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img_0095-edit-2Late on a rainy night in April, 2002, my mother and I were driving home from a nearby town after watching my brother, George, perform there as “Brandy Bottle Bates” in Guys and Dolls. My extended family had finally begun to enjoy some of life’s pleasures even while mourning the suicide of my daughter Mary that had occurred seven years earlier. So as my mother and I chatted that night, I was also privately searching for answers about Mary as I had done every night: why did she intentionally overdose on her antidepressant medication? How could she do that to herself and to her family? How could she?

But then this: a white cat running across the road not ten feet from my front wheels. After a sickening bump under both front and back tires, I stopped on the road, windshield wipers clicking, wondering what to do.

“Drive on,” my mother said. “The cat’s dead, and the owner might live a mile away. I know you feel bad, but there’s nothing you can do.”

I did drive on, but the death of that cat troubled me for days. I visualized the owners finding the crushed body by the road and shouting, “How could you?” at faceless me just as I had shouted at Mary.

It finally dawned on me that those owners deserved an apology they would never get and that their not getting an apology made me something of a culprit. “I felt for them. I felt for Mary, as well. It wasn’t that I placed suicide and accidental animal slaughter in the same moral category; it was that my daughter and I had both done damage, and neither of us could apologize for it. However, merely imagining that Mary would want to apologize [as I wanted to] put an end to my ‘How could you?’ question and brought peace” (Marjorie Antus, My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope, CreateSpace, 2014, 198-9).

Then or now, I wouldn’t imagine Mary apologizing for the mental suffering she tried to end (and did end, I believe) with an intentional overdose. The agony of mental illness leading to suicide is described by psychologist Thomas Joiner as a “force of nature” nearly impossible for the rest of us to grasp or expect an apology for (2011 Suicide Prevention Conference: Myths About Suicide, YouTube, Google, Inc.).

Still, it’s restorative to imagine those who have died by suicide apologizing for the heartache, the bewilderment, the life disruption, and the chronic sorrow their deaths have brought. I’m also glad I was able to feel like a wrongdoer for a time. That feeling brought empathy, and empathy brought love.

img_0095-edit-2How might someone gauge personal healing after the suicide of a loved one? The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) lists twelve “symptoms” of inner peace that apply to the family members of people living with mental illness, but I think those symptoms pertain, as well, to family and friends living in the aftermath of suicide:

1) Tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fears based on experiences from the past.

2) The ability to enjoy each moment.

3) Loss of interest in judging self.

4) Loss of interest in judging other people.

5) Loss of interest in conflict.

6) Disinterest in interpreting actions of others.

7) Loss of ability to worry.

8) Frequent episodes of appreciation.

9) Contented feeling of connectedness with others and nature.

10) Frequent attacks of smiling through the eyes of the heart.

11) Increasing susceptibility to love extended by others as well as the uncontollable urge to extend it.

12) Increasing tendency to let things happen rather than to make them happen.

“If you have all, or even most of the above symptoms,” NAMI states, “your condition of peace may be so far advanced as not to be treatable” (NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program, National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2014, 9.17).

Playfully described though they may be, values and perspectives do shift when someone we love lives with a mental illness or dies because of it.

For example, before my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose in 1995, I had spent a good part of my adult life trying to figure out other people’s motivations, usually erroneously, as I would later come to learn. But at Mary’s wake, I began issuing a series of “I don’t know” statements that endure to this day.

I didn’t know that Mary had been thinking about suicide for two years before her death as her journals revealed. I didn’t know and couldn’t imagine the inner pain she was carrying, more or less silently. I didn’t know much about Mary or anything else during the wake, the funeral, or for several years to follow.

Those “I didn’t know” admissions continue to chasten. But they always lead to one searing truth: if I hadn’t known what was in my own daughter’s heart, how could I pretend to know what is in anyone else’s heart without that person telling me?

The answer: I don’t know. While endorsing NAMI’s “symptoms of inner peace,” my suicide bereavement adds nuance to numbers four and six on the list. It isn’t so much that I’ve lost interest in judging other people or that I’m disinterested in interpreting their actions. It’s that Mary’s death has exposed my incapacity for doing so, the acknowlegment of which does bring a kind of peace.

Suicide and Despair

img_0019-edit-4Set in Ireland in the early twentieth century, Frank O’Connor’s story “An Act of Charity” revolves around the effort to conceal a parish priest’s suicide.

“The worst thing a priest could do was to commit suicide,” O’Connor writes, “since it seemed to deny everything that gave his vocation meaning–Divine Providence and Mercy, forgiveness, Heaven, Hell. That one of God’s anointed could come to such a state of despair was something the Church could not admit. It would give too much scandal. It was simply an unacceptable act.”

Because the “unfortunate occurrence” of a shotgun blast to a priest’s head carried “consequences” affecting the entire parish in this story, the man’s death certificate was falsified, his casket closed, and his body brought at last before the altar of the church–all performed as acts of Christian charity (Collected Stories, New York: Vintage Books, 1982, 638, 639).

What exactly is the state of despair into which the priest was judged to have fallen?

Described in one Catholic encyclopedia as the “deliberate and willful abandonment of hope in God and rejection of trust in his power, mercy, and love,” despair is the “most serious sin against the theological virtue of hope” (Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing division, 1991, 301).

In reality, was it the kind of despair that ended the fictional priest’s life? All too often in the Roman Catholic Church up to the late 20th century, death by suicide was wrongly connected with the sinful abandonment of hope in God.

For a while, I also made that erroneous connection after my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose in 1995. Because her father and I were away for a day of prayer on the Sunday of her death, I asked myself repeatedly whether Mary had timed her suicide as a deliberate rejection of her faith and ours.

But that question eventually faded. I finally gained some small understanding of my daughter’s psychological state on the day of her death, and it had nothing to do with willful abandonment of hope. If anything, her hope had been robbed by suicidal depression, “paraylzing all the otherwise vital forces that make us human, leaving instead a bleak, despairing, desperate, and deadened state . . .” (Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast:Understanding Suicide, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999, 104).

I’d like to believe that, written today, an “An Act of Charity” would tell the story of priests reaching out to their suicidally depressed brother, getting him into treatment, and helping to save an entirely savable life.

Combatting Stigma

img_0019-edit-4As if the suicide of a loved one weren’t traumatic enough, the bereaved even today find themselves contending with subtle forms of stigma such as “blame being cast upon [them] and [their] being subjected to informal isolation and shunning” sociologist William Feigelman states.

Simply put, stigma is a mark of disgrace, a stain or reproach, a set of unfair beliefs. For nearly two millenia in the Western world, stigma has attended the act of suicide and shadowed the families of those who die by suicide.

In 2009, Feigleman joined Bernard Gorman and John Jordan in studying the ways in which stigma affects parents of children (age 16-35) who die by suicide. More than half reported receiving harmful rather than helpful responses from one or more family members after the suicide. About one third reported harmful responses from someone outside the family.

A majority of the parents in the study commented on the avoidance they had experienced: “Friends or family didn’t call me afterwards” and “People who I thought would be at the funeral or send a sympathy card didn’t show any acknowledgment of the death.”

A majority of parents received unhelpful advice: “It’s time to move on” and “Are you still going to that support group?”

A majority noticed an absence of caring interest: “No one asked me how I was feeling afterwards” and “If I started talking about my lost child, they quickly changed the subject” and “People just passed over my tragedy as if my child never existed.”

“What makes these stigmatizing experiences so irksome,” Feigleman adds, “is the expectations survivors have of gaining support and solace from close family and social intimates. Who else should be able to readily understand their personal devastating tragedies?”

I was fortunate to have outstanding family support after my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995. I haven’t had to avoid family members or teach them how to treat me better, both of which proposals Feigleman sets forth as a mental health measure for the stigmatized. (www3.ncc.edu/faculty/soc/feigelb/stigmashorterversion.pdf)

What I do recommend from experience is education. Knowing that our lives have been utterly and unfairly altered forever, we suicide bereaved can fortify ourselves and combat stigma by learning about the mental illnesses that underlie nine of ten (approaching ten of ten) suicides.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great place to start (NAMI.org). Its information is accurate and its nationwide community programs are offered free of charge.

imagePlease meet Mary! Since 2012, I have been blogging about my daughter Mary, and now anyone who wants to know her better can do so.  I’ve finally finished writing an account titled My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope that is now available on Amazon.com.

Over a period of some ten years beginning in 2001, I took it upon myself to delve into Mary’s death, her life, and the grief of an entire family at her passing. In truth, I was driven to explore some of the “what-if” questions and the “why” torments about which I’ve posted many times. I wanted to find out where God was in the tragedy and ultimately to figure out how to put “daughter,” “suicide,” and “God” together harmoniously in one sentence. But I always knew that the one sentence would arrive, if ever, only after several thousand other sentences.

The writing also became my attempt at mending the shattered relationship that Mary and I shared. I wanted badly to get her back in my life in a good way. Putting words on paper for more than a decade, pushing “delete” and starting over, no matter how laborious-seeming in retrospect (while never actually laborious), did deliver healing in tiny doses and slowly bring Mary back.

A few months ago in this blog, I quoted Fr. Ronald Rolheiser as saying, “Few things stigmatize someone’s life and meaning as does death by suicide” (ronrolheiser.com   July 21, 2014).

My daughter’s life held and still holds great meaning, as does the life of anyone who falls victim to suicide. It has been my privilege to bear witness in a memoir to the beauty and meaning of her precious, unrepeatable life.

“The holidays would come and the past would hit Ives like a chill wind,” writes Oscar Hijuelos in Mr. Ives’ Christmas. “Memories of his son plaguing him, there came many a day, around Christmas, when Ives would plaintively wait for a sign that his son, who’d deserved so much more than what he had been given, was somewhere safe and beloved by God.” 

In Hijuelos’ novel, Ives’ son, Robert, was six months away from entering a Roman Catholic seminary to study for the priesthood when, talking with a friend on a New York City street a few days before Christmas in 1967, he was randomly and fatally shot by a passerby. “He was seventeen at the time of his death, and not an hour passed when Ives did not calculate his son’s age were he still alive” (New York: HarperCollins, 1995, 10).

I also began making that age calculation after my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995–her death no less inexplicable than the one portrayed in Mr. Ives’ Christmas. And like Mr. Ives, I also eventually came to see that my daughter had “deserved so much more than what [s]he had been given . . .”

My observation might seem to invite an “of course she did” response, but it took more than a decade for me to be able to make it. “Deserved so much more than what [s]he had been given” had to wait for shock to wear off and anger to dissipate. It had to wait for “whys” to fade and for “what ifs” to run their agonizing course.

“Deserved so much more than what [s]he had been given” followed only after a decade of writing My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope. Beginning in 2001 as a kind of self-therapy (I needed all available help), the writing became a way of bringing Mary back to life in a good way and working out where God was throughout her suicide and my grief. It finally became a way of honoring my daughter who deserved so much more than what she’d been given.  

However, unlike Mr. Ives, I did not need a sign to believe that Mary was somewhere safe and beloved by God.

My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope will soon be available on Amazon.

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“It was so sad,” writes Colbert King in The Washington Post describing what he witnessed one recent September morning. “The body was covered with a white sheet. It was lying on a grassy area beneath the Duke Ellington Memorial             Bridge. . . . The only movements were the flashing red lights of police cars and motorists directed around the scene by officers.”

Later in the day, King learned that the body was that of a young woman, a seventeen-year-old high school senior, who had jumped from the bridge. “Of course [her] life was more than that leap to her death. A lifetime went with her. . . . All of it had to have added up to something–at least enough to want to keep living. . . . I wished I had known her long enough to have had the chance to do something: to hear her out, help her out. To try to undo whatever damage had been done . . .” (Colbert King, “I Didn’t Know the Woman Who Committed Suicide, But I Mourn Her,” washingtonpost.com).

When my seventeen-year-old daughter Mary died by intentional overdose in 1995, I agonized similarly: I wished I’d known her; I wished I’d heard and helped her out, undone whatever damage had been done to her. But unlike King, I was no passerby: I had known the person who died by suicide. I’d already had my chance at hearing and helping her. I’d thought that the damage done her by major depression was being undone by psychotherapy and medication.

As a responsible journalist, King includes some of the warning signs of suicidal thinking and behavior offered by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that everyone should know and take seriously: someone talking of killing himself or herself, an increasing use or abuse of alcohol or drugs, internet searches for suicide methods, the purchase of weapons, reckless behavior, withdrawal, saying good-bye, giving away possessions, etc.  (See afsp.org for complete list.)

Sixty-four people commented online about King’s column. Most were sympathetic to the young woman, some thanked King for his sensitivity, a few tried to blame the harshness of life and the general inability to attend to another’s pain.

Memorably, one person appealed to literature for the truth about love that is capable of transcending human limitation and devastating, inexplicable behavior. From A River Runs Through It, a compilation: “Help . . . is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. . . . we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. . . .  It is those we live with and love and should know that elude us. . . . but you can love completely without complete understanding” (Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976, 81, 103).

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