“You are never the same, but you have to make life go on,” said the widow of a farming husband who purposefully ended his life about a year ago. This grieving woman asked me to write about her experience to help assuage her pain, and to assist others who are in similar circumstances to heal from their devastation.
Almost everyone who is affected by the purposeful death of a loved one has a difficult readjustment, but survivors of a farmer after his/her suicide have more than usual complications, I think. Besides relying on my 40 years’ experience trying to help suicidal people and survivors, I reviewed as much relevant literature as I could find.
Although much has been written in many books and magazines to help the general population grieve and to adjust thereafter, there are few articles in farm publications and no books that I am aware of which specifically guide the journeys of those coping with suicide by farmers.
The Journal of Rural Mental Health and the Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health have published articles on this tender subject that say, among other things, every suicide among farmers, ranchers and farm workers is different. Fortunately, I remembered a 2001 Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health study by Amy Scheerer and Victoria Brandt, which I reviewed as an editor of this journal.
They found that widows who maintained the family agricultural operations after their husbands undertook suicide indicated the support they received “from family, friends and neighbors went beyond emotional comforting to providing help with farm chores and guidance on financial decisions.”
Some of the most useful emotional help that successors after a farm suicide have obtained comes from other survivors who have lost loved ones and from people who are also engaged in farming. That’s not surprising, because there is a cultural practice that is perhaps unique to farming that inclines farmers to help one another during difficult times.
I have never lost a client or a close loved one who farmed to suicide, so what I am reporting comes from survivors from whom I have learned, and continue to learn. I am deeply grateful for their sharing of what has helped them.
The pain of their losses has been almost unbearable at times, especially after the formal events such as the funeral have ended. How bereft, empty and confused they feel, sometimes angry (which can be a healthy expression), and hurt that their trusted soulmates or daily family associates left them.
“Where to go from here?” is a question most survivors can’t face immediately – but which nearly every survivor comes to realize from their personal searches is essential to answer. Perhaps that’s why most survivors greatly value the help of neighbors and loved ones with keeping the farm operating, at least during the short run.
Buying time helps the survivors figure out what next to do that follows sustaining their operation after the current crop year. All the widows in the Scheerer and Brandt study chose to keep their family farm operations running during the foreseeable future, if possible.
Supportive resources that can assist survivors exist in many regions of the United States but are less available in sparsely populated rural areas. They include local chapters of Ray of Hope (www.rayofhope.com) and Survivors of Suicide support groups that are most easily accessed at the website http://save.org/save-support-groups
A courageous widow of a farmer who undertook suicide suggested books written by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, including Understanding Your Suicide Grief: Finding Your Way. While Wolfelt’s books are written for the general population, their information has applications to many circumstances, and this is one of his best books.
The most important adjustments are spiritual, I have found, and scientific and personal reports agree. When survivors feel they can’t bear the despair and uncertainty of what the future holds, and ask for understanding from a Higher Power, they often move toward some semblance of peace, acceptance and direction for their next steps, usually helping others.
Survivors’ resolve changes to fit them better as time passes, but comfort gradually emerges and their lives continue even though they aren’t the same as before their losses. Hope emerges as their faith in a Higher Power is validated; they can love again when there is a higher purpose for their existence than themselves.
Belief in God gives us a reason to continue to strive. Having endured one of the worst losses they can experience, they are hardier and more emotionally and spiritually prepared to deal with any turmoil that follows, as well as to assist others.
Please share your observations, because there is much I don’t know and I can pass your ideas along. Special thanks to the person whom I will call “Helen” to disguise her identity as she requested, and who suggested the topic for today’s article. She will know I am referring to her.
Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer in western Iowa. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org