I have written before about comparing intense grief to having a disability like losing a limb. Of course we would have rather we had lost a limb than our child, but the point I’m making is that we have to adapt. That cliché ‘learning to live with it’ springs to mind. When one is grieving we learn to hate all the clichés that people come out with it, but ‘learning to live with it’ really is the best description of what we have to do.
So what can we do to adapt to living with intense, traumatic loss? I don’t like to get into the realm of comparing one type of loss to another, but I believe that losing your child to suicide is one of the worst things a parent can ever experience. Losing a child to murder, illness or a tragic accident is equally tragic, but there would be someone to blame or something to blame.
As parents we are conditioned to blame ourselves for everything, so imagine the guilt that a parent feels when the child that they carried and/or nurtured, protected and raised, then takes their own life.
It would be understandable for us to feel this is the ultimate failure as a parent. Our job is to protect them and be there for them, and they didn’t come to us for help, and ultimately we could not protect them.
So how does one learn to live with this?
There is no easy answer so all I can do is share my perspective as one so affected. I totally realise that this will not resonate with everyone and every single one of us will deal with grief in a different way. My last blog post caused someone to comment that they were shocked that I could even suggest taking a break from grief, and even suggested how deeply we grieve reflects how much we loved the person we lost. I know I loved my son to the depths of which my soul was capable and in my view getting on with my life does not mean I didn’t love him enough.
So here are my top ten tips for coping..
1. Don’t fight the feeling
The best piece of advice I was given was to just go with whatever I was feeling and not fight it. If you want to weep for 3 days, or 3 months then do. If you want to go shopping, don’t feel bad – do it. Don’t apologise to anyone for any emotion you feel or show, or anything you do or say. This is an important part of the grieving process. Let it out – if you suppress it will come out later.
2. Be selfish
I know you might want to look after everyone else, but if you don’t take care of yourself first you won’t be able to. Try to eat, rest and sleep, and if you can’t see your GP and insist that they take you seriously. If you don’t eat or sleep your grief will feel even worse and you will make yourself ill.
3. Find an outlet
If you can bear it find one thing you can do that feels therapeutic, something not related to grief. So not counselling or a support group, but maybe music, singing, going to the Gym, walking, going to the top of a cliff and screaming. I joined a choir weeks after Toby died and for 2 hours a week I sang my heart out and it gave me some relief from my torturous thoughts. No one there knew me or my story, and I could feel ‘normal’.
I also got a puppy and she literally saved my life as I had to get up every day and look after her and she is now my greatest source of comfort.
4. This too shall pass
I can’t pretend. You will have awful, dark, tortuous thoughts. You will replay things in your mind over and over again, and dwell on thoughts that you know do not serve you. This is normal, you are not going mad. This sounds mad, but this is a healthy way to process your grief, because in time these thoughts will burn themselves out. If you get scared and feel suicidal yourself – see your GP and/or phone a helpline or a friend. This is a scary phase but it will pass. It may come back but it will pass again.
5. Get support from someone who understands
Call the SOBS helpline (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) 0844 561 6855 which is manned by people who know exactly how you feel. Call them every hour if you need to, they won’t mind. Find one friend who doesn’t mind talking about it, not everyone can handle it. Find other agencies that can help and contact them, and if you haven’t got the strength then ask someone to do it for you. Try CRUSE, The Compassionate Friends or other on-line groups. If your GP is unhelpful, see another one and sit there until they take you seriously.
6. Keep a relationship with your child you have lost
This is hard, but I have found that it helped to keep feeling a connection with Toby. I set up a little corner on the sideboard, and put up our picture, a candle and every now and again I bring in a stone from the beach, a feather or a flower and I bring it to Toby. I kiss him on the forehead every night before I go to bed and I talk to him. I wrote him a letter in the early days and even wrote one back from him, imagining his voice and what he would say. I feel him around me all the time. I feel that he didn’t mean to cause me so much pain, and he wants me to get on with my life as best I can. I imagine him sitting in the corner when I am out –saying, go Mum… I think he would be proud of me.
Try and find helpful resources. Books, poems, songs, anything that soothes your mind. I found an on-line support forum the day after Toby died called Daily Strength, where I could connect with other Mums who had lost a child. It was such a relief to find others who were going through the same hell and I realised the strength of finding someone who really understood.
With this in mind I set up my own support group specifically for parents who have lost a child to suicide.
8. Make a difference
Later on, if you can, when you are ready and only if you want to, consider supporting a suicide prevention charity such as PAPYRUS, CALM or the Samaritans. Think about doing volunteer work with young people or raising money, this can help you deal with your grief and feel as if your child’s death was not in vain.
9. Meditation and mindfulness
Consider joining a meditation group, doing yoga or just listening to soothing meditation CDs or music on your own at home.
10. Prepare strategies for dealing with others
I have left this to last but it is the most challenging. You will have to learn how to deal with questions about how many children you have and the sharp intake of breath if you do decide to tell people that your child died and how they died. You do not have to tell anyone the method of how they did it and if they ask, firmly decline by saying ‘I really do not want to discuss that’. Only you can decide when and how you wish to tell people about your loss, but it you prepare little scripts in advance it will get easier. Be prepared for things to upset you, but just accept that this will happen and it is now part of your life and you will learn to live with it.
When this first happens you don’t think you can survive. You don’t know how you will survive. Please decide to survive and then take a minute, an hour and then a day at a time. Three weeks after Toby died I realised I had 3 choices. To die like Toby, to live a life filled with pain and sadness or to live the best life I could in the circumstances. I chose the third option and making that choice in my mind helped me go on.
I still live a day at a time and do not plan or look too far ahead. I have settled into a place that is still filled with pain but I have strategies for dealing with the pain, I know what helps and what is destructive and pointless so I try not to get dragged back there, although sometimes it does happen,
On reflection I realise that we can’t take a vacation from our grief, of course we can’t, it is there settled into every fibre, neuron and cell of our being. It starts out as an open gaping, festering wound but if we look after the wound as best we can to stop it getting worse in time it will form a scab, and then turn into a scar. We will never be totally whole again but I believe it will become less debilitating as we adapt and learn to live with it and we can survive and maybe value life and love even more now because of our loss.