Tragedy can change you. No one tells you that.
The shock was the first thing that clouded my thought process. It was this overwhelming disbelief. Then a deep sense of loss. That brought with it a deep sadness. That was the beginning of the storm for me. No one tells you that loss has layers to it, some which takes years to discover and then peel off. It felt unbelievable that he was gone, and even more unbelievable that he had suicided. Confusion filled my mind. I didn’t know I had that many tears in me, or that I would miss him as much as I did. This level of deep loss was new to me. 17 years new. It was like a heavy rain that I was watching, slowly flooding, up through the backyard, right up to my back doorstep and into my house.
Anxiety hit about a year after his death as I began to sit with it what it means when someone actively takes their own life. That in and of itself was overwhelming. I was supposed to be feeling better. I was supposed to be getting over it. How could I feel worse? Someone that I knew, me a counselor, helping others, had someone close to me suicide. How did that happen? And how could he do it? It was uncomfortable for me to really sit with the fact that he took his own life. And that he never came to me. Out of all the people in the world, the woman he had been married to who was a counselor and trained to respond to things like that. Crises. I was a trained counselor for God’s sake. How could he not come to me? I trained for this. I wanted a chance to respond. How come I didn’t get that chance to help him? The uncomfortableness from these thoughts created so much angst in me that I thought at times, I would simply jump out of my own skin. There I would be, walking around town with no skin, just muscles and bones for everyone to see. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact he was that miserable – so miserable he thought taking his own life was the only option for him. And really, they were all of his choices. He made those choices and we all would have to live with them now. Asking for help had simply not been in the drop-down selection window of options.
As I began to look at all the things that happened as a result of his suicide, anger surfaced as I realized how he wounded our children. They would never see their father again. One of their favorite people, gone, and with no explanation that could ever make any real sense. Depression appeared, ongoing sadness, bursts of anger, then resignation. I saw it in all of us. I saw all of the major life events he would miss. Events where they would be forever missing him. So much time would now go by without him in it. Lives would carry on. But the missing would always stay along with so many unanswered questions.
Over the coming years, between grief, anxiety, fear, and confusion I became very ungrounded. At this peak time of grief, the few years that followed actually become more difficult for me. Sometimes my voice shook when I spoke, sometimes, my hands would shake. Sometimes I couldn’t decide on things. Many nights I simply could not sleep. My eyes would pop open, as if they were propped open with toothpicks, unable to close. And always, wide awake at 1:30am, the time of his death. The time of that phone call I never answered. I became impatient. I was taking care of two grieving sons and feeling the loss of community around us. Sometimes it felt like depression. Sometimes it was lethargy with things feeling like everything together was just too much work. Suddenly all I wanted to do was retire. Go somewhere, checkout and go sit on a beach somewhere. Return to Hawaii. Sometimes I wondered if my feet might just lift up off the ground because I felt so untethered to the earth and to my life. I was sure my children would look up one day and see me floating away, like a balloon, a tiny speck in the bright blue sky.
And still, somehow, I managed to continue on. Drive to work every day, talk to people in a normal fashion, pick the kids up, prepare their lunches for the next day, get the laundry done and read them a story before bed. Yes, I was moving like a ghost, numb from the loss that had just hit us. Being in therapy helped a bit, as did working out and going to church. For structure and connection if not for anything else. Time helped the most.
With anxiety came confusion. It started with forgetting logins for online accounts, including the password to my phone, which I used every day. Some days I would wake up, not sure what day it was, what month or what season of the year it was. I read often but had to learn to read in small amounts because my mind could not handle longer blocks of time. My concentration disappeared, as I pretended to sit on conference calls for work or calls with clients, with my mind always somewhere else. Anywhere but here. Disconnected. Things were different, not only outside of me but also inside. Standing and having conversations with others became very difficult. I couldn’t stand looking others in the eye, for fear I would just break down and burst into tears. It was easier to keep moving and say hello in passing moments, in texts or in emails. I tried for a while, pretending this was not happening, but then finally surrendered to it, overwhelmed at pretending and inauthentic efforts. I stopped calling people, as I moved into a long phase of mourning. I just didn’t have the energy.
Then slowly, as each passing year came and went, as I wrote more about my experiences, as I prayed, as I walked regularly in nature, as I watched our children continue to grow, and as I catalogued as many memories of him as I could, as time, as gracious as she is, brought calmness, I began to become grounded again. More connected again to living and to the living of my life.
People suggested all kinds of things for me, to join a bible study group, to work out more, to take medications, to try a different type of therapy, or type of water diet with electrolytes. So many fixes, for something that didn’t really need fixing. Grief is a normal human experience. Why do we pathologize it so? Why is it not ok to not be, ok? I was grieving and it was changing my body, mind and soul as life does. I didn’t need God to ground me, that was my job. I knew he was there; I just didn’t know how to maneuver through it. And I was kind of ticked at God anyways. For a while, at least, wondering how something so terrible like this could happen. I didn’t need more or less serotonin through medication or endorphins from working out. I needed time and understanding. I needed compassion and self-love. And, for me, that would take a few years.
Today I engage with others and look them straight in the eye. And I’m much happier as are our children. I care less now what people think because I have suffered and my family has suffered. I have experienced one of the worst things that could have happened to our family and seen us survive it. I understand families that have suffered tragedies. We came through it. So can you. Just hold on. Keep going.
Through loss, I have allowed grace to enter to collude with introspection to develop a reframe and understanding in my mind about what happened and how I feel about it. I have learned to forgive my ex-husband and forgive myself for our mistakes. And with hope I have written a book to help others and further solidify my experience as a survivor of suicide loss. It’s a life jacket for those who have creeks have also turned into rivers flooding their home. The waters will recede, I assure you. I have felt hope again and a deep gratitude as I see I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for all of the events that happened in the past that have led me to this moment, this place in time and space.
Sometimes I feel the loved ones I have lost closer now than I did before. Once in a while I dream of my ex-husband and instead of nightmares, we are close, smiling, loving, laughing, and having a good time together. I wake up feeling his familiarity. He’s so close. It feels peaceful, more settled. I still awake from those dreams with comfort and then that agony of finality as I realize he is really gone, out of this world now. The unbearableness is still there, but less now, as I sense more and more that he’s ok, wherever he is and doing his work. The landscape is different now, in my backyard as it is in my life. The river is no longer running as a torrent through my life but is now a creek that trickles in the back, sometimes near my home, sometimes over by the river of life. Sometimes I chose to sit on the back porch and watch it. I look at reminders and memories and catalogue things since I am now the weaver of legacy. Sometimes I choose to simply move forward. I step over that little creek as I walk back to the house, the house that has the doors and windows open now for life to enter. It has become my life again as I keep moving forward. More and more. Step by step. Moment by moment.