Archive for June, 2013

After a painful divorce, Val Walker thought moving back to her hometown would be a warm return to family and friends. After settling in, though, she soon realized how “disappointingly unforthcoming” people were acting toward her. “I was not automatically invited to parties, reunions, and gatherings . . . . But I was offered plenty of advice, platitudes, opinions and cheer about how to move forward with my new life.”

By the time an old friend came to visit for several days, Val had learned to hide her neediness. But it came out one morning when, burning herself in the kitchen, she dropped a frying pan full of grease, threw the spatula against a wall, kicked sausages all over the floor, and finally collapsed in tears.

Her friend, a psychotherapist, sat down on the floor with her and listened for an hour before they moved to a sofa and talked “nonstop” into the night. It was a turning point. “[My friend] offered me something that few professionals or laypeople are willing or even able to offer: She allowed me to fall apart in her presence. She didn’t judge me, diagnose me, hire me or fire me, fix me, bill me, instruct me, save me, or heal me. . . . She just sat with me amid the mess in my kitchen, the mess in my life, and the mess in my heart and allowed me to be in my pain . . . she just sat and held it all together with her mere presence.”

How to comfort the suicide bereaved is an ongoing concern for almost everyone I’ve spoken to over the years about my daughter Mary’s suicide. People tell me they truly don’t know what to say. That’s just as well, because comfort isn’t a matter of saying anything. It’s a matter of being present to the person in distress. Sitting on a greasy kitchen floor and listening to someone fall apart requires a depth of presence most of us could not offer. But it remains possible for us to hold it together for the suicide bereaved by offering our listening presence in whatever way we can, even if only for a moment. (Val Walker.The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress. New York: Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin, 2010, viii, x, xiii.)

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Within hours of their son Mitch’s suicide, a psychiatrist friend told Iris and Jack Bolton, “There is a gift for you in your son’s death. You may not believe it at this bitter moment, but it is authentic and it can be yours if you are willing to search for it.”

“I gasped,” writes Iris. “[Dr. Maholic] was saying that my pain was a gift, that the dislocation of so many lives . . . was a gift.” Considering her emotional state at that moment–“numb, devastated, embarrassed, and wishing for my own death”–it’s remarkable Iris remembered anything her psychiatrist friend told her that afternoon.

“This gift will not jump out at you or thrust itself into your life,” the doctor added. “You must search for it. As time passes, you will be amazed at unanticipated opportunities for helping yourself and others that will come your way, all because of Mitch. Today you need to condemn him . . . but one day you will be able to acknowledge his gift.”

At the time, Iris was director of The Link Counseling Center in Atlanta, a private, non-profit headquarters for family therapy. Eventually, she began speaking locally about suicide beareavement and then enrolled in graduate school at Emory University to study suicidology. One outcome was her book, My Son, My Son: A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss, or Suicide.

In that work, Iris describes what she finally recognized as Mitch’s gift to his family. “For one thing, we all value each other more. . . . We are not always efficient or perfect. Nor do we always do well or wisely. Yet, despite all our blunders, failures, and mistakes, we manage to cope. And to cope–with love.”

“The meaning I have found in my son’s suicide,” she writes, “is to realize that life is tenuous for us all, so I have the choice of making every minute count with my family from now on and valuing them and friends and life in a way I never did before.”

When my daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995, no one dared mention the possibility of gift. I would have rejected the idea as tasteless bordering on cruel. But “suicide” and “gift” can inhabit the same sentence, I now see, even if seeing takes hope, work, and years to become clear (Atlanta: Bolton Press, 1996, 16-17, 95, 102-103).

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