The first month after suicide is hell. Here are some strategies that helped me through it.
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
Part 5 of the Secular Suicide Survivor series. Here’s how it began.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably suffered some type of traumatic loss. If so, I’m truly sorry. Nobody wants to join the Traumatic Loss Club, but you’ll discover our membership rolls are surprisingly large. And they’re full of empathic people who would be honored to help you.
Sugarcoating is pointless (downright harmful, actually), so I’m not going to lie to you. The month after Josh killed himself was the hardest of my life. These are 12 coping strategies that helped me through it. As with anything I write, take whatever you find useful and leave the rest.
1. Attend to basic nutrition
When Josh died, food tasted like sand for a while, and my hunger signals were unreliable. But I knew I needed to eat my usual three meals, and I’m glad I did.
Your adrenal glands are firing out combat-intensity levels of stress hormones, so you need to replenish your calorie stores regularly. You’re going to feel depleted, so don’t allow malnutrition to contribute to your fatigue.
Likewise, all my crying dried me out. Be sure to drink plenty of water.
2. Get the best sleep you can
I’m a lifelong insomniac, but fortunately I was practicing decent sleep hygiene and on an effective medication regimen when Josh died. If you’re having difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, awakening too early, or suffering from nightmares, please talk to your doctor. Trazodone and Melatonin have done wonders for me, but your own mileage may vary.
My sleep practices have solid data as their foundation, so consider enacting them if you aren’t already: use your bed only for sleep and sexy time; stick to a consistent bedtime and wakeup time; turn off all screens (phone included!) 60 minutes before your desired sleep time; keep your bedroom cool; avoid napping; and no caffeine for the eight hours leading up to nighty-night.
3. Seek help, of the professional and peer-supported varieties
During my heaviest bouts of clinical depression, I benefited immensely from psychotherapy. The therapist I saw through my divorce was a wonder-worker in particular, and I still return to the insights we found together (thank you, Graham, if you ever read this).
Within days of Josh’s death, I was online looking for a therapist, and through professional connections, I had my first session with Dr. H that same week. She’s aided me tangibly in several ways: to open myself up to good help, to cry without shame, and to walk into my guilt rather than pointlessly try and outrun it.
Not everyone has such rapid access to therapy, but fortunately, peer support groups are free and available to everyone. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention–a marvelous resource in so many ways–offers a search engine to find suicide survivor groups in your community. If you can’t locate one nearby, they offer nationwide groups via Zoom, too.
Eight days after Josh died, my wife Jessica and I attended our first group, and it’s been SOOOO good for us. It unblocks Jessica, allowing her to mourn and cry over Josh. I’ve learned to be kinder and forgiving towards myself, by extending grace and kindness to other survivors. We’ve realized there’s a universality to the emotions of suicide grief. We haven’t lost our damn minds.
4. Lean heavily on the good people in your life
I’m an introvert through and through. I enjoy my own company, whether nose in a book, watching a movie, hiking with my pup, or sampling a new microbrewery. Since September 12th, I’ve found that prolonged solitude is harmful.
The day after Josh’s suicide, Jessica and I were in emotional freefall. For me–I’m not gonna lie–I thought my own suicide would be a welcome relief. Jessica telephoned a friend who’d lost her own son to violent death, and she talked us off our emotional ledge.
A neighbor couple we’d only met a few months previously has reached out to us weekly, gently nudging us to dine or play D&D with them. Sometimes we reminisce about Josh, sometimes not. I’m grateful beyond words for our new friends’ consistency.
I text my adult children Paul and Liz regularly, and we talk weekly. Our conversations meander through how we’re coping, our memories of Josh, and plenty of non-Josh stuff, too.
In the aftermath of your own loss, you’ll find some friends and family go MIA, and some are downright toxic. But you’ll discover unexpected stars. Bask in their light.
5. Accept the waves of emotion
My hours have emotional themes. Sometimes it’s guilt, sometimes near-overwhelming sadness, numbness, or dazed disbelief. At other times, I smile, even laugh, at my Josh memories.
I’ve learned these waves of emotion are significantly out of my control. Rather than attempting to outswim them, I acknowledge and endure them, even if they involve crying in a public place. In doing so, I’ve found ways to soothe myself if I start feeling hopeless. Like ocean waves, the surges of emotion will pass. If they aren’t passing soon enough for you, contact someone you trust, or call the toll-free number in the first paragraph.
6. Strive for balance
The scientific literature on bereavement speaks of the need to balance intentional grieving time with distraction and non-grieving activities. There’s wisdom in this. Melancholic music and lighthearted TV shows have been beneficial diversions for Jessica and me, as have the next two items below.
7. Exercise regularly
In the first week following Josh’s suicide, Jessica and I hiked vigorously every day, until we hit a wall of exhaustion on Day 7. We shared whatever we were thinking, and sometimes we wept as we trudged.
Prior to September 12th, I had a routine of a 40-minute dog walk after work every day, with a longer nature hike on Saturday or Sunday. Since Josh’s death, I’ve extended my weekday walks to an average of three miles daily. I have no doubt this aids my sleep, while giving me space to think and feel whatever my grief is offering that day.
8. Savor nature
In the splendid documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, late legendary drummer Neil Peart disclosed how he motorcycled for 50,000 miles after the deaths of his wife and his daughter in rapid succession. I took down this quote for its resonance: “It was landscapes, highways, and wildlife that revitalized me…Timeless landscapes…give your tiny existence a new perspective when you’re among things that are millions of years old.”
Preach it, brother. I love to engage my senses on my neighborhood perambulations and longer hikes. Smell the leaves underfoot and the evergreens above. Listen to the wind through the trees, hear the scornful squawk of a Steller’s jay. Feel the moss carpet under my fingers, the light rain on my face. Notice the neighbor’s flowers, or find the raven perched up high. To engage my artistic sense, I take my camera everywhere.
9. Be kind to yourself
Pre-suicide, I devoured books and averaged a movie every other day. Nowadays, books are sometimes cracked open only as a sleep aid, and I seldom have the attention span to sit through a film. Instead, I enjoy prolonged videogame sessions, music videos, or an episode or two of a TV show.
In the same vein, I’m easily overstimulated by noise or kids in my environment, and my fuse is shorter. I’m ready to apologize, or I simply walk away.
You’re just not going to have your usual emotional or mental stamina. Previous editions of psychiatry’s diagnostic guide, the (in)famous DSM, used to rank stressors on a rating scale. Guess what? Losing a loved one to suicide was deemed “catastrophic,” the same level as surviving a concentration camp! So, if you’re living the aftermath of your personal Dachau, be gentle with yourself.
10. Minimize addictive substances
Around the time of my divorce, there were several evenings I consumed too many beers, and I realized that, as advertised, alcohol functioned as a depressant for me. (Pro tip: Despite being a sedative, it also prevents deep, restful sleep.) After a few years alcohol-free, I safely resumed my pleasure in a daily microbrew. And, truth be told, I like the slight edge the alcohol takes off my workday stress.
Since Josh’s death, I’ve been vigilant to hold myself to that single beer. I recognize the temptation to self-medicate and know it’s not a path to enter.
For over a decade, I’ve been prescribed a controlled substance, Klonopin, for anxiety and sleep. I was proud I’d been able to taper from 1 mg to 0.25 mg nightly in the six months preceding Josh’s death, under my doctor’s supervision. When I saw my doc on the Friday after Josh died, he insisted on bumping my dose back up to 0.5 mg, for which I’m very grateful.
A few of Josh’s family members gave cannabis a whirl before his memorial. It was not a good experience, paradoxically ramping up their anxiety.
All this to say, it might be worth talking to a trusted prescriber if post-traumatic anxiety is roiling your insides. If you partake of cannabis in moderation already, I see little harm in it, but if it’s not already customary, this is probably not a good time to start. And opiates for anxiety, depression, or sleep? Don’t even go there, friend.
11. Embrace structure and healthy routine
Since rejecting religion and theism, I’ve been an occasional dabbler in philosophy, the ancient Greeks and 20th Century existentialists in particular. Fortuitously, I picked up Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic on a whim in early 2021, and it resonated immediately. Since then, I’ve been starting my days by reflecting on a Stoic text (a good starting list is here), finding they strengthen my ability to handle conflict and stress with equanimity.
If you’ve found something—like my mindful walking or daily Stoic meditation—that helped you cope pre-suicide, I would persevere with it in the aftermath. A healthy routine is stabilizing, when you’re shaken by the earthquake of traumatic loss.
Return to work as you feel ready
I went back to work nine days after Josh suicided, a decision I don’t regret. At a time that’s forced me to stare my successes, failures, and inadequacies as a parent in the face, it’s been a relief to do something at which I know I’m better than competent. I’m also a pretty decent compartmentalizer. Having 34 hours a week, where Josh’s death and my grief recede to the background, was a welcome respite.
A month later, my usual schedule was exhausting me mentally and physically, and I felt it necessary to reduce my work time to three days weekly. In January, I added another half-day. Not everyone has this freedom of choice, but individualize your work pace if it’s possible.