I attended a "wellness" event recently; it was sponsored by our Methodist Conference as a part of their strategy to encourage self-care among clergy. By attending certain events, having an annual physical, and spending some time with a "fitness coach" we are able to see a reduction in our monthly health insurance rate. But beyond the financial benefit is the hope that healthier clergy will be a more effective clergy! Overall I've found the experience to be helpful and I've heard that many organizations are now offering these types of programs. It made me wonder, however, why preventative programs aren't offered to address one's mental health?
Suicide, it's a word that we've been hearing far too often lately. Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade are two of the more recent names that have been in the news as a result of this epidemic. In fact the number of suicides in the US are reported to be up by 30% in recent years. Many are now dealing with the aftermath of loved ones or friends who have decided to take their own life. The reasons for suicide are many and that is not really the focus of my thoughts in this blog. Rather, how do we cope with the loss of a loved one who has chosen taken her or her life?
The three most common words that describe those I have known who have faced this situation are: lost, lonely, and longing. Lost is simply the sense of not knowing where to turn or what to do next. (Sort of like being stuck and not being able to move forward.) Lonely is the reality of grief and missing dearly the one who has left us.. (And as you can see from the Blog picture, even our pets experience the reality of grief.) The longing is a desire for understanding; a wish that somehow we could make sense of it all or see clearly what we could have done differently that might have prevented this tragedy. I'm sure other descriptive words could come into play, but these three embrace so much of what goes on in our mind following the suicide of a loved one. There is no easy path to recovery, but if you are currently dealing with the loss of a loved one there are a few things I can encourage:
First, give yourself some time. Healing is not going to come over night. Confusion is not going to go away immediately. It takes a while for guilt to subside. There is no rule that says you have to heal quickly. Allow yourself to simply "be where you are" and take life one day at a time.
Second, steer away from asking, Why? Why questions are a trap and the more you ask them the more you will fall into their snare. The fact of the matter is that most Why questions will not be answered on this side of eternity. We can guess and we can speculate but in reality there is only One who knows the intricacies of the human spirit and mind.
Third, be forward thinking and proactive. Ask yourself, "What can I do now that would most honor the life of the one I have lost?" That may mean reaching out to others. It may mean being an advocate for a particular cause (ie. depression awareness or mental health funding). It may mean making a financial gift in memory of their name. It may mean making positive changes in your own life as tribute to their memory.
Finally, be willing to talk. Talk to family members and talk to friends. Share the wonderful stories that you recall. Be honest about your grief and pain. Tell others about your plans to honor their life. But when it comes to the "dark" feelings, talk to a therapist about your anger and guilt. This is a tremendously better plan than playing the blame game with others.
My prayer is that the suicide rate will sharply decline. The reality is that this tragedy, to some degree, will continue to be with us. If you are now experiencing the wake of such an awful event, my prayers are with you and you can be certain that I, or another therapist, I would be willing to walk with you through this journey.
Dr. Allen Schneider is a United Methodist pastor and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist presently serving the Sapulpa and greater Tulsa communities.