We are survivors and we will survive.

Today is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.

I have the great honor of sharing my testimony at a candlelight vigil today at 2 PM.

But I wanted to take it step further so that I could reach more people with my testimony…

So here I am, posting my story on my blog- in hopes that someone who is hurting and feels all alone can know that I am standing with them. We are survivors and we will survive.

So here it goes:

Anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide, knows that it forever changes your life. It rocks your world in a way that no other death can. It can leave you feeling helpless, hopeless, and completely lost. The emotions can be overwhelming and the “whys” and “what if’s” can consume you. You can become overcome with anger as you question how the person you loved could have left you here. Grief after a suicide is complicated.

It has been 15 years since my father died by suicide. I was 15 years old when he hooked up a hose to the exhaust of his truck and connected the hose to his bedroom window. His truck ran all night as he fell asleep in a bedroom filled with carbon monoxide. I was a young, naive teenager when I became a suicide survivor. Losing a father to suicide quickly began to define who I was. I was filled with turmoil and unanswered questions  and I quickly began turning to the wrong comforts. I dabbled with alcohol and drug use for a few years of my early 20’s while living with the heavy weight of depression. I seemed to have forgotten the man my father was during my childhood and defined him by his suicide. I was quick to call him selfish. A coward. A disappointing father. I was hurt and not coping well. I think this pattern of self-hatred, guilt, and shame is easy to get wrapped up in when you’re a survivor of suicide.

For suicide survivors, after the initial shock of learning of the death, the “whys” begin- terrible, unending “whys” that we play over and over in our head. The first being “why did he do it?” followed by “why did I not see this coming”. They can spiral from there to “What if’s”- “What if I had called him” … “What if I had seen the signs?”

I currently work as a grief counselor and recently worked with a young girl whose father died by suicide. When the topic of “whys” came up she had a particularly brilliant answer. She said “you know, all we have is our best guess, and our best guess might be wrong”. Our best guess might be wrong- yet; we spend such a great deal of time pondering over these questions. If only we could approach it like this 9-year-old girl.

I spent about a year in counseling working through the shame and guilt I had taken on. I had to work through an abundance of negative self-talk including things like “no one will love me- not even my Dad did” and “I’ll never be good enough- my Dad didn’t think I was worth living for”. I worked through the “What if’s”. Like the self-blame I internalized for not calling him the night he killed himself. The night my Dad killed himself I had picked up the phone with the intention of telling him about me ordering my class ring that day. However, when I picked up the phone my boyfriend was there. The phone didn’t ring. Just coincidence. Remember how that could happen with landlines? I forgot to call my Dad back and the next day I found out he was dead.

I never imagined that I would be standing here- telling my story 15 years later. At some points of my life I wasn’t sure that I would even exist 15 years later.

Now, I can stand proudly and share my story of being a suicide survivor. For I no longer feel ashamed that I am the daughter of a man who killed himself. I now have a new understanding of suicidal ideation and mental illness. I have my master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling and have worked as a grief counselor for the last few years. I now know that those who die by suicide are not selfish, nor a coward. They are amazing, wonderfully loved people who see no other way. They are sick and hopeless. When I explain suicide to a young child I may tell them that suicide happens because of a brain attack- much like a heart attack. It’s very physical. The brain is very, very sick and can not see any other way to survive.

My father had a brain attack. He was a warm, funny man who was an amazing Dad. His name was Buddy and he was only 35 years young when he died by suicide. I’ve had time to reflect on the amazing father he was since healing through my grief journey. We would sing karaoke together in my brother’s bedroom. We played hide and go seek and shot a bb gun in the woods behind our house. He scratched my back when I was sick and held my hand when I was scared. He was quick-witted and made me laugh until I cried. He was very intelligent and worked as an electrical engineer. He had a wonderful set of parents and a brother and a sister who loved him dearly. He didn’t live a charmed life by any means. He was divorced three times and suffered from chronic pain for most of his adult life. I don’t remember him being depressed. I was shocked by the suicide and still am to this day. There were no signs we could have seen. There was nothing I could have done.

Unless you have lost someone to suicide, you have no idea what survivors are going through. The degree of hurt, abandonment, betrayal, and confusion we are left with is indescribable. For me, going to counseling and talking about my feelings and hurts and disappointments helped me heal.

Another way I have found healing through my grief journey is by turning my pain into a purpose. I use my struggles to help others however I can. I can’t go back in time and save my Daddy but I can do everything in my power to let other people know that it is okay to ask for help. This outreach ranges from me posting bits of my personal journey on social networking sites to presenting at conferences to help other counselors know how to best work with suicide survivors. I find that my personal experiences have fueled my passion for suicide prevention and awareness and will continue forward with my efforts for as long as I’m able. I encourage you to find a way to turn your pain into a purpose. I’ve known people who do this through blogging, through checking in on friends, or just sharing a suicide hotline on their social media sites. You can do this by smiling at strangers or giving a meal to homeless person. The ways you can utilize your struggles is endless. I also encourage you to tell your story. Memorialize the person that is no longer with us today. Tell stories about them. Don’t let the shame, guilt, and unanswered questions stop you from remembering what you loved about the person. I believe we suicide survivors are strong.

If you are listening to me talk today and wondering how it is possible that I am all better after losing my Dad- let me clear things up. I’m not cured. I am better. But I will always grieve. Grief is not an event in time. Grief is like love. It is a life-long, ever-changing experience. It evolves. It expands. It changes in depth. Volume. Intensity. But it never fades. It changes us. My grief will always be a part of me. Because grief is love. Someone I love died and my life will always be different because of it. But my grief looks different now. My grief encourages me to help others. I have decided to allow my grief to encourage me. What will you do with your grief? It’s up to you.

“Bad things happen. How I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have: life itself”

-Walter Anderson

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The shit had to stop: the day I stopped trying to kill myself.

When I was 22 years old I tried to kill myself.

I was crying on my knees in a communal bathroom and remember breaking a razor and slicing my wrists. There was a lot of blood. Sometimes in my dreams I still see the red pools on the floor around me. I remember shaking in shock that this time I had actually done it. After years of toying with the idea and overdosing on tylenol or swerving my car recklessly, I had actually done it. I felt panicked but was glued to the floor. I thought of no one. And things went dark.

I woke up in a hospital room the following day. Alive.

Let me back up a bit.

As a child, things were no walk in the park. My family was dirt poor and broken. There was violence in the home I grew up in. For many years I was ashamed to discuss this because I was dealing with years of family secrets and shame. I didn’t want anyone to think of me as less than. I was hurt as a child. However, I was also loved. It’s not fair for me to gloss over the good in my childhood. I loved singing in pageants and spending Saturday’s at my MaMa’s house. But there were days I feared my Mom would be killed. Or things even worse would happen to me.

Things improved around middle school despite my frizzy hair and constant awkwardness of my life.

Then, my Daddy killed himself my sophomore year of high school.

Feelings of blame, shame, anger, hatred, disgust, abandonment, insecurity, and guilt consumed me.

I became overwhelmingly depressed for years to come.

I battled with depression. Long and hard.

I also had good days. Days I smiled. Days I thought I could do this. Days I moved forward.

But the bad days. They hung heavy. They became me.

I was unfocused.

I was barely existing.

I was more insecure than I feel that words could ever justify.

My existence depended on other people.

If they loved me enough. If they cared about me enough. If they texted me. Then I would live. If they didn’t I would swallow as many pills as I could get my hands on and try to sleep. Hoping for a long, dark sleep.

And then I hit rock bottom.

I joined the military to escape everything. I was shipped off to basic training and 9 days later I slit my wrists in a bathroom with blue walls. This is the day that changed everything for me.

I spent 23 days in the hospital. TWENTY THREE.

I got on medication.

Resisted treatment. Then began to open up.

I let myself feel all the emotions I had pushed aside all those years.

I began to heal.

And I decided I needed a change. I wanted to live. I deserved to live.

Much like an addict, I decided this shit has got to stop.

The self-destruction.

The victim act.

The poor me spectacle.

The shit had to stop.

And it did. I became determined.

Even though I hid my suicide from most of the people in my life (who so graciously believed my lies surrounding my medical discharge from the military), I was empowered. I knew I needed to work in mental health. I knew I had a purpose in life.

And..

Seven short years later and my life is far from perfect but it is absolutely perfect to me. Perfectly imperfect.

I am married to the love of my life. The only person who knows every, single secret that I spent years hiding and loves me anyways.

I have the most wonderful son. With the brightest blue eyes in the world. He is so worthy of life.

I have my work. Where I’m able to empathize to great lengths. I’m able to use my experience to truly understand how shitty life can be but also know how beautiful it can be.

So, if you’re like 22 year old me. Know you’re not alone. LIFE IS HARD,

but it can also be beautiful.

So, so, so, so beautiful.

I thank God daily for my second chance. Not everyone gets that.

I wonder if we had found my Daddy earlier what would things be like. What if we had barreled down his bedroom door and released all the poisonous gas that would fill his body and take him from us. Would he feel the same way? Would he say THANK GOD I FAILED AT THAT. THANK GOD I GET A SECOND CHANCE.

I like to think he would.

Because we could have proven him wrong. He would have held a grandchild in the future. One with big, bright blue eyes who giggles with all the joy of the world.

Don’t do it.

A second chance isn’t guaranteed.

Call 1-800-273-8255 if you need someone to talk to.

No one else can play your part.

no one else

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I was drowning in my grief rather than sitting in it.

More and more each day I am realizing that our society is the cheer up society.

cheer up

The idea of sadness terrifies us.

Sadness is a hallmark symptom of grief. It is the ultimate consequence of losing something or someone we care about. I consider sadness and love ultimately linked.

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in the hallow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” -Jamie Anderson

Grief is love.

But yet, we spend a significant amount of time trying to cheer people up.

Because we consider that being sad is bad.

smile

However, I want to challenge you today to consider the idea that being sad isn’t bad.

It’s love.

I spent the first seven years of my grief drowning.

I was in the middle of an ocean of grief- desperately trying to keep my head above water.

My legs were concrete. My arms were large rocks.

I was tired.

Exhausted.

Consumed with my struggle.

I was drowning in my grief rather than sitting in it.

Everyone around me tried to comfort me. Tried to save me. Tried to cheer me up.

“He’s in a better place,”

“God will never give you more than you can handle,”

“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

These attempts to comfort me failed miserably. I didn’t need to be comforted. I needed to sit in my grief. I needed the permission to feel sad. I needed permission to feel.

In this clip from Inside Out you see Bing Bong lose something he loved.

Joy attempts to cheer him up. And fails.

Sadness sits with him. Sits with his grief. She empathizes with him.

This is what I needed. When I was drowning. I needed to sit in my grief.

If you know someone who has lost someone or something they love. Maybe something in their life has changed, sit with them. Sit with them even through the uncomfortableness of sadness. Encourage them to feel. Give them the permission they may need.

And remember- you are loved. And sad is not bad.

Grief is love with no place to go.

Grief lasts as long as love lasts- forever.

Somehow, I hope that love becomes light in all of our darknesses of grief.