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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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img_0082-edit-2“Few things stigmatize someone’s life and meaning as does a death by suicide,” Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, wrote recently in a column titled “Suicide–Reclaiming the Memory of Our Loved One.” Fr. Rolheiser is a spiritual writer who has produced an annual column for years about suicide because, in his view, someone needs to dispel the “false perceptions” surrounding the church’s understanding of suicide.

With that in mind, Fr. Rolheiser offered this summary not long ago of the main points presented in his annual columns: “In most cases, suicide is a disease; it takes people out of life against their will; it is the emotional equivalent of a stroke, heart attack, or cancer; people who fall victim to this disease, almost invariably, are very sensitive persons who end up  . . . being too bruised to be touched; those of us left behind should not spend a lot of time second-guessing, wondering whether we failed in some way; and, finally, given God’s mercy, the particular anatomy of suicide, and the sensitive souls of those who fall prey to it, we should not be unduly anxious about the eternal salvation of those who fall prey to it.”

This year, Fr. Rolheiser added a new conviction to his repertoire: those bereaved by suicide should work at “redeeming the life and memory” of the person they love who died. They should work not only to overcome the stigma, or social disgrace, that continues to surround suicide but also to restore the honor, memory, and reputation of the person who died (ronrolheiser.com. July 21, 2014).

Every year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds Out of the Darkness Walks in communities across the nation to raise both money and awareness for suicide prevention, to break down stigma, and to honor those who have died. My husband and I participated in the Manassas, Virginia, Out of the Darkness Walk in October, 2013. It felt exactly right to walk as Team Mary in the company of dozens of walkers on other teams, and we plan to do so again on September 28. (Go to afsp.org for Walk information.)

Almost from the day my daughter died by intentional overdose in 1995, it was clear that I would someday work to restore her honor, memory, and reputation. My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope, to be published in the next few weeks, is that loving labor.

 

“As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches,” writes Kay Warren, “I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to ‘move on.’ ” Kay is the wife of Rick Warren, pastor of the eighth-largest church in the nation, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Their son Matthew died by suicide in 2013 at the age of 27.

In March, 2014, Kay wrote a Facebook post describing just how jarring certain expectations and well-meant remarks had proved to be in the wake of her son’s death.

“[Most people] want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us—when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013, will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you—the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back.”

As the mother of a teenage daughter who died by intentional overdose in 1995, I understand how the suicide of a child expels parents from their normal lives and forces them to accept that there’s no going back. “We will never be the same again,”  Kay states. “There is a new ‘normal.’ ”

Perhaps such a new normal would have been more obvious to others in the past. “It wasn’t all that long ago that it was standard for people to officially be in mourning for a full year,” a grieving father adds to Kay’s Facebook post. “They wore black. They didn’t go to parties. They didn’t smile a lot. And everybody accepted their period of mourning.”

In my first year of grief, I thought about wearing a black armband like the ones I saw in WWII movies. Someone whose views I respected told me I really didn’t want to do that. But I did want to. It wasn’t a matter of making others feel sorry for me but, rather, of letting them know I was grieving and not exactly myself. It might have changed their expectations when I most needed changed expectations.

Are there any words of comfort for a parent whose child has died? “Unless you’ve stood by the grave of your child or cradled the urn that holds their ashes,” writes Kay, “you’re better off keeping your words to some very simple phrases: ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ Or ‘I’m praying for you and your family.’ Do your best to avoid the meaningless ‘How are you doing?’ This question is almost impossible to answer.”

Above all, “Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost,” Kay advises. “It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right” (“After a Tragic Loss, A Call to Action for the Faith Community,” NAMI Advocate, Summer 2014, 11, 12, 13).

 

 

 

 

While no one argues that suicide can ever really make sense for those left behind, clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh report that the incomprehensibility of suicide, its blind spot, can be worked with in life-giving ways. “The blind spot refers to the inherent inability of the survivor ever to fully comprehend the mind and motivation of the deceased, and therefore the reasons for the suicide,” write Jordan and McIntosh. “Finding a way through the blind spot is not about making meanings that are profoundly comprehensive so much as getting to a place of meaning that allows the bereaved to reinvest energy in themselves and re-engage in daily life” (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 268).

The authors also describe a three-part healing process that accompanies those who are able both to navigate the blind spot and to strive for relationship with the person who died. Two previous posts dealt with the first and second relationship tasks as I experienced them: “trying on the shoes” of my daughter Mary in an attempt to understand our broken relationship and “walking in her shoes” in an attempt to reconstruct our relationship along positive lines. The third relationship task that I faced was “taking off Mary’s shoes:” making a new position for her in my life so that I could go on.

For me, all of the bereavement tasks came together in one decade-long endeavor after Mary died by overdose in 1995: writing a book titled My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope. Although it deals with Mary’s death and its prolonged effect on me and my family, the memoir mostly concerns itself with meaning and relationship.

In short, it’s a narrative meditation upon the meaning of my daughter’s life, her suicide, and God’s place in her life and suicide. The story is not “profoundly comprehensive” for all people but describes, instead, my navigation of the blind spot.

However, there was an aspect of the writing even more urgent than getting through the blind spot: my ardent desire to re-establish a relationship with Mary. Getting her back in my life in a good way was what I wanted above all, and writing through the pain was the only way to achieve that. My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God will be published in the early fall. 

 

 

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.

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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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.