Archive for the ‘healing’ Category

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend whose husband died two months ago of cancer. Remarkably positive in early bereavement and not someone given to denial, she commented that grief for my daughter Mary must continue to be difficult. In fact, she said it must be the worst, most unimaginable kind of grief. I wanted to reply that losing a teenage daughter to suicide has required a steady healing effort over nearly two decades, but words failed. What came forth was a small grief burst, an outcropping of emotion that I thought had been dispensed with years ago.

In many ways, grief for Mary has been routed: I’ve gotten used to her absence; I’ve found a place for her in my emotional life that has allowed me to go on; I don’t think of her with sadness anymore, but, rather, with something like puzzlement that tends to be more intriguing than anything.

But grief–that small, cold stone–continues to show itself from time to time, despite the healing. What’s changed since yesterday is that I’m now trying to honor not only its presence but also its life-givingness.

“Grieving is not just something that we do on sad occasions,” writes Richard Rohr, OFM, Catholic priest and author. “It is a mode of existence that agrees to carry the sadness of things without denying or dismissing the pain as an accident. It is a way of living that incorporates dying. It is a way of remembrance that refuses to forget. It is not a maudlin, depressed, or self-pitying thing, but a way of ‘compassion’ that makes room for everything and holds on to nothing.”

For those bereaved by suicide who may be haunted their entire lives by “if onlys” and guilt, Rohr offers especially pertinent insight: “The grieving mode keeps us out of the fixing mode. The grieving mode keeps us beyond the explaining mode. The grieving mode makes the way of blaming useless and counterproductive. The grieving mode submerges us into a world deeper than words or control.” (“Foreword,” in Robert J. Miller, GriefQuest: Men Coping with Loss, Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 1996, 10.)

From what I’m learning, the grieving mode plunges us into the only world capable of transforming us, the world inside where God lives, the world where real healing–the messy, tearful, human kind–can occur.

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One morning in 2001, six years after my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose, a friend and I were talking in a parking lot. “You need to let go of your kids,” she offered.

My kids at that time were my son, then 27 years old and living at home with a disabling psychiatric illness, and my daughter, then 17 and a high school senior. Of course, there was also Mary, who would have been 23 years old had she survived her overdose.

I was not about to let go of any of them that morning. To me, letting go of the living kids meant allowing them to make their own decisions and mistakes in the belief that somehow they would find their way in the world. But neither of my kids was in a position to find his or her way in the world that day, and so I dismissed my friend’s remark as ill-informed.

Letting go of Mary, for whom I was still yearning, was an equally dismissible idea. More than anything, I wanted to overcome the estrangement between us and have her in my life once again in a good way. Letting go of her? Unthinkable.

The desire not to let go is apparently universal among the bereaved. “I’ve never spoken to anyone who mourns for someone they love who does not want to continue loving them in some way,” writes Thomas Attig, Past President of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

The question is, how does a bereaved person go about loving someone after he or she has died? According to Attig, the first step is overcoming the mistaken notion that grieving requires a complete letting go of those we love. “There is no reason to let go of the good with the bad [in the person who has died]. The great majority of our closest relationships with family and friends have good in them. Those we mourn lived lives filled with value and meaning” (The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, xi, xvi).

When a loved one dies by suicide, it is deeply challenging to retrieve the good, the valuable, and the meaningful in their lives. Those left behind have to deal for years with the ugliness of suicide and its ultimate meaninglessness. But eventually, and not easily, it’s possible to let go of the pain and begin a new relationship with the person who died. It is possible; I think I have Mary back in my life in a good way.

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After my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose nearly eighteen years ago, I was jolted by the realization that I hadn’t known her at all. I hadn’t known the high school senior I’d eaten with and talked to every day, for if I had known Mary, I believed I would have recognized her fears, her sadness, and her suicidal thinking and acted to protect her.

Just the same, “People can only know the observable behavior of another person,” write clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh on the topic of suicide bereavement. They add that unless a person verbally or nonverbally expresses what is really going on inside, no one else can know it.

“Human beings are capable of masking their inner thoughts and feelings,” they state, “while outwardly acting in ways that can be quite incongruent with their internal state. . . . This existential ‘separateness’ of the inner consciousness of each of us from others is the foundation for the psychological boundary between self and others. . . . It is also the condition that allows suicide to happen in a way that people who ‘know’ the deceased may be utterly stunned by the act” (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, 253).

My daughter did not express what was going on inside her until it was too late. Only in her suicide note did she reveal sadness at not fitting in with her friends and a sense of personal weakness that she despised. She wrote that she’d not been silent about her suffering and doubted anyone would be surprised by her suicide. Those comments bewildered me. She had been silent, and we were all horribly surprised.

But I was also off-base about something else: I had known Mary, at least on a heart level. I had daily experienced a depth in her that was open to love and capable of love, and I’d seen life-giving values arising out of that depth.

While it’s taken years, I finally realize how inaccurately Mary’s final act reflects who she was and still is. She was not her mental illness and suicide. She is someone I know and someone I love knowing.

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Within hours of their son Mitch’s suicide, a psychiatrist friend told Iris and Jack Bolton, “There is a gift for you in your son’s death. You may not believe it at this bitter moment, but it is authentic and it can be yours if you are willing to search for it.”

“I gasped,” writes Iris. “[Dr. Maholic] was saying that my pain was a gift, that the dislocation of so many lives . . . was a gift.” Considering her emotional state at that moment–“numb, devastated, embarrassed, and wishing for my own death”–it’s remarkable Iris remembered anything her psychiatrist friend told her that afternoon.

“This gift will not jump out at you or thrust itself into your life,” the doctor added. “You must search for it. As time passes, you will be amazed at unanticipated opportunities for helping yourself and others that will come your way, all because of Mitch. Today you need to condemn him . . . but one day you will be able to acknowledge his gift.”

At the time, Iris was director of The Link Counseling Center in Atlanta, a private, non-profit headquarters for family therapy. Eventually, she began speaking locally about suicide beareavement and then enrolled in graduate school at Emory University to study suicidology. One outcome was her book, My Son, My Son: A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss, or Suicide.

In that work, Iris describes what she finally recognized as Mitch’s gift to his family. “For one thing, we all value each other more. . . . We are not always efficient or perfect. Nor do we always do well or wisely. Yet, despite all our blunders, failures, and mistakes, we manage to cope. And to cope–with love.”

“The meaning I have found in my son’s suicide,” she writes, “is to realize that life is tenuous for us all, so I have the choice of making every minute count with my family from now on and valuing them and friends and life in a way I never did before.”

When my daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995, no one dared mention the possibility of gift. I would have rejected the idea as tasteless bordering on cruel. But “suicide” and “gift” can inhabit the same sentence, I now see, even if seeing takes hope, work, and years to become clear (Atlanta: Bolton Press, 1996, 16-17, 95, 102-103).

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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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Among healing rituals for those bereaved by suicide, the most imaginative I’ve heard about is the “Out of the Darkness Walk”–an annual event organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This year, the walk will take place from sunset June 1 to sunrise June 2 over a course of some eighteen miles in Washington, D.C.

Many participants are either suicide survivors or attempters who walk to emphasize suicide as a national health concern, heighten awareness of the need for suicide prevention, and raise funds for both research and prevention. What makes the event unique–even biblical–is its offer of a communal passage from darkness to light.

“By walking from sunset to sunrise,” says executive director of the foundation Robert Gebbia, “walkers make a powerful statement about suicide–that there is hope, a light at the end of the tunnel for those affected. It’s emotional but also very uplifting. . . and, in some ways, liberating because many people have not talked about this; and all of a sudden they’re with other people who understand because they’ve been through the same thing” (Arlington Catholic Herald. May 16-22, 2013, p. 7).

Regarding the June event, the foundation’s website states, “We’ll prove to the capital and to the nation What a Difference a Night Makes.

Less dramatic but no less essential, three–five mile “Out of the Darkness Walks” take place in communities all across the United States during autumn daylight hours. (www.afsp.org.) It’s customary to form a team that walks in a person’s memory and even, it would seem, to wear a shirt bearing that person’s name.

My daughter Mary left us in the dark of the night after overdosing on her anti-depressant medication when she was a senior in high school. But the mere thought of putting on a “Team Mary” shirt and walking out of darkness in the company of the courageous helps to reverse the damage of that night in 1995.

Truly, I won’t be walking eighteeen miles in D.C. on the first night of June. I honor and thank those who do walk and pledge that, in time, I’ll make a daytime walk on behalf of Mary and the tens of thousands of Americans who die each year by suicide.

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