Living with the aftermath of suicide brings a uniquely intense form of pain. The Augusta Chronicle newspaper tells the story of Cheryl Cottle Graham, who lost two husbands to suicide. What makes this such a unique loss is that her second husband was the recipient of the first husband’s donated heart. When her first husband, Terry Cottle, died his heart was donated to Sonny Graham. After the transplant, Sonny wrote thank-you letters to the family. Through those letters he met and fell in love with Cheryl. They married nine years later, and last week, Sonny was found with a self inflicted gunshot wound to his throat.
This story rings true for me as I am also a suicide survivor. In November 2006, my mother took an overdose of pills. Most likely, she took it the day before, or the day of Thanksgiving. She was visiting a friend and, despite an increasingly painful headache, insisted that she was “OK.” On Friday, November 24, 2006, my brother received a phone call that mom was in the hospital in Decatur Alabama. (We were in Jackson, Mississippi at the time.)
At first we hoped that she was having more kidney problems, but were fearful that she had another suicide attempt. Doctor’s confirmed our worst fears and informed us that her prognosis would not be known until the next morning and it would be best for us to stay at home and check in with them in the morning. When we woke up the next morning, we learned that she was not likely to live more than a few hours.
We would be lucky to make it to the hospital before she passed. My siblings and our spouses piled in to my brother’s car and drove as fast as we could to Decatur so we could spend her last hours together with her. As we got closer I looked at the interstate mile markers and told myself “30 miles until I watch my momma die. 29 miles until I watch my momma die. 28 miles until I watch my momma die….”
We arrived in time to be with her for two hours before she died. We were blessed to have the support of a close family friend during this time who had been a God send to both us and my mother. Over these past 16 or so months, I have been left with more questions unanswered and am still in many ways learning to cope with this tragic loss. While I still have many unanswered questions there are some things that I am confident of.
Coping with suicide is more like getting used to living without your legs more than it is like healing from a disease. The loss will never go away. You will always notice it. But, with help from friends, counseling, or your faith, you can put some boundaries around your pain so that it does not control you. It is possible for you to continue to have a happy and fulfilling life. Your life can, and if you choose, will go on.
Surviving suicide happens most successfully with support. In the months after my mother died I buried myself in as many books as I could find about suicide and suicide survivors. Being a psychotherapist, thought was that if could read enough I would be able to cope easier. While the reading did help me understand some things, I came to a point where I wanted to share my experience with others. I sought out and began attending a suicide survivor support group. In the past year I have only missed two meetings. It is truly a miracle to be a part of this group; to sit in a room with people who have also lost loved ones to suicide and are deciding to continue searching for a joyful and fulfilling life. These groups can sometimes be found through your local Hospice center or by doing an Internet search on “Suicide Survivor Support Group.”
On a practical and every day level, it is absolutely necessary to give yourself permission to feel. As I have worked with people experiencing all types of loss I know this one thing for sure: Grief feelings WILL be expressed one way or the other. People who grieve healthy are able to admit these feelings, feel them, and grasp onto the hope that now is not forever. In the meantime, cry when you need to cry, scream when you need to scream, and laugh (yes, laugh) when you need to laugh. Do what you need to do when you need to do it.
When you are ready, there are some books I would recommend to you. I don’t recommend these in hopes that you will “feel better” or “heal faster.” Rather, I recommend these books with hopes that you will learn that you are not alone and that there is a life for you after your loss. The first book is by Carla Fine and is called No Time to Say Goodbye. The second is After Suicide by John H. Hewett. These are just two of a multitude of books that have been written to those of us who choose to call ourselves survivors.