The impact of suicide changes who we are

The impact of suicide changes who we are.  For those that have a lived experience of suicide one thing is for certain, you will never be the same person again. Many times I have been told by those that share this experience, that the introduction of suicide into their world altered the perceptions of their lives in a profound and irreversible way. The once shy teenager, the stoic mother or the amiable and emotionless father became an altered reflection of the identity that they had spent so long building and propagating. Many have said that they no longer recognise the person they are. Some have said they lost all sense of where they fitted into the world that they had created or that they no longer felt an ability to navigate what was an easily navigated lifestyle, prior to the lived experience. Partners have expressed that the person they married is no longer the same person and their sense of social capital (what they get from the relationship) has been altered in a very real way. In nearly all cases, there has been a profound identity shift in the individual that has been influenced by generally debilitating action from the one they love.

So why is this the case? Apart from the impact of this significant emotional event and the profound feelings of loss and grief, the individual involved no longer sees themselves in the same way. Often the way that they relate to themselves has changed as a result of guilt, remorse, anger, regret and inability to stop the event occurring, often harbouring feelings that somehow they were partially to blame, or were responsible for a contribution to the behaviour. The other impact is the shift in their perceptions of relationships and the way that the new self begins to socialise with the environment within which they operated. Given that their internal frame of reference has been altered, it stands to reason that their behaviour will follow. Carl Rogers (1961) speaks of the fact that all individuals (organisms) exist in a continually changing world of experience (phenomenal field) of which they are the centre. When the world changes, as it does with a suicide experience, so does the individuals reactions to the world in which they live.

Changes occur in areas like humour (things are not as funny), relationships (a desire for intimate and meaningful relationships), faith (an altered view of a higher being or purpose), direction (what do I do with my life from now?), work (no longer gives me a sense of satisfaction) or priorities (things that were important are no longer important) are part of this change. At a basic level, a gap has been created between my new, real self and the person that I feel that I should be, the old me, something that Rogers called incongruence. This incongruence is the reason for a feeling of instability or a feeling that we no longer relate.

Though the initial positives from a shared experience of suicide are very difficult to imagine or recognise, the impacted individual needs to find a new identity, one that is congruent with the new self. This will require commitment, courage and a willingness to change and to be. We can take heart from the words of Rogers and the advice for those that are enduring adversity.

This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. (Carl Rogers, 1961)

Suicide will stretch us, it will challenge us and it will take courage to endure. But a good life will again arrive, giving us an opportunity to launch more fully into a life that has new potentials to be reached.

Layne Stretton

Image credit: Jessica Fadel @Unsplash

The Power of a Shared Experience

As we conclude another capacity-building workshop, I find myself reflecting on what it means to have a shared experience? Why do we feel so much more comfortable and safe among others who have lived through a similar experience?

Whilst time on our own is healthy and enjoyable, it can at times be indescribably difficult. Nevertheless there is a place and time for personal reflection and being comfortable with your own company during the grief process.   Just as important though, and significantly easier in many instances, is to spend time with others who have a shared experience.  Organisational psychologists refer to this as social capital.

Social capital is fundamentally the benefit that a person gets from engagement in a particular social environment.  Generally the membership of that group has a common interest, a purpose and a bond or solidarity around elective belief, ideology or dogma.

Robert Putman talks of two ways of looking at social capital.  The first of these is what is known as bonding.   Putman says, “the shared social norms and cooperative spirit from bonding provide social safety nets to individual and groups to protect themselves from external invasion.”  This is particularly relevant when we look at a lived experience of suicide.  Most people who experience suicide in their lives also experience the “invasion” of beliefs, judgements, behaviours caused by a lack of understanding and knowledge about the experience.

Social capital essentially poses the question, “What do I get out of being involved in this group that I can’t find anywhere else?” When people with a lived experience of suicide come together there is a special connection.  A connection that occurs with the deep understanding and empathy, compassion and honesty, and sense of belonging that comes with a group that they don’t have to justify themselves to or be anything different. No airs and graces have to be put on.  No masks have to be worn.

Through the Suicide Prevention Lived Experience Speakers Bureau, we have the privilege of sitting with, and walking alongside people with a lived experience of suicide as we explore and learn how to share our story.  I say privilege because to be invited into another person’s world, their most personal space, into their memories, some fond and some painful, is indeed a privilege.  When people experience significant trauma in their lives something else happens. A new perspective of what is really, truly important is uncovered. Their is an authenticity that burns brightly and strong bonds are forged quickly.

“Politics in the Pub” Suicide Presentation – November 18th 2015

I was recently invited to be part of the New Farm Neighbourhood’s event “Politics in the Pub” where they tackle “tough issues” every quarter through presentations and then open discussion and Q&A time. This month they wished to talk about suicide, and so last night, alongside my friends and colleagues, Jacinta Hawgood of AISRAP, Jorgen Gullenstrup of Mates in Construction, and Justin Geange of the Suicide Prevention Lived Experience Speakers Bureau, we shared our insights, lived experience and views. A fabulous initiative of this very passionate and caring community group.

A number of people approached me afterwards and ask that I publish my speech, so here it is . . .

Today I attended the funeral of a young man of just 30years, who took his own life last week. Another young life lost, another family thrown into a world of pain. His death brought to surface for me the intense feelings of loss and, helplessness and, as illogical as it is, failure.

Suicide is like a tsunami – often appearing supposedly out of nowhere, other times with some warning – either way it leaves a devastating path of destruction in its wake that continues to be felt for years and indeed through generations.

Just days after my brother’s suicide a friend phoned. I don‘t recall saying much, and yet I remember what she said to me. “I can hear your soul crying” . . . in 6 little words my friend acknowledged the depth of my pain without trying to convince me I would be okay. She simply allowed me to sit in that place, knowing that there were no words, and for that I will always be thankful. To this day, those words still bring tears to my eyes, because they still ring true.

On the odd occasion that I visited my grandparents graves over the years, I would always find myself looking at the plaques nearby and wondering what the people were like. I would notice how old they were. Often there was nothing more than a name and some dates, and so we were left to wonder.

My brother’s grave is not like this. I’d like to share with you a very personal part of our story and give you a glimpse into what the effects of suicide look like – for my family.

He came into our lives as a speeding comet in the sky
Radiating waves of brilliant light

Every moment we had with him was made special by his
Intensity and illluminance washing over us

He has taken his brilliant light out of our vision to find
His peace, more friends and adventures in another place

We who are left behind with just sun light will forever miss
his very special illumination

These are the words of a father. Penned with such painstaking focus – the words had to be perfect. Penned at a time when breathing itself was an effort. Penned at a time when he grieved the loss of his son, who ended his own life.

These words adorn the plaque at my brothers grave, and among other things, it tells a story, some of which can be gleaned when reading it, others are known only to us . . .

There are three generations represented on his plaque.

It speaks of my brother, my parents, my family and it speaks of me

It speaks of my brother through the robustness and pride of its design,through the nickname “Fish” given to him at school and fondly carried on throughout life by his extensive circle of friends, peers and indeed his superiors.. The RAAF insignia tell of a man who lived his dream, his passion for flying – the youngest post war fighter pilot in Australia and later international commercial pilot. He was intelligent, generous, respected, fun, loving and very loved. It speaks of a magnificent man – and his name is Mark.

It speaks of my parents –

My fathers beautiful words, his internalisation of his loss, and yet at the same time his capacity to reach out with comfort and wise words of acceptance and love. His early onset of dementia I believe the result of the acute stress we lived with for a number of years prior to my brothers death and throughout the years following.

My mothers unfaltering loyalty and traditional sense of duty that she alone has the strength to visit his grave weekly. Something I am eternally grateful for.

It speaks of my family –
Of the day we took our two young children, just 3 and 5, and placed Roses in the Ocean, for them to say goodbye and for us to find a way where we could explain that when you felt upset and turbulent like the waves crashing on the rocks you had to reach out for help, and reach out to others when they felt that way.

It speaks of my children, one of whom has seen his grave, one who doesn’t wish to. They grew up with a mum living on the edge trying to keep her brother alive and then watched and held me as I grieved, and watch me now as I try to save other lives. They are ever watchful and I worry about the impact suicide has had on them.

It speaks of my husband who does not visit this plaque preferring to honour his brother in law with his memories and by supporting the family he left behind, and his wife who is not the same person he married.

It speaks of me –
I am represented on this plaque by the date of my brothers death. It is a date shared with my birthday. A date forever changed. A date where guilt lingers despite all logical and rational thought. Linked in life with an impenetrable bond, linked in death by a date and a heart that holds him just one beat away.

It also speaks of hope –
Roses in the Ocean – a silver lining deliberately and passionately created from a situation that did not provide one. We strive to change the way suicide is spoken about, understood and prevented by reaching out into communities, and giving voice to the lived experience of suicide.

We lose 7 people a day in Australia to suicide. The numbers are staggering and a tragedy. Seven (7) families every day whose lives are shattered just as ours was.

To this day, I still can’t believe that Mark is gone. It’s been 7 years and it seems like yesterday and forever at the same time. I still get blindsided by moments of intense grief at times. I do what I do now because we know that suicide is mostly preventable, and we need to speak openly about it

I want to leave you with 3 insights to take away and 3 things I want you to do:

1. Suicide is an option, but it is never the only option, nor the best option.

2. Suicide grief is not the same – it is intermingled and tainted and fuelled by unanswerable questions, guilt, and the mourning of lives lost well before their time and taken in often traumatic circumstances.

3. Suicide is not something you get over, but you can learn to live with it

By being here tonight you are already putting your hand up to take action against suicide:

As community there are simple things you can do to protect yourselves and those around you:

Take your personal well-being seriously – suicide does not discriminate and you never know when life is going to throw you a curve ball. Take the time to find your purpose, and develop your sense of identity – build your resilience before you need it.

Take notice of the people around you and have the courage to ask them directly “Are you thinking of suicide”. Be prepared for them to answer “yes” and be ready to listen without judgement.

Take the time to know where you can access help in your local area, and if you find yourself needing help, put your hand up and ask for it.

The tsunami of suicide is far reaching and whilst it is often not initially visible on the surface, it is a strong, devastating undercurrent that has life long compounding effects on our families, our communities and future generations.

Be vigilant, be resourceful and be accepting.