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Archive for December, 2013

Over the past several days of family Christmas celebration, there were moments when my daughter Mary could have been mentioned and wasn’t. There was a moment around the dining room table, for example, when we realized an extra place had been set unintentionally and no one suggested it might be a place for Mary, lost to suicide in 1995.

There was a Christmas mealtime blessing absent her name and a restaurant toast to the good times that did not include her.

My discomfort with those small silences is not a matter of thinking Mary needed either a place at the table or a Christmas blessing. She celebrates Christmas perpetually, I believe, and is with our family always in a good way.

It is also not a matter of thinking silence is somehow deficient. In my first years of grief for Mary, I couldn’t possibly have voiced my love and confusion at a family gathering. Any words suitable for a group setting would have fallen woefully short of the truth. That no one else tried to use words registered as a sign of solidarity and honor. Back then, we knew why we were keeping silent.

Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe we, and especially I, got so caught up in the excitement of Christmas–the big meal preparation, the house full of people, the flowers, the music, the table setting–that we failed to be intentional with regard to Mary. We, and especially I, failed to make the simplest move in Mary’s direction. Mentioning her name would not only have made her present to us, it also would have made Christmas more real and more joyful. Saying her name would not have been about remembrance only. It would have brought to our celebration a depth dimension and a light that shines in the dark.

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I’m grateful that my daughter Mary left a note saying good-bye and describing her motives before she died by overdose in 1995. Police confiscated the note, so I didn’t get to see it for several weeks. When I finally read the five-page farewell she had written in her physics notebook, it was like watching her smile and wave as she drove off a cliff.

But after eighteen years, her decision to leave a note seems more a courtesy than anything else, a grace note, a final kindness. It left no doubt about her intention to die, and while that certitude did not answer the deeper questions surrounding her death, it did spare us the exhaustion of trying to figure out whether her death had been accidental.

Mary’s note was a gift, and a rather unusual one. Three out of four people who die by suicide leave no note according to studies cited by psychologist and clinical research Thomas Joiner. “Knowledge of this simple fact could save a lot of heartache and confusion . . . It is not rare for relatives of suicide decedents–and from time to time even experienced investigators–to question whether a death was a suicide or not because no note was left. Closure for relatives . . . can be facilitated by knowledge that suicide notes are rare.”

Why this rarity? It’s not that suicides are impulsive, Joiner argues, because “the extremely fearsome and often painful prospect of bringing about one’s own death requires previous experiences and psychological processes that take months–at least–to accumulate. Those who end up dead by suicide have thought the act through many times, often in detail—” (Reading Mary’s journal after her death, for example, I saw the word “suicide” crop up two years before she died.)

The answer, rather, seems to lie in the mental state of people in the moments before they take their lives. It’s so unlike ours that it’s almost impossible to fathom. “To say that people who die by suicide are lonely at the time of their deaths is . . . like saying that the ocean is wet. Loneliness, alienation, isolation, rejection, and ostracism are a better approximation, but still do not capture it fully. . . . I believe it is impossible to capture the phenomenon fully in words, because it is so beyond ordinary experience . . .” (Myths About Suicide, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010, 119, 84, 123.)

That my daughter left a note, that anyone would leave a note, speaks powerfully of the human need to belong and connect, tragically foreclosed.

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