Archive for the ‘family’ Category

On the day their son died by self-inflicted gunshot, Iris Bolton and her husband Jack received a visitor who gave them unforgettable advice. That is to say, on a day of emotional chaos with phone and doorbell ringing, neighbors overflowing couches and sitting on the floor, someone offering Iris a stiff drink–on that day, a psychiatrist friend took the Boltons into a quiet room and offered wisdom.

In her classic work called My Son, My Son, Iris writes about Dr. Maholick first describing the grief stages she and Jack were bound to experience–the shock, denial, guilt, anger and depression that “come with the territory” of grief. “And then he added an extra dimension to his counseling that seemed at that moment utterly beyond belief: ‘. . . this crisis can be used to bring your family closer together than ever,’ he said. ‘If you use this opportunity wisely, you can survive and be a stronger unit than before.'”

When Iris asked how such a result could be brought about, the doctor provided a formula. “Make every decision together throughout this crisis. Hear every voice. Work for consensus. Never exclude your children during these next few days. . . . Discuss each problem openly, treating each individual equally regardless of age or experience. . . Grief of itself is a medicine when you are open about it. Only secret grief is harmful. Through mutual helping, you will all heal more rapidly . . .” (My Son, My Son: A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss, or Suicide. Atlanta: Bolton Press, 1996, 16)

My daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995 left a family of four–my husband John and I along with a 21-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. While I subscribe to the doctor’s counsel about a family pulling together after devastation, and while I agree that openness is one remedy for devastation, I think Dr. Maholick understates the effect of shock following suicide. My kids were at a loss for words; John and I were at a loss for words. There were no words after Mary died.

Still, John and I knew we had to put ourselves and our kids in a room with a therapist each week for many months and allow pain and bewilderment to surface. We didn’t ask our kids ahead of time if they thought this togetherness would be helpful. But to their everlasting credit, they went along with it. I’d like to think that, taking the medicine together, we helped each other through the crisis and healed more rapidly. As with most aspects of suicide bereavement, I accept not knowing for sure. But I do know my family survived. We’re in touch; we vacation together as often as we can.

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This year, my family reached an odd milestone: we observed our eighteenth Christmas without Mary after having celebrated only seventeen Christmases with her. She died by suicide in the fall of 1995, a life-altering wound to her survivors that presents itself regularly to me, her mother, but which no longer has the power to dampen an entire day, much less a day of celebration like Christmas.

It’s impossible that Mary has been gone for eighteen years. But suicide changes everything, as I’ve learned, including the way time seems to pass. So life events now tend to fall into two categories: those that occurred before Mary died and those that came afterward. And in our eighteenth year of “afterward,” I can’t quite believe my family is surviving–even thriving–without our beloved daughter, sister, cousin and niece. But maybe we’re not exactly without her.

“One of [suicide] survivors’ greatest fears,” write John Jordan and John McIntosh, “is that their loved ones will fade from memory and their very existence forgotten as if they never existed.” The authors say that as major religions use ritual to “make God [Yahweh or Allah] present during a ceremony in a sacred way,” families can make sure their loved ones are not forgotten by using ritual, as well. They suggest song or poetry, perhaps a toast, at a family gathering in memory of the one who has died (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 393-394).

Right after Mass on Christmas Day, my husband and I went to the cemetery to place silk poinsettias not only on Mary’s grave but also on the graves of my parents. It was a windy, cold, and sunny few minutes of securing wire flower stems to brass vases so the arrangements wouldn’t catch the wind and blow away. We prayed out of gratitude before trudging back to the car and heading, eventually, to my sister’s for Christmas dinner.

After dinner, eight of us swapped stories–most of them funny–about our parents and Mary. Out of respect for raw grief, those stories weren’t always told at family Christmas gatherings. But they were told yesterday and, like the cemetery flower-arranging, made present to us family members we love and miss and cannot forget.

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“It is difficult for suicide survivors to express their thoughts after a suicide,” write Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden. “In contrast to the aftermath of ‘normal’ deaths, friends and relatives often don’t want to talk about the events surrounding a suicide. In fact, many people don’t want to admit that the death was a suicide….[One reason for this unwillingness] is surely that family members don’t want to expose the blame and guilt they feel: the blame they feel toward other family members, the guilt they feel about themselves” (Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide, pp.111-112).

To Lukas and Seiden, silence becomes the “Grand Bargain” following suicide that, while apparently addressing the problem of blame and guilt, also compounds the impact of suicide and damages the grieving process. “Silence,” they state, “is an enemy.” (pp. 112-113).

With everyone in my family, there was never any doubt about the cause of Mary’s death. It was called “suicide” from the first hour and not muddied by the words “accidental overdose.” We took hold of the bitter reality together, and no energy went toward maintaining the illusion that Mary died other than self-destructively.

That isn’t to say there was no family silence over the years; silence prevailed. Whenever family members came together during the holidays or for birthdays, there was silence about Mary but also gratitude–however muted–for the moment we were sharing. Far from being a blame-suppressing ploy, I think our silence was a sign of respect for deeply shared sorrow.

Might a family gathering designed for the disclosure of thoughts and feelings have helped? Possibly. Might it have soothed my mother and me to sit down and weep together? Probably a little. But we were all suicide survivors, all devastated, all trying to make it through the day. The kind of extensive talking and listening I needed–therapy, by another name–members of my family couldn’t be expected to provide. And I never thought a “Grand Bargain” had anything to do with that.

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In the hours after my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995, my grieving family was treated well. First responders–rescue squad, extended family, neighbors, medical emergency team, clergy and police–acted with compassion. I’ve always thought it was their collective good will that stabilized us and aided our recovery. And I don’t even want to think how much worse our lives would have been without the kindness of those good people–strangers, many of them.

Only a couple weeks after the suicide, though, awkwardness set in. By that, I mean social uncertainty–the raw emotion, avoidance, silence–that marked my interactions with others and seemed, in fairness, to cut both ways. In the first place, I wasn’t the person I’d been before Mary died. Whatever meaning Mary gave my life, and it was considerable, had been buried along with her. I was driven to talk about my daughter in order to make sense of that catastrophe, and I craved getting her name into conversations because I simply needed to say and hear it.

It was too intense for what would normally have been polite conversations. Friends were trying, it seems, to help me and protect themselves by switching to lighter topics, getting my mind off the devastation of my daughter’s life and giving me perspective. One motherly friend said, “Well, Marj, it could have been worse.” My unspoken response to that was, My daughter is dead. Please tell me how it could have been worse. I guess if she’d machine-gunned us all, that would have been worse.

Before long, my family began receiving professional therapy. I did finally learn to modify my comments about Mary, saving the unvarnished ones for my spiritual director behind a closed door. I learned discretion, eventually.

But I still appreciate the honesty of a sixty-five-year-old college professor several years after the suicide of his son: “I will keep friendships only with people whom I can bring up with ease these issues [of my son’s suicide]. Some people have a knack of saying insensitive and uncaring things. One good friend said why don’t you go out dancing instead of attending a suicide support group meeting. People can sometimes be hurtful and say stupid things. I’m glad some of the jackasses are gone—pseudo-friends and kin who are unable to handle anything like this—good riddance” ( Karen Mueller Bryson, Those They Left Behind, p.18).

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“Only recently have organized religions changed from a punitive approach toward the suicidal person to a relatively beneficent one,” write Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden in Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide. “For centuries, people who killed themselves were buried at crossroads, their hearts often pierced with a stake. Survivors were shunned, excommunicated, robbed of the [dead person’s] possessions” (p. 19).

On the afternoon of Mary’s death, my mother phoned her Methodist minister who came to our house to be with her, my sister, my sister-in-law, my niece, nephew, and two children while my husband and I were at the hospital. Dr. Martin was leaving our house when John and I arrived but, seeing us, turned around and went back inside.

Wearing a dark suit and red tie, he eased his way into a weeping family that had just been told of Mary’s death. Too shocked to cry, I observed that everyone in the room seemed caught up in a kind of shattering, lonely sorrow–a roomful of people shedding tears separately. My twenty-seven-year old nephew had even slid off his chair onto the privacy of the floor.

Pausing a moment, Dr. Martin asked us to stand together for a prayer. His voice was warm and his manner confident as he spoke of God’s love for Mary and for us and for the great sadness we were experiencing. In that instant, he put us back together again as a family, bridged doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants (which never seemed so irrelevant) and reversed the punishment and shunning which, out of fear, have afflicted suicide victims and their families for most of Christian history.

It was a brilliant moment and a kind one. Over the next several weeks, others provided brilliant, kind moments–John’s Presbyterian colleagues, his Baptist patients, Episcopal aunts and uncles, and Catholics with whom we’d worshipped for decades. It was the willingness of all those people to enter into our pain and bewilderment without passing judgment that was most striking and which, to this day, continues to heal.

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When my husband John and I got home from the hospital on the afternoon of our daughter Mary’s suicide, half a dozen family cars lined the driveway and a bright blue police car sat at the curb in front of the house. A police detective was still upstairs going through trashcans, placing Mary’s suicide note in an envelope marked “Evidence,” and trying to determine what the crime scene, Mary’s bedroom, might be revealing. Members of my family were seated downstairs while the investigation took place.

“Many survivors [of suicide] report that detectives spend a good deal of time looking for evidence of ‘foul play’; they do not–or cannot–accept, at face value, the story of a suicide,” write Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden. “The way survivors are questioned is often vigorous and accusatory as the police go about their business” (Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide, pp.17-18).

But as far as I know, no family member seated in the living room was questioned at all. In fact, when I walked in to deliver the terrible news to them, the detective was still upstairs and didn’t come down for several minutes. After he appeared, he politely asked if I was her mother, said “I’m sorry, Ma’am,” and then took his briefcase full of evidence and left.

It was a relief to know he’d be driving his blue cruiser away from the curb. To my thinking, the car had been a billboard announcement of something gone drastically wrong in our home, possibly something illegal; and I resented having that message flashed to the world.

At a remove of seventeen years, however, I appreciate what the detective was trying to do at our home that Sunday: his job. I can’t imagine living in a country where the death of a teen aroused no legal concern or investigation. Though I never learned his name, I did finally understand the value of the detective’s respectful, unobtrusive presence at the scene of my daughter’s suicide: it didn’t make things worse. By not making things worse for my family, by not retraumatizing us, the unknown detective ended up helping.

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Immediately after calling 911 on the Sunday afternoon of my daughter Mary’s suicide, I called my mother who lived a block away. She then called my sister who lives next door. The two of them rushed to my house as the rescue squad and my physician husband John labored upstairs to save Mary from the horrific results of having taken a lethal dose of anti-depressant medication fourteen hours earlier.

My mother and sister were first responders in a way that I have come to appreciate increasingly over the seventeen years since Mary’s death. In most ways equally distressed as I at that moment, they supported me by focusing on the crisis and refraining from asking questions or making implications.

They did not ask, for example, where my husband and I had been all day as Mary lay dying in her room behind a locked door. They didn’t ask what medication she had swallowed and how it was possible we’d allowed her access to it. They did not imply that perhaps John or I had upset our daughter the night before and might therefore be the cause of her pill-swallowing. All the unasked questions would be asked repeatedly by John and me over the next several years. But on that day of chaos and heartbreak, my first responders refrained from asking them, and their restraint was a kindness which shaped the healing, eventually.

“In the aftermath of the [suicide] death,” write clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh, “families might become more splintered and more troubled as a result of the loss, might become closer, or might experience a complex combination of both” (Grief After Suicide, p. 32). A family changes as it goes through suicide bereavement, and not always for the worse.

Of the thousands of words my mother spoke to me in our sixty-three years together, none were more significant than the ones she offered an hour after Mary died: “You and John had a right to be out of the house today.”

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