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Excerpted from: "After Suicide Loss" by Bob Baugher, PhD


What are some of the signs that one is integrating the loss and on a journey towards a new normal? While they will differ somewhat for each individual, here are some of the changes that we have noticed in our clients who have made great progress:

  • Return of your functioning – over time, your ability to function in your life roles - as a worker, as a family member, as a friend - has been returning. This is the usual course of bereavement - the disruption and dysregulation that are characteristic of early grief after a suicide can be very intense. But with time, support, and effort, these "symptoms" typically subside, and an individual's capacity to function returns. Sometimes, this reappearance of functioning “regresses,” and we lose some of our progress for a while - a common occurrence around the anniversary of the death, or the holidays. But, as you move beyond the second year, the general trend is “up” and you should be gradually feeling better.

  • Involuntary to voluntary – right after the death, your experience of your grief was probably mostly "involuntary." By that, we mean that the waves of sorrow, anger, panic, etc. seemed out of control. Put differently, your grief was in control of you. For example, you may have found yourself breaking down and crying at unexpected and unwanted times - perhaps at work, or while you were out with friends for a social evening. Over time, you may have noticed that your grief has become more "voluntary.” You probably are becoming much more skilled at choosing when you allow yourself to react to your loss, and when you choose to avoid it. We call this acquired ability "learning to dose oneself;" and it is a good skill, one that helps people feel more normal and in control of themselves. This is likely one of the abilities that have been growing as your journey progresses.

  • Changes in remembering – In the beginning, remembering your loved one was decidedly a double-edged sword. You wanted to remember them and to use those memories to hold on to them. But every time you found yourself remembering, it also hurt tremendously. It confronted you with the painful truth that your loved one was now gone. With time, remembering slowly moves from being a painful confrontation with the death to being a great treasure - a chance to go back and recall the sweet and wonderful things about your loved one - to "visit" with them again. This is why we encourage our clients when they are are ready, ready, to cultivate memories of their loved one. Looking at photographs, watching videos, writing down memories, telling and listening to stories about your loved one - all of these can be helpful ways of developing a “continuing bond" with them.

  • A whole life – If your relationship with this person was contentious, it may be easy to focus on those bad times in your life. However, your job now, as you move on with your life is to concentrate on the good memories, the ones that bring you joy and help you to let go of the painful ones. This can be particularly important in suicide, where the manner of death usually creates painful memories all by itself. It is important to remember that your loved one had a life before the suicide (and before htey were depressed) that deserves to be remembered. Suicide was the last event in your loved one’s entire life - but remembering the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and setbacks of their life, in all their completeness, is much more important than concentrating on the last few days or weeks of their life. In short, one of the most important goals of your grief journey is to arrive at a point where you can remember the life of your loved one without dwelling on the manner in which they died.

  • The return of pleasure – Like depression, grief can rob us of our ability to experience pleasure in our life. By pleasure we mean everything from the physical enjoyment of our bodies (good food, sex, etc.) to the social happiness of being with those we love, to the spiritual joy of finding meaning and purpose in our lives. With time and griefwork, the ability to experience pleasure begins to return. Sometimes, after a death like suicide, people feel guilty about experiencing pleasure again. You may ask yourself "how could I be feeling pleasure when my loved one has died?" We understand this feeling - it is a kind of loyalty to this person, or perhaps even a way of "doing penance” for the death. But we encourage you to allow the return of joy and delight into your life. The return of happiness is not a measure of whether you loved this person, or continue to grieve their death. In fact. if your loved one was able to come back and have a conversation with you, isn't it likely that they would say something like “I don't want you to suffer any longer. This was not your fault, and I do not want my death to burden you for the rest of your life. Please find happiness again, and do this to honor me.”

  • The return of a future orientation – when a loved one dies, we tend to focus on our past relationship with the deceased and on the pain that we are experiencing in the present moment. With time and work, however, we begin to look towards our future again. You may find yourself making plans - for next week, for next month, for next year. This means that your investment in your own life and living are returning, and this is a good thing.

  • Forgiveness – We are very careful when we talk about forgiveness. Some people do not feel that anyone needs to be forgiven - that their loved one was ill and died from this illness (e.g., depression). Therefore, it was not something that needs to be forgiven. On the other hand, sometimes people feel that the suicide was an unforgivable choice - one that has hurt other people and should never be “excused.” Likewise, some survivors have trouble forgiving themselves for “failing” their loved one. They may believe that they can never be forgiven for their inability to protect their loved one or to prevent the suicide.

    So what does it mean to "forgive"? First, we believe that forgiveness does not mean forgetting what has happened. Nor, if you believe an injustice has occurred (for example, that a mental health professional failed to do their job in preventing the suicide), does it mean that you need to somehow accept that injustice? Rather, we believe that forgiveness means making a choice - often a very difficult choice - to no longer hold on to the anger about what has happened.

    While it is not our role to tell you to forgive, we can tell you about our experiences with survivors around this issue. In coping with the suicide of a loved one, many people have told us that deciding not to let the anger dominate their life was an important step that helped them tremendously on their grief journey. Survivors have told us that, for them, forgiveness was a way of saying "In spite of what has happened, I want to feel happiness and peace again in my life." They pointed out that forgiveness is also is [sic] a way of acknowledging the fact that we do not control the universe and cannot prevent all bad things from happening. Survivors have reminded us that it can be very, very difficult to forgive a person they felt had some role in the suicide of their loved one–a family member, in-law, friend of the deceased, a mental health professional, or even the person who took their own life. At this point in your life you may have chosen not to forgive and that is your right. But again, those who tell us they did find a way to forgive eventually found that they were no longer a prisoner of their own anger. People forgive, not only to help someone else, but also to help themselves. To put it differently, forgiveness means moving from anger or guilt towards something more like acknowledgment and regret.

    This applies equally well to your anger with yourself. You are not perfect, and you make mistakes. Those mistakes can include how you interacted with your loved one over the course of your relationship and how you responded to their suicidal behavior. Forgiveness means accepting your mistakes and deciding not to continue to be angry with yourself. It means acknowledging that you cannot undo what has happened - and that being angry with yourself will only create more suffering in the world without doing any good. If you have not yet forgiven yourself or someone else, our question to you is, "What would it take for you to begin to do so?”

  • Peace/Acceptance of what happened – This is the place to which we hope you will be able to arrive. It is a state of mind of non-judgmental acceptance of what has happened, forgiveness for yourself and others, and internal peace with yourself. Not an easy place to reach, is it? Perhaps no survivor ever fully gets there. But we know that, over time, survivors are capable of coming to terms with what has happened and are able to move on with their lives - changed people, but changed in some good ways as well as bad, and able to recommit to life.

pp. 84-88. Excerpted from: "After Suicide Loss: Coping with your Grief" by Jack Jordan, Ph.D. + Bob Baugher, Ph.D. Posted by permission from the author. Published by Caring People Press, copyright 2016.

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