Archive for April, 2013

Looking for Good-bye

Several days ago, a moving van pulled up across the street and men started unloading the home my neighbors had lived in for fifteen years. I thought maybe the neighbors were renovating and would be moving back in a couple months. “No,” said one son with a grin, “we’re moving, but only a few blocks away.” Even while congratulating Jack, I was saddened by the news. “Why is this move so troubling to me? I’ll still see these folks at Mass on Sundays, and it’s not as though they owed me a good-bye.”

It’s just this: someone did once owe me a good-bye she never gave–my teenage daughter Mary who died by suicide in 1995. Watching neighbors move last week was all it took to renew my sense of abandonment that, while attempting to soothe over the years, I continue to have and hold.

“To the extent that survivors construe the suicide as a willful choice on the part of the deceased,” write clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh, “it may engender profound feelings of . . . abandonment in the mourner. . . ” (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 183).

But I’ve spent years pushing back against the notion of willfulness in Mary’s suicide. I now think she had no choice, given her hopelessness. Just the same, I carry the sting of “no good-bye” right beneath the surface, readily activated.

In Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival, Christopher Lukas writes about family suicides and the abandonment he felt and still feels after a relative’s suicide. He describes his experience as an adolescent upon learning that his mother’s death was, in fact, a suicide: “Stunned is what I felt–stunned and startled and hurt. I was furious at Mother. She had taken her own life and abandoned me in the process” (New York: Anchor Books, 2008, p. 138).

About his brother’s suicide in 1997, Lukas writes, “He did not kill himself to hurt me and the others who were his friends. . . But I cannot let go of the fact that by leaving without saying good-bye, he left me, once more, all alone” (p. 244).

I will look for a way to say good-bye to my neighbors just as I’ve looked for a way to say good-bye to Mary. It’s what suicide survivors do. It’s something that can be done.

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“The suicide of a loved one irrevocably transforms us,” wrote Carla Fine after the suicide of her husband. “Our world explodes and we are never the same. Most of us adapt, eventually learning to navigate on ground we no longer trust to be steady. We gradually come to accept that our questions will not be answered. We try not to torture ourselves . . .” (No Time to Say Good-bye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One. New York: Broadway Books, 1997, p. 20).

Others, too, characterize suicide bereavement as life-altering. “Being a suicide survivor becomes an integral part of one’s identity,” explains Karen Mueller Bryson. “I feel as though an entire segment of my life was defined by my father’s suicide. It colored everything that followed. The tragedy seemed to be like a musical score always playing underneath the action of my life” (Those They Left Behind. 2006, pp. iii-iv).

Pychiatric professor Kay Redfield Jamison describes suicide bereavement as “a half-stitched scar,” adding this note of clarity: “Time does not heal, / It makes a half-stitched scar / That can be broken and again you feel / Grief as total as in its first hour” (Night Falls Fast: understanding suicide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, p.290).

“Suicide,” writes grief educator Harold Ivan Smith, “initiates the long shadow on survivors left to wander across the fragile landscapes of the heart toward a magic kingdom called ‘Answerland.’ Suicide, like a volcano’s lava flow, changes everything in its path” (A Long-Shadowed Grief: Suicide and Its Aftermath. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2006, p. 3.).

Given the profound turbulence following suicide, how does anyone manage? Carla Fine speaks of the “mystery and power” of her will to survive her husband’s suicide as a “testament” to his memory that she wants to honor throughout her life (pp. 222,224). Kay Redfield Jamison offers a single line of poetry to the bereaved: “Look to the living, love them, and hold on” (p. 311).

Harold Ivan Smith extends his “long shadow” metaphor to include divine compassion. “Suicide is the long shadow . . . but a shadow can exist only if somewhere a bright light shines.” He prays, and I with him, that God “sees my wounds, hears my pains, and invades my sorrow with hope” (p. 13).

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To those bereaved by suicide, grief educator Harold Ivan Smith sometimes says, “‘I know what you’re looking for–some definite there answer that ends the questioning–but what answer will you settle for?'”

As veteran suicide survivors know, there is no answer to “Why?” that puts an end to questioning. That isn’t to say survivors must therefore give over their lives to constant interrogation.

“I believe there are three levels of why’s,” writes Smith, “Initial, transitional, and transformative. If a survivor will not settle for the first explanation that ‘comes down the pike,’ there is hope, in time, of a fuller explanation.”

For example, initial why’s begin right after the suicide and are usually met with responses, not answers, from kind people who don’t know what to say. “She’s in a better place” and “Maybe she’s found what she was looking for” are responses I received after Mary’s suicide that, well-intended, fell short of answering the question that, in truth, no one could adequately address.

The answers to transitional why’s are, according to Smith, like rough drafts under constant revision that take time and openness to reality. For me, those were the “Aha” moments years in the making which helped me say, “Okay, I understand a little better now.” One “Aha” moment arrived on a country road late one night just after I ran over a cat. Even though seven years had passed since Mary’s suicide, that destructive roadway event made me soften my “why” answer. There were many “Aha” moments like that throughout my years of asking and trying to answer why, most of them coming as a gift in the form of a surprise.

Transformative why’s are those which, because lived each day, have the power to effect profound change. “Some suicide survivors refuse to accept ‘getting over it’ as a spiritual goal,” writes Smith. “They do not resonate with ‘getting beyond this’ or ‘moving on with life.’ Rather . . . the goal becomes to move into the maelstrom, the chaos, like a plane flying into the eye of a hurricane. They ask the Genesis question, ‘Can order come from this chaos?'” and finally, for asking with their lives, do themselves bring about order (A Long-Shadowed Grief: Suicide and Its Aftermath. Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, 2006, pp. 30, 33, 36).

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I recall running into Dr. Matthews, my daughter Mary’s psychiatrist, some months after Mary’s suicide. She was someone I had always admired; and even to this day, my physician husband claims that she (now deceased) was the best psychiatrist he’s ever worked with professionally.

On the day in question, Dr. Matthews was wearing an expensive suit, her hair was nicely styled, and she exuded confidence. Resenting her for all of it, I began asking myself about justice. As in, how could a doctor with direct responsibility for Mary’s welfare go on living in such a nice, orderly way? After all, I wasn’t living in a nice, orderly way. My life was the opposite of nice and orderly, and the contrast was galling.

Years have passed, and now I see how wrong my perception was that day. Just because the severity of her grief makes a mother believe she is suffering at a uniquely profound level doesn’t mean that she is. Other survivors, including clinicians, also undergo unique, profound suffering.

“Twin bereavement” is the term researchers use on behalf of clinicians. “In addition to the personal grief reaction entailed in losing a client with whom there was a therapeutically intense or intimate relationship, this loss is likely to affect clinicians’ professional identities, their relationships with colleagues, and their clinical work” (John R. Jordan and John McIntosh, Eds. Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 95).

Other researchers have found that mental health therapists describe losing a client “as the most profoundly disturbing event of their professional careers,” noting that a third of the therapists “experienced severe distress that lasted at least one year beyond the initial loss” (Ibid).

Though seventeen years late, I’m saying, “Sorry, Dr. Matthews.” I finally grasp how hurt we all were, you not least. I finally get that we were all doing our best to survive Mary’s death. I finally realize your way was to put on a nice suit and see your patients hour after hour, same as always.

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