(As first featured on Huffington Post Canada)
On a late spring day in 2009 our family broke apart at the seams. The world that we’d known was literally ripped from us. Instantly, we became survivors of suicide. The threads of our old life would be unrecognizable.
In a matter of hours our family had become part of a community of people bereaved by the tragedy that is suicide. The physical pain and sadness made it impossible to connect with friends and family who simply could not comprehend our journey.
For the few people that remained by our side I have immense gratitude. In their company I was able to safely revisit and talk about our loss and begin to understand why my son took his life. Sharing the trauma that we experienced was essential to healing and also allowed me to close my eyes and not imagine my son’s death, night after night.
The personal effects of my son’s life sit hauntingly still; in the exact place they were the day he left. The need to keep material parts of my son’s life intact, perhaps shield me in some way from the harsh reality of living without him.
These objects and my memories are all that remain from a life cut down in mid-sentence. For now living among Daniel’s things fulfills some tangible desire. Somehow, even after these many years, his bedroom holds his presence like no other space. On days when I simply cannot cope with the grief, I will sometimes find myself on the floor of his room holding in my hands the objects of his life.
The hard reality is that we are now a family of four — not five. We know that our lives will never be the same, but we have found meaningful ways to remember our old life with our son. And that does provide comfort, even peace on the harder days. The pain is never far from the surface. We get on: one step forward and two backwards.
I think back to the simple graph that our grief counsellor had in her office. Holding up the sheet of paper she said, “These first lines are drawn very close together indicating overwhelming grief.” She suggested that as time progressed the lines would be farther apart indicating periods of respite. Eventually, the heavy waves of sadness and resolve merged, forming a new and very different life. Grief is forever part of who I am and is a constant reminder of how fortunate I have been to share such a deep and loving relationship with my son.
Reading & Writing In Grief
Reading non-fiction and personal memoirs was also an important part of the healing process for me. Reading allowed me to set aside my own emotions and be absorbed in someone else’s life. It provided an escape and a road map to writing my son’s story.
Early on the counsellor suggested that I write about Daniel. “Write letters to him. Keep a journal,” she said. And I did, even though I have not been able to go back to the notebooks I know that reading and writing were pivotal for me to be able to engage in life again. Writing about Daniel allowed me to process my inner thoughts. I was able to recall his smooth skin and his funny walk. I could hear his laughter and remember his humour. The act of writing about my son in such an intimate way was a privilege and an opportunity to not solely dwell on his suicide. In time I began thinking about writing a book.
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak, Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”
William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.3
In 2014 my memoir, Give Sorrow Words was published.
In my book I write about the stigma that made it impossible for our son to share his mental anguish. I hoped that another young person living with a mood disorder could see themselves and understand that they are not their disease. They are not to blame for everything wrong in their life. Maybe they could finally feel loved and reach out for support because they’d recognize that their lives meant everything to someone.
Through sharing our lived experience I have found this very difficult journey — manageable. I have found purpose in an otherwise lonely and painful place.
We Are Survivors
We are survivors. There are days when we barely crawl out of bed. The lines carved deeply on our faces are a reminder of how awful life can be.
It is hard to know where to place yourself after such loss. There is so much carnage that covers the road to your old life — there is no possibility of going back. Perhaps that is how we transform ourselves. What was comfortable and real is no longer.
Our life with Daniel is for the record now. My words are our family’s history. A document that bears witness to the life we spent together. His life that was not at all long enough. In grieving for my son I have found a reservoir of courage that I never knew existed, but it does not make the way any easier.
If you are a survivor of suicide I hope you find solace in sharing your story. I would suggest that you consider your own health and well-being before publicly sharing your lived experience. As survivors we remain vulnerable for a very long time. I’ve often said that we need to protect what is left.
Our collective knowledge and personal experiences provides awareness, understanding and suicide prevention. Through sharing our stories we honour the lives of those we’ve loved and lost to suicide.