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7 Things I Learned About Grief After My Son's Suicide

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Grief does not come with a time limit — however the passage of time does provide some solace, it allows for different memories to sneak back into consciousness, not just the memories of death and loss. Instead of wrapping my grief around me like a massive cape, I now find that it has settled into the shape of scar in my heart, and is not nearly as obvious as that billowing cape used to be. The passage of time allows me to move into an impossible future, when I can feel joy and happiness and love, even though my son died by suicide. These are some of the lessons I have learned, over the past three and a half years:

1. The world changed its hue after you died.

Very soon after Harry died, I remember watching the trees, wafting their green fronds in the breeze. The sky was grey and heavy, and the pedestrians with their hoodies pulled up, were chatting away, almost as though there was nothing wrong. As though they didn’t know the world had changed its hue: they didn’t know.

I sat in my car, waiting for the traffic light to turn green, tears streaming down my face, and I knew, with not one shadow of a doubt, that the world around me, (the trees, the cars, the people) did not know the most visceral part of me. They did not know Harry was gone. I knew, in that instant, that I had to find a way to be OK with the world, and not become bitter and twisted. A way that allowed me to remember, and feel, and love and cry without any expectation that the trees would understand my loss.

2. I cry as much about the “what was” as the “what could have been.”

The “what could have beens” seem to assail me more than they did in the early days of the aftermath. Back then it was a more focused sense of loss, a much more present loss. Harry was here one day, and gone the next. I could easily look back into last week or last month and see him there. I would see him in every corner of my house, in the garden, in my world. Harry was a permanent fixture, a living memory and a real flesh and blood, warm, huggy son, who was no longer within hand’s reach.

It was such a present loss, and the juxtaposition between today and yesterday held me in that sense of who he was, of whom I had lost, for a very long time. I still feel that pain, and grieve Harry’s loss; and alongside that, as my life has moved on, I grieve too, the “what could have beens” — the events and occasions that should have been; that we could have celebrated; that I would have seen him at.

3. It’s the little things that matter.

Little miracles, random acts of kindness, hugs — the little things managed to penetrate the ironclad armor of my grief. It’s all about balance, especially in the early days. About donning the armor, yet allowing sunlight to filter through the chinks, occasionally. The big picture wouldn’t work… looking at an endless future wouldn’t work. Being reminded that life goes on wouldn’t work. The sunlight filtering into my heart when someone handed me a batch of cookies, or I came home to find a card or a plant or some chocolate on my doorstep helped. The sunlight beaming out of a hug that was heartfelt got through to me, in a way that words never could.

The little, easily overlooked, daily miracles that reminded me I was still here, that I was still living, that I could allow myself permission, even if only for a short while, to be OK right now. Here and now… OK for long enough to glimpse the sunlight, to allow its warmth to soothe the pain.

4. Time warps into strange and unusual shapes.

I don’t know how time manages to baffle me so. Three minutes after my son died, I sat in a chair by his bedside and I watched him sleeping, and I knew that he was gone, I knew that. And three days and three weeks and three months and three years later, that same knowing but not knowing still smacks me in the face with a grueling regularity. How on earth can I know and not know in the same instance?

Time also travels differently for other people, and I have learned I have to be OK with that. It is OK that other people have moved through their grief faster than I have, that their lives have taken on new meaning, in a different shape, just as mine has: it is OK. I just wish that some people would be OK with me not being OK, at times. At times, I find it really hard to maintain my delicately balanced equilibrium, when being told that it’s time, that maybe I should let go now. We all process grief in our own way, and at our own pace, and sometimes our universes collide.

5. The tired consumes me in a way that leaves my bones aching and my mind fuddled.

Grief really is an exhausting journey. I often stay up way too late, avoiding the bedtime worries, and feeding my anxious mind with thoughts of tossing and turning, and the dreaded alarm clock. I also lose myself in endless battles to remain stoic, to be strong, to get up and out of bed and into life, and I push and I push and I push, and when I finally walk through the front door again, the tired wraps me up, with gentle hands, in that cloak of anxiousness, as I count down more hours until bedtime, and more hours lying awake in bed, not thinking about anything. Nothing. The effort that goes into thinking nothing thoughts is exhausting.

6. The fight in me sometimes vanishes like smoke.

Sometimes, the fight in me just disappears: I can no longer push, and have to stop. Sometimes that fight cannot sustain me, that effort to push through the tired and the sad and the urgent desire that I do not get written off as a grief-stricken mother. Sometimes that is just who I am: a grief-stricken mother, with no fight in her.

It is the time in between that snaps and snarls at me, the waiting times. The time in-between when I’m not at work, and I’m not in the company of people, when I’m alone with my thoughts. The time in between when I sit back and wonder where on earth that fight came from?

7. I am a new, different, stronger, more delicate version of who I was before.

I look at myself today, three and a half years after Harry died, and sometimes I have to acknowledge that losing my beloved boy has actually made me a better person (not that for one second would I ever trade in Harry, for any sort of personal development). It’s a weird thing, meeting this new me, on the other side of such a massive loss. Yes, I am still anxious and sad and tired. I am also stronger and more open and able to see the small miracles that exist right in front of my nose. I see more, I feel more and I value life more. I feel much more connected in community, more aware of what is going on around me. I know my faith is stronger and more robust: I have tested it to its very limits, and God’s love continues to catch me, and stand me on my feet again. I understand absolutely, that love never dies; and the hearts capacity to remember what that love feels like never fails to astound me.

The biggest lesson for me though, in the past three and a half years, has been the power of words.  We need to be more careful with the words we write, the words we speak to each other, the words we say about other people. Words can wound horribly, they can engender stigma and they push towards isolation. Words can also heal, and soothe, and remind us that we are not alone, even if the monster in front of us is blocking out the sun. Words can wrap themselves around the broken and hurting and anxious parts inside of me, and whisper them away. And if I can type those words into my laptop, and then press: “send” then maybe those words can whisper forward again, and unravel another hurt?  Maybe.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Radist

Originally published: October 23, 2017
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