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Archive for the ‘suicide bereavement’ 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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“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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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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Roxy, our family cat of thirteen years, died on Palm Sunday. After eating nothing for a day or two, after being examined by the veterinarian and placed on steroids for possible asthma, after being wept and prayed for, Roxy was let outside on a warm, beautiful Palm Sunday night and disappeared from our lives.

Having witnessed the natural death of pets over the years, I’ve come to regard myself as seasoned in the ways of mourning for them: a solemn burial, a few reminiscences, a prayer of gratitude, an attempt to salve bruised hearts with the promise of new pets.

But Roxy’s death was different. On her last night, she remained affectionate even as mysterious cat logic took over, urging her to walk slowly away from those she loved who loved her.

“Tears are a river that take you somewhere,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her classic work, Women Who Run with The Wolves. Tears for Roxy took me to a place of grief that remains secure eighteen years after the suicide of daughter Mary.

It’s just that Mary had also been sicker than I realized. She had also used her own mysterious logic on the night she overdosed to leave those she loved who loved her; and like Roxy, she was incapable of saying goodbye. Tears that were shed for Roxy this week were also being shed for Mary, and they took me somewhere real.

“For years, classical psychology of all types erroneously thought that grief was a process that you did once, preferably over a year’s period of time, and then it was done with, and anyone who was unable or unwilling to complete this over the proscribed time period had something rather wrong with them. But we know now what humans have known instinctively for centuries: that certain hurts and harms . . . can never be done being grieved; the loss of a child through death . . . being one of the most, if not the most, enduring” (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995, 374, 385).

I’m grateful for the life of a small cat, and I’m oddly beholden to her. Roxy took me to where some of the Mary-grief lies. Now I can pay attention to it from time to time and honor it as part of me.

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My brother George sent this picture a couple of weeks ago. He’s holding my daughter Mary at a Virginia horse farm on an autumn Sunday in 1980. She was three years old at the time, a delightful child, full of wonder, who would die by intentional overdose fifteen years later.

During the first dozen years of my grief for her, seeing the photograph would have jarred a routine question: “How on earth did my adorable little girl ever get to a place in her life where she felt she had to die?”

It was a question without answer, an insistent probe into the reality of my daughter’s life. In early grief, that sweet, innocent picture of Mary would not have seemed sweet and innocent. It would have called into doubt every good quality she possessed throughout her life. It would have prompted me to read the ugliness of her suicide back into the beauty of that picture-perfect moment. It would have left me grappling with the fear that, at depth, life makes no sense.

An essential part of healing after suicide is that of reviewing one’s relationship with the deceased and exploring how it can be “disentangled from the manner of death . . .” clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh advise (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 200).

Disentangling Mary from her suicide required the discipline of many years: clearly the most arduous inner housecleaning of my life. But it finally gave my daughter back to me in a healing, peaceful way. Even more, it allowed the beauty of her life to return in its fullness.

Seeing the picture of her and my brother now brings profound gratitude. It calls up several lines from John Keats’s poem Endymion that I have been waiting to use ever since I memorized them in college forty years ago: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness.”

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Yesterday, I was talking with a friend whose husband died two months ago of cancer. Remarkably positive in early bereavement and not someone given to denial, she commented that grief for my daughter Mary must continue to be difficult. In fact, she said it must be the worst, most unimaginable kind of grief. I wanted to reply that losing a teenage daughter to suicide has required a steady healing effort over nearly two decades, but words failed. What came forth was a small grief burst, an outcropping of emotion that I thought had been dispensed with years ago.

In many ways, grief for Mary has been routed: I’ve gotten used to her absence; I’ve found a place for her in my emotional life that has allowed me to go on; I don’t think of her with sadness anymore, but, rather, with something like puzzlement that tends to be more intriguing than anything.

But grief–that small, cold stone–continues to show itself from time to time, despite the healing. What’s changed since yesterday is that I’m now trying to honor not only its presence but also its life-givingness.

“Grieving is not just something that we do on sad occasions,” writes Richard Rohr, OFM, Catholic priest and author. “It is a mode of existence that agrees to carry the sadness of things without denying or dismissing the pain as an accident. It is a way of living that incorporates dying. It is a way of remembrance that refuses to forget. It is not a maudlin, depressed, or self-pitying thing, but a way of ‘compassion’ that makes room for everything and holds on to nothing.”

For those bereaved by suicide who may be haunted their entire lives by “if onlys” and guilt, Rohr offers especially pertinent insight: “The grieving mode keeps us out of the fixing mode. The grieving mode keeps us beyond the explaining mode. The grieving mode makes the way of blaming useless and counterproductive. The grieving mode submerges us into a world deeper than words or control.” (“Foreword,” in Robert J. Miller, GriefQuest: Men Coping with Loss, Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 1996, 10.)

From what I’m learning, the grieving mode plunges us into the only world capable of transforming us, the world inside where God lives, the world where real healing–the messy, tearful, human kind–can occur.

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A year or so into grieving for my daughter Mary after her suicide in 1995, my spiritual director, a Roman Catholic Benedictine sister, asked me if I was glad to have had her in my life.

“I’d have to think about that,” I said. At that moment, what I was experiencing was abandonment, rejection, sorrow, shock, horrible memories, and several wrenching emotions that lie too deep for words. Sister Mary Ellen remained neutral as I answered, neither approving nor disapproving. But my reply was a truthful expression of pain, and I was not sorry for providing it. My love for Mary, while never absent, had been eclipsed by the devastation of her suicide.

“Sometimes,” writes Thomas Attig, Past President of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, “there is something horrible associated with the deaths of those we love. Our minds fix on the horror to the virtual exclusion of all the good we hold in memory. We cannot help ourselves–we agonize over the dark emotions the horror arouses.”

To illustrate, Attig quotes from a father in a bereavement group whose son Juan had died by suicide: “At first, I hated what my son did. I hated him for doing it to himself and to me and his mother. . . . It will probably always hurt. . . . I couldn’t get my mind off what he did with that gun. But one day I saw that I hated what he did because he took a life I dearly loved. And I wished he had loved it more.”

In time the man eventually realized how sorry he felt for his son and how much he still wanted to love him. “Only then did it come to me–I could hate what Juan did to end his life but still love Juan. . . . I began to remember all that I loved about Juan, the fun, and how good it was to have him in my life. . . . I think that realization saved my sanity.”

Loosening the grip of horrible suicide memories is, as Attig acknowledges, a real struggle for many. Some find help by attending support groups for the suicide bereaved. However, those who have been traumatized by the “horror [of suicide] witnessed directly or imagined vividly” likely require professional help to “recover the full range of memories of [their] loved ones. Only then can [they] cherish them despite the horror . . .” (The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2000, 123, 122-3, 124)

“I’m so glad to have had that girl in my life,” Beatle Paul McCartney said when his wife, Linda Eastman, died of cancer in 1998.

When my daughter Mary came into the conversation with Sister Mary Ellen again in 1998, my horrible feelings and memories had loosened to the point where I could honestly borrow from Paul McCartney: “I’m so glad to have had that girl in my life.”

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