Losing a loved one is never easy, let alone losing someone through suicide. The impact is enormous and devastating. The pain, grief and often confusion that are faced for those experiencing the loss through suicide can be intense, especially for those on the autism spectrum.
Lisa Morgan gives a heartfelt personal account of loss through suicide of a close family member. From this extremely distressing and challenging part of her life, Lisa felt the need to convey her experience with fellow autistics, giving insightful support during such a difficult experience.
Barb: Thank you for taking the time today in talking about an extremely challenging and painful part of your life. Lisa, what circumstances moved you to write about the loss through suicide of your husband?
Lisa: Hello Barb, thank you for inviting me. The circumstances that led me to write about my loss were based on social, emotional, and relational experiences. The social difficulties I ran into were from interacting with first responders, insurance companies, the clean-up crew, and the coroner to name a few. I also had trouble managing my emotions. The emotions were very strong and they changed frequently. I’d be struggling with one emotion and suddenly find I was feeling a different, strong emotion or feeling both at the same time. The relational difficulties I had were about lost friendships I thought I’d have for life or challenges with family members who just wanted me to be who I was before my loss.
Barb: Your book has an interesting style that it has been written in. Why did you decide to write this way and how does it benefit the reader?
Lisa: Thank you Barb, I decided to write in that style so I could describe my experiences, and at the same time, explain the way I perceived the situation, and finally how I managed any sensory issues, miscommunications, social deficits, and confusion. I wanted the reader to know the coping skills I used to manage each situation right after I explained it. I believe the style helped the reader to understand each problem and then the solution I came up with to manage it.
Barb: After reading your book, I found it to be extremely helpful in gaining a greater understanding of the many challenges that is faced, especially for an autistic individual. Lisa, where would you like to see information in your book used, especially in early moments and days after such a devastating event? (The direction of this question is for your book to be used by professionals and services that you encountered, from arrival at the house and the first few days).
Lisa: I would love for my book to be used in communication trainings for first responders, victim advocates, mental health counsellors, and any other professionals who work with people on the spectrum after a traumatic experience.
If the police, victim advocate, sergeant, insurance representatives, and clean-up crew understood the challenges that come with living on the spectrum and could be understanding and compassionate, my experience would have been more tolerable.
I wasn’t able to advocate for myself as a new survivor of suicide loss because it is traumatic and I was spending all my energy keeping my anxiety, sensory challenges, and expressive and recessive language difficulties to a level where I could do what needed to be done in that moment. The details and tasks that need to be completed right away, such as important decisions about funeral arrangements, starting the clean-up of my home, being there for my children, and trying to grasp the finality of my husband’s suicide myself are so much more difficult when the people I need to communicate with didn’t understand how much I was already struggling.
Barb: Autistic individuals often have a different response/reaction to intensely emotional situations. What did you find was the most difficult points to deal with and now with the insights you have, what would have helped you better cope with such a chaotic and traumatic time?
Lisa: The most difficult points to deal with were sensory based. The six policemen suddenly surrounding me, one of them touching my shoulder, and being asked questions were difficult to manage with my senses being invaded and my anxiety so high.
My senses were overloaded by unexpected touch, smells, noises, lights, and strange emotions all at the same time. I was expected to answer important questions quickly and concisely in that state of extreme sensory overload.
I felt misunderstood by the policemen for not crying right away, not formulating my thoughts quick enough, and not being able to look at them in the eye.
If it were to happen now, with the new insights I’ve gained, I would be forthright and up front about my diagnosis, my sensory difficulties, and social skills challenges. I would tell anyone I encountered exactly what I was struggling with and what I needed to calm down, be more focused, and relaxed. For example, I would ask the sergeant if we could talk out of the glare of the blinking lights on the police cars. I would ask for a minute or two to collect my thoughts and regulate my senses to alleviate some of my high anxiety. And lastly, I would have a laminated card stating important information about my diagnosis, needs, emergency contact, etc. to give to someone if I couldn’t get any words out myself.
Barb: Suicide is something that people feel uncomfortable talking about. From your experience, what would you like to see change in the general public’s perspective of suicide and how as a community can we better support those through these times of traumatic loss?
Lisa: I’d like to see people accept suicide as the result of pain, mental anguish, and as a side effect of mental illness, not as a rational choice, weakness, personal vendetta, or character flaw. If suicide were accepted in the same way as cancer, a heart attack, or stroke, for example, the survivors of suicide would have a better chance of being supported after their devastating loss.
Suicide loss is complicated grief. A person doesn’t just feel the devastating loss; they also feel guilt and anger. They may have been there and seen their loved one die. They may have experienced the clean-up of what their loved one did to themselves. It is a very unique type of loss and these people, myself included, need even more support and care to continue on and make a new life for themselves. Instead, they experience more loss and secondary wounds such as being misunderstood, hurtful words, and isolation from their friends, families, and people in general due to the loss being from suicide.
We can better support people through a traumatic loss such as suicide by simply being there for them. I had friends who never treated me any different after my loss. They were there for me to talk to, to help with the kids, and to encourage me to keep living my life, but I also experienced more hurt through friends who suddenly forgot we were friends.
For example, right after I lost my husband to suicide, some people I cared for very much stopped talking to me. It was another loss when I needed support from friends the most. Because my loss was from suicide, some of my friends didn’t know what to say to me, so they stopped talking to me and left me alone.
Just a word about that, people needn’t be worried about saying or doing the wrong thing to a friend or loved one who is a survivor of suicide loss, if they just ask them what they need, how you can help, send them a card, call them, let them know you are still there. It will help more than you can know.
Barb: Lisa, what strengths have you gained from this extremely difficult experience and how has this experience reflected in your life and your book?
Lisa: I would say the strength that I’ve gained is in knowing I went through the worst experience of my life and have made it this far. I am much more in tune with my emotions, although I still struggle to manage them at times. I can be more flexible with situations, changes, and people. I am much better at using the phone to communicate. The strengths I gained vary, but in general I’ve become much more capable in handling situations as they come up in my life.
When I wrote the book I still wasn’t sharing my diagnosis with many people. I wanted to help other people on the spectrum so much that I allowed my diagnosis to be public knowledge. I’m actually a very private person, yet again I shared my life publicly. It’s because my experience was so pervasively devastating to me I wanted to help others manage their loss and if they could avoid some of the negative experiences I had, writing such a public book about my life would definitely be worth it.
Barb: Lastly Lisa, after enduring such a confronting and difficult time, what/who has been the greatest support and what now inspires you with hope for the future?
Lisa: My friend, my sister, Carla, has been my greatest support. She has been there from before the beginning and is still there now when many others have gone on with their lives and think I should be over and done with this whole experience by now. I have two other friends who have been there as well, with encouragement and to help me live and have fun again.
My kids have always been my hope for the future. They have been my light in the darkness.