For suicide loss survivors such as myself, any breaking news relating to a celebrity suicide can trigger a wave of emotions. After the initial shock when hearing about the latest tragedy (What? Who?? Why???), my dormant PTSD comes roaring back. The emotions that I feel as a result are a surprise every time — not just the fact that I feel them but their strength, force, and ultimate power over me.
With few exceptions (e.g. Chris Cornell), the news of a celebrity suicide on its own doesn’t trigger tears. And to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t make me think of my brother or focus on him at all — weird, right? But regardless of who ended their life and what I feel about their movies / music / handbags, hearing any news of a suicide transports me back to November 1, 2009 when I was driving in my car late Sunday afternoon heading west down Route 50 towards my home in Arlington, Va. That’s where I was when I got the phone call.
Because I’ll never forget that moment. What it was like to find out. The disbelief, shock, pain, and crippling fatigue. Anger, sadness, grief. Feeling like my heart was ripped from my body while being repeatedly punched in the stomach. Having to alert friends and family and tell the story again, again, again, again, again. Dealing with arrangements. Packing up offices and apartments. Going through the motions. Attempting to return to normal through the numbness. Realizing that there is no such thing as normal anymore.
For the most part, when I learn of a celebrity suicide as I did today, I feel the onset of a panic attack. Nothing that’s going to lead me to a breakdown or make me dramatically lose my shit, but there’s the tenseness in my chest. The labored breathing. That feeling in the pit of my stomach. While knowing that I’m not going to cry, a feeling of being on the verge of tears. It happens in an instant, and basically I’m toast for the rest of the day.
It isn’t exactly convenient – I mean, I can’t really tell clients “someone whose movies / music / handbags meant nothing to me took their own life today so I can’t work the rest of the day as I need time to re-process my feelings from eight years ago”. But that’s exactly how I feel.
Perhaps if anything, what I’m feeling is an empathy reaction for the loved ones of the deceased and an understanding of the shock they just experienced. I am subconsciously welcoming them to an exclusive club for suicide loss survivors — a community no one ever asks to or wants to be a part of. I’m absorbing some of that explosive shock and pain that we all feel when we go through a suicide as there is no armor strong enough to fight it off.
With a suicide loss, the “why?” factor (or really, all the “whys?”) is something that maintains its aggressive hold long after the initial shock wears off. Why didn’t they ask for help? Talk to someone? Know how much they were loved? Know that it is never as bad or hopeless as it seems? It’s another, deeper layer of emotional cuts and grief that may never heal. And years later, it’s, Why am I still reacting to news of a random suicide with an emotional response?
As always, this anxiety will pass, and I will become functional again soon. I will not dwell on the fact that someone who seemingly had all the success, accolades, money, admiration, love, support and hope in the world would end their life. Mental illness does not discriminate.
Of course, I want people who are thinking of ending their life to know that they are not alone and there is always help (call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.).
But for the survivors, the ones left behind – I also want you to know, you’re not alone either, even though sometimes it feels like where we are is the loneliest place anyone could ever possibly be.