It's been more than three years since I talked to my friend Julia for the last time. Of course, back then I didn't know it was the last time. I will never forget the shock, horror, and grief I felt when I arrived at her apartment two days after our last phone conversation to find she had completed suicide.
The next few months were a whirlwind of tears, misery, anger, emptiness, self-blame, and one question after another that no one except Julia could have answered. I thought I would feel that way forever. I couldn't imagine that kind of hurt ever losing its intensity.
It caught me off guard when I realized I was no longer crying every day, or even every week. I could remember good times I'd had with J and not think about seeing her body on the floor. I learned to stop asking "Why?" But perhaps most importantly, I realized that the end of Julia's life didn't need to mean the end of my life as well. There were still a wealth of experiences awaiting me, and while I was sad that Julia wouldn't be there to share them, I was not going to deny myself the right to seek pleasure and adventure.
It took me a long time to get to that place, though. First I had to survive that initial period of grief so deep it felt almost unbearable. I remember feeling very alone during that time, but when I look back, I realize that I was surrounded by a network of helpers that circled to protect me almost from the first moment on.
Police and Coroner
The police officer who took the initial report was quiet and kind and took the time to express his sympathy for my loss. The detective and the coroner assigned to the case both behaved in the same way. They showed no sign of homophobia, and the coroner even allowed me to view J's body one last time to say goodbye.
Friends and Family
One of the first calls I made after finding Julia was to a co-worker. I don't remember a thing I said to her, but I do remember that she was at my side in ten minutes flat. Over the next few months, other friends and family members were also available to listen as I talked my way through the rage and pain.
Of course, they weren't always perfect. Some of them, in their desire to say the right thing, managed to blurt out exactly the wrong thing instead. But they loved me, and they tried to help, and in the end, that's what mattered.
I identify as an atheist, so when a chaplain where I worked at the time offered his assistance, I politely turned him down. He gave me a look of pure compassion and said to me, "I promise you two things: I will never preach at you and I will never judge you." He's kept his word, and has even volunteered to write several of our blog's "Clergy Corner" articles.
I attended a suicide support group less than two weeks after Julia died. It was absolutely amazing to sit in a room with so many people who had survived the same type of loss. I didn't go to very many group sessions, simply because I'm not comfortable with groups, but each time I did attend, I came away with some valuable new insight.
The Alliance of Hope Forum
I stumbled across the forum only a few days after Julia's death. My hands shook as I typed my introductory message. I didn't expect much in the way of a reply. Imagine my surprise when I checked back later in the day and saw that over a dozen people had responded to me. Some had shared their own experiences, others simply offered a few words of condolence. All the messages were a balm to my soul. Over the years, I have visited the forum often both to offer and receive support. I can honestly say that it was the single most important element in my healing.
If you are new to the grieving process, take a few minutes to think about who is supporting you as you struggle with your loss. Try to remember that you do not have to bear this alone.
Debra Stang, LCSW, LMSW is a freelance writer and a medical social worker with years of providing grief support services. Her book HOSPICE TAILS was published in June 2011.