Archive for the ‘Hope’ Category

img_0019-edit-4Set in Ireland in the early twentieth century, Frank O’Connor’s story “An Act of Charity” revolves around the effort to conceal a parish priest’s suicide.

“The worst thing a priest could do was to commit suicide,” O’Connor writes, “since it seemed to deny everything that gave his vocation meaning–Divine Providence and Mercy, forgiveness, Heaven, Hell. That one of God’s anointed could come to such a state of despair was something the Church could not admit. It would give too much scandal. It was simply an unacceptable act.”

Because the “unfortunate occurrence” of a shotgun blast to a priest’s head carried “consequences” affecting the entire parish in this story, the man’s death certificate was falsified, his casket closed, and his body brought at last before the altar of the church–all performed as acts of Christian charity (Collected Stories, New York: Vintage Books, 1982, 638, 639).

What exactly is the state of despair into which the priest was judged to have fallen?

Described in one Catholic encyclopedia as the “deliberate and willful abandonment of hope in God and rejection of trust in his power, mercy, and love,” despair is the “most serious sin against the theological virtue of hope” (Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing division, 1991, 301).

In reality, was it the kind of despair that ended the fictional priest’s life? All too often in the Roman Catholic Church up to the late 20th century, death by suicide was wrongly connected with the sinful abandonment of hope in God.

For a while, I also made that erroneous connection after my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose in 1995. Because her father and I were away for a day of prayer on the Sunday of her death, I asked myself repeatedly whether Mary had timed her suicide as a deliberate rejection of her faith and ours.

But that question eventually faded. I finally gained some small understanding of my daughter’s psychological state on the day of her death, and it had nothing to do with willful abandonment of hope. If anything, her hope had been robbed by suicidal depression, “paraylzing all the otherwise vital forces that make us human, leaving instead a bleak, despairing, desperate, and deadened state . . .” (Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast:Understanding Suicide, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999, 104).

I’d like to believe that, written today, an “An Act of Charity” would tell the story of priests reaching out to their suicidally depressed brother, getting him into treatment, and helping to save an entirely savable life.

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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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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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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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