Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"I can't imagine what you are going through."

How often suicide survivors hear well-meaning friends say that they can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child. They are trying to convey sympathy, sensitivity and respect for the enormity of our loss. They don’t want to presume what it’s like, in part because it’s too painful or uncomfortable to try to imagine. And so they stop themselves from imagining, without realizing that their statement can stop conversation and make survivors feel even more isolated and alone as the ‘other’ that no one can truly understand. 

It’s similar to when people say that “there are no words” for this experience; they want to show caring and their sense that words are inadequate to the situation. But the effect can also be silencing.

I was reminded of this recently in an essay by Phil Klay* on how veterans hear the same lines from non-veterans about their combat experience. “If we fetishize trauma as incommunicable, then survivors are trapped—unable to feel truly known by their nonmilitary friends and family,” he writes. “You don’t honor someone by telling them, ‘I can never imagine what you’ve been through.’ Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels.”

I believe people who say they cannot imagine my experience as a survivor. But I, too, would rather that they follow up with a question or a request to hear about whatever I feel able to share. Just as Klay says Americans need to hear veterans’ stories to gain a fuller understanding of war, people need to hear survivors’ stories to better grasp suicide and its relatives of mental illness, substance abuse, grief, and existential despair. These are not somebody else’s problems; even if they have not directly affected someone’s life, that could change in a moment.

I started this blog for these very reasons: so others could begin to imagine the experience of suicide loss and to break the silence when words feel inadequate. So I could speak and be heard and connect to fellow survivors. I still urgently need to make this experience understandable to myself and to others, including those far from it. I still often struggle to find the words. Right now, that search for words and meaning helps give me courage on the mourner’s path.

*Klay, P. (2014, Feburary 9.) After war, a failure of the imagination. New York Times, SR 4.

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