Archive for May, 2013

On the day their son died by self-inflicted gunshot, Iris Bolton and her husband Jack received a visitor who gave them unforgettable advice. That is to say, on a day of emotional chaos with phone and doorbell ringing, neighbors overflowing couches and sitting on the floor, someone offering Iris a stiff drink–on that day, a psychiatrist friend took the Boltons into a quiet room and offered wisdom.

In her classic work called My Son, My Son, Iris writes about Dr. Maholick first describing the grief stages she and Jack were bound to experience–the shock, denial, guilt, anger and depression that “come with the territory” of grief. “And then he added an extra dimension to his counseling that seemed at that moment utterly beyond belief: ‘. . . this crisis can be used to bring your family closer together than ever,’ he said. ‘If you use this opportunity wisely, you can survive and be a stronger unit than before.'”

When Iris asked how such a result could be brought about, the doctor provided a formula. “Make every decision together throughout this crisis. Hear every voice. Work for consensus. Never exclude your children during these next few days. . . . Discuss each problem openly, treating each individual equally regardless of age or experience. . . Grief of itself is a medicine when you are open about it. Only secret grief is harmful. Through mutual helping, you will all heal more rapidly . . .” (My Son, My Son: A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss, or Suicide. Atlanta: Bolton Press, 1996, 16)

My daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995 left a family of four–my husband John and I along with a 21-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. While I subscribe to the doctor’s counsel about a family pulling together after devastation, and while I agree that openness is one remedy for devastation, I think Dr. Maholick understates the effect of shock following suicide. My kids were at a loss for words; John and I were at a loss for words. There were no words after Mary died.

Still, John and I knew we had to put ourselves and our kids in a room with a therapist each week for many months and allow pain and bewilderment to surface. We didn’t ask our kids ahead of time if they thought this togetherness would be helpful. But to their everlasting credit, they went along with it. I’d like to think that, taking the medicine together, we helped each other through the crisis and healed more rapidly. As with most aspects of suicide bereavement, I accept not knowing for sure. But I do know my family survived. We’re in touch; we vacation together as often as we can.

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Among healing rituals for those bereaved by suicide, the most imaginative I’ve heard about is the “Out of the Darkness Walk”–an annual event organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This year, the walk will take place from sunset June 1 to sunrise June 2 over a course of some eighteen miles in Washington, D.C.

Many participants are either suicide survivors or attempters who walk to emphasize suicide as a national health concern, heighten awareness of the need for suicide prevention, and raise funds for both research and prevention. What makes the event unique–even biblical–is its offer of a communal passage from darkness to light.

“By walking from sunset to sunrise,” says executive director of the foundation Robert Gebbia, “walkers make a powerful statement about suicide–that there is hope, a light at the end of the tunnel for those affected. It’s emotional but also very uplifting. . . and, in some ways, liberating because many people have not talked about this; and all of a sudden they’re with other people who understand because they’ve been through the same thing” (Arlington Catholic Herald. May 16-22, 2013, p. 7).

Regarding the June event, the foundation’s website states, “We’ll prove to the capital and to the nation What a Difference a Night Makes.

Less dramatic but no less essential, three–five mile “Out of the Darkness Walks” take place in communities all across the United States during autumn daylight hours. (www.afsp.org.) It’s customary to form a team that walks in a person’s memory and even, it would seem, to wear a shirt bearing that person’s name.

My daughter Mary left us in the dark of the night after overdosing on her anti-depressant medication when she was a senior in high school. But the mere thought of putting on a “Team Mary” shirt and walking out of darkness in the company of the courageous helps to reverse the damage of that night in 1995.

Truly, I won’t be walking eighteeen miles in D.C. on the first night of June. I honor and thank those who do walk and pledge that, in time, I’ll make a daytime walk on behalf of Mary and the tens of thousands of Americans who die each year by suicide.

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At the end of Mass one morning about a year ago, our celebrant announced the presence among us of a deacon who was to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest the next weekend in the Diocese of Richmond. Hearing Joe introduced to the faith community, I recognized his name as one my daughter Mary had mentioned occasionally in high school. There was the day she laughed about Joe pulling a harmless prank on the way home from school and the day she happily recounted the exact way he turned his name into a punchline when questioned by the school cafeteria monitor about misbehavior.

At least sometimes, Joe brought lightheartedness to my daughter; and that was reason enough to introduce myself after Mass. We talked about his upcoming ordination and a few of the life events leading to that holy outcome. Mary was in the conversation, too, in her own holy way. “No, I’ve never forgotten Mary,” Joe finally offered. It was a nice thing for him to say.

A few days after his ordination, though, I got a fuller sense of what Joe meant. “I carried Mary with me throughout the ordination,” he said. As the bishop imposed hands on Joe’s head, prayed, and conferred spiritual power and grace upon him, Joe was keeping Mary present in memory. For a Catholic girl ending her life at the age of seventeen–a sublime embrace.

“I’ve never forgotten Mary” took on added richness when Joe and I addressed a roomful of teens about suicide months later at a diocesan youth conference. “We’re here today to give this difficult topic a little air,” he told the high schoolers, “and to hear your concerns.” He added that the motivation was Mary. “People who die by suicide think they’ll be forgotten. When Mary died, I was sixteen years old and dumbfounded. But I pledged never to forget her.”

A priest’s resolution not to forget meant several dozen teens got to hear about mood disorders and suicidal thinking and what to do and where to turn. They paid attention and asked questions, some hesitantly and with tears.

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