After my sister died, I didn't know how I would go on living, and I definitely didn't think I'd ever consider myself a survivor, which is defined as "one who survives; one who endures through disaster or hardship."
There's a deep bond and connection between fellow suicide survivors that's hard to describe. They get it. All of us lost someone who lit up our lives, whose very presence in our world made it better, and we lost them in a tragic way. I find it incredibly comforting to be around others that know the kind of journey I've been on without having to talk about it. They're on the same journey and know how harrowing it is. They know the heartbreaking loss, the grief so intense that it causes physical pain, the sorrow of having someone take their life away, leaving those they loved and who loved them bereft and lost, facing the rest of their lives without them. I don't have to explain to them what it feels like knowing that things I once took for granted are no longer to be. My sister won't be beside me in our golden years. Our plans of being two feisty old women enjoying life to its fullest are now just memories.
They know about the thousand times a day a song, a word, a place, a smell, a phrase, causes a memory to surface, turning everyday, mundane moments into an effort to stay focused in the present and not give in to the emotions caused by the triggers.
They know about the nightmares--the vivid, awful scenes in our minds of finding loved ones dead by their own hand, seeing the lifeless body of someone whose presence lit up our lives and many others. And they understand the merciful peace of mind that comes when those nightmares and scenes start to fade.
They understand the yearning for answers to questions that are unanswerable, the effort it takes to find resolution and move beyond questioning to acceptance.
They know the unique way suicide has of shattering the innocence of even the most mature, worldly and jaded people. To them I've never had to explain the particularly toxic mixture of guilt, anger and resentment that suicide survivors so often feel. We all know about the lives interrupted, life plans forever altered, tasks we are forced to undertake, things we have to learn for our own survival. None of us ever wanted to learn such hard life lessons, to become experts on the suicidal mind and the underlying mental health issues contributing to suicide. But with this knowledge comes power - and more importantly - acceptance and healing.
Until my sister's death, I had only a basic understanding and knowledge about the disease that caused her death, bipolar disorder. Now I know that the very characteristics that made her loved and adored by so many were hallmarks of her disease. She cared so much about others and the world, that she couldn't cope with the pain and suffering around her. Most people with bipolar disorder care too much. Their caring overwhelms them. It causes them a level of psychic pain that most us will never understand. They leave us not so much because they wish to die, but because they just want to escape the pain they're feeling and are no longer able to see any other viable way to escape it.
I'm reading the book 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed, which is the story about her personal journey through grief after losing her mother to cancer. In it she describes her mother's love, "The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be quantified or contained. It was the ten thousand named things in the Tao Te Ching's universe and then ten thousand more." I wept with recognition and understanding when I read those words. My sister's love was that large. All of us - her family, friends, and especially her nieces and nephews - basked in her love. Losing it was devastating beyond words.
What a relief yesterday was to be surrounded by others who understand such devastation. I didn't fully understand the power of a day marked and set aside just for us, International Survivors of Suicide Day, until yesterday. The night before as I read 'Wild' I couldn't help but think of all my fellow survivors when I read these words of Cheryl Strayed's: "Nothing would put me beside her the moment she died. It broke me up. It cut me off. It tumbled me end over end. It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again... I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods."
We're all on our own unique, individual journeys out of the woods, but I know without a doubt every one of us will heal and be able to take our place among the ten thousand things again because we're strong. We're resilient and brave. We're survivors.
Basking in Julie's Love
|Aunt Julie and baby Hannah|
|Julie and her dog Phoenix|
|Aunt Julie with Hannah, Mason and her dog Phoenix|