Archive for the ‘comforting 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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Over the months, I’ve noticed that some are led to this blog through an online search for words of comfort for those grieving a suicide. The sincerity of that search is beyond question. But when my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide some eighteen years ago, my response to well meant verbal comfort was usually silence accompanied by this thought: “Nothing you can say will make me feel better.”

I was wrong about that. There are words of comfort that would have helped. They just require know-how and practice. “For many of us,” writes Val Walker in The Art of Comforting, the most difficult way to offer comfort is face-to-face—just sitting quietly and talking with someone in distress. In these intimate moments, we can get so hung up on trying to use the ‘right’ words that we lose track of what it is we really want to say.”

Walker advises thinking ahead about the larger message of comfort we wish to convey. Here are examples of a larger message: “I’m here for you, I’m available, I care.” There’s also, “I’m listening, I’m following you, I’m with you” as well as, “I’m feeling some of what you’re feeling, I’m not going to judge you, I’d like to offer my support with something specific.”

We need to prepare our larger message, Walker says, so that we don’t default to the platitudes we’ve heard all our lives. “Our words can distance us from others, especially if they express that we think we know ‘what is best’ for them. Devastated people in the first weeks . . . of a loss or trauma can feel unheard, invalidated, or ‘preached at’ by well-intended teachings and words of wisdom.”

So what might a loving friend, family member, or acquaintance say to someone bereaved by suicide? First, among the “be strong” platitudes to be avoided is this: “God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.” It can be replaced with, “It sounds like this is really hard.”

A “be positive” platitude such as “Something good will come out of this” can give way to, “It sounds as though it’s impossible to see what’s ahead.”

“Be faithful” platitudes such as, “Keep up the faith,” “This was part of God’s will,” and “God works in mysterious ways,” were, in my experience, particularly alienating. Someone who wants to comfort a grieving person should put them to rest and use life-giving statements instead. “I’m thinking of [and praying for] you every day,” “I hope things get easier for you,” and “I can offer my help,” are responses that soothe and draw a grieving person closer (The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress. New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 2010, 107, 109, 110, 111, 112).

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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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When Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, wrote a column in 2000 suggesting that most people who die from suicide are not “morally or otherwise responsible” for their deaths, he received a mixed response. While those bereaved by suicide tended to regard his views sympathetically, other people challenged them by quoting the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church which reads in part, “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life . . . [and is thus] gravely contrary to the just love of self” (New York: Doubleday, 1995, #2281).

In denouncing suicide throughout the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has also at the same time been emphasizing the inestimable value of life given by God for which we are “stewards, not owners” (#2280). Because human life is God-given and precious to self as well as “family, nation, and human society,” the Church will not, in my view, ever cease to condemn its termination through suicide (#2281).

But there’s more than condemnation in the Church’s teaching about suicide. That “more” is contained in the allowance for mitigating conditions that often surround suicide. In other words, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish responsibility of the one committing suicide” (#2282). Even more, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. . . The Church prays for persons who have taken their . . . lives” (# 2283).

Father Rolheiser makes the case that suicide is not usually freely chosen but is, rather, the end result of a disease which the person did not choose. “It’s truer to say that suicide was something they fell victim to than to say that it was something that they inflicted upon themselves.” He adds, “Every victim of suicide that I have known personally has been the antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, the strong, over-proud person who congenitally refuses to take his or her place in the humble, broken structure of things” (“The Notion of Suicide Revisited,” http://ronrolheiser.com Sept. 24, 2000).

My daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995 not because she was strong and proud but because she felt herself to be weak, insignificant, and forgettable. Suffering from depression, she wasn’t responsible for those feelings or for the suicide which followed from them. It’s likely that your mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, or friend is equally guiltless and deserving of compassion.

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More precisely, suicide calls God’s location into question. In reflecting some fifty years ago on his wife’s death from cancer, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the more disquieting symptoms [of grief]. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him . . . you will be–or so it feels–welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become” (A Grief Observed. New York: Bantam Books, 1961, pp. 4-5).

For me, silence was the first indication that something had gone terribly wrong on the day of my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995. Tapping on her locked bedroom door, I heard only silence as she lay unconscious on her bed. A great deal of noise soon followed as the rescue squad filled the room with equipment and loud, technical language about blood pressure and heart rhythm.

Just after Mary died at the hospital, silence set in again. It was on the short ride home that I noticed it: the presence of profound inner silence which felt like God’s absence.

That moment of disorienting silence was followed by the intense weeping of my family members, thousands of words of consolation at the wake and funeral Mass, agitated and heartfelt phone calls, casseroles left on the front porch that–yes–were speaking, too.

It is true that God seemed to have double bolted the door and left me standing in silence on the other side. It is true that things I “knew” about God’s place in my life were hurled into the air when Mary died. But the human kindness washing over me in early bereavement transformed what would have been horrible days into something decent and fine. There’s no explaining that turn of events except to say God was present in the people who were present to me. And it was obvious.

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Once upon a time in my life, “to comfort” in the wake of death meant offering phrases like “God’s ways are not our ways” and “she’s in a better place.” I heard those phrases many times and used them myself.

But after my daughter died by suicide in 1995, words of any kind–especially precise, logical, reasonable ones–did nothing to alleviate anguish and even added to it. The only words that helped, I finally realized, were Psalms that highlighted human pain. Psalm 77 became a favorite:

Aloud to God I cry; aloud to God, to hear me;
on the day of my distress, I seek the Lord.
By night my hands are stretched out without flagging;
my soul refuses comfort.

Recently, I found a definition of “to comfort” that, in considering its Latin components, offers a useful perspective. It allows that com + fortis = “to be strong with.” In my experience, “being strong with” a bereaved person has less to do with offering words than with offering presence. My spiritual director, for example, used to apologize for not having the right words with which to comfort me after Mary died. What she did have, and I knew it even then, was the courage to sit with me for an hour at a time, month after month, year after year, until healing arrived.

Henri Nouwen writes, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares” (The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey. New York: Doubleday, 1988).

The reality of suicide bereavement is that there are not moments of despair and confusion, but months and years. There is not an hour of grief, but a decade. The kind of friend who could
be silent with me through the long haul of grief was not the usual kind of friend, as it turns out, but a professional trained in the arts of silence and listening.

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