On August 13, 2016, my Pops died by suicide. He sent a text saying goodbye and died. He died alone at a nature preserve in southern California.
I hate the three sentences above. I miss him every day.
Following Pops’ death, I did a lot of reading and spent countless hours researching suicide. The statistics are staggering. Those of us left behind have a long journey to get close to something that looks like healing. The truth is, I’m not sure a complete healing can ever happen. What I do know is after losing a loved one to suicide some grief paths can lead to extremely dark destinations.
I’ve been thinking about what I would write at the one-year mark. Over the past few days I created an outline for this blog post; each point I wanted to make listed on a tear stained legal pad. Sharing details about the painful days and everything they bring isn’t nearly as important as what steps kept me above ground for the past year.
My Pops was an amazing man. He mattered. He matters still. I could write an entire post on the life lessons he taught me, and what an awesome human being he was. You can read about those things here. What I want to share with you and what I think he would want me to share is what helped me get through the past twelve months without him. The most important thing I can do to honor my Pops’ memory is to be a part of the solution by trying to help others.
The most important steps I’ve taken over the past twelve months:
1. Get rid of the guilt.
Let it go. Today. Guilt is one of the most toxic emotions available in the suicide loss arsenal. I’ve spent no less than seventy-five percent of the past twelve months beating myself up for what I didn’t see, what I should have said, and what I could have done. At times convincing myself that I could have saved him—that I failed him. Guilt has been one of the hardest things for me to let go of and I still struggle, but I’m learning to let it go.
Big sigh as I type that word. I’m still working on this one too but I’ve arrived at a place where I know (and believe) forgiveness is necessary. Not for them, but for me. A lot happened around the time of my Pops death. A lot of ugliness and chaos. I know for many of us, the person we need to forgive is the one who died by suicide. For me, I’m not angry at my Pops, but I’ve held on to a ton of anger at others. People who were cruel to him. People I was sure would be there when my world shattered into a million pieces and when they weren’t, it hurt. The pain of loss is like a hurricane, it has a way of causing total destruction of everything in its path. Pain amplifies absolutely everything making it impossible to see clearly. I found it easier to be angry with people and situations outside of the pain of my loss than focusing on that pain. Distraction can be a good thing sometimes, but distracting pain with anger just leads to more pain. And guess what? There will never be enough distraction to make this pain disappear, it always returns. I know to find peace I have to forgive. I’m not saying I (or you) have to or should go back to the relationships that might have fractured after loss but forgiveness is a necessary step toward achieving inner peace.
3. Obsessing over the ‘what-ifs’ won’t grant a do-over.
And re-writing history won’t change the past, but it can and will fuck-up your now. One of the things that haunt me most is the fact that my Pops was alone at the end. I’ve come just shy of erecting monuments in his honor since his death. I often feel like I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, “HE MATTERS!”
I spend sleepless nights wishing I had done the same when he was alive. What if I had said I love you with more conviction, what if I had made more of an effort, what if, what if, what if…
No amount of what ifs will change reality. The reality then or the reality now.
4. Therapy is important.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard, “You are such a strong woman…” Seriously, I’d be driving something other than a Chevrolet. I thought I was strong too. I thought I could handle anything and could do so all on my own. Guess what? I was fucking wrong. A few weeks after my Pops died by suicide I started searching for a therapist. I was one of the lucky ones, it only took two appointments for me to find Dr. G. and he has made it possible for me to start sifting through the pain and figuring out what to do with it. It sucked to admit to myself that I was a total mess and couldn’t fix this deal on my own but I was desperate and vulnerable and scared enough to know I needed help. I urge you, if you do nothing else—do this. Find someone you can talk to. Real talk. Honest discussion. And go talk to that person. There are many resources out there with or without insurance. This is a good place to start: AFSP.
5. Make a safety plan.
In the beginning, even though I’d heard of safety plans, I certainly didn’t believe I needed one. I did. I still do. I wish my Pops had had one in place. Everyone has different needs in a safety plan, and even if you don’t think you need one—if you feel stuck in grief, please make one.
For information on how to create your safety plan click here. Or here.
6. Be real about your grief.
“I’m okay,” and “I’m good,” are the two most common answers I give when asked, “How are you?” In the beginning, I replied in this fashion because I had no idea what else to say. I didn’t know how to articulate what I was feeling. After a few months, I knew how I felt but had no idea how to change it or fix it. I certainly didn’t know how to ask for help, and I believed nobody around me would understand if I tried to explain.
So I wrote.
And wrote some more.
And published a book.
Although there were pieces left out of my story, what I chose to include is as real as it gets. There was a lot of editing involved, mostly removing the work ‘fuck’ which I used at least fifty times. Per chapter.
My point: I didn’t hold back when sharing my struggle through darkness after losing my Pops to suicide. I was honest about my grief and writing the truth allowed me to begin the healing process. Talk to someone about how you really feel. Write your feelings down. Do whatever you have to do to be able to speak your truth. Bottled up emotions are dangerous and destructive.
7. Make a new playlist, but don’t delete your old one.
For me, music is life. No matter my mood, the right song (or set of songs) can change or sustain it. Music doesn’t work one hundred percent of the time but pretty darn close.
Choosing the songs to use for Pops’ celebration of life video was tough. I was torn between the not-too-sad, not-too-happy, songs he liked, songs I liked, and songs ‘befitting’ a memorial. I ended up choosing four songs and they were a combination of the above. I listened to those four songs repeatedly leading up to and for weeks following Pops’ memorial. Then came a day I hit skip when one of them started playing on Pandora. I continued to hit skip for a few months, even using the thumbs-down feature on one of the songs. I felt guilt immediately after doing so. Then I spent months trying to create a new playlist. I fell in love with new songs, songs that made me feel hopeful. But there was a part of me that missed the old songs. I listen to the old playlist during times when I feel like I can handle hearing those songs, or when I want to cry but the tears won’t come. I use music to help shift my emotions and for me it works. My old favorite. My current favorite.
8. Establish a new routine and find a hobby or passion.
I’m still working on this one but I’m making progress. Little by slowly.
Once upon a time I had a routine for everything. I was sitting on my porch a few weeks ago and it occurred to me that I now have a routine for nothing. Not one single positive thing I do consistently. For the past eleven months, nineteen days, and six hours, I’ve sat on my front porch drinking Rockstar or coffee and smoking. I guess I did have a routine, just not a healthy one. I suppose it served me well through those early days and even the middle months but for the past several months all my routine has done is cause more pain. I get stuck thinking about the things I should be doing. What I should be handling and accomplishing. That brings guilt. Then more pain.
I ran into an unexpected medical issue about six weeks ago. After starting the roller coaster of doctor visits that I thought would surely pinpoint what was wrong with me physically, I came to a startling realization and made a decision. What was wrong with me was a year straight of intense stress and grief with little relief. A year of not taking care of myself. A year of toxic emotions playing in my head on repeat. I decided that it was time to take my health back, but that has to start with getting healthy in my head and heart.
Where do I start?
You create a new routine. You start small and grow it from there. You make a decision to rise up and take a little step at a time. You do whatever you have to do to inch yourself out of the darkness. You remember or discover your why and hold on to that with everything you are. You come to a place where you believe you matter and you are enough and you’re worthy of love. You learn to love yourself.
That was where I had to start. After all the loss and the heartbreak, the pain and disappointment, I felt I was no longer worthy of love and connection. That’s the most dangerous space I can think of to be in. So I made the decision to pick my broken self up and dust her off. I searched for the smallest glimmer of the light I know I have inside and I did what I had to do to begin to grow that light. That’s where I am now, working on growing my light and loving myself while being ever mindful of my why.
Little changes over time equal big ones.
I made a nutrition plan I could follow, and I don’t beat myself up if I fall short. I started exercising again. I committed to getting dressed every day. I quit making long lists of the things I need to do and began giving myself one goal to accomplish each day.
I started doing AFSP Out of the Darkness Walks.
I talk with others who have lost loved ones to suicide.
And I quit beating myself up. Instead, I praise myself for whatever I accomplish each day.
Little by slowly.
9. Make time for yourself and make time and room for others.
Somewhere between August 13, 2016, and now I successfully isolated myself from the people I love, my life, and the rest of the world. I spent a lot of time alone. There were a few months in the middle when that felt good. I felt best when I was alone. I didn’t have to fake a smile, I didn’t have to explain myself or be the me I was before suicide intersected with my life. I could just be alone in my grief with no accountability. Then I became lonely, like dark night of the soul lonely. And in the short time it took to get to that place, I’d somehow forgotten how to reach out to others. I’d forgotten how to connect. One thing I’ve learned is that connection is vital to life. Real connection, deep connection with others. So I began to force myself to say yes sometimes. Of course by that time there weren’t many who still asked me to commit. I’d made excuses and said no for almost a year and I felt like I was no longer relevant to the circle I once claimed as mine—my people. But there were a few stragglers—my tribe—who continued to ask, pushed even, and I started to say yes. By this point I had become caged by anxiety and going to Vons felt like a chore. I rarely left my house so this was a huge step for me. It’s a step I’m still working on but I’m saying yes. Today one of the stragglers from my tribe made a surprise visit and we spent hours on the porch talking and catching up. It felt good to smile and laugh. It felt good to hear someone say his name. It felt good to feel light. It felt good to have an adult conversation with another adult. So, yeah, I adulted today and I’m damn proud of me. It was so much fun I think I’m going to do it again this week.
10. Fake it if you have to, just don’t quit.
I’m not a big fan of faking it, but sometimes I have to. There is something to that saying, “practice makes progress.”
Show up. Get dressed. Eat. Go for a walk. Smile. Watch the sunset. Look at the stars. Sing in the shower. Fake it all if you have to for now. Just don’t quit.
11. Death does not erase love.
This was hard for me because I knew Pops loved us and I know he knew we loved him. I couldn’t understand him taking his love away.
His death doesn’t erase his love. It’s still there in a million different ways. Whether or not I choose to feel his love is up to me.
12. You matter.
To someone you are everything. You are the reason for someone’s smile. For someone you are the anchor. And you need to be those things for yourself too.
Learning to believe that I still matter has been a long and arduous process. I deserve to be happy, feel joy, laugh, be proud of myself, and pain and loss don’t change that. The same was true for my Pops. The same is true for you. You matter. I matter. We matter.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide please reach out,
someone is always listening. You are not alone.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
Have you lost a loved one to suicide and need a resource?
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention can help.