Archive for the ‘Inner peace in suicide bereavement’ 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_0095-edit-2How might someone gauge personal healing after the suicide of a loved one? The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) lists twelve “symptoms” of inner peace that apply to the family members of people living with mental illness, but I think those symptoms pertain, as well, to family and friends living in the aftermath of suicide:

1) Tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fears based on experiences from the past.

2) The ability to enjoy each moment.

3) Loss of interest in judging self.

4) Loss of interest in judging other people.

5) Loss of interest in conflict.

6) Disinterest in interpreting actions of others.

7) Loss of ability to worry.

8) Frequent episodes of appreciation.

9) Contented feeling of connectedness with others and nature.

10) Frequent attacks of smiling through the eyes of the heart.

11) Increasing susceptibility to love extended by others as well as the uncontollable urge to extend it.

12) Increasing tendency to let things happen rather than to make them happen.

“If you have all, or even most of the above symptoms,” NAMI states, “your condition of peace may be so far advanced as not to be treatable” (NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program, National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2014, 9.17).

Playfully described though they may be, values and perspectives do shift when someone we love lives with a mental illness or dies because of it.

For example, before my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose in 1995, I had spent a good part of my adult life trying to figure out other people’s motivations, usually erroneously, as I would later come to learn. But at Mary’s wake, I began issuing a series of “I don’t know” statements that endure to this day.

I didn’t know that Mary had been thinking about suicide for two years before her death as her journals revealed. I didn’t know and couldn’t imagine the inner pain she was carrying, more or less silently. I didn’t know much about Mary or anything else during the wake, the funeral, or for several years to follow.

Those “I didn’t know” admissions continue to chasten. But they always lead to one searing truth: if I hadn’t known what was in my own daughter’s heart, how could I pretend to know what is in anyone else’s heart without that person telling me?

The answer: I don’t know. While endorsing NAMI’s “symptoms of inner peace,” my suicide bereavement adds nuance to numbers four and six on the list. It isn’t so much that I’ve lost interest in judging other people or that I’m disinterested in interpreting their actions. It’s that Mary’s death has exposed my incapacity for doing so, the acknowlegment of which does bring a kind of peace.

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