by Noah Whitaker
Noah J. Whitaker is the coordinator of the Tulare & Kings Counties Suicide Prevention Task Force, and the Community Outreach Manager for the Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency. He writes a monthly column for KRL on mental health and suicide prevention.
January is a time of renewal, an opportunity for a fresh start. Many people work to better themselves via their New Year resolutions. For some, however, like me, January is different. It doesn’t tend to be a time to look forward, but rather it is a time for reflection—especially for those who have lost someone to suicide. There is a common saying among survivors of loss that suicide does not end pain, it simply transfers it onto others.
In my own life, I have found that to be true, though not at first. While growing up I never had the opportunity to meet my father’s father. He died by suicide long before I was born. As a result I missed out on many experiences that other children had: going to the movies with their grandfather, or the zoo, or playing ball in the park, or listening to stories about when he was a boy. These are all experiences that I’ll never know. Still, I’m not sure that I would say that that is the kind of pain referenced in that saying. I didn’t know my grandfather. I only had the idea of him to miss and not the actual person.
One evening, during my senior year of high school, I suddenly knew exactly what the statement meant. My father struggled with depression most of his life. At that time he was depressed and abusing prescription medication and alcohol. Even as an eighteen-year-old kid, I understood that he was in a very bad place, and I told my friends that I thought he would kill himself. A month later he did.
Losing someone tends to be a difficult experience. After a person dies we lose the possible future we would have had with them. These can be painful reminders to us during major life events like graduation, marrying, having children, your children’s life events, getting a new job, or more simple life events like birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and many others. We mourn the imagined experiences we would have had sharing these milestones with our loved one. That is normal. It is also normal for your reaction to the loss to change over time.
For me, the process of growth was most emphatically felt with the birth of my children. When my first son was born, I was overcome with grief and anger at my father for not being there to see his grandson. After my second son was born, I didn’t really think about it until hours later. After my third son’s birth, I didn’t even realize that I didn’t think about my own father for days or weeks afterward, and my grief was very minor. I had come a long way in my grief journey. I attribute that growth to time, learning about grief, seeking professional help, finding and connecting with people who have experienced similar loss, and a growing support system.
You are not alone. There are professionals available to assist with the grief process. Licensed therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists are all great resources. Faith leaders, friends, family, and coworkers can be excellent as well. The more supports you can find the safer you will be while healing.
One of the things I found most beneficial was called a suicide loss survivor peer support group. There are peer groups for grief, but it can be more beneficial for those bereaved by suicide to meet with others who have also lost someone to suicide. Sharing what you’ve felt and are feeling, and hearing others share that they have felt the same is very affirming. They can help you gauge where you are in your healing journey, ways that might help you heal better, and even help to warn you if you’re not doing well. There are also books about grief after suicide that can help if you can’t locate a support group in your area.
In addition to these resources, there is an organization called the American Association of Suicidology. This website is one way to connect with other suicide loss survivors. This year the AAS will host the 29th Annual Healing After Suicide Loss Conference on April 29, 2017. The conference will host speakers and presenters who specialize in grief and recovery, as well as host peer support group sessions. Attending the conference is a great way to meet people in all stages of healing, some of which are involved in incredible projects to help others.
10 tips for the newly bereaved:
1. It is okay to be sad, angry, disappointed, numb, confused, abandoned, guilty, anxious, afraid, and rejected. It’s okay to cry.
2. It is okay to be happy, peaceful, relieved, to laugh, to find pleasure in hobbies, to relax, be excited, and to want to resume your life.
3. It is okay to feel a tumbling, chaotic mixture of all of the emotions above.
4. Grief doesn’t have a set timeline. Some people move on in days, weeks or months. Others struggle for years.
5. We grieve at different paces. People in relationships and families may grieve very differently from each other.
6. Emotional injury mirrors physical injury in that care is most effective when it is sought as early as possible. It is healthy to see professionals such as therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
7. Some people are brought closer to their faith, while others might be mad, feel rejected, or lose their faith. Seeking spiritual counseling is okay.
8. People can, and probably will, say awkward or even stupid things. Most of them are going to be well intentioned. Frankly, no one really knows what to say, but it can be thoughtful to say something as simple as, “I’m here.”
9. “Normal” doesn’t exist anymore; you will create a new normal.
10. There is safety in numbers. Locate a peer support group, usually referred to as “survivors of suicide,” or “survivors of suicide loss.” In some areas you might have to travel a long distance, but it can be worth it.
If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.
If you would like to learn more about the SPTF, refer to the contact information below.
For Non-Crises Information Related to the SPTF:
Suicide Prevention Task Force
C/O Noah Whitaker
5957 S. Mooney Blvd.
Visalia, CA 93277
Coordinator’s Email: sptf@tularehhsa[dot]org
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.