This article is difficult to write, because re-living the fresh pain of losing a loved one to suicide is not enjoyable. But, I feel compelled to put this out there, because it involves some of the most helpful and relevant advice I received after my sister died by suicide in May 2015. And when I talk about this with other survivors, it is always received with knowing nods of agreement. So, onward.
The days following Amanda’s suicide were a blur. I travelled by plane to be at the side of my family of origin including Amanda’s only child. One of the necessities in the wake of any loved one’s death, is the spreading of the news by various means: the obituary, Facebook, phone calls. In this case, Amanda had left strict instructions: no funeral, no wake, no grave, no headstone, only the scattering of ashes in a faraway city. We had to contact a lot of people.
Dianna’s sister, Amanda, as a small child.
It was almost immediately clear to me that the fact that Amanda died by suicide was going to influence how people reacted. Suicide is misunderstood, scary, taboo in our society. Often the deceased is judged as cowardly, selfish, ungrateful. Some religions teach that it is a ticket straight to hell. (Note: This historically-based opinion is categorically false.) Could there be a more uncomfortable subject?
In light of this, one of my surviving sisters shared with me some advice that she was given by a bereaved mother of a young man who had suicided months earlier. She was a long-time friend of but we had never expected to walk in her shoes. Her advice: “Appreciate the scraps.”
She gravely recounted that acts and words of compassion in the wake of her son’s suicide had been few and far between. She and her husband were well known in their community, so it was not for lack of friends. Was it for the reasons I listed earlier? Regardless, it was the truth. HER truth and soon to be mine, although I was yet unaware.
But I took it to heart and I am so glad I did. Because that attitude of painful but honest expectations helped keep me sane and aided in keeping relationships intact while I was grieving long and hard.
Appreciate the scraps of compassion.
Only a few notes of sympathy when everyone in my life was aware? Many thanks to that small cadre of souls. And shun the thought of “why don’t more people care?” Appreciate the scraps.
Words of acknowledgement when I ran into people who knew the story were so rare. I was often greeted by silence. For those who ventured to say “I’m so sorry” or took the time to mention Amanda by name, I was grateful. Appreciate the scraps.
Those who I thought of as close friends who initiated no contact at all? I understand it’s hard to know what to say. I will call YOU when I am feeling stronger and we can still be friends. Appreciate the scraps.
Hurtful comments? “You must have seen it coming.” “Suicide is so selfish.” “You’re her sister, you should have known.” “Isn’t it time to move on?” I’ll sweep them away into the back of my mind and replace them with the kinder thoughts I hear. Appreciate the scraps.
The well-intentioned but painfully inappropriate advice? They just don’t understand, but they care. Appreciate the scraps.
I’m not recommending that you lay down and give up. There is a time to advocate for suicide and mental health awareness, but for me, that was not the time. If your expectations are rooted in the reality of how suicide is treated by our society, you can more easily move through what could have been devastating encounters, or lack there-of.
And, the unexpected feasts are so much sweeter.
To the tattoo artist who listened to me cry and looked at pictures of Amanda as he penned her name on my arm, and then waived the fee? I will never forget you.
To the former coworker kindly met for coffee promptly after finding out, and then listened to the horrifying details for two hours while barely flinching? Your compassion has a place in my heart forever.
To my best friend and my Pastor who dropped everything the day I got the news, and managed every detail of my entire life for me and didn’t leave me alone for a moment? Both of you are precious gifts from heaven.
To my ex-husband and his wife who upheld the kids, went beyond the call of duty, and even presented me with a flower and cupcake on my birthday (as I still cried on my couch)? I will always be amazed at your reflection of God’s grace.
To my Pastor, whose door was open for months to listen and encourage as I grappled with one spiritual question after another? There were days I would have burst if I hadn’t been able to talk to you.
To the suicide grief group I found in a neighboring town? Words cannot describe what a relief it was to be surrounded by so many understanding hearts at my first meeting.
So I learned…
“Appreciate the scraps” …
But also …
Savor the feasts.
In memory of my sister, my heart, my Amanda.