Does it get better? New suicide loss survivors often bring this question to gatherings of fellow survivors, desperate for hope. Those of us who’ve been on this road longer typically rush in to reassure them: Yes, it gets better with time.
The effect of time on suffering is mysterious, as if time itself had healing power. Maybe it does. But what matters, suggests author Alice Walker, is what you decide to do while you are waiting for time to do its work. As I see it, you have to be willing to partner with time.
That’s why I prefer to say: It gets better with time and support and self-care. When you tell your story as often as needed to others who will really listen. When you let yourself lean on them for help and hugs. When you learn from fellow survivors and experts so you don’t feel so alone in your grief. When you express your grief freely rather than ignoring it or letting it fester. And when you do something nourishing, comforting, or relaxing for yourself every day to soothe your grieving soul.
At a Survivors of Suicide Loss Day event last week, a mom who lost her child to suicide three years ago told newer survivors, It’s different but it’s not better. I think she meant that something about the pain changes but the heartache never goes away. I can see why at three years out, she isn’t ready to say it gets better; I sure didn’t feel much better at that point compared to, say, five years after the suicide. And I agree the wound will always be there, ready to flare up again both when you expect it and when you least expect it.
As loss survivors, our lives and emotional make-up get rearranged around the deep hurt we carry. For a long while, the pain suffuses everything we think and feel and seems to shape our every action. As we gradually open up again to love and life, the hurt takes up less inner space. We feel its presence but less intensely and less often, more an ache than a piercing stab. Our loss no longer defines us the way it did in the early months and years.
We need to recognize and embrace the ways that suicide loss changes our identity, said Dr. Donna Barnes at this year’s Healing Conference of the American Assn. of Suicidology. To grow our new identity, she says, “it helps to live out loud,” that is, to talk openly about our experience. This, along with finding new purpose in our lives, is part of the process of post-traumaticgrowth that can come in the wake of tragedy. I didn’t believe in such growth initially; I couldn’t face the idea that anything good could come from losing my child. But as grief slowly loosed its all-consuming grip, I started to notice glimmers of growth.
So yes, in my experience, it does get better. When I feel a grief surge coming on, I can hold those feelings without being overwhelmed. I can be in the spot where Noah took his life without feeling haunted by traumatic thoughts. I no longer need to obsess over the ‘why’s’ and ‘what if’s’ of my son’s suicide; I can be more accepting of what Iris Bolton calls “partial explanations.” When I reflect on what I did and didn’t do when Noah was struggling, I can recognize my limitations, with regret softening the hard edges of my guilt. I can access good memories of Noah and feel grateful for the time our family had with him without bitterness. I can enjoy holidays and family trips without constant awareness of his absence. I can be glad for other young people’s good lives without always wondering what Noah’s life would be like now. I can re-immerse myself in gratitude and spiritual practice that once felt so out of reach. I can cultivate a new compassion for others and myself.
At least, after nearly eight years, I can do most of these things most of the time. Now when I think about Noah, I am mainly missing him with deep sadness and regret. That I will always carry with me.
To my fellow survivors: What do you think--does it get better or simply different? What would you tell a newer survivor to give them hope while being true to your experience?