This will be my last installment in my series on suicide and depression in Paganism. Perhaps appropriately, this will also be the last installment of “Seekers and Guides.” I am pleased to announce that I have been invited by the Patheos folks to open my own blog! It’s called Between the Shadows: the Craft of a Liminal Witch, and I’ll be writing on existing in the “between” spaces of things and on the Craft and Paganism in general. I would really like to thank all of you for your support (and your vocal arguments too!) during my time as part of the great team that makes up the Agora blog; without you, this would not have been possible. I have enjoyed writing “Seekers and Guides” very much, and I will likely continue writing about the things that I wrote about here in my new blog. I hope that if you’ve enjoyed my work (or hated it; spirited debate is good too) you’ll come on over to the new blog page so that we may continue our dialogue!
Now on with the subject of today’s column: suicide prevention and healing for survivors.
Recognizing the Warning Signs
Often – usually – a suicide attempt comes as an enormous shock to friends and loved ones. But often, the person who has attempted to take his or her own life has been crying out for help for some time. However, the signals are usually unclear. Some things to look out for, in addition to all the symptoms of depression, include:
- Self-defeating talk about nothing being worth it and things looking hopeless, especially if it is repeated
- Distancing oneself from family and friends
- Stopping long-term or lifesaving medications
- Giving away a bunch of personal belongings, especially savings, sentimentally valued items, or pets; also, a sudden interest in setting out terms for a will or for a funeral (which might just represent a confrontation with mortality, but it’s worth noting)
- Actively avoiding social interaction
- Asking questions about methods of death or suicide and their results
- A sudden fascination with death
- Lifechanging stress factors sometimes tip a depressed person over the edge. Any intense emotional event can be a lifechanging stressor. Examples include: moving, getting married, getting divorced or ending a long-term relationship, starting school, starting a new school, starting a new job, failing in school, losing a job or getting laid off, graduating, financial disaster, public humiliation, a new disability, quitting an addiction, confronting a deep emotional trauma or one’s own mortality, being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, the death of a child or spouse, killing someone, or being charged with a crime.
Compassion: Nature’s Healing Balm for the Soul
When people are driven to suicide it is most often due to feelings of hopelessness or loneliness. Time and again we hear stories of how a moment of compassion can save lives. It really can. If you see someone struggling, reach out to help. If you see someone being bullied or abused, step in. A kind word, an offer of a sandwich when someone is hungry, a shoulder to cry on, a warm place to sleep, a coat in a storm; these things can all make the difference between life and death.
It’s a hard thing. We suffer from compassion fatigue in our society, probably because we hear so much about suffering that we find it hard to allow ourselves to care about anyone outside of our little sphere. And we are frightened of the unknown, and the truth is that a hungry homeless person just might rob you. But it is never wrong to care or to feel.
But, There’s a Limit
Some people just seem to feed on all the attention and use us as psychic garbage dumps. After a point, you are not helping; you are enabling a negative behavior. You can’t allow yourself to be sucked into their black hole and you must save yourself. Because I am subject to depression myself, I can only handle so much negativity before I must distance myself.
Remember me talking about my friend in the first article; the one who tried to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve next door to me? I felt horrible. This friend had been my saving grace; he served the place of a therapist in my anorexia and my depression; he listened to me pour out and sort out my feelings, and he saved my life. How could I have failed him so badly?
I meditated and sought communion with the Goddess. And after several hours, just before dawn, the message I got was this: if you see someone drowning, you can throw out a life preserver. You can hold their hand; you can offer to be there. But if they won’t grab it, then there’s nothing you can do. And to think that you have that much control over whether or not someone lives or dies is hubris. It’s not up to you; each one of us must exercise our own free will, and no one else can do it for us.
How do you know when to intervene? How do you know when you should butt out?
You know what I think? If you really think someone might be in danger of taking their own life, it’s time to intervene. The person in question might be angry with you; but so what? They’ll be alive, right?
So how do you help?
Contact a professional or a semi-professional. Alert school counselors, church leaders, health care professionals, addictions counselors, community health nurses or doctors. If you don’t know what else to do, call the suicide hotline and ask them! Urge the one you’re concerned about to seek help for him or herself as well.
Be aware that most coven leaders or grove organizers are not trained as counsellors so they may not have solutions for you. Ask someone with some training. Try your local Unitarian church if you don’t know where else to go; they usually have at least a few token Pagans in their congregations and they will be friendly at least.
If you are a Pagan leader and you want training in counselling, there’s a great book out there called On Becoming a Counsellor by . Also, the Cherry Hill Seminary has courses you can take.
Dealing with the Aftermath
No matter how much people care, no matter how much we try, sometimes people we care about will slip through our fingers. They will be taken from us. We will be faced with a whole host of emotions about it, and then we must not neglect our own self-care. Here are some of the issues that come up and suggestions on what you can do about them.
Survivor guilt is a special form of post-traumatic stress disorder that comes from having survived something when someone else we care about has not. It is a very common affliction for the survivors of suicide victims. Many of us struggled with that when Jodi took her own life. Why her when she was the kindest, nicest person among us? Why were we, the unworthy, still alive when she was dead? What had we done, or not done, to fail her?
The truth is, we had done nothing to fail her, and nothing we had done could have saved her. Jodi was in a relationship with a man who loved her. She was going to school. She had lots of friends. She just lost her battle with depression. It wasn’t our fault; and if you have survived someone who was a suicide victim in your life, it’s not your fault either. No matter what you said, or didn’t say; no matter whether you loved someone with all your heart and stayed with them through everything, or dumped them because you couldn’t handle it anymore; no matter whether or not you called or didn’t call or even said something terribly hurtful; it’s not your fault. They made the choice to take their own life; you had no power over that.
If you think you might be suffering from survivor guilt, that’s also a risk factor, so please get professional therapy for yourself too.
It’s not talked about much, but it is not uncommon for the survivors of a suicide victim (or would-be suicide victim) to be very angry about what has happened. And the truth is, the one who has killed him or herself (or tried to) has done a very hurtful thing. It is an act that causes terrible damage and trauma to the ones you love and leave behind.
How do you deal with that anger while still trying to provide emotional support for the one you love when they need you? Most of us don’t, and so years later we need therapy for our damaged emotions and co-dependent behaviors.
Get some therapy for yourself while your loved one is getting therapy. It is normal to be angry.
I blamed myself when my mother attempted suicide. I spent much of my childhood trying so hard to be the person she wanted me to be, trying not to upset her that I lost myself completely. Then I was suicidal. Later on, I had a great deal of anger towards her for putting me in that position at such a young age. Her bipolar diagnosis allowed me to put it in perspective. I came to think of it as what it was; an illness. She was sick, and no more in control of her actions than a person delirious with fever. This allowed me to forgive her and to heal the rifts between us as well as to start healing myself. Granted, it’s not perfect, and it’s not easy; but it’s much better. And it gets better all the time.
Grieving takes time and is different for all of us. Understanding the five stages of grief may help you to come to terms with what has happened (and even attempted suicide necessitates dealing with horror and grief). Give yourself time to heal and don’t allow others to tell you what you should and should not being doing, or how you should feel from moment to moment. For me, my best tactic for grief is to help others, try to get on with my life, but be given space to break down and cry a while when the inevitable reminders come. Doing this helps me to move on and gives me reason to keep going. Others may need to shut everyone away for a while. Let all grieve in their own ways.
Grief eases when we come to a place of resolution. For some of us that can be difficult, especially when a death is traumatic and sudden, as suicides are. Maybe there are things we never had a chance to say. Maybe we just need to say we’re sorry and we need to feel we’ve been heard.
Fortunately, we are Pagans. The Veil is thin this time of year. Create a ritual in which you bring to the altar a picture or other memento of the person you loved, and say everything you wished to say; even your anger and your grief. Then thank the spirit of the departed for joining you and move on. Bury or burn the memento, toss it into a lake or a river, or keep it in a place of honor, according to your need and preference. Hopefully you will find the healing you need.
A Final Message of Hope
There is very little in life that cannot be changed. Indeed, change is the only constant. That means that every day begins with the possibility of transformation.
If life seems unbearable for you right now, just remember that tomorrow might be better. But if you don’t stick around to find out, you’ll never know.
Ending your life might mean that the pain will stop, yes. But so will any possibility of joy. So hang in there. Cookies really are tasty, sex can be a lot of fun, sunlight is warm and rainbows really are beautiful. And they really are out there, even if you live in the Pacific Northwest (trust me, I live in BC!)
She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes. Or as the Persians once said; this, too, shall pass.
I decided I wanted to stick around and find out what happens tomorrow. I hope you do too.
Thanks for listening. Blessed be.
Next column: She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes.
Join me over at “Between the Shadows” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/betweentheshadows/.
Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again!