“Those Who Are Left Behind”

by Rachel Maguire, MSW, LCSWA

In 2020 I lost two people to suicide and experienced a grief unlike any I’ve felt before. Those who have lost a loved one before are familiar with the waves of grief that can be all consuming or feel miles away, distant, but ever present. Grief is like an ocean; the tides will rise and recede but you’re always on the beach, the ocean always within sight. Suicide grief is unique even amongst the grief of losing a loved one because you have to live with the knowledge that someone you loved made the choice to end their life. The intentionality of it feels impossible to face. For someone that I love to be here one instant and gone the next, on purpose, almost feels personal. As a mental health professional I know that people choose to die by suicide for a multitude of reasons every day and no one person or single action could have changed that. But in the aftermath, the people left behind are grappling at nothingness, searching for a reason as to why, looking for the rational in the face of irrationality. For me, that’s when the ‘whys’ began to creep into the corners of my brain.

Why did they do this?

Why didn’t they ask for help?

Why didn’t I try harder?

Why wasn’t I a better friend to them?

Why didn’t they call me?

Why didn’t I text them back sooner?

Which then leads to the inevitable “if only” I had done xyz, they’d still be here. This is a dangerous place to be for the grieving person, but in the wake of a suicide it is impossible not to ask yourself these questions.

On some level, even having these thoughts feels selfish. The truth that anyone can die at any time is a sobering enough realization that scrambling for answers feels better than sinking to the bottom of that ocean of grief. Because that would mean admitting that among the sadness, despair, sorrow, and longing, there is anger. Anger at them. And relief. Relief they aren’t in pain anymore. And that’s so confusing and distressing, because you love them but you also want to yell at them and never forgive them for leaving you. But at the same time you’re feeling relief that they’re no longer in agonizing pain, or at least a pain that hurt so badly they ended their life. And then you’re immediately back to that indescribable sadness and longing for them, their voice, their laugh, their love. And then rage and fury at them, because how could they do this? Don’t they know how much I love them? How can I hate and love someone so intensely simultaneously?

And even though someone has died and it feels like your life is collapsing, the world is still moving. There’s still work, or school, or running errands, or cooking, or piles of laundry, and every other mundane task that feels meaningless. Life goes on because that is what it does, which suddenly feels terrifying and relieving at the same time. How can life move on without the person that I lost? I still don’t have an answer to most of my questions but I have learned to live and heal in the ambiguity and unknowns.

To those of you who have lost someone to suicide, remember to be gentle with yourself. In the immediate aftermath, remember to eat something and drink water. As the days and weeks go by, surround yourself with your community and do not be afraid to ask for help. I was overwhelmed with gratitude by the home cooked meals and door dash orders that my community came together to do for me. If food isn’t your thing, maybe ask your loved ones to check in on you, send you a letter, give you a call, donate to a suicide prevention organization – anything to remind you that you still have people around you who care for you. Know that sometimes someone you love is gonna ask the worst question you’ve ever heard (are you sure it was intentional?) but give your loved ones grace because they’re trying to walk this journey beside you, even imperfectly. Let them sit on your beach with you as you wade through your ocean of grief. Join a support group, because talking to people who Just Get It is freeing and joyful and devastating and cathartic. It sucks to be a part of the Survivors of Suicide club (which truly is a confusing name because it doesn’t mean someone who has survived a suicide attempt but someone who has lost someone to suicide), but you don’t have to be in the club by yourself. Lastly, know that you can only control your own actions. Continue to show up for the people you care about, but don’t panic and shoulder the physical and mental well-being of everyone you love.

To those of you looking to support someone who’s going through this grief, be there for them. Ask them what they need if you aren’t sure how to help them. If they don’t know ask them if you can cook them dinner, do their laundry, clean their bathroom, pick up some groceries for them, watch trash tv with them, or however else you show love. Educate yourself on suicide and find out who’s doing suicide prevention work in your communities and support them. Don’t ask prying questions because your loved one will come to you if and when they’re ready to talk about it.

September, suicide awareness month, can be a hard and weird time for ‘survivors of suicide’, as if we aren’t constantly aware of suicide in every other month of the year.  So this September, indulge in lavish acts of self-care, rewatch your favorite movie, buy that fancy coffee, hug your friends, and take pleasure in the small moments in your life. You can find me blasting Demi Lovato’s song “Dead Friends” in my beat up minivan because I really do miss my dead friends