Health and Wellness

Recovery and Rebuilding Your Life after the Suicide of a Spouse

Jan. 24, 2023 — Betsy Gall, a real estate agent, seemed to have everything: three children, a comfortable home, a handsome, “life-of-the-party” oncologist husband whom she loved. Matthew, her husband, took her life on Thanksgiving Day 2019.

The couple had just relocated from Minneapolis to Charlotte. Matt was offered a new job in a private practice. “He felt the move had been a mistake and referred to it as ‘career suicide’” Gall says. “I wanted him to get help and take antidepressants, but he was afraid of losing his medical license if he took medication.” 

He ended his life a few months after moving.

Lynette EddyReno, NV-based social worker,, lost her husband to suicide, in 2010. 

“I watched Bob depart from his own value system over the years, giving up on his true self,” she says. “Unfortunately, he was swayed by money and greed, got involved with gambling, and got in over his head. I had no idea of the life he was leading, but I know he was suffering greatly.”

Gall and Eddy had the challenge of rebuilding their lives after the death of their husbands.

Haunting Questions

Julie Cerel PhD, Professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and Director of the Suicide Prevention and Exposure Lab, states that losing a loved one is an unimaginable loss.

This is in contrast to other causes of death, such as accidents or illnesses. To The act of killing oneself is committed by the individual. By The person who chooses death, leaving behind bereaved families with guilt and haunting questions. Cerel is the co-author. Looking for Hope: Stories from Suicide Bereaved.

“When you lose someone to suicide, you instantaneously become an investigator,” Gall says. “Why did it happen? What did I do wrong? What could I do differently? Every person who knew my husband asked the same question. We all blamed ourselves in some way, feeling that we should have been able to anticipate or stop it,” says Gall.

Eddy also agrees. “Survivor’s guilt is super common. I look back and asked myself the same questions a million times.”

Sometimes, according to Cerel, “we really don’t know what motivated the person.”

Gall now realizes “there was nothing else we could have done. Mental health issues can be very difficult. People have to be willing to help themselves, and we can’t force them. Matt refused to go on antidepressants and there was no way I could ‘make’ him do so.”

Eddy came to the same conclusion. “I feel he had some serious things going on and it didn’t matter what we did or didn’t do. I got him to go to counseling, but that didn’t work. I tried to get his honesty but he refused to talk. I can only imagine the torture he endured. Obviously, I would have done anything I could have done to alleviate that, but he wouldn’t let me in.”

Stigmatization, Secrecy and Shame

Research has shown that suicide-bereaved individuals are more likely to be compared with those who have experienced other losses. Has found greater levels of shameStigma and Feeling the need to hide the loved one’s cause of death. It is common for family members to hide the cause of death, as well as their feelings toward others. This can lead to dysfunction in the family. It can make it more difficult to grieve and recover by withdrawing from your social networks and friends.

“Many people bereaved by suicide are reluctant to tell others about the cause of death or to talk about it,” Cerel says. “But our research has found that being able to talk openly about the death and the loved one is actually very helpful.”

Gall and Eddy both openly discussed their losses. Both Eddy and Gall have written books about their experiences. Gall is the author. The Perfect Profession: A Illusion Eddy is the author The Fight Inside. Both authors hope their books will help families and individuals better understand why they might have to end their lives.

Family members don’t have to reveal personal details, but memorializing the deceased and allowing people to offer love and support helps with feeling less alone and reduces stigma. 

‘Complicated Grief’

Grief researcher Katherine Shear, MD, writes: “Mourning is the process by which bereaved people seek and find ways to turn the light on in the world again.” Mourning is normal and healthy following loss. But Suicide can be fatal to “complicated grief” (also called prolonged grief), which can “prevent the natural healing process from progressing.”

Sometimes, people feel anger or rejection after the suicide of a loved one. This can make it more difficult to grieve and increase the risk of further complications. 

Not everyone responds the same way. “People say to me, ‘you must be so angry at your husband, he betrayed, you, he lied,’ but I never did get angry and I’m not angry today,” Eddy says. 

She attributes her reaction to her spiritual practice, which has enabled her to “see through the heart” into her husband’s pain. “I know he was suffering greatly and trying to fill a void with quick-fix pleasure.”

How to Get Help

Cerel encourages people who have lost loved ones to seek professional help. “They often have symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder or even full-blown PTSD, even if they weren’t there to see the actual event happen.” 

There are effective treatments available for PTSD, complicated grief, and other aspects of suicide-related grieving, such as anger and guilt. People who have lost someone to suicide are able to find support groups. You will find resources at the end.

“It’s taken thousands of hours on my therapist’s couch to realize that my husband had no more control over his mental illness than his cancer patients had over their cancer,” Gall says. “I’ve accepted that and no longer wake up every morning with that thud in my heart and that searing, searing pain that goes along with the kind of grief I had.”

Cerel notes that suicide can cause grief not only for the victim’s family, but also for their friends, classmates and community members. It is worth seeking professional help and joining a support network.

Spiritual Practice as a Resource

Gall and Eddy draw on their spiritual practice to find comfort and strength.

“Faith in a higher power is where I turned first,” says Gall. “I’ve always been a Christian but didn’t go to church every Sunday and wasn’t extremely religious.” In the months before her husband’s death and since then, she’s turned to the Bible and to devotional readings “for some sort of road map as to how to get through the most tumultuous, confusing, awful, torturous, chaotic time of my life.”

Eddy also draws on her spiritual practice — The Course in Miraclesmindfulness-based approaches. “The spiritual path I took started years before this even happened and played a huge role in giving me strength.”

The phrase “from” The Course in Miracles that had a profound impact on her was: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing is unreal. Therein lies the peace of God.” In other words, “I feel that there’s an outside drama happening. I can be one of the ‘actors’ in the play or I can ‘watch’ the play and be the observer.” 

Eddy developed Open-Heart Mindfulness, an approach that involves “observing and witnessing feelings, thoughts, and reactions without becoming judgmental.” She says, “everyone has an ego voice that can drive them to despair, as happened to my husband. But everyone also has another voice — the spirit voice — and we can tune in to that and release our suffering.”

She advises others: “Grieve, of course, but don’t be identified with the grief. Keep your eyes open. Understand and be gentle with yourself, and recognize that healing will take time.”

Spirituality and mindfulness-based approaches don’t resonate with everyone, Cerel points out.

“Spiritual practices are very individual. One person may need mindfulness or faith, while another might need it. There are many paths.” And mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean meditation. Any activity demanding close attention — for example, exercise, art, music, even horseback riding — can bring that quality to the fore. 

Moving Forward

As horrific as the experience is of losing a loved one to suicide, some people emerge changed for the better, which is often called “posttraumatic growth,” says Cerel.

“I think anyone who’s had a traumatic experience that brought them to their knees and stripped them down to the core has a decision to make,” says Eddy.

“I had identified as Bob’s wife and he was my rock, and everything was about him. Then all of a sudden, that was gone, and I knew I had to reinvent myself, rebuild my life, and do something positive.”

Eddy, who completed her MSW after the death of her husband, was working with homeless teenagers and decided to open up a facility, Eddy’s House, for this vulnerable population. “It was a deep feeling I had in my spirit as a way of helping young people. It’s been a big healer for me.” She teaches Open-Heart Mindfulness to the teens and feels it’s made a difference in their lives.

Eddy’s book helped her heal. Eddy wanted to shed light on the inner conflicts that had led her husband to die by suicide and to “get the reader to see how, collectively, we have to move toward our authentic selves.”

Gall wrote her book to deal with her grief and to point out the factors that could drive a doctor towards suicide. “I’m sharing my story and Matt’s experience to open up a conversation because our [medical] system is broken.”

Gall was able to experience joy again. “Life is so precious, and I feel blessed that I had such a beautiful life with Matthew, and I still Even without him, you can live a happy life. Although it can be hard some days, we must continue to move forward. You never ‘move on’ — you only move forward.”

Text HOME to 7411741 if you’re having suicidal thoughts or call the 988 Suicide Crisis Line.

Resources:

https://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/news/20230124/healing-and-rebuilding-your-life-after-a-spouses-suicide?src=RSS_PUBLIC

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