by Carla Fine
THE SUICIDE OF SOMEONE you love is shattering. You think that you have lost your mind, that you are crazy, that you won’t be able to live through the next hour, let alone the rest of your life. You are convinced that you’re the only person who has ever felt this way, that no one in the world could ever experience such devastation and be able to survive. You are terrified, and think you will feel like this forever. You are heartbroken, and your body physically aches from the pain. You have no idea what to do.
I know these feelings well. My husband, Harry Reiss, M.D., killed himself on Dec. 16, 1989 at the age of 43. We were married for 21 years. Harry was a successful New York City urologist with a private practice in Manhattan. He was also an attending physician at St. Vincent’s, Cabrini, Bellevue and NYU Hospitals; he was the author of numerous articles in leading medical journals and an assistant professor at NYU Medical School. But then, in the prime of his career, he injected himself with a lethal dose of the anesthetic Thiopental. I found him dead in his medical office when he was late coming home and I could not reach him.
At that moment, I was transformed. My world was now divided into a frozen “before” and a permanent “after.” I was confused. I was heartbroken. I was stunned. I was angry. I was frightened. Above all, I was filled with guilt and blame. I was also convinced that nobody could possibly understand what I was feeling, what I was going through.
Unfortunately, there is still a great stigma associated with suicide. People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and stigma exists because of fear. The defining part of losing a loved one to suicide is the isolation and alienation you feel from all that was once familiar. Dr. Edward Dunne, a New York City psychologist and survivor of his own brother’s suicide, describes how the act of suicide hits like a meteorite – it crashes into a family or community, and each person is left to circuit in his or her own individual orbit of grief. The people closest to us, those who have experienced the same loss, often experience the death in different ways. This, too, can intensify our feelings of loneliness and make us feel even more confused.
Like many survivors of suicide loss, I was mystified at how deep my resolve was to carry on and find meaning after such an unimaginable loss. I joined a Safe Place support group run by the Samaritans of New York where I met others who could understand and share my pain and anguish. I gradually began to remember Harry for how he lived, not how he died. I reached out to others who had also “been there” and devoted myself through my writing and talks to discover insights that would not only provide me with some kind of relief, but also comfort others as well.
We must each go through the devastation of losing a loved one to suicide in order to get through it. Here are some practical ways that may help: (1) Protect your health; (2) Seek out other survivors; (3) Surround yourself with people you feel comfortable with; (4) Get professional help if needed; and (5) Accept that you and the world around you have changed.
Every survivor of suicide loss is on an individual journey to confront the truth, to learn to not be ashamed, to tell our children, to stop whispering. By talking openly, we make sure that we will not forget. By erasing the stigma of suicide, the secrecy of mourning our loved one’s death begins to diminish and allows us to heal. In letting go of the silence we also let the many others out there know they are not alone in their grief and pain.
Embracing life is truly a tribute to our loved one’s legacy and our need and desire not only to survive, but also to thrive. Even though we have been transformed by suicide, our scars are reminders of the person whom we lost. They are part of us, as are the wonderful memories and beautiful times. It is my deep belief that the death of our loved ones will never be in vain and the legacy of their interrupted lives will help others by providing insight and healing and joy.
Carla Fine is the author of the book “No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One” and co-author with Michael Myers, MD of the book “Touched By Suicide: Hope and Healing After Loss.” She lives in Manhattan and can be reached through www.carlafine.com.