Psychologist Sarah Neustadter offers three phases as guideposts for those left behind. “Our feelings of despair and broken-heartedness need to be fully felt in order for them to shift into something new that emerges from grief.”
That moment. The heartbreaking, life-altering moment that you find out someone you love has taken their own life is one you will never forget. Twice in the last month, I’ve had friends experience that moment. I lived through that moment five years ago, and have been forever changed by it.
Suicide has been in the news lately—and seemingly is on the rise, especially for young people. In April 2020, the CDC reported suicide as the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 10 to 34, and the fourth leading cause of death for ages 35 to 54. While the suicides of such high-profile individuals as Robin Williams, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain make the headlines, it is when someone you love takes their own life that you become eternally bound to the reality of what that means.
Sarah Neustadter, a clinical and spiritual psychologist based in Los Angeles, lived through the suicide of her soul mate at 29. She chronicles her survival mechanism—writing emails to him—in her book Love You Like the Sky. As a personal journey, she shares her emotional writings to him and then lends her perspective and guidance as someone who counsels those who have lived through the unthinkable reality of a loved one taking their own life.
Neustadter offers three phases as guideposts for those surviving the trauma of a loved one’s suicide.
- Despair. When the reality of what has happened hits you and you feel shaken to your core, the level of devastation is unfathomable. “Surviving suicide is qualitatively different than other kinds of grief and loss,” writes Neustadter. “It’s a specific brand of darkness and terror that is all-encompassing and blinding.” This place I know. The level of shock and pain is beyond what can be imagined. In this place, Neustadter suggests three important steps to take as you sit with your pain and despair: Gather community support (and allow them to hold you), resist suicidal urges (you do not need to pass the pain on to your loved ones), and seek therapy (therapy will help if you can find someone who is a trained grief or trauma specialist).
- Shifting. After my father’s suicide, I was haunted by guilt and regret. I wished I could have done more to help him, to find a way to help him through his anguish. Neustadter insists that “you are not responsible for your beloved’s suicide.” She advises using your anger as you move through your grief. I found that being active and present with both my grief and my anger allowed those emotions to move through me, and, on some level, I would feel cleansed of one more layer. Another aspect to shifting that Newstadter writes about is around how we consider life after death. A few months after my father’s suicide, I was walking up a stream, surrounded by lush vegetation. I was thinking of my dad, and I felt this incredible wave of love surrounding me. It was such a powerful sensation, and I was moved to tears as I realized some part of him was still with me.
- Beauty. As you process through the cycles of emotions, you become transformed at a profound level. There is a point where the light begins to again fill your life. You will never again be the person you were before, but you can emerge through to the other side. Neustadter writes about practices that remind us to fully inhabit our aliveness: Take time to be in nature, meditate, engage in the magic moments each day has to offer, embrace being alive, and cultivate connections to the important people in your life. We get to embrace our life, even as we realize how fleeting and ephemeral it is.
It takes time to heal from this kind of trauma. My healing has transformed me in ways I could not have imagined. Even five years later, I still have moments where the veil lifts, and I feel the well of sadness that still stirs in my heart. Now, though, it is also filled with the light of healing, and the absolute knowing of unbound love.
I asked Neustadter how we can sit with the immensity of it, in all of the raw emotion, and she offered this:
"There's a sacredness and a power that needs to be honored in the grieving process. Our feelings of despair and broken-heartedness need to be fully felt in order for them to shift into something new that emerges from grief. We don't have conversations about the power and beauty of this crucible in our culture, as we tend to squash down negative feelings and push ourselves to get back to work. It's quite difficult and unbearable to be with the pain. Yet, our capacity to be with our pain is where our strength comes from and ultimately reveals a capacity for deep joy on the other side of grief. Taking time to cry, mourn, and heal by yourself and with others in community is crucial and spiritual work."
Let yourself be present as you move through the “power and beauty of this crucible.” We would never choose it, but when it chooses us, our only way to move through it is to be with it.
Read more about the complicated grief of suicide.