Healing and Rebuilding Your Life After a Spouse’s Suicide
Jan. 24, 2023 — Betsy Gall, a real estate agent, seemed to have everything: three children, a comfortable home, a handsome, “life-of-the-party” oncologist husband whom she loved. But her world shattered on Thanksgiving Day 2019, when her husband, Matthew, took his life.
The couple had just moved from Minneapolis to Charlotte, where Matt took a new position in a private practice. “He felt the move had been a mistake and referred to it as ‘career suicide’” Gall says. “I wanted him to get help and take antidepressants, but he was afraid of losing his medical license if he took medication.”
A few months after moving, he ended his life.
Lynette Eddy, a Reno, NV-based social worker, lost her husband to suicide in 2010.
“I watched Bob depart from his own value system over the years, giving up on his true self,” she says. “Unfortunately, he was swayed by money and greed, got involved with gambling, and got in over his head. I had no idea of the life he was leading, but I know he was suffering greatly.”
Both Gall and Eddy had to find ways to heal and rebuild their lives in the wake of the self-inflicted death of a husband.
Losing a loved one to suicide is a loss like no other, says Julie Cerel, PhD, professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and director of the Suicide Prevention and Exposure Lab.
Unlike other causes of death (like illnesses or accidents), which happen to the person, suicide is an act performed by the person who has chosen death, leaving bereaved survivors with guilt and haunting questions, says Cerel, who is the co-author of Seeking Hope: Stories of the Suicide Bereaved.
“When you lose someone to suicide, you instantaneously become an investigator,” Gall says. “Why did it happen? What did I miss? What could I have done differently? Everyone who knew my husband was asking themselves the same questions. We all blamed ourselves in some way, feeling that we should have been able to anticipate or stop it,” says Gall.
Eddy agrees. “Survivor’s guilt is super common. I look back and asked myself the same questions a million times.”
Sometimes, according to Cerel, “we really don’t know what motivated the person.”
Gall now realizes “there was nothing else we could have done. Mental health issues are excruciatingly difficult. People have to be willing to help themselves, and we can’t force them. Matt refused to go on antidepressants and there was no way I could ‘make’ him do so.”
Eddy has reached a similar conclusion. “I feel he had some serious things going on and it didn’t matter what we did or didn’t do. I got him to go to counseling, but that didn’t work. I tried to get him to open up, but never got the truth out of him. I know he was suffering and can only imagine how tortured he was. Obviously, I would have done anything I could have done to alleviate that, but he wouldn’t let me in.”
Stigma, Secrecy, Shame
Research comparing suicide-bereaved people to people who have sustained other losses has found higher levels of shame, stigma, and feeling the need to hide the loved one’s cause of death. Secrecy often develops, both within the family and toward people outside the family, and can lead to family dysfunction. Withdrawing from social networks and friends can make mourning and recovery more difficult.
“Many people bereaved by suicide are reluctant to tell others about the cause of death or to talk about it,” Cerel says. “But our research has found that being able to talk openly about the death and the loved one is actually very helpful.”
Gall and Eddy have spoken openly about their losses. And both have written books describing their experience. Gall is the author of The Illusion of the Perfect Profession and Eddy is the author of The Fight Inside. Both hope that their books will pave the way for deeper understanding of why people might end their lives and how families can cope with such a major loss.
Family members don’t have to reveal personal details, but memorializing the deceased and allowing people to offer love and support helps with feeling less alone and reduces stigma.
Grief researcher Katherine Shear, MD, writes: “Mourning is the process by which bereaved people seek and find ways to turn the light on in the world again.” Mourning is normal and healthy following loss. But suicide can lead to “complicated grief” (also called prolonged grief), which can “prevent the natural healing process from progressing.”
Some people feel anger, rejection, or betrayal when their loved one dies by suicide, which can compound their sense of guilt and place them at greater risk for complicated grief.
But not everyone reacts that way. “People say to me, ‘you must be so angry at your husband, he betrayed, you, he lied,’ but I never did get angry and I’m not angry today,” Eddy says.
She attributes her reaction to her spiritual practice, which has enabled her to “see through the heart” into her husband’s pain. “I know he was suffering greatly and trying to fill a void with quick-fix pleasure.”
Cerel encourages suicide-bereaved people to seek professional help if necessary. “They often have symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder or even full-blown PTSD, even if they weren’t there to see the actual event happen.”
There are effective treatments for PTSD and complicated grief, as well as other aspects of suicide-related grief, like anger and guilt. Support groups are also helpful, particularly consisting of people bereaved by suicide. Resources can be found at the end of the article.
“It’s taken thousands of hours on my therapist’s couch to realize that my husband had no more control over his mental illness than his cancer patients had over their cancer,” Gall says. “I’ve accepted that and no longer wake up every morning with that thud in my heart and that searing, searing pain that goes along with the kind of grief I had.”
Not only family but also friends, classmates, community members, and co-workers can be devastated by a suicide, Cerel points out. Getting professional help or joining a support group can be valuable for them too.
Spiritual Practice as a Resource
Gall and Eddy draw upon their spiritual practice for comfort and strength.
“Faith in a higher power is where I turned first,” says Gall. “I’ve always been a Christian but didn’t go to church every Sunday and wasn’t extremely religious.” In the months before her husband’s death and since then, she’s turned to the Bible and to devotional readings “for some sort of road map as to how to get through the most tumultuous, confusing, awful, torturous, chaotic time of my life.”
Eddy also draws on her spiritual practice — A Course in Miracles — and mindfulness-based approaches. “The spiritual path I took started years before this even happened and played a huge role in giving me strength.”
The phrase from A Course in Miracles that had a profound impact on her was: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Therein lies the peace of God.” In other words, “I feel that there’s an outside drama happening. I can be one of the ‘actors’ in the play or I can ‘watch’ the play and be the observer.”
Eddy developed Open-Heart Mindfulness, an approach that involves “observing and witnessing feelings, thoughts, and reactions without becoming judgmental.” She says, “everyone has an ego voice that can drive them to despair, as happened to my husband. But everyone also has another voice — the spirit voice — and we can tune in to that and release our suffering.”
She advises others: “Grieve, of course, but don’t be identified with the grief. Stay in the witness seat. Understand and be gentle with yourself, and recognize that healing will take time.”
Spirituality and mindfulness-based approaches don’t resonate with everyone, Cerel points out.
“Spiritual practices are very individual. Faith or mindfulness may be exactly what some people need, but not others. There are many paths.” And mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean meditation. Any activity demanding close attention — for example, exercise, art, music, even horseback riding — can bring that quality to the fore.
As horrific as the experience is of losing a loved one to suicide, some people emerge changed for the better, which is often called “posttraumatic growth,” says Cerel.
“I think anyone who’s had a traumatic experience that brought them to their knees and stripped them down to the core has a decision to make,” says Eddy.
“I had identified as Bob’s wife and he was my rock, and everything was about him. Then all of a sudden, that was gone, and I knew I had to reinvent myself, rebuild my life, and do something positive.”
Eddy, who completed her MSW after the death of her husband, was working with homeless teenagers and decided to open up a facility, Eddy’s House, for this vulnerable population. “It was a deep feeling I had in my spirit as a way of helping young people. It’s been a big healer for me.” She teaches Open-Heart Mindfulness to the teens and feels it’s made a difference in their lives.
Writing her book contributed to healing. Eddy wanted to shed light on the inner conflicts that had led her husband to die by suicide and to “get the reader to see how, collectively, we have to move toward our authentic selves.”
Gall wrote her book not only as a way of processing her loss, but also to highlight forces that might drive a doctor to suicide. “I’m sharing my story and Matt’s experience to open up a conversation because our [medical] system is broken.”
Gall has been able to start feeling joy again. “Life is so precious, and I feel blessed that I had such a beautiful life with Matthew, and I still have a beautiful life, even without him. Difficult some days, but we must move forward. You never ‘move on’ — you only move forward.”
If you are having suicidal thoughts, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or text HOME to 741741.