“When something serious happens in your life, something bad comes out of it but also something good. You get to see who is real. Who your true friends are, and who truly loves you. ” A. Karan
“A true friend is an umbrella on the storm.” J. Aquillo
The old adage that one finds out who one’s true friends are in the midst of crisis bears some truth. At the least, one certainly finds out the types of friendships you hold when you endure crisis – especially one like suicide. Furthermore, suicide shifts and changes your friendships – some for the better, some for the worst. Life on this earth – a broken, beautiful world – consists of myriads of highs and lows – and it is not uncommon to notice subtle shifts in those who are closest to you as people’s lives change: as they move farther away for jobs, grow their family and begin spending more time with those at a similar life stage as others, etc… When a crisis like suicide happens it is as if a gigantic ‘reset’ has hit your life in every aspect… and as life begins to gradually refresh and return to your new normal… noticeable differences in friendships arise.
From the moment that I heard my mom had ended her life, a supremely important friendship evolved which had never (in my shame) taken priority in my life – my sisters. My mom had been the family linchpin for the lives of me and my four younger sisters…we found about how each other were doing through her reports. Over our adult lives she had frequently implored us to speak more to each other…which we occasionally did… but mostly we just spoke to her… This was especially true for me, as I live in London while my family lives in the USA. My mother’s weekly reports on other immediate family members were normative for me.
The 24 hours following my mom’s suicide, my sisters and I spoke to one another constantly. We began a facebook group where we started to chat to each other as a group – directly addressing concerns over mental health. Tears were exchanged as we implored each other to please share if there was ever any desire to end one’s life. We expressed how we couldn’t handle losing each other as well. In the subsequent 3 months we have been growing closer to each other – in a way unmatched by our former adult years.
Sudden deaths – like suicide – are horribly unbalancing. Those who ‘survive’ a family or close friend’s suicide become, even somewhat irrationally, concerned that everyone else around them might do the same. Fear of abandonment by those closest to you becomes a tangible reality.
There were others whose friendship was a sweet and unexpected surprise to me following my mother’s death. I was gobsmacked by the number of people – both strangers and friends – who reached out to me and my sisters who have been impacted by suicide. Sudden death – especially when the victim is also the perpetrator of her own demise – is an indescribable experience. The impact is isolating…I realise my mothers must have felt so isolated that day. How lonely, desperate, and alone must she have felt when she filled up the bath tub with water… sat in the car in our garage and wrote a note, which she tore up…and then, finally, purchased a rope as she finally decided how she would leave this world. The effort to understand what she was experiencing feels isolating as I try to imagine in my mind how she must have felt – in my last ditch effort to ‘be there for her’ in hindsight.
However, I was struck by likewise how communal the suicide survivor experience can be. I was surprised by how empowering it would be to share my experience with others, to listen to how they endured (and still endure) the deep effects of the self-ordained deaths of their loved ones. It’s devastating how many people are affected by this tragic escalation of mental illness…and yet it is also comforting to find understanding with others who, even though they don’t share your exact experience, have a semblance of understanding.
I had friends come out of the woodwork with whom I had not spoken regularly in years. I had one sweet friend immediately request my address, to which she sent me two solid books on grief and lament – which have proven extremely useful for my grieving process. Another friend whom I have never met in person, but with whom I have corresponded over the years, donated nearly $1,000 to my mother’s funeral arrangements – a tremendous help to our family when money is the last thing you want to think about at this time.
The first 14 days after my mom died we had enough food in our house to feed a small army – with an average of 1.5 drop-offs per day of home-made food and giftcards – to ensure we would not starve as we endured unimaginable heartbreak. My mom’s best friend of over 15 years who knew my mother intimately – through her highest and lowest points in life – made a point to visit my sisters and I regularly, in a way acting as a conduit for our mother as she was, and still is, the closest thing we still have to her.
Some of my mom’s closest friends contacted me through this blog after I began writing it, sharing their fondest memories of her, detailing how her suicide had impacted them (please keep them coming!).
In addition to the many happy surprises listed above (and many more which I failed to share!) there were also unpleasant reactions which arose from this experience. Unsurprisingly, there are myriad people who, occasionally or regularly, find it difficult to know how to handle situations like these.
Sometimes people, in absence of words, have expressed their bereft-ness of words to me in person…to which I always reply “That’s okay, I wouldn’t know what to say either…” Unfortunately, some of the people in this situation are slightly less self-aware and instead end up saying things which are resolutely unhelpful in the situation. It’s helpful in these situations to remember that these people are, in all likelihood, well-intended…but, of course, it can be difficult to process this in the midst of such indescribable grief.
Nearly 300 people showed up to the funeral – a testament to the love shared by my mother. One family member spent nearly 15 minutes with me showing old photographs of family members, as if we were at a reunion rather than a funeral (probably not the ideal place…).
I was aware that a couple of church leaders from my mom’s church were at the funeral – though they failed to say anything to me or my family… slightly odd, given they had been my mothers counselors through her declining mental health. Further email correspondence with these individuals was terse and standoffish, offering no closure for my family, and proving that – sometimes – people have unexpected reactions to suicide.
My family received myriads of ‘sympathy cards’ in the mail and at the funeral. While most of them were the typical and appreciated ‘thinking of you’ type of notes – there were a few inappropriate ones. One of which was a long letter which began with a sentence of sympathy, and was followed by 4 paragraphs of preaching. The author indicated that it had been brought to her attention that some members of our family were not Christian…and decided that the gospel should therefore be presented. This was followed by four bullet points of the gospel, which looked as though they had been copied and pasted from a tract… (While the intention was good…the likelihood that this would draw someone towards the gospel rather than away from it is not favourable…).
Indeed, suicide is a very uncomfortable thing and it is difficult to know how to react to a person as they experience inexpressible grief. The best thing one can do, of course, is simply listen and ‘be there’… though this is sometimes more easily imagined than done. I noticed that some friends, whom I had considered intimately close friends, suddenly became distant after her suicide. Our correspondence lessened or dissipated altogether… I was surprised, and occasionally heartbroken, to realise that some close friendships were shifting. I don’t necessarily blame them. Suicide is awkward. It definitely still carries a stigma, and numerous religious questions – and if anyone has any, I would be more than happy to offer my thoughts. A great starting point might be the previous post by my husband, Jonathan Arnold, who posted his sermon from the funeral, ‘Does Suicide Disqualify Someone from God’s Love?‘