Chances are you know someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. Maybe it was you. Maybe you are not sure what to think or what to do now. But did you know you have a great power, a power to heal yourself and those left in the aftermath?
Heart-talk — a way of connecting that is deeper than the everyday exchange of words — enables healing to take place. As music touches us with an emotional impact, even without words, so does speaking from the heart. We are hardwired to connect with each other in a language of understanding.
For many different reasons, however, a lot of people shield their hearts. They wear “masks” for the personas they put forth in front of others. Isolating the heart has become almost standard in all but the closest relationships, and sometimes those go awry and leave the needs of self, family members or friends unfulfilled.
The bereaved notice this tendency quite painfully if others drift away and back to their daily lives after offering initial support following a death in the family. This can be interpreted as forgetting the loved one, especially when the manner of death was traumatic and difficult to understand, though in most cases, it could be just a return to practical living or uncertainty about what to say.
Then there are those who care deeply and who risk everything to connect. These are the friends who stay close. To bear witness to the pain of grief is not easy. Family members who lose someone loved to suicide need an extended grieving period and time to work through the layers of questions and mysteries that themselves can cause emotional turmoil.
Words or advice, no matter how well-intended, can create additional wounding or give ground that is restorative. To process grief, those who are hurting need to talk, and they need someone to listen without judgement for as long as it takes. They need heart-talk.
Blame, misunderstanding, and stigma are some of the things that prevent such togetherness. Negative emotions and accusations can create hurts that can last a lifetime, but being there and showing you care is the most important thing you can do to help.
No one has all the answers to why someone ends his or her life. Circumstances tell only part of the story. Invisible variables exert great pressure. From genetics to how much life experience a person has in dealing with difficult issues, from stress levels and impulse control to natural resiliency, addictions, mental and physical illness, and medications, there might be many components that create a complicated and individualized mix. Perhaps the situation might have been brewing for years, or the impulse might be a momentary struggle that overtakes reason and the competing instinct for survival.
Richard A. Heckler, PhD, describes in his book, Waking Up Alive, what he learned in a study of individuals who survived suicide attempts.
“As these stories unfold, we can identify critical components of the decline toward suicide. The states of the descent are these: Pain and suffering remain unaddressed … The person then withdraws behind a façade designed to protect himself or herself from further hurt and to cloak the suffering underneath. However, the façade only intensifies the slide toward a suicidal trance.”
The trance has an allure, with promises of relief from pain. While in this state, a person may not be able to reason, may not realize that love and help and hope might be within reach. Any of this can happen without family members and friends knowing. Uncharacteristic or bizarre behavior might or might not be evident. Sometimes a suicide comes “out of the blue,” and sometimes it follows treatment efforts or unsuccessful prior attempts.
“Ultimately,” Heckler says, “the trance narrows the person’s perspective until the only inner voices that can be heard are those that enjoin him or her to die.”
The human brain is not immune from illness or injury; therefore, the stigma that has been attached to suicide (and mental illness) is undeserved.
What’s left and what’s lost leave loved ones in an altered state themselves, at least for a while. Treat them gently, as if they are in an intensive care unit because they have been wounded deeply.
What are the gifts of heart-talk or simple togetherness in such extreme circumstances?
- Comfort in being heard
- Acknowledgement of feelings
- Safety for revealing innermost thoughts
- Reassurance that fears and confusion are normal
- Perspectives that encourage healing
- Knowledge of not being alone
- Hope that survival is possible
- Help in rebuilding life
Nothing can make what happened okay, but it has happened. Now, in the aftermath, the power of togetherness can provide comfort and strength for the journey ahead and for the task of integrating the loss into the life that is left.