Thirteen years ago, my son took his life. I could not imagine living one day, one hour, much less these many years. His absence was a heavy weight and I could barely breathe. The overwhelming pain, the intense longing for him, all seemed unendurable. With the passage of time and the facing of grief I’ve adjusted to living my life without my son. Will I always wish it could have been different? Of course. Ryan’s death was out of order — my child dying before me. But, would I ask him to come back and live with the suffering he endured from a mental health disorder for which treatment wasn’t effective? No.
The passage of time poses its own challenges. In many ways, it feels like a dream that my child was here.
Don’t fade from my mind like words written on a letter long ago.
The memory of you was vivid and shot through with color.
The brightness of your smile, the warmth in your hazel eyes, the joy of your laugh.
With the passage of time I am unable to imagine how you would look now.
I see you through the sepia tones of time.
Stay sharp, stay poignant.
Don’t leave me again.
Cultivating hope over the long haul requires tenacity and forgiveness. I am learning to forgive reality for what it is. Many changes have taken place in my heart and changed my life’s trajectory. I am not the same person I was before Ryan died. There is a distinct before and after.
How have I changed?
I am an advocate for youth mental illness awareness and suicide prevention. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide had a mental health disorder — whether unrecognized, undiagnosed, undertreated or untreated. Half of all serious mental illness begins by age 14, and yet often treatment doesn’t begin until ten years later. As a teacher and parent, I was not educated about mental illness and was in denial when it came to my own son.
In “Breaking the Silence NM” school presentations across the state, we want youth and their peers to recognize when their struggles might be more than typical adolescence. We want them to know that treatment works and is usually a combination of medication and counseling. We want them to know there is no shame in either. Using slides of celebrities in our presentation, we show that people who are living with a mental health disorder can still be successful. We want to impact students about the power in early recognition, early treatment and learning to manage their mental health. Additionally, we focus on the strengths in talking with a trusted adult about their struggles without shame or embarrassment, the importance of support from friends, exercise, eating right, and avoiding alcohol and smoking.
I am a facilitator for the Survivors of Suicide support group in Albuquerque, NM. The early grief of suicide is so heavy I never could have imagined I would ever return to the group. But it has been part of my healing journey. Many survivors find that volunteering to support others facilitates their own healing, too. I value the fragility of life and the sacredness of every story I hear. I value the privilege of being a companion to other hurting parents along the road of loss.
My son accompanies me on this road paved with both sorrow and gratitude. Not his physical presence, but a deeper knowing that he is still with me. He guides me as I walk, often stumbling, but moving forward to make life better for others as an offering to him. I sense he has left me many gifts — I believe I am a better human being. I am less impatient (though not always!), less judgmental and view life less through a black and white lens, but rather shades of gray. There is so much I don’t understand about our human lives, but I sense the mystery in them. I have cultivated deeper friendships with others. I see the wisdom in my wound that offers a place of refuge and meaning not only for myself, but for others. I see more of the deep down of things and have the sense that God is not hurried along in time, which gives me permission to slow down and be more mindful in my life.
For many years I organized the International Survivors of Suicide Day. Along with other advocates, we created a healing place for all survivors to gather on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. I also attended the first-ever AFSP long-term survivors conference held in Chicago in 2016 called “Our Journey Continues.” The acknowledgment of calling myself a long-term survivor was a refreshing relief. Grief is still grief, but society and even we survivors haven’t known how to refer to ourselves. Long- term loss needs to be acknowledged in the survivor community. We still need to be gentle with ourselves and take time to remember, to recognize the value of “revisiting our wounds to see what might have grown
there,” as expressed by author Rachel Naomi Remen.
Coping with long-term loss is different than the loss of early grief. And somehow, we learn to find and use tools like journaling and writing poetry that lets in a little more light. We learn to be OK with the grief process, and maybe even to accept that process. We have educated ourselves about suicide, and most likely found a way to heal our suicide grief through advocacy.
Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Then wash your face. Trust God. And embrace the life you have.