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Friday, 11 September 2015

Engage: Bereavement by suicide - how traumatic events can make us stronger

Written by Tara Lal

Tara Lal's brother took his own life when she was just 17. Here she blogs about how his death affected her, and how over time her grief made her a stronger person.

For years, all I could see was what I had lost. Within four years we had gone from a family of five to one of three. I was 13 when my mother died of cancer and 17 when my brother took his own life. Those losses in conjunction with my father’s mental illness left me broken. Everything I knew of life had been shattered leaving me lost, as if I was floating at sea without a life raft. I became a frightened little girl, haunted by the question ‘why?’, permeated by a deep sadness that infiltrated my very being.

For a long time I simply got though life applying band-aids to my emotional wounds in the vain hope they would heal. I created a ‘me’ that kept me safe when I was lost. I kept busy so I didn’t have to think and I buried myself in relationships. I moved to the other side of the world desperate to leave my past behind.

I didn’t see my strengths, only my weaknesses. Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I lived much of my life by those words, constantly telling myself that if I could just get through this I could get through anything. I didn’t realize that getting through came at a cost and strength doesn’t just “happen”. You have to build it, just like you build strong muscles – with hard work and dedication.

I didn’t even know what strength was, except for the knowledge that I didn’t have it. I cried all the time, often about silly unimportant things; I had given up (once) whilst climbing a mountain; my mother had implied in a letter that I would need help if she died. Therefore I must be "weak".

Only when I began to look at my past with the help of a therapist and a universe that seemed intent on making me look by planting triggers in front of me one after another, did I start to see how self-doubt and fear trapped and encased me. I began to peel back the layers I had created around myself. Ever so slowly I began to turn towards the fear and the pain of the past. In doing so the seeds of strength emerged. Within that shift first I saw and then I believed that strength came in embracing my vulnerabilities, not in hiding or avoiding them.

I began writing down my mine and my brother's story. As I did so I watched the jigsaw puzzle of my life, being put together, piece by piece. I saw how all the events of the past fitted together to shape me. It gave me understanding and compassion for myself.

I didn’t have some great epiphany that allowed me to wake up and see the light. I simply kept trudging up my mountain using any tool I could find to help me on my journey. I had the occasional flash of inspiration, but generally it was a frustratingly slow change that went in waves. Grief melted almost imperceptibly into healing. With that healing came strength. They went hand-in-hand.

I discovered myself when not defined by my past. Unearthing my passions gave me clarity and fed my strengths. I found I had insight into other people, I had empathy and compassion, and that bred a strong sense of connectedness with others for at last, I belonged.

I began to see how the trauma of my childhood led me on a search and that this was the gift for all the pain endured, for one cannot find a pearl on the shores. Only if one dives can a pearl be found.

I joined the dots of my life – no experience was wasted – my losses, my failed relationships, my injuries, my study, my firefighting, my sport, my passions, my pain, my emotion; I joined them all together and watched the image of myself and my brother come into focus on our separate paths, connected but free. I saw how I could give meaning to his life and to my own. Between us we could make a difference. My trauma gave me the gift of purpose. Ultimately it gave me the strength to see what my experiences gave me, rather than what they took from me.

You can find Tara's memoir about her brother here. If you've been affected by bereavement by suicide, support is available. Contact Cruse Bereament Care or Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide for information about their free support services.

Tara was writing on the Rethink Mental Illness blog. Rethink directly support almost 60,000 people every year across England get through crises, live independently and realise they are not alone.

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