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Archive for the ‘remembering suicide victims’ Category

imagePlease meet Mary! Since 2012, I have been blogging about my daughter Mary, and now anyone who wants to know her better can do so.  I’ve finally finished writing an account titled My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope that is now available on Amazon.com.

Over a period of some ten years beginning in 2001, I took it upon myself to delve into Mary’s death, her life, and the grief of an entire family at her passing. In truth, I was driven to explore some of the “what-if” questions and the “why” torments about which I’ve posted many times. I wanted to find out where God was in the tragedy and ultimately to figure out how to put “daughter,” “suicide,” and “God” together harmoniously in one sentence. But I always knew that the one sentence would arrive, if ever, only after several thousand other sentences.

The writing also became my attempt at mending the shattered relationship that Mary and I shared. I wanted badly to get her back in my life in a good way. Putting words on paper for more than a decade, pushing “delete” and starting over, no matter how laborious-seeming in retrospect (while never actually laborious), did deliver healing in tiny doses and slowly bring Mary back.

A few months ago in this blog, I quoted Fr. Ronald Rolheiser as saying, “Few things stigmatize someone’s life and meaning as does death by suicide” (ronrolheiser.com   July 21, 2014).

My daughter’s life held and still holds great meaning, as does the life of anyone who falls victim to suicide. It has been my privilege to bear witness in a memoir to the beauty and meaning of her precious, unrepeatable life.

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“It was so sad,” writes Colbert King in The Washington Post describing what he witnessed one recent September morning. “The body was covered with a white sheet. It was lying on a grassy area beneath the Duke Ellington Memorial             Bridge. . . . The only movements were the flashing red lights of police cars and motorists directed around the scene by officers.”

Later in the day, King learned that the body was that of a young woman, a seventeen-year-old high school senior, who had jumped from the bridge. “Of course [her] life was more than that leap to her death. A lifetime went with her. . . . All of it had to have added up to something–at least enough to want to keep living. . . . I wished I had known her long enough to have had the chance to do something: to hear her out, help her out. To try to undo whatever damage had been done . . .” (Colbert King, “I Didn’t Know the Woman Who Committed Suicide, But I Mourn Her,” washingtonpost.com).

When my seventeen-year-old daughter Mary died by intentional overdose in 1995, I agonized similarly: I wished I’d known her; I wished I’d heard and helped her out, undone whatever damage had been done to her. But unlike King, I was no passerby: I had known the person who died by suicide. I’d already had my chance at hearing and helping her. I’d thought that the damage done her by major depression was being undone by psychotherapy and medication.

As a responsible journalist, King includes some of the warning signs of suicidal thinking and behavior offered by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that everyone should know and take seriously: someone talking of killing himself or herself, an increasing use or abuse of alcohol or drugs, internet searches for suicide methods, the purchase of weapons, reckless behavior, withdrawal, saying good-bye, giving away possessions, etc.  (See afsp.org for complete list.)

Sixty-four people commented online about King’s column. Most were sympathetic to the young woman, some thanked King for his sensitivity, a few tried to blame the harshness of life and the general inability to attend to another’s pain.

Memorably, one person appealed to literature for the truth about love that is capable of transcending human limitation and devastating, inexplicable behavior. From A River Runs Through It, a compilation: “Help . . . is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. . . . we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. . . .  It is those we live with and love and should know that elude us. . . . but you can love completely without complete understanding” (Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976, 81, 103).

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img_0019-edit On this day nineteen years ago, my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide. While her father and I were away for the day, she overdosed on her antidepressant medication and could not be revived by hospital staff. For those who knew Mary–her brother, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, her father and I along with her high school friends–life veered strangely off course that September day. It has not entirely been put back on course.

I was going to write an anniversary post about working through certain bereavement realities over the years: the pitfalls and oddities, the angers and uncertainties, the self-questioning, guilt, and trauma. However, I’ve been blogging about those topics for a while now, usually as an attempt at describing how the suicide-bereaved might help themselves. But it just seems that on this anniversary, something other than a bereavement self-help summary is called for.

Only when I phoned my sister yesterday to wish her happy birthday did that something begin to take shape.  “I can’t believe it’s been nineteen years,” she said. She might have meant, “It seems like yesterday,” a perception I would’ve agreed with owing, I think, to the clarity with which suicide memories stay in the mind. Yet, I took my sister’s comment to mean, “How have we made it nineteen years without Mary?”—a question for which there is no ready answer. Yes, I’ve done the family therapy, the studying, the writing, the support group facilitating, and the spiritual direction. But undertaking bereavement work, vital as that is, still does not account for surviving nineteen years without Mary, an achievement that I never imagined possible nineteen years ago today.

It’s not wholly, or even mostly, my achievement. That is to say, there has never been a moment throughout my bereavement that I have been left to my own coping skills. There has never been a moment without the divine healing presence working within, usually beneath the level of my consciousness.

Writer Andre Dubus captures this reality:  “After the physical pain of grief has become, with time, a permanent wound in the soul, a sorrow that will last as long as the body does, after the horrors become nightmares and sudden daylight memories, then comes the transcendent and common bond of human suffering, and with that comes forgiveness, and with forgiveness comes love . . .”   (“Introduction,” Broken Vessels, Boston: David Godine, Publisher, 1991, xviii-xix)

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img_0082-edit-2“Few things stigmatize someone’s life and meaning as does a death by suicide,” Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, wrote recently in a column titled “Suicide–Reclaiming the Memory of Our Loved One.” Fr. Rolheiser is a spiritual writer who has produced an annual column for years about suicide because, in his view, someone needs to dispel the “false perceptions” surrounding the church’s understanding of suicide.

With that in mind, Fr. Rolheiser offered this summary not long ago of the main points presented in his annual columns: “In most cases, suicide is a disease; it takes people out of life against their will; it is the emotional equivalent of a stroke, heart attack, or cancer; people who fall victim to this disease, almost invariably, are very sensitive persons who end up  . . . being too bruised to be touched; those of us left behind should not spend a lot of time second-guessing, wondering whether we failed in some way; and, finally, given God’s mercy, the particular anatomy of suicide, and the sensitive souls of those who fall prey to it, we should not be unduly anxious about the eternal salvation of those who fall prey to it.”

This year, Fr. Rolheiser added a new conviction to his repertoire: those bereaved by suicide should work at “redeeming the life and memory” of the person they love who died. They should work not only to overcome the stigma, or social disgrace, that continues to surround suicide but also to restore the honor, memory, and reputation of the person who died (ronrolheiser.com. July 21, 2014).

Every year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds Out of the Darkness Walks in communities across the nation to raise both money and awareness for suicide prevention, to break down stigma, and to honor those who have died. My husband and I participated in the Manassas, Virginia, Out of the Darkness Walk in October, 2013. It felt exactly right to walk as Team Mary in the company of dozens of walkers on other teams, and we plan to do so again on September 28. (Go to afsp.org for Walk information.)

Almost from the day my daughter died by intentional overdose in 1995, it was clear that I would someday work to restore her honor, memory, and reputation. My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope, to be published in the next few weeks, is that loving labor.

 

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One morning in 2001, six years after my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose, a friend and I were talking in a parking lot. “You need to let go of your kids,” she offered.

My kids at that time were my son, then 27 years old and living at home with a disabling psychiatric illness, and my daughter, then 17 and a high school senior. Of course, there was also Mary, who would have been 23 years old had she survived her overdose.

I was not about to let go of any of them that morning. To me, letting go of the living kids meant allowing them to make their own decisions and mistakes in the belief that somehow they would find their way in the world. But neither of my kids was in a position to find his or her way in the world that day, and so I dismissed my friend’s remark as ill-informed.

Letting go of Mary, for whom I was still yearning, was an equally dismissible idea. More than anything, I wanted to overcome the estrangement between us and have her in my life once again in a good way. Letting go of her? Unthinkable.

The desire not to let go is apparently universal among the bereaved. “I’ve never spoken to anyone who mourns for someone they love who does not want to continue loving them in some way,” writes Thomas Attig, Past President of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

The question is, how does a bereaved person go about loving someone after he or she has died? According to Attig, the first step is overcoming the mistaken notion that grieving requires a complete letting go of those we love. “There is no reason to let go of the good with the bad [in the person who has died]. The great majority of our closest relationships with family and friends have good in them. Those we mourn lived lives filled with value and meaning” (The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, xi, xvi).

When a loved one dies by suicide, it is deeply challenging to retrieve the good, the valuable, and the meaningful in their lives. Those left behind have to deal for years with the ugliness of suicide and its ultimate meaninglessness. But eventually, and not easily, it’s possible to let go of the pain and begin a new relationship with the person who died. It is possible; I think I have Mary back in my life in a good way.

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After my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose nearly eighteen years ago, I was jolted by the realization that I hadn’t known her at all. I hadn’t known the high school senior I’d eaten with and talked to every day, for if I had known Mary, I believed I would have recognized her fears, her sadness, and her suicidal thinking and acted to protect her.

Just the same, “People can only know the observable behavior of another person,” write clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh on the topic of suicide bereavement. They add that unless a person verbally or nonverbally expresses what is really going on inside, no one else can know it.

“Human beings are capable of masking their inner thoughts and feelings,” they state, “while outwardly acting in ways that can be quite incongruent with their internal state. . . . This existential ‘separateness’ of the inner consciousness of each of us from others is the foundation for the psychological boundary between self and others. . . . It is also the condition that allows suicide to happen in a way that people who ‘know’ the deceased may be utterly stunned by the act” (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, 253).

My daughter did not express what was going on inside her until it was too late. Only in her suicide note did she reveal sadness at not fitting in with her friends and a sense of personal weakness that she despised. She wrote that she’d not been silent about her suffering and doubted anyone would be surprised by her suicide. Those comments bewildered me. She had been silent, and we were all horribly surprised.

But I was also off-base about something else: I had known Mary, at least on a heart level. I had daily experienced a depth in her that was open to love and capable of love, and I’d seen life-giving values arising out of that depth.

While it’s taken years, I finally realize how inaccurately Mary’s final act reflects who she was and still is. She was not her mental illness and suicide. She is someone I know and someone I love knowing.

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Among healing rituals for those bereaved by suicide, the most imaginative I’ve heard about is the “Out of the Darkness Walk”–an annual event organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This year, the walk will take place from sunset June 1 to sunrise June 2 over a course of some eighteen miles in Washington, D.C.

Many participants are either suicide survivors or attempters who walk to emphasize suicide as a national health concern, heighten awareness of the need for suicide prevention, and raise funds for both research and prevention. What makes the event unique–even biblical–is its offer of a communal passage from darkness to light.

“By walking from sunset to sunrise,” says executive director of the foundation Robert Gebbia, “walkers make a powerful statement about suicide–that there is hope, a light at the end of the tunnel for those affected. It’s emotional but also very uplifting. . . and, in some ways, liberating because many people have not talked about this; and all of a sudden they’re with other people who understand because they’ve been through the same thing” (Arlington Catholic Herald. May 16-22, 2013, p. 7).

Regarding the June event, the foundation’s website states, “We’ll prove to the capital and to the nation What a Difference a Night Makes.

Less dramatic but no less essential, three–five mile “Out of the Darkness Walks” take place in communities all across the United States during autumn daylight hours. (www.afsp.org.) It’s customary to form a team that walks in a person’s memory and even, it would seem, to wear a shirt bearing that person’s name.

My daughter Mary left us in the dark of the night after overdosing on her anti-depressant medication when she was a senior in high school. But the mere thought of putting on a “Team Mary” shirt and walking out of darkness in the company of the courageous helps to reverse the damage of that night in 1995.

Truly, I won’t be walking eighteeen miles in D.C. on the first night of June. I honor and thank those who do walk and pledge that, in time, I’ll make a daytime walk on behalf of Mary and the tens of thousands of Americans who die each year by suicide.

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