Archive for the ‘social uncertainty’ 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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In the hours after my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995, my grieving family was treated well. First responders–rescue squad, extended family, neighbors, medical emergency team, clergy and police–acted with compassion. I’ve always thought it was their collective good will that stabilized us and aided our recovery. And I don’t even want to think how much worse our lives would have been without the kindness of those good people–strangers, many of them.

Only a couple weeks after the suicide, though, awkwardness set in. By that, I mean social uncertainty–the raw emotion, avoidance, silence–that marked my interactions with others and seemed, in fairness, to cut both ways. In the first place, I wasn’t the person I’d been before Mary died. Whatever meaning Mary gave my life, and it was considerable, had been buried along with her. I was driven to talk about my daughter in order to make sense of that catastrophe, and I craved getting her name into conversations because I simply needed to say and hear it.

It was too intense for what would normally have been polite conversations. Friends were trying, it seems, to help me and protect themselves by switching to lighter topics, getting my mind off the devastation of my daughter’s life and giving me perspective. One motherly friend said, “Well, Marj, it could have been worse.” My unspoken response to that was, My daughter is dead. Please tell me how it could have been worse. I guess if she’d machine-gunned us all, that would have been worse.

Before long, my family began receiving professional therapy. I did finally learn to modify my comments about Mary, saving the unvarnished ones for my spiritual director behind a closed door. I learned discretion, eventually.

But I still appreciate the honesty of a sixty-five-year-old college professor several years after the suicide of his son: “I will keep friendships only with people whom I can bring up with ease these issues [of my son’s suicide]. Some people have a knack of saying insensitive and uncaring things. One good friend said why don’t you go out dancing instead of attending a suicide support group meeting. People can sometimes be hurtful and say stupid things. I’m glad some of the jackasses are gone—pseudo-friends and kin who are unable to handle anything like this—good riddance” ( Karen Mueller Bryson, Those They Left Behind, p.18).

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