Behind These Eyes: A Father's Invisible Grief
By Sam Fiorella
"Mr. Fiorella, we've found your son. I'm sorry...." After a frantic search for our 19-year-old son, these were the first words shared by the police officer who reported that my son had been found dead, by his own hands.
It's a phrase that will forever be etched in my mind; words that continue to elicit conflicting emotions and memories. They conjure the paralyzing pain I felt at that moment, a pain so deep, I feared it might stop my heart from beating. Those words, despite their meaning - or maybe because of it - also remind me of the pride and love I felt for my son.
In a nutshell, that's the conflict of everyday existence for parents who have lost their child to suicide. In every moment, the violence of the event is compounded by a mixed bag of feelings: guilt, helplessness, loss, anger, and emptiness...to name a few. While enduring all of those feelings, I'm simultaneously embracing the sound of his laughter, the joy of his smile, and the cleverness of his wit - albeit in memory only.
This is what most people don't see: The loss of a loved one - and especially that of a child - to suicide leaves survivors in a constant whirlwind of emotions that take control of our physical, mental, and emotional being. Yet, as a parent, I'm unable to let that whirlwind drag me down. I have a wife and a young daughter, each living with her own unimaginable grief, who require me to be present and "in the moment" so that our family may remain strong and survive. I have a business with clients and employees who, although sympathetic and caring, require me to function so that their businesses and lives may continue to move forward. I have family and friends who are also struggling with this loss, or who have their own problems, and need me there so they have someone to lean on.
As with countless parents before me, I place aside the pain or ignore it completely. I carry on and am there for my family, friends, and business as well as I can be. I try to not impose my suffering on others. Yet, because I lost my son just four months ago, I'm often told how brave I am to be "so functional."
What people don't realize is that this is not bravery, it is necessity.
If you look behind these eyes, what you'll see is anything but brave or functional. What you will see is a man cowering in grief, afraid to allow himself to embrace the whirlwind of emotions and feeling of loss, despite the knowledge that we survivors must "lean into the grief" in order to get through it. Burying one's grief or mourning, while common for some survivors of suicide, is not something I recommend or choose. Yet, it's the conflicting reality that some of us have to deal with.
Allowing oneself to freely embrace pain and suffering is counter-intuitive, yet grief counsellors and psychologists tell me that's what I need to do. I'm told that the only way to truly move forward and for healing to occur is to experience the pain, however it manifests itself. "There is one universal truth; one cannot go around, under or over grief. One must go through grief by leaning into the pain to resolve it."
"Failure to experience the pain will eventually overtake you and the results may be even more traumatic, affecting your physical or mental health as well as your ability to maintain relationships with friends and loved ones."
Helping Survivors of Suicide
Writing such a personal post is very uncomfortable. Talking about the loss of my son is difficult and sharing my emotional state to the world is like ripping open the sutures used to close a wound after surgery. Thankfully, I've been fortune enough to be in a suicide survivor's support group, which is made up of caring individuals who have helped me better understand and deal with my grief by sharing their own. So I'm writing this post in hopes that it may help others.
For those suffering like I am, I hope knowing my experience will let you know you're not alone. What others call courage may simply be a barricade erected by your mind to help you keep it all together while supporting your loved ones, and that's OK. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. However, know that this can't last forever. Even if it's in stages, at some point you have to allow yourself to feel the pain. Failure to do so will only serve to hurt those you're trying to protect. I encourage you to find a support group dedicated to those surviving suicide.
For the rest of you, please look beyond the eyes of survivors because what's on the surface may be hiding what's really going on. Grief can be invisible.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.