Courtesy of USA Today | By Joanne Sosangelis | Photo: Family Handout| Originally Published 12.17.2018 | Posted 02.21.2019
We focus so much on the person who is gone that we don’t realize the pain in the lives of the friends, family and lovers left behind.
“My name is Joanne. My longtime partner, Chris, set my house on fire and shot himself, in our bathroom. He was 56.”
That’s how every survivors meeting started for me — a reckoning of the basic facts. The other members did the same. Somehow laying it all out there made you feel less alone.
Chris and I had been together for more than 15 years. I met him shortly after the death of my husband, who had been ill for 12 years. He died from Wilson’s Disease, in my arms, one very hot summer evening. He was 34. I was 29.
Chris was charming when I met him, supportive. He let me talk about my husband at length. He held me as I shook from crying, even years later. He knew I feared death and abandonment. He knew all of that and still took his life, leaving me with a massive amount of damage to clean up — both physical and emotional.
From heartbreak to healing
Four weeks after Chris’s death, this introvert stepped through the doors of an Episcopal church into her first support group meeting. I was nervous, unsure how to act around people who are suffering — not thinking about how much I was. The people on that first night helped me more than I can describe. Not only did I talk, I talked a lot! And I laughed. It was probably the first time, since Thursday, June 9, 2011, when Chris left me forever.
I’m very protective of those meetings and the people there. They shared their secrets, fears and helped me navigate some of my darkest days, showing me that I’m not alone. They helped me realize, just by looking at them, that I would survive and be OK. They made me realize that I could get through a day without being consumed by thoughts of “the event,” as we called it.
After months of going, I would see new faces, like mine at the first meeting, drawn, pained and exhausted. It was hard listening to the details, the pain in their voices, the desperation of these poor souls left to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of the incomprehensible.
With the exception of one or two over the years, I was the only steady attendant who lost a partner in my group. Most had lost a child, a sibling or a parent.
For all that bonded us together, there was something different about those grieving mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Something I sensed but could not quite name.
The unique betrayal of suicide
I finally put my finger on it when I attended the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. We were separated into tables based on our relationship to the person we had lost. Most in my group were wives, some were girlfriends, only one was a husband. But we shared lingering anger, a true sense of betrayal.
I went through it briefly when I lost my husband, at the injustice of a person dying so young. But this new anger was different. It was deeper, more personal, and it was directed squarely at Chris.
Survivor support groups are often run by volunteers, themselves survivors. When I first started going, twice a month, I saw many of the same people. For some, it had been five, 10 years or more. I thought, “No way will I still be coming here that long after.” But I get it now. At some point you go from being the person who needs help to the person who wants to help by sharing your story.
You hope that by being there, those new members will see there is life after the event, though it will be different. You face a new “normal,” and hopefully you come away a bit more empathetic, more understanding of the struggles of others.
We focus so much on the person who is gone and don’t realize the pain in the lives of those left behind. The stigma of suicide stifles people from talking about it. Many of us are ashamed, feel guilty. My best friend became my lifeline. She listened to me say the same thing, ask the same questions, literally hundreds of times, until I could no longer.
And that was really what I needed.
Joanne Sosangelis is director of content operations for Gannett, the parent company of USA TODAY.
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.