On our podcast ‘Tales That Tethr’, tethr Founder & CEO Matt Zerker interviews entrepreneurs, experts, thought leaders, and regular people about what is means to be a man, the challenges that modern men face, and how to overcome challenges and live life in a more connected and authentic way.
Life After a Partner's Suicide Attempt
It’s huge...it’s a show-stopper in your world...I mean, you’re faced with the finality of life...you don’t know whether...you’re bringing somebody in [to hospital] that’s about to die or...bringing somebody in that can be brought back [to life]...it’s a complete and utter show-stopper for you.
Evan is trying his best here to put into words the utter shock, devastation, and uncertainty about what kind of future awaits him, after finding his wife overdosed and lifeless on their living room floor late one Summer's night.
This is just one of many powerful insights I gained through conducting a number of in-depth interviews as part of my research into the personal impact of a suicide attempt on partners. These powerful testimonies as well as a suggested pathway toward recovery have now been documented in my new book 'Life After a Partner's Suicide Attempt'.
This is the first publication ever to give voice to partners worldwide who silently endure the aftermath of their loved one's suicide attempt. In order to help put some context on this experience from the point of view of a partner, I'd like you to imagine the following realistic scenario:
Imagine lying in bed with your partner...you are aware they are sound asleep by the deep rise and fall of their breath...in fact they went to bed early because they were exhausted from the passed few days...they came home from hospital two days ago following an attempt to take their own life...you on the other hand are wide awake, pupils dilated despite being in the dark...your mind is racing...full of white noise...at once feeling a tsunami of emotion...then complete dissociation. You are feeling concern and compassion...but simultaneous hurt, anger, grief, betrayal, rejection, confusion, repulsion...you are unfamiliar with the stranger lying next to you...yet you have been tasked with ensuring their safety and emotional/psychological/physical recovery. Right now you have zero motivation to be even responsible toward them let alone be responsible for them. You are terrified to share any of this with another human being, lest they think of you as a cruel and self absorbed partner, given the fact your loved one has, just a matter of hours ago, engaged in an act of self annihilation.
Most suicide attempts are essentially dyadic events – meaning that it is a life crisis not only for the suicide attempter but for their 'Significant Others', and I would say partners most of all. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that relatives exposed to a suicide attempt are more prone to suicidal ideation themselves.
"Yet in the aftermath of an attempt there
occurs what I call a kind of metaphorical
'relay race' in which medical and mental
health professionals, and often other
relatives, pass the 'baton' to partners
expecting them to have the emotional
capacity, the psychological capacity or,
motivation even, to take on the caregiver role
in the wake of such an extra-ordinary event."
I presume its up there with bereavement and divorce and moving house, it has to be up there as one of the most stressful situations, certainly it was the most stressful things that has ever happened to me because...[to] find out the person you love chose to die with their own hand and leave you...its a shock that comes in waves.
Society dictates, understandably, our attention be fixed upon the welfare of the person at risk of suicide. However, partners being viewed solely as caregivers or guardians, tells only half the story, in my view. This book shifts the focus of the conversation to include partners as a person in their own right. It charts for the first time, through direct accounts from partners themselves, the traumatic fall out from this event:
And I went down to the shed and I opened the door and there he was with the rope around one of the joists and around his neck. So, I froze, I stood there, I froze. And I looked and I says ‘are you joking me?’ and I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. They were...dead, his eyes were dead in his head. He just didn’t care.
Partners are not simply changed as a result of this experience but transformed by it, and it is this transformation that constitutes the overarching theme of this book. The personal impact of a suicide attempt on partners goes far beyond what is described in couples therapy as a relational hurt, due for example, to trading insults during a heated argument. Secure couples tend to be able to move forward with trust and security despite the hurtful experience. Partners, I found, experience what Dr. Sue Johnson (of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy) describes as an attachment injury meaning in a single moment the very soul of the relationship has been irrevocably shaken to it's core:
I lived with a person that I thought I knew inside out, I thought we had great friendship, you’re soulmates, we were good together and I found out then that the person I lived with and loved did not turn to me during his – what you would call the greatest crisis in his life and I remember trying to tell people at the time, to varying reactions, that I saw this as a complete and utter ultimate betrayal of our relationship...
The hatred I had towards him was because...everything we both worked for and our dreams and everything...we could talk about everything and anything, and why all of a sudden was I blocked out and he couldn’t talk to anybody. I hated, I felt as if that...he betrayed me...
Former President of Ireland Dr. Mary McAleese on describing her experience of reading 'Life After a Partner's Suicide Attempt', used two terms that struck a chord with me - “rollercoaster love” and “untidy healing”. For me, they capture very well the path partners journey on, from suffering the trauma of the attempt; adjusting in the wake of the attempt; and finally towards living with the legacy of the attempt.
Participants described their experience using stark imagery like wanting to ‘scream from the mountain tops’, and metaphors such as their ‘whole world shifting on its axis’, and it being an event of ‘monumental’ proportions. They interpreted it as traumatic, as an act of survival, and their life as they knew it, crashing.
However, some also experienced what is known as post-traumatic growth, triggering increased personal strength and enhanced relationships. So there is, too, a space for hope.
Altogether these experiences reflected the importance, scale, and far-reaching consequences of the event for them. Participants ultimately experienced the suicide attempt of their loved one as transformational in various ways.
So as things quietened down and people stopped asking...as he re-established his life and goes back to work and goes to football matches...people stop asking, and we should have returned to what people call normality. But I didn't get over it. And I don't think I ever actually will get over it.
Who Is This Book Written For?
The book is written to provide sustenance, therapy, and meaning to partners and significant others. It is a way of telling partners that we hear you, that we see you, and that your thoughts and feelings are absolutely valid - all of them – and that applies to those feelings of care and compassion as well as the 'shadow feelings' of trauma, anger, hurt, and betrayal. Partners have historically felt that their personal lived experience was not socially sanctioned but this book is changing that!
This book also aims to highlight to the care professions that we need to have a systemic response to this life crisis by paying close attention not only to the suicide
attempter but to their partner or significant other. In doing so, the long-term prognosis for everyone I believe, significantly improves.
The theme for World Mental Health Day is Mental Health in an Unequal World. By taking a systemic approach, and including the needs of partners in the experience of attempted suicide, equality for all is ensured.
10 Key Interventions for Partners:
1. Count yourself in! View this experience as an extra-ordinary event that has happened not only to your loved one, but to you, to your relationship, and to your family.
2. Recognize the trauma. This experience goes way beyond the realm of normal human experience and functioning.
3. Be open to acknowledging potential 'shadow side' feelings such as anger, hurt, betrayal, disappointment, rejection, resentment. These are all NORMAL!
4. Steer clear of feeling pressured to make sense of the suicide attempt for in-laws. You will be desperately searching for answers yourself. Therefore, you cannot provide answers that you don't have and may never have.
5. You are more than a caregiver or guardian. You are a person in your own right who may not have the urge to take care of him/her to the extent you feel society (hospital staff; in-laws; friends etc.) expects you to.
6. Anticipate confusion about who is 'in' or 'out' of he family system. You may feel your partner who has attempted suicide has psychologically 'checked out' of the family. Indeed, you may feel like not wanting to remain in the system either. Stick to simple rituals as best you can such as walks and meals in order to salvage some semblance of normality through it all.
7. Be mindful that this traumatic event may stimulate old wounds/traumas perhaps as far back as childhood to come to the surface, so go gently with yourself and practice self-compassion. 8. Seek out individual psychotherapy to support yourself through this crisis. You are grieving a very specific kind of loss. Doing this will no doubt not only benefit you, but your loved one.
9. To help navigate your relationship into the future, consider couple therapy also, as this ultimately has the potential to create positive transformation for your partnership.
10. Harness the potential for post-traumatic growth. In attempting to make sense of this experience over time, you may actually notice
improvement in domains such as quality of relationships; inner strength; optimism about the future; embracing of opportunities; spirituality; and gratitude for the simpler things in life.
'Life After a Partner's Suicide Attempt' is currently available in Europe. It is due for release in the US January 04 2022 and is available to pre order.
Dr. Francis McGivern is a Counselling Psychologist (Chartered with the Psychological Society of Ireland) and Psychotherapist. He can be contacted via www.louthcounselling.com