We thought everyone was in this life together, committed to the long haul and to helping ourselves and others with the hard times. But our loved one couldn’t stand the pain and slipped out of that social contract. We trusted that we knew them yet we didn’t fathom the depth of their despair, the plans they were making, or their capacity to act on those plans. Or maybe we knew that they had suicidal feelings and they’d promised to call us if it came to a crisis. We trusted them to confide in us and let us love and help them. Bereft, we feel utterly betrayed.
Can we ever fully know the people we love? Survivors are rudely confronted with this question as a matter of life and death. No matter how much we investigate, we’ll never fully understand why our loved ones took their lives.
Can we ever really change another person, much less control their actions? Survivors are forced to face our limitations here, too. We may struggle mightily with the “what if’s” and “if only’s.” But sometimes, no amount of love and care and treatment is enough.
Even more unsettling after suicide is loss of trust in ourselves. When I lost my son Noah at age 21, I lost all faith in my parenting, intuition, and emotional intelligence. Friends would tell me about some family problem and I was mute; I could no longer offer a word of insight or advice. Why would anyone trust anything I said? I had failed to save my child in his hour of need; I was, literally, clueless. All my ways of relating and understanding were broken. Any love I might still have to give? Untrustworthy.
This massive loss of trust on so many levels is what psychologists like Dr. John Jordan call the shattering of survivors’ “assumptive worlds”—the upending of everything we thought was true based on the experience of a lifetime. It’s terrifying to be suddenly robbed of that foundation.
Rebuilding trust in an unfaithful spouse, dishonest friend, or unethical institution is a slow, painful process. Having to rebuild trust in everything—in trust itself, in life itself—when you’re grieving is especially daunting. I’m still not sure how I did it, though I’ve documented some of the steps in this blog and in my book, I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’sQuest for Comfort, Courage & Clarity After Suicide Loss (Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2017).
In the worst of the aftermath of suicide, I held onto a sliver of belief that I would heal, engage in life and be myself again. I sensed I could do this partly because I’d been through suicide loss before and survived. I have a stubborn attachment to the life force that persisted through the horror, a dim pilot light to follow. For a while I couldn’t handle the spiritual practices that had kept me grounded; I was just going through the motions of yoga, meditation, Shabbat. I had to learn to trust that my grief could be held in those places before I could finally reclaim their comfort.
What also helped was realizing that my story was safe with more people than I expected, whether fellow survivors in support groups, old friends who resurfaced, or readers of this blog. Love and support popped up in surprising ways, paving the path back to trust. Finding my voice again as a writer and seeing that my words could move and help others gave me hope. Gradually, I came to trust my instincts again and to renew my faith in the goodness of the world.
A class I’m taking on Jewish middot (spiritual traits) has recently been discussing the balance between trust and control. I've always tipped overmuch toward control so balancing these traits is a key part of my personal “spiritual curriculum.” I can keep trying to develop and flex my “trust muscle.” But I can also give myself credit for how far I’ve come in being able to trust anyone or anything since March 19, 2013.
To My Fellow Survivors: Our paths to rebuilding a sense of trust after traumatic loss are as individual as our life paths before that loss. How have you been rebuilding and reconnecting? I’d love to hear your story. Comment here or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org