Sometimes we think of a teacher as someone who inspires us, who calls us to a higher level of engaging in our lives. But a teacher can also be someone who helps you pivot your life for other reasons. To quote Byron Katie, “The things in the world that we think are so terrible are actually great teachers. A blind drunk can teach more about why not to drink than an abstinent man in all his piety.”
In the days and weeks and months following my daughter’s death, I tried to find help for myself. I believed that I couldn’t get through it without considerable support. I was very specific in my request of God or the universe or whatever else — I wasn’t sure what I believed in anymore, but I knew this: I wanted to meet a mother who had lost a child to suicide who was further down the path than I was — maybe four or five years out from the tragedy. I wanted her to be someone who had done her healing work, who was well and healthy, and, if it were possible, thriving. Even though nothing in me believed it could be so, I wanted to know that I could come through my daughter’s suicide and live again.
My search led me to a local-area Survivors of Suicide (SOS) group, part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s community outreach efforts. Kathy, our facilitator, had lost a grandson to suicide ten years before and had dedicated her life to helping others find a way out of grief and pain. We met once a month in the evening, and Kathy started every meeting by saying, “Welcome. I’m sorry you are here.”
And that was exactly right. No one wanted to be at that gathering of people. It’s not a group I ever imagined I would find myself in. It is the saddest group on the planet.
Here is a story to break your heart. Are you willing? – Mary Oliver
I attended my first SOS group four months after the death of my daughter. I wasn’t sure I was ready, but would I ever be? I asked my dear friend Carol to come with me. Of course, she agreed.
The winter sky that night was dark and ominous. I had no idea what to expect when we walked through the doors into the small classroom with chairs gathered into a circle. My heart was hammering with fear. I didn’t know if I could go through with it. Carol assured me that we could leave anytime we needed to.
That particular night, seven women had come to the meeting; all of them had lost a child to suicide. One by one, each mother shared her story, each more heartbreaking than the last.
When it was “Jane’s” turn to tell her story, I could sense the sadness and resentment swirling around her head and neck like a toxic smoke. Her eyes were rimmed with fatigue. She talked about how angry she was about her son’s boss and his girlfriend, how they could have stopped him from doing what he did. She raged on and on.
And then she said the thing I will never forget.
“It’s been nine years…”
From the way she was talking, I’d assumed her son’s suicide had just happened. She was still so raw.
That’s when I realized Jane was the teacher I’d been searching for. Right then, I determined that though I had no idea how to navigate out of the wilderness I found myself in, I knew one thing for sure: I would not be her. I would not let bitterness harden my heart and claim my life. I would find my way back to life. This became my resolve, my true north.
Even though Jane and I wouldn’t recognize each other on the street today if our paths crossed, there is no doubt that she had a profound impact on my journey. I am so grateful to her for sharing her story, and for teaching me what I needed to learn. I can only hope she has found her way back to life as well.