HAVERHILL — Rosemary Heiseler, head down, wearing sunglasses, trudged into the grocery store at night.
The last thing she needed was small talk.
“I felt like I walked like this for two years,” said Heiseler, showing her former hunched-over self, placing her shoulders against the world.
Losing loved ones to suicide is a complicated grief, she emphasized during a recent wide-ranging discussion with The Sun about the lasting impact of suicide and how to cope with such tragedies. This interview came in the wake of the death of Lowell High School student Anna Aslanian, 16, who took her own life in October after getting bullied in middle and high school.
Heiseler lost both her sister Carol and her mother Elizabeth to suicide, in 1986 and 1997, respectively.
“You’re a different person after a loss like this,” the 59-year-old said in her Haverhill home last week. “This is something that shouldn’t have happened.”
Healing from such a loss is a long, long journey, she said.
You’ll beat yourself up for awhile, repeatedly going over the details in your head: What did I miss? What could I have done?
What if? What if? What if?
Why didn’t I know this?
Such a loss is not something you get over. It’s something you learn to live with, she stressed.
“The healing starts when it’s not the first thing you think of when you wake up, and when it’s not the last thing you think of when you go to bed,” said Heiseler, who organizes meetings for the Samaritans of Merrimack Valley Safe Place, a suicide loss support group.
“You need to get to the spot (where you tell yourself), ‘It wasn’t my fault.’ ”
Heiseler now looks at the world through different eyes.
Things that used to matter don’t anymore. Priorities have changed.
You become much more compassionate, she said.
“You’re a sponge,” Heiseler said. “If there’s a tragedy, you just kind of soak it all in. Before, it bounced right off you.”
What matters is who you love and who’s your family, she reiterated.
Rosemary Heiseler, of Haverhill, holds photos of her sister Carol and mother Elizabeth, both of whom took their own lives. “The healing starts when it’s not the first thing you think of when you wake up, and when it’s not the last thing you think of when you go to bed,” she said. (SUN / Hannah Manning)
“I would give this all up if I could have a day with my mom and my sister,” Heiseler said in her home.
She thinks of all the sunsets on her back deck without her mother.
She thinks of how her mother will never meet Heiseler’s grandson.
She thinks of how her mother, who grew up in Ireland, will never see Heiseler’s daughter Irish step dance.
“She would have loved that,” Heiseler said.
Her sister, Carol Stanlake, was incredibly intelligent, Heiseler said.
She could have been a doctor, she added about her sister who was four years younger than her.
Carol was quiet, kept to herself and didn’t have a lot of friends.
“We weren’t real close,” Heiseler said of her childhood with her sister in Burlington. “I tried to bring her into my activities. She tried them once, but they weren’t for her.”
Carol battled depression for years. She was hospitalized, and was admitted to a psychiatric ward.
Two weeks after getting released, she took her own life in October 1986. She was 23.
Heiseler’s first reaction was anger.
“I didn’t understand what she was going through,” Heiseler said, looking back on it more than 30 years later.
Her sister’s death broke the family.
No one talked about her anymore.
“The grief is bone-crushing,” she said. “You’re never the same.”
There were no suicide loss support groups to turn to in the 1980s. Those are critical places today to speak with others who have lost loved ones, telling stories about their loved ones, she said.
If those groups existed back then, Heiseler’s mother would still be alive, she stressed.
“She wouldn’t have felt so alone,” Heiseler said. “She would have known someone else is going through the same sleepless nights, staring out the window.”
Her mother, Elizabeth Stanlake, grew up in Ireland. Pictures of her as a kid in Ireland are on Heiseler’s living room wall.
She brought that hard work ethic from Ireland to America, where she and her husband raised four children in Burlington.
Elizabeth was 20 when she had Heiseler. They butted heads as mothers and daughters typically do, the daughter recalled.
Her mother was worn down in the years before Carol took her own life. She became a different person, quick to anger, no longer patient, Heiseler said.
“She didn’t see a therapist,” Heiseler said. “She said they didn’t help Carol.”
Elizabeth stopped seeing friends, becoming isolated. She didn’t talk to another parent about losing her daughter.
She was in so much pain.
Elizabeth left a note before taking her own life in February 1997.
“I’m tired. I have to go now,” she wrote.
Elizabeth was 57.
The loved one’s world comes to a grinding halt, but the rest of the world goes on.
It’s critical that you give yourself time to grieve — whether it’s for weeks, months or years, Heiseler said.
American society gives you a week, and then you’re supposed to go back to work like everything’s fine, she said. Other countries give 30 days.
“Allow yourself to grieve in your own time,” she added.
Some people wrap themselves in their bathrobe on their couch for days, and that’s perfectly OK, she said.
You have to do what’s going to help you, she stressed.
Heiseler didn’t go for help right away. She then called the Samaritans of Merrimack Valley.
“Angels on earth,” she said of the organization. “They’re just so understanding and compassionate.”
When talking about loved ones, be a champion and celebrate their lives, she said. Go to a therapist or a support group, and talk about the loved one — say their name and tell happy stories about them.
Physical health is important as well, she added. Make sure you eat right, get enough sleep and treat any body aches.
Furthermore, stay away from anything that will trigger you, including violent movies.
“One time watching a movie I stood up involuntarily and just screamed,” Heiseler said. “You need to protect yourself from stuff on TV and on the computer. Put a cocoon around yourself.”
At work, find yourself a safe place, she said. Maybe it’s in an empty conference room where you can collect yourself for 10 minutes.
Or maybe you’ll sit in your car and have a good cry during lunch.
Sometimes approaching another set of parents or siblings who have lost someone is the key, Heiseler said.
There’s an immediate connection.
“If someone just lost a loved one, they’ll see the person who has been there for years,” she said. “They’ll see this person still surviving, still breathing. It gives them someone to look to for help, showing them they will get through this, too.”
The Samaritans of Merrimack Valley, a program of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, has volunteers who are trained to speak with those who are struggling.
Their confidential crisis help line numbers are 978-327-6607 and 866-912-4673. Someone in imminent risk should call 911.
Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.