After my son died by suicide, I kept replaying “the phone call”: where I was, what I was doing and what I did immediately following receiving the tragic news. I would do this throughout the day and even more so at night. Nighttime was the worse because I did not have the distractions of simple daily activities. I laid awake at night and rehearsed the events so I would not forget them. I felt compelled to remember every single detail.
Initially, I thought doing this would help me to remember my son. I did not want to forget him. As time passed, I discovered that replaying this series of events was hurting me. I was injuring myself each and every time I did it. It was like pouring salt into an open flesh wound. Just when I thought I was starting to accept his death and take a step forward, the nightmare of how he died returned. It haunted me whenever it wanted to and followed me wherever I went.
I got tired of feeling like I was being sucker punched. I set my intention to change. I wanted to move forward. I started by truly accepting that my son died by suicide. It logically flowed that I had to get rid of the story I told myself, that replaying the phone call was keeping his memory alive. I knew in my heart that there were better ways to remember my son and keep his memory alive than traumatizing myself with his death. The problem was how?
I already experienced this tragedy once. I was not meant to live through it multiple times. Doing so, re-traumatizing myself made me feel very unsafe. I felt like I was in danger, that I could possibly loose someone else, and that my entire world was shattered.
Yes, the possibility of another loved one dying exists, it is part of the circle of life. I should expect it to happen. My son was not my entire world. He was one piece of it. Yes, when that one piece was taken away, my life changed, not all of it though. I had my daughters, I was healthy, I still had friends, a home, and food on the table.
I needed to feel safe. Safety starts in the brain. However, the brain isn’t great at distinguishing between life threatening situations and stressful difficult ones. Life threatening circumstances are a saber tooth tiger, car accident or falling from a ladder and difficult conditions are loss of a job and the death of a loved one.
The brain has limited capacity for memory recall. When it is full of the bad memories, it was difficult to bring forth the good ones. I needed to make room for the good ones I wanted.
Understanding how to keep my son’s memory alive and feeling safe involved removing the bad memory of his death and replacing it with positive ones of his life. One of the tools that I used was journaling. I did a brain dump of the events leading up to and surrounding that day. I wrote down in detail the facts of what, when, where, why and how of my son’s passing. It is important that I included the emotions that occurred: anger, denial, guilt, shame, fear. When I did this, it helped on several levels.
First, I saw from a different view, on paper versus in my head, the situation and how it unfolded. It helped relieve the guilt because I was doing the best I could with the information I had. Hindsight is 20-20 and I could not have changed my son’s decision.
Second, the details that I felt were important and that I wanted to preserve, were now on paper. My journal now held my story. It no longer needed to live in my head, I didn’t need to keep repeating it and was able to stop re-traumatizing myself. I felt safe. The feeling of safety was guided by my ability to cope with my stressful life situation. Feeling safe was huge.
More importantly, there was room for the memories I really wanted. I recalled watching my son skateboard, the last Thanksgiving we had together with his goofy smile, when he got a puppy, watching him ride his bike, play baseball and snowboard. I could go on and on. And I do. I journaled these memories so I could have more. It was like filling my cup up, then drinking it all, then filling it up again with more memories.
It all started with letting go of “the phone call” by putting it on paper. I stopped re—traumatizing myself, felt safe and created space for positive, joyful memories.