as a survivor of suicide loss i grapple with the seemingly never-ending trail of questions that my father’s death left behind him. most of which can be boiled down to one word: why. why couldn’t he talk about his depression? why didn’t he cry out for help? why did he kill himself? why did he do it in our own home? why didn’t we do more to save him?
there is no one truth that can speak to these most difficult questions. and even when i find some certain answers – depression is an illness. he didn’t know how to talk about it. he just snapped. he didn’t want to leave, he wanted to end his pain. – i still feel the weight of guilt and the pain of abandonment.
these haunting why questions can eat away at my sense of safety and self. in my search for answers i have often grasped onto extreme and absolute truths – my best wasn’t good enough. he ruined my life. depression is terrifying. suicide is unavoidable. the next bad thing is just around the corner. while it’s understandable to experience black-and-white thinking after living through a trauma, continually repeating such harsh and extreme messages to myself isn’t very soothing and it isn’t helping me heal. i can’t outsmart the pain, so i have been learning a new way to think about it. a new way to tolerate the distress caused by my father’s suicide.
during my treatment for depression, generalized anxiety disorder and ptsd i learned about dialectical behavioral therapy, or dbt – and it helps me in a major way. dbt was created by dr. marsha linehan to treat chronically suicidal people living with borderline personality disorder, and is proven to be effective for individuals with ptsd and depression. dbt helps to develop four main behavioral skill sets: mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and emotional regulation. the linehan institute explains:
the term “dialectical” means a synthesis or integration of opposites. the primary dialectic within dbt is between the seemingly opposite strategies of acceptance and change.
while it may sound like psychobabble, this concept has helped me think about mental illness and suicide in a new way. my life didn’t end with my father’s death – i chose to go on. from the first moment of becoming a survivor of suicide loss, i was forced to hold two opposite truths at the same time: my father is dead and i am alive. the contrast between his death and my being alive was surreal, but that dualistic landscape became my new reality.
dbt has helped me turn off my autopilot responses to the difficult questions surrounding my dad’s suicide. using a dialectic approach i am learning how to give myself more caring and holistic responses. i can honor the pain while seeking peace and relief. i am shifting from a place of absolutes to finding a delicate balance between acceptance and change, between despair and hope.
why couldn’t i save him? what if i answered that question with a dialectic: my father chose suicide and i helped him while he was alive. he died and i helped him – both statements are true and both exist together. this answer doesn’t erase the pain but it helps to relieve some of the guilt. it takes away the burden of shame and honors the love that i showed to my dad.
why didn’t he ask for help? often suicide implies that someone has somehow failed or hasn’t tried hard enough. i hold both of these statement together: my father did his best and he died by suicide. the power of opposites helps me to find compassion for his struggle. i am reminded that he tried his hardest and he had a terminal mental illness. but i also feel the pain of his suicide and hold that alongside my understanding.
why did my father leave me? this is an awful, gut-wrenching question – one that so many survivors of suicide loss ask ourselves. why did you have to go? i was just 13 when he died and still needed my parents so very much. on a deep-down level it’s so hard not to think that he left because of me. my father left and i am lovable. while it feels like those two statements simply can’t exist together, dualism shows me that both are equally true. it’s so important for me to recognize that his death was not my fault. yes, i was left – and yes, i was loved.
sometimes i picture myself physically holding these dualistic statements in my hands. i view them as smooth, heavy stones. in one hand i hold the pain and the sadness. i hold the anger and the guilt and the fear. i feel the weight of these emotions. i know they are real. in the other hand i hold healing. i hold hope and forgiveness and joy. i feel their presence. i know they exist. this is the life of a survivor – acknowledging the struggle and grief and also acknowledging hope and possibility for the future. life and death. at the same time. in both hands.