I think that some of the hardest grief work comes after that first year, after you’ve had some time to adjust and can attempt to begin to absorb the enormity of the suicide. Your husband murdered himself. How do you ever come to terms with this, knowing the man you did, the partner you slept next to every night?
The usual grief resources may not seem to apply. The bereavement support groups in many communities are full of widows and widowers who lost spouses after valiant fights with cancer or heart disease. The bookstores are full of grief recovery manuals that don’t seem relevant because the bottom line is that our loved ones chose to leave us, and their children. Chose it. So we fight anger, and guilt, and confusion in ways that don’t seem common to “normal” grief. It is also frequently the case that the road to suicide for our men was littered with debris; mental health crises, anger outbursts, marital turmoil, substance abuse, and physical illnesses. One reporter, writing on suicide in midlife men, noted that they have often burned their bridges with loved ones by the time they make their exits. What is it like to grieve someone who may have been difficult to live with for a long time? And, perhaps, what do you do with the sense of calm you now find in your home without the drama your spouse carried around? This is one possible question we have, not for every woman, but it was true for me.
So these middle years, when you are not in crisis but you definitely aren’t turned right side up, can be hard and tiring. The world may expect you to be “healed” but you wonder if that’s a goal you'll ever reach. It feels unlikely because there are moments when you feel damaged beyond repair. There are other days when you are almost your normal self, and then something will trigger you and throw you back into anger, anxiety, or despair, and like me, you may struggle with poor physical or emotional health. Force yourself to honestly face your challenges, whatever they may be, and get the professional support you need. You need to face grief every time it hits you, figure out what you feel when you feel it, and find out what helps you. By now you know the people in your social circles who can hear you out when you’re distraught, the ones who can hear the story over and over until you gradually differentiate the questions you can find answers to, and the ones that will remain a mystery forever.
If you have children of any age, continue to be present for them. Continue to facilitate open communication and make the suicide a safe topic that can be raised at any time, whenever the child needs to talk about it. All the work you’re doing to move yourself forward will model a path for them, because they are watching. Be honest about how you’re feeling but don’t lean on them for your emotional support. That’s what your friends and other family members are for. And always remember that they are hurting, whether or not they look like it. A parent who tacitly promised to be there forever, left them. They have to work through powerful feelings of abandonment, guilt, and betrayal, and that can take a long time.
Some suicide survivors find that the support of other survivors is helpful. You can find a local support group through the American Association of Suicidology. Their database of Survivors of Suicide (SOS) support groups is here and is listed also in the Resources section. During this time learn to take note of your good days and build on them because hope is the thing that will move you into your future. When you have a good day, or good week, what went into it? Who were you with and what did you do? If you started to slide into a funk and pulled out of it, how did you distract yourself? Notice how your grief attacks seem shorter, how your depression seems less severe since you started exercising, or how energized you feel after going to the gym. Try out new behaviors every month and notice which ones really seem to help.
Renewed spiritual practice may help you during these months as you seek meaning and guidance. Look for inspirational stories of people who overcame terrible circumstances to survive and thrive, and imagine how your future might look if you became healthy and whole. Want that future. Fight for it. Look back three months or a year and see the progress that you’ve made. This will bolster your spirits. Be gentle with yourself but fight for your wellness. It is absolutely possible to get to your future, so believe in yourself.