Karen Atkinson holds a B.A. in psychology from Dominican University and a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology, cum laude from Notre Dame University. She worked as a counselor for Catholic Charities and as a group facilitator for Agesong at Hayes Valley in San Francisco.
After the suicide of her ex-husband, she moved her practice to become a certified grief coach and author. Karen currently offers weekly peer-to-peer support groups for those suffering tragic loss.
"Karen offers a level of performance through her coaching that gives clients a rare opportunity to be supported on many levels." - Shelly
I lost my ex-husband to a suicide in 2014. And even today, I still can’t believe it. It was unexpected and awful. Suicide is a horrible reality to discover.
My instinct was to do what many of us are conditioned to do: not talk about it and help everyone move past it as quickly as possible. Professionals even suggested a time limit for grieving, which felt like more pressure. I felt as if I was supposed to transform into this person that I wasn’t. I needed to be the grieving widow. And I needed time to supported my now fatherless children.
Three-months following his death, I became very ill. I had become so busy trying to keep everyone going while trying to keep the real grief away, I had not honored the mourning that I needed. Suicide leaves a legacy that is hard to wrap your head around. I had so many questions and such deep thoughts – existential moments filled my mind as I tried to figure out what was happening to me. Still, I kept doing what I had been taught, muster through it, keep going until it passed. But it didn’t. Instead, I become more ill.
Then I had a terrifying dream. I was in a desert, with the wind blowing sand everywhere. As I tried to fight against the wind, I noticed everything around me was dead. I woke up realized I needed to make a conscious choice to live. In the depths of my suffering and sorrow, I realized I needed to learn how to live without my ex-husband, the man that had been in my life for 17 years, the one, even divorced who I thought would always be there as a co-parent, friend, and companion.
I had several things I had to acknowledge: to start I had to come to terms with the fact that he and I never got a chance to reconcile. I would have to learn how to be ok with that. We also never got to say goodbye to him as a family. I would have to learn about the important place that love holds in our family. I also had to come to terms with the fact that it was time for me to move forward with the children, without him, because we were still alive. I didn’t want us to just survive, I wanted us to thrive again. And for that I would have to learn about forgiveness – for myself and for him. And finally, I needed to feel hope, hope that we could find meaning again and learn to live with the void that was in our lives.
At this point, I should add that the children were struggling, missing a key figure in their lives, missing him every day. This is what happens when tragedy strikes, it’s when day-to-day living becomes hard. I needed to make a conscious commitment, not only to continue to care for myself but for our sons who both had broken hearts. This was not going to be an overnight process.
I can say that today, with time, with therapy, coaching, through journaling, prayer, and meditation, with ongoing support, we have moved through our grief. And everyone is doing well. Life is not perfect, it is a constant work in progress, but through a shift in focus, attention, mindfulness and intention, we have survived a terrible tragedy that wounded our family.
We have learned how to grieve and how to honor him. We have learned how to be with all the stages of grief that suicide loss survivors go through. We have let the shock pass, we have let the questions go unanswered, we have each dealt with our own anger, shame, anxiety, disappointment and hurt as we have moved forward. And we have learned that this is now a part of our legacy but does not have to become THE legacy. Their father’s suicide is just one thread in a beautifully woven fabric of our lives.
Today I have a deeper sense of gratitude and a stronger spiritual practice. I have learned to be with my grief, and our children’s grief when ever and where it comes up; to not judge it but let it manifest and be in that moment until it passes. To be fully present with myself as I continue to ask questions, continue to miss him and wonder now what our lives hold without him in it. I will never be ok with the fact that he suicided, but I have learned how to go on living without him and temper those conversations in my head.
Many suicide loss survivors suffer alone out of shame or unresolved guilt, worrying they will be a burden to others. They get stuck with the unrelenting thoughts and conversations in their head. They deal with debilitating anxiety or fear, unable to move forward. They live their lives around their grief, never fully resolving the loss. That doesn’t have to be you. You have a choice. And it may take some work. Your story may be different, but it is as equally important as everyone else’s. You deserve peace and happiness. You deserve to thrive again and live your life to the fullest. Use the coaching space to get some of the grief out. Practice telling your story, use coaching to help create a space for to honor your process and take care of yourself with the most intimate and deep experience of your life. You don’t have to do this alone. And you can still cherish and honor your loved one in the process.
It would be my honor to share this journey with you.