July 17, 2018

What Kids Taught Me About Coping with Suicide Loss

What do you do to heal when your mind and spirit are in pain? The pendulum of pain swings through various degrees of suffering — from the seemingly benign pity party we play in our heads to the deep dark thoughts of suicide.


It’s been a year since Chris, my brother-in-law, committed suicide. His bloodied body was discovered by my sister and my then 8-year-old niece moments after he shot himself in the chest. A flood of emotions ensued.

After his suicide, I did everything in my power to be there for my sister, niece and nephew mentally, physically and spiritually. Even though I knew the whole “put your oxygen mask on first before you help others” mantra, I failed when it came to self-care and paying attention to my own mental and spiritual health.

I was mad at myself because I knew better — I needed to focus on my well-being — but I wasn’t ready. So I kept myself busy and redirected and deflected the thoughts and feelings whenever they surfaced.

When news broke about Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, I cracked. I couldn’t stop crying that morning because it ripped open a wound in my heart. He was beloved by so many. A fellow storyteller/broadcaster brother, he seemed to have the perfect job and life. Who wouldn’t want to travel and get paid to eat and meet people and learn about their experiences and perspectives?

With the timing coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Chris’s death (still can’t believe I typed this truth), I completely broke down. In times of distress, I write to right my sanity.

One week after Bourdain’s death, my niece and nephew started summer break. This would be the first time my sister had to balance being a working single mother while the kids were off for the summer. Since I was in-between projects, I told my sister the kids could stay with me for a month in San Francisco.

We ended up having numerous adventures. Three amusement parks in 11 days. We got a private tour of the famed Guittard Chocolate Company thanks to my friend Jen, a fifth generation Guittard. We toured tech companies like Facebook and NerdWallet. We explored secret slides and playgrounds and visited the Academy of Sciences — not to mention all the dinner parties at my abode and friends’ homes. We had a blast.


Little did I know (here I was thinking I was doing a favor for my sister and the kids) how therapeutic this would be for me personally. Despite the busyness, it turned out the downtime — the conversations we had while driving in the car and doing the “USUAL” (a term we coined where I lay in bed with them at night to talk about life’s big questions and just to be silly) — meant the most to me.

Here’s what I learned from the healing experience. My hope is you gain strength from this experience and know:

a) You are not alone in your pain.
b) People love you and want to help you. Make sure you share your needs with others.
c) It’ll be OK. Feel the feels and share your story with others.

After sharing my story about grieving, many people reached out privately and through social media to commiserate, send love and share their stories — which was symbiotic in spiritual healing.


1. Feel your feels: Only you know what helps you to feel out your pain. I work out, write and talk to friends. I realized that when I feel sad, instead of sitting with it, I tend to “keep busy” and distract myself from the feeling at hand. While I’m not a doctor or health care professional, I know that doing anything to numb your pain (i.e., drugs or alcohol) prolongs or stunts your healing and could be detrimental to your well-being.

2. Resilience. Let go: When you hold on, you get dragged. I knew this, but I needed my 13-year-old nephew to remind me. One morning, while my nephew and I were making breakfast, I asked him how he was feeling a year after his Dad’s passing. He said, “He did what he did and him dying wasn’t all bad. I’ve experienced a lot more things that I wouldn’t have since he died and we are closer to family (physically and mentally). I don’t want people to pity me.”

He is 100 percent right. We are not victims of what happens to us. Kids are so resilient. What a great reminder.


3. Play: As adults, we don’t make enough time to play — you know, doing what makes you excited. That thing that makes time pass by so quickly. That thing that gets you out of your head and, for a moment, lifts the worry we all are infected with.

Don’t forget to do what makes your heart happy and simply play without thinking about how crazy you look while dancing in the streets. Seek out joy and excitement in everything — even the mundane. Isn’t it interesting how kids can have fun doing the simplest things? My nephew and niece made up games (who can dissolve Bottle Caps candy fastest without biting), played “finish my sentence” and got excited seeing other dogs or riding their favorite amusement park ride, again and again. I’m scheduling more play time for myself, for sure.

4. Hope: Looking forward to something is important for our mental health. Every night when we did the “USUAL,” the kids would ask, “What are we doing tomorrow?” I realized that looking forward to something, whether it be a coffee date with a friend or exploring something new, is essential to our happiness.


5. Fun. Have more of it: It’s OK to cancel some of those appointments and do things that make your heart and mind happy. I’ve experienced a lot of grief in my life, especially after losing four family members in a year’s time. I realized that most of the stuff we worry about DOES NOT MATTER. Sure, skipping out on your loved one’s recital or staying later because of our day job seems like no big deal, but really, it is a big deal.

On the other hand, stressing out about whether all your food is organic is really a waste of time. Stressing or worrying about ANYTHING you can’t control is a waste of life. Thanks to my experiences dealing with death, I’ve learned to live more. I choose to live in the present moment, enjoy every single morsel of this crazy life that is really shorter than we think.

What do you do to heal from grief? I want to know. Please comment below and share how you care for your mind, body and soul and regain your energy and life.

Onward,
Toan

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