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July 2004


By Al Vigil

Shortly after our daughter Mia, died in early January of 1984, we tried to read everything that we could get our hands on, trying to learn about suicide. We were trying desperately to understand what despair was it that took her to that final place, that final choice, believing that the only way to stop the pain in her heart and her soul was to stop her life.

By the end of January, we started to search for a "timetable for grieving." How long would it take for each time step? How many months before we were all healed again? Surely it wouldn't be long before we would be at the 'healed stage'. We would soon be getting on with our lives ...right?

Twenty one and half years later I now know ...that there are no timetables for the grieving process after you lose someone you love to suicide, or to any other death for that matter. Each and every person must pass through this eye of the grief needle on their own pace. We all hope that we are healthy enough so that we can survive and do go on with some proper positive direction in life.

We Will Just Never Be The Same - We Are Forever Changed!

Surviving is the first step - Shock, denial -not to us, not to me. I don't want to go on without them. If your pain is this unbearable, what degree of pain did the person you lost have to go through? It has been many years since Mia's death and the grief pain isn't as intense or as ever present, but it still hits like a fist to the heart.

Healing is the second step - Now you can count time, since we're still surviving. Some good things have begun to happen. We can laugh again, music is beautiful and food tastes good. Many of the pieces of the suicide puzzle still are missing, but they just don't dominate our lives all of the time anymore. You can begin to recognize that just because they choose to die, doesn't mean that you have to. You can choose to live!

Growing is the third stage - Now you recognize that you are not alone. Others still live to share your life. We are always going to miss our Mia, as you too, will miss your loved one. We can learn to cherish the gift that they were to us. We can become gentle and peaceful again. We can become certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore our lives, in self-respect, have a life goal and that is to go on, because we choose life.


Adapted from a piece by Emily Per Kingsley

We are often asked to describe the experience of having lost a loved one to suicide by people who have not had the loss happen to them, so that they can imagine and try to understand how we feel and thus maybe help others.

"You are going to feel," we tell them, "that what has happened to you has never happened to anyone else like you before. The belief that these things happen to other people, not people like us, will be shattered forever."

It's like planning a trip, this being the trip through life ...but you're going to Italy. You have bought and studied all of the guide books and made your wonderful plans. You know that you will visit Rome. The Coliseum. You will see the works of Michelangelo. You will ride the gondolas in Venice. You will even take the time to learn some handy phrases in Italian. Italy is going to fill a lifelong dream.

After months of eager anticipation the travel day finally arrives. You pack your bags, you get on that airplane and off you go. Several hours later the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland," you scream. "What happened to Italy? I signed up for Italy. I planned for Italy. All my life I've dreamed of Italy."

"But," she tells you, "there has been a change in plans. You have now landed in Holland and so ...here we are."

We must now convince ourselves that we haven't really been taken to a horrible, disgusting filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place. A place that wasn't in our plans to ever travel to. So now you must go out and get new guidebooks. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a new group of people you would have never met.

You will find that when you catch your breath, and you look around, you will begin to notice that Holland has windmills. Holland even has Rembrandts. You can live with Holland.

After some time you will meet other people who are planning to go to Italy, and you will meet people who have been there and you will say to yourself,for the rest of your life, "yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned for myself."

And the pain of that loss will never, ever go away, because the loss of that dream will always be a very significant loss in your life.

The GRIEF Process

Grief is the process we go through after experiencing a loss of any kind. It may be the loss of a loved one, a pet or even a job. Some of us proceed through the grief process with little or no difficulty. A great many people deal with grief in a healthy way. While going through the process, it is common to experience emotions that are unfamiliar and very intense. After a period of time and the initial phase of grief, a gradual return to normalcy in behavior and emotions becomes apparent.

Some people going through the grieving process, however, may need help from friends or others who have experienced similar loss. Sometimes professional help is appropriate.

Some of the following symptoms show that additional professional help is advised. Dramatically changed behavior that continues for several weeks or months. Physical conditions that could be psychosomatic such as asthma or arthritis. Strong avoidance of any indicator/ symptom of grief. Definite increase in the use of alcohol and/or drugs. Feelings of uselessness or not being wanted. Unusual changes in relationships with family and friends. Manic activities without any evidence of loss.Decrease in attention to personal hygiene. Symptoms of the same illness that took the life of the deceased person. Increase depression or agitation. Rigid controlled behavior. Hatred or hateful behavior towards others. Increased mood swings. Difficulty sleeping. Strong preoccupation with the deceased person.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her extensive research on the stages of loss and grief lists:

1. Denial 2. Anger 3. Bargaining 4. Depression 5. Acceptance : as the stages of loss and grief that the dying person experiences after finding out that he or she is terminally ill.

The survivor may experience them in a different order and not all stages are necessarily part of the grief experience. She also states that GUILT is one of the most common experiences in grief and loss. The dictionary defines guilt as a feeling of self reproach arising from the belief that one has done something wrong. Guilt may be a small nagging remembrance of something that should have been done. Or it may arise from mixed feelings that we honestly have about the deceased person, but feel bad about.


When any significant person is missing during the holiday season for the first time, we are likely to experience a degree of sadness or grief. Deeply sad experience that have happened during the year, may be recalled during the holiday season. Recollections seem to carry with them some of the original feelings of unhappiness, sadness or emotional pain. Sometimes our expectations help set us up for a crisis during the holidays. If we put to high expectations on the holiday season, we may end up disappointed, and end up with the Holiday Blues. People who are away from family or close friends may find that their own sense of isolation and loneliness is highlighted by the joy and happiness that people around them seem to be feeling. These people may then withdraw into their own pain and experience Holiday Blues. Sometimes too much closeness may be difficult to handle if during the rest of the year you avoid closeness by saying we just don't have enough time for it. When the entire holiday business is over, and everything is finished the Holiday Blues may be experienced too.

There are two common signs of the Holiday Blues. One is withdrawing within oneself. It makes people more reserved and less active, making them feel tired and finding that it is difficult to make decisions. The other sign is just the opposite. You may sense the painful feelings inside and attempt to run from them, becoming more active than normal, functioning on less sleep, talking more than usual. Succeeding at fighting off feelings until exhaustion sets in or the bottom drops out. Holiday Blues are painful.

To help prevent Holiday Blues plan ahead. Make specific plans for what you will be doing during the season. Involve yourself with others. Perhaps invite others who are alone to share holiday time with you. Be aware that you don't pack your schedule so tightly that you don't have time to take care of yourself. Give yourself room in each of the days of the season to assess your personal needs and to use available resources to meet them. Reflect on the seasons meaning to you. As you prepare for the holiday don't put expectations upon it. Allow the holiday to take on it's own meaning and significance as it occurs. You may find that you will receive more joy and happiness than you ever could have imagined.

If you get into the holiday season, or it is over, and you are experiencing Holiday Blues, it is important to accept that you are feeling blue, sad, or tired. Take time to sit down and allow yourself time to deal with your feelings. It is not unusual to get emotional during the holidays, or thereafter. If you feel like crying, let the tears cleanse you. It may help to share your feelings with another person. If you need help, don't be afraid to ask for it. Sometimes you may need to act contrary to what your feelings tell you to do. It may be better to get in contact with people rather than withdraw. Decide to do one or two things a day to feel some sense of accomplishment. Reach out by phone, letters, or in person to a remembered friend or lost acquaintance. If you need help in this process ask for it. You can turn to friends, family, physicians or pastors. You can find resolutions for the pain and can celebrate the Holidays with joy.

Take it one day at a time. You may wish to light a special candle in remembrance of your loved one. Take a Christmas Tree, wreath, or bird seed to the grave. Include your loved one in your thoughts. There are many ways to tell you how to get through the holidays, regardless of what your family and friends say, do what feels right for you.


By Geri Coppernoll Couchman

On April 11,1984, at 10:30 a.m. a policeman slowly pulled into my driveway. I remember seeing him sit quietly for a minute, shading his eyes and peering at the house before climbing out and standing nervously at the front fence. When I reached him, he handed me a piece of paper. "There has been a death in your family, "he said. Call the detective. The number's on the paper." I searched it for meaning. But only saw a name and phone number.

When I called, the detective was out. He would call back. I waited. And as I waited, terror crept over me. It hung solidly around me. Hard and black, it pushed heavily on my lungs, making my breathing deep and wrenching. It's sound filled the room. The phone rang; a man with a clipped staccato voice told me that my friend-my husband of 13 years-the gentle father of our two children, had put a single shell into a shotgun, tucked it under his chin, and pulled the trigger. "Death was immediate."

Almost six years have passed in a slow, evanescing way that still puzzles me. But I have learned many things. Do you know how often people say they want to kill themselves? We hear it all the time. Disappointed students say it. Mother's claim, "I'm going to kill myself if I don't get away from my kids." In our society it has soap operas and some books, that merely serve as dramatic devices. Such offhand use of suicide submerges the anguish of it, makes it seem like almost a workday thing.

Yet in every crowd, in every audience, in every checkout line, there are people silently living with this tragedy. They know exactly what it means and it's not a casual thing. When they hear the word suicide they feel a deep pain. Usually, you cannot tell who they are because, like me, they have learned not to let their emotions show. They have learned not to cry in public. They have learned that people all too often react to them with shock, condemnation, revulsion or pity. They may even laugh when someone says in mock despair, "I think I'll kill myself." But that laughter is only a way of hiding their true emotions.

They will always feel the pain the word suicide brings because survivors of suicide are the walking wounded. Someone they loved -a friend, a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or perhaps the most painful loss, a child, -killed themselves. Most of them have gone through psychological and physical torture that is difficult to describe. Many seek counseling because of the trauma of losing someone to suicide. Regardless, they will struggle for years to accept the consequences of these tragic deaths. These survivors feel not only grief or anger but also guilt, depression, exhaustion, hostility, terror and vulnerability.

Although we associate numbness with grief, in the case of suicide, it is only temporary. Numbness gives the other emotions time to build, like a monstrous wave gaining, rolling darkly in the depths of a human heart, dredging a sea of emotions up into a huge, drowning mass. When it hits, everything is washed away in the flood and what is left is the bleakest of emotional desolation.

These survivors often feel they might die from grief. Many do die. Cancer may overtake their unresisting bodies, but sometimes they just simply die. Almost all fight the sly, creeping delusions of insanity. Many have been horrified to find themselves holding a razor or gun. If they are strong or lucky, if they have people to live for, they may overcome the impulses that terrify them. Inflicted with this great wound, they may manage to move on and hope that someday they may once again experience joy.

'Grief Is Healing' : Society offers little solace-only terrifying anxieties. "The children of suicides commit suicide" is a standard belief and one with some statistical basis in fact. "You must learn to accept what happened" is a constant refrain to the survivors. It is hard to imagine a larger entry under the heading of "more easier said than....". "Experience grief," the survivors are told, "because grief is healing." But the horror of the grief that comes with suicide is anything but healing. It is not something you welcome, but desperately try to escape. Friends say, "There is a lesson in this -don't forget it," but the survivors pray to forget.

The survivors are often accused implicitly or explicitly of having neglected the one who died. There must have been signals. Why weren't they attentive enough to recognize them? Why did they allow suicide to happen? They must not have cared. Spouses are seen as responsible for their mate's suicide. Parents are condemned for being uncaring -possibly abusive toward children who take their own lives. Religious prejudices also exist. Many religions believe suicide is the greatest sin -the sinner unredeemable. In many ethnic neighborhoods it is considered unlucky to marry the widow or widower of a suicide because the survivor probably caused the death.

Most survivors have trouble communicating their feelings. Talking about their trauma means re-experiencing the pain. Still, they feel the need to tell someone, as I have, if only to say, "I am surviving and I am getting stronger. I stand in a shadow, but I can see the sun." Last year I took an art class with nine other women. After being together for six months, we accidently learned three of us had husbands who had committed suicide. Yet, we had learned from experience to avoid the subject of suicide because of the mark society puts on the survivors. So we found it difficult even to talk to each other.

But I have been silent to long. I want others to know what it is like to be a survivor of suicide. I want them to realize what the anguish is like and know how harsh society can be toward these survivors. I consider this piece my first, if incomplete, it is an effort at fully expressing my feelings. I want once again to walk in the sun, out of the shadow of suicide.

Original Printed in "NEWSWEEK" October 8, 1990

Facing The Cliches' Of Grief: "DON'T THEY KNOW"

"Remember Everything Is God's Will" - Don't they know that I can't understand how God could cause me so much despair? Don't they understand that I can't accept this as God's will?

"All Things Work Together For The Good Of Those Who Love God" - Don't they know that I'm not sure I can love the God who robbed me of my child or my loved one? Can't they understand that I'm very angry at God, who treated me so unfairly?

"Your Loved One Is Better Off. He's Gone To Heaven, Where He'll have Eternal Peace" - Don't they know that I can't be relieved to know he's in Heaven when I ache so to have him back? Can't they understand that I feel his death is an injustice, not a godsend?

"Count Your Blessings" - Don't they know that in this state of mind I can't in my wildest imagination, consider all this pain, this anger, this emptiness. This frustration, a blessing.

"If You Look Around, You'll Always Find Someone Worse Off Then You Are" - Don't they know that right now I can't imagine anyone worse off than I am.

"You're So Lucky. You Had Several Wonderful Years Together" - Don't they know that we should have had many, many more years together? Their life was only beginning?

"Think Of All Your Precious Memories" - Don't they know how much it hurts to live with nothing more than memories? Can't they understand that because our love was so great, the pain is more intense?

"Keep Your Chin Up" - Don't they know how hard it is to do that when I really want to cry, to wail, to scream, at the injustice that has been dealt me?

"But You Have Other Children" - Don't they know that another child is not a replacement for the child we lost. Each child is unique and irreplaceable. Another child cannot erase the pain of losing this special child.

"You Must Put It Behind You And Get On With Your Life" - Don't they know that we don't hurt by choice when ou r loved one dies? I haven't met a bereaved person yet who wasn't really weary of hurting.

"Just If There's Anything I Can Do, Just Let Me Know" - Don't they know that they shouldn't wait for me to "let them know." Can't they understand that my mind is so numb I can't even think of what needs to be done?

"Time Will Heal" - Don't they know how time is dragging for me now, that every minute seems like a day? Don't they understand how frightening it is to face the rest of my life without my loved one?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"Don't they know ?" - Of course these wonderful, concerned, well meaning friends don't know! They can only guess how I feel. They haven't personally known (thank God) the disbelief, the shock, the anger, the depression that has filled my heart and soul since my loved one has died.

They don't know that the words I need to hear are: "I know you must be hurting terribly. You had such a good life together, the pain must be worse, don't be embarrassed to cry. I know you need to express your despair, your anger, your frustration. I know it must be hard for you to believe that God is a loving God who will support you through all of this horrible tragedy."

They can't know that words aren't even necessary, that just being there, holding my hand, crying with me, or listening to me would be more comforting than words they feel they must say.


Review Of Juvenile Novels by Beverly Parker

Searching through library catalogues became another avenue in my recovery as a survivor of suicide. Mike had hung himself, and I had complicated emotions and a very complicated life as a result. Books had always had answers, opened doors, given solace and often given direction to my life. Being a survivor had brought me to a session of life for which I was not prepared.

Disappointment settled in after only finding two books on suicide survival at the local library. Dozens of books addressed teen suicide, prevention, Japanese Kamikaze deaths, California's statistics and array of other related topics. There was so little for me, who was left behind.

I combed my college library stacks, magazines and periodicals, but there were no books, and very few magazine articles. I was disillusioned that an institution of higher education preparing future sociologists, psychologists and educators had nothing about the thousands of suicide survivors.

To my surprise and delight I found a treasure in the children's section of my city library. There in the card catalogue, just behind the expected suicide topics was a startling discovery, a category for the juvenile reader, SUICIDE STORIES. There were seven juvenile novels about children dealing with their recovery from the suicide of a family member.

As an adult reader, I had never encountered the authors, but I hungrily wrote down the names and titles of their books. What could these adult writers say to children about suicide? Could they really understand and depict the changed lives of survivors?

I scrambled through the library determined to discover what was to be said. I came away refreshed, wishing that adult books could have been so sensitively written.

Over the next few months I gobbled up six of the seven novels, each unique, and each addressing suicide from a different direction, aiming at the different ages of readers. The situations, characters, conflicts and resolutions all revolved around the same trauma and ensuing crisis, and yet each opened up another facet of survival. Each contributed to my overall understanding of the children and further resolution of my emotions.

From the successful middle class family of today, to a down and out depression era family: sons, daughters, brothers and sisters found themselves coping with their changed families. Authors introduced the dynamics of going back to school, new parents, having to move, shame, displaced anger, small children acting out their hurt, the haunting question of WHY and the trauma of finding the body of their family member.

I found each book to have sensitively addressed the issues with different methods of story and character development. I could sense that the purpose of the authors was to assist children with identification and understanding of their emotions, situations, and healing.

In the most accurate and detailed novel, "How Could You Do It Diane?" by Stella Pevsner, the main character, 13 year old Bethaney discovers her step-sister's body. Throughout the story the many questions and dilemmas following a family suicide are addressed. This teenager not only explores her sister's life but also confronts the family's attempt to cover up the depth of the grief and the following emotional distortion in the family member's personalities. A small sister and brother also absorb the stress and demonstrate the acting out behavior that is often seen in younger survivors. This juvenile novel is the most accurate of the seven and is the most piercing in it's portrayal of the moment to moment emotional drama of a survivor.

Although there are many other books I could explore here, I would rather encourage you survivors to investigate these books yourself. No matter if you are an adult or child I believe the tenderness and insights of these authors, their characters and different forms of resolution can contribute to your own recovery and healing.

Following is a list of the seven books I discovered. If your library does not list these, please ask how they can be acquired or borrowed from another library.



Eth Clifford : THE KILLER SWAN

Christi Killien : ARTIE'S BRIEF

Stella Pevsner : HOW COULD YOU DO IT DIANE ?




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