Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Different Kind of Grief

The word suicide comes from a Latin word which means "to kill oneself."  The dictionary definition says "the act of a human being intentionally causing his or her own death."  Suicide ranks as the 6th-8th overall leading cause of death in the United States and as the 3rd leading cause among those 15-34 years of age.  It occurs more often with males than females.  In the U.S. 52% of suicide deaths involve firearms.  Depression and alcoholism are two of the major contributing factors in suicides.  There is plenty of information and statistics available about people who attempt/commit suicide.  There are books, medical texts, internet sites, magazine articles, essays, and videos devoted to the causes of suicide and the prevention of suicide.  But there is very little information and very few resources for those who are left behind.  Most of the focus is on those who commit suicide rather than the survivors.  As a result, there is more guilt, shame, isolation, loneliness, separation, withdrawal, and frustration experienced by survivors of suicide than by those who have lost a loved one in some other way.

The loss of a loved one by any means is devastating to those who are left behind.  The surviving family members and friends all go through their own form of grief following the death.  I don't in any way intend to sound as if I think my grief was worse than anyone else's - but it was (and still is) different.  The American Psychiatric Association classifies the stress level associated with a suicide as "catastrophic".  Accepting the suicide victim's decision to die is worse than accepting the death itself.  It is virtually impossible to understand that a loved one left of their own free will.  Following a suicide, there is no disease, accident, or act of violence for the survivors to be mad at for taking their loved one away.  You have to be mad at the one who died, because they took themselves away.  The immediate reaction following a suicide is one of disbelief.  Even if your loved one had experienced prior problems, even if they had talked about suicide, even if they had a previous unsuccessful suicide attempt, accepting that they actually did it just isn't possible.  I found that I had to get through the initial impact of how Eddie died before I could face that he was gone.  Only then was I able to begin grieving for him.

After Eddie's death I didn't try to hide how he died, but I didn't volunteer the information either.  Family, neighbors, and close friends all knew what had really happened.  I didn't lie to others about his death, but if they didn't know I let them believe he died as a result of the wreck.  I guess in some ways I was embarrassed or ashamed to admit that he had committed suicide.  I felt like there was a stigma associated with suicide and that some people would look at his death as having been "preventable" in some way.  I felt as if my entire world had exploded, and my life was shattered into a million pieces.  I didn't have any idea how to start to put things back together again, much less how to deal with people who didn't understand suicide (I didn't even understand it myself).  Over time I became more open and honest about what happened and to my surprise and dismay found that the statistics about suicide are true - it happens way more than we want to believe.  I didn't think I knew many people who had personal experience with suicide, but I was wrong ... a friend's brother, another friend's son, a coworker's sister, an in-law's husband, an acquaintance's husband, a nurse's father.  I wasn't happy that they had experienced the pain I was now feeling, but I was relieved to know that I wasn't alone.  It's unfortunate for the survivors that suicide is dealt with in such secrecy.

The following are quotes I found in two of the books written specifically for survivors of suicide - (1) Suicide and Its Aftermath: Understanding and Counseling the Survivors by Edward Dunne and Karen Dunne-Maxim and (2) No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One by Carla Fine:

"We do not believe in ascribing 'responsibility' for suicide to anyone other than the victim.  The failure to choose life is the failure of the deceased, not of the survivor." (1)

"We believe that suicide occurs in all types of families: the functional and the dysfunctional, the very good, the not so good, and the just good enough." (1)

"Gradually, I came to understand that while it may be possible to help someone whose fear is death, there are no guarantees for a person whose fear is life." (2) 

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