A Guide By: Jill Cowan Co-Creator and President of Healing to The Max, Inc.
Suffering a Loss of Identity - Where Do We Begin?
One of the complex aspects of losing my beloved 16 year old son, Max by suicide, was the loss of my own identity. For myself, much of who I was was “Max’s Mom”. Many of his friend’s, who stayed over at our house regularly over the years, would just call me, “Max’s Mom”. I am not even sure how many of them knew what my actual name was! Of course, it was a term of endearment, and I loved hearing this! It is a title of honour; you are someone special in the life of this person. You are a person to be relied upon; for making meals and tasty snacks, to bandaging up minor injuries and providing a listening ear and comforting advice; and of course, being the source of transport to sporting events, parties, part-time jobs, and homework support! In the moment we discovered our son had not survived that most terrible of nights, an unwelcome sort of unfamiliar quiet came over our home, and our lives. It didn’t happen in the first few weeks of the frenzied activity of planning the funeral, and doing the unbidden tasks of closing down a life, but it did come.
The loss of my identity was, by far, the most difficult aspect for myself to reconcile. Though my life came with it’s share of complications, I always felt so lucky. I was deeply grateful for my home, filled with three children I adored, a misfit dog that seemed to go perfectly with our rag-tag gang, and a handsome husband who I enjoyed sharing adventures with. Nothing quite fit after we lost Max by suicide. Everything felt unfamiliar, and all the joy of our lives, and hope was drained away; replaced by the deafening quiet that was only broken by one of us crying, or voicing the ruminating questions out loud. We were all lost in a sea of the traumatic loss and grief we all felt on an cellular level.
I knew that there would be no return of joy or hope in our lives, if I could not find a way to calm the storm raging inside my soul. The one that cast me into this life of pain, and unknowns. The last decisions I had made, had added up to a deadly conclusion. I felt like a newborn baby - fragile, and afraid....the fear seemed to replace my very bones with glass shards of sheer horror. Yet, I had two surviving children who I know, needed a mother, now more than ever, a bereaved husband, and a life filled with all the adult responsibility that I had before I lost my son. I began to make a plan to begin to live, again. It didn’t happen over night, but it began to take shape with the seemingly simple first strands of thoughts:
“ I hate this. I will have to find a way to live with this. I will not allow the brilliance of Max’s life to be shrouded and defined by the pain of his death. I will allow the love we shared to be the greatest thing of everyday. I am still, Max’s Mom”.
Identifying Intension - What is Important to Highlight as We Learn to Live With Our Grief and Joy, Hand in Hand?
It is very valuable for any person, but most especially, a bereaved one, to begin to identify how they will live with intension. When we’ve lost a loved one in such a tragic way, it seems even more important to go forward living a life that is meaningful. This can seem very daunting when we are grieving, and struggling with the effects of the trauma, when the loss we’ve endured is by suicide.
For myself, I began to think about the most difficult calendar days. The anniversary of my son’s passing, and his birthday were at the top of that list; but also, so were the regular holidays. I did not want these days and occasions to become things to dread. Time is precious, and I didn’t know (and still do not)... how much time we had to be together on this Earth, and I did not want my surviving loved ones to begin to avoid participating in life based on what day it was on the calendar. Identifying that we needed a plan to approach these calendar events was priority one. For us, we decided that we would find a local charity who would accept a group of volunteers of a variety of ages, and we would spend Max’s special calendar days, in service to those in need in our community. I knew that there was nothing I could do to shift the pain that comes with those days, but I told my surviving children, we could always, always still help another. On Max’s first birthday, we served over 1,000 meals to the most vulnerable residents in the city we live in. I was also filmed a project on volunteerism on that day, that was shown in high schools across Canada. I spoke on why we had chosen to volunteer on our late-son’s birthday. We all came back to our house afterwards, and had a meal and played board games. We are going into year nine, and instead of feeling trepidation and copious amounts of sadness, Max’s special days are something we all look forward to. They have become days we set aside, to devote to his sweet and generous nature, and spend time standing in the warmth of love he shared with us all!
When I meet newly bereaved people, I always encourage them to keep the traditions that they want to continue. I also encourage them to try new things. If it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be a good fit, then you can leave it to the side. If you go to a family gathering, and you can only stay for fifteen minutes, then I am proud of you for going! At least you left the comfort of your four walls, and tried! As you begin to find a plan that feels like it’s a good fit for those big calendar days, you will begin to feel more confident in the life you are building. This new life includes honouring your grief, and living in a way that feels correct for yourself and your surviving loved ones. Have open conversations about your thoughts regarding the hard days. Ask for your loved one’s input. What qualities would you like to highlight, and honour in your loved one, lost by suicide? Do they love animals, art, baking, sports, travelling....?? The possibilities are endless to coming up with creative ways to begin to shape this new chapter. If doing something in honour of your loved one is something you are not ready for, you can mark these occasions in more private and quiet way. There is no right or wrong way to navigate these challenging days of being bereaved by suicide. In our program of hope and healing, we find ways to live with our grief and joy, hand in hand. How we do this is as unique and individual as a snowflake. However you choose to begin to identify ways to live with your grief and joy joy, know that every step you are taking is incredibly brave! We are surviving what is unimaginable to most people; so if it feels right to close the doors to the world on these days, then that is exactly right for you! There is no award for doing more, or doing differently than you are planning on doing. The most important thing is to show yourself some compassion. This is really hard...like, unimaginable to most, worst nightmare, hard. When the time is right for you, the plan for identifying a life filled with renewed intension will become important. If that time is not now, then turn that inner voice to that of your best friend’s. If it was they were the one whom had suffered this loss, instead of you, they would never say the unsupportive things you are punishing yourself with ! I am so sorry, that like myself, you’ve lost a beloved one in this tragic way. While I would change this for myself, and yourself, if I could, I am glad you’re reading this. This is the first step in learning to live a life with renewed intension.
Taking Action - Ways We Can Incorporate What Feels Right to Honour Ourselves, Our Surviving Loved Ones, and Our Beloved One, Lost by Suicide.
One of my top strategies that I still use to this day is, journal writing. In the beginning, my journal was writing about my emotions, and all the complex experiences I was going through as a bereaved mother, with surviving children. I also had an art journal (in which everything I painted was black for more than a year...), and a gratitude journal, that I used with my husband. The gratitude journal, just to tell you briefly, was a notebook in which we would write three things that we were grateful for the other person, that day. We would leave this where we knew the other person would find it at the end of the day, and they could read what we’d each written. Some days, were simple things like:
- You got me a cup of tea before I got out of bed this morning.
- You folded my laundry.
- You went to work, and that helped us pay the household bills.
After only a few short weeks of using the gratitude journal, we realized how much we really did love, appreciate and value the other person. I don’t need to tell anyone who has suffered this loss, of the absolute devastation this will reap on all your relationships. The extreme nature of this is going test even the most solid of foundations. I always like to share a few of my top tips for helping to bridge a gap in communication. A strained relationship is not the signal to throw it into the bin - it is a signal that we need to find new ways of finding our way back to one another.
You don’t have to be an experienced writer to journal. It is yours to keep, and you don’t have to share it with anyone, so don’t worry about grammar, sentence structure and spelling. Just begin by putting down some ideas in bullet points to help you identify ways you like to best honour yourself, your surviving loved ones, and your loved one whom has made their physical transition. Make columns that could look like this:
MYSELF MY LOVED ONES MY BELOVED ONE IN SPIRIT
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -
Write down some qualities you’d like to honour in each column, as you begin to think about shaping a life filled with new intension. Is service to others important to you, your loved ones, and was it something your loved one who has transitioned, that they too valued? Was rescuing animals a passion you all share? What about your favourite foods - is there an occasion where you could you make all your loved one’s favourite foods and share it with other’s? What about donations to a charity that is close to all your hearts? Is there a book you all loved to read, or perhaps a film or tv series you enjoyed together? Could this theme be incorporated into future holidays in someway? Can you make a special ornament to keep in your home that you know is special to you all? Is there a colour that reminds you of your loved one, that you’d like to plant flowers in the garden this spring? Living with intension and honouring your loved one can be very subtle. When my family gathers for a special occasion, or I have an important public event to attend, I wear my son’s signature colour in some way. Whether it is my whole outfit, or just a pair of earrings, I always have a small tribute to my son in what I am wearing. No one knows I do this, and that’s not the point. The point is, to feel I am honouring my everlasting and enduring connection in all that I do! Look at the qualities you’ve listed and see if you can begin to make a plan for how you’d begin to put your ideas into action.
I always highly recommend that you find ways to begin to practice self-care throughout your days as a bereaved person. We have suffered an immeasurable amount of trauma, and will grieve our loss, to some degree, for the remainder of our lives. I have never met a parent yet, who has been on this journey longer than myself, who has not regretted the blocks they imposed on themselves, to taking better care. Self-care is vital in ensuring you will have the energy to living a life filled with intension. Whether you begin in small ways, such as hydrating throughout the day with more water intake, and maybe doing some deep breathing exercises; or you go back to the gym, know that these all huge steps towards healing. There are no time limits, and no boundaries on how we start to adopt self-care back into our lives. You may go back to things you enjoyed prior to losing your loved one, or you may adopt entire new things, like long walks in nature, as opposed to your usual runs.
I know that as you take some time to think about
how you’d like to incorporate honouring those special connections you share with all your loved ones, both the ones whom are here, and the ones who are with you in spirit, you will begin to take action, and honour this new life of living with great intension.
With Much Love, and