Archive for the ‘silence in suicide bereavement’ Category

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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Over the past several days of family Christmas celebration, there were moments when my daughter Mary could have been mentioned and wasn’t. There was a moment around the dining room table, for example, when we realized an extra place had been set unintentionally and no one suggested it might be a place for Mary, lost to suicide in 1995.

There was a Christmas mealtime blessing absent her name and a restaurant toast to the good times that did not include her.

My discomfort with those small silences is not a matter of thinking Mary needed either a place at the table or a Christmas blessing. She celebrates Christmas perpetually, I believe, and is with our family always in a good way.

It is also not a matter of thinking silence is somehow deficient. In my first years of grief for Mary, I couldn’t possibly have voiced my love and confusion at a family gathering. Any words suitable for a group setting would have fallen woefully short of the truth. That no one else tried to use words registered as a sign of solidarity and honor. Back then, we knew why we were keeping silent.

Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe we, and especially I, got so caught up in the excitement of Christmas–the big meal preparation, the house full of people, the flowers, the music, the table setting–that we failed to be intentional with regard to Mary. We, and especially I, failed to make the simplest move in Mary’s direction. Mentioning her name would not only have made her present to us, it also would have made Christmas more real and more joyful. Saying her name would not have been about remembrance only. It would have brought to our celebration a depth dimension and a light that shines in the dark.

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My daughter’s last hour was a silent one. Late on a Saturday night when my husband, son, and I had gone to bed in a quiet house, Mary took a bottle of Korbel Brut from a basement refrigerator, went to her bedroom, locked the door, and began downing the champagne along with all the prescription antidepressant medication she had on hand.

Hers was a stealthy silence. The suicide note indicates she felt “lucky” not to have been detected when the champagne cork popped and hit her bedroom ceiling. Yet, the truly dangerous silence of that last hour was not the absence of a sound that might have alerted the rest of us. It was Mary’s inner silence, the feeling of complete aloneness and hopelessness she described in her suicide note as she began swallowing the pills.

Unaware of what had taken place, my husband and I left the house early the next morning to spend several hours at a monastery in Washington, DC. We would be joining Catholic adults–Discalced Carmelite Seculars–who’d discerned a call to silent prayer in their lives and promised to practice silent prayer each day as a service to the Church and world.

So while Mary was alone and silently cutting herself off from community, John and I were silently praying in community. That reality has haunted me from the beginning, and its message remains unclear.

But one truth is clear: the inestimable healing value of silence after Mary’s death. “We must have the courage to become more and more silent,” writes John Main, O.S.B. “In a deep creative silence we meet God in a way that transcends all our powers of intellect and language” (Word into Silence. New York: Continuum, 1998, p.7).

When every imaginable detail and speculation about Mary’s suicide had been uttered multiple times, ending in heartbreak and frustration, silence became the only safe house.

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“It is difficult for suicide survivors to express their thoughts after a suicide,” write Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden. “In contrast to the aftermath of ‘normal’ deaths, friends and relatives often don’t want to talk about the events surrounding a suicide. In fact, many people don’t want to admit that the death was a suicide….[One reason for this unwillingness] is surely that family members don’t want to expose the blame and guilt they feel: the blame they feel toward other family members, the guilt they feel about themselves” (Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide, pp.111-112).

To Lukas and Seiden, silence becomes the “Grand Bargain” following suicide that, while apparently addressing the problem of blame and guilt, also compounds the impact of suicide and damages the grieving process. “Silence,” they state, “is an enemy.” (pp. 112-113).

With everyone in my family, there was never any doubt about the cause of Mary’s death. It was called “suicide” from the first hour and not muddied by the words “accidental overdose.” We took hold of the bitter reality together, and no energy went toward maintaining the illusion that Mary died other than self-destructively.

That isn’t to say there was no family silence over the years; silence prevailed. Whenever family members came together during the holidays or for birthdays, there was silence about Mary but also gratitude–however muted–for the moment we were sharing. Far from being a blame-suppressing ploy, I think our silence was a sign of respect for deeply shared sorrow.

Might a family gathering designed for the disclosure of thoughts and feelings have helped? Possibly. Might it have soothed my mother and me to sit down and weep together? Probably a little. But we were all suicide survivors, all devastated, all trying to make it through the day. The kind of extensive talking and listening I needed–therapy, by another name–members of my family couldn’t be expected to provide. And I never thought a “Grand Bargain” had anything to do with that.

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