The statistics of “completed” suicides worldwide is staggering. According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, it’s estimated that approximately one million people globally die by suicide every year, and 85% of Americans personally know someone who has died by suicide. Each person leaves behind an estimated six to ten loved ones who will be acutely impacted. These family members and friends are directly linked to higher instances of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, complicated grief, major depression, and suicidal behaviors. The societal stigma that surrounds suicide is especially ironic, given these numbers. Survivors can feel debilitating guilt and shame, often believing that their loved one’s death could have been prevented if only a multitude of various scenarios had occurred differently. For the survivors of suicide loss, the aftermath can feel like they played their best poker hand, but were left alone at the table, holding all the cards.
After my sister died, I did a lot of walking. I’d walk loops in woods behind my house; two, three, four times on the same trail. Sometimes I’d run, fueled by adrenaline, intrusive thoughts, and PTSD. I knew from a psychological standpoint, I was trying to escape the pain. It was during one of these walks on a cold day in early April when something changed. Standing at the creek bed, a particular piece of shale caught my eye. As I plucked it from the shallow, icy water, I realized it was vaguely heart-shaped but it wasn’t anything special. It was slightly lopsided and bottom-heavy, not a true, heart shape like I’d hoped.
But what happened next was a curious twist of fate—I dropped it.
It hit the rocks beneath my feet and blew apart into small shards. “Ugh. Shit…” I groaned. Way to go, Butterfingers. You totally ruined it. As I rolled my eyes at my own clumsiness, a small broken piece caught my attention. A perfectly-defined heart had shown up after all, cracked away from the rest. It had been hidden there all along and my dropping it had been the catalyst to set it free. I instantly saw the parallel between this tiny shale heart and my own alive and beating, but broken, heart: it needed to break to become better. The brittle edges and stress fractures fell away to leave only the strong core. My heart had become defined. Refined.
When my heart cracked open, I was suddenly able to see all the different ways people are hurting. Not just grief and loss, but addiction, financial struggles, family trauma, self-harm behaviors, mental illness, and more; all these different breeds of pain we carry around everyday brought me to my knees. Instead of remaining in my self-constructed cage of sharp-tongued sarcasm and avoidance, designed to keep others out, I’d been snapped awake to the realization that humans have the capacity to endure crushing circumstances. I couldn’t help but notice how I started to treat everyone around me with kid gloves. When I asked a waitress how her day was going, I found myself actually caring about her answer. My therapist asked if I wanted to help her facilitate a new suicide loss support group in our town. The person I used to be would have narrowed her eyes suspiciously. Group? I don’t do “groups.” But I do now.
When you lose someone to suicide, the “Old You” is gone. Your life becomes divided into the “Before” and the “After.” You see the fragility of your world, your worst nightmare has come true: you’ve lost someone you love to reasons beyond your control. Beyond their control. And it happened by their own hand. Your heart has landed shattered at your feet.
November 18 is International Survivors of Suicide Day. But Survivor, I want you to see how you survive every day. Major holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays pass without your person and you somehow make it through. It’s not easy but, often through sheer will, you do it.
You survive an average Wednesday at the grocery store when your loved one’s favorite song comes over the store’s music system causing you to abandon your half-filled cart at the end of the bread aisle and run from the store to your car where you sob uncontrollably and people in the parking lot peer curiously at you then hurriedly look away. I understand how it feels to have a foot in both worlds; you can close your eyes and still hear your loved one’s voice or the weird way they used to laugh like it was yesterday. But meanwhile, laundry needs folding, grass needs to be cut, and meals prepared. Life is making demands.
Maybe you feel guilt or shame because of the archaic stigma suicide still evokes in society. Maybe you feel completely alone because it seems like people in your life can’t understand why you’re “not OK yet.” Maybe you see recent celebrity suicides splashed through the media like entertainment fodder and you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. Maybe you quit drinking. Or maybe you drink a lot.
I want you to know that whether you’re two days out from your loss, or twenty years out, you’re brave every day. You’ve been forced into a club you never signed up for. The price of admission is steep. There’s continual dues to pay. Despite this, your priorities have evolved into honoring your loved one’s memory, navigating a world that doesn’t seem to understand and staying true to yourself throughout the entire process. The grief journey will hone, reshape, and catalyze your life like very few other experiences in this human condition. Please know that even if it doesn’t seem like it, you’re doing a beautiful job. As you stand there with your shattered heart in your hands, please know that today and every day, all of your pieces are absolutely perfect.
If you or someone you know has lost a loved one to suicide, they can search for events happening in their area this Saturday here.