Last month on the Alliance of Hope Community Forum, a post caught my eye. Newly bereaved - raw with grief, one member wrote: “My boss and a friend told me one never loses the pain, they simply learn to live with it.“
I doubt there is a survivor of suicide who hasn’t at some point, heard similar comments from caring friends. “You never get over it but you will get around it.” “The pain never really goes away. You just learn to live with it.” These are common assertions in the culture of survivors… at support groups, in the literature … on the Internet.
Over the years, I’ve inwardly winced, when kind-hearted support group volunteers greeted newly bereaved survivors with the assurance: “You never get over it, but you will learn to live with it.” Sometimes I’ve thought, if f I was a mother, just arriving after finding the body of my child, and the first words I heard were "You never get over it" ... I might end it all right then.
From the get-go, I have preferred the statement “survivors are forever altered.” Iris Bolton said it years ago and at the Alliance of Hope, we have built upon her original statement. Our work and our community are built on the premise that although we are forever altered and may never stop missing our loved ones, we can eventually go beyond ‘just surviving’ to have happy, meaningful and contributory lives. Our commitment is to provide hope, especially for those in the initial days of dark despair. We want people to know that healing does occur and that it is even possible to make a meaningful contribution to others, as a result of heartbreaking, devastating loss.
Many long-term survivors find their pain does transform. George A. Bonanno, Ph.D. Chair, Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Columbia University, writes about this:
"… not every survivor of suicide has the same reactions and not every survivor suffers to the same extent or for the same length of time. Research on disasters and other types of potentially traumatic life events shows us clearly that only some survivors will experience long-term or unremitting difficulties. Usually this proportion is limited at most to one in three survivors, and most of the time the proportion is considerably lower. By contrast, many and often the majority of survivors of traumatic events cope remarkably well. The same appears to be true for survivors of suicide. The good news, if we can call it that, is that most suicide survivors will eventually be ok; that is they will find a way to accept the reality of their loss, however painful, and find a way to once again live a healthy fulfilling life, with all the joys and sorrows it entails."
I want to be clear that I do not in any way mean to discount the enormity of the loss, pain and challenges experienced in the aftermath of suicide. People bereaved from suicide have been found to experience greater levels of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and complicated grief, compared to bereaved people who have suffered other types of losses. In the first months and years, it often takes all one has just to survive.
I do believe however, that with sufficient time and support, most people are able to survive and go beyond just surviving. I am sometimes asked how I can do the work that I do. I can do it because I see not only the very painful beginning of the grief journey made by survivors, but the transformation of pain as well. I am blessed to bear witness as survivors heal and grow stronger. I see light returning to lives … and I see survivors bringing that light with a compassion born of their own painful experience, to others. -- Have they "gotten over it?” -- I don’t know. -- Are they forever altered? -- For sure!
I sometimes think of those who remain, alive on the planet following the suicide of a loved one... bound by the invisible thread of shared experience ... an 'undercover army of kindness and compassion.'
Ronnie Walker, MS, LCPC is the founder and Executive Director of the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors. This column was originally published in June of 2012..