In a rare way, I am a perfect reviewer for this book, written by a psychologist in the devastated wake of (and through the long aftermath of) the suicide of her boyfriend. I, too, am a psychologist, and my father committed suicide, leaving me in the devastated wake and aftermath. Is it an important difference, the relationship to boyfriend versus father? In other words, will this book apply to all those who survive the suicide of a loved one? That’s a question you may be wondering about as you consider this book.
This deeply personal book is organized in three large sections, reflecting a path through the pain and toward healing: despair, shifting, and beauty. Each section presents the correspondence the author wrote to John, her boyfriend, almost entirely after he died, and is concluded by material Dr. Neustadter refers to as a map: helpful and practical tools and advice to consider and practice as you are in each stage of dealing with your loved one’s suicide. For many people, if not most, this material will be the primary reason to buy this book — although it is surprising how often the correspondence parts of the chapters will connect.
The first section, despair, will probably be painfully resonant for anyone who finds themselves in this group no one wants to belong to. Depending on how recently your loved one died, in fact, the rawness of the author’s emails to John, her boyfriend, and the specific hours around his suicide (including his suicide note), may be too difficult to read.
The material chronicling John’s suicidal act, her learning about it, and his death, met my own experience in deeply psychological ways that are probably universal: the disbelief, the numbness, the wondering how other people are doing things like reading, the praying praying praying it is going to be OK, the near impossibility to speak when the final news is delivered. Although reading about her experience awakened my memories and caused me some pain, they also very much made me feel less alone, it wasn’t just me, maybe this is just how it is. And that, in fact, is part of her mission in writing this book.
The map material for the despair chapter includes a mix of external and internal recommendations, each elaborated and explained: acknowledge and surrender, gather community support, resist suicidal urges and seek therapy, dealing with trauma, dissociation, and shock, and crying. I was startled by some of her specific suggestions regarding dealing with shock and dissociation, because I had intuitively done them myself. Although not a gardener at all, I had felt a deep need to put my hands in dirt — a suggestion she presents as “earthing,” putting your bare feet on the earth for at least 30 minutes a day. I mention this as an example of the useful and specific activities one might do in this painful part of the healing process.
The middle section, shifting, focuses on the proactive process of getting out of your own pain and suffering — a process that Dr. Neustadter notes is still part of her experience 10 years after his death, and one she expects will continue the rest her life. The author’s letters to John swirl around the experiences of anger and guilt, responses that are so common even when there is absolutely no reason one could feel guilt. The map material in this section does not say “don’t feel guilty and angry” (instructions I received all the time), but does acknowledge that survivors feel this way.
The activities then focus on using the anger as a way to get out of your misery, practicing self-forgiveness (and she notes the power of meditation to help this difficult process), and a great number of specific ways to help you shift your perspective on death, and life after death. If the activities that focus on psychic abilities and mediums don’t resonate with your specific beliefs, she offers others that might help, including meaning-making and bodywork. I appreciated the range of activities that can reach every reader.
The final section, beauty, explores the possibility of finding beauty within and around yourself and emerging from the darkness of grief. The author found herself moving into this phase around 2½ years after John’s death, although she is careful not to proscribe the length of grief, noting that some people may take a year or less and others may still be processing their grief five years and longer. The map activities in this section might feel impossible to achieve if you are just starting to deal with a loved one’s suicide, but they offer a beautiful light to walk toward.
And if you are ready to emerge from that darkness, the suggestions she offers will guide you toward comfort and relief: a brief discussion of meditation, an exhortation to spend time in nature, ideas of ways to cultivate magic and feeling your aliveness, ways to be in connection to others, a suggestion of following your dreams, her own positive experience of relocating as a way to move forward, suggestions for creating your purpose, and her story of self-love in the aftermath. Even just reading that list felt light and hopeful to me, and the further description of each suggestion fleshed them out with specifics.
There are two appendixes that provide a great trove of resources that will be very useful: a lengthy list with descriptions of transformational practices and a list of resources that will expand on the ideas she explores in this book.
To answer the question in my opening paragraph — will this book apply to all those who survive the suicide of a loved one — my conclusion is that it will. There is very little that’s unique to the aftermath of the suicide of a loved one, whether he or she was parent, sibling, intimate relationship partner, or friend, and the small details that are specific are unimportant to the value of this book. Despair after a suicide is despair. Shifting is shifting. Beauty is beauty. For me, the real value was in the map material in each section rather than in her lengthy correspondence with John, which I would have preferred summarized and presented in a broader context of the issues she was experiencing and exploring at that time, with occasional quotes.
But even 37 years after my father’s suicide, I found new approaches and ideas that resonate and that I will put into practice. Reflecting back on my shattered and traumatized experiences in the immediate and near-term days and months after his suicide, I can see how helpful this book would have been to me, in a great many ways. Whether your own loved one has committed suicide or you have a friend who is dealing with this traumatic experience in his or her life, this book offers a useful and practical guide to surviving this tragedy and finding your way back to yourself and life.
Love You Like the Sky: Surviving the Suicide of a Beloved
Sparkpress, June 2019
Paperback, 256 pages