Archive for October, 2012

“When asked to note the most distressing aspect of their grief, parents of children who had died by suicide most frequently listed guilt first, followed by feelings of loneliness,” write clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh.

Fifty-four percent of suicide-bereaved parents experience “death causation” guilt stemming from actions they performed or failed to perform which they feel contributed to their child’s death. Half of all suicide-bereaved parents experience “childrearing guilt” either for a parenting style they think could have been more loving or for “negative or ambivalent” feelings toward their child. Twenty-eight percent of suicide-bereaved parents deal with “illness-related” guilt centering on their feelings of either not having provided the best possible medical care for their child or for having been absent when their child died (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 49-50).

Not only did I harbor all that guilt when my daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995, I believed that not feeling guilty would show I’d not loved her enough, that I’d been callous–even inhumane–toward her. In my mind, rejecting guilt would have been tantamount to saying, “Mary, I had nothing to do with your death and am not taking responsibility for it.” But in time, expending energy on guilt proved to be a waste. Mary’s death was so much more significant and mysterous than the mere assignment of blame could ever address. Her suicide called for admitting human frailty–hers and mine–and finding a way forward.

There was the Roman Catholic sacrament of reconciliation where I was able to confess the ways I’d willfully failed my daughter over the course of her life. It was healing at a depth which I couldn’t measure.

I was also recently helped by advice from the National Alliance on Mental Illness to people with mental illness in their families: “We forgive ourselves and reject guilt.” As America’s leading grass roots organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with severe mental illness, NAMI has my respect. If it advises family members living with mental illness to forgive themselves and reject guilt, I apply that wisdom to suicide bereavement, as well.

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My daughter’s last hour was a silent one. Late on a Saturday night when my husband, son, and I had gone to bed in a quiet house, Mary took a bottle of Korbel Brut from a basement refrigerator, went to her bedroom, locked the door, and began downing the champagne along with all the prescription antidepressant medication she had on hand.

Hers was a stealthy silence. The suicide note indicates she felt “lucky” not to have been detected when the champagne cork popped and hit her bedroom ceiling. Yet, the truly dangerous silence of that last hour was not the absence of a sound that might have alerted the rest of us. It was Mary’s inner silence, the feeling of complete aloneness and hopelessness she described in her suicide note as she began swallowing the pills.

Unaware of what had taken place, my husband and I left the house early the next morning to spend several hours at a monastery in Washington, DC. We would be joining Catholic adults–Discalced Carmelite Seculars–who’d discerned a call to silent prayer in their lives and promised to practice silent prayer each day as a service to the Church and world.

So while Mary was alone and silently cutting herself off from community, John and I were silently praying in community. That reality has haunted me from the beginning, and its message remains unclear.

But one truth is clear: the inestimable healing value of silence after Mary’s death. “We must have the courage to become more and more silent,” writes John Main, O.S.B. “In a deep creative silence we meet God in a way that transcends all our powers of intellect and language” (Word into Silence. New York: Continuum, 1998, p.7).

When every imaginable detail and speculation about Mary’s suicide had been uttered multiple times, ending in heartbreak and frustration, silence became the only safe house.

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“It is difficult for suicide survivors to express their thoughts after a suicide,” write Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden. “In contrast to the aftermath of ‘normal’ deaths, friends and relatives often don’t want to talk about the events surrounding a suicide. In fact, many people don’t want to admit that the death was a suicide….[One reason for this unwillingness] is surely that family members don’t want to expose the blame and guilt they feel: the blame they feel toward other family members, the guilt they feel about themselves” (Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide, pp.111-112).

To Lukas and Seiden, silence becomes the “Grand Bargain” following suicide that, while apparently addressing the problem of blame and guilt, also compounds the impact of suicide and damages the grieving process. “Silence,” they state, “is an enemy.” (pp. 112-113).

With everyone in my family, there was never any doubt about the cause of Mary’s death. It was called “suicide” from the first hour and not muddied by the words “accidental overdose.” We took hold of the bitter reality together, and no energy went toward maintaining the illusion that Mary died other than self-destructively.

That isn’t to say there was no family silence over the years; silence prevailed. Whenever family members came together during the holidays or for birthdays, there was silence about Mary but also gratitude–however muted–for the moment we were sharing. Far from being a blame-suppressing ploy, I think our silence was a sign of respect for deeply shared sorrow.

Might a family gathering designed for the disclosure of thoughts and feelings have helped? Possibly. Might it have soothed my mother and me to sit down and weep together? Probably a little. But we were all suicide survivors, all devastated, all trying to make it through the day. The kind of extensive talking and listening I needed–therapy, by another name–members of my family couldn’t be expected to provide. And I never thought a “Grand Bargain” had anything to do with that.

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In the hours after my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995, my grieving family was treated well. First responders–rescue squad, extended family, neighbors, medical emergency team, clergy and police–acted with compassion. I’ve always thought it was their collective good will that stabilized us and aided our recovery. And I don’t even want to think how much worse our lives would have been without the kindness of those good people–strangers, many of them.

Only a couple weeks after the suicide, though, awkwardness set in. By that, I mean social uncertainty–the raw emotion, avoidance, silence–that marked my interactions with others and seemed, in fairness, to cut both ways. In the first place, I wasn’t the person I’d been before Mary died. Whatever meaning Mary gave my life, and it was considerable, had been buried along with her. I was driven to talk about my daughter in order to make sense of that catastrophe, and I craved getting her name into conversations because I simply needed to say and hear it.

It was too intense for what would normally have been polite conversations. Friends were trying, it seems, to help me and protect themselves by switching to lighter topics, getting my mind off the devastation of my daughter’s life and giving me perspective. One motherly friend said, “Well, Marj, it could have been worse.” My unspoken response to that was, My daughter is dead. Please tell me how it could have been worse. I guess if she’d machine-gunned us all, that would have been worse.

Before long, my family began receiving professional therapy. I did finally learn to modify my comments about Mary, saving the unvarnished ones for my spiritual director behind a closed door. I learned discretion, eventually.

But I still appreciate the honesty of a sixty-five-year-old college professor several years after the suicide of his son: “I will keep friendships only with people whom I can bring up with ease these issues [of my son’s suicide]. Some people have a knack of saying insensitive and uncaring things. One good friend said why don’t you go out dancing instead of attending a suicide support group meeting. People can sometimes be hurtful and say stupid things. I’m glad some of the jackasses are gone—pseudo-friends and kin who are unable to handle anything like this—good riddance” ( Karen Mueller Bryson, Those They Left Behind, p.18).

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“Only recently have organized religions changed from a punitive approach toward the suicidal person to a relatively beneficent one,” write Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden in Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide. “For centuries, people who killed themselves were buried at crossroads, their hearts often pierced with a stake. Survivors were shunned, excommunicated, robbed of the [dead person’s] possessions” (p. 19).

On the afternoon of Mary’s death, my mother phoned her Methodist minister who came to our house to be with her, my sister, my sister-in-law, my niece, nephew, and two children while my husband and I were at the hospital. Dr. Martin was leaving our house when John and I arrived but, seeing us, turned around and went back inside.

Wearing a dark suit and red tie, he eased his way into a weeping family that had just been told of Mary’s death. Too shocked to cry, I observed that everyone in the room seemed caught up in a kind of shattering, lonely sorrow–a roomful of people shedding tears separately. My twenty-seven-year old nephew had even slid off his chair onto the privacy of the floor.

Pausing a moment, Dr. Martin asked us to stand together for a prayer. His voice was warm and his manner confident as he spoke of God’s love for Mary and for us and for the great sadness we were experiencing. In that instant, he put us back together again as a family, bridged doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants (which never seemed so irrelevant) and reversed the punishment and shunning which, out of fear, have afflicted suicide victims and their families for most of Christian history.

It was a brilliant moment and a kind one. Over the next several weeks, others provided brilliant, kind moments–John’s Presbyterian colleagues, his Baptist patients, Episcopal aunts and uncles, and Catholics with whom we’d worshipped for decades. It was the willingness of all those people to enter into our pain and bewilderment without passing judgment that was most striking and which, to this day, continues to heal.

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