suicide + mental illness
"Passing Reflections: Surviving Loss Through Meditation" (Vol III)
Pages 241-247. Published by Big Think Media. Copyright 2016.
5 minute read
Looking Back at the First Thirteen Months After Loss
On the last day of 2000, my eldest son, Colby, died by suicide. He had been suffering with unremitting pain.
One needs tools to weather profound loss. Mindfulness practices gave me the tools I needed to gradually engage the pain of loss and move toward healing and growth. Often described as “simple but not easy,” mindfulness practice helped me discover the paradox at the center of our usual coping strategies: denial and avoidance of difficulty actually prolongs our pain. Trying to push discomfort away is, in effect, holding onto it. Bringing compassionate awareness to my bodily felt experience, going toward pain and feeling what was true, then allowing difficult sensations to pass through me, actually eased my pain.
Grief is a biological, not a rational process. Allowing ourselves to be touched by grief is transformative and eventually regenerative. And just like in the garden, from the ashes of profound loss, comes new life.
Traumatic loss is brutal in its effect but grief can come in many guises whenever our lives meet change, demanding of us a new response to living. And all grieving has a biological process of its own, like old age or adolescence, and if you find yourself in its presence chances are there will be some who cannot join you. Truly wishing to be of help friends and loved ones say, “Call me anytime,” and then they’re gone. And do I call? Maybe one or two who have always understood me and they always ask, “How you doin?” but trying to explain my state is crazy making for words do not exist to help them see if life has not yet led them on the journey. Like a long distance runner in the middle of a marathon or a molting insect casting an outgrown existence or a solo sailor struggling to survive a storm, I had no energy to spare in bringing them on board.
Thirteen months have passed since my son’s death and I feel a slow healing brewing. I am better. I go to the grocery store without elaborate planning and purchase what I want to eat as if I had some interest in it. This is new. Before I had no interest in things, no ability to conceive a thought or follow it through, feeling like a shell with edges indistinct housing only a deep longing that never could be filled and a pain in my heart that was crushing me. Now, from the perspective of some distance as I try to understand my own and others’ reactions to this crisis I have arrived at a point where I see there is no way to wrongly grieve. We give life and death whatever we can
I know now very few can help when tragedy walks up your doorstep and I need to be gentle with myself and gentle with everyone else in this place of no real roadmaps. All gratuitous judgments from “How can they be so unfeeling?” to “How can she be so effusive?” need to go, replaced by a little compassion. Everyone wants us to mirror them, to be just like, or mimic some supposed measure of progress but I cannot be other than what I am. Give all the advice in the world it will not help. If you want to help what I truly need is for you to sit with me and listen—nothing to fix, nowhere else to be—just here with all our feelings.
Healing comes when we share from the heart spreading all of our cards on the table. Some cannot go there with you, who find sitting with another’s pain frightening as if they might catch it or worse yet, feel their own which they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. I cannot judge them harshly. We do the best we can, all of us, including those ending life prematurely. The point is to be there for each other while letting go of judgments. Since Colby’s death I’ve learned life is more complex than I could have ever dreamed, with layers that are not immediately obvious, rendering superficial judgments not just unhelpful, but downright ludicrous. With this awareness in mind, I am trying with all my heart to sweep my path clear of clutter, the chatter pro and con, gratefully accepting what support comes to me and giving back what I can.
And when people wonder aloud if you are “over it yet” I’ve learned to gently ask if they are “over” the births of their children and grandchildren or “over” their first kiss? All life’s events leave their mark, happy or sad, no difference. Look around you! Each of us carries those marks in countenance, mind and body and with every new event or change there is potential for growth toward greater compassion and wisdom if we can let them in. The death of a loved one, or illness, or birth, weaves into our life’s fabric in lasting strands that forever color the tapestry that is us.
If you are suffering loss, for whatever reason, seek out others who can share from the heart without judgments or attempts to make your feelings fade. Find solace in those who can acknowledge your grief as part of your wholeness and your wholeness as part of them. When we honor the grief that change brings with it, endeavoring to work through its many layers of sadness—absent of fear, beyond the need to control—only then will we grow into our humanity from a place that is truly whole.