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Archive for the ‘post-traumatic stress disorder in suicide bereavement’ Category

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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I can speak only for myself about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. No doctor or therapist diagnosed PTSD in me or even suggested I might be undergoing some of the symptoms of this anxiety disorder after my daughter’s suicide in 1995. It wasn’t until 1998 when I came across a passage in Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide that I began to understand more clearly what I’d been experiencing.

“It is likely that any survivor of a suicide will recognize the symptoms [of PTSD] immediately,” write Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden, “reexperiencing the trauma [through] recurrent recollections of the event, dreams of the event, and a sudden feeling that the event is recurring.” I began to recognize PTSD not only in flashbacks of finding Mary on her deathbed but also in night dreams of trying to talk her out of self-destruction.

Lukas and Seiden state that those with PTSD experience a numbing or “reduced involvement” with the world through a “lessening of interest in important activities, a feeling of detachment from others, and a flat, emotionless feeling.” Added to that are the sleep disturbances, guilt about surviving, difficulty concentrating, loss of memory, exaggerated startle response, and avoidance of activities that arouse recollection of the trauma (pp. 28-29). With the exception of not feeling guilty about surviving–I was rather proud to be surviving–all of those symptoms found a home in me.

One moment of avoidance behavior I remember to this day. While walking through a parking lot a few months after Mary’s funeral, I noticed a large tool box bolted to the bed of a pick-up truck; and a wave of anxiety rolled through. “It’s just a tool box,” I had to reassure myself before hurrying away, “it’s not Mary’s casket; it doesn’t mean anything.”

Avoidance behavior finally faded away as did all the shapes and forms of PTSD. That fading away came about in large measure because of the wonderfully supportive and non-judgmental care I received in the earliest days of bereavement, a topic that deserves and will receive further attention.

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