What the ‘Terrible Twos’ Mean to Me After Suicide Loss
If you’re a parent, you know exactly what the term “terrible twos” mean. If you’re not a parent, you still know because you’ve seen it in every aisle at Walmart. Tiny humans screaming, crying, throwing themselves face down on the floor all the while saying, “No!” to everything including the entire candy aisle you’ve bribed them with to get them out of the store before someone calls Child Protective Services. Experts have tried to use their sneaky reframing skills to call it the “terrific twos” because the reason 2 year olds do such obnoxious behaviors is for all good reason. They are learning some imperative life skills like communication, concrete concepts like right and wrong, which goes along with testing those limits or boundaries to truly understand right/wrong, good/bad. They are literally building the foundation for how to be bigger humans.
Major stuff… terrific! I’m a mom twice over: I don’t remember the terrific part (and neither do the people in Walmart aisle four), but am grateful that my children now know how to effectively handle the disappointment (most days) of not getting their way. It’s a rough time of purposefully amazing growth for all involved.
For me, the “terrible twos” has another meaning. Recently, we acknowledged the fifth anniversary of Robin Williams’ suicide death. As I recently also closed out year two of the loss of my husband to suicide, I used the week to reflect. I spent time looking back on the good, the bad, the ugly.
Through that reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion: the second year is like going through an adult version of the terrible twos, which may or may not include a few face down on the floor moments in inappropriate places. For me, it also included a lot of the word, “No.” One or two times (probably a low estimate) in an inappropriately loud voice. Sometimes too many, and just as many times where I probably should have said it. At the same time, it came with tremendous growth, which we all know with growth comes change and change can be excruciatingly painful. Looking at the entire year as a whole, I felt like a giant 2-year-old who was clumsily walking around trying to navigate this scary thing called life.
The cold, hard truth. Year two was harder, which is unimaginable when you’re in year one. Mind you, I’m a clinical counselor. I had worked with a few survivors of suicide loss over the years, but only one in regards to their loss. It was also soon after they experienced the loss so they were just managing the day to day struggles a half a second at a time, pretty typical stuff in year one.
I had no idea! Clinically, personally, I was clueless. In year one, you’re counting down the days like Christmas thinking that once you get through all the firsts, you’ll be golden. Well, I was quickly approaching the end of year one and reached out to a local support group facilitator. I reached out because as year one was coming to a close, I felt more and more lost. I thought I was missing something. I was doing all the right things. I had a counselor. I was open about my story and grief journey. I did yoga. I exercised. I made sleep a priority. I took medication if and when I needed to manage my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What was I missing? Well the only thing I was missing was the little piece of information which made what I was experiencing totally normal: Welcome to the Terribly Terrific Twos!
The reasons the second year can be harder is for just as many reasons as it’s hard to be a 2-year-old. From my own experience, as everyone’s is unique, it was a variety of things from no longer being numb, having to make some difficult decisions that were put on hold the first year, less daily support from friends and family and building a whole new foundation of being a different human. Losing my husband to suicide sent me into the biggest and longest identity crisis of my life I’m still working through (if there’s another one along this journey, help us all!).
My thinking isn’t the same. I don’t feel or express feelings the same. I don’t communicate with others the same, which means my relationships aren’t the same. My sense of right/wrong, good/bad isn’t the same. I feel like a different human being and now that I’m at the end of year two, I have the acceptance it’s OK. Losing someone to suicide changes you. The second year is completely rebuilding the foundation I built as a 2-year-old with totally different building materials: learning how to communicate, learning how to trust, learning how to laugh, learning how to love. A whole new foundation in which I’m now going to live the rest of my life. It’s a rough time. Like screaming, “I hate you” because I can’t eat cake for breakfast kind of rough.
I would be lying though if I didn’t say the second year was also a year of tremendous positive growth for me. Just like 2 year olds, all the emotions spilling out all over everywhere (and everyone) are due to some important amazing changes. I am more assertive than I have ever been, mostly because, push comes to shove, I always know where my priorities stand.
“Does it benefit me? Does it benefit my girls? If no, let it go,” was literally written on a Post-It note in my daily planner when my FMLA was over and I returned to work. That note is now tattered and taped to my white board on my desk at home. Everything I did or was asked to do went through that filter. Resulting in a lot of, “No.” Sorry not sorry. I also don’t shy or walk away from a challenge or risk, when predictability used to be my best friend.
When you’ve experienced something unimaginable, everything else is relative. Then, I was afraid of heights. Now, zip lining sounds like a great idea. When you realize you’re ultimately not in control even when you think you are, then you stop trying to control anything at all. I’m also less attached to irrelevant things, in a healthy way. (Buddha would shake my hand.) I’m less attached to my house or the things in it. Less attached to conforming to what society and everyone else is doing. Less attached to what people think of me and what I should be doing. Until you’re walking in my flip flops, then you should know, you don’t know and don’t get an opinion.
Which leads me to confidence. Not always in where I’m headed or what I’m doing, but confidence in knowing I will figure it out. Leaning in to the building of this new foundation still causes me the most angst. My whole life I have been working towards something, my Bachelor’s Degree, my Master’s Degree, this certificate, that certificate, that position, this position. The working towards climbing over this mountain of pain, grief, trauma, abandonment in order to rebuild my foundation in who I am makes me want to hit and bite people like a 2-year-old who just had their toy taken from them.
The great thing about going through this journey as an adult and not a tiny human is actually knowing you’re creating a better version of yourself and masterpieces take time. Have grace. Have patience. Suicide loss survivors often say it doesn’t get better, just different with each passing year. No truer words could be spoken as I enter another year: Year three. Wondering what will be different. Wondering if year five will be still be different. Nonetheless, my story isn’t over yet; there is laughter, love and light after loss.
This post originally appeared on the Light After Loss blog.