Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Letter to the Newly Bereaved

The friend of a dear friend lost her adult son to suicide last week. This letter goes out to her and to the thousands of others who, every week, are newly bereaved with suicide loss.
Dear Friend:

I am so sorry for your loss. I don’t know much about you, your loved one, or your situation. But I know you are likely in shock, traumatized, horrified, hurt beyond measure. I don’t know how you have grieved in the past or how you will grieve now. But as a fellow survivor of suicide loss, I hope you will find something here that resonates with you and reminds you that you are not alone in this terrible place.

How can this be happening? Whatever your loved one’s history and state of mind, however much you knew or did not know about it--you are in shock. You may feel numb or fall apart. You may feel physically assaulted, as if a limb or your heart have been ripped from your body, as if you are being crushed by a huge stone. You may not be able to focus or reason, to eat or sleep or breathe properly.

I just want to crawl in a hole. Be gentle with yourself and with the mourners close to you. Wrap yourself in a cocoon where you feel safe in these early days or weeks; hibernate if you wish. With your own deep need for comfort, it may be tough to comfort family members; leave that to others. If you have a spouse or partner , it can be lonely and scary as each of you grope your way through grief. Give each other space, be there when you can, and try to stay in touch, with faith that you will be more present for one another in time. 

I don’t even know what I need right now. Let people know what happened so they can take care of you. Ask for help; see lists from other survivors, like my "10 Ways to Help a Family After a Suicide" or one for bereaved parents . Accept the support that is offered, on your terms; it’s OK to say “no” or “not now.” You are released from all social obligations for the moment and hopefully, from work or other obligations. Nothing is normal, and it won’t be for a long time.

I have no energy. The body takes a hit . Don’t be surprised if your health goes haywire. This is where shock takes root. Go slow. Walk around the block. Take naps, or just lie down quietly. Meditate for five minutes, maybe with a guided meditation for stress or healing. Remember to breathe. Find a doctor who understands that you are suffering from shock and grief. 

I can’t stop crying. Don’t fear tears , though they can be overwhelming. Let them flow through you, again and again, washing you clean like a rain, till the next storm. It can help to know there is a friend you can call, a safe place you can visualize, a piece of music you can play, or a faith community you can visit to steady yourself. Find an expressive release—write, draw, dance, pray out your grief. Shout and pound out your anger, too; it’s natural to feel abandoned and betrayed. Let it out.

Why? How? What if . . .?  Questions rush in. You’re searching for clues, even if you know that you’ll never know anything definitive. We need to search as long as we feel the need—maybe forever. Our task as mourners is to build a "coherent narrative" of the suicide that is "compassionate and bearable," according to psychologist John Jordan

I should have, could have, would have. . . . Self-blame may haunt you. Especially if you lost a child, you may feel that you failed in your most fundamental duty as a parent . None of us are mind readers; all of us are flawed; mental illness, when present, can be a beast. Breathe in compassion for yourself—and for your lost one. We can’t forgive ourselves until we forgive the person we lost to suicide, and vice versa. That can be the longest, hardest road. If you have a spiritual practice, try to reclaim it bit by bit, even if you're angry at God or the universe.

What now? Therapy can help, preferably with a professional trained in grief and suicide loss. Consider mind-body treatments like EMDR to process your intense feelings and guide you through post-traumatic shock into post-traumatic growth. Do yoga or tai chi to keep the flow of energy moving. As my fellow survivor blogger Dianna Bonny says, the "work of healing" comes from "being present to your pain" and "honoring yourself through a regular practice of self-care and compassion."

You are not alone. There is a community of suicide loss survivors that will reach out to you and share their journey toward healing. When you're ready, check out support groups for survivors in your area here . See the resources for survivors and information on suicide at American Assn. of Suicidology , Speaking of Suicide , and Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors . At the latter site, you can sign up for a free, well-moderated community forum where you can pour out your heart and find a response, 24/7, including a space for the newly bereaved. Whenever survivors meet and share stories through web sites, support groups, and other gatherings, it is indeed an alliance of hope that we create together. 

I invite you to browse this blog, especially the posts from the first couple years under Archives, or by using key words in the search bar in the top left corner, for my chronicle of suicide loss. I welcome your comments or personal e-mails (see About this Blog). 

Right now, you are as hurt and broken as a person can be. Know that you will not always feel this way. Keep moving through your grief. Reach out for love and support; there's a lot of it out there. 

Wishing you comfort and courage,
Susan (aka Mourning Mom)


  1. I am newly bereaved, my son died from depression 1 month ago. Your words have been so helpful. I never knew I could feel this kind of constant, consuming pain.
    Thank you.

  2. Hi Neko,
    I'm so sorry for your loss. You're right, the pain is constant and can be worse than anything you've ever experienced. I hope you'll continue browsing the blog archive to see how for most of us survivors, the pain does ease up over time though a kernel of it always stays with us. Or check out my book, "I'll Write Your Name on Every Beach," for some suggestions of mind-body exercises that I found helpful that may help you move through the pain. I hope you have support along this journey and are finding ways to take care of yourself every day.
    In shared sorrow, Susan