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Grief and Unfinished Business: A Suicide Loss Survivor’s Story

After the death of my step-son, who died by suicide at age 17, I was flung into the deepest shame of my life.  After many years of therapy and healing I have been reflecting on the rise.  Knowing that the path is different for everyone, I share my story with the mission in mind to provide hope and empathy to those who belong to the grief club.

The grief club –the club no one wants to belong to yet there it is.  A membership I was fighting tooth and nail. I lead a group in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)  and one of the skills we teach is called “Letting Go of Emotional Suffering.” 

The skills is around acceptance with the formula:

PAIN + Acceptance = PAIN and PAIN + Non-Acceptance = Suffering.

And when you lose someone acceptance is one hell of a journey. I remember sitting with a mother who had also lost her son to suicide and her recounting her painful journey to me.  Her eyes were tired and sad, yet there was peace and hope in her story and her path.  And that was the beginning of the grief club for me.  It was the first step in acceptance, sharing my story, and hearing the story of others.  Even though the urge to hide and remove myself from the world was strong, finding your grief club/tribe is a touchstone in the rise.

Now when you lose someone to suicide it is a helluva complicated grief. There feels like so much unfinished business.  Unfinished business for me was the endless loop of "what did I miss?" and "what did  I do wrong??  Why didn’t I do this?  Why didn’t I let him do that?  It never quit, and if we are being completely honest, I still have those days almost 9 years later.  I remember weeks after his death looking for answers going into his room every day and digging through the same drawers over and over, looking under his mattress, searching his coat pockets for a clue a clue of what I had missed what I didn’t see what I could have done to save him.  And every time I left his room I left with an empty feeling and zero answers.  It brought me to my knees every damn time I did it.  Yet I couldn’t seem to stop myself from going in his room.  The room where he ended his life.  The room where life shattered for all of us.

As my journey continued I knew that addressing unfinished business was something I needed to do.  I remember something I learned from my work with Dr. Becky Bailey, Conscious Discipline.  She shared that connection is such an important piece in all of our lives.  When Justin came to live with us I knew that connection would be key for him to be successful.  I made a commitment to myself that daily I would use the concept of a GEM (Genuine Encounter Moment) with him.  This is simply making sure that each day I would spend five minutes with him to be present, not judge, and connect.  So, most days I would head down to his room and check in with him.  It was our time and it was connecting.  However, as time went by I found it hard to get it in.  I found that with helping him with his homework and dealing with the many challenges of daily life it began to slip away.  And then he died….  There were days we would fight you know those typical teenage fights like: clean up your room, rinse off your plate, wipe out the sink where your toothpaste is and the list goes on.  All those things piled up in my head in why I didn’t point out the positive why didn’t I spend more time just being with him... Hence lots and lots of unfinished business.  The coroner told us we were lucky because Justin left us a note but honestly it just left us with more questions and more unfinished business.  So how do you make peace and move forward with unfinished business?  For me it was many things: it was writing him letters and placing them in his Christmas stocking every year; it was creating rituals to honor not only his death date but his birthday.  In honesty, it is writing this blog and wanting to help others who have joined the grief club.  And finally, every time I sit with someone and listen to their story, hold space for their pain, and offer hope and skills I am honoring Justin.  I can’t go back and re-do any of the choices I made or the things I said or didn’t say.  But to pretend I don’t know how important each day is and to pretend that I don’t know that in an instant someone you love could be gone in a moment would just be another loss.,a loss of not taking this horrific pain and learning from it.  It is the only way up for me.  It is the only way to rise, to take every damn hard thing that has happened in my life and LEARN and Pass it on…  So, every time I am asked to speak about grief, trauma, or parenting I am finishing unfinished business.

Maybe you don’t want to speak in front of a large group, and maybe you don’t want to write a blog.  Maybe you just want to offer some small kindness to the world in honor of your loved one.  One of the kindest things I remember from those early days was people bringing food.  So much food we had our freezer full for months and let me tell you how helpful that was on those days where I just couldn’t function.  So now when people are in need, whether it is a surgery or a baby or an illness or a death I bring food in honor of Justin.  At Thanksgiving time, we make a food basket and fill it to the brim with food and a small note about hope and suicide prevention.  We have sold can cozies and bracelets and donated the money to suicide prevention.  Each time it was ointment on the wound of unfinished business.

I am asking you to reflect today on what is your unfinished business!  How might you move away from the shame of “not enough,” “not worthy,” and move towards healing?  Do you need to write a letter?  Do you want to ask for forgiveness? Do you just want to say all the things you wished you would have said? THEN DO IT!  Write the letter, say the words, ask for forgiveness, talk to others who are in the grief club.

You are not alone.  My grief heart to your grief heart…..

Want to read more from Jamie? Read more HERE!

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