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Ten Things You Should Never Say to a “Suicide Widow” (or Any Trauma Survivor)

July 1st, 2018 Sears Homes 9 comments

It’s been two years since The Bad Thing.

From my own life experience, I’d like to offer a list of things NOT to say to a suicide widow. As the title indicates, this might also apply to other trauma survivors.

First, some guiding principles.

Too often, “normies” try to fit a horrible trauma into a tidy box that dovetails with their world view. This is the one thing that should never be done, because while it makes the chatty visitor feel better, it will eviscerate the survivor.

When people talk to a survivor, they’re often trying to comfort themselves. Some folks like to reason out - mentally or verbally - why this horror could never happen to them. They want to put a framework around trauma, and thus isolate it in their own minds, and then they can take some solace believing (hoping) that they’re safe.

Secondly - do not attempt to compare your story to someone else’s: No two stories are the same and no two people are the same. There are many reasons for suicide, and it’s estimated that some degree of mental illness is involved in “about 90% of suicides” (according to online sources). Comparisons are always a bad idea, and ever more-so when it comes to complicated grief.

Below are real world examples of things I’ve been told, and in some cases, they caused a significant set-back in the healing process.

1) Only you can decide if you’re going to get over this.

This is probably one of the worst things you can say to someone who’s experienced trauma. I have yet to meet a trauma survivor who wouldn’t endure almost any treatment and/or any process if it would offer a respite from the hell in which they live. Telling me that “only I can decide” is a harsh comment that only inflicts additional suffering. It’s also dismissive of the intense mental anguish and emotional pain that accompanies suicide of a spouse or child.

2) You need to be grateful for what you have.

Advising me to be grateful makes all manner of negative assumptions about my spiritual journey. The emotional pain of suicide can be so crippling that normal thought processes go out the window. When word first came of my husband’s death, I tried to use my phone to make a call. I looked at the telephone and thought, “Why did I buy a device that I don’t know how to use?” I’d lost the ability to make a phone call. It was as though a nuclear bomb had detonated inside of my brain.

3) It’s been six months (or two years). Shouldn’t you be over this by now?

Time doesn’t heal all wounds. I’m never going to be “over” this. I can only hope that Carly Simon was right, and that there is “more room in a broken heart” because mine was shattered into a billion pieces. One day my heart will heal, but I’ll never be over this.

4) Rosemary, we all miss him. This isn’t just about you.

Yes, I’ve heard this from his co-workers and others. And yet these are the same people I saw at Wayne’s funeral, clinging to their own spouse a little tighter when they strolled past the closed casket. You lost your cousin, your boss, your lunch buddy. I lost my person; I lost the person that I handpicked out of seven billion people. I lost my anticipated future. I also lost my home and my social standing and my entire life.

5) If anything happened to my husband, I’d just lay down and die. He’s my whole world.

Following Wayne’s suicide, I suffered crippling chest pain that went on for months. Even now, a minor setback brings back that terrible pain. More than once, I laid down somewhere (often in my car so no one could find me) and waited for my heart to stop. It never did. I don’t know why. Too many times to count, I would pray at night that I would pass quietly in my sleep.

“Laying down and dying” is not an option. Apparently, the human body is very tough.

This comment also presumes that if I DON’T lay down and die, the bond I had with my husband wasn’t that strong. If I could die from a broken heart, I would have died 1001 times. Or more.

6) You don’t understand depression. It’s a pit so deep and so dark that there’s no way to make sense of anything.

There’s so much wrong with this statement. First, about 10% of suicides do not involve mental illness. Don’t presume to know why my husband killed himself because you DON’T know what you’re talking about. Secondly, how is it that I’m expected to buck up, shut up and carry on after my husband does this, and yet he gets a pass for causing this much emotional carnage? Quite a dichotomy.

7)  I know how  you feel. My grandmother died last month and it was such a shock.

Any comment that beings with “I know how you feel” is wrong. This is probably the #1 comment I’ve heard again and again. Suicide is “a death like no other.” It leaves a gashing wound, and to compare it to a disease process or even an accident is so very wrong.

8.) You need to get help.

This comment is frequently left at this website, and perhaps it’s because I have an online presence. Folks don’t ask if I’m getting help - they just say that I need help. It’s almost comical. Were it not for the help of trained professionals, prayer warriors, kind-hearted folks, generous strangers, angels in human form and dear friends, the author known as Rosemary would be no more.

9) Stop worrying about what other people are saying about you.

This is not realistic. Studies show that suicide survivors (as we’re known) have the highest chance of healing and restoration when we’re surrounded by supportive friends and family. I’ve heard multiple stories about suicide widows who are overtly or covertly blamed for their husband’s death (as I have been). It’s common for suicide widows to be shunned (or worse) by family and (former) friends, and/or openly criticized for not saving/rescuing the dead spouse. Some suicide widows have found that they need to leave the community because the criticism and gossip is so severe.

10) Have you seen this article on suicide prevention?

Every time I see/read/hear about suicide prevention, it’s a kidney punch that reminds me: Maybe there was something more I could have done. But Smart Rosemary™ knows this for certain: No one could have stopped Wayne Ringer. No one.

11) Maybe you should write a book about all of this.

It’s only wanna-be writers who say this. Writing requires total immersion. I want to get as far away as possible from this intense emotional pain. I am not going to be writing a book about “My 27 Months In Hell.”

12) You need to stay busy.

Well into my first year, I gave this one a try. I went to every function, party, soiree and gathering that I could find. It worked for about a month, and then I found that I was more miserable than ever. Out in the world, I was expected to wear The Mask and pretend that I was happy and well, and that act was exhausting and depleting. And I heard people grumble and whine about inane topics, and that’s something I now have zero tolerance for. Maybe it’s good widow advice; it’s lousy suicide widow advice.

13) Karma will settle everything in the end. Just  you watch.

For starters, most people don’t really understand this complicated Buddhist concept. Secondly, if Karma does settle scores, then what in the world did I ever do to deserve a punishment so severe as this? The answer: Karma is a human concept, and not a comforting one if you’ve had a severe trauma.

14) You really need to forgive your husband.

No, I really need to forgive myself.

Any phrase that starts with, “you really need to” is doomed to invoke a lot of misery.

15) I have PTSD from when my daughter screamed at me (or some other non-life-threatening event).

There are folks who tell me that they want to help me, when in fact, what they really want, is to have me listen to their story.  Taking Grandma off the ventilator at the hospital should not be compared to learning that your husband died a violent, ugly death at his own hand. I don’t doubt that it was awful telling the kids that Fido has gone to the Rainbow Bridge, but don’t compare it to my anguish. PTSD is not about suffering from anxiety; it’s a mental derangement so severe that it impacts the individual’s ability to function to society. Two weeks ago at Panera I was having lunch with a friend, when someone slammed a heavy exterior door next to my table. It startled me so badly that I jumped up and screamed (at the guy who was already gone), “WHAT THE F*** IS WRONG WITH YOU?”

I immediately left the restaurant.

I’m a gentle soul and a good Christian, but that loud bang triggered something deep in my brain that caused a visceral reaction.

16) You need to see the good side: It could have been worse. What if he’d killed you too?

I hear this one a lot. I can’t even find the words to explain why you should never say this to someone who’s dealing with trauma.

17)  God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.

This is not only cruel and thoughtless but an inherently flawed argument. As Rabbi Harold Kushner responds so perfectly: If that was the case, then I wish I was a weaker person, and then maybe God wouldn’t have placed this burden in my life. (Kushner wrote, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”) Kushner also reminds his readers that if it is God that decides how many weights to place on our spiritual shoulders, then sometimes, he gets the math wrong. Kushner says that he’s seen many people crack under extreme stress and emotional strain, but those stories don’t get wide-spread publication.

18) If you read this book, you’ll find your answers.

Please don’t send me a link to a book or lengthy article. First, I’d much rather have a six-word personal note than a link to anything, be it an article or a book. Secondly, I’m still having trouble concentrating. I tried to read a scholarly article last week, and had to give up. I couldn’t grasp the meaning in the words. I could read the words, but I couldn’t put them together to form a meaning. It was embarrassing but I had to ask a friend to read it and tell me what it said. This is not uncommon in trauma survivors.

19) And please do NOT regale me with a long story about how your spouse almost died last year, but God is good, and the whole church prayed all through the night, and he pulled through, but my oh my, what a scare that was!

And don’t be surprised when I respond by telling you that I am unwell and then dart for the exit. Yes, this happened to me at a social function. The person involved knew my “back story” and yet (apparently) had no idea how much pain this story inflicted. By my calculations, I was praying for my husband when the Bad Thing happened. I’ve made my peace with that, but it took two years.

I do believe in the goodness of God.  I embrace Rabbi Kushner’s view, that God helps us heal after bad things happen, and that’s the place where we can learn about the goodness of God (and His children).

20) Do NOT make harsh inquiries or statements about my poor memory.

As a therapist told me two years ago, trauma can make you forget your middle name. Several times, people have asked me, “Don’t you remember that we talked about this?” It’s pretty humiliating to admit that you don’t remember something, but perfectly normal. Be patient with trauma victims because they’re struggling to keep it all together and the things that are of lesser importance may get lost in the shuffle.

Thank goodness, my memory is coming back (another evidence of healing), but there are still gaps. Before The Bad Thing, I’d built a career on my “amazing memory” and “encyclopedic knowledge” of old houses. Who am I, if I’m not The Sears House Lady? These days, I rely less on that “amazing memory” and more on books and other resources.

21) Do not EVER make a statement that casts blame on the survivor.

Two years after The Bad Thing, my phone dinged with a text from a friend of Wayne’s. “That’s a surprise,” I thought at first. And then I read the text. It said: “Did Wayne kill himself because he thought you were having an affair?” That comment - which came out of the blue - caused a setback so severe that I had to make an emergency appointment with a doctor. It wasn’t true, and I think the sender knew it wasn’t true, but it was still devastating. It put me right back into the mode of, “Could I have stopped this?”

After his death, I came to suspect that Wayne had been reading my private journals, and within those journals, I talked about the fact that a woman friend had not been true to her husband, and that I couldn’t imagine such a thing, as I was so “out-of-my-mind in love with Wayne.” He knew I would never cheat on him. That’s a non-sequitur.

And what if a man kills himself after his partner is untrue? Should she feel blame then? Absolutely not. People divorce. People break up. There are 101 intelligent alternatives that are better than suicide.

There’s this, too: Anyone who survives the suicide of their intimate partner is already hanging onto the edge of an emotional cliff by their fingernails. Don’t walk up to that cliff and start stomping on their hand.

The fact that one of Wayne’s friends sent me this text is a clear example of how suicide is “a death like no other,” and the survivor - the victim - already being crushed under a load of guilt, becomes the subject of scorn and blame.

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That’s 21, not 10, but once I started I couldn’t stop. And I could write another dozen.

Now, what is the right thing to do?

Several months ago, I missed a lecture. Just didn’t show up. Problem was, I was the one giving the lecture. I was so filled with self-loathing that I couldn’t function for an entire 24-hour period. I was inconsolable. A kind-hearted friend said, “Your husband killed himself. Stop trying to get back to ‘The Old Rosemary’ and focus on how much progress you’ve made in the last two years.”

That was just what I needed to hear.

Praise is always welcome. Point out the progress; don’t talk about my shortcomings. I rehearse those shortcomings for hours and hours every night as I lay in the dark. Help me remember who I really am. Remind me of my accomplishments. And most of all, tell me that it’s okay to struggle and stumble.

If my mother were alive, if Tom Conran were alive, if those people that loved me unconditionally were still here, they’d tell me, “Rosie, you’re something special. You’re hurting so bad right now, but you’re also resilient. This horror is just a passage. It’s not a place where you’re going to live. It’s temporary. And you’re going to get through this.”

To conclude, The most important thing you can do for someone who’s hurting is this:

Show up. Listen. Don’t offer advice. Just listen.

If you must speak, say something like, “I want you to know that I love you, and I care about you.”

Or it can be reduced to three words: I love you.

If this person is mature (not a kid), and you find yourself offering them advice or suggestions, bite your tongue. You’re there to love. You’re not there to judge. You’re not there to fix. You’re there to show them that they’re not alone in the world.

Do NOT tell a grieving person, “Let me know if you need anything.” Instead, you might say, “I’d like to drop off a meal at your house once a week for a time. Which is better, Tuesday or Thursday night?”

When I moved into a rental house in Churchland, my new neighbor came over to meet me and brought me Rice Krispie treats. Now that was a happy moment!  I was pretty raw then, and told her that I was trying to pull myself together, and that my husband had killed himself. Tears came to her eyes. Her brother had killed himself a couple years prior. She said, “You’re a bit gaunt. Are you eating?”

I told her, “No. I’ve lost 40 pounds.”

She said, “I love to cook and I always make too much. I’ll bring you dinner every other night until you tell me to stop.”

She’s one of those angels walking this earth. I regained the lost weight and my health improved.

In the earliest days, a woman friend took me into her house. She worked late hours and would often come home too tired to stand up, but every night (for three months), she’d enter the guest bedroom (where I slept) and stand at the foot of the bed and pray for me.

Knowing that people I barely knew were praying for me was such a blessing, but when someone took me by the hand and prayed with me, it stirred my soul and I felt like the angels were right there, knitting my heart back together. It was a powerful experience.

Please remember these seven tips:

1) Show up.

2) Sit quietly and let them talk as long as they want to.

3) Tell them that they’re loved.

4) Offer praise and encouragement for any and all progress.

5) Remember, just knowing that someone cares is immensely comforting.

6) Pray FOR the person in pain, but better yet, pray WITH them. These prayers (and the love behind them) saved me.

7) And ask if Tuesday or Thursday night is better for them.

And why did I spend three days writing this? Studies show that suicide widows and those who have lost a very close loved one to suicide are 10-12 times MORE LIKELY to have suicidal ideation (studies vary in this number). If you have a friend who lost a spouse or a child to suicide, you should know that odds are good that they’re already contemplating ending their own life. The first six months are especially risky. Unconditional support and indefatigable love for the survivor will help them navigate those very treacherous rapids. At the very least, stop crucifying the survivors. We’re already drowning under the waves of guilt and grief.

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This is the best article I’ve seen on what happens to “The Widow” after a suicide.

If this blog has helped you, please post the link and share it on Facebook.

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Teddy

Teddy, for the most part, has proven to be a good grief counselor. She never says the wrong thing, and she always forgives me, which is pretty amazing. I could learn a lot from Teddy.

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The Eight-Cow Wife

Photo is copyright Dave Chance and can not be used or reproduced without written permission.

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