Last week we celebrated on Facebook the 85th anniversary of my grandfather, Harry G. Spear, becoming a citizen of the United States. What we neglected to celebrate was his death, 60 years ago. I never knew him since he died the year I was born (1955). And I didn’t know that he committed suicide until my grandmother Spear died in 1979.
By that time I was already an apprentice funeral director in Quincy and had been exposed to suicides that we had handled. I actually got to experience a bit of the emotions that these survivors had been feeling.
Even after finding out about the suicide, my familyg seldom discussed it. The whole subject is taboo in our society. The most discussion we ever had was at a family dinner after my father’s visitation in 2013 when we asked dad’s brothers and sisters about their dad (My dad was the oldest of 9 and was the father of two with me on the way when grandpa died.) The story was enlightening and reinforced my long held belief that a person who commits suicide is not in any rational state of mind.
With that last point as the basis, let me offer a few suggestions to family members who have experienced a loss by suicide. Guilt will always be a part (“What if I…”), but do not let that consume you. My uncles (grade school and high school ages) used to walk along the train tracks with their father and always tried to stay between him and the track because they sensed his desire to commit suicide. Without professional intervention, and sometimes even with it, a suicide may occur.
The next question is how to ‘deal’ with it. Rabbi Earl Grollman once commented, “When someone is born we rejoice. When someone gets married we celebrate. When someone dies we want to act like nothing happened.” This is particularly true with the stigma of a suicide. But the fact is that a very significant thing did happen, and a life has ended. This needs to be acknowledged. Trying to ignore it or to ‘be brave and don’t cry’ are not helpful. A follow-up quote from the Rabbi reminds us that “Joy shared is joy increased. Grief shared is grief diminished.” Talk to people about it. Hopefully you have a good friend or circle of friends with whom you can confide your feelings.
Don’t neglect the younger members of the family. Children have an ego centric view of the world which has them at the center of the universe. If anything happens, it’s because of something they did. Simple language can help straighten out a lot in their minds. Just beware of clichés that they don’t truly understand like “Dad is sleeping” or “Grandma went on a long trip.” They take these literally and then wonder what will happen if they fall asleep or why doesn’t grandma come back to visit. Even small children can understand death clearly. If you need some help, ask us for some brochures with easy language to use.
And finally, as a friend, this is a great time to step forward and be the support person that is needed. Most definitely go to the visitation and funeral. There are no magic words that will lessen the grief, but just by being there and giving a hug you have shown that you are there for them. Some families try to skip having any services which doesn’t easily allow others to show their support. (I hear occasionally of families who regret this since they then have an ‘informal visitation’ every time they go to the store or anywhere in public. They then end up hating to leave the house). If this is the case, go to the home for a quick visit. And then, more importantly, continue to stay in contact because it will be days/weeks/months later when the casual acquaintances have dropped off and they really need a shoulder to cry on.
No one ever said grief was easy. In the Bible, even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died. And the grief surrounding a death by suicide is even more jumbled and chaotic. Life has changed. There may be no getting back to normal. But your life can go on one step at a time until you reach a place where every moment is not being consumed by the feelings or loss, anger, guilt or devastation following a suicide.
We have helpful literature about suicide. Please let us know if we can help in any way.