I focus a lot on survivors in my work. I love helping people learn how to be stronger survivors and to go beyond merely surviving. I consider myself a survivor because I have lived through a lot of loss and tough life changes. If we live long enough, though, most of us experience some of this.
Survivors who have lost loved ones to suicide usually have a very difficult path to travel. They can experience guilt at not recognizing the signs that hindsight may bring into focus. They think about things they believe they did wrong, or ways in which they were somehow “not enough” to help or to change the trajectory of their loved one’s fate. They may grow angry with themselves, with professionals who may have been involved, or even with the deceased person. Then they may feel guilt about this anger.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the United States among 10-14 year olds and 15-24 year olds, and the second leading cause among 25-34 year olds, according to Compassionate Friends, an organization to support families who lose children through death. A recent New York Times article spoke of suicide being on the rise in the U.S. and stated that ” from 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7.”
It is overwhelming and pretty horrifying to view these numbers. Why do people of all age groups feel so hopeless and alone in an age when we are allegedly so “connected” to others through social media and share things about our lives with hundreds, if not thousands of others? Do the people who reach the point of such unbelievable desperation use the so-called connectedness of social media as a cover-up for their anguish and feelings of isolation, and in fact, pull further and further inward? Do some use it to substitute for the meaningful relationships that, for one reason or another, may elude them in their real lives?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I read the reports that men in the over 50’s group and others who are discouraged by the bad economy and the stagnating job market have growing suicide rates. I hear that teen suicides have increased due to bullying. I hear a lot of things, but when you know someone who has done this, or when someone close to you has chosen this final horrifying option to end life, you may spend a lot of time seeking answers but usually only come up with more questions.
If you have lost a friend or family member in this way, statistics are meaningless and the pain is terrible and raw. It is especially raw when it is a young person who takes his or her own life. Due to the stigma that still exists and to the position most religions take on this, the survivors can find themselves isolated and may be uncomfortable discussing the situation openly. It is a fairly rare and courageous family that discloses this publicly when the tragedy hits close to home.
I have known more people who took their own lives than I care to include in my bank of experience. My first personal exposure to suicide was when I was in my 20’s and a very close friend ended her own life. One of her last gestures in the weeks prior to her death, was to participate in throwing a baby shower for me and my family, when we were about to adopt our eldest daughter. After her death, along with my grief and confusion, I felt very honored that she would have done this for me. I had a good deal of guilt, too, because only weeks before her death, I had taken what I came to realize later on, was an important step for my own health and family’s survival. I had told Randi that I simply could not give her the time and attention she needed, and had to step back from her problems. She was getting professional help at the time. When she took a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills, in New York, hours from my then-home, she left a note telling me how meaningful my help and concern had been in her life. That only made me feel worse at the time.
My older kids had a schoolmate take his life when they were in high school. This stirred up my emotions about my friend’s suicide and also escalated anxiety on my part due to other losses. My kids needed to be able to express their feelings and talk out their fears and questions at that point, but I realized quickly that I needed help in getting control of my own feelings in order to be able to be there for them.
Some years later, the brother of a long time and cherished friend took his own life.. Then the 20-something son of another dear friend, did, as well.
Fast forward a lot of years, and I developed an Internet friendship with a woman who had sought my input when there were multiple delays and snags in bringing home a child she was trying to adopt. She reached out to me, though she wasn’t a client. We remained in contact for several years and she adopted two more children.We were in touch by email, exchanged holiday cards and though she was decades younger than I was, we shared some common interests. We talked about having an in-person visit, but it never happened., After a period of unusual silence, I sent her a congratulatory birthday message on Facebook. A close friend of hers wrote me back to tell me that this wonderful person, our friend, had taken her own life and had been depressed for a long time. I can’t even imagine the hurt and the questions her husband and her three beautiful kids had and probably have continued to have. I was stunned. L. had worked so long and so hard to adopt her family and she was a caring, conscientious mother who, in a healthy state of mind, would have done anything and everything to keep her kids healthy and happy.
Just a little more than a year ago, the son of dear friends, a police officer and father, whom our family had known since he was about three years old, also succumbed to his own melancholy and private demons and did the unthinkable. Life goes on, but nobody who knew Daniel will ever be quite the same.
So why does this sad subject come to be the topic for my blog right now?
Last Tuesday, I attended the funeral of a dear 13 year old boy who also committed suicide in his own home. I was stunned when I received word from his mother the previous Saturday. This was a child for whom I was “stork”, having facilitated his adoption and his older brother’s. There is no way to understand why this happened. Yes, young Ben had struggles, mostly in school, but he also had the most wonderful, supportive family anyone could want. His mother has always impressed me with her warmth and her calm presence. His grandparents lived just across the street, his grandmother, whom I had met on several occasions, was always there to listen and he availed himself of her love and wisdom often. His older brother was there for him. He had many friends and many interests. I learned at the very moving service that he was a devoted naturalist, a good cook, played the guitar, was an imaginative tinkerer who loved to take things apart, put them back together and also liked to invent new contraptions. I heard that his mother was frequently asked to take him to the hardware store to buy parts for his inventions. When I heard the news, I pulled out photos of his baby days, his toddlerhood, and other lovely ones his mother had sent to me over the years. At the service, I stared at the photo in the program , and at his thick, lustrous head of dark hair with the bright red patch in front that he sported (some family members, including his grandmother, and some friends, wore similar red streaks of hair at his funeral, in his memory). He had a luminous smile, full of joy, but we obviously had no real idea of the extent of the hurt that was behind this.
Quite a number of people have asked me “why his family hadn’t helped him”, or “why didn’t they get him professional help”. They certainly did. They were a wonderful, knowledgeable family and did all they could, but still, they never expected this. I only wish that people would try to be less judgmental about others and not to make assumptions.When a family suffers such a tragedy, they need love and support and not judgments.
Along with his family and friends, I am devastated at this tragic outcome and so terribly saddened that Ben had to endure whatever private struggles he had, regardless of how much he was loved and how much his family tried to help him. As much as we love someone, and as close as we may be to them, often we can never truly completely know what goes on inside of another human being. I do believe…I must believe…that there was a purpose for Ben’s life being joined with his mother, his brother, his friends, and the rest of their family. It seems so incomprehensible to us that his life, or any other life, would end at such a young age, but I know that he was in exactly the right family he was meant to be part of, and with the people who were meant to love him, even if for so few years.
I know that young Ben’s family is a large and close one and they will be there for each other.
My feeble words of advice and wisdom are not even my own, but they are good ones. My friend, Toni Bosco, author, mother of six, adoptive mother, grandmother, who lost one son to suicide and one son and his wife to a senseless murder, says, “Trust that life has been created by a God who loves you, that it has meaning, even if that meaning is couched in mystery.” It doesn’t really matter what are your religious beliefs. Nature renews itself. There are new buds every spring and new life emerges. Even though your world has been permanently changed, there is still a sun that comes up on a new day, and there is humor if you let it find you. It’s hard, but it is possible. Even if your lost loved one was engulfed in severe emotional pain, he or she would likely not want you to suffer such pain forever. You will always miss this person terribly, but it is a kind of tribute to him or her that you can find a way to live your life.
Toni advises people to do all they can to go on with their lives, to focus on others and on something bigger than yourself and your own loss, to avoid getting stuck in self-centeredness. Her way of doing this was to become a champion to abolish the death penalty and to appear at the trial of her son’s and daughter-in-law’s killer to plead that he not be given the death penalty. I believe that when we lose loved ones, we often grow in ways we never expected, or maybe never wanted to, and that finding a means of honoring the people we lost, is a very healing thing that helps us get on with our lives.
Iris Arenson-Fuller is a Certified Professional Coach who has personally experienced much grief and loss and learned how to survive and grow from it. She is an expert on issues of bereavement, life changes, Baby Boomers and all issues related to the adoption community.
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