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Archive for August, 2013

One morning in 2001, six years after my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose, a friend and I were talking in a parking lot. “You need to let go of your kids,” she offered.

My kids at that time were my son, then 27 years old and living at home with a disabling psychiatric illness, and my daughter, then 17 and a high school senior. Of course, there was also Mary, who would have been 23 years old had she survived her overdose.

I was not about to let go of any of them that morning. To me, letting go of the living kids meant allowing them to make their own decisions and mistakes in the belief that somehow they would find their way in the world. But neither of my kids was in a position to find his or her way in the world that day, and so I dismissed my friend’s remark as ill-informed.

Letting go of Mary, for whom I was still yearning, was an equally dismissible idea. More than anything, I wanted to overcome the estrangement between us and have her in my life once again in a good way. Letting go of her? Unthinkable.

The desire not to let go is apparently universal among the bereaved. “I’ve never spoken to anyone who mourns for someone they love who does not want to continue loving them in some way,” writes Thomas Attig, Past President of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

The question is, how does a bereaved person go about loving someone after he or she has died? According to Attig, the first step is overcoming the mistaken notion that grieving requires a complete letting go of those we love. “There is no reason to let go of the good with the bad [in the person who has died]. The great majority of our closest relationships with family and friends have good in them. Those we mourn lived lives filled with value and meaning” (The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, xi, xvi).

When a loved one dies by suicide, it is deeply challenging to retrieve the good, the valuable, and the meaningful in their lives. Those left behind have to deal for years with the ugliness of suicide and its ultimate meaninglessness. But eventually, and not easily, it’s possible to let go of the pain and begin a new relationship with the person who died. It is possible; I think I have Mary back in my life in a good way.

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Arnold Toynbee, a British historian of the twentieth century, argued that death is a “dyadic” (or two-person) event in which the survivor bears the heavier burden. “The sting of death is less sharp for the person who dies than it is for the bereaved survivor.” He adds, “There are two parties to the suffering that death inflicts; and, in the apportionment of this suffering, the survivor takes the brunt” (Man’s Concern with Death. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968, as quoted in Stanley Lesse, M.D., Ed. What We Know About Suicidal Behavior and How to Treat It. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1988, 60).

While I appreciate Toynbee’s respect for suffering survivors, I can’t help asking, “How do you know? How can you speak with such assurance about the mystery of death?”

Psychologist Edwin Shneidman, who founded the American Association of Suicidology in 1968, also questions Toynbee’s assertion. “For all his wisdom, I believe that Toynbee is indulging unduly in what I would call the romanticization of death. In my view, the larger need is to deromanticize death and suicide.

“Individuals who are actively suicidal suffer–among their burdens (and especially the burden of unbearable anguish)–from a temporary loss of an unromanticized view of death-as-enemy. . . . they have lost sight of the foe: they openly sail with full lights in the hostile night; they smoke and show themselves on combat patrol. . . . They behave in strange, almost traitorous and defecting ways. Whose side are they on? They attempt to rationalize death’s supposed lofty qualities and, what is most difficult to deal with, to romanticize death as the noblest part of dyadic love. . . . Suicidal individuals have been brainwashed–and by their own thoughts” (“The Deromanticization of Death,” What We Know About Suicidal Behavior and How to Treat It. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1988, 66, 73-4).

My daughter Mary romanticized her suicide. The note she left describes suicide as “darkly mystical,” especially if the person is young and has suffered in silence, which she evidently thought she had done. Perhaps she considered her life a waste and her suicide a favor to family and friends; I’m not sure. But I do know she wasn’t on her own side at the end–hard as it is to conceive–and I imagine it was because of the unbearable anguish, the “psychache” that Edwin Shneidman deems to be the usual cause of suicide.

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