This post is part of a Suicide Prevention Month blog series. Read the other blogs here.
I wasn’t close to my uncle when we lost him to suicide in 2003. In fact, I hardly knew him at all.
When I was much younger we’d visited a few times, but I don’t remember those visits. I don’t remember ever talking to him on the phone while growing up, and I don’t remember my father talking much about him as an adult. Uncle Kent was, to me, the boy in my dad’s stories of growing up: the smarter, less athletic, more sensitive twin.
To me, he was the 12-year-old who was suspended after freeing animals from the school science lab; the co-conspirator 18-year-old with whom my dad moved out of the house as high school seniors and worked nights to pay rent after too many fights with their step-dad and the brilliant guy who want to Michigan Law and had a photographic memory. My dad always spoke fondly, but distantly, of him even when he was alive.
I found out he had died by suicide when I was 12 and on vacation with my grandparents and sister.
It took about 30 seconds for utter disbelief to turn into sobs. Yet, I had no real idea why, because I had no real attachment to my uncle.
It took a few years of maturing, a few years of watching the grief and anger take hold of my dad, to figure out why I’d been and still remain so upset over his death. I grieve for my dad’s and grandmother’s and cousins’ grief, and that grief is very powerful in its own right.
I’ve been involved in suicide prevention and mental illness awareness efforts for the better part of the past 10 years, and it’s been heartwarming to see the amount of real attention the issues have gotten in the past few years.
Much of the mainstream press centers on tragic losses of high school and college students, military veterans, and celebrities. The stories often talk about their struggles, the help (or lack thereof) they sought and may or may not have received. The pain faced by those left behind. Strung together, these stories have raised the profile of a preventable cause of death and spurred more resources to be focused on prevention and treatment; all of which is incredible and fantastic.
But as someone who’s struggled with the tangential elements of a suicide loss, I’ve found a gap in articles and resources for at least one specific role: What is it like to grieve for someone else’s grief? And what are you supposed to do about it?
I don’t have an answer yet, but I think the main golden nugget is quite simply to listen and know that while nothing you could ever say will erase the pain, your understanding and open presence is a strong antidote.
When you lose someone you know and care for to suicide, everything becomes confused. You feel sad and angry at the same time. You feel guilty. You ask hundreds of questions that no one has the answers to. You sit in shock and you fall quickly into a silence made natural by the stigma that still exists.
One of the things you want, though, is to say all of those feelings out loud, to cry and yell and question, and have someone look you in the eyes, nod, hold your hand. At least that’s how it is for some, maybe even most.
But sometimes you don’t have to be so close. You may have never met the person who was lost, known them only in stories or brief mentions, but suddenly you can’t stop crying, and you’re angry, and you’re questioning, too. It feels weird and even fake, as if you shouldn’t feel those things because you didn’t lose your brother, or best friend, or mom. But it’s not weird, and it’s not fake.
If you’ve ever cried when someone halfway across the country or even halfway across your campus, who you’ve never met or heard of, dies by suicide, you’re not “crazy.” You’re just a human, with a big heart, and a capacity to feel.
I’ve been affected by 3 suicides and 1 suicide attempt, all by people who I’ve never met. But they were and are close to my friends, and so their struggle has been close to me. Every time, regardless of how distant the person is from me, I’ve felt shaken and sad. I’ve spent hours and whole days grieving these people, and grieving for my friends’ grief. Every time, I need a reminder that it’s okay to feel grief for them. That it’s normal.
So this is your reminder: it’s okay to feel sad. It’s normal.
Suicide isn’t easy. Not for those who we’ve lost to it, not for those who’ve lost someone to it, and not for those who have only read and heard about it. The only way we continue to bring this issue out of the darkness, the only way we continue to break the stigma and change the conversation, is by continuing to not only talk about it, but feel it.
There are no requirements or preconditions for being sad about someone’s death. There are no experience checklists to fulfill before becoming a passionate advocate for mental health and suicide prevention.
If you can, lend an ear to those who have lost someone or who are struggling. Talk about how those losses make you feel and what they make you think about and question. Above all else, let yourself grieve for whatever your heart needs to grieve for. It’s ok to feel sad.