By Peyton Garland, Crosswalk.com
Today would have been my dear friend’s 28th birthday, and this year, I would have told her happy birthday. I wouldn’t have forgotten to tell her how grateful I was that she graced this world with another year of her laughter and rich kindness.
But I forgot last year.
And only a few days later, she took her life.
I got the text around 5 a.m. relaying the dreadful news. I reread the message repeatedly, afraid that if I put down my phone and peeled my eyes off the words, I would have to accept them. I would have to process and replay that I had missed her birthday (though she hadn’t missed mine). I would be forced to count the times I thought about checking in on her and her baby girls and didn’t. Why didn’t I? Because my schedule and my to-do lists somehow always seemed more important.
My shame quickly stepped in and took grief for a torturous twist. I wept bitterly. I mourned not only her loss but the newfound reality that I wasn’t there for her as I should have been.
If you had checked on her when she shared that post about anxiety, she might have opened up to you. Maybe she would’ve gotten help or found hope.
Some big, bad, holy-rolling mental health advocate you are, huh? You don’t mind chatting about mental health and faith to recruit social media followers, but where were these conversations when your dear friend was wading through her darkest days?
Where were you?
What kind of friend were you?
Can you even call yourself her friend?
Like a brutal broken record, these piercing thoughts replayed, hollowing my heart day and night. Shame’s salvos were relentless, offering no sign of light, life, or hope.
Nonetheless, at some point, I had to move on. I had to accept reality and press forward. But how?
It took time, and it continues to take time as I navigate grief without shame suffocating my journey, but I would like to share three things you should remember when a loved one commits suicide.
I pray these three things aid your healing:
1. You Aren’t Responsible
You aren’t responsible for another person’s decisions. You are called to love them well, to support and encourage them and even call out their unhealthy choices, but you weren’t granted control over them for rightful reasons. Love is freeing. It cares so deeply about someone that it steps back and allows them to make their own choices.
After all, Jesus doesn’t force us to accept Him. Though He knows the agonizing consequences if we don’t, He still lets us choose. Why? Love isn’t love if it’s forced. At that point, it’s watered down to manipulation.
In other words, no matter what we know—no matter how aware we are of the danger of our loved one’s decisions—love doesn’t steal freedom from another.
It wasn’t and isn’t your responsibility to dictate another person’s decisions, and by allowing them the freedom to live their own lives, you are free of the consequences of their actions.
Does this mean if a friend mentions suicide, you should side-step their troubles and let them “make the decision�� to take their life? No, no, no! But does recognizing a loved one’s freedom make grieving their suicide any easier? Yes, with time. As the adrenaline subsides, emotions find a healthier rhythm, and your mind recalls the truth, you can slowly see that you aren’t required to carry out the burden of the consequences of their decision.
Remember that love is freeing–for both parties.
2. Your Love Was Enough
I’ll repeat: your love was enough.
So often, we tally up the ways we failed that person. We recall the times we didn’t check in on them, follow through with coffee plans, or care enough to ask hard questions that might have made them upset but saved their life.
What if I had only pushed harder? Asked more? Kept my word? Stayed faithful to the schedule? Prioritized our time better?
What if my love wasn’t enough to make them know they mattered?
As a young girl battling Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I became well-acquainted with this hounding, two-word question. My mom always countered, “Remind yourself that what-ifs don’t matter. Tell your mind that.” I did and still do tell my mind that what-ifs don’t matter, but often, my mind doesn’t take its own advice.
Yet, at some point, we must be brave enough to answer our what-if questions, tell them they don’t matter, and walk away from their death grip. You see, what-ifs don’t hold the keys to your shackles. You do. What-ifs only have the control you permit.
And regardless of whether or not you question if your love was enough, no matter how often you wonder what would have happened if you had loved them “better,” carrying such shame won’t heal anyone.
It won’t restore their life. But it will destroy yours.
Don’t give what-ifs such power. Don’t allow yourself to second guess if your love was enough.
I’ll answer this one for you: your love was more than enough.
Rest in that today.
3. Grief Is Allowed to be Messy
Bottling up grief always leads to an unhealthy explosion. And heaven forbid you unleash its detonating blow on someone who didn’t deserve the bitterness, anger, and deep hurt swelled in your exhausted, heavy soul.
Remember that grief is allowed to be messy. Healthy grief is not linear. It’s up and down, in and out, here then there, hiding, then in plain sight. It’s not limited to certain times and locations but has its own schedule that infiltrates everything we see, smell, touch, hear, feel, think, remember, etc.
I challenge you to face your grief and allow it to have a place on your journey. It can come along for the messy, bumpy ride. In fact, you can introduce your grief to trusted Christian mentors, counselors, and close friends and family. I encourage you to welcome grief to sit at your table as you have healthy conversations to process what has happened to you.
Let grief be part of your healing journey.
But remember, shame isn’t allowed on this trip. There is no hope, light, or life at the end of shame’s sick games. It promises no peace, resolution, or healthy survival tactics. It wants you to feel guilty when you haven’t “defeated” grief, but I am here to say: grief never really leaves us. When we love someone, they stay with us, and their absence is forever present. It’s almost tangible in a loud, surreal way.
You are allowed to grieve. But you aren’t allowed to let shame control your story if you ever want to find peace and lay the what-if questions to rest.
I’m on this journey with you. I’m paddling alongside you. You might see me cry. You’ll certainly hear me mention my dear friend’s name. But promise me you’ll call me out when shame takes the stern.
And if you’ll allow me, I’ll call you out too.
That’s the only way we heal together.
For more on my story of navigating grief following my dear friend's suicide, check out my latest book: Tired, Hungry, & Kinda Faithful, Where Exhaustion & Exile Meet God.
Jeremy Stalnecker seeks to help his podcast listeners answer one of the toughest questions we all face: "How do I move forward when my world is falling apart?" You can listen to every episode of March or Die for FREE on LifeAudio, or listen to an episode right now by clicking the play button below:
Photo Credit: ©Raychan/Unsplash
Peyton Garland is an author and coffee shop hopper who loves helping others find beauty from ashes despite OCD, burned bridges, and perfectionism. Follow her on Instagram @peytonmgarland and check out her latest book, Tired, Hungry, & Kinda Faithful, Where Exhaustion and Exile Meet God, to discover how your cup can overflow, even in dry seasons.