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In the aftermath of suicide, a long walk through a strange country

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Dealing with grief and suicide, not suffering in silence (Photo: humblepiety)
Dealing with grief and suicide, not suffering in silence (Photo: humblepiety)

When someone you love kills themselves it is one of the most profoundly isolating experiences of your life. It feels a bit like being airlifted into a strange country and abandoned there. You can't read the signposts. You can't tell where the roads go. When people speak to you, you can hear them but you may not understand a word.

I have walked through this strange country, thunderstruck. I have known others who have. At the time I thought I had been pulled outside of existence. But the truth is I had just joined it. Because the experience of inexpressible grief is the most profoundly human journey of our lives.

Grief is the absence of love and the ferocity of it. Grief is the measure of lost love.

But first it feels like the world explodes. Until it happens you'll have no idea what the shock is like. You'll feel like you're standing in a giant crater with your hair smoking, the way they do in Saturday morning cartoons.

If you live in a small town, like I did, you'll notice other people noticing you. To them you'll sound like a snapping chord or a clanging bell that throws the day out of tune.

But silence will become your own companion. Stunned silence. Following you around day and night. While your guts will feel like they're being pulled from your chest, yard over yard.

Someone always contends with the arrangements, because someone has to. Others go to their room and close the door. In my own case I alternated, often from hour to hour, discovering that my body would take over when my head could not. I'd often find myself staring at the floor until I came to. It went on like this for a long time.

Psychologists call this the period of Initial Impact. You're poleaxed, but you're probably still functioning. Just.

It's the strangest thing, having to say farewell to someone in the middle of their life that you just never expected to. It's like hugging someone on the street corner and then moments later being told it was for the last time. It makes no sense. It rips a hole through the fabric of your existence. It's shocking in a way that little else is shocking.

When I lost someone I loved to suicide I didn't have time to become truly angry with all the instant rationalizing I heard going on around me, mostly because I was stricken with guilt and recriminations of my own: Why didn't I notice? Why didn't he tell me? How could I have let him down so? Where was I?

It didn't help that we had an unresolved relationship. He had wanted to stay, I had wanted to leave, but love is only possible when it has a context. Our conflicting life paths had removed that context, but not how I felt about him, because that hadn't changed. When you meet a fine spirit you meet a fine spirit, your heart stays constant no matter where your feet lead.

For weeks afterwards I was buffeted by helplessness. What if I'd done this instead of that? What if I'd stayed? What if I'd checked more on him? What if I'd spoken up instead of staying silent? It was endless. I was heart shot, my emotions were barely in check.

He had lived in a small Irish town. Most people there loved him. But others, a small but dedicated few, had made him their pinata. Being gay, and kind, and painfully on his own, he made a rich moving target for cheap abuse. Because of that I find that I can't really talk about him even yet. I'm still more comfortable talking about what it felt like to lose him. It's all I'm able to do just yet.

In the aftermath of a suicide by a young person, the first order on the agenda for the community in which he or she had lived is to absolve themselves it seems. It’s an understandable reflex. The implicit rebuke of a suicide is very hard to live with. So communities will almost always blame the victim, in preference to studying anything about themselves.

But the thing is, there were people to look askance at. Some had taunted him cruelly, for a long time before he passed. I've often wondered about how they've lived with themselves in the light of what happened to him? I wonder about them still because I don't think many others do.

I doubt that they blame themselves. I doubt if they learned anything. A new gravestone was erected and the weary world moved on. 

There is a silence on the edge of Irish life that I have always associated with graveyards. It’s found in our history too. We’re too used to it I suspect. My friend had needed support and he could not find the words to ask for it. Instead he found silence and it fell around him hard.

That silence is the enemy.  Breaking that silence is our only chance at finding peace.

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