Archive for the ‘Acting Right Toward the Suicide Bereaved’ Category

“As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches,” writes Kay Warren, “I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to ‘move on.’ ” Kay is the wife of Rick Warren, pastor of the eighth-largest church in the nation, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Their son Matthew died by suicide in 2013 at the age of 27.

In March, 2014, Kay wrote a Facebook post describing just how jarring certain expectations and well-meant remarks had proved to be in the wake of her son’s death.

“[Most people] want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us—when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013, will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you—the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back.”

As the mother of a teenage daughter who died by intentional overdose in 1995, I understand how the suicide of a child expels parents from their normal lives and forces them to accept that there’s no going back. “We will never be the same again,”  Kay states. “There is a new ‘normal.’ ”

Perhaps such a new normal would have been more obvious to others in the past. “It wasn’t all that long ago that it was standard for people to officially be in mourning for a full year,” a grieving father adds to Kay’s Facebook post. “They wore black. They didn’t go to parties. They didn’t smile a lot. And everybody accepted their period of mourning.”

In my first year of grief, I thought about wearing a black armband like the ones I saw in WWII movies. Someone whose views I respected told me I really didn’t want to do that. But I did want to. It wasn’t a matter of making others feel sorry for me but, rather, of letting them know I was grieving and not exactly myself. It might have changed their expectations when I most needed changed expectations.

Are there any words of comfort for a parent whose child has died? “Unless you’ve stood by the grave of your child or cradled the urn that holds their ashes,” writes Kay, “you’re better off keeping your words to some very simple phrases: ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ Or ‘I’m praying for you and your family.’ Do your best to avoid the meaningless ‘How are you doing?’ This question is almost impossible to answer.”

Above all, “Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost,” Kay advises. “It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right” (“After a Tragic Loss, A Call to Action for the Faith Community,” NAMI Advocate, Summer 2014, 11, 12, 13).





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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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