Archive for January, 2013

About one father whose daughter ended her life by overdose on a second attempt, clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh write, “[He condemned] himself for his failure to believe that his daughter could really have wanted to die–her death was simply a brutal violation of everything he thought he knew about [her]” (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 181).

It’s the “brutal violation” element of suicide bereavement that makes it surreal and disorienting. A constant personal theme after my daughter Mary’s suicide was that, despite the fact we were living under the same roof, I had not known her. I had not imagined my daughter capable of taking life-enhancing medication and turning it into poison. Her doing so was incomprehensible then and even now jolts me at odd moments.

One thing everyone seems finally to know about suicide is that there are no real answers for “Why?” No words anyone can offer–including the deceased in their suicide notes–get to the deepest truth of why certain instances of human suffering end in suicide. “A survivor may be able to say, ‘My sister was depressed,’ but he also continues to utter the words, ‘Why did she do it?’ A survivor can say, ‘Dad was angry at the world,’ but she also has to say, ‘I don’t understand.’ A family can say, ‘We were hostile toward each other,’ but it still wants to know ‘Why? What is the whole truth?'” (Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden, Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide.Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1997, p. 92)

Searching for the answer, no matter how elusive, is usually healing. According to Jordan and McIntosh, those bereaved by suicide tend to construct a “coherent narrative that helps [them] make at least partial sense of the suicide [which] is a central healing task for most survivors” (p. 182).

Making sense of the senseless–for me laborious and unnerving–was the only way out of the darkness of grief into what seems a kind of new life.

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“Forgive us our trespasses,” Jesus taught us to pray, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” A reality no one could deny after my daughter’s suicide was that she had trespassed against all of us and had done so irreparably. She could never make amends for laying waste, no matter how unintentionally, to the emotional wellbeing of those who love her. It’s a simple fact.

Also factual was my Christian obligation to forgive her. Early on, I tried saying, “I forgive you” over her headstone just after listing my failings toward her and asking forgiveness. It was the correct formula for a cemetery visit but meant almost nothing. My heart wasn’t in those words; it was in the clay with Mary.

The suicide of a child wrenches out the possibility of forgiveness, at least for a time. The pain is high-caliber, mostly all a mother can feel for a long time, too grossly unjust even to think about forgiving.

There was another problem in my early struggle with forgiveness: why did Mary even need it? If her suicide was the result of a brain disorder and her will not truly free in “choosing” to die, why would she need forgiveness? Had she died of a brain aneurysm, for example, would I be trying to forgive her?

But over the years, I’ve experienced the substantial difference between what I know and what I feel. I know about my daughter’s diminished capacity that was not in any way her fault. Knowing has given rise to forgiveness that I think, after seventeen years, is finally in place.

At the same time, I respect my early feelings of rejection and abandonment. Those feelings were legitimate–who wouldn’t feel rejected and abandoned?–and not to be talked away.

Even so, a Benedictine sister offers these words about forgiveness that I recognize as true: “Only if there is love in us great enough to transcend deep hurt, great betrayal . . . can we possibly really forgive. Only if we can care for another enough to try to understand what drove the behavior that hurt us so, can we put our own pain down long enough to forgive. Forgive is what we do when our love is as real as our pain” (Joan D. Chittister, OSB. Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir. Lanham, Maryland: Sheed & Ward, 2004).

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More precisely, suicide calls God’s location into question. In reflecting some fifty years ago on his wife’s death from cancer, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the more disquieting symptoms [of grief]. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him . . . you will be–or so it feels–welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become” (A Grief Observed. New York: Bantam Books, 1961, pp. 4-5).

For me, silence was the first indication that something had gone terribly wrong on the day of my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995. Tapping on her locked bedroom door, I heard only silence as she lay unconscious on her bed. A great deal of noise soon followed as the rescue squad filled the room with equipment and loud, technical language about blood pressure and heart rhythm.

Just after Mary died at the hospital, silence set in again. It was on the short ride home that I noticed it: the presence of profound inner silence which felt like God’s absence.

That moment of disorienting silence was followed by the intense weeping of my family members, thousands of words of consolation at the wake and funeral Mass, agitated and heartfelt phone calls, casseroles left on the front porch that–yes–were speaking, too.

It is true that God seemed to have double bolted the door and left me standing in silence on the other side. It is true that things I “knew” about God’s place in my life were hurled into the air when Mary died. But the human kindness washing over me in early bereavement transformed what would have been horrible days into something decent and fine. There’s no explaining that turn of events except to say God was present in the people who were present to me. And it was obvious.

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At funeral Masses, my pastor has been known to say that even expected deaths come as something of a shock to those left behind, that we’re never truly prepared for the death of someone we love. If that is true, and I have certainly experienced it, what can be said about deaths that are sudden and unexpected?

Writer Joan Didion offers a viewpoint in The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir written in 2004 several months after her husband died of cardiac arrest at the dining room table as the two returned from visiting their sick daughter in a New York City hospital.

“This [book] is my attempt to make sense [of that time], weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illnesses, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself” (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, p.7).

Didion’s entire view of reality was turned on its head by the shock of her husband’s sudden death and the lingering illness which later proved fatal to her daughter. At the end of Didion’s account, she acknowledges she has to “go with the change” that swept away her life.

While suicide absolutely disturbs the perception of reality that Didion describes, it also invades other areas. “Suicide brings into question all of the things that the bereaved individual took for granted about the identity of the deceased, the nature of their relationship with that individual, and the mourner’s own identity,” write clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 181).

For me, those questions took this form: “Who was she? How could I not have known who she was? Who am I that my daughter could take her own life?” Answers did emerge, but I won’t say they came easily. The one question that hung around longest–the one for which there will never be an answer–is the question about survival instinct and why it went missing on the day my daughter decided to die.

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Once upon a time in my life, “to comfort” in the wake of death meant offering phrases like “God’s ways are not our ways” and “she’s in a better place.” I heard those phrases many times and used them myself.

But after my daughter died by suicide in 1995, words of any kind–especially precise, logical, reasonable ones–did nothing to alleviate anguish and even added to it. The only words that helped, I finally realized, were Psalms that highlighted human pain. Psalm 77 became a favorite:

Aloud to God I cry; aloud to God, to hear me;
on the day of my distress, I seek the Lord.
By night my hands are stretched out without flagging;
my soul refuses comfort.

Recently, I found a definition of “to comfort” that, in considering its Latin components, offers a useful perspective. It allows that com + fortis = “to be strong with.” In my experience, “being strong with” a bereaved person has less to do with offering words than with offering presence. My spiritual director, for example, used to apologize for not having the right words with which to comfort me after Mary died. What she did have, and I knew it even then, was the courage to sit with me for an hour at a time, month after month, year after year, until healing arrived.

Henri Nouwen writes, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares” (The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey. New York: Doubleday, 1988).

The reality of suicide bereavement is that there are not moments of despair and confusion, but months and years. There is not an hour of grief, but a decade. The kind of friend who could
be silent with me through the long haul of grief was not the usual kind of friend, as it turns out, but a professional trained in the arts of silence and listening.

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