A Veteran and a partner’s suicide

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My partner committed suicide in front of me last February. He asked me to hold his hand. I always promised I’d be there for him, regardless. But this was something I couldn’t imagine.

Because we lived in the South, and his family in the Northeast, we were on our own. I called his family for support two weeks prior to his death, as they never visited, only to get excuses why they couldn’t come down; I even offered to pay for the travel. It didn’t happen.

After the death, because we’d never had a Civil Union, I was treated no better than a roommate or friend. His mom, during our ten years, referred to me as her “adopted son” and often stated I was the best thing to ever happen to him, but gave me no recognition as his spouse, although, throughout his suffering, I was the only one there for him, ever. Yet now, I didn’t mean anything to anyone. The police couldn’t even talk to me.

I’ve lost my job, lost our house and had to give away most of our belongings as I couldn’t stay in the South financially, and had to move north to stay with family until I figure out what I’m supposed to do with my life.

On top of it all, as I am a Veteran, the VA is my health provider and have offered minimal help: I’ve talked to ten people from the VA, explaining in full the details of my situation. It seems that if you’re not suicidal, they’re very lax about helping you.

I can’t stay with the family forever, but draw a complete blank when I try to think if starting my life from scratch. I’m afraid to get involved with someone new in case they die. Life without love is existing, how do you overcome the fear of loss?

Brad

Dear Brad–

Your story sadly illustrates how the death of a loved one can bring with it a cascade of losses, some visible to the world, and others invisible.  In particular, it summons up the idea of disenfranchised grief, a concept formulated by my friend and colleague Ken Doka to describe a response to bereavement that is unrecognized, unsanctioned, without broad social acknowledgement and support.  Originally offered as a description of social responses to the death of an ex-partner following divorce, disenfranchised grief is if anything even more acutely relevant and anguishing in a case like yours, where a committed same sex partnership of years may be dismissed as irrelevant by authorities, caregivers, and even the deceased partner’s family.  The result is a kind of double loss:  first of a man you deeply loved, and the second of even the social, legal and economic status of being his survivor.  As you tragically note, this can set in motion a litany of losses (of home, income, social networks) that deepen the original wound, massive as it is, and militate against healing.

In your case all of this is further compounded–and perhaps partly caused–by the traumatic nature of your partner’s death by suicide, a manner of dying that remains stigmatized, often horrific, and commonly associated with social avoidance at best and social blaming at worst.  As survivors at different geographic and emotional distances from the deceased struggle with the question of why he died as he did, it is all too tempting to attribute responsibility to those who were closest to him–in this case, perhaps to you.  At a time when you yourself must be struggling with many questions–Why did he end his life so suddenly and violently?  Who am I now in the shadow of this loss?–you are also likely struggling to manage the sights, sounds and sensations associated with the scene of the death, and your helplessness to avert it.  In addition, you are trying to sort out what this means for your attachments to others, including potentially other romantic partners.  This is difficult emotional work in the best of circumstances, and your uprootedness and relative isolation surely make it more difficult still.

So, what to do as you pick up the pieces of a life shattered by disenfranchised, traumatic loss?  First and most basically, seek others who can stand with you in the pain and complexity, without recoiling or blaming.  Might there be a gay men’s grief support group available to you, in your community or online?  Friends or family who would draw close in compassion, rather than distance in disdain?  Second, find a good therapist, one who respects same sex partnerships, and is familiar with trauma interventions and grief therapy.  The surest cure for disenfranchisement is to rebuild a social (and professional) network that acknowledges the gravity of your loss and is willing to join you in finding new direction through it.  If the VA doesn’t provide that–and as a care system more oriented toward dealing with the wounds of war and deployment than those inflicted by suicide, it may not–look elsewhere, including at resources offered by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Association for Death Education and Counseling.  As you say, life without love is merely existing, and you deserve the recognition of and support for your loss that would once again allow you to move toward living and loving fully, even beyond this trauma.

–Dr. Neimeyer

4 comments on “A Veteran and a partner’s suicide

    • Thank you Don,
      Recently, an old friend put my entire life into perspective: we hadn’t spoken in twenty three years and were talking about our Triumphs and Tragedies. His final comment was: “you always seemed like you were searching for something, but never finding it”.
      He was right: I’ve done many things, lived many places in Life and have never been content.
      I’ve always felt bored and restless: Nothing I’d ever done satisfied my mind.
      Often I questioned Life’s meaning. Not in a suicidal way, but puzzled how humans seemed so accepting of something so mundane.
      I’ve never thought myself better than anyone, no illusions of grandeur; but feel Life is a pebble in a pond of possibilities.
      My Partner and I had a beautiful relationship, we were together almost every moment of every day and we happy. No feelings of “needing space”, no distrust, we honestly never even argued. We agreed to openly communicate and actually did.
      For once in my life, I was content and happy. I could finally relax.
      I saw him deteriorate through the years: his back surgery, the Pain Med Rollercoaster, depression, work stress, etc.
      Frustrating thing was, he had almost a paranoia of involving anyone else in his/our problem of his mental conditions. It was a rare moment I could get him to see a doctor.
      He would cry for help, but then tell me we could handle it.
      I have ADHD: my psychiatrist told me he felt stressed after hearing my daily routine.
      In the end, every day was demanding: caring for my partner, taking care of the house, doing both of our jobs, constant thoughts of what more I could do to help him.
      His family would not come down, That in itself still frustrates me.
      Long-short of it all is: Our Life/Love was so perfectly demanding, it completed me.
      It ending so quickly has left me spinning: I’m lost again.
      And……..”why” seems the big question in a suicide. It may sound inhuman of me to say this; but I can understand why he did It. I’m sorry, I can.
      Before he passed, I knelt beside the bed and prayed for God to let me trade places, so my partner could finally enjoy Life again……..didn’t happen.
      Another problem I’m trying to solve: the religion aspect. I’ve prayed and prayed to no avail.
      Currently researching Primitive Religions, maybe there’s something I’m doing wrong.
      Sorry I talk too much, but thanks for the compliment Don.

  1. Dear Brad,
    I’m so deeply sorry for the loss of your beloved partner. I am also so sorry you do not have the recognition and support you deserve and need in your time of sorrow. I have some understanding of how you might feel. My 28 year old son, Pfc. Keith Jesse Moore died by suicide while serving in Iraq on October 14, 2006. I know the depth of pain one lives with when a loved one dies by suicide. My heart and prayers go out to you, Brad. I have experienced the pain when expectations of care from others go unfulfilled. I continue to adjust these expectations, which helps to increase appreciation when care does come through, often by the most unusual circumstances, places and people.
    As a Chaplain of the VA, we do care for Veterans who die by suicide (22 a day). The level of care varies as does all types of care in institutions. I know the variations of care as both a Chaplain and Gold Star Mother.
    I am here if you’d like to talk. You can reach me at 410.642.2411 extension 6340 or susan.turley@va.gov
    Be gentle with yourself and your broken heart. You will remain in my prayers.
    With love,
    Sue

    • Ma’am,
      Thank you for your concern: you, along with Dr. Neimeyer and Dr. Doka have at least given me the courtesy of a response.
      Terribly sorry for the loss of your son.
      I realize the “right words” are as unique as our griefs are.
      Thank you to your son for his Service and sorry for the Sacrifice no one should have to make.
      I hope you too have a good support structure to help you cope.
      I think too much and sometimes my mind feels like one of those cartoon robots you see smoking and shaking just before It falls apart.
      Certainly the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced.
      Prayers to you for Peace-of-Mind, Wisdom to understand and Strength to endure.

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