We Must Allow Survivors to Express Feelings Without Being Offended- by Brandy Lidbeck

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I work in the field of suicide prevention and postvention. Every day I work alongside colleagues doing everything they can to prevent future suicides and help in the healing process for those whom have lost a loved one. I help launch LOSS Teams all across the country. I am an author and a licensed therapist doing grief work for new survivors. I am also a two-time suicide-loss survivor myself. My professional life is all about suicide and I am passionate about it.

My personal life; however, is more, well, personal. And there is a reason for that. I am a writer and have shared personal feelings and emotions around the suicide death of my mom but only certain emotions, attitudes, feelings, and experiences. Not because they are too personal or intimate to share. Quite the contrary, in fact. The reason I do not share them is because they are not acceptable to my colleagues or other suicide-loss survivors.

                                                              Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels

My colleagues have created safe language to discuss suicide and suicide-loss so that nobody gets triggered, is offended, hurt, or otherwise further traumatized by the words someone speaks about their own experience. I think there is validity to all of this and I appreciate the boundaries to keep everyone safe especially as it relates to others describing the death scene. However, there is a very obvious consequence to the “safe language” and it is not a popular opinion to have or express, especially as a professional who is expected to be PC in all things surrounding the topic of suicide.

I have heard fellow suicide-loss survivors express their feelings of anger toward the one who died by suicide only to have other survivors or professionals jump in to say, “Your loved one was hurting. How can you be angry at them?” Or when survivors express, “My husband was so selfish for leaving me and the kids. I have two small children and no job, how are we going to survive?” To which, again, others jump in to say, “How dare you say they were selfish! They were not!”

By monitoring and censoring how survivors are “allowed” to express their grief into what others feel is “acceptable” is abusive. Why can’t they be angry? Why can’t they feel their loved one was selfish? Why can’t they feel abandoned or betrayed? These feelings are completely natural parts of grief and when another person inserts themselves to say, “That opinion or belief is not appropriate and we do not talk about those who died by suicide like that” then we actually stifle their grief.

I recently attended a conference where the speaker said, “My loved one chose to die.” After the speaker was finished, an individual in the audience stood up and said, “As a fellow suicide-loss survivor, I was really triggered when you said ‘chose to die.’ That was really hurtful and you should choose your words better.” To which the speaker then profusely apologized. I think the audience member was rude to stand up to tell this speaker how he can/cannot speak about his family member’s suicide.

There is an expression in the 12-step programs that says, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” It means if you hear something you like and find helpful, take it with you. If you hear something you don’t like or find upsetting, leave it here in this room.” I think there is a lot of wisdom to that. We cannot control how others feel or speak and it is ignorant to believe we can.

If an individual were expressing suicidal ideation, we would NEVER discount their pain by saying, “Oh, it’s not that bad. You’re fine. You’ll feel better tomorrow.” We would listen, support them, and get them the help they need. When a survivor expresses their pain; however, we tell them, “Oh, you can’t say this/that. It’s offensive to others. Your loved one was hurting.” How is it helpful to their grief to discount the survivor’s pain by explaining the deceased was hurting more than the survivor currently is?

I have led suicide-loss support groups for years and also sat in therapy sessions with countless clients after they lost a loved one to suicide. It is in those rooms where they can fully express their genuine and raw emotions and be accepted. Eventually, if clients are allowed to share their thoughts, feeling, and beliefs around the death, most of them will move beyond their anger. If they are not afforded this opportunity or are told it is not appropriate to think/feel this way, they get stuck in their grief. Sometimes for decades or even longer.

We cannot be scared or threatened by allowing survivors to express their true feelings or emotions in the same way we wouldn’t silence those struggling with depression or anxiety. It’s not healthy or safe. Survivors are already wrestling with guilt, shame, remorse, trauma, anxiety, and grief. We cannot silence their discomfort because we are uncomfortable or offended by their raw emotions. We have to do better. 

20 Responses

  1. Lisa T
    | Reply

    Beautifully said. Telling someone how to feel robs them of their grief experience. The best thing we can do is sit with them and journey with them. Thank you for your words.

  2. Jodee Watelet
    | Reply

    I see what you are saying but at some point I feel strongly that if survivors change the false verbiage that surrounds suicide. It will help society better understand mental health issues. They don’t:
    Kill themselves
    Take their own life
    They don’t choose to die
    I had a neighbor tell me that God doesn’t like it when someone takes their own life. I told her that my son did not take his own life, mental illness did. It’s a disease just like cancer or heart disease.
    My son died from mental illness or he died by suicide.
    We can gently change the stigma…

    • brandylidbeck
      | Reply

      I believe we can always educate others to reduce the stigma but I also don’t think it is a burden the survivor needs to carry in addition to their grief. if Jim (for example), as a survivor, says “My brother took his own life,” and someone then points out to him, “Jim, you know-you really shouldn’t say that. What you should say is…..” That is so unfair to Jim and his grief to impose an agenda to reduce the stigma. How likely is it that Jim is going to open up or express his grief again to that individual or any other? When Jim’s support circle gets smaller and smaller because he has “rules” to follow when he speaks or others are correcting him, the likelihood of Jim feeling alone and without support is high. Then what?

  3. Teri Edwards
    | Reply

    Each person must walk through their own grief experience. My husband committed suicide and it is a very slow process for me. I am learning I will never be the same person I once was and that is OK. I am coming to the acceptance of the person I am now and have come to a place that I allow myself to go through the process of grief without be concerned about the demands others have told me about how I should go thru grief and get over it. In the words of E. Kubler Ross “The reality of grief is that you will grieve forever. You will never get over the loss of a loved one, yo u will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered and you will be whole again, but you will never be the same, nor would you want to.” This helped me the most.

    • brandylidbeck
      | Reply

      Hi Teri,
      I am sorry to hear about your husband. So devastating! I have liked that Kubler Ross quote myself. Most people expect you to return to the person you were before the loss, but how could you? The expectations others have on survivors is unrealistic.

  4. Melanie Chrencik
    | Reply

    I lost my brother two years ago from bipolar, that’s what I believe truly caused his death even though he took his own life as a result. Handling this loss over the last two years has taken me on a cycle of emotions including anger and frustration with him even though I know the truth is that he was sick. I allow myself to sit in whatever emotion I have at that moment or for that time whether it be thinking he was selfish, anger at mental health and how misunderstood it is, sadness about missing him or wanting to know what he’s up to up there. And I always circle back to the truth, he had a disease that went undiagnosed and untreated. It has certainly given me the power to heal by allowing myself to feel it all.

    • brandylidbeck
      | Reply

      Melanie, I am so sorry to hear about your brother. I appreciate that when you allow yourself to feel all the feelings, you get to heal. It is a process and when we silence some of those emotions because they are not “allowed” -we stop the healing from taking place.

  5. Julie Harris
    | Reply

    Well said Brandy. We, as suicide survivors, should not have to silence our emotions. We should be allowed to grieve in our own way and with our own emotions. Being PC stunts that process. It just promotes further stigma to suicide. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” (Harry S Truman)
    Julie

  6. Diana Bell-Curtis
    | Reply

    I love reading your messages Brandy…Thank you

    I have loss my Son and my ex husband to suicide to which my ex was diagnosed with bipolar and depression. My son was never diagnosed the therapist just said he was depressed after the loss of his Dad two months later Clayton took his life.

    I have spent several years trying to figure out what or where do I stand what could I have done differently and these messages from each of you are true expressions from your heart. I listen to my heart because my head sometimes messes things up.

    We each process grief differently and all processes are valid. Forgiveness is now my process, I still love them so. They both expressed in their notes that they were in pain and pain isn’t alway visible…To all stay well and may each day bring some kind of peace

  7. Debi Ferguson
    | Reply

    When my brother took his life on Christmas Eve 1999, I was mad as hell. How could he leave his two young teenaged sons? I’ll never forget talking to my sister-in-law (his ex) in the wee hours and her pain in wondering how she was going to wake her kids up on Christmas morning and tell them that their Dad was gone. As I worked through my grief, I eventually came to a place of compassion for him and how he must have been suffering. I think all emotions are valid as you work through the aftermath of the suicide of a loved one.

    • brandylidbeck
      | Reply

      Debi, I could feel that pain as I read your comment. How awful and tragic! You are right, as you work through the grief, many of those strong feelings lessen and healing takes shape.

  8. Marylou
    | Reply

    Hi Brandy. I’m not sure how I started receiving these emails but I believe it’s my daughter channeling you from above. My daughter Meghan took her life at the age of 22 last March. I too feel if I want to state that my child took her life than I can And myself or anyone else should not feel bad. Yes she had mental health issues And was very depressed for many years but she alone decided that she couldn’t do this anymore and ended her life. I miss her more than words could ever express but I Vow I will live the rest of my life being an advocate for suicide survivors.

    • brandylidbeck
      | Reply

      Hi Marylou,
      We’re glad to have you join us though we wish it were not for our common loss. I am sorry to hear about Meghan. She was so young! I love that you are an advocate for other survivors.

  9. Jocelyn
    | Reply

    Dear Brandy,
    Thanks for your eloquent post as both a survivor and a clinician. It’s a great reminder to be a good listener in the presence of suffering. So far I haven’t felt anger at my son, who, as I announced at the time, succumbed to depression and anxiety a couple of years ago at 22. But I’m bitter about the years of struggle throughout his short life to get services, and his IEP meetings in grade school were horrifying; some of his teachers did not “believe” in autism. So I do carry lots of anger. The truth is we must have a jumbled mess of emotions to untangle, and many of them are negative. If I have a fellow survivor friend who says their loved one “committed” suicide and they feel betrayed, who am I to judge? As suicide loss survivors we have something profound in common, but each relationship is unique. Best wishes to you, Brandy.

  10. Lisa Fuller
    | Reply

    Hello Brandy,
    Your posts pop in to my email inbox just when I am looking for a way to express my feelings around my loss. Thank you! Five years ago today my mom died by suicide after years of debilitating depression. In the years leading up to her death I was so frustrated and exhausted because she would refuse help or refuse to take the necessary steps to heal from her trauma and pain. After she passed I felt like she had done something very selfish and I was very angry. I was angry that my boys wouldn’t have her around to cheer them on in life. She was always one of their biggest fans. People would tell me not to be angry or they would say she’s here watching over you and your boys. Those statements made me even more angry. Last year I was finally able to let go of the anger and now I’m trying to take the big step of celebrating how she lived instead of being so focused on how she died. This is my process and I know my feelings and words offend people. I keep them to myself usually.

    I work with local groups to help prevent suicide and to provide mental health education. There is not a local support group in my area so I feel lucky to be supported by my fellow Out of the Darkness Community Walk Committee Members. They are my safe place to say things and not have to worry about being “offensive”.

    Thank you Brandi for your emails!

  11. Vel Carter
    | Reply

    I agree whole heartedly with this. You need to be able to say whatever it os that you are feeling. Until you get it all out. And you do get past the anger.

  12. Kelley A
    | Reply

    Thank you for writing this!

    I completely agree and found myself furiously typing, backspacing/deleting and rewording my response, trying to express how much I relate to this.

    Tiptoeing around the reality of suicide’s impact and putting PC boundaries/censors on anyone’s experience or feelings doesn’t protect or help anyone. So, we go home and crawl back into our private hole where we can be REAL human beings with not so perfect feelings.

  13. Dorthy Ramsey
    | Reply

    I lost my son to suicide in December. He will be forever 33.I’m so lost. I will never be the same.
    Nothing is right anymore, my mind goes through the same questions over and over. I am different. I wake up each day and feel so empty. I am a shell of who I was before. I feel as this is robbing my other children of the mother they deserve. Nothing seems to matter. I just stumbled on this page and from what I’ve seen so far is touching.

  14. Sandra Fritz
    | Reply

    It seems the speaker you mentioned was absolutely speaking of their own personal experience with suicide – as it should be.
    My husband took his own life in November 2019.
    The words I had the most issues dealing with were the assumptions & judgments from others as to why he did it & what he was thinking when he did it. I am the only one who has had to live with what deep emotional pain he was not able to deal with in a better way. NO ONE but me, and even way more so, the Lord, can know any of that, no one. Those rash statements/judgments from anyone are unacceptable. Only God can know what is in the mind of a person & only God can judge.

  15. Linda Hendley
    | Reply

    Hi Brandy,
    Your website was recommended to our SAS group as people struggled to find help during COVID. When my son died by suicide 5 years ago at age 39, I knew he had mental illness of some kind for the previous 15 years. He was diagnosed and treated for bipolar nearly a year before his death. He will be forever young. My daughter and I attended our SAS group for a bit over a year. We both still struggle at times, but choose to celebrate his birthday and honor him the gay he died. His Dad had passed away seven years before him so I don’t have him to share my grief. Shannon has no other siblings or close family to share her grief with.
    But we do have each other. She and my grandsons made it possible for me to pull through the first few years. They were definitely very difficult for me. Eventually, we have taken up our lives again, what she calls “our new normal”. Thank you, Brandy, for starting this place to share grief. It certainly will help others in the future. Bless you for your hard start in life and making it part of your life work. It is through helping others that we help ourselves.

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