Reflections on Healing after Suicide Loss by Jennifer Barnes

My name is Jennifer.  I have lost 3 loved ones to suicide.  Like many of you, I have dealt with the journey that is being left behind. I welcome you this evening and want to tell each and everyone of you that I am so proud of you for being here. Grief is hard, grief takes work, grief can suck every ounce of our energy. It can follow you wherever you go. Sometimes getting out of bed is enough. You chose to meet grief head on tonight. You took a step forward in this unknown journey and I hope tonight you come away with a few things.

I’d like you to know that you’re not alone. We each walk a different journey unique to us but we all carry the burden of losing someone we love to suicide.  Know that there are safe places and resources for healing, coping, and walking on this journey that you had no say in. You DO have what it takes to meet each day or hour, moment or second at a time. Understand that even through healing,  it is  ok to grieve and be open about what you’re going through. Missing and remembering  your loved one outwardly, no matter how long you’ve been on this journey, is therapeutic. It’s bittersweet and it’s something no one should put a timetable on. Don’t be afraid to tell others if they’ve said or done something that isn’t helpful to your journey. Be open with those you know you can about how they can help you.

In our support group, We the Living, we like to say that we know we won’t ever get over this loss, we just get through it and work to find a new normal…a normal that won’t ever be like the one before.  We want you to be gentle with yourself. Loss alone is hard to process but trying to process how your loved one died can be even more trying at times.

You all have courage that is insurmountable. You may not feel like it at the moment. Some of you beat may yourselves up for not being in a certain stage of your grief or not dealing with it the way society wants (which is quick, clean, and sterile – that just isn’t how grief works). Love is one of the most powerful emotions anyone can experience and when you cannot physically have someone you love with you anymore, grief is more than normal…it’s a necessity. It is how our brains cope.  Grief  can tear open our hearts, it creates in us wounds that get ripped open and open again. But  one day you turn around and say, “I’m still here. I’m a survivor, I am getting through this and boy did I doubt myself in the start”. You will grow and change in this process. You’ll never not miss the person you lost, you’ll just cope a bit differently with each passing day.

It’s been said what’s day without night? Let your tears flow and know that through these grief bursts and times of great sadness comes hope, healing and strength. I used to hold my grief in and over the years, I realized how unhealthy that was. I was sabotaging my own journey.

My first loss was a dear friend of mine 15 years ago.  Her name was Alicia. She had the most beautiful thick red hair and a smile to brighten an entire room. Everyone loved her and everyone who knew her was truly blessed to be in her presence. 1 year later at age 17, I lost my dad, Stan Wilson. He was everyone’s best friend and loved everyone but himself. He struggled with depression and undiagnosed/undertreated mental illness for over 30 years. He never realized his worth. He never  saw himself as everyone else did. His brain told him lies and he ultimately believed them. He was the type to give his all to everyone else, but expected perfection for himself…which is unattainable. He never gave himself the credit he deserved.

In 2015, I lost my baby cousin Emily. She had a giggle and zest for life like no one else I knew. She was fearless and lived everyday to the fullest. She too, struggled with mental illness and had hidden it for much of her life. She was brilliant with many friends and so much future ahead.  With each suicide, I felt different things for different reasons but the loss of my father left me reeling. I wanted answers, I wanted clarity, I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone. I reached out to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). My mom found a support group called We the Living and after being forced to go to the first meeting, I stand here today as lead facilitator.

The meetings gave me hope for my future. They gave me survivors at all stages of grief to learn from. It gave me constant words of wisdom and help in tough situations. Most of all it gave me the opportunity to realize consistently that I wasn’t alone. Whether it’s a support group, one on one therapy, reading books, online support groups, AFSP walks, STOP Suicide/Mental Health America (MHA) events like this evening, surround yourself with those dealing with this loss and figure out what works best for you.

Be open and upfront about mental illness. I stand here today with anxiety and OCD. Both much more managed than the early stages of my grief, because at that time they became my coping mechanisms. I just learned to live in a constant state of panic until I couldn’t handle it anymore. I then made some changes to better deal with them. I have outwardly sought treatment and have a plan of action that allows me to live my life more fully and more managed. I don’t fear getting help, I know what the terrible outcome would be to my friends and family if I didn’t get the help I needed. I know I need fresh air, weekly runs, time to shut down and be with myself, my music, and my thoughts. I surround myself with those I know I can rely on and those who bring me up versus down. I have to actively focus on the present and it may be a 24/7 struggle to do so, but I know what I need and who to talk to when I can’t do it alone.

Music is my therapy. It’s been my constant from day 1. Coldplay has many songs that have carried my grief like Everglow, Fix You and Trouble to name a few. There is a song from a Disney movie called If I Never Knew You with lyrics that I feel explains the bittersweet losses we have endured:

“If I never knew you, if I never felt this love, I would have no inkling of how precious life can be. And if I never held you, I would never have a clue how at last I find in  you the missing part of me. I’m so grateful to you, I would have lived my whole life through, lost forever if I never knew you. If I never knew you, I’d be safe but half as real never knowing I could feel a love so strong and true. If I never knew you, I’d have lived my whole life through empty as the sky, never knowing why, lost forever if I never knew you”.

“Take the love you have and carry it as a pillar. Let it ground you and keep you going when you feel you cannot…even for a moment to breathe. Those moments turn into days, weeks, and years. Take the love you learned and share it with the world in their honor. Take the love you have and love them from afar…because grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go”.     -Jamie Anderson

Everything is temporary…but love, love outlives us all.”  -R. Queen

You are in charge of your grief and don’t ever let anyone tell you differently. Look for signs of courage and acknowledge them. For my mother and I, we are left dimes by my daddy, the saying no worries from our Emily and I see Alicia in any young woman with talent and persistence in reaching her goals.

Give yourself acknowledgement for moving forward, for taking steps, for finding what works for you. Know that some people need help in whatever form works for them for months, others years, others decades, some consistently, some off and on, and some prefer to do it alone,  there is no right or wrong. There is getting to the next day and the next and the next. Take the memories, the grief bursts, the songs,  the love and embrace them.  Live them and allow them to shape the new person you will become, never fully ending this journey but using each day to be made new for what’s ahead.

One day, you’ll look back and say wow, my journey has been treacherous and grueling, but I’m here. What better way to remember our loved ones than to show the strength we wish they could have had. Take every  fraction of hope and cling to it…because our loved ones want that for us. They want us to live on in their memory, making them proud and being who you were made to be, with a little bit of who they were too. I believe they see us, they’re with us, just in a different form. Let us never forget who they were, who they are and who we saw them to be.

[Shared at the 3rd Annual STOP Suicide Candlelight Ceremony, September 12, 2017]