The day that my oldest son took his own life was the day that my life was set on fire. The moment that his body was lowered into the ground and I had to walk away, get in the car and drive away was the day that that fire burnt my entire life down to the ground. I was in such deep shock that I didn’t even realize that I was completely destroyed in that fire as well.
It was not until the one year anniversary of his suicide that I came out of that shock and realized exactly just how injured I was. That realization sent me into another level of grief that I was not prepared for. It is as if my brain finally gave me permission to look around me and see all of the damage done by the loss of Anthony’s life.
I have been through so much in the last five months since that anniversary. My therapist told me that it takes two years, at the very least, to process a huge loss. I did not really believe her but from where I stand right now, I can see that she was right. The first year is a haze. It is like a dream. So many of the first 365 days after Anthony’s suicide were spent just trying to survive and that meant surviving in autopilot.
Looking back I can tell you what helped and what hasn’t helped at all. Death is something that will touch everyone at some point but not everyone will have a tragic loss like mine and not everyone will go through the same things that I have been through so this list is really specific to me but maybe it can help others who are trying to love and support someone who has faced a tragic loss, especially to suicide and especially mothers of children who commit suicide. I have written some of these ideas in other places, so I’m sorry if I am repeating myself, but one part about grief that I have come to know the best is that my brain does not work and I do not remember what I have or haven’t said. It makes writing difficult actually because I really don’t want to repeat myself, but it is what it is.
- Know your lane- This is something that can easily offend people, but the truth is that everyone needs to really be self-aware of who you are in the life of the person who has passed and who is the one closest to the loss of their life. If you are a friend but know the person had a best friend then you don’t get to dump your grief on the best friend, you need to find someone else to dump that grief on. If you are a biological parent who hasn’t seen your child in years, for whatever reason, then you don’t get to expect sympathy from a step-parent who has spent the last few years with that child day in and day our or on the significant other of the child lost. You have to find your own people to grieve with. The two people are are going to grieve for a person who has died is that person’s mother, and whoever raised that person with her and their significant other, then their children, then their siblings they grew up with, then their other parents whether that is a biological father, dad, stepdads, stepmoms, etc. No matter what, if you were not a part of the deceased day to day life do not make it about your grief with those who were a part of that day to day life with them.
- Being a mother of a dead child is isolating– I could probably write an entire book on this issue alone. But here’s the thing. If you are a mother who has raised a child and then that child dies, you are alone in your grief. Not because other people do not care about you but because only you know what it was like to carry that child in your womb, to have them kick your ribs, to have felt their first kicks, to have made the choice to carry them and bring them into this world and they are still a part of your DNA. You were there when they took their last breath and if you, like me, planned their funeral then you are a huge part of laying them to rest after their death. Womb to tomb, literally. Now, I am not dismissing the role of adoptive mothers or stepparents who play a role in a person’s life, but I am speaking about my own experience as the mother of a child who died by suicide and can only speak on that because that is what I know intimately. And it is isolating. I am all alone in my grief. Only I knew Anthony every second of his entire life. I was the first person who laid eyes on him when he was born and I was the last person to hear his voice and I saw the coroner roll his body down my driveway. I picked his crib and his grave. I will never be able to sit with someone who understands what that life experience for Anthony is like, I am the only one who knows it. Just like the mother of his children is the only person who knows what it was like to live life with him as a co-parent. Both of us are in our own little boat that nobody will ever be in with us. Mothers who are grieving their children need to have that boat acknowledged without being treated like they are victims.
- Mark the dates– When someone close to you has lost someone they love, look at the obituary and put the dates of birth and death in your calendar so that every year on those dates you can send the person grieving a card, a gift card for food or flowers. I personally don’t like flowers for many reasons, but mostly because they die and then they are just one more thing that needs to be cleaned up and thrown away. But do something for that person on those dates for as long as you care about them because the hardest part of the loss is knowing that everyone else has moved on with their life as you sit in heartbreak over the loss every single day for the rest of your life.
- Gifts- There are things that you can gift to people who have survived a huge loss that will help them navigate through their loss. Like I said above, I don’t really like flowers. I didn’t know this until 10 months after Anthony died though. But cleaning is difficult for me. It always has been but since losing Anthony, I have very little energy to do things and cleaning is one of them. I rage clean, but regular cleaning is a chore and that has had me purge a lot of things out of my house. The less stuff, the less mess and the less I have to clean. The less I have to clean, the easier my life is. Making life easy is the number one priority after Anthony’s suicide because putting my life back together is the hardest thing I have ever had to do so everything else being easy helps me do that. So gift cards are the best thing ever, especially grocery store gift cards, Amazon gift cards, gift cards for takeout, uber and/or the movies are good too because cooking, coming up with a menu and grocery list is not easy because of the energy issue and also because they take brain power which is hit or miss when grieving. The most important thing is to not ask the grieving person what they need because the answer to that will always be to not be living this life and for their loved one to come back. That is what we all need and that is the answer that pops in our mind when you ask that question then we see the look on your face or realize that you cannot give us that then we make up something quick to avoid the shouting in our own heads about how unfair this all is. So just send them gift cards or a note saying you are thinking of them and their loved one. For Catholics, having masses said for the person lost is a great way to send love to another Catholic. Also, I’ve said this since the beginning of this horrible new life of mine, but you can never go wrong sending a care package of toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap and laundry soap to a family whose life has been flipped upside down. Not to mention that you can pay for a haircut, hair color, manicure and/or pedicure for a grieving wife, fiance or mother because we forget to take care of ourselves all the time while helping our families.
- Things to say- I think people who are on the outside of loss are scared of saying the wrong things to people grieving. The honest to God truth is that you will say something wrong. I still say the wrong things to people after they lose someone they love and I am living INSIDE grief. I have a front-row seat and still, I say the wrong things and I get mad when the wrong things are said to me. I think this is just part of being human. But I can tell you that not saying anything is worse because grief is already so isolating that not saying anything or doing anything makes the person who is devasted by the loss of a loved one feel alone and the voice in their head telling them that nobody cares gets to say “see? I am right because if they cared, they would say something, anything.” So no matter what, say something. Mention the name of the loved one that is gone. If you knew them, tell the grieving people a story about them. The one thing we want to know is that our person is not forgotten. For me, the thing that I want the most is to know that Anthony was wrong and this world is not better without him. I want other people to remember him with me.
- Give us Grace- I don’t know if it is because I was a blogger before Anthony died and my life was going in a direction of building a “platform” (I hate that word, but I can’t get into that right now) or if it just social media in general but I can tell you that I have needed, and sometimes not gotten, some Grace. I have been angry for 90% of the last 17 months. I am angry at almost everyone, including myself and Anthony. I have allowed that anger to hurt others who were only trying to help me and to the few who were out to hurt me first, I have defended myself in ways that maybe I would not have if I was in the right frame of mind. I have walked away from most of whatever platform I had on social media by deleting most of my accounts. The reason that I did that is that so many people just say things online without knowing what they are talking about. Things that are salt in the wound of loss and specifically suicide loss. And they don’t care. But that is what happens when there is so much space to fill and when your job is to fill it better and fast than anyone else. And social media makes us all anchors in our own 24/7/365 news channel. That is what our feeds become. For those of us grieving, and I think for people who have experienced any trauma really, we are lashing out and distracting ourselves by getting caught up in the feeds and they get the best of us to the point where we are allowing our grief to manifest itself in the most ungraceful ways. Like arguing with someone about something that is none of our business or going after the “us” to our “them”. I have a friend who constantly told me to get off social media after Anthony died. I rolled my eyes each time she would send me a message telling me that, but a month or so ago I took her advice and what I found is that my entire life was burnt to the ground. I had not noticed because my face had been buried in my phone for so long. I am thankful for this friend extending Grace to me by telling me the truth in love. I needed it and I am thankful for the Grace that God gave me to take her advice finally. What I found is that in order to change the world, we have to become saints and for me, the first step to becoming a saint is to take the pieces of my broken heart and put them back together. That cannot happen if I am on Facebook arguing with a stranger about her opinions on the Kardashians.
These are just a few of my suggestions as of now. I can’t promise that I won’t make this list again and again. But I will try not to.
The most important thing for people to understand about traumatizing loss is that it really does screw up your brain. You forget things, you aren’t able to make lists and follow through things. It isn’t because you are a loser but because trauma causes injury to your brain and the way to make life easier on someone who is dealing with traumatic loss is to make their life easier because they are already doing the most difficult thing to do: rebuilding their life in circumstances they never saw coming.