Collateral damage - what suicide does to the left-behinds

Today is the day I realized why some people feel suicide is selfish.  Today is the day I saw the collateral damage caused to the left-behinds.

Over the past few weeks I have met with a number of individuals who were left in the wake of a suicide by someone they knew.  I listened as those individuals as they shared their intimate stories.  Myself included, we could not get through the re-hashing of events without immense emotion.  Some recollections were accompanied by trembling bodies, panic attacks, and re-lived grief.

Before that moment, I had never truly understood why some people felt that suicide was selfish.  I could have imagined on a distanced level, but that was incomparable to meeting a group of survivors in person.

After listening to them, I understood.  I am still not sure whether I agree that suicide is selfish, if the definition of "selfish" is that the person who ended their life absolutely did so with the intention of causing harm to others.  I do feel that extreme tunnel vision is often a significant component when it comes to someone who has reached a place where they take their own life.  However, I do understand how individuals could arrive at that conclusion, and more than that I acknowledge the pain and suffering of the individuals who are left to piece together their lives following the aftermath of a suicide.

My personal story consisted of someone who not only committed suicide, but someone who had attempted suicide three years prior, and had told me of a previous attempt many years before that.  My person struggled with mental illness for most of his life, and I was aware of the toll that took on his capacity, and quality of life.  My person was my husband, which meant I lived in the day-to-day turmoil of fear and mental anguish he was in.  My five-year marriage was a chapter of my life where I held my breath daily anticipating the "shoe to drop," which looked like either waiting for the next mental episode, fearing another suicide attempt, or knowing that a day would likely come when I would learn the worst had happened.

This is where my story differs from any other survivor I've met so far.  As shocking as the news of my husband's death was, it wasn't a complete surprise.  I couldn't have known that he would choose to end his life.  Some days were wonderful.  But I had also walked arm and arm with him through hell-on-earth when his mind had a mind of its own, and that caused me to live in a realm of awareness that life could change at any moment.  I would not say I was fully prepared when my husband died.  I don't know how anyone could be.  But, I had been bracing myself for over four years.  I drove through my marriage buckled in tightly, knowing accidents happen because, in our story, one already had.  Then, my husband died, and life hit me head on.  It hurt.  It caused damage, but I saw it coming and I was braced.  I was buckled in.  It was terrible, but it could have been worse.

As I wrote in my short post Sudden Impact, 'Suicide is a sudden impact.  Like a car accident.  A sudden natural disaster.  Life is changed in an instant."

I realized, listening to the stories of the left-behinds, they were hit with a head-on collision they never saw coming.  They had no seat belt.  They had no warning.  There was no foretelling, or foreshadowing of the horror that was to come.  Some people were the friend, the sibling, the child.  Still others were the person who found the departed's body, an image they may never be able to undo.

I read an article once that talked about a stranger's experience when they found the body of a suicide victim, and how that image stayed with her.  The actions of someone she didn't even know had an impact.  Now, imagine being the person who had a personal connection with the individual who took their own life.  Imagine being the family member, the colleague, or the friend who just went out for coffee with that person and everything seemed fine.  Imagine being the intimate partner, or the parent of the child you thought you knew, or the child of the parent you thought would be there to help you through your life struggles, no matter what.

I have seen the collateral damage, and I felt it needed to be acknowledged.  For anyone who has considered suicide in the past, or might consider it in the future, you need to hear the stories of the left-behinds, and acknowledge what your actions leave-behind.  Lives will be forever altered.  Identities will be forever changed by the ripple effect.  Some individuals will be medicated to dull the pain, get through the day, or slow down the rate of played-back events.  They are not okay.  One day, they might be okay.  But in the aftermath, in the long process of cleaning up after a hurricane has wreaked havoc on their lives, they are not okay.

For those who have an opportunity to support someone who is in this situation, I beg of you, don't stigmatize them.  Isolation only throttles a tornado on top of a hurricane.  What survivors in a storm need is shelter.  It may seem like the storm has passed, but for survivors, internally, it may still be raging.  You can help by providing safe, non-judgmental places to talk, spaces where they can share their stories.  Survivors need freedom to tell others what they want to share, when they are ready to share it.  As the supporter, it's okay not to have the answers.  All a supporter needs is a desire to understand, and to understand that this can happen to anyone (that includes you,) so be compassionate, be patient, and be ready to listen.

If you are a survivor, remember that.  You are a survivor, and (unfortunately) you are not alone.  If you are a supporter, and are providing spaces where an individual can take refuge from the storm, thank you.  As a survivor, I thank each and every one of you.

To my fellow left-behinds, as we pick up the pieces of our lives, remember, it may seem like there are a lot of broken pieces on the ground, but, like a stained-glass window, in time, those pieces can be picked up, re-arranged, and made into something beautiful.  May your beauty be realized as the landscape of our lives regenerate after the storm.



Shawna is a writer and public speaker.  Email Shawna to invite her to speak at your next event. 


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