This week, I was moved by a mindfulness teaching about surrendering attachments, living lightly on the earth, and recognizing the fleeting nature of existence. But when I tried to meditate on the “let go, let God” mantra, I was overcome with tears. It’s not just that I’m a tough audience for the “letting go” message, given my history. (I’m an only child who lost my small family in my formative years and my younger son in mid-life; I’ve always been fiercely attached to my attachments, having never had enough of them to feel secure.) It’s that for those of us dealing with traumatic loss and grief, the invitation to let go can feel discordant, insensitive, and downright scary.
“Grief is love not wanting to let go,” writes Rabbi Earl Grollman. And the prospect of letting go after a suicide or major trauma will always be different than letting go amidst the normal ups and downs of life.
In the first few years after my son Noah’s suicide, I clung desperately to every memory, every possible explanation, every offer of support or comfort from friends or strangers. I couldn’t let go of the living Noah and my living love for him, even though I knew he was gone, and our connection would have to change. And I couldn’t shake my sense of guilt for not being able to save him. Letting go of these things felt like abandoning my child.
Being told to “let go” while grieving a suicide sounds like the common wisdom to “get over it” or “be strong” so we can “move on.” Many of us need to sit with our grief for a long time. Some survivors wait months or years before they’re ready to sort through their loved one’s belongings or clear out their room or apartment. Some cling to anger at God or doctors or relatives who they blame for the suicide. While a small number of survivors may get stuck in extreme forms of unhealthy grief, most of us should not be hurried or pushed. It’s when we allow ourselves to fully express, explore, and process our grief, experts say, that we become open to post-traumatic growth. (And survivors with PTSD from the suicide may need professional help, like EMDR therapy, as part of healthy processing.)
Maybe it’s best for survivors to let the unclenching happen naturally, gradually, over time, and notice it looking backward, rather than with intention, looking forward. A year after my son’s death, I realized that I’d stopped crying every day. At two years, I’d stopped needing to talk about the suicide all the time. At three years, I still carried a great burden of guilt but could feel a bit of it easing into regret. I’ll always be a survivor of suicide loss, but I’ve loosened my grasp on that identity today, six years after the suicide, compared to the early stages.
I’ll never fully let go of grief because it’s bound up with love and has formed me over many years. Intense, all-encompassing phases of grief still surface — and that’s OK. Meanwhile, grief is changing in its size, shape, and location in my life. Maybe what I need to let go of is any expectation of what grief should be and instead be mindful of how it actually feels in the moment.
To my fellow survivors: What comes to mind when you think of “letting go” as you move through grief after suicide? Does letting go appeal to you or feel threatening? It can be helpful to step back at intervals and take stock of what has shift ed over time, with or without your efforts. Are you as easily triggered now as you were six months ago? Have some physical symptoms of trauma subsided? Do you notice even the slightest lifting of the pain you carry every day? Take note of the ways you are moving toward healing, in your own time.
Susan Auerbach is a suicide survivor and writer. You can read more inspiring reflections by Susan and learn more about her story through her blog, Walking the Mourners Path After a Child’s Suicide http://afterachildssuicide.blogspot.com, and her book, “I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage & Clarity After Suicide Loss” (Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2017).