Reflections of This Survivor

Reflections from the Long Journey of a Suicide Loss Survivor

The Glass Door

At the end of my year-long tunnel of grieving I can see ~ through my tears ~ a radiant glass door. On June 29, 1994, I plan to open that door, walk through it, and close it behind me. 

For the rest of my life I will be able to look back and see through the clear glass to the memories of this past twelve months, but I choose not to open the door again and return down that hall of intense emotions and difficult decisions. All of the painful first anniversary dates will be behind the door: the first Thanksgiving and Christmas ~ the first birthday ~ the first Mother's Day ~ and, finally, the first anniversary of Paul's death. I choose to make the second anniversaries somewhat easier. 

As I walk through the glass door at the end of the hall I face a future that is bright with a heart that is full. Though the pain of my son's suicide will always be a part of me, it is diminishing. It is being replaced daily with the love of a comforting God and my faithful friends and family. They have steadfastly shared my journey to the glass door, and I trust them to continue to be with me on the other side of it. For all of that I am truly grateful.

So, I soon face an anniversary ~ and a victory. I made it through the first year!

Linda L. Flatt ~ May 1994

Road Map For An Unplanned Trip

How Did I Get Here?
Suddenly you're on a road you did not choose. Something happens. Life happens. A toddler drowns in the family pool, a young husband dies unexpectedly, a precious baby's heart stops just before he is born, the light of a mother's eye is taken from her by a cruel disease, a spouse leaves a marriage after many years, a fragile young man commits suicide. 

Where Am I Going?
You're on the road and there is no turning back. You begin your journey with a shock absorbing patch of fog which gently eases you on. As your vision clears, you see that your path is paved with draining emotions and difficult choices. An initial stretch of anger and fear can lead you on a side trip of resentment, bitterness, and panic - or it can provide you with energy, power, and protection for the rest of your trip. A few miles of guilt and shame can lead to a left turn of lies, unforgiveness, and feelings of worthlessness - or they can help you maintain your system of values and make you responsible and accountable for your mistakes and your imperfections. The inevitable and recurring sections of tears and sadness can delay your journey with immobilizing depression - or they can provide the necessary healing for your emotional wounds and restore your joy.

Am I There Yet?
Gradually, when some time has passed, you begin to find your road easier to travel. Emotions are less intense and decisions are easier to make. You are in the final stretch, that of acceptance and restoration. You realize that you are stronger because of the lessons you have learned out of your experience, and you are grateful for the loving support that God has provided for your journey. More importantly - according to God's plan - and after you have traveled for a season - you turn back and retrace your steps. You meet your fellow traveler along the way and you share your experience, strength, and hope with him. Thus, you may help ease his pain and give your pain and your journey a higher purpose.

Linda Flatt 6/12/95

Unanswered Questions

There are no answers to my questions, and eventually I will stop asking.
But, for now, Paul, I would like to know:

Why did you choose to end your life?

How did your life get so unbearable that you could see no other option but suicide?

Why didn't you come to me and ask for help?

What could I have done to prevent this from happening?

Didn't you know how much I would miss you?
Are you at peace?
Are you in God's care?

The only person (except for God)
with the answers to my questions is unavailable to hear them. 
And it occurs to me that he might not know the answers himself.
So, after three years, maybe it's time to stop asking......

I've become aware that I really don't want answers
as much as a chance to challenge the answers
and change the outcome.

Linda Flatt 5/16/96

Take the Forgiveness Road

We Face A "Bigger" Grieving Process!
Survivors of suicide, those who grieve a suicide death, experience many explosive emotions in the aftermath of their loss. Our grieving is complicated by the nature of the death (which was volitional), the history of the relationship with the victim (which was often stormy), and the survivor's ability to grieve the losses of life (which is sometimes impaired). We spend a season in the protective fog of shock before we face inevitable, but overwhelming and immobilizing, blasts of anger, guilt, shame, and emotional pain (sadness and tears). Whether we reach the final phase of the grieving process - acceptance of our circumstance and restoration to a life of stewardship and joy - will depend on our ability to feel these God-given emotions, share them with other safe people in order to diminish their power over us, and ultimately to release the strangle-hold they have on our lives.

Doing the "Right Thing" Doesn't Feel Like It To Me!
Some of us have had to make difficult decisions in our relationship with a loved one who sometimes (often ?) refused to make their own healthy adult decisions. The final poor choice they made was to end their life rather than effect mature changes in their lives or face the consequences of our "tough love" actions. In short, we stopped enabling their self-destructive behavior and they chose literal and ultimate self-destruction - they committed suicide. Our "tough love" had a shattering impact and feels like a very poor decision on our part. So we ask ourselves yet another tough question that survivors face. Would we rather have had self-protective boundaries and experience a suicide loss, or remain in our dysfunction and, hopefully, keep our loved one alive, in whatever their condition. The answer to this one is very illusive, and moot, because we, unfortunately, don't have the option to put our lives on instant replay and try again. In our case we don't get a second chance to change the outcome. What we can do is choose our reaction to the outcome.

I Will Exchange My Guilt for Grace!
I will need to experience my guilt for a season, and I will want to sift through it to find the truth and the lies about my responsibility for my son's suicide. When I have done that for a sufficient period of time (which is unique to my process) I will take the forgiveness road - which, in my opinion, is inherent in the final acceptance phase of grieving. At the foot of the cross I will confess my guilty feelings, commit to repentance of my guilty actions, and exchange them for the forgiving grace of Jesus Christ. I will stop blaming myself and others, cancel their (and my) debt, and continue on the path of freedom and recovery. 

Linda L. Flatt ~ June 1997

A Basic Plan For Survival 

Choose to Survive
We must make a conscious decision to be an active participant in our own healing process.

Feel the Feelings
We must give ourselves permission to grieve deeply for a season.

Stay Connected
While on the healing journey
we must ask God and safe, supportive people 
to be our traveling companions ~ to share our sorrow, 
ease our fears, defuse our anger, and process our guilt.
In relationship we have a much better chance to reclaim our joy.

Practice Acceptance and Forgiveness
We must give ourselves grace and truth and time 
to eventually accept our loss and forgive others and ourselves.

Slowly Get Back In the Game
All the while we must gently and gradually ease ourselves back into reality.

Be the New You
We are forever changed, yet essentially the same...
living, breathing, loving, inherently precious children of God.

Share Your Experience
We can now be seasoned traveling companions for other survivors on the recovery road.

Linda L. Flatt ~ June 1997

Picking Up The Pieces

THE PUZZLE OF LIFE
Our lives are much like a very large jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces - each piece representing a relationship or an event. Significant people (close relationships) and meaningful experiences occupy more pieces of the puzzle of our lives and as those relationships change so does the puzzle. Over the years a 26-year marriage and two growing children filled large defining pieces in the puzzle of my life. As the children grew and began to build their own puzzles - and when the marriage ended - the picture of my life changed dramatically. Adjusting to an empty nest and recovering from a divorce resulted in a shift in quite a few puzzle pieces, but the overall picture remained intact.

THE PIECES SCATTERED
On June 29, 1993 my life was shattered by the suicide of my 25 year old son, Paul. As I worked to put the pieces back together over the next five years, I began to realize that my life had changed - the pieces of the puzzle did not fit the way they had before the suicide. The reality was that there would never be any more Paul pieces. Paul was no longer physically present in my life and, because of the circumstances of his death, I would never be the same. All I had left of my son was the memory I carried in my heart and in my head. It was now up to me to heal from my emotional injuries, adjust to my loss, and restore my energy and my life.

THE PUZZLE RESTORED
With God's help and the support of loving family and friends I have reconstructed the puzzle of my life and I am once again whole. Though forever changed by a suicide death, I am determined to make those changes positive forces in my life. I have survived - and I am stronger than ever before!

Linda L. Flatt ~ 9/18/98

It's "A God Thing"

Provision
When my son, Paul, took his own life in June, 1993, I suddenly found myself on a very dark road with no light and no roadmap. Having no frame of reference in my life for surviving a suicide death, I faced a complicated and difficult healing process. When some time had passed, the initial anesthetizing patch of fog lifted and my brain began to function again. I realized that God was not only providing light, love, and guidance for my journey, but that he had also lovingly equipped me to walk that treacherous road.

Preparation
Five years before my son's death I experienced a divorce - after 26 years of marriage, and God graciously provided me with an extensive divorce recovery education. Among other things, I learned to gradually let go of a relationship and to accept the loss of future dreams. I learned how to grieve and to experience and express all of my God-given emotions in an adult, moderate way. I learned to practice forgiveness - for others and for myself. I learned to take responsibility and ownership of my life. I learned that I had no control over the choices of others and no responsibility for the consequences of their behavior. I learned to connect with safe people in healthy relationships and how to ask for their help without shame or guilt. And, most importantly, I learned to fully experience God's presence and to hold on tight to my inherent value as His beloved child - in the midst of rejection and abandonment. With God's help, a lot of hard work, two support groups, and a host of encouraging friends and family members - I survived that divorce and did a great deal of growing up in the process.

Beyond Survival
All of those lessons have provided me with just the right tools to survive and overcome an even more incomprehensible loss - and also to share that experience with others in order to shed the light of God's love on their dark path. That's what I call "A GOD THING" - because I certainly could not have done any of it in my own strength!

Linda L. Flatt ~ October 1998

Anniversaries and Choices

The sixth anniversary of Paul's suicide
brought a slight heaviness to my chest –
only a mild reminder
of the incredible pain
of the first day of this journey.

As the day passed,
I found myself wanting to relive that first day,
moment by moment.
But I resisted that impulse
and made a decision
not to revisit the pain of the past.

My life is different now –
I am strong and whole again.

Today, I chose to remember my son
while staying in the present
and preserving my wholeness.

Because of the work I've done
n the last six years,
I was able to do just that!

Another year of healing begins………….

Linda L. Flatt ~ 6/29/99

From Anguish to Activism: Transcending a Suicide Loss

By Linda L. Flatt
January 2000

There are two new titles that I've acquired in the last few years. In a recent Las Vegas Review Journal article, I was labeled an activist. When I first saw that in print, I felt that it was pretty extreme –I certainly don't feel like an activist. Actually, I prefer the term advocate. I am an advocate for the prevention of suicide, and I am working to improve suicide prevention efforts in my community. In the fall of 1997, I became a Community Organizer for Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network (SPAN), a grassroots organization dedicated to the development of a proven, effective national strategy for suicide prevention. Recently, I helped establish the new Nevada chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and participated in the first survivor conference to be held in Nevada – AFSP's Survivors for Suicide Prevention Conference on November 20, 1999. 

So, I guess you could say that I'm an activist. But, before I became an activist, I became a survivor of suicide. That was a title I had never heard and certainly never wanted. On June 29, 1993, my tall, handsome son Paul took his own life - at the age of 25.

Suddenly, I found myself on a dark and treacherous road with no light and no road map. I had no frame of reference in my life for surviving my child, much less his suicide death. For the first few weeks, I was in a thick, anesthetizing fog. When that lifted, I experienced overwhelming waves of anger – anger at Paul, anger at myself for the parenting mistakes I had made, anger at the counselors who had seen Paul over the years – and not fixed him, anger at God for allowing this incomprehensible experience to happen in my life. And I was also angry with all of the other moms who could still watch their sons grow to adulthood, get married, and have children. I shook my fist a lot during this season of anger.

Slowly, crushing guilt became tangled in the anger. I felt like a total failure as a mom – that I was somehow responsible for not equipping my son to make good choices. It seemed my fault that he made this final poor choice to end his life rather than change his self-destructive behavior. I spent hours trying to rework my reality in my mind – trying to find answers to questions that had no answers – as though the answers would somehow change the outcome. Like many survivors, "If only I had", "If only I hadn't", and "Why?" were my constant thought companions.

The incredible emotional pain of the loss of my son was also ever-present. Recurrent tears, heaviness in my chest, frequent sighing, and the inability to sleep became commonplace. Although the structure and routine of my office was somewhat comforting, I found it difficult to concentrate or focus on tasks – at work or at home. It was as though my brain was rebelling against this experience. Or, possibly this was my brain's way of forcing me to be gentle with myself in my grief. Whichever, the fog did not lift completely for over a year. During that time, I found it difficult to think about anything except Paul and his suicide. Everything around me was a reminder of my loss.

I can remember waking up on the first year anniversary of the suicide and expecting everything to be back to "normal". Didn't happen! The second year after Paul's death was somewhat easier than the first, and the third year was tolerable – but I soon became aware that suicide bereavement was a part of who I was. It was up to me to decide how I would incorporate that experience into my life.

As an active participant in my own healing process, I read everything I could get my hands on about the grieving process as it relates to suicide. Soon, I realized that I had gathered too much valuable material to keep to myself. Three years after Paul died, I started a survivor bereavement support group at my church. Sharing my pain with others who are also broken-hearted by a suicide death –and watching the victories come from the struggles in the group – have been the gifts that Iris Bolton promised me in her book, My Son, My Son... Iris's book was the first ray of light on my healing journey, and as time passes, I watch other group members share the light and love they receive in our group. I call that the "Iris Bolton gift exchange"!

In September 1997, I went to LaRita Archibald's survivor's conference in Colorado Springs. I attended Frank Campbell's wonderful keynote address and all of the workshops –and gathered even more great information about healing after a suicide. During the conference I heard murmurs about suicide prevention, and I deliberately covered my ears. I didn't want to go there – I had neither the time nor the energy for prevention work. The first day I managed to evade the SPAN missionaries, but on the second day I had lunch with a survivor who worked for the Colorado State Department of Health. She noticed my name badge and remarked in a much-too-loud voice, "You're from Nevada!" She proceeded to tell me about Senator Reid's involvement with SR 84, Nevada's high suicide rate (the highest in the U.S.), and the work that SPAN was doing to develop a national strategy for suicide prevention. "Except for Senator Reid, we don't have a survivor voice in Nevada", she said. To shorten the story, I called the founders of SPAN in Atlanta as soon as I got home. I quickly caught a spark of their energy, added it to my own energy that was slowly beginning to return, and, before I knew it, I was an "activist".

In March of last year I was involved in the exciting process of presenting a state suicide prevention resolution to the Nevada State Legislature in Carson City. That resolution was adopted in that legislative session, and money was appropriated to expand a statewide toll free suicide hot line. In May 1999, the Nevada chapter of AFSP was established in Las Vegas. Our board is dedicated to raising public awareness of the significant suicide problem in our state –and improving suicide prevention education in our community. My prayer is that the collaborative work of SPAN and AFSP will make a significant difference in the way the people of Nevada deal with suicide survivors and suicide prevention.

For over six years I have traveled from the healing path to the survivor support path – and on to the prevention advocacy path. It is a path I am now comfortable with, because I have worked through my feelings of guilt and responsibility for my son's death. I can embrace the fact that many suicides are preventable, and I now believe that there is very important work to be done. Out of my experience I have discovered that one voice – my voice –can make a difference. One message will be heard – if it is clear, persistent, and directed to the right people. I also know that MANY clear, persistent voices can carry the message farther–and make more of a difference. Let us all heed the U.S. Surgeon General's Call to Action and become activists for the prevention of suicide!!

The above article was reprinted from "Lifesavers" ( Vol 12, No. 1 - Winter 2000 ) - the quarterly newsletter from AFSP  - American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.