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Archive for September, 2013

When his father died by suicide in 1990, Thomas Joiner was studying for a doctorate in psychology. Thus surrounded by peers and professors adept at understanding the dynamics of the mind, Joiner was demoralized by their lack of empathy toward him in his bereavement.

“Peers and professors ignored my dad’s death altogether. One professor, a psychoanalytically oriented clinical supervisor of mine, was particularly inept and seemed unable to say anything at all in response to my dad’s suicide. He tried to hide his inability behind a psychoanalytic stance of neutral silence, but never was that charade more apparent and more pitiful.”

On the other hand, Joiner found himself moved by the kindness of his Uncle Jim upon meeting him at the airport a few days after the suicide. “[Uncle Jim, my dad’s older brother] must have been heartbroken and incredibly confused about how his very successful little brother could have suddenly died by suicide. He shouldered this shocking burden and put it aside . . . to pay attention to how I was feeling and, in the days following, to how my mom and sisters were feeling.”

What made the difference? Joiner theorizes that his psychology peers and professors needed to “intellectually grasp suicide before they could do anything else . . . and since they couldn’t grasp it intellectually–few can–their otherwise good hearts were hampered.”

Yet, it was exactly his Uncle Jim’s good heart that guided the airport reunion. “Some people don’t require understanding in order to act right,” Joiner states. “They just let compassion take over; that’s what my Uncle Jim did” (Why People Die By Suicide. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005, 4-5, 3, 5, 3).

When my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide eighteen years ago, everyone who tried to console me seemed to be leading with their good hearts. At no time during the hundreds of emotional funeral home conversations did anyone say they understood what had happened to Mary or pretend that they understood. They knew how to act right by showing compassion, and being with them for even a few hours was one of the high points of my life.

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A year or so into grieving for my daughter Mary after her suicide in 1995, my spiritual director, a Roman Catholic Benedictine sister, asked me if I was glad to have had her in my life.

“I’d have to think about that,” I said. At that moment, what I was experiencing was abandonment, rejection, sorrow, shock, horrible memories, and several wrenching emotions that lie too deep for words. Sister Mary Ellen remained neutral as I answered, neither approving nor disapproving. But my reply was a truthful expression of pain, and I was not sorry for providing it. My love for Mary, while never absent, had been eclipsed by the devastation of her suicide.

“Sometimes,” writes Thomas Attig, Past President of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, “there is something horrible associated with the deaths of those we love. Our minds fix on the horror to the virtual exclusion of all the good we hold in memory. We cannot help ourselves–we agonize over the dark emotions the horror arouses.”

To illustrate, Attig quotes from a father in a bereavement group whose son Juan had died by suicide: “At first, I hated what my son did. I hated him for doing it to himself and to me and his mother. . . . It will probably always hurt. . . . I couldn’t get my mind off what he did with that gun. But one day I saw that I hated what he did because he took a life I dearly loved. And I wished he had loved it more.”

In time the man eventually realized how sorry he felt for his son and how much he still wanted to love him. “Only then did it come to me–I could hate what Juan did to end his life but still love Juan. . . . I began to remember all that I loved about Juan, the fun, and how good it was to have him in my life. . . . I think that realization saved my sanity.”

Loosening the grip of horrible suicide memories is, as Attig acknowledges, a real struggle for many. Some find help by attending support groups for the suicide bereaved. However, those who have been traumatized by the “horror [of suicide] witnessed directly or imagined vividly” likely require professional help to “recover the full range of memories of [their] loved ones. Only then can [they] cherish them despite the horror . . .” (The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2000, 123, 122-3, 124)

“I’m so glad to have had that girl in my life,” Beatle Paul McCartney said when his wife, Linda Eastman, died of cancer in 1998.

When my daughter Mary came into the conversation with Sister Mary Ellen again in 1998, my horrible feelings and memories had loosened to the point where I could honestly borrow from Paul McCartney: “I’m so glad to have had that girl in my life.”

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