A Crushing Crisis



Breath by breath, hour by hour, task by task. That’s how you will make it through the first days. And the biology of trauma makes it likely that you will have a hard time doing anything at all for a while. Our bodies’ normal reaction to a threat is the well-known fight or flight response. However in situations where neither fleeing nor fighting make sense, we submit, and may go temporarily into a state where we are aware of what’s happening, but observe the situation without any sensation or emotion. This response is called tonic immobility and was shaped by millions of years of evolution. It probably saved our ancestors from being killed by wild animals a time or two. So you may feel, early on, like you are somehow outside your body, and this is normal.

You may also have trouble processing information, remembering anything, or making decisions. This is also biologically adaptive as the amygdala, the survival focused part of your brain, has taken over. Until you can physically calm down, you’ll find it hard to mentally engage with the world. So the first job is to distance yourself a little from the chaos and seek some kind of emotional equilibrium.

The physiological dynamics of acute trauma will require you to get help with things in the early days. Even simple things like making meals and driving may be beyond you for a while. They were for me. You just may find that you can’t pull your thoughts together well enough to function, and really, you shouldn’t have to. It’s okay to just be, and to do whatever you need to do in the moment to make it through. Lean on friends and family for the rest, and if you lack support, make that the one task you take on. Talk to co-workers, people at church, or your child’s school. Do not pretend to be strong. Right now that will only make you weak. When we are vulnerable, we need to be protected, and there is no shame in that. Whoever your helpers are, they should work to create a quiet environment that feels safe, because that’s what will help you catch your breath and reconnect mind and body.

Questions come next. As soon as you can think at all, the thing you’re thinking about is “why?” It will also be the question on everyone else’s minds too, and you may find that a lot of time is spent trying to piece the story together. This type of debriefing seems to be a compulsive need of survivors of suicide and hand-in-hand with questions, feelings of guilt will arise. It may, at times, feel like everyone who knew your husband comes up with things they could have done, should have done. This will most definitely be on your mind too. Below is an excellent resource, and I encourage you to make it your guide though these days and to direct your friends and family to it also. The shock and grief spreads a wide net, and it’s likely that many people are struggling.

A Handbook for Survivors of Suicide is written by Jeffery Jackson. He is the survivor of his wife's suicide and his free 36-page booklet is available to download and share on the website of the American Association of Suicidology website. It is also available in Spanish.