“When we lose someone we love, we can either die with them or live on to celebrate their life. Focus on what we had not what we lost.” - Unknown
I have been teaching classes on suicide education at Aurora University for about 12 years. The students who take my classes are working toward a degree at the masters level of social work (MSW). This class is considered an elective, not a requirement. This year, a second class was added to accommodate all who wanted to take it. As a survivor of loss, and a suicidologist, I believe every human being walking this earth should have at least an hour training in the signs and symptoms of suicide and where to take people for further help if they need it.
Every semester, I ask fellow loss survivors to come to class to tell the students about their loss and the impact it has had on their life. I usually also ask class members to attend an SOS meeting; however, because there are so many students and because many have a Monday night class, I simulated a meeting in the classroom, incorporating our visiting loss survivors. This class is the most powerful one of the semester and the knowledge gained will stay with these students forever. It brings out students who themselves are survivors of loss or survivors of attempts.
As the students leave that day, I hug them and ask, “Are you ok?” Some choose to stay behind and talk. Students are asked to write a reflection paper on the class. Over and over again, they pour out their feelings and, usually, comment on the fact that they are now more inclined to “check in on family and friends”.
Each “guest” who tells of their loss, is also asked, by me, what they have “done” with this loss. Each one of us heads down a different road after the death of our loved one. Our lives become “before” and “after”. Our heightened awareness of suicide is a “gift” from this horrible loss as each one of us moves forward to spread awareness and to keep “their” story alive. Each one of us has a unique grief and a unique story.
The next class after the survivors of loss group, talk focuses on how survivors move forward to celebrate the life that was. It takes years, doesn’t it? Years until we can even begin to appreciate what they gave us. Years until we can begin to reach out and talk and laugh and begin to help others…
“When my daughter died, for my surviving kids, the mom they knew died with her.”
“I was 14 when my dad died. I went right back to school. It wasn’t discussed.”
“I was a baby when my dad died. I wish I had some memories of him.”
“My brother was my best friend. We rallied around him during the crisis and then thought he was better…”
We make vows to ourselves to “not be like them,” or to “live on in their name”, or to “raise our children differently.” The best vow, however, whether spoken aloud or not, is the vow to continue to speak of them; speak their name; tell of fun things they did with us; tell of their kindness and focus on what we had.
Survivors make jewelry of their ashes, visit places that were special to them, or sit in front of the family home to remember. Survivors save clothes, make picture collages, have special rooms to go where they can remember and be quiet. Survivors, further down the road, join boards, raise money, walk in walks, and participate in events to honor and remember “them.”
The past 18 months, I’ve written letters to mom’s youngest sister and received answers. Aunt Shirley, too, carries some of the guilt surrounding mom’s death. In one letter, the following line jumped out at me: “The damage was done long ago.” That actually comforted me as I remembered what I’d been told of mom’s childhood, adolescence, and early years of marriage. To me, what those words said was, “The foundation was laid for it to turn out as it did.”
This goes alone with the expression, “It was their time.” I can still sway back and forth with the why’s and my role in her death. I can pour the foundation and begin to build that tortured house in my mind. BUT I do not. That would be like me dying with her. That’s the time I switch my brain to happy times with her: jokes shared, shopping outings, tv shows watched together, the joy she took in her children and grandchildren and a myriad of other thoughts.
Lois and I can talk about her daughter, Debbie, and my mom and the adventures each of us took with them. We can be light-hearted at moments like that. The other phrase that goes through my head when I begin to feel dragged down by guilt and grief is this one: “She did not want to take me with her.” SHE could not do it any longer. I truly believe that mom thought I’d be ok, eventually of course, as I was a married adult with a family of my own. That’s what I think.
Mom’s birthday was March 4. On Sunday, March 3, I baked her favorite cake, a blitz torte, and took it to work to share with my colleagues on Monday. What’s better than cake or pie for breakfast? I remembered and celebrated the 61 years that she lived. I played Bette Midler’s “One True Friend.” I bought orange flowers. I looked at the pictures of her that I have in my office. Choose to live and remember… If you don’t celebrate, eventually, the life that was, who will?