After Suicide: What We Needed; What They Need

My name is Nick Watts.  On May 13, 2013, my son, Jordan, took his own life.  He was 19.

watts fam - 2012

NOTE: Should you be unfamiliar with my family’s history with suicide you can click here.

My public school presentation on Suicide Intervention lasts approximately 45 minutes and includes, among other points, everything from “becoming aware of the epidemic” and “myths about suicide” to clinical depression (the mental condition most associated with suicide) and general & specific steps to take when intervening with a suicidal person.  More information than I could share in a simple blog post.

That said, after speaking I am often asked by students and parents a number of  questions I don’t have time to address in my presentation.  I thought I would offer brief answers to two of those questions here:

  1. What do families need following the suicide of a loved one? (What do they not need?)
  2. What has most helped you and your family?

 

What Do Families Need After the Suicide of a Loved One?  What Do They Not Need?

I could write enough in response to this question to fill a book.  (My wife, Michelle, and I are planning on writing a book one day.)  But, let me offer just a few thoughts here.

 

1. No Pain Compares to the Loss of a Child

I asked a woman once which was worse – the loss of a spouse or a child.  She had lost both.  I didn’t even finish my question before she said, “Oh, there’s no comparison.  Nothing compares to the pain of losing a child.”

I recently visited with a grieving parent who had lost their child to suicide. They said they felt like they were losing their mind.  (I know this to be true – I came very close to losing mine, ultimately having to be hospitalized.)  They continued, “My emotions are all over the place.”  I quoted to them the following statement Michelle had shared with me from one of the many resources she had since studied:

“Psychologists call grief associated with suicide ‘complicated grief.”

In short, grief associated with suicide is “all over the place.” It’s reckless.  Volatile. Unpredictable.  Explosive.  And exhausting.

There is a relentless search for answers that never come.  The endless, maddening, guilt-ridden, “If only I had (fill in the blank),” consumes you.

I read the following once and, from personal experience, testify that it is most certainly true:

“The death of a child is like losing your breath and never catching it again.  It’s a forever panic attack – feeling your heart dying as your soul is screaming for them.  No matter what you try to do you continue to lose your mind.”

Those who’ve lost a loved one to suicide don’t need cliches and trite comments i.e. “They’re in a better place,” or “God needed another angel,” etc.  What they need is someone to help them bear the back-breaking pain that’s, at the moment, crushing their heart, soul and mind. 

Don’t attempt to “fix” things.  There is no “fixing” it.  Don’t give in to the common temptation to provide “answers”.  They don’t exist.

 

2. The Ministry of Presence

Early on, a grieving family or individual doesn’t need advice.  Just your presence will do.

There is a type of love and compassion aptly called “the ministry of presence.”  A person who’s just lost a loved one to suicide may need to talk.  They may not.  Like Job’s three friends, (Job had just buried ten children) sitting quietly and sharing the person’s pain is often quite enough during those first days and weeks.  Interestingly, it was only when Job’s friends began talking that things went downhill quickly as they tried to “fix” Job’s pain.

 

3. Help Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

It’s the simple things that helped us breathe again.

The default during that first year (at least for me) was to shut down, isolate myself, try to go to sleep and never wake up.

My family was paralyzed by grief. 

Routine tasks such as cleaning, taking out the trash, yard work, etc., became monumental chores we simply didn’t have the strength to begin, much less accomplish.

What happened next was unexpected and extraordinary.

Friends show up “out of the proverbial blue” to help and rescue us.  They did our laundry.  They cleaned our house.  They brought us meals.  They mowed our lawn.  One person just showed up and cleaned every single window in our house.  For years, we’d been intending to take down the wallpaper in our kitchen and paint it.  Knowing that we would be unable to function for who knows how long, friends waited until we were gone one weekend, came over and completed the entire job.  Our first Christmas following Jordan’s death, friends came to our house and set up our tree for us and helped us decorate – something we could have never done on our own.

 

4. There’s No Time Limit for this Level of Grief

The family must be given as much time as necessary to process their grief.  We are all unique.  Hence, we all grieve uniquely, differently.  Some require more time than others.

Never should someone say – or even think – “You know, you should be over this by now.”  Only if you’ve walked in our shoes do you know how ignorant and arrogant a statement that is.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler once wrote,

“The reality is that you will grieve forever.  You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it.  You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered.  You will be whole again but, you will never be the same.  Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to be.”

I spent eight months, alone, in shock.  I know this because I remember finally waking up one morning feeling somewhat different.  Somewhat less tormented.  A small piece of the burden had been lifted. I tried and tried to figure out what was different.  Then it hit me – this was the first morning I had awoken without trying to un-do Jordan’s death.  That  insanity had consumed my every waking moment for eight months.  It was exhausting.  It was maddening.  But, finally, my psychological bondage was loosening. Slowly.

A professional counselor told me, “As you probably know, the first year will be horrible.  But I must tell you – the second year will not be much better.”  I can’t thank that counselor enough.  Because he was exactly right.  For the first two years, we cried at least once every single day.  Moreover, it took my family 4 years to complete a full summer without at least one of us having a total emotional meltdown.  It took 5 years before we could, on our own, decorate our Christmas tree.  Some may be able to take these steps sooner, some later.  We all grieve at unique paces.

 

5. Help Them Focus on What Is True

NOTE: I have a biblical worldview, meaning everything in life is filtered through the Bible, the Word of God.  Others, possessing other worldviews, will find truth elsewhere.  For me, my peace comes from the truth of scripture.

When Jordan was 9, during a very dark and painful period of our lives, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he came out of his room and said, “Dad, God told me to paint this for you.”  I just held him and wept.  After Jordan died, friends had it professionally framed with a small plaque at the bottom that reads, “When we hurt, God hurts.”  It has been displayed in our entrance hall ever since.

Every time I had a meltdown and felt like I was going to lose my mind I would begin quoting the 23rd Psalm.  Sometimes, my grief was so acute I was unable to mutter anything beyond the first few words: “The Lord is my shepherd.”  And that is one of the reasons I have that very phrase, in Hebrew, tattooed on my left forearm.


Here is truth:  because of Christ’s death and resurrection, our loved ones, in Christ, are more alive than we are – more alive than they’ve ever been.  Their suffering is not merely gone, it’s not even a memory.  Further, they are, at this moment, experiencing a level of joy and peace that is beyond mere human intellect, reason and logic.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

A reunion is coming.

For Jordan.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick