How many times has this happened in the last two months? I’m not sure, but every time it still catches me off guard.
In this particular moment, I was on a conference call when we took a break from the work and started talking about our summers. At some point, I just couldn’t keep pretending this summer was like any other. “My brother killed himself,” I said, “on the first day of July. So, summer changed after that.”
I owe Chuckie that, it seems — not to pretend he didn’t die, and not to lie about how it happened.
The discomfort was immediate. They were so sorry, they said. I know them to be good people, and I believe them. They knew about Chuckie, one of them added, but they weren’t sure if it was right to bring it up. I believe this, too. Before it was my family’s turn, when we were lucky, I didn’t always know what to do.
Now, I do. No luck involved.
There are people who are uncomfortable with death, period. They don’t know what to say, or what to do. Having held the hands of both of my parents as they took their last breath, I learned that one needn’t have the right words to do the right thing. For years after their deaths, I was apologizing to people who’d had a right to expect better of me in their times of grief.
Suicide is different. Even those accustomed to sending sympathy cards and attending wakes and funerals, stumble. What words could possibly help?
Well, here’s my short list of what doesn’t:
Don’t tell us survivors that if only our loved ones had prayed harder to Jesus, they would still be alive. My brother did pray, as did all of us who loved him, and still he died. We blame alcohol and depression, not him, and not Jesus.
Don’t immediately tell us that our loved ones are in a better place, unless you can show us the brochure. We are in shock. We can barely breathe. We don’t need you pretending to know more than we do.
Don’t ask us how our loved ones killed themselves. If you don’t understand why, please just stay away. This job is not for you.
I am not writing this column to make anyone feel bad or to chastise those who didn’t reach out. I am writing to affirm those who did, and to keep my silent promise to the thousands of survivors who, since my brother’s death, have shared their stories about life after a loved one has committed suicide.
So much grief hidden from public view, so much pain compounded by secrecy, shame and unwarranted guilt.
“For forty years, we’ve never talked about it,” one man wrote about his father’s suicide. “And for forty years, this hole in my heart hasn’t healed.”
Here’s what helps, they tell me.
Mention our loved ones, please, if you knew them. In texts and emails, or in person, say their names. Not a day goes by that we aren’t thinking about them. It helps to know you are, too.
If you have a story about them, please share it. How our loved ones died is the hardest thing about their deaths, but the least meaningful thing about them. Every new detail we hear about them breathes life into the people we want to remember.
If you don’t know what to say, say that. Much of the time, we don’t know what to say either. Even if we’ve feared, for years, that this day would come, most of us never really believed it would happen, which we only discover after it does.
As I write this, a tower of handwritten notes leans next to my computer, on the right. I will never get rid of these letters. A handwritten note is that extra mile we were raised to believe in. Seeing a person’s handwriting, and running our fingers across its loops and indentations, makes us feel less alone.
Again, no matter how you reach out, remember: If you don’t know what to say, just say that. We’ll know what you mean.
I am reminded of a text message from one of my former students, sent from hundreds of miles away.
“I don’t know what to say,” he wrote, “but you always told us it’s important to show up. So, this is me, showing up. I’m sorry you lost your brother.”
For just a moment, I fell apart, for all the right reasons.