The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
[Author's note: The title for this post comes from the Don McLean song "Vincent" and references van Gogh's suicide. ("And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do...") It's important to note that I will be discussing suicide and the emotions surrounding it in depth in this post.]
As my previous post (this post's prequel, if you will) explained, suicide has been a hot topic of late, not just in the world of celebrities and infamy, but also locally in my own community over the last couple of years. Seeing The Starry Night brought a lot of things bubbling to the surface.
I have, up until these posts, been relatively silent on suicide. Not because I have had nothing to say, but because I have so much I want to say. My last post was all about how we approach suicide externally. The things we do and say in an effort to curb the numbers and encourage people to seek help. How those tactics ultimately fail, and what we can all do to prevent or at least lessen those failures.
For this post, I want to focus more on the how we inwardly react to and process news of a loved one's suicide. I'm not sure whether this will help, but I've always found discussing grief with others to be therapeutic. Learning how others approach and work through grief can provide a wealth of insight into our own grief rituals.
The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They're all worth a deep-dive, but the stage that has always fascinated me (that may not be the right word...) the most is anger. One of the biggest challenges grieving people face is where to direct that anger when it pops up. Sometimes the rage is subtle, fleeting, easily managed. But other times it is unrelenting. It lashes out with an unexpected brutality and doesn't care whether you know what to do with it.
The reason anger is such a challenging stage is because most deaths don't afford us a target for our anger, or at least not a clear and distinct one. For example, when my Gramma died of colon cancer, I was angry. She was 98, and I didn't understand why she wasn't "allowed" to simply die peacefully in her sleep. But I had no one and nothing I could be angry at. The ire was flung outward into the deaf, uncaring, and indifferent universe. "FUCK YOUUUUU!" I screamed in my head, but it landed nowhere. It dissolved into the abyss of my mind. I imagined that the universe could hear my thoughts, that it knew I was angry but cared so little that it did not even bother to acknowledge me, let alone my affect.
Perhaps, though, anthropomorphizing the known universe is not helpful in such situations.
Often in the wake of a loss, we have nowhere to place our rage. So when we lose a loved one and a target presents itself, it is not uncommon for survivors to take advantage of the "gift." Someone's murdered or killed in an accident and the family shows up at the court room suppressing outbursts but not looks of absolute, ravenous hatred.
Even in those instances when the death is the person's own fault, the survivors often shove their anger onto the nearest reasonable target. A guy does a death-defying stunt on a skyscraper's roof but fails to defy death, and those left behind bring a hellacious tirade to the building owners for not securing the roof well enough.
But suicide is different. It is one of the only - if not the only - types of loss where our nuclear emotions get stuck in a tailspin. In one sense, suicide's "gift" (and I use that term with tongue heavily in cheek) is that we have a clear, unavoidable target for our ire: the suicide victim. We don't have to hunt for blame, we know where it wants to land. I've heard so many people seethe through steamy tears, "Why didn't they get help? Why didn't they think of me/us/you? Why did they do this to themselves? To us?!"
But it takes precious little time to realize that our indignation is sullying the memory of the person we're mourning. Instead of sating some need within us to lay blame, we have begun to taint the very memories that we are also desperate to cling to and share with other survivors.
So most of us do the only other thing we can with that tsunami of disdain: turn it inward. And therein lies one of the cruelest tricks of the grieving process for suicides. For once we know where our anger wants to be aimed, but it's literally the one person we can't bare to aim it at.
So instead we blame ourselves. We could blame bullies or estranged and abusive family members or narcissistic exes or doctors who "failed" them or any number of external "causes" for our dearly departed's loss of hope. And yet we blame ourselves. No matter how much we loved them, how much we supported them, how desperately we worked to get them help, we can always make it our fault. No matter how well they hid their pain, we are always the responsible ones in our minds.
As with most things in the world of psychology, there's no easy answer. It's important to allow the grief to run its course, but don't let it run away with your heart. You're not to blame. They're not to blame (for more on that, see Part 1). Much like when my Gramma died from colon cancer, you'll find that when all is said and done, blame and anger aren't as simple as they appear to be on the surface. Sometimes our only recourse is to scream into that void. Empty all your hate and pain into it. Let it swallow it all. Give yourself permission to love both the suicide victim and yourself.
Don't let your grief distort your view of who you are the way depression distorted your loved one's view of the world around them.
It keeps running away with me
through the narrow passages in my head
Why do I let it get to me so
When I know I won't care once I'm...
once I'm...once I'm....
And there's a darkened cloud below
where the ocean once used to be
If falling is the new drowning now
Let the sky, thick like death, rush into...
The sun rises on shame & sets on blame
Helios has forgotten my name
Hyperion cuts me down to size
Selene pities me with her cratered eyes
Life keeps running away with me
through the pathways dying in my head
Why do I get so terrified
'Cause I won't care once I'm...
once I'm...once I'm...