“Are you able to feel joy?” asked my therapist.
“No,” I responded as I wished for tears to pour from my eyes because any emotion would give me the hope that I may return back to the living. At the time, I felt like the walking dead. The world still turned, but I was a ghost only able to observe the living, and I found their ability to smile or cry fascinating.
They made it look so easy.
In the hopes of feeling less like the social outcast I was in my mind, I began attending a Suicide Survivor Support Group. Finally admitting that my life was no longer the perfect picture I worked so hard to paint all those years. Every time I went to the group, I was overwhelmed with the trauma suffered by everyone in the room. We all lost someone we deeply loved. Some of us experienced more trauma than others, but we were all there looking for a way to put the pieces of ourselves and our lives back together again.
The group changed each week. The hardest nights were when newcomer’s arrived fresh from the trauma of a recent suicide. They were still in full disbelief and in the hyper-grief stage where your emotions pour from you like waterfalls after a spring melt from the largest of snow packs. The regulars would stare at them remembering what it was like to feel and listen to their stories with the sadness of knowing that too soon they will be like us and unable to laugh or cry.
One desperately bleak evening with rain pouring sideways and the cold air sinking into my bones, I arrived to see a new addition to the group. A couple. I knew right away that they lost a child. So far I was the only one who lost a mother, or a parent for that matter. I longed for an addition to the group that I could talk to about feeling like an orphan, but then I quickly changed my thoughts for fear my thoughts might bring about the horrific loss to someone else that I was experiencing. The time came to introduce ourselves and give a brief synopsis as to why we were attending the support group. When it was the couple’s turn, they started by saying that this was their third year without their daughter.
I stopped breathing. Three years? Weren’t we supposed to be healed by then? I mean, I knew no one ever really fully healed, but at least to the point where we aren’t needing support groups, right? Their story was heart-breaking. We all tried to save our loved one, but their daughter was a baby. Only eleven years old.
Christmas just passed and the mother acknowledged it with a weak smile as she told us she was happy because this was her first year she took out the Christmas ornaments and didn’t sob hysterically. She said that this year the good memories started to return to her, and with each ornament, she was able to remember her daughter’s beautiful smile instead of why she wasn’t with her decorating the tree.
I now had a goal. I just had to get to the three year mark. Then I will be able to feel again and maybe the memories I thought were lost in my black hole of grief would return to me. I left hopeful, until the reality of the length of time three years represents sank in. I went home, crawled into bed and fell asleep hoping to never awake. I’ll never know what caused my action the next morning. I laid in bed as usual wishing the world away. Wishing I could sink under the down comforters and never have to wake up to the pain that awaited me. Then something happened. I remembered that mother’s weak smile from the night before. In one of the biggest rushes of emotion and adrenaline since giving birth at home to my second son, I flew out of bed. Out of nowhere, my emotionless shell became filled with anger. Anger at myself. God damn it! There was hope. There was a chance! I just had to make it through 2 years and 10 months, and I may get the good memories back. Full of a deep rage at myself for falling so deep into the hole I was in, I wrote this letter to myself. My own halftime locker room speech to my broken self that would become one of my most trusted documents.
I would like to say that everything became easier, but it didn’t. I regularly fell back into my hole, but reading my own angry words yelling at myself would get me to crawl back out. I literally managed one day at a time because I was incapable of thinking even one day into the future. The days were long, and every night I was so happy to say goodbye to yet another day. It was as if I was a prisoner counting down the days of my sentence. Often I was in disbelief that I was wishing away time. I had two beautiful boys and I should be wishing time would pass slowly because they grow so quickly, but I knew that every day that passed brought me closer and closer to being the mother they so truly deserved.
Today is the six year mark. Double the goal at the time I wrote that letter. The void she left behind is still as large as it was six years ago, but I’ve learned how to navigate around it most days. I still read that letter to myself, but happily not very often anymore. On the days I’m feeling sorry for myself and my mind is headed to that painful place, I’ll pull it from my nightstand drawer, and my own strong words, written at the bleakest time of my life, are what get me through.
Unbelievably I found my smile before the three year mark, but that mother was right, three is the magic number. After that milestone, thoughts of my mom are filled more with happy memories than the events of that horrible day. And I’ll never forget the pride I felt when I met with a new therapist three years later and she asked me that same question, “Are you able to feel joy?”
As a smile filled with gratitude and relief grew across my face, I could honestly answer, “Yes."