Kyle Jefferson*. I haven’t heard that name in years. But now as I’m driving downtown, those words on the news set my heart pounding. He’s dead. He’d already tried to kill himself twice, and I’m almost certain he died by his own hand. The world turns blurry as tears cascade down my cheeks, and I pull over to the curb to avoid an accident.
Shards of memories, sharp and painful, slice through my brain. His long, warm, musician’s fingers gripping mine. His amber-green eyes, luminous as a cat’s. His throaty chuckle when he made an off-color joke. Never again. I go to his memorial. I find out that his depression had returned after he lost his job. No one says it out loud, but the atmosphere is toxic with the taboo of suicide. I can barely breathe. When I tell my friends later, they shrug and look away. Some say I should be happy that he’s no longer suffering. Suicide is much harder to bear than other deaths for “survivors,” (the friends and family left behind), says Toronto holistic psychotherapist Victoria Lorient-Faibish. When someone dies naturally, we are generally at peace. “But suicide is a shock causing tremendous trauma,” says Lorient-Faibish. Survivors’ supporters often clam up because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Many survivors develop depression, says Lorient-Faibish. They often torture themselves with recriminations, wondering “Why didn’t I detect what was going on?” Others become angry at the “selfish”, deliberate death. After Kyle’s memorial, I plunged into mourning. I regularly slept past noon. I stuffed myself with ice cream to anesthetize the agony. I was tormented by guilt, wishing I had stayed in touch with him. Our love affair began shortly after his second suicide attempt. We met at a party. I felt immediately protective toward the rock star-turned-lawyer with an impish grin and eyes veiled in pain. Both our lives were sinking. Kyle’s wife had left him when he started drinking. I had been fired from my job as a family doctor after making errors in my charts. We became each other’s rock. He supported my dream of becoming a writer, and I cooked him nutritious meals. He edited my prose with dazzling logic, and I wrote him a love poem. On my bad days, he would stroke my hair and call me Honey. And one day, he told me I’d saved him. But his nurturing skidded to a halt after six months when he announced that he was “damaged goods” and wanted out. Years later, he would apologize for hurting me. As I pored over my memories, I tried desperately to piece together Kyle’s unraveling. He was neglected by his depressed mother and distant father. I suspected his job loss crumbled his already shaky self-esteem. I was obsessed with knowing the exact sequence of events leading up to his suicide. I called his friend for details but she said he seemed fine the last time she saw him. Sometimes, even now, I talk to him out loud, asking “why?” Obsessing over the details of the death is common amongst suicide survivors, says Lorient-Faibish. In the face of the unimaginable, the brain goes on a fishing expedition to come up with answers. “It’s trying to do something positive, going round and round to find reason from something that is meaningless.”
For me, the hardest part is still surrendering the daydream of salvation. My therapist tells me gently that only Kyle could have saved himself. He had friends, he was treated by an eminent psychiatrist, and he had a beautiful new woman in his life—but he hadn’t turned to any of them for help. Even if I had kept ties with him, it would not have made a difference. Lorient-Faibish recommends that all suicide survivors seek support through bereavement groups or counseling to reduce isolation and guilt. “The suicide is nobody else’s fault—it’s the responsibility of the person who chose to end their life,” she says. But while we can’t control the decisions of our loved ones, meditation can help us get a grip on our obsessive thoughts, says Lorient-Faibish. During meditation, she likens our minds to a screen door: “The thoughts are coming in and going out and we’re letting them go.” Surrendering destructive preoccupations with the suicide will ultimately bring us peace. Taking up a new hobby or traveling to a new destination can be distracting, says Lorient-Faibish. “This will help create new neural pathways along with new memories,” she says. So I did something unprecedented and attended my first hockey game. My senses coalesced into a razor-sharp focus. My mind had no room for mourning. And then, the perfect finish. I followed the puck as it was propelled across the wide expanse of the rink, ripping up flakes of ice before slamming adeptly into the unguarded net. Our team won. I leaped to my feet without thinking, propelled by the force of the crowd. I clapped as hard as I could, cheering for my home team and for my life. *Name has been changed