September is Suicide Awareness Month, so I share my story to honour that. I lost my late husband Rob to suicide in Dec. 2000 over Christmas. Although Christmas is not a high risk month for suicide contrary to what some believe, I feel it is a time of year for those struggling with mental illness, depression being one of the most common, it can be a stressful time of year.
Rob was diagnosed bipolar after his first attempt Dec. 6, 2000. He'd always had tremendous mood swings but we'd never even considered that it could be bipolar as we knew nothing about it prior to his diagnosis. Most don't know about mental illness or suicide until it enters their life for the first time. Unfortunately because of stigma surrounding both mental illness and suicide, it is not often discussed - but that needs to change.
Not talking about it most definitely is not working. Not being educated on it, the signs to be aware of, the help that is available and where to get it, is claiming far too many lives. Almost 1 million worldwide die each year from suicide. For every one completed suicide, there are 20 attempts not completed. The accepted statistic is for every one fatal suicide, there are 6-10 family/friends impacted and left behind wondering what on earth happened. If you do the calculations, it is absolutely astounding at the numbers being impacted by suicide each and every year. More needs to be done to educate and raise awareness, to help dispel the myths/stigma that keep people from reaching out for the very help they need and deserve, so they can cope and remain alive.
Rob and I were together for 29 years and we also shared a business together. My world was turned upside down in all ways. Suicide changes everything, all aspects of life as you knew it. Many do not know how to support someone in grief after losing a loved one to suicide, again often because of the stigma and beliefs held about it. Suicide attempt survivors and suicide loss survivors are extremely fragile and need tremendous support, and yet in many instances, those they thought would be there for them are not. This is one of many secondary losses that is extremely difficult to cope with when you're often at your most vulnerable. Education can help tremendously and I seize every opportunity I can to educate and advocate because I know our personal stories are one of the most powerful ways to educate on a very personal level.
I knew suicide was a very real possibility after Rob's first attempt. Upon hearing his bipolar diagnosis I also asked the psychiatrist what would cause further stress and potential for future attempts. After hearing the many symptoms of bipolar disorder, things made a lot more sense to me out of our very tumultuous time together. We were separated at the time but remained working together until we could figure things out. I was aware one of the triggers was Rob worrying about not reconciling but I also knew that was never going to happen so I didn't lie, but was extremely compassionate and did all that I could to get him the help he so desperately needed.
As often is the case, those needing professional help do not want it. That was the case with Rob. He was a very proud man, didn't feel he needed help, felt he should be able to sort things out on his own. There is often a great deal of shame and guilt involved with suicide both for the person who attempted and often for their loved ones as well. It's a time of great confusion as well, learning much about something very little was previously known about. Emotions are high and unpredictable. It's exhausting for all involved.
Rob attempted several more times after his initial attempt and he'd describe in great detail not only the method he'd used, but also what was going through his mind while attempting. I was shocked to hear this, never could have anticipated this in a million years, but I also knew to listen very carefully and let him speak and share what he needed to. I learned so much from Rob about what a suicidal person is experiencing and my hope was to find out what stopped him each time so that I could use that to help keep him alive. Sadly some time either Christmas Eve or the early morning hours of Christmas Day, Rob lost the battle in his mind and succumbed. We did not discover him until Dec. 27th.
I was very fortunate to have good family and friends who were there for me and most knew of Rob's previous attempts and struggles. You become quite numb when there's been a traumatic loss and in my case, even though I knew there was a likelihood, it still hits you like a ton of bricks when you lose them. I was very much in go-mode, knew there were many duties that had to be dealt with as there is with any death and I also had a 9 1/2 year old son. My son knew his Dad was not well and that he'd attempted before so when I delivered the very sad news his Dad had died, he asked me if it was suicide and I told him yes.
I was also very fortunate to have access to trained professionals at the time to be able to ask how best to deliver this life altering news to both my son and my in-laws. Looking back on it afterwards, I realized how much of a blessing having that trained advice was. Knowing how to deliver shocking news in the best way was something I'd never had to do before, so it helped prepare me and my sister-in-law to deliver the bad news in the most effective way and to know how our loved ones might react.
My life as I knew it was completely upside down. The life partner I'd always expected to be there for me was gone. My business partner was gone and I was left without any employees whatsoever, but had to figure out how to put it all back together again. It was the normality of having a business to go to that helped me function. I was able to hire some employees, struggled for 18 months to put the business back on its feet, but had to shut the business down in Sept. 2002 due to financial losses. This too was another secondary loss, but one that I should have done a lot sooner. So many lessons were learned throughout this entire process.
I didn't go for counselling, but did have my young son checked out after Rob's death. My son was not showing much emotion, everyone was telling me this wasn't “normal”, so to appease them and myself, I took him to see a wonderful social worker. She was able to get him to open up and tell her how he felt and he was angry. This anger was very much justified and is why little to no emotion was shown. I had him checked again about 1 1/2 years later to make sure everything was okay, and even though many were still telling me it wasn't “normal”, I knew my son and I knew why he was angry and I knew he was going to be okay. I ignored those who kept telling me what to do in regard to my son and listened to my own intuition.
After Rob's death I really questioned in ways I'd never done before, what my life purpose was. What was I supposed to learn from all of this? This began a long journey of exploration and introduced me to self development which I truly relished. This journey is one no one would volunteer for and certainly doesn't expect to happen, but I came to learn that although one of the most painful and difficult times of my life, it also was a period of incredible learning.
I never had any anger toward Rob for taking his life as many loss survivors do. I knew first hand how very sick he was and watched the man I'd loved for most of my life literally fall apart in front of me. I knew how much he was suffering, how depression had completely taken over his highly intelligent and rational mind and consumed his with self loathing and suicidal thoughts. I was angry at the circumstances that occurred because of his illness and suicide, but never at him. This is such an important distinction to make and one I stress to loss survivors all the time.
Anger is a very common emotion, but when directed at the suicidal person, can really cause great emotional distress and restrict any chances of beginning to heal. If someone has cancer and dies, you're not angry with them for getting cancer because it was not their fault or doing. The same applies when it comes to mental illness. No one chooses to be mentally ill, but many have a difficult time understanding this. 90% of all suicides involve some form of mental illness. Suicidal people do not necessarily want to die, they just want their pain and turmoil to stop and unfortunately arrive at a very wrong way on how best to achieve that. They exceed their ability to cope and see no other way out of their inner pain. It is not done TO you, it is done FOR them to escape their pain and this is important to realize and accept as well.
After much soul searching, I finally decided one day that I could not spend a single moment longer in the state I was in. I was incredibly angry at the world and the anger had become my ally that gave me strength to go on, but it was also consuming me and destroying me. I knew I had to let it go and upon making the decision to no longer remain the way I was, I explored every opportunity I could to learn how to let it go. For me, and for many, forgiveness is what allowed my anger to leave.
I had purchased a relaxation/guided meditation CD that had a forgiveness exercise included within it. You envision yourself standing under a waterfall with whoever you need to forgive. I pictured myself and Rob, letting the water cascade over us and washing away all the feelings of upset or anger. I forgave Rob for all that had transpired and I felt an immediate release and relief and knew something had taken place. I felt a tear run down my face even though my eyes were closed. This was only the beginning of the forgiveness exercises I would do and continue to do to this day whenever it is needed.
Forgiveness is very misunderstood. It is not necessarily done for someone else, it is done for you, so that you can begin to heal whatever is holding you back. I have since learned that forgiveness for yourself is best done first, but that took me much longer to find out. I have since forgiven myself many times for things I have done that most definitely contributed to how my life turned out. Each time I do, more and more is released and I recognized my anger had slowly dwindled away.
Each person grieves in their own way and in their own time, but society on a whole does not deal well or know how to grieve in a healthy way. We're not taught how to grieve and once we're experiencing it, it's very difficult while under extreme emotional distress to figure it out. We need to learn to talk about grief, share our thoughts and feelings and not have them dismissed or swept under the carpet. We need to be able to cry, talk about our loved ones, say their names and not be told to not dwell on it and to move on. We need to educate others on how to best support us, not judge us or offer us a “fix”, we just need them to be there for us, a shoulder to cry on or lean on without having solutions.
We need to learn how to heal unresolved emotional issues which are always the underlying issue in grief and what keeps us stuck and unable to heal and move forward. Death is part of life and yet not many are comfortable talking about it or expressing our feelings about it. That has to change and it needs to start when we're young and have yet to experience loss so we're better prepared and able to cope with it when it comes.
I started a page on Facebook called “Suicide Shatters” Sept. 2011 where I host posts on mental illness, suicide, grief, healing and many other related issues. It's my way of giving back and offering help and hope to others who have lost someone to suicide or have attempted themselves or are struggling with mental illness. I know my mission or life purpose is to help others heal from this very shattering loss. I know it can be healed from and yet I encounter so many who feel and declare it to be so, that they will never heal or recover from this devastating loss.
I want people to know that time alone does not heal. In fact, most often, it complicates grief and healing because we don't know what the correct actions or steps are that we can take. We continue to focus on the past and the horrible loss sometimes to the point we no longer allow anything else into our lives. We can become consumed by our grief, pain and loss and see no end in sight. I continuously put the message out that there is hope, healing and recovery after suicide enters your life. Some are ready to hear it, some are not. For those who are, it allows them to grieve in a healthy way that allows them to re-enter life and live it in a healthy and happy way, the way life was meant to be. We will always miss our loved ones, but that loss can be incorporated into who we are while we figure out a way to reinvent ourselves and live without our loved ones physically here.
For those not yet ready to hear this message, I hope that it plants a seed of hope in their minds that when they are ready, they will be able to begin the healing journey of recovery and re-entry into life as it is now. My heart goes out to all who have had suicide touch their lives. My hope is that by talking openly about it, more will become aware and better educated on what to look for so they may support someone in need get the help they need to remain alive.
There have been many gifts come out of Rob's suicide for me and I know some will read this and think that's a bizarre thing to say, but for me – there are many. I have become a much better person, more compassionate, caring, patient and empathetic. I have connected with fellow loss survivors and attempt survivors and can honestly say it has been an honour to have been able to get to know them. This common bond of suicide and often mental illness, bring us all together in a way that is so special and unique. Knowing we're not alone, knowing we don't have to go it alone is also a gift. Having finally found my purpose and being able to share my gift of supporting others is something that would never have been possible had suicide not entered my life.
I wasn't able of course to see these gifts while embroiled in my own grief and pain, but now that I have healed and recovered, I see they were there all the time, but not visible until I was able to open my eyes to see them and allow them into my life. I so hope sharing my story has helped you have hope for healing and recovery. Share your stories, share your loved ones' names and help educate others in a very powerful and personal way because in doing so, not only are you helping others, but you are helping yourselves heal as well.
My wish for all of you is to find some way of making peace with your loss, so that you may recover and live life fully and without pain.