As a therapist, I am honored to walk fellow suicide-loss survivors through the tragedy of losing their loved one. The range of emotions these individuals feel is so unique and yet, the similarities are what makes a support group so powerful.
I recently taught to a room of survivors at a grief conference. We did a hands-on experiential type of activity that asked the survivors to sort through some of those common feelings of guilt and regret those left behind are often plagued with. We wrestled with all of the “What if…?” questions and “If only….” phrases that consume our minds, thoughts, and energy.
“What if I had not left the house that day?”
“What if I had picked up my phone the night before?”
“If only I would have seen the signs.”
“If only he knew how much I loved him.”
These feelings of guilt and regret are normal and part of the grief process. Sometimes, though, we get stuck on these and punish ourselves over and over for not “saving” our loved one. Often, we forget to think back on the good things and the ways we were a good mother, father, spouse, or child.
Toward the end of the grief conference lecture, I had everyone write their best memories with their loved one on a poster board. There was no limit to how many they could list and most people kept writing and writing. Before I do any type of activity with survivors, I always do it first with myself and my grief. It’s hard to ask others to do an activity I would not be willing to do myself.
When I began listing the memories of my mom, several came to mind that I had not thought of or remembered in almost three decades. There was a specific board game we always used to play together that I had forgotten all about. There were the chocolate croissants we used to pick up at the corner bakery on a special morning. And, the most simple of all, was how she used to have a supply of Chiclets gum in her purse. My mom grew up in Mexico City and grew up eating Chiclets. When she moved to the States, she always kept a supply of Chiclets in her purse. Perhaps she was after the memory of the gum and not necessarily the flavor that only lasts a few seconds. Regardless, I could always count on her to share her Chiclets with me.
How could I forget these memories all of these years? Maybe I was too busy being angry and hurt over how she died that I forgot to remember how she lived. This stroll down memory lane awoke something in my heart that day. It reminded me of all the great things about my mom I had pushed away for almost 30 years.
I decided to bring some of that childhood joy to my own children. I came home and looked online and found the same version of that board game on Ebay and purchased it immediately. Ironically, my kids love it as much as I did as a child!
A colleague mentioned to me that her mom was visiting Mexico that week. I asked if her mom might be willing to bring home some Chiclets for me. She brought me home an entire box and now I keep some in my purse for my own children. The flavor disappears within seconds, really, but the memory of eating it with my mom is what I am seeking anyway.
Sometimes a sweet Chiclet memory is all we need to remember how they lived. Those feelings of guilt and regret over how they died are normal parts of grief, but we also need to allow the good memories to come in as well.