Jan. 24, 2023 – Betsy Gall, a real estate agent, seemed to have it all: three kids, a comfortable home, a handsome “party life” oncologist husband she loved. But her world was shattered on Thanksgiving Day 2019, when her husband, Matthew, took his own life.
The couple had just moved from Minneapolis to Charlotte, where Matt took on a new position in private practice. “He felt the move was a mistake and called it ‘career suicide,'” Gall said. “I wanted him to get help and take antidepressants, but he was afraid he’d lose his medical license if he took medication.”
A few months after moving, he took his own life.
Lynette Eddiea social worker based in Reno, NV, lost her husband to suicide in 2010.
“I’ve seen Bob drift away from his own value system over the years, letting go of his true self,” she says. “Unfortunately he was swayed by money and greed, got involved in gambling and got in over his head. I had no idea what life he was leading, but I know he was in a lot of pain.
Both Gall and Eddy had to find ways to heal and rebuild their lives following the self-inflicted death of a husband.
Losing a loved one to suicide is an unparalleled loss, says Julie Cerel, PhD, professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and director of the Suicide Prevention and Exposure Lab.
Unlike other causes of death (such as illnesses or accidents), which occur to the person, suicide is an accomplished act through the person who chose death, leaving survivors grieving with guilt and haunting questions, says Cerel, co-author of In Search of Hope: Stories of Suicidal Grieving People.
“When you lose someone to suicide, you instantly become an investigator,” says Gall. “Why did this happen? What did I miss? What could I have done differently? Everyone who knew my husband asked the same questions. We all blamed ourselves in one way or another, feeling that we should have been able to anticipate it or stop it,” says Gall.
Eddy agrees. “Survivor’s guilt is super common. I look back and have asked myself the same questions a million times.
Sometimes, according to Cerel, “we really don’t know what motivated the person.”
Gall now realizes “there was nothing else we could have done. Mental health issues are extremely difficult. People have to be ready to help themselves, and we can’t force them. Matt refused to take antidepressants and there was no way I could “do” him. »
Eddy came to a similar conclusion. “I think he had serious things to do and it didn’t matter what we did or didn’t do. I asked him to go to counseling, but it didn’t work out. open, but I was never able to get him to understand the truth. I know he was in pain and I can only imagine how much he was tortured. Of course, I would have done anything I could to mitigate it, but he wouldn’t let me in.
Stigma, secrecy, shame
Research comparing people bereaved by suicide to people who have suffered other losses found higher levels of shamethe stigma and feel the need to hide the cause of death of the loved one. Secrecy often develops, both within the family and from those outside the family, and can lead to family dysfunction. Withdrawing from social networks and friends can make grieving and recovery more difficult.
“Many people bereaved by suicide are reluctant to tell others about or talk about the cause of death,” says Cerel. “But our research has shown that being able to talk openly about death and your loved one is actually very helpful.”
Gall and Eddy have spoken openly about their losses. And both have written books describing their experience. Gall is the author of The illusion of the perfect job and Eddy is the author of The fight inside. Both hope their books will pave the way for a better understanding of why people might end their lives and how families can cope with such a significant loss.
Family members don’t have to reveal personal details, but memorializing the deceased and allowing people to offer love and support helps people feel less alone and reduces stigma.
Grieving researcher Katherine Shear, MD, writes, “Grieving is the process by which bereaved people seek and find ways to rekindle the light in the world. Grieving is normal and healthy after a loss. But suicide can lead to “complicated grief” (also called prolonged grief), which can “prevent the natural healing process from progressing”.
Some people feel anger, rejection or betrayal when their loved one dies by suicide, which can heighten their feelings of guilt and put them at greater risk of complicated grief.
But not everyone reacts that way. “People tell me, ‘you must be so mad at your husband, he betrayed, you, he lied’, but I never got mad and I’m not mad today,” Eddy said.
She credits her reaction to her spiritual practice, which allowed her to “see through the heart” into her husband’s pain. “I know he was in a lot of pain and trying to fill a void with quick pleasure.”
Cerel encourages those bereaved by suicide to seek professional help if needed. “They often show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or even full-blown PTSD, even though they weren’t there to see the event happen.”
There are effective treatments for PTSD and complicated grief, as well as for other aspects of suicide-related grief, such as anger and guilt. Support groups are also helpful, especially those made up of people bereaved by suicide. Resources are at the end of the article.
“It took thousands of hours on my therapist’s couch to realize that my husband had no more control over his mental illness than his cancer patients had over their cancer,” says Gall. “I’ve accepted that and I no longer wake up every morning with that thud in my heart and searing pain that comes with the kind of grief I’ve had.”
Not only family, but also friends, classmates, community members and co-workers can be devastated by a suicide, Cerel points out. Getting professional help or joining a support group can also be invaluable for them.
Spiritual practice as a resource
Gall and Eddy draw on their spiritual practice for comfort and strength.
“Faith in a higher power is the first thing I turned to,” says Gall. “I’ve always been a Christian, but I didn’t go to church every Sunday and I wasn’t extremely religious.” In the months leading up to her husband’s death and ever since, she has turned to the Bible and devotional readings “for a kind of road map of how to get through the most tumultuous, confusing, horrible, tortuous and chaotic part of my life”.
Eddy also draws from his spiritual practice — A course in miracles — and mindfulnessapproach-based approaches. “The spiritual path I have taken started years before this even happened and has played a huge role in giving me strength.”
The expression of A course in miracles that had a profound impact on her was, “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Therein lies the peace of God. In other words, “I feel like there’s an external drama going on. I can be one of the “actors” in the play or I can “watch” the play and be the observer. »
Eddy developed Open-Heart Mindfulness, an approach that involves “observing and witnessing feelings, thoughts, and reactions without judging”. She says, “Everyone has a voice of ego that can drive them to despair, as happened to my husband. But everyone also has another voice – the voice of spirit – and we can connect to it and release our suffering.
She advises others: “Grieve, of course, but don’t identify with grief. Stay in the witness seat. Understand and be gentle with yourself, and recognize that healing will take time.
Spirituality and mindfulness-based approaches don’t resonate with everyone, Cerel points out.
“Spiritual practices are very individual. Faith or mindfulness may be exactly what some people need, but not others. There are several paths. And mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean meditation. Any activity that requires special attention—for example, exercise, art, music, even horseback riding—can bring this quality to light.
As horrifying as the experience of losing a loved one to suicide is, some people emerge changed for the better, which is often referred to as “post-traumatic growth,” says Cerel.
“I think anyone who’s had a traumatic experience that has them on their knees and completely naked has a decision to make,” Eddy says.
“I had identified as Bob’s wife and he was my rock, and it was all about him. Then all of a sudden it just disappeared and I knew I had to reinvent myself, rebuild my life and do something. of positive.
Eddy, who completed her MSW after the death of her husband, was working with homeless teenagers and decided to open a facility, Eddy’s House, for this vulnerable population. “It was a deep feeling that I had in my mind as a way to help young people. It has been a great healer for me. She teaches open-hearted mindfulness to teenagers and believes it has made a difference in their lives.
Writing his book contributed to the healing. Eddy wanted to shed light on the inner conflicts that led her husband to commit suicide and “lead the reader to see how, collectively, we must move forward towards our authentic selves”.
Gall wrote her book not only to process her loss, but also to highlight the forces that could drive a doctor to suicide. “I’m sharing my story and Matt’s experience to open a conversation because our [medical] the system is down.
Gall was able to start feeling joy again. “Life is so precious, and I feel blessed to have had such a great life with Matthew, and I still have a good life, even without him. Difficult some days, but you have to move on. You never ‘move on’ – you just move on.
If you are having suicidal thoughts call or text 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or text HOME to 741741.