Please note: This is an updated version of a previously published post.
In an amazing display, thousands of volunteers have poured into the areas of Middle Tennessee affected last week by a string of tornadoes as powerful as any the region has ever seen.
Tragically, at least twenty-five people were killed and dozens more injured as a result of the massive storm, which struck during the early hours of Tuesday morning. There was enormous destruction of property as well. Buildings ruined, power lines down. Debris everywhere.
Obviously, the storm that spawned the series of deadly tornadoes was terrifyingly real and the repercussions nothing less than staggering.
Hopefully it’s not too soon to be saying this, given the untold suffering the victims are undoubtedly experiencing, but on an abstract level it’s certainly possible to view a tornado such as the ones that touched down in the Nashville area as a metaphor for virtually any type of catastrophic loss, including suicide loss.
After all, a tornado wreaks havoc, leaving in its wake great swaths of damage. The same may be said for the metaphorical tornado of loss, and in particular, a “complicated” loss such as suicide.
Sometimes, as is the case with an actual tornado, people fail to survive. Some are quite simply unable to find emotional shelter in time, while others find themselves struck down by flying psychological debris. Whether the tornado is caused by unexpected loss or by Mother Nature herself, in the aftermath life often seems incredibly fragile.
Major loss, including suicide loss, is like a physical tornado in that it rips apart the metaphorical “structures” that make up your world—your family structure, your social structure. It rips apart order, as well as routine. Just as a tornado destroys actual physical places, which often hold treasured memories, the tornado of grief destroys them in another respect, by turning them into places you simply cannot bear to go.
In my forthcoming memoir, The World Looks Different Now, I write about a local restaurant where our family went for a final meal with our older son before he died. Later, the restaurant burns, which strikes me as symbolic of the devastation our family was left to deal with as a result of my son taking his life.
Rather like a survivor of an actual tornado, you’re left wondering whether it’s worth trying to rebuild or whether you should attempt to start afresh somewhere else.
The metaphor holds as we survey the devastation on the news. We see the power of the storm in the flattened buildings, the cars lying crumpled on the ground like broken toys. We imagine family members grieving and survivors lying injured in the hospital. We acknowledge the storm’s power in the same way many of us are forced to acknowledge the terrible power of suicide if—or when—it sweeps through our lives.
My son’s death by suicide forced me to face an internal storm of ferocious proportions. How was I to cope?
The same question might be asked when it comes to a “real” storm like the one that ravaged Middle Tennessee last week. How does one survive such a cataclysmic event?
We buried our son in Middle Tennessee, where he always used to say he felt at home after living here for a time with his wife and her family.
At the time Nashville was still recovering from the terrible flood of 2010, which brought with it a degree of devastation comparable to what happened here last week.
Today, my husband and I are residents of this part of the country that our son loved so much. It is indeed a land of gentle hills and smiling people who genuinely love—and wish to help—their neighbors. Even after almost four years, we’re still marveling at the residents’ warmth and friendliness. While hospitable, our hometown of Memphis, more than two hundred miles away, isn’t quite the same.
The victims of last week’s tornadoes are in desperate need of practical help, such as food, clothing, and shelter. Obviously they’re in need of emotional support too, whether professional or not. Many survivors are understandably in a state of shock, which over time will almost certainly give way to a profound sense of grief.
Needless to say, their road to healing will undoubtedly be a long one. Fortunately, though, the Nashville area victims belong to as caring a community as I’ve ever seen, which is already doing everything possible to help. And yet still more, in the form of longterm assistance, will of course be needed if the victims of last week’s tornadoes are to truly rebuild their lives.