The statistics of suicide are sobering. In America, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death. There are almost 121 suicides every day, with men making up the majority of deaths by suicide.
In a country where mental health is largely ignored and stigmatized, the conversation about suicide and suicide prevention is near silent. But for some, the facts and figures of suicide hit much closer to home.
Patricia Frederickson (28) is a bright, busy, active young woman. She works for a college and recently got accepted into a graduate program. She’s bubbly and always happy to help those around her. You’d never guess from looking at her that she’s a widow.
When she was 27, her long-term boyfriend, Gabriel, ended his life after a long battle with undiagnosed mental health problems and depression. And as the suicide statistics became more than numbers for Patricia, she’s become stronger through the immense loss that she has suffered. I sat down with her to ask her questions about how she has come out of the other side of her boyfriend’s suicide, and what she suggests for those who are going through a similar experience.
What coping skills have you learned to deal with the loss of a loved one?
Everyone grieves differently. I used to think the 5 stages of grief were pretty lockstep, but they actually weren’t even written for the bereaved, they were written for people who need to come to terms with their own deaths! I personally rode out the “anger” phase for months – as many suicide widows do. I dip into pockets of time where I am just absolutely bereft with sadness, but they do not last long. I liken them to a Charlie horse: sudden and debilitating, but gone if you tend to it gently for a little while.
Self-care is the most important piece of this puzzle – when you feel a wave of grief about to crash over you, brace yourself and ride it out. When it’s over, just be gentle with yourself. Some days, this means staying up until 2 in the morning on a work night playing video games. Others, it means taking 3 bubble baths over the course of 24 hours. There is no one “right” way to do this, and no two people do it the same. Conversely, there is no “wrong” way to do it either – whatever makes you feel better (as long as it doesn’t hurt others, of course) is correct.
As a widow who wasn’t married, what are the obstacles you’ve encountered?
There is a camp of people who really feel very strongly that a marriage certificate is what really allows you to be a widow. They adhere strictly to the dictionary definition of ‘widow,’ and feel that anyone not legally married is not allowed to consider themselves a widow. To me, the term ‘widow’ is less of a word with a singular definition and more of a net you can cast out to pull in people under the same umbrella. Your partner passed away? You’re a widow. I don’t care if you were married, engaged, dating, or anything in between. Gabriel and I lived together, shared bills and responsibilities, had plans for a future. He’d told coworkers how he planned to propose to me, and more than likely we’d be engaged now if he were still alive. The only thing missing was a certified piece of paper.
The other piece of this is that I am a very young widow – I was 27 when Gabe passed away. I notice that younger widows tend to get needled with “so when are you going to move on?” and similar questions more frequently, and sooner, than older widows. I don’t believe people do and say these things to invalidate my grief – it’s more meant to be a positive rallying cry, like “you’re so young, you have your whole life ahead of you, get back out there, champ!” But there is a lot of emotional baggage that comes with this – I personally witnessed Gabriel’s suicide, which is a whole other layer to sort out. I have to be incredibly selective and careful with what I do with my heart from here on out – I absolutely do want to love again, I want a husband and a family someday. But it will have to be with someone gentle and understanding, and this is not something I am willing to rush into.
I know you discovered a group of like minded women (and men) called Camp Widow, and that helped you a lot when you were struggling with Gabe’s death. What can you tell me about Camp Widow as a resource?
I was not even five months out from my loss when I learned about Camp Widow. (you know how when you have a baby you measure everything in months and weeks? Same happens when someone you love very much dies). It is a peer-support program by Soaring Spirits International – a nonprofit founded by Michele Neff Hernandez in 2008. Michele is an intrepid leader with inimitable amounts of courage, who has this ability to treat everyone she encounters like they’re the only person in the room. I attended Camp Widow on a scholarship, and assumed that I’d maybe meet a few ladies who might have a few nuggets of wisdom for me, but that by and large I was likely in the minority and would probably be best off keeping to myself in a corner and crying.
This proved, I am pleased to say, untrue – I did cry multiple times, but often it was from laughing too hard. I spent three days sharing my experiences, learning from others, and just generally having an amazing time. The event has roundtables, where you meet people with similar situations as yours (religious affiliation, LGBT widow(er)s, survivors of suicide, widows whose partners struggled with addiction, newly-single parents, etc), as well as workshops (on everything from dating again to how to blend families). The event culminates in a ceremony to honor everyone’s loved one, followed by an extravagant ball where there are no slow dances and everyone crowds onto the dance floor. Widows really know how to party, because we of all people know any day could be your last. My story is awful, but I met so many people (men attend too!) whose losses were so tragic I can’t even begin to comprehend. These same souls are laughing and smiling, clapping and whooping with joy, and you realize that maybe it’s okay to continue to live your life - for yourself and your partner both. These people – these strong, wonderful people – are all absolutely radiant with joie de vivre, careening around a dance floor and laughing infectiously. If that doesn’t make you realize the value of today, I don’t know what would. No matter what thought popped into my head that entire weekend, there was always someone nearby to say, “Hey, me too.” That kind of validation is huge and vital to day-to-day success.
I came into Tampa shy and afraid – I left with so many new friends, and a full heart. Camp Widow East 2018 runs March 23-25 of next year, and I have already booked my ticket. This will take place during my birthday, if that tells you how much I enjoyed Camp! But there is no better birthday present I could give myself than the gift of community, and I cannot wait to turn 29 among my friends.
Someone asked me after I booked my spot for next year, “Why would you go back? Didn’t you learn what you needed to learn this time?” Do you know how some people go to Comic-Con or the Renaissance Festival every single year? They went once, so they got their fill of cosplay, events, and panels that one weekend, right? So why do they go back year after year? Community. This is their tribe – these are the people who understand their particular sense of humor and their raw, unfiltered emotions. People come back to Camp Widow year after year, even after remarrying and rebuilding, because the people who best understand what you are going through are the people who have gone through it, too.
Since Gabriel’s death, you have become a very outspoke advocate for suicide prevention, with a voice that speaks from the depth of the experience. With that in mind, what would you say to those who considered or are considering suicide?
Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Studies have shown that people who survive an attempt are oftentimes horrified that they came so close to dying – most of the time the feelings you’re experiencing in that moment you feel at your lowest are temporary, and they’ll fade. There is help out there for anyone who needs it – countless hotlines, and even a couple of text lines for people who are more comfortable behind a keyboard. These things are 24/7 – you are never, ever alone. But it is also an epidemic: one in two people knows someone who has completed suicide, and in the state of Georgia someone dies by suicide every seven hours. It is the second leading cause of death for people aged 25-34 in Georgia as well – a statistic that unfortunately includes my Gabe.
When Gabriel died, I can guarantee you that he wasn’t thinking about what he was leaving behind - he was only thinking about escaping the torrential onslaught of sadness he was feeling inside. People will mourn who you would have never guessed even cared – family, friends, coworkers, pets. People have come forward and said to me, “I barely knew the guy but the memories I have are so positive – I can’t believe he’s gone.” You touch people day in and day out, and you have no idea how deep those rivers run.
I’ve dedicated my life to suicide prevention since my loss – I am currently in graduate school again for my Masters of Public Administration, my goal being to work for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention when I am finished. I will be walking in the Overnight AFSP fundraiser walk in Washington DC this June, and am on the planning committee for our local walk at home in Augusta, Georgia in October. This is the worst fire to walk through, and a pain I’d never wish for anyone else to experience. If I can somehow ease someone else’s suffering to prevent their suicide, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. Everyone is worth saving, because everyone is loved.
When you’re able to look back on your experience as a young widow, what would you say to someone who is just now experiencing this kind of loss?
You’re not alone. There are so many people out there who have been through the same thing, and we are a family united by perseverance in the face of adversity. I have found the widow community to be among the more resilient, sharp people I’ve ever met, and they’ll all bend over backwards to help someone in crisis. The Soaring Spirits website has a wealth of information for the newly widowed – packets that can be mailed to you, a message board, a pen pal program, of course Camp Widow itself (which has three sessions a year in Tampa, San Diego and Toronto). There are many avenues through which you can find community and healing, if you are willing. I’m sorry to see that you have cause to be among us, but I am happy to tell you that you’ll never walk alone.