From Survivors After Suicide Newsletter, Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, Los Angeles, January 2014
The literature for suicide survivors tells us to lower our expectations of other people’s response to our pain and accept that what they say or do is what they are able to offer. We are told that if we can accept this, we will not be so easily disappointed. Everyone, including family members, grieves in his or her own way. I see the truth in this. But head and heart are on different tracks after a visit with relatives.
A friend advised me to have zero expectations for the visit, and I tried. I enjoyed seeing everyone and the usual family banter. Later, I realized the strain I had been under. No one asked how I was feeling four months after our son’s suicide, unless questions about work are code for that. No one shared any memory of Noah, even in passing, although my husband and I signaled it was okay to talk about him by mentioning him several times. When we made a toast at dinner to Noah, “who should have been here with us and who we all love and miss,” there was awkward, shocked silence.
It felt as if our 21-year-old son had never lived and as if the tragedy of his death had never happened. This made me furious. I know I’m supposed to understand people’s need to keep sorrow and discomfort at bay and have empathy for their not knowing what to say. But we parents of the child who is gone are the chief mourners. Why should we have to worry about other people’s needs? Why don’t they show more concern with our needs?
Of course, my needs continue to change, so how can I expect others to understand? In the early weeks, I needed someone around every day who could listen and provide comfort. I needed to unburden myself at least twice a week with major, 25-tissue crying fits, followed by a need to hold someone. Gradually, I realized I didn’t need so many people around; too many people trying to have coffee or take walks with me became draining.
After about six months, I learned that as long as I can freely express my grief with a small number of friends and family, in therapy, and in my SAS support group, I do not need to talk about it with everyone I see. I do not need to talk about our son and our loss at every social encounter. I am grateful for the precious few people who can talk about it, but I do not resent those who cannot.
I know my relatives are hurting, too. Yet, instead of having zero expectations of others, I ended up with zero tolerance during our visit. Maybe zero expectations are too much to expect of suicide survivors. We need to own all the conflicted feelings that come with this unpredictable journey, and hopefully have a safe space, like a support group, to vent and explore them.
Susan Auerbach completed an SAS support group in August 2013. This article is adapted from her blog, http://afterachildssuicide.blogspot.com.