop flowing eventually. Just stay right with me.
- It’s tricky to say, “I know how you feel.” The best gift you can give me is to realize that you do not know how I feel, but that you are open to listening to what this experience is like.
- Tell me that you care and show it. Reach out to hold my hand or sit close to me in silence.
- Realize that while you can’t fix what’s happened, you can listen thoroughly and stay fully present.
- Don’t be afraid to say her name or tell stories about her life. It helps to hear these. It brings her into the present and life.
- Allow me to be in emotional pain. Don’t look for a silver lining — there isn’t one. Don’t say things like, “At least she’s out of pain.”
- Be ready to hear, over and over, the stories and the circumstances of her death. Again, listen, listen, listen.
- As months go by, don’t be afraid to ask, “How are you doing with Carly’s death?” If I answer your question, be prepared to listen. If I’m not ready to talk about it, respect this, too. Try not to feel bad for asking the question. It’s better to ask.
- Remember her birthday (July 30) and her “angelversary” (October 6), and make a call or send a card on those days.
- Grief can include guilt, anger and sadness. Understand that everyone grieves differently. There is no predictable path through grief. Allow for any emotion to arise.
- Find practical ways to help, such as offering to do errands, mowing the lawn, driving to an appointment, helping with chores, praying together or simply sitting quietly. Ask, “How can I help?’
- Watch for unhealthy coping behaviors and suggest resources or professional support. Otherwise, accept what may seem to you to be a prolonged period of intense grief.
- Don’t set a timetable of when you think I should be “over it” or “back to normal.” A survivor can have experiences of grief even many years later. This is normal.
- Realize that the suicide has changed my life forever, and I will carry aspects of grief for the rest of my life. Suicide survivors will never be the people they used to be, but they can become stronger and more compassionate as a result of their tragedy.
The territory of grief is a wild and difficult terrain. It makes sense that it’s scary to enter it. But learning some new tools and taking deep breaths can help. A survivor of suicide needs you to show up and show you care. And certainly, if you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything at all.