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Archive for the ‘shock and disbelief after suicide’ Category

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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Arnold Toynbee, a British historian of the twentieth century, argued that death is a “dyadic” (or two-person) event in which the survivor bears the heavier burden. “The sting of death is less sharp for the person who dies than it is for the bereaved survivor.” He adds, “There are two parties to the suffering that death inflicts; and, in the apportionment of this suffering, the survivor takes the brunt” (Man’s Concern with Death. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968, as quoted in Stanley Lesse, M.D., Ed. What We Know About Suicidal Behavior and How to Treat It. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1988, 60).

While I appreciate Toynbee’s respect for suffering survivors, I can’t help asking, “How do you know? How can you speak with such assurance about the mystery of death?”

Psychologist Edwin Shneidman, who founded the American Association of Suicidology in 1968, also questions Toynbee’s assertion. “For all his wisdom, I believe that Toynbee is indulging unduly in what I would call the romanticization of death. In my view, the larger need is to deromanticize death and suicide.

“Individuals who are actively suicidal suffer–among their burdens (and especially the burden of unbearable anguish)–from a temporary loss of an unromanticized view of death-as-enemy. . . . they have lost sight of the foe: they openly sail with full lights in the hostile night; they smoke and show themselves on combat patrol. . . . They behave in strange, almost traitorous and defecting ways. Whose side are they on? They attempt to rationalize death’s supposed lofty qualities and, what is most difficult to deal with, to romanticize death as the noblest part of dyadic love. . . . Suicidal individuals have been brainwashed–and by their own thoughts” (“The Deromanticization of Death,” What We Know About Suicidal Behavior and How to Treat It. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1988, 66, 73-4).

My daughter Mary romanticized her suicide. The note she left describes suicide as “darkly mystical,” especially if the person is young and has suffered in silence, which she evidently thought she had done. Perhaps she considered her life a waste and her suicide a favor to family and friends; I’m not sure. But I do know she wasn’t on her own side at the end–hard as it is to conceive–and I imagine it was because of the unbearable anguish, the “psychache” that Edwin Shneidman deems to be the usual cause of suicide.

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Once in a funeral Mass homily, my pastor remarked that the death of loved ones, no matter how elderly or infirm they may be, always brings a certain shock to mourners. I knew what he meant, having watched my father dwindle over a period of years and finally die of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 81 in 1997. It was a shock that someone so familiar to me had passed into Mystery–a reality utterly different from the one I was living, a hiddenness that was unfathomable.

Even so, my daughter’s suicide two years earlier had sent shockwaves through me unlike any I’ve ever experienced. In truth, the shock of her death manifested not as waves of emotion but rather as enveloping numbness that lasted for at least a year. In Suicide: Survivors, Adina Wrobleski describes shock as a “physical reaction that makes us feel as if we’re wrapped in cotton, that we’re sleepwalking. Shock makes our pain feel far away” (p.91).

Shock protects us not only from the outside world but from our own overpowering feelings. It got me through the first year of bereavement in a more or less stable way: clothes got washed, dinners got put on the table, the family held together, and nothing worse happened.

Clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh write that “shock and disbelief [are] more likely a characteristic of most or all sudden and unexpected deaths–not simply suicide” (Grief After Suicide, p.32).

But I say the suicide of my seventeen-year-old daughter in 1995 was a great deal more than sudden and unexpected. It was brutal, irrational, and void of meaning. It forced me to look at my own blindness and accept a loss I never could have imagined. Above all, it magnified a hundred times the normal shock and disbelief most of us experience in bereavement.

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