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Archive for the ‘healing’ 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-4As if the suicide of a loved one weren’t traumatic enough, the bereaved even today find themselves contending with subtle forms of stigma such as “blame being cast upon [them] and [their] being subjected to informal isolation and shunning” sociologist William Feigelman states.

Simply put, stigma is a mark of disgrace, a stain or reproach, a set of unfair beliefs. For nearly two millenia in the Western world, stigma has attended the act of suicide and shadowed the families of those who die by suicide.

In 2009, Feigleman joined Bernard Gorman and John Jordan in studying the ways in which stigma affects parents of children (age 16-35) who die by suicide. More than half reported receiving harmful rather than helpful responses from one or more family members after the suicide. About one third reported harmful responses from someone outside the family.

A majority of the parents in the study commented on the avoidance they had experienced: “Friends or family didn’t call me afterwards” and “People who I thought would be at the funeral or send a sympathy card didn’t show any acknowledgment of the death.”

A majority of parents received unhelpful advice: “It’s time to move on” and “Are you still going to that support group?”

A majority noticed an absence of caring interest: “No one asked me how I was feeling afterwards” and “If I started talking about my lost child, they quickly changed the subject” and “People just passed over my tragedy as if my child never existed.”

“What makes these stigmatizing experiences so irksome,” Feigleman adds, “is the expectations survivors have of gaining support and solace from close family and social intimates. Who else should be able to readily understand their personal devastating tragedies?”

I was fortunate to have outstanding family support after my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995. I haven’t had to avoid family members or teach them how to treat me better, both of which proposals Feigleman sets forth as a mental health measure for the stigmatized. (www3.ncc.edu/faculty/soc/feigelb/stigmashorterversion.pdf)

What I do recommend from experience is education. Knowing that our lives have been utterly and unfairly altered forever, we suicide bereaved can fortify ourselves and combat stigma by learning about the mental illnesses that underlie nine of ten (approaching ten of ten) suicides.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great place to start (NAMI.org). Its information is accurate and its nationwide community programs are offered free of charge.

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imagePlease meet Mary! Since 2012, I have been blogging about my daughter Mary, and now anyone who wants to know her better can do so.  I’ve finally finished writing an account titled My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope that is now available on Amazon.com.

Over a period of some ten years beginning in 2001, I took it upon myself to delve into Mary’s death, her life, and the grief of an entire family at her passing. In truth, I was driven to explore some of the “what-if” questions and the “why” torments about which I’ve posted many times. I wanted to find out where God was in the tragedy and ultimately to figure out how to put “daughter,” “suicide,” and “God” together harmoniously in one sentence. But I always knew that the one sentence would arrive, if ever, only after several thousand other sentences.

The writing also became my attempt at mending the shattered relationship that Mary and I shared. I wanted badly to get her back in my life in a good way. Putting words on paper for more than a decade, pushing “delete” and starting over, no matter how laborious-seeming in retrospect (while never actually laborious), did deliver healing in tiny doses and slowly bring Mary back.

A few months ago in this blog, I quoted Fr. Ronald Rolheiser as saying, “Few things stigmatize someone’s life and meaning as does death by suicide” (ronrolheiser.com   July 21, 2014).

My daughter’s life held and still holds great meaning, as does the life of anyone who falls victim to suicide. It has been my privilege to bear witness in a memoir to the beauty and meaning of her precious, unrepeatable life.

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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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While no one argues that suicide can ever really make sense for those left behind, clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh report that the incomprehensibility of suicide, its blind spot, can be worked with in life-giving ways. “The blind spot refers to the inherent inability of the survivor ever to fully comprehend the mind and motivation of the deceased, and therefore the reasons for the suicide,” write Jordan and McIntosh. “Finding a way through the blind spot is not about making meanings that are profoundly comprehensive so much as getting to a place of meaning that allows the bereaved to reinvest energy in themselves and re-engage in daily life” (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 268).

The authors also describe a three-part healing process that accompanies those who are able both to navigate the blind spot and to strive for relationship with the person who died. Two previous posts dealt with the first and second relationship tasks as I experienced them: “trying on the shoes” of my daughter Mary in an attempt to understand our broken relationship and “walking in her shoes” in an attempt to reconstruct our relationship along positive lines. The third relationship task that I faced was “taking off Mary’s shoes:” making a new position for her in my life so that I could go on.

For me, all of the bereavement tasks came together in one decade-long endeavor after Mary died by overdose in 1995: writing a book titled My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope. Although it deals with Mary’s death and its prolonged effect on me and my family, the memoir mostly concerns itself with meaning and relationship.

In short, it’s a narrative meditation upon the meaning of my daughter’s life, her suicide, and God’s place in her life and suicide. The story is not “profoundly comprehensive” for all people but describes, instead, my navigation of the blind spot.

However, there was an aspect of the writing even more urgent than getting through the blind spot: my ardent desire to re-establish a relationship with Mary. Getting her back in my life in a good way was what I wanted above all, and writing through the pain was the only way to achieve that. My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God will be published in the early fall. 

 

 

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One thing for which I’m most thankful in the long aftermath of my daughter ‘s suicide is this: she left in her bedroom quite a few school notebooks containing her accounts of daily life from the time she was a young teen until two days before she died. Over a period of weeks, I placed the notebooks in chronological order and began reading.

Some people cautioned me not to read the journals, that they had likely served only as a vent, a place of “guilt-free whining” as Mary remarked in one of them. But I was drawn to her writings. Not only did they put Mary’s voice back in my life, they revealed much about her days in high school, her friends, and her likes and dislikes that I had not known before. They revealed her dark mood in the days before she overdosed.

While they did not answer the “why” question (nothing, I’ve found, ever answers that question), Mary’s journals enabled me to walk in her shoes; and that was a critical healing moment.

Clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh explain “walking in the shoes” as the second task of suicide bereavement that begins with “trying on the shoes” of the deceased and ends with “taking off the shoes.” This second task leads to a reconstructed relationship with self and others, but especially with the person who died.

So reading Mary’s journals was not the futile exercise that it sometimes seemed to be. It allowed me to “take on the mindset” of my daughter and begin a new relationship with her, although one born of pain. There were days when I told myself, “Mary and I are sisters in pain. Her pain and mine aren’t the same, but now I know a little better how she felt, and there’s still a closeness.” It was a step toward making sense of that which made no sense.

Walking in my daughter’s shoes was intensely demanding and required inwardness and silence, so opposite the socialization and wider involvement with life that are often-advised antidotes to suicide bereavement. Jordan and McIntosh point out that this second bereavement task is characterized by difficulties in articulating the intensity of grief and withdrawal in relationships. Those features were present and I now know, normal, in my time of shoe-wearing. (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 263). 

I no longer read my daughter’s journals and haven’t read them for years. They rest in a box at the back of my closet. I’d like to think that Mary left them behind so I could stay in touch with her and build a new relationship, however daunting that task proved to be.

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An earlier blog post, “Weathering the Seismic Event of Suicide,” briefly addressed the relationships we take for granted that tend to shatter when suicide occurs. Specifically, these are our relationships with the person who died, with ourselves, and with significant others.  “Suicide . . . can rock the foundations of a survivor’s personal world of meaning” and compel a person to try to make sense of that which makes no sense, write clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh.

However, the researchers also point out the healing and new meaning that await a grieving person who can develop an “ongoing relationship with the deceased” by engaging in a three-part grief process. First is the “trying on the shoes (of the deceased),” or understanding our relationship with them; then comes “walking in the shoes,” or reconstructing our relationship; and finally there is “taking off the shoes,” or repositioning our relationship.

Though this three-part grief process does not necessarily follow a straight timeline, I was mostly trying on my daughter Mary’s shoes right after she overdosed on her antidepressants in 1995. In the early trying-on phase, that is, I attempted to decode whatever message I thought Mary’s suicide must have been sending. I also felt she’d betrayed me and that I’d never known her at all. Furthermore, I felt that she’d erased good memories of herself and our lives together. According to Jordan and McIntosh, those are all normal aspects of the grief process of trying on the shoes of the deceased and coming to a new understanding of who they were.

But there is more to the trying-on: a bereaved person must also deal with relationship to him or herself. In my experience it was certainly true, as Jordan and McIntosh state, that someone grieving a suicide focuses on “why” questions, agonizes about personal responsibility for the death, and experiences guilt and shame among several other negative features of raw grief.  Yet, Jordan and McIntosh maintain that wading through those difficulties ultimately contributes to a more accurate understanding of self.

Trying on the shoes of the deceased also leads to fresh understanding about relationships with significant others. To get to that place of enlightenment, however, a suicide survivor must first wade through the fear that suicide could recur with someone he or she loves; and a survivor must contend with the realities that stigma (real or imagined) is intruding, that other people could be blameworthy, and that talking about the suicide has been disallowed. I experienced most of those antagonisms, but only in early grief (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 252, 249, 262, 263).

That’s the good news about trying on the shoes of the deceased and thus coming to improved understanding about relationships: a suicide survivor may have to wear the shoes for a while, but they lead somewhere and they can eventually be taken off. Future posts will explore the wearing and the taking off.

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