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Archive for the ‘loosening the grip of horrible memories’ Category

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My brother George sent this picture a couple of weeks ago. He’s holding my daughter Mary at a Virginia horse farm on an autumn Sunday in 1980. She was three years old at the time, a delightful child, full of wonder, who would die by intentional overdose fifteen years later.

During the first dozen years of my grief for her, seeing the photograph would have jarred a routine question: “How on earth did my adorable little girl ever get to a place in her life where she felt she had to die?”

It was a question without answer, an insistent probe into the reality of my daughter’s life. In early grief, that sweet, innocent picture of Mary would not have seemed sweet and innocent. It would have called into doubt every good quality she possessed throughout her life. It would have prompted me to read the ugliness of her suicide back into the beauty of that picture-perfect moment. It would have left me grappling with the fear that, at depth, life makes no sense.

An essential part of healing after suicide is that of reviewing one’s relationship with the deceased and exploring how it can be “disentangled from the manner of death . . .” clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh advise (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 200).

Disentangling Mary from her suicide required the discipline of many years: clearly the most arduous inner housecleaning of my life. But it finally gave my daughter back to me in a healing, peaceful way. Even more, it allowed the beauty of her life to return in its fullness.

Seeing the picture of her and my brother now brings profound gratitude. It calls up several lines from John Keats’s poem Endymion that I have been waiting to use ever since I memorized them in college forty years ago: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness.”

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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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