Dealing With Suicide

This post is dedicated to V., who lost a dear friend yesterday.

I come from New Zealand, a place with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In fact, in New Zealand, suicide is the second most common cause of death after motor vehicle accidents. One of my closest friends at school committed suicide at age 15 — she had barely even started to experience life & all of a sudden, it was over.

Everyone who knew her was devastated. We didn’t know what to think. I went into a state of weird shock & denial — when my mother told me that my friend had died, & that we were going to see her, I thought she was still alive. My brain couldn’t grasp the concept that we were going to go & see her body.

I think most people are a bit curious about what dead bodies are like, but after you’ve been up close & personal with the body of someone you loved, you’d be pretty happy never to see another body again.

Suicide is one of the hardest things to deal with, I think. Any kind of death is difficult, of course, but suicide is so sudden, so confusing, & it leaves you with so many unanswered questions. That’s the most infuriating thing — the lack of clarity or understanding. People who end it all believe that they have a good reason for doing it, but it is something that those of us on the outside will probably never grasp.

It’s very common to be confused, angry, sad, feel lost or numb, or go into denial. My friend’s mother went into denial at first, & then, within a year, she sold the house & moved to Canada to start a new life. I suppose this is my way of helping you understand that people deal with death in very different ways.

While I don’t have heaps of experience with dealing with suicide, here are some things you can do to help yourself out.

Allow yourself to deal with it

Acknowledge the pain you’re in & let yourself experience it. Sometimes people don’t allow themselves to do this because they don’t want to been seen as “selfish”, but honestly, you have to do this stuff or it will hit you like a ton of bricks at some unexpected & unfortunate moment. Your emotions are going to be all over the chart, & so are your moods, behaviours & patterns. Don’t just continue with your normal daily routine & pretend that everything is okay. You have been hurt, you need to make space to take care of that.

Try to work the grief out of yourself

Pain affects your whole being — your body, mind & spirit — so be good to yourself in all those areas. Eat good food, meditate, go to a religious service if that’s your thing. Use EFT, exercise like a lunatic, build a treehouse or express your anger/confusion/sadness creatively. Paint, write, sing, sculpt, dance — do whatever brings you the most pleasure.

Write a letter to your friend

Since the silence & unanswered questions can be one of the most difficult things to deal with, you might like to try writing a letter to your friend. You can say anything you want. Tell them how much you love them, how confused you are, how angry you feel. You can swear & rant & carry on & be as selfish as you like, since it’s just a vehicle to allow you to cope with the situation. Take as much time writing it as you want. You can even make it into a little project that you work on over a few days, since your emotions will evolve as time goes on. When you’re done, burn it & make a conscious decision to release the emotions contained in it at the same time.

Look after your friends & family

You’re all going through this together. Being as supportive of each other as you can is really important. Sleep in each others’ beds, stay up late & drink cups of tea, talk about how much you miss your friend. Reminisce. Hug. Hold hands. Let your friends & family know how much they mean to you. Help them out however you can.

Understand that time is the best cure

It sounds trite but it is really the most important thing to understand about any type of pain. Time passes & takes with it the intensity of emotion. This is not to say that your memory of your friend’s death will disappear, just that as time progresses, it will be easier to look at, think about or examine. The searing anguish you feel will subside eventually. The lump in your throat will disappear; the lethargy & crying over breakfast will go away. I promise.

When V. emailed me, I turned to my friend Sophie, who unfortunately has much more experience with this subject than I do. I wanted to get someone else’s perspective, & asked her whether she had any coping mechanisms that she could share to help V. or anyone else. Here’s what she said.

[Everything below was written by Sophie.]

“It’s never easy to answer this kind of question, because we all react differently. Screw the so-called grieving process. Grief counsellors identify common aspects of grief — denial, anger, guilt, etc., blah blah blah — but can’t understand our own personal and unique reactions which stem from our relationships with the deceased.

Wikipedia has some good stuff about the documented common stages of grief. I’ve dealt with enough death to know those stages can swap around all over the place. The first thing I felt when you told me that someone unknown to me had taken their own life was frustration and sadness. Not denial — I know it happens, usually without warning, because I’ve seen it before.

When someone you know commits suicide, you blame yourself. That’s the worst thing. Not the denial, because you get over that fast — reality doesn’t go away. Not the anger; I’ve always thought that stems from a combination of all the other emotions reaching critical mass. But you constantly second-guess yourself.

“Did I miss something?”
“Was there a cry for help, and I was deaf to it?”
“Could I have been more supportive?”
“Was I unnecessarily harsh or flippant or indifferent about so-and-so’s breakup/job situation/family problems?”
“Was it my fault?”

Hell, you feel these things no matter how the person dies… but when someone kills themselves, you feel so helpless, because it’s so incomprehensible. You know their faults, but you see their talent and intelligence and compassion and their potential… hell, my boyfriend Mike would probably be a rocket scientist by now if he hadn’t decided to play on the short swing. And you cannot — REPEAT, CANNOT — avoid wondering if you could have done something to stop it. Guilt: Not Just For Catholics.

When you lose someone to suicide, it is not your fault. My saying it won’t make you feel it, but it helps to be reminded. Most people who kill themselves do not give any warning. You don’t know they’re that depressed. They may even have just reached a new high. My friend Sally seemed to have finally picked herself up out of her grief over her husband’s death. She was throwing herself back into theatre with gusto, getting things written and devised, and really finding her stride again — really living again. Then she decided to swallow a pharmacy and wash it down with a bar.

There is no good reason for someone to kill themselves. They do it because they cannot see any good ever happening in their life again. People who try to or do commit suicide honestly see it as the only way to end their pain. They don’t stop to think about the pain they’ll cause those who love them, and, in fact, often they think other people’s lives will be better without them. They don’t pause and ponder the possibility that if they’ve reached bottom, they can only climb back up.

You wanted to know if I have coping mechanisms? For a while I thought that the amount of death I’ve had to deal with (between 3 and 8 people I know dying every year since 1995) had enabled me to speed up the coping. I was wrong.

Here are the things I do.

Take time off work/study as soon as possible

It’s really easy to throw yourself into your daily tasks and delay the inevitable. It’s like deferring a cold with decongestants. You can look after everyone else but yourself, you can schedule unnecessary meetings and write your essay four weeks before it’s due, but once you run out of things to do, and probably when you least expect it, it’ll hit you. Stuck in rush hour traffic, you’ll cry uncontrollably. Halfway through a netball game you’ll get the shakes and have to sit down.

Even a day, hell, even an afternoon off from your usual grind will give you a chance to acclimatise just a little.

Be angry

You’re allowed to. You’re entitled to. I do this in the shower, because I’m less likely to break things. Also, I sing in the shower, and that’s really cathartic. Singing angry girl music or metal or whatever gets it out. Trying to not be angry (probably out of guilt) leaves you with a big lump in your throat. When I get out of the shower, I’m a little more balanced.

Go through your photos or scrapbooks

…Whatever you have. Find pictures and songs and things that your friend gave you, or that you shared, or that remind you of that person. Have another cry.

Think hard about the family

This is the one that helps me most. Call the family. See if you can do anything. Drive the kids to school or back. Drop their library books or DVDs back. Anything. Maybe take them a few of those photos you found.

Take time out to be quiet

Nerves fray when we try too hard to make conversation. Or worse, to be practical. It’s perfectly possible to want to wound your sister when she says, “I think we should ask people to make donations to the hospice instead of sending flowers” at the wrong time. Have a cup of tea, and sit for a while. Hell, cry some more.

By the same token, talk about it

You’re not the only person struggling to deal with loss. Confide in your loved ones. That’s why they’re loved, y’know? Because they stand by you through everything, and hold your hand when you’re blind with tears.

Look at the things in your own life that are beautiful

Maybe that person has left the building, but you haven’t. They haven’t reached their dreams… maybe you can. Hug your mother. Tease your brother. Eat a nectarine. Visit a cat refuge and get covered in kittens. Go to a gallery and see the good and the beauty that the world inspires. Be inspired yourself.

I think the biggest thing for me is also the hardest one — it’s like when your folks try to accept the tattoos even though they don’t understand. There is a point where you accept that someone will no longer be a part of your life, and you will not understand it. Ever, probably. And it’s like having a friend just walk away and never talk to you again. But you will accept it, and knowing that you will reach that point where it hurts less, helps you to eventually reach that point.”

Sophie is great. Thank you so much, honey.

To anyone who has recently lost a friend or family member to suicide, please know that the pain lessens & becomes easier to deal with. You have more support than you think. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people & talk about what you’re going through. Do your best to honour their life, cherish the good times, & look after yourself.

Note: Obviously suicide is a difficult subject to discuss. It’s so personal & scary that talking about it hurts. While it is normal to feel a mixture of emotions toward people who end their lives, out of respect for people who are dealing with this right now, please keep your comments as constructive & positive as possible. Thank you.