The Catalyst of a Broken Heart

By Sarah SterrettNovember 15, 2018

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.

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Comments (15)

  1. Bri

    I am 10 years into the loss of a parent by suicide and it always amazes me how many articles/blogs get posted that deeply resonate with me. It’s so true that we must survive more than just this one day a year and all those days are just as important. I too found myself walking after my loss. I still do a decade later. What I have found that has helped me recently is being creative. Painting, drawing, and song writing on my guitar. None of which I’m particularly great at, but good enough for me. Sending strength and love to all survivors, 365 days a year.

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  2. Joan Sotelo

    I lost my brother to suicide 9 years ago! I found this article to be honest, raw and so true! I work in Mental Health educating youth about MI , mental health and suicide prevention. I have struggled off and on with depression since my mid 20’s . I am 57 now. I like what I read and hope to see more stories.

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  3. Jodie

    Thank you Sarah for sharing your beautiful pieces with me. I needed to hear that today.

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  4. Ali

    Thank you for this beautiful article. Thank you for sharing your ❤️.

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  5. Pat

    It’s been 29 years but it still seems like it was only yesterday. And yes, very difficult during holidays.

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  6. Mlinda Boernson

    Will you be in Quincy Illinois anytime soon?

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  7. Gloria Stewart

    I’m currently dealing with sadness fr within & @ times deep depression & have talked about suicide with Dr & Therpist. I tell them my intentions to live stop me.

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    1. TWLOHA

      Hello Gloria,

      We are so sorry to hear about your struggles with depression and suicide. We know that your journey with these mental health struggles can be difficult, but we are so glad to hear that you are talking to your doctors and your therapist. It may be hard for you to continue to talk to them about what you are feeling, but we encourage you to continue to talk. Talking about how you are feeling is the first step to getting the help you need and deserve. It also will let you feel heard and feel less alone. You deserve to feel heard. You deserve to feel like people care. Please know that people do care. You are important, and your story matters. If you would like, you are more than welcome to email us at [email protected]. We are here for you.

      With Hope,

      Reply  |  
  8. Margaret

    Thank you for informing those of us who are fortunate enough not to have known someone in this “particular problem area”. I’m sorry you have had to go through it but I feel special being given the opportunity to hear about it. God bless you and those suffering

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  9. Allison

    I don’t really know why I started reading this but it was so comforting. I don’t know if I can say it was healing exactly but I’m glad I read it. I lost someone to suicide three years ago. I’m a lot better than I was but I still get pulled into grief over random things on occasion. That happened this morning in fact.

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  10. Lindsey

    Thank you! Beautifully written and hit me because I lost my sister Sara to Suicide in May of 2017. This hit perfectly and helps thank you again

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  11. BDM

    Thank you for your essay. I lost my best friend two years ago.
    Everything you wrote is significant and resonates, and makes me feel less alone. People who haven’t experienced this do not get it. And while some are patient, kind and empathetic, while others are dismissive in their ignorance.
    I was weeping in Bed, Bath and Beyond just yesterday while shopping for a rug. An 80’s song came over the store’s PA, and I suddenly recalled him singing along with it one night while we drank Margaritas and listened to Pandora. Aw, nuts.

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  12. Sarah

    My son was 15. His death by suicide has devestated our family. We miss him so much. He has been gone almost two years. So hard to heal from this loss.

    Reply  |  
    1. TWLOHA

      Hi Sarah,

      We are truly sorry to hear about your son and to know of the pain you and your family have been experiencing. Thank you for sharing these difficult emotions with us. We hope you find healing soon.

      With Hope,

      Reply  |  
  13. Sarah

    My son was 15. Almost two years without him. Every day is a struggle.

    Reply  |  
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