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Archive for December, 2012

This year, my family reached an odd milestone: we observed our eighteenth Christmas without Mary after having celebrated only seventeen Christmases with her. She died by suicide in the fall of 1995, a life-altering wound to her survivors that presents itself regularly to me, her mother, but which no longer has the power to dampen an entire day, much less a day of celebration like Christmas.

It’s impossible that Mary has been gone for eighteen years. But suicide changes everything, as I’ve learned, including the way time seems to pass. So life events now tend to fall into two categories: those that occurred before Mary died and those that came afterward. And in our eighteenth year of “afterward,” I can’t quite believe my family is surviving–even thriving–without our beloved daughter, sister, cousin and niece. But maybe we’re not exactly without her.

“One of [suicide] survivors’ greatest fears,” write John Jordan and John McIntosh, “is that their loved ones will fade from memory and their very existence forgotten as if they never existed.” The authors say that as major religions use ritual to “make God [Yahweh or Allah] present during a ceremony in a sacred way,” families can make sure their loved ones are not forgotten by using ritual, as well. They suggest song or poetry, perhaps a toast, at a family gathering in memory of the one who has died (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 393-394).

Right after Mass on Christmas Day, my husband and I went to the cemetery to place silk poinsettias not only on Mary’s grave but also on the graves of my parents. It was a windy, cold, and sunny few minutes of securing wire flower stems to brass vases so the arrangements wouldn’t catch the wind and blow away. We prayed out of gratitude before trudging back to the car and heading, eventually, to my sister’s for Christmas dinner.

After dinner, eight of us swapped stories–most of them funny–about our parents and Mary. Out of respect for raw grief, those stories weren’t always told at family Christmas gatherings. But they were told yesterday and, like the cemetery flower-arranging, made present to us family members we love and miss and cannot forget.

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A few months after her husband died on a treadmill in 2009 at the age of fifty, Amy Welborn took her three children on a trip to Sicily which she descibes in her memoir Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope. One day, they all visited a fourteenth-century castle dungeon: “Dungeons are, of course, dark,” writes Welborn. “There’s no apparent exit, no way out, and who can help falling into despair down there” (New York: Image Books, 2012, p. 158)?

Welborn then relates how, in early grief, she visited online discussion boards for widows and widowers and was struck by the people who wrote about their “utter despair, of barely being able to get out of bed even a year after their husband or wife had died. How they couldn’t see a way out.

“I read those heartbreaking posts and I wondered why I’ve not been to that place. Part of it was [my husband’s faith], his preaching God Alone at me for so long. But I am also pretty convinced there’s another reason. I’m thinking it is prayer, and maybe not just my own” (p. 158).

On the hidden power of prayer, I agree with Welborn. Prayer was intimately connected with my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995. Her father and I were, in fact, praying at a monastery 40 miles from home on the day of her death. Not knowing what else to do as we sat in the emergency waiting room, we prayed. We prayed with Father Don that afternoon and my parents’ Methodist minister, as well.

We held a Catholic wake beginning and ending with prayer and prayed throughout Mary’s funeral Mass. Over a period of weeks, her friends sent scores of cards saying they would pray for her as did neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. It was an ocean of prayer that equalled, in certain ways, my ocean of grief.

But I also like Welborn’s dungeon metaphor for its stark resonance. In writing of both human physical activity and prayer in the shaping of the world, Welborn asks, “Who knows how it all works together or why. I certainly don’t. All I know is that in those months after [my husband] died, I was kept out of the dungeon. Darkness waited beyond the door, but strangers stood in front of that door, praying. I’d turn and twist on the road . . . but then I would see it: a candle lit by a friend or stranger, left burning at the bend of yet another hairpin turn” (p. 160).

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My daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995 inflicted so much pain on our family that I ended up calling it “cruel” and Mary “selfish” in the weeks following. As a matter of fact, Mary’s suicide note itself described her self-destructive act as “thoughtless and selfish.” As I read that phrase some weeks after her death, all I could think was, So why were you doing it? Surely you knew better than that.

Her note also romanticized suicide as “darkly mystical,” especially if the perpetrator (victim) was young and had suffered in silence which, clearly, Mary felt she had done. Not a word of her “selfish” talk or her “darkly mystical” talk made any sense to me.

Only much later did a kind of sense begin to take shape in the question that writer Adina Wrobleski poses: “Does it take courage to kill oneself, or is suicide a coward’s way out?”

“Neither,” she answers. “People who are contemplating suicide are not debating large issues of right or wrong, nor are they facing life bravely or ‘slinking off’ to die. The desperate anguish that results in suicide is not ‘taking the easy way out’ . . . Dying from pneumonia is not cowardly or courageous; neither is suicide. The taboo [regarding suicide] causes people to look at suicide as a moral issue rather than a health issue” (Suicide: Why? 85 Questions and Answers About Suicide. Minneapolis, MN: Afterwords Publishing, 1995, p. 22.)

Kay Redfield Jamison also removes suicide from the realm of morality where it has resided for centuries. Not only is she professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and author of several books about mood disorders, Jamison writes of suicide from the personal experience of having attempted it. “[I] did not consider [my suicide attempt] either a selfish or not-selfish thing to have done. It was simply the end of what I could bear . . . It was the final outcome of a bad disease [bipolar disorder], a disease it seemed to me I would never get the better of” (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, pp. 290-291).

With proper treatment, Jamison did get the better of it. Seeing suicide for what it is–neither an act of courage or selfishness but, rather, one of illness–is a move toward humanity and prevention.

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One of the persistent questions following my daughter Mary’s suicide went something like this: “What was that moment of decision like for her? What must it have been like not to be choosing suicide one moment and then to be choosing it the next? What happened to Mary in that lonely and horrible instant of choice?”

In writing of her sister’s suicide, Jill Bialosky offers insight about the question.”[My friends] wanted a clear reason to explain [my sister’s] death. I didn’t know what to say. For those whose lives are secure and steady, it must be difficult to imagine the inner fragility of an individual who chooses to die rather than live with despair. I imagine that the thought of suicide was something Kim had held up to the light like a many-sided crystal, thought about, toyed with in moments for years” (History of a Suicide: my sister’s unfinished life. New York: Washington Square Press, 2011, p.13).

Having spent a good part of his career studying suicide notes, psychologist Edwin Shneidman reinforces Bialosky’s intuition about Kim “toying” with the idea of suicide: “Suicide is the result of an interior dialogue. The mind scans its options; the topic of suicide comes up, the mind rejects it, scans again; there is suicide, it is rejected again, and then finally the mind accepts suicide as a solution, then plans it, and fixes it as the only answer” (The Suicidal Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 15).

So at least I now have an idea about the process my daughter went through in arriving at her horrible instant of choice. Her suicide was not an impulsive act so much as a woeful wearing away of the ability to keep on living and an increasing attraction to suicide as the “only answer.” From what I read in her journals after her death, Mary’s wearing away took place over at least a two-year period. But recognizing that reality gives rise to another question without an answer: how could I, the rest of her family, her psychiatrist, and the many who loved her not have picked up a sign that she was toying with the idea of suicide for two years and intervened to help her?

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