The days following my dad’s death by suicide were the loneliest of my life. In a roomful of people, in the midst of a hug, in the middle of a conversation, the resounding thought I had was that I was alone. No one had the relationship I did with my dad, no one knew all the struggles he had endured that he shared with me, and no one could possibly understand the shock, sadness or emptiness I was feeling.
In addition to the isolation I felt after my dad’s death, I experienced an added layer of self-imposed loneliness because of the manner in which my dad died. Mental illness and suicide are frequently misunderstood and associated with secrecy and shame. I desperately wished I could tell people he had died of cancer or a heart attack.
Thankfully, I was with close friends when I learned of my dad’s death. When I asked them how to tell people about what had happened, they encouraged me to think about how compassionately I would respond if a friend were to share such news with me. While I didn’t realize it at the time, being open about the fact that my dad struggled with bipolar disorder and that he died by suicide was the first important step in feeling less alone.
Five months after my dad’s death, I still feel alone. Sharing my story in a grief group with other suicide loss survivors, writing to and about my dad, and talking with friends about how I’m feeling have helped. All of these things are difficult, sad and exhausting, but also very important to my grief process.
My feelings of isolation over the last five months have made me think about how alone my dad and others who struggle with mental illness must feel. It takes incredible strength to continue to choose to fight and to put on a good front when things below the surface feel nearly impossible to manage. With friends and family, my dad was pretty open about his battle with bipolar disorder. I’ll never know for certain, but I believe his openness helped him live as long as he did. I also hope it helped him feel less alone.
As I continue to fight my own feelings of isolation and the stigma of mental illness and suicide, I rely on the compassion and understanding of others. In return, I try to be less judgmental and give more people the benefit of the doubt. To those who battle mental illness and their family and friends, share your stories. Not only will they counteract the narrative of shame and secrecy, but will help with your own feelings of loneliness.