**This month’s article is written by a guest writer and Obelisk editor Jessica Mead.**
As Halloween ends, the unofficial leap into the holiday season begins. Candy bags are marked at 75% off and holiday decorations begin to fill the store aisles. This time of year can be an exciting time for many and a time of dread and sadness for others. For survivors of suicide, especially more newly bereaved individuals, holiday traditions are dramatically altered. Individuals and families find these first few holidays to be extremely difficult. The holidays can symbolize family, and gatherings are planned. When someone has died, these events highlight how permanent and real that person’s death is. Our November and December support groups have the largest attendance for these reasons. Many people come to groups because they want to know what they can physically and emotionally do to help themselves and their families cope. For example, group members may suggest lighting a candle for their loved one, making a place at the dinner table for the deceased, or having a ceremony in their honor. Other people come to the support groups not looking for suggestions, but wanting to process and to talk about how that person lived, and how they are trying to make meaning of the death. This “meaning-making” of the death is constantly changing, and we are unconsciously doing it all of the time.
Since the death of my father by suicide, my personal “meaning-making” has changed dramatically over the past eight years. Significant days and the holiday season seem to bring this to my awareness. The first Christmas after my father’s death, my little brothers were 6 and 9 years old. My mother had bought them a computer and a desk to put the computer on. When I got home from work on Christmas Eve, I was absolutely appalled that my mother had simply taped a bow on the desk box and leaned it against the wall, near the Christmas tree. When my father was alive, he had always assembled the gifts while we slept, so that we could play with them as soon as we ripped off the wrapping paper on Christmas morning. At midnight, after a busy work night, I decided to put this desk together for my brothers. Now, if you have ever tried to assemble an IKEA desk, you know how frustrating and difficult this can be. As I struggled to put this desk together I was putting sides on wrong, and inside out, and I was just bawling. I was crying because I was frustrated, and so angry with the desk, and with my father for taking his life and not being here to do this himself. I was so angry with him, and it was inconceivable that he could do this to our family. I spent the next 2 to 3 years in this state, not understanding, not trying to understand, at times being sad and angry, but for the most part keeping myself so busy that I did not have a chance to process or think about his death. The last year of his life our relationship had not been a good one, and I continued to hold on to that past relationship.
When someone important dies, there may be a lot of unfinished business with that person. “Did I tell him I was sorry for acting in a certain way?” “Did I tell her how proud I was?” In the first few years after my dad died, I would sometimes think about how unfair it was that I was never able to mend my relationship with him. Other young adults act like jerks, but they are able to develop and grow to have a good relationship with their parents. In the aftermath of my father’s death, I learned to understand his illness, the effects that it can have on relationships, as well as where I was developmentally at the time of his death. Being able to understand and process these factors has helped me to have a better-rounded and healthier understanding of his death and myself.
I repaired my relationship with my dad after his death, but in many instances, the act of suicide complicates the relationship. Suicide can shatter our beliefs about the world, which in turn affects the way that we understood our connection to our loved one. We hear it all too often in the LOSS Program: “I was blindsided.” “I had no idea that he was struggling.” “How could my wife have left our children behind? Our children were her world.” It can be very hurtful and many survivors feel betrayed: “My husband of 35 years never shared these feelings with me. This completely changes my understanding of him and my worldview.” The grief process is not only about mourning the person, but also about making some sort of sense out of their incomprehensible death, and making sense of how this affected what they believed the relationship to have been about.
If your relationship was complicated before the loss or became complicated after the death, you have to work to make sense of it. Each grieving individual has some sort of relationship to the deceased, even if it is not understood to be a “relationship” like the one known in life. What I slowly began to realize was that although my dad had died, it did not mean that our relationship was completely gone. In death, I would talk out loud to him, talk about him to other people; I would anticipate how he would respond to a certain conversation or event, and I would visit his gravesite. Although I wish that I could have a “live” relationship with him, I realize that the relationship did not end, but continued in another fashion. It was awkward to think of this as a “relationship” at first, but like all things, I eventually got used to it. In the LOSS Program, we have noticed that individuals who are able to make sense of and understand their new relationship seem to do better with their grief work. You may not like this new “relationship,” but eventually the relationship becomes something that is integrated into your thinking and the way you live your life.
Your relationship with your deceased loved one evolves over time. If you feel ready, the holiday season can be a time to think about that relationship. Would you like to commemorate your loved one? If so, would you like to do something individually, alone, or with friends and family? Would you like to do something symbolic and on a smaller scale, like lighting a candle and saying a prayer or something bigger, like dedicating a tree? Would you like to write letters to him or her, or keep a journal yourself? Or would you like to come to a support group to listen to others, or to talk aloud about your struggle through the holidays? These are some of the many things that you can do to aid in your evolving relationship with the deceased.
My relationship with my father has changed drastically over eight years and I anticipate that it will change over the next eight years. I encourage all LOSS members to think about and evaluate the relationship to your deceased loved one, and as Father Rubey says in each column, “keep on keepin’ on.”