Archive for the ‘questioning in suicide bereavement’ Category

For those bereaved by suicide, second-guessing is an expression of guilt that is especially prevalent among those whose child has died. Clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh report that 92% of parents feel guilty for the suicide of their child and do, of course, call themselves into question repeatedly (Grief After Suicide. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 49).

Self-accusation after my daughter Mary’s suicide followed the usual “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” pattern. I considered it a kind of penitential self-improvement project I had a right and obligation to undertake–one which I didn’t want to be talked out of. One day when an acquaintance told me in the grocery store I shouldn’t feel guilty for what happened to my daughter, I couldn’t help thinking how ridiculously out of touch with suicide bereavement she was.

Still, Father Ron Rolheiser offers a slightly different perspective about suicide second-guessing that seems helpful. He describes it as “myth” that the suicide of someone we love could have been prevented “if only I had done more, been more attentive, and been there at the right time. Rarely is this the issue. Most of the time, we weren’t there for the very reason that the person who fell victim to the disease [of unendurable emotional pain] did not want us to be there. He or she picked the moment, the spot, and the means precisely so that we wouldn’t be there” (“Suicide–Some Misconceptions,” http://www.ronrolheiser.com July 30, 2000).

My daughter began overdosing on her anti-depressant medication well after midnight behind the locked door of her bedroom. To rescue her, my husband and I would have had to find her in the middle of the night. That rescue was not likely to happen, and Mary knew it.

While it is essential to be clear about the warning signs of suicide and to ask whether a depressed person is thinking about suicide and has a plan, it is equally essential to make peace somehow with the “shabby, confused, agonized crisis which,” according to Alfredo Alvarez, “is the common reality of suicide” (The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1971, p. 12).


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At funeral Masses, my pastor has been known to say that even expected deaths come as something of a shock to those left behind, that we’re never truly prepared for the death of someone we love. If that is true, and I have certainly experienced it, what can be said about deaths that are sudden and unexpected?

Writer Joan Didion offers a viewpoint in The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir written in 2004 several months after her husband died of cardiac arrest at the dining room table as the two returned from visiting their sick daughter in a New York City hospital.

“This [book] is my attempt to make sense [of that time], weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illnesses, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself” (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, p.7).

Didion’s entire view of reality was turned on its head by the shock of her husband’s sudden death and the lingering illness which later proved fatal to her daughter. At the end of Didion’s account, she acknowledges she has to “go with the change” that swept away her life.

While suicide absolutely disturbs the perception of reality that Didion describes, it also invades other areas. “Suicide brings into question all of the things that the bereaved individual took for granted about the identity of the deceased, the nature of their relationship with that individual, and the mourner’s own identity,” write clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 181).

For me, those questions took this form: “Who was she? How could I not have known who she was? Who am I that my daughter could take her own life?” Answers did emerge, but I won’t say they came easily. The one question that hung around longest–the one for which there will never be an answer–is the question about survival instinct and why it went missing on the day my daughter decided to die.

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