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Archive for the ‘forgiveness’ Category

img_0095-edit-2Late on a rainy night in April, 2002, my mother and I were driving home from a nearby town after watching my brother, George, perform there as “Brandy Bottle Bates” in Guys and Dolls. My extended family had finally begun to enjoy some of life’s pleasures even while mourning the suicide of my daughter Mary that had occurred seven years earlier. So as my mother and I chatted that night, I was also privately searching for answers about Mary as I had done every night: why did she intentionally overdose on her antidepressant medication? How could she do that to herself and to her family? How could she?

But then this: a white cat running across the road not ten feet from my front wheels. After a sickening bump under both front and back tires, I stopped on the road, windshield wipers clicking, wondering what to do.

“Drive on,” my mother said. “The cat’s dead, and the owner might live a mile away. I know you feel bad, but there’s nothing you can do.”

I did drive on, but the death of that cat troubled me for days. I visualized the owners finding the crushed body by the road and shouting, “How could you?” at faceless me just as I had shouted at Mary.

It finally dawned on me that those owners deserved an apology they would never get and that their not getting an apology made me something of a culprit. “I felt for them. I felt for Mary, as well. It wasn’t that I placed suicide and accidental animal slaughter in the same moral category; it was that my daughter and I had both done damage, and neither of us could apologize for it. However, merely imagining that Mary would want to apologize [as I wanted to] put an end to my ‘How could you?’ question and brought peace” (Marjorie Antus, My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope, CreateSpace, 2014, 198-9).

Then or now, I wouldn’t imagine Mary apologizing for the mental suffering she tried to end (and did end, I believe) with an intentional overdose. The agony of mental illness leading to suicide is described by psychologist Thomas Joiner as a “force of nature” nearly impossible for the rest of us to grasp or expect an apology for (2011 Suicide Prevention Conference: Myths About Suicide, YouTube, Google, Inc.).

Still, it’s restorative to imagine those who have died by suicide apologizing for the heartache, the bewilderment, the life disruption, and the chronic sorrow their deaths have brought. I’m also glad I was able to feel like a wrongdoer for a time. That feeling brought empathy, and empathy brought love.

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img_0019-edit On this day nineteen years ago, my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide. While her father and I were away for the day, she overdosed on her antidepressant medication and could not be revived by hospital staff. For those who knew Mary–her brother, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, her father and I along with her high school friends–life veered strangely off course that September day. It has not entirely been put back on course.

I was going to write an anniversary post about working through certain bereavement realities over the years: the pitfalls and oddities, the angers and uncertainties, the self-questioning, guilt, and trauma. However, I’ve been blogging about those topics for a while now, usually as an attempt at describing how the suicide-bereaved might help themselves. But it just seems that on this anniversary, something other than a bereavement self-help summary is called for.

Only when I phoned my sister yesterday to wish her happy birthday did that something begin to take shape.  “I can’t believe it’s been nineteen years,” she said. She might have meant, “It seems like yesterday,” a perception I would’ve agreed with owing, I think, to the clarity with which suicide memories stay in the mind. Yet, I took my sister’s comment to mean, “How have we made it nineteen years without Mary?”—a question for which there is no ready answer. Yes, I’ve done the family therapy, the studying, the writing, the support group facilitating, and the spiritual direction. But undertaking bereavement work, vital as that is, still does not account for surviving nineteen years without Mary, an achievement that I never imagined possible nineteen years ago today.

It’s not wholly, or even mostly, my achievement. That is to say, there has never been a moment throughout my bereavement that I have been left to my own coping skills. There has never been a moment without the divine healing presence working within, usually beneath the level of my consciousness.

Writer Andre Dubus captures this reality:  “After the physical pain of grief has become, with time, a permanent wound in the soul, a sorrow that will last as long as the body does, after the horrors become nightmares and sudden daylight memories, then comes the transcendent and common bond of human suffering, and with that comes forgiveness, and with forgiveness comes love . . .”   (“Introduction,” Broken Vessels, Boston: David Godine, Publisher, 1991, xviii-xix)

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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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I recall running into Dr. Matthews, my daughter Mary’s psychiatrist, some months after Mary’s suicide. She was someone I had always admired; and even to this day, my physician husband claims that she (now deceased) was the best psychiatrist he’s ever worked with professionally.

On the day in question, Dr. Matthews was wearing an expensive suit, her hair was nicely styled, and she exuded confidence. Resenting her for all of it, I began asking myself about justice. As in, how could a doctor with direct responsibility for Mary’s welfare go on living in such a nice, orderly way? After all, I wasn’t living in a nice, orderly way. My life was the opposite of nice and orderly, and the contrast was galling.

Years have passed, and now I see how wrong my perception was that day. Just because the severity of her grief makes a mother believe she is suffering at a uniquely profound level doesn’t mean that she is. Other survivors, including clinicians, also undergo unique, profound suffering.

“Twin bereavement” is the term researchers use on behalf of clinicians. “In addition to the personal grief reaction entailed in losing a client with whom there was a therapeutically intense or intimate relationship, this loss is likely to affect clinicians’ professional identities, their relationships with colleagues, and their clinical work” (John R. Jordan and John McIntosh, Eds. Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 95).

Other researchers have found that mental health therapists describe losing a client “as the most profoundly disturbing event of their professional careers,” noting that a third of the therapists “experienced severe distress that lasted at least one year beyond the initial loss” (Ibid).

Though seventeen years late, I’m saying, “Sorry, Dr. Matthews.” I finally grasp how hurt we all were, you not least. I finally get that we were all doing our best to survive Mary’s death. I finally realize your way was to put on a nice suit and see your patients hour after hour, same as always.

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“He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.” This statement represents the fifth of twelve articles of Christian faith set forth in the Apostles’ Creed written in the early centuries of the Roman Catholic Church.

“Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’–Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek–because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned,” it states, “nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him,” adding, “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (New York: Doubleday, 1995, #633-4).

In one of his 1985 columns, Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, expanded on Christ’s descent into hell by applying it to the tragedy of suicide. “Jesus still descends into hell, entering closed hearts, to breathe peace and love in places where there is huddling in fear and hurt,” he writes. “Most suicide victims are trapped persons, caught up in a private emotional hell which is an illness and not a sin. Their suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like a man whose clothing has caught fire might throw himself through a window. They are not, on the other side, met by our human judgments, but by a heart, a companion, a love . . .” (“Suicide, Despair, and Compassion,” http://www.ronrolheiser.com May 1, 1985)

Regarding Christ’s descent into hell, the Catechism offers Easter hope by quoting from a document it calls Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday: “Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, [our Lord] has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him–He who is both their God and the son of Eve . . . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son . . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead'” (Catechism, #635).

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“Forgive us our trespasses,” Jesus taught us to pray, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” A reality no one could deny after my daughter’s suicide was that she had trespassed against all of us and had done so irreparably. She could never make amends for laying waste, no matter how unintentionally, to the emotional wellbeing of those who love her. It’s a simple fact.

Also factual was my Christian obligation to forgive her. Early on, I tried saying, “I forgive you” over her headstone just after listing my failings toward her and asking forgiveness. It was the correct formula for a cemetery visit but meant almost nothing. My heart wasn’t in those words; it was in the clay with Mary.

The suicide of a child wrenches out the possibility of forgiveness, at least for a time. The pain is high-caliber, mostly all a mother can feel for a long time, too grossly unjust even to think about forgiving.

There was another problem in my early struggle with forgiveness: why did Mary even need it? If her suicide was the result of a brain disorder and her will not truly free in “choosing” to die, why would she need forgiveness? Had she died of a brain aneurysm, for example, would I be trying to forgive her?

But over the years, I’ve experienced the substantial difference between what I know and what I feel. I know about my daughter’s diminished capacity that was not in any way her fault. Knowing has given rise to forgiveness that I think, after seventeen years, is finally in place.

At the same time, I respect my early feelings of rejection and abandonment. Those feelings were legitimate–who wouldn’t feel rejected and abandoned?–and not to be talked away.

Even so, a Benedictine sister offers these words about forgiveness that I recognize as true: “Only if there is love in us great enough to transcend deep hurt, great betrayal . . . can we possibly really forgive. Only if we can care for another enough to try to understand what drove the behavior that hurt us so, can we put our own pain down long enough to forgive. Forgive is what we do when our love is as real as our pain” (Joan D. Chittister, OSB. Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir. Lanham, Maryland: Sheed & Ward, 2004).

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