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Archive for the ‘suicide bereavement’ Category

I recall running into Dr. Matthews, my daughter Mary’s psychiatrist, some months after Mary’s suicide. She was someone I had always admired; and even to this day, my physician husband claims that she (now deceased) was the best psychiatrist he’s ever worked with professionally.

On the day in question, Dr. Matthews was wearing an expensive suit, her hair was nicely styled, and she exuded confidence. Resenting her for all of it, I began asking myself about justice. As in, how could a doctor with direct responsibility for Mary’s welfare go on living in such a nice, orderly way? After all, I wasn’t living in a nice, orderly way. My life was the opposite of nice and orderly, and the contrast was galling.

Years have passed, and now I see how wrong my perception was that day. Just because the severity of her grief makes a mother believe she is suffering at a uniquely profound level doesn’t mean that she is. Other survivors, including clinicians, also undergo unique, profound suffering.

“Twin bereavement” is the term researchers use on behalf of clinicians. “In addition to the personal grief reaction entailed in losing a client with whom there was a therapeutically intense or intimate relationship, this loss is likely to affect clinicians’ professional identities, their relationships with colleagues, and their clinical work” (John R. Jordan and John McIntosh, Eds. Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 95).

Other researchers have found that mental health therapists describe losing a client “as the most profoundly disturbing event of their professional careers,” noting that a third of the therapists “experienced severe distress that lasted at least one year beyond the initial loss” (Ibid).

Though seventeen years late, I’m saying, “Sorry, Dr. Matthews.” I finally grasp how hurt we all were, you not least. I finally get that we were all doing our best to survive Mary’s death. I finally realize your way was to put on a nice suit and see your patients hour after hour, same as always.

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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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Confounded

When my seventeen-year-old daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995,  one thought confounded me from the first: “She couldn’t take her life another day. The life that God, her father, and I gave her–that precious life–she didn’t want. So she threw it back in our faces. ” 

 Mary’s death was incomprehensible, a rejection of the values she’d grown up with not only at home but also in Catholic classrooms for almost a dozen years. 

In Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh highlight the bewilderment of parental guilt following suicide: “It’s bad enough to lose a child . . . but the guilt [that other parents who have lost a child to some other form of death] have over not getting them to a doctor ‘soon enough,’ the guilt over not being able to protect them from cancer or drunk drivers or whatever can’t be as fundamental and soul-searing as knowing they couldn’t endure the life you gave them” (Sue Chance. Stranger than death: When Suicide Touches Your Life. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992, p. 50 as quoted in Jordan and McIntosh)

“Soul-searing” is an apt phrase; it describes the anguish better than most.

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Suicide bereavement often includes the following features: a sense of abandonment and rejection, feelings of shame and stigma, a desire to conceal the cause of death, a tendency to blame others, and an increased self-destructiveness or suicidality (John R. Jordan and John L. McIntosh, Eds. Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, 2011, pp. 30-31).

In my experience as a survivor of my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995, I did feel abandoned and rejected by her for several years. I also felt accused. It was as though Mary was telling everyone I hadn’t done enough for her. And really, how was I going to deny the truth in that?

Owing to the immediate support my family received from our Catholic faith community, however, the shame and stigma of my daughter’s death was not a prominent part of my bereavement. In fact, even while members of the rescue squad were trying to revive Mary, I decided not to hide the fact that she had overdosed on her anti-depressant medication. When a neighbor asked, “What happened?” I told him the truth, believing that the truth would bring the help we needed. And it did.   

Mary’s psychiatrist joined my husband and me in the emergency waiting room, lamenting her misjudgment regarding the state of my daughter’s mental health. My husband would not allow the psychiatrist to blame herself, though, and I tried to follow his lead. Inevitably, I did end up blaming the psychiatrist, my husband, and myself for my daughter’ s suicide. Blaming is a normal part of suicide bereavement, I have come to see, but it did eventually fade away.    

As for the increased risk of self-destructiveness following a suicide, I understand a bereaved person’s desire to die. But in my grief, the desire to die was countered by hard-won awareness of the devastation another suicide would inflict. I never considered taking my own life, though I could see that people were concerned I might be thinking about it.   

 

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In 1995, my seventeen-year-old daughter Mary died by suicide. She was a high school senior who seemingly had everything to live for, but one September day she overdosed on her anti-depressant medication and could not be revived. 

In her suicide note, Mary wrote, “I have the sinking feeling I’m going to be punished. I guess no one gets a shortcut through life.” Still, she took that shortcut and forever altered the life of everyone who knew her.

This blog is my attempt to converse about suicide from a mother’s perspective. What I intend is to quote from contemporary writings about suicide and then dialogue with those writings. I invite you to add to the conversation, and together we might come to greater understanding and peace about the suicide deaths of those we love.  

Here’s an example of what I mean. In their book, Grief After Suicide, John Jordan and John McIntosh state that “suicide survivors” were once considered to be those people directly related to the deceased person or someone who was a close friend. However, Jordan and McIntosh state,  “A suicide survivor is someone who experiences a high level of self-perceived psychological, physical, and / or social distress for a considerable length of time after exposure to the suicide of another person” (p.7).  

I can only add that, even after seventeen years, many  people are still deeply affected by the suicide of my daughter Mary. It isn’t just her family and close friends who can be called survivors.

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