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Dealing with Grief
Steve Stewart, © 2011

Personal Story
Dealing with grief is important. According to the Centers for Disease Control (Dec 2011), there are more than 34,000 suicides in the US each year - averaging 95 suicides per day, one every 15 minutes and 11.26 suicides per 100,000 population. You don't want to become one of them.

Suicides do not happen in even time increments since they occur disproportionately more during the holidays. The numbers swell well past 95 suicides per day during the holidays and fall back again in less stressful times.

I can tell from personal experience that holidays became highly stressful after the death of my son. I could not wait for them to be over. At family gatherings during Thanksgiving and Christmas, I found excuses to leave the house - go outside for some air, stretch my legs, anything to be alone for 20 minutes. Always the same prayer, "Please let this day be over soon." All because holidays - a time a family togetherness - made it glaringly obvious that I was not together with my son.

For the first year after Travis' death, I was a most serious suicide risk. In the next few years, the risk diminished but was always seen as a legitimate alternative to living without him. I was not afraid of death - death that ended the pain, I would have welcomed. It was the pain in others my own suicide would have caused, that I could not accept. But the ice was pretty thin at times.

For more than twenty years, I had talked with no one about it. My son, my only child, died by suicide, leaving no clues in advance and leaving no note behind. Counseling would have been a wise decision - except for the part about having to talk about it.

Choose Life is really about your children, your students and personal losses, not mine. This is only offered here as a suggestion for those mired in grief.

Talking with others is good. Repetition diminishes the pain while you search for meaning and answers. It also takes a truly good friend to listen because while it seems necessary for one person to repeat the story a hundred times, it is exhausting to listen to it more than once.

So, if you are the one with the grief, rely on your 100 friends. Also, pay a licensed, qualified, grief counselor as one who can give you objective feedback - comfort you when comfort is needed and challenge you when challenge is called for.

I did neither. I refused to rely on friends and family - and they may have been grateful; they had their own lives and losses to deal with without listening to me for hours on end. Because Travis was the son of my first marriage, it seemed so unfair to me to lay the burden of this conversation on my second family.

Besides, even seeking professional counseling was too demanding because I would still have to talk about it, come up with the words, have to re-live, in the presence of another, the unspeakable experience. And by the way, exactly how do you speak about the unspeakable, anyway?

I was wrong. Years passed while I kept stuffing the pain back deep inside. Denial and I became old friends. For the seven or eight years ahead, I worked very, very hard on my business, traveling as many as 200 days a year to speak at conventions and conferences. Nearly every hotel room has a Gideon Bible in the nightstand drawer.

Coming to terms
Twenty-one years after Travis took his own life, I finally got help. It was a choice between allowing his death to completely consume my life, or facing the issue and finding a way to live while still accommodating this loss.

"How long will this take?" I wanted to know.

"There is no normal length of time. You'll know when you get there," they told me.

In my case, it took five months of weekly therapy. Roughly half of that time was one-on-one with a grief counselor where for the first time in two decades, I was able to express aloud to another person the depths of the despair held inside. Yes, it took me two months to get that out into the light.

The other half of the time was spend in weekly group therapy with others; our common ground was we had all lost someone without having the chance to say goodbye. Confidentiality rules mean I cannot share the kinds of losses, but I can tell you it was a withering list of circumstances. And yet for each of us, having such awfulness in common with others meat we did not have to be alone anymore.

I never saw any of them again after our tenth meeting. But knowing first hand that there are others in the world who know very well what it means to experience our pain, made living easier.

No one can tell you how to circumvent your pain, what solution is right for you. I can tell you how it worked out for me.

From the moment I knew of Travis' death, I was focused on the death itself. How deep was he into his problems, how alone was he that he could not pick up a phone to say he needed help? Or just to say hello and let me figure it out from there? "Travis, something is wrong. Tell me."

But he told no one, let no note. He simply excused himself from the world and stepped out. What if I had been there? What if he could have known how much we needed him in our lives - since clearly he was able to dismiss that? What if I could have gotten to him in time?

Being with him in his moment of greatest pain, in my grief, was the closest I could be to him in the ever-present now. The moment of my own greatest pain was the moment of his greatest need. So I sustained the pain on my own. This was my punishment for not being there, the price I agreed to keep paying in order to be there when he needed me most.

Fair trade, I thought, even if long after the fact. In short, my memories of Travis were all at that moment.

The solution (for me; you find your own)
I had chosen the most painful moment for him, meaning the time of his life in my mind was a matter of choice. As the chooser, I could select any time, not just that time. As a matter of choice, I simply rolled back the calendar to focus more on his better times, say between the ages of 5 and 12 that always bring a smile to my face. Now I feel close to him at his happiest times, not his saddest. Given that I cannot change history, this is the best I can do.

Incidentally, being remembered solely at his worst moment could not have been any fun for Travis, either.

Steve Stewart Seminars | 276 N. El Camino Real #184 | Oceanside CA 92058 | 760-298-8146/Direct, 760-216-1353/Cell | www.Steve-Stewart.com/ChooseLife