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Archive for September, 2012

When my husband John and I got home from the hospital on the afternoon of our daughter Mary’s suicide, half a dozen family cars lined the driveway and a bright blue police car sat at the curb in front of the house. A police detective was still upstairs going through trashcans, placing Mary’s suicide note in an envelope marked “Evidence,” and trying to determine what the crime scene, Mary’s bedroom, might be revealing. Members of my family were seated downstairs while the investigation took place.

“Many survivors [of suicide] report that detectives spend a good deal of time looking for evidence of ‘foul play’; they do not–or cannot–accept, at face value, the story of a suicide,” write Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden. “The way survivors are questioned is often vigorous and accusatory as the police go about their business” (Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide, pp.17-18).

But as far as I know, no family member seated in the living room was questioned at all. In fact, when I walked in to deliver the terrible news to them, the detective was still upstairs and didn’t come down for several minutes. After he appeared, he politely asked if I was her mother, said “I’m sorry, Ma’am,” and then took his briefcase full of evidence and left.

It was a relief to know he’d be driving his blue cruiser away from the curb. To my thinking, the car had been a billboard announcement of something gone drastically wrong in our home, possibly something illegal; and I resented having that message flashed to the world.

At a remove of seventeen years, however, I appreciate what the detective was trying to do at our home that Sunday: his job. I can’t imagine living in a country where the death of a teen aroused no legal concern or investigation. Though I never learned his name, I did finally understand the value of the detective’s respectful, unobtrusive presence at the scene of my daughter’s suicide: it didn’t make things worse. By not making things worse for my family, by not retraumatizing us, the unknown detective ended up helping.

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Because a neighbor had called the parish rectory on the afternoon of my daughter Mary’s suicide, Father Don showed up in the private hospital waiting room where John and I had arranged ourselves in chrome and plastic chairs. My husband and I were waiting for the medical team to save our daughter. We were waiting for hope, for some sign that Mary’s overdose had not been lethal, after all, and that she would wake from her coma. We were quietly frantic.

Father Don rapped on the door, walked in without pleasantries, and sat down with us. It was late on a Sunday afternoon, and he may have been at home relaxing over football when the call came, but he showed up for work wearing clerical black and Roman collar. He’d just gone behind restrictive double doors to be with Mary and celebrate the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. But he told us he’d anointed only Mary’s feet because her forehead and the palms of her hands had been occupied by medical paraphernalia.

Over my dying daughter, Father Don had said these words: “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up. Amen.”

Along with the application of healing oil, Father Don had prayed for Mary’s help, for her release from sin, for her salvation and resurrection. It was not to be the last prayer he offered during our time together in the waiting room that Sunday. When the lead doctor finally opened the door and told us Mary had died, Father Don offered one last prayer of commendation beginning with comforting and piercing words: “Go forth, Christian soul, from this world . . .”

In the two-hour period between those formal prayers, Father Don sat quietly with John and me. He asked no questions and offered no advice. He merely listened to our horrified account of the afternoon. But there was really nothing “mere” about his listening. I finally came to regard his listening presence as the essence of caring about someone in crisis. I finally came to think that anyone ought to be able to provide personal presence and careful listening. Over the course of many years, I also came to realize how few of us actually do.

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Immediately after calling 911 on the Sunday afternoon of my daughter Mary’s suicide, I called my mother who lived a block away. She then called my sister who lives next door. The two of them rushed to my house as the rescue squad and my physician husband John labored upstairs to save Mary from the horrific results of having taken a lethal dose of anti-depressant medication fourteen hours earlier.

My mother and sister were first responders in a way that I have come to appreciate increasingly over the seventeen years since Mary’s death. In most ways equally distressed as I at that moment, they supported me by focusing on the crisis and refraining from asking questions or making implications.

They did not ask, for example, where my husband and I had been all day as Mary lay dying in her room behind a locked door. They didn’t ask what medication she had swallowed and how it was possible we’d allowed her access to it. They did not imply that perhaps John or I had upset our daughter the night before and might therefore be the cause of her pill-swallowing. All the unasked questions would be asked repeatedly by John and me over the next several years. But on that day of chaos and heartbreak, my first responders refrained from asking them, and their restraint was a kindness which shaped the healing, eventually.

“In the aftermath of the [suicide] death,” write clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh, “families might become more splintered and more troubled as a result of the loss, might become closer, or might experience a complex combination of both” (Grief After Suicide, p. 32). A family changes as it goes through suicide bereavement, and not always for the worse.

Of the thousands of words my mother spoke to me in our sixty-three years together, none were more significant than the ones she offered an hour after Mary died: “You and John had a right to be out of the house today.”

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I can speak only for myself about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. No doctor or therapist diagnosed PTSD in me or even suggested I might be undergoing some of the symptoms of this anxiety disorder after my daughter’s suicide in 1995. It wasn’t until 1998 when I came across a passage in Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide that I began to understand more clearly what I’d been experiencing.

“It is likely that any survivor of a suicide will recognize the symptoms [of PTSD] immediately,” write Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden, “reexperiencing the trauma [through] recurrent recollections of the event, dreams of the event, and a sudden feeling that the event is recurring.” I began to recognize PTSD not only in flashbacks of finding Mary on her deathbed but also in night dreams of trying to talk her out of self-destruction.

Lukas and Seiden state that those with PTSD experience a numbing or “reduced involvement” with the world through a “lessening of interest in important activities, a feeling of detachment from others, and a flat, emotionless feeling.” Added to that are the sleep disturbances, guilt about surviving, difficulty concentrating, loss of memory, exaggerated startle response, and avoidance of activities that arouse recollection of the trauma (pp. 28-29). With the exception of not feeling guilty about surviving–I was rather proud to be surviving–all of those symptoms found a home in me.

One moment of avoidance behavior I remember to this day. While walking through a parking lot a few months after Mary’s funeral, I noticed a large tool box bolted to the bed of a pick-up truck; and a wave of anxiety rolled through. “It’s just a tool box,” I had to reassure myself before hurrying away, “it’s not Mary’s casket; it doesn’t mean anything.”

Avoidance behavior finally faded away as did all the shapes and forms of PTSD. That fading away came about in large measure because of the wonderfully supportive and non-judgmental care I received in the earliest days of bereavement, a topic that deserves and will receive further attention.

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After my daughter’s suicide in 1995, there were three instances of denial I used as a psychological defense against my overwhelming emotions. The first was short-lived. It was the denial that Mary’s intentional overdose was, in fact, a suicide attempt. That is to say, I told the 911 operator my daughter had suffered a seizure (which was true) because I couldn’t bring myself to say she had overdosed. That particular denial ended a few minutes later, however, when a neighbor asked what had happened upstairs with Mary and I decided to tell him and everyone else the truth.

The second instance of denial lasted for the better part of a year and protected me against the depression, anger, and anxiety that threatened to undo me after my daughter’s death. Here’s a sample of this denial: A week after Mary died, I told a friend, “You know, I really think I can do this. I really think I can handle this loss.” It was early in the day, I was more or less rested, the inner defense system was firmly in place, and I believed what I was saying. As the day wore on and I began to tire, though, I always found that kind of denial more difficult to maintain. It gradually collapsed, as it needed to, and the working through of emotions and the formidable task of accepting the loss began to take place.

The third instance of denial had more to do with the circumstances of my daughter’s death, the profound psychological pain or “psychache” she endured while living under my roof and sitting at my breakfast table. It took a dozen years and a great deal of prayer, soul-searching and study to overcome the denial that Mary had suffered to the extent she obviously had. Even now, seventeen years after her death, I can slip into denial about it.

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Once in a funeral Mass homily, my pastor remarked that the death of loved ones, no matter how elderly or infirm they may be, always brings a certain shock to mourners. I knew what he meant, having watched my father dwindle over a period of years and finally die of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 81 in 1997. It was a shock that someone so familiar to me had passed into Mystery–a reality utterly different from the one I was living, a hiddenness that was unfathomable.

Even so, my daughter’s suicide two years earlier had sent shockwaves through me unlike any I’ve ever experienced. In truth, the shock of her death manifested not as waves of emotion but rather as enveloping numbness that lasted for at least a year. In Suicide: Survivors, Adina Wrobleski describes shock as a “physical reaction that makes us feel as if we’re wrapped in cotton, that we’re sleepwalking. Shock makes our pain feel far away” (p.91).

Shock protects us not only from the outside world but from our own overpowering feelings. It got me through the first year of bereavement in a more or less stable way: clothes got washed, dinners got put on the table, the family held together, and nothing worse happened.

Clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh write that “shock and disbelief [are] more likely a characteristic of most or all sudden and unexpected deaths–not simply suicide” (Grief After Suicide, p.32).

But I say the suicide of my seventeen-year-old daughter in 1995 was a great deal more than sudden and unexpected. It was brutal, irrational, and void of meaning. It forced me to look at my own blindness and accept a loss I never could have imagined. Above all, it magnified a hundred times the normal shock and disbelief most of us experience in bereavement.

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