University of Washington
Need help now?  Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255
Need Help Now? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 1.800.273.8255

Suicide loss survivors find comfort in sharing and understanding

Suicide loss survivors find comfort in sharing and understanding

Kristen Spexarth leads workshop participants in meditation as one means of “leaning into the discomfort” of losing a loved one to suicide. — Photo by Melissa Allison

Strange as it may seem, spending time with a group of hurting loss suicide survivors can be the most comforting experience on earth. For other survivors, it’s a chance to let down their guard, to not have to explain themselves and to just share the pain and know that they are understood.

Forefront teamed up with The Healing Center in November to offer three hours of solace and guidance for a group whose experiences appeared to be different—lost siblings, parents, husbands, children—but who shared a familiar grief. Many were Forefront Cares recipients or volunteers with the common bond of a suicide loss.

Called “Leaning into the Discomfort,” the workshop was led by Kristen Spexarth, a poet and survivor of the suicide of her oldest son, Colby. She guided the workshop using poems as well as Buddhist principles and practices that were comforting in the moment and could form the foundation of a healing practice at home.

The group filled a living room and sat in meditation several times, then participants took notes on their experiences and shared. It was a beautiful and sacred meeting of souls who claim a common—but overlooked—grief, and who sometimes struggle to express their particular pain in a society that does not want to fully face its suicide problem.

We are the people left behind, after the anguish and tragedy of lives lost to a failed mental health system. Our mental health suffers, too, and that same system fails us regularly—but in suicide survivor groups, we gain support from each other and from strong guides, such as Kristen, who point toward a gentle, healing path.

Part of one poem Kristen read from her own collection summed it up:

Perhaps it’s time to recognize

and embrace the way we feel

picking our broken pieces off the ground of being

learning to knit them together again

with compassion for ourselves

larger than we were before,

larger than we ever imagined.

For some, this workshop was their first time meeting with suicide survivors outside their families, and the relief was immense. “I’ve never met anyone else whose mother killed herself,” one young woman told me, tears streaming down her face.

Hearing the stories reminded me of the immensity of pain I felt after my first husband killed himself 25 years after my mother died—a physical pain so acute I was unable to stand upright for three months. That experience is still inside me, as are myriad other versions of grief—loneliness, guilt, worry, longing— that survivors feel in rotating shifts.

Learning to bear them has made me stronger, more compassionate and ultimately more joyful. That same resilience was apparent around the room, one of many reasons that attending suicide survivor groups is a healing and life-affirming experience. We have been stricken with an almost unbearable burden, yet we survive—indeed, we thrive. Watching others share their grief and demonstrate their strength is empowering.

Mothers talked about deciding when to tell their children how their fathers had died. Grandparents talked about finding joy in their son’s children. Two sisters talked about a beloved third sister, who killed herself less than a year ago and is sorely missed. One woman whose husband died talked about endlessly rearranging furniture to impose some order—while she rearranged her seat at the workshop.

One woman shared that, after her husband died, she saw a doctor who specialized in helping people with physical pain and used those same principles to endure her emotional upheaval. She learned firsthand that pain is easier to bear when we don’t tell ourselves stories about it, because our stories add to the suffering. It’s easier to just feel it, she said, reflecting the wisdom in the meditations Kristen led.

Kristen encouraged everyone to continue feeling their grief, not try to work around it. “Do the journey,” she said. “Look to each other for support.” After three hours of healing, it was hard to imagine doing otherwise. But we all go back into the world, where wounds are not often welcome, and we forget.

One of the most powerful messages from the day for me was a reminder about the Buddhist practice of metta. It is something we can all do—survivors or not— to be in closer touch with our hearts and the love around us.

The twin of mindfulness practice, in which we are present in each moment rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, metta involves specific words, said in a specific order. It can be done even when concentration seems impossible, and the results are healing, joyful and life-affirming.

Kristen shared her own words for metta:

May all sentient beings as limitless as space have happiness and the causes of happiness.

May all have an end of suffering and the causes of suffering.

May all know the joy that is without sorrow

And live in equanimity and peace.

Metta is said for other people—those we love, don’t know and don’t like—and ourselves, because self-love puts us in touch with all other forms of love. May we be happy. — by Melissa Allison

Call 206-543-1016 or email Forefront for information about future workshops or other Forefront Cares support services for Washington residents recently bereaved by suicide. These include the Forefront Cares package—with books and information on coping with grief after a suicide death, a writing journal and other comfort items—and the offer of supportive, ongoing phone sessions with a trained volunteer who has experienced a similar loss.