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Archive for the ‘searching for an answer to “Why?”’ 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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“The holidays would come and the past would hit Ives like a chill wind,” writes Oscar Hijuelos in Mr. Ives’ Christmas. “Memories of his son plaguing him, there came many a day, around Christmas, when Ives would plaintively wait for a sign that his son, who’d deserved so much more than what he had been given, was somewhere safe and beloved by God.” 

In Hijuelos’ novel, Ives’ son, Robert, was six months away from entering a Roman Catholic seminary to study for the priesthood when, talking with a friend on a New York City street a few days before Christmas in 1967, he was randomly and fatally shot by a passerby. “He was seventeen at the time of his death, and not an hour passed when Ives did not calculate his son’s age were he still alive” (New York: HarperCollins, 1995, 10).

I also began making that age calculation after my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995–her death no less inexplicable than the one portrayed in Mr. Ives’ Christmas. And like Mr. Ives, I also eventually came to see that my daughter had “deserved so much more than what [s]he had been given . . .”

My observation might seem to invite an “of course she did” response, but it took more than a decade for me to be able to make it. “Deserved so much more than what [s]he had been given” had to wait for shock to wear off and anger to dissipate. It had to wait for “whys” to fade and for “what ifs” to run their agonizing course.

“Deserved so much more than what [s]he had been given” followed only after a decade of writing My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope. Beginning in 2001 as a kind of self-therapy (I needed all available help), the writing became a way of bringing Mary back to life in a good way and working out where God was throughout her suicide and my grief. It finally became a way of honoring my daughter who deserved so much more than what she’d been given.  

However, unlike Mr. Ives, I did not need a sign to believe that Mary was somewhere safe and beloved by God.

My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope will soon be available on Amazon.

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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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While no one argues that suicide can ever really make sense for those left behind, clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh report that the incomprehensibility of suicide, its blind spot, can be worked with in life-giving ways. “The blind spot refers to the inherent inability of the survivor ever to fully comprehend the mind and motivation of the deceased, and therefore the reasons for the suicide,” write Jordan and McIntosh. “Finding a way through the blind spot is not about making meanings that are profoundly comprehensive so much as getting to a place of meaning that allows the bereaved to reinvest energy in themselves and re-engage in daily life” (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 268).

The authors also describe a three-part healing process that accompanies those who are able both to navigate the blind spot and to strive for relationship with the person who died. Two previous posts dealt with the first and second relationship tasks as I experienced them: “trying on the shoes” of my daughter Mary in an attempt to understand our broken relationship and “walking in her shoes” in an attempt to reconstruct our relationship along positive lines. The third relationship task that I faced was “taking off Mary’s shoes:” making a new position for her in my life so that I could go on.

For me, all of the bereavement tasks came together in one decade-long endeavor after Mary died by overdose in 1995: writing a book titled My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope. Although it deals with Mary’s death and its prolonged effect on me and my family, the memoir mostly concerns itself with meaning and relationship.

In short, it’s a narrative meditation upon the meaning of my daughter’s life, her suicide, and God’s place in her life and suicide. The story is not “profoundly comprehensive” for all people but describes, instead, my navigation of the blind spot.

However, there was an aspect of the writing even more urgent than getting through the blind spot: my ardent desire to re-establish a relationship with Mary. Getting her back in my life in a good way was what I wanted above all, and writing through the pain was the only way to achieve that. My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God will be published in the early fall. 

 

 

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One thing for which I’m most thankful in the long aftermath of my daughter ‘s suicide is this: she left in her bedroom quite a few school notebooks containing her accounts of daily life from the time she was a young teen until two days before she died. Over a period of weeks, I placed the notebooks in chronological order and began reading.

Some people cautioned me not to read the journals, that they had likely served only as a vent, a place of “guilt-free whining” as Mary remarked in one of them. But I was drawn to her writings. Not only did they put Mary’s voice back in my life, they revealed much about her days in high school, her friends, and her likes and dislikes that I had not known before. They revealed her dark mood in the days before she overdosed.

While they did not answer the “why” question (nothing, I’ve found, ever answers that question), Mary’s journals enabled me to walk in her shoes; and that was a critical healing moment.

Clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh explain “walking in the shoes” as the second task of suicide bereavement that begins with “trying on the shoes” of the deceased and ends with “taking off the shoes.” This second task leads to a reconstructed relationship with self and others, but especially with the person who died.

So reading Mary’s journals was not the futile exercise that it sometimes seemed to be. It allowed me to “take on the mindset” of my daughter and begin a new relationship with her, although one born of pain. There were days when I told myself, “Mary and I are sisters in pain. Her pain and mine aren’t the same, but now I know a little better how she felt, and there’s still a closeness.” It was a step toward making sense of that which made no sense.

Walking in my daughter’s shoes was intensely demanding and required inwardness and silence, so opposite the socialization and wider involvement with life that are often-advised antidotes to suicide bereavement. Jordan and McIntosh point out that this second bereavement task is characterized by difficulties in articulating the intensity of grief and withdrawal in relationships. Those features were present and I now know, normal, in my time of shoe-wearing. (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 263). 

I no longer read my daughter’s journals and haven’t read them for years. They rest in a box at the back of my closet. I’d like to think that Mary left them behind so I could stay in touch with her and build a new relationship, however daunting that task proved to be.

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An earlier blog post, “Weathering the Seismic Event of Suicide,” briefly addressed the relationships we take for granted that tend to shatter when suicide occurs. Specifically, these are our relationships with the person who died, with ourselves, and with significant others.  “Suicide . . . can rock the foundations of a survivor’s personal world of meaning” and compel a person to try to make sense of that which makes no sense, write clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh.

However, the researchers also point out the healing and new meaning that await a grieving person who can develop an “ongoing relationship with the deceased” by engaging in a three-part grief process. First is the “trying on the shoes (of the deceased),” or understanding our relationship with them; then comes “walking in the shoes,” or reconstructing our relationship; and finally there is “taking off the shoes,” or repositioning our relationship.

Though this three-part grief process does not necessarily follow a straight timeline, I was mostly trying on my daughter Mary’s shoes right after she overdosed on her antidepressants in 1995. In the early trying-on phase, that is, I attempted to decode whatever message I thought Mary’s suicide must have been sending. I also felt she’d betrayed me and that I’d never known her at all. Furthermore, I felt that she’d erased good memories of herself and our lives together. According to Jordan and McIntosh, those are all normal aspects of the grief process of trying on the shoes of the deceased and coming to a new understanding of who they were.

But there is more to the trying-on: a bereaved person must also deal with relationship to him or herself. In my experience it was certainly true, as Jordan and McIntosh state, that someone grieving a suicide focuses on “why” questions, agonizes about personal responsibility for the death, and experiences guilt and shame among several other negative features of raw grief.  Yet, Jordan and McIntosh maintain that wading through those difficulties ultimately contributes to a more accurate understanding of self.

Trying on the shoes of the deceased also leads to fresh understanding about relationships with significant others. To get to that place of enlightenment, however, a suicide survivor must first wade through the fear that suicide could recur with someone he or she loves; and a survivor must contend with the realities that stigma (real or imagined) is intruding, that other people could be blameworthy, and that talking about the suicide has been disallowed. I experienced most of those antagonisms, but only in early grief (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 252, 249, 262, 263).

That’s the good news about trying on the shoes of the deceased and thus coming to improved understanding about relationships: a suicide survivor may have to wear the shoes for a while, but they lead somewhere and they can eventually be taken off. Future posts will explore the wearing and the taking off.

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My teenage daughter’s suicide in 1995 was a seismic event that sent shock waves through my world of meaning. To say the least, Mary’s death shook my belief in the sweetness and predictability of life and rattled my identity as a knowing mother-protector.

“Suicide appears to be particularly potent in its ability to shatter the most fundamental assumptions in life,” clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh write. “For a period of time, many survivors are truly unable to make sense of why the suicide has happened, what role they played in the death, and its implications for their identity and their understanding of the world.”

According to Jordan and McIntosh, those shattered assumptions revolve largely around relationships. For a time, that is, a person bereaved by suicide must weather the wrecked presuppositions that he or she held with respect to the person who died, to his or her self-identity, and to other people, leading to a “protracted search for sense in a seemingly inexplicable death.”

For nearly two years, this blog has regularly concerned itself with relationship assumptions that have imploded. “Knowing Mary,” “An Insight About How,” and “Choosing Suicide” are posts that reflect my disoriented bond with Mary and my effort to repair the “psychological havoc” that Jordan and McIntosh report as common in suicide bereavement (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 249, 252).

Blog posts about guilt, anger, and post-traumatic stress disorder have addressed the collapse of certain givens about my self-identity just as other posts (“A Priest Waits with Us in The Emergency,” “My Suicide-Bereaved Family and the Police,” and “Social Uncertainty”) have spoken of my assumptions about relationship to others that have been altered, sometimes for the better.

In categorizing our overturned assumptions in terms of relationship, Jordan and McIntosh provide a potentially clarifying way of dealing with the inner chaos of suicide bereavement. Their work also points to a possible path of bereavement healing that will be addressed in future posts.

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