My teenage daughter’s suicide in 1995 was a seismic event that sent shock waves through my world of meaning. To say the least, Mary’s death shook my belief in the sweetness and predictability of life and rattled my identity as a knowing mother-protector.

“Suicide appears to be particularly potent in its ability to shatter the most fundamental assumptions in life,” clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh write. “For a period of time, many survivors are truly unable to make sense of why the suicide has happened, what role they played in the death, and its implications for their identity and their understanding of the world.”

According to Jordan and McIntosh, those shattered assumptions revolve largely around relationships. For a time, that is, a person bereaved by suicide must weather the wrecked presuppositions that he or she held with respect to the person who died, to his or her self-identity, and to other people, leading to a “protracted search for sense in a seemingly inexplicable death.”

For nearly two years, this blog has regularly concerned itself with relationship assumptions that have imploded. “Knowing Mary,” “An Insight About How,” and “Choosing Suicide” are posts that reflect my disoriented bond with Mary and my effort to repair the “psychological havoc” that Jordan and McIntosh report as common in suicide bereavement (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 249, 252).

Blog posts about guilt, anger, and post-traumatic stress disorder have addressed the collapse of certain givens about my self-identity just as other posts (“A Priest Waits with Us in The Emergency,” “My Suicide-Bereaved Family and the Police,” and “Social Uncertainty”) have spoken of my assumptions about relationship to others that have been altered, sometimes for the better.

In categorizing our overturned assumptions in terms of relationship, Jordan and McIntosh provide a potentially clarifying way of dealing with the inner chaos of suicide bereavement. Their work also points to a possible path of bereavement healing that will be addressed in future posts.


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.”

Last week, a column appeared in The Washington Post entitled “Losing two Langley High School students to suicide: Unthinkable until it happened.”

“These two 17-year-olds were athletes and students at one of the finest, most affluent high schools in our region,” writes Petula Dvorak. “They had families, friends, a future. Losing them to suicide . . . seemed unthinkable.” While one boy died on Monday and the other on Tuesday, officials considered the two deaths unrelated.

I followed this story online as readers began posting comments about it. I expected a barrage, because reader comments on the Post website can number in the thousands for provocative news stories. But after an entire day, only 17 people had commented on Dvorak’s column. The silence seemed respectful more than anything else.

Not only that, the seventeen people who did respond refrained from blaming anyone, remarked on the profound sadness, and noted the intimate connection between mental disorders and suicide. (In Myths about Suicide, clinical researcher Thomas Joiner writes, “My view is that virtually everyone, approaching if not 100 percent, who dies by suicide had a mental disorder or a subclinical variant thereof at the time of death,” 188.)

The most incisive comment following the Post column took issue with the notion of suicide as unthinkable. “That headline is out of touch with reality,” one reader remarked. “You can’t call teen suicide ‘unthinkable.’ . . . Acting like teenage suicide, or any suicide, is unthinkable isn’t going to help us. It is thinkable. And we can do a much better job of helping people open their minds to other options” (The Washington Post, online Feb. 6-7, 2014).

When my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995, her death was unthinkable to me and everyone who knew her. But it was thinkable to her; she’d been thinking about it for two years as her journals later revealed. I used to agonize over Mary’s ability to conceal dangerous thoughts and my inability to read them, just as I imagine the families of those two high school students are agonizing now.

Yet, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison offers this insight from her experience as a suicidal teen: “Because the privacy of my [suicide] nightmare had been of my own designing, no one close to me had any real idea of the psychological company I’d been keeping. The gap between private experience and its public expression was absolute; my persuasiveness to others was unimaginably frightening” (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 6).

Yes, we must do a much better job of helping people open their minds to options other than suicide. Before we can do that, however, we have to know that suicide is an option under consideration, and that’s sometimes far from clear.

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.

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.

I’m grateful that my daughter Mary left a note saying good-bye and describing her motives before she died by overdose in 1995. Police confiscated the note, so I didn’t get to see it for several weeks. When I finally read the five-page farewell she had written in her physics notebook, it was like watching her smile and wave as she drove off a cliff.

But after eighteen years, her decision to leave a note seems more a courtesy than anything else, a grace note, a final kindness. It left no doubt about her intention to die, and while that certitude did not answer the deeper questions surrounding her death, it did spare us the exhaustion of trying to figure out whether her death had been accidental.

Mary’s note was a gift, and a rather unusual one. Three out of four people who die by suicide leave no note according to studies cited by psychologist and clinical research Thomas Joiner. “Knowledge of this simple fact could save a lot of heartache and confusion . . . It is not rare for relatives of suicide decedents–and from time to time even experienced investigators–to question whether a death was a suicide or not because no note was left. Closure for relatives . . . can be facilitated by knowledge that suicide notes are rare.”

Why this rarity? It’s not that suicides are impulsive, Joiner argues, because “the extremely fearsome and often painful prospect of bringing about one’s own death requires previous experiences and psychological processes that take months–at least–to accumulate. Those who end up dead by suicide have thought the act through many times, often in detail—” (Reading Mary’s journal after her death, for example, I saw the word “suicide” crop up two years before she died.)

The answer, rather, seems to lie in the mental state of people in the moments before they take their lives. It’s so unlike ours that it’s almost impossible to fathom. “To say that people who die by suicide are lonely at the time of their deaths is . . . like saying that the ocean is wet. Loneliness, alienation, isolation, rejection, and ostracism are a better approximation, but still do not capture it fully. . . . I believe it is impossible to capture the phenomenon fully in words, because it is so beyond ordinary experience . . .” (Myths About Suicide, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010, 119, 84, 123.)

That my daughter left a note, that anyone would leave a note, speaks powerfully of the human need to belong and connect, tragically foreclosed.

At the wake following my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995, a high school teacher said with apparent bewilderment, “But she handed in a paper just last Thursday!”

“It makes no sense,” I said. “Why would she be doing homework if she was planning to do . . . this?”

Another teacher explained that perhaps Mary had been ambivalent to the end, that possibly her resolve to die had wavered along the way. Overwhelmed by the brute fact of her suicide, however, I silently brushed off that theory. My daughter must have carefully planned and then moved directly to her own self-destruction without hesitating. The way I saw it on the night of her wake, the handing in of a school paper was her attempt not to arouse suspicion; that’s all.

But psychologist and clinical researcher Thomas Joiner argues that those contemplating suicide usually are torn between their desire to die and their innate will to live. “The suicidal mind is characterized by ambivalence,” he writes, “with competing forces tugging at the suicidal individual from the sides of both life and death.”

To illustrate, Joiner writes of several people who have gone over Niagra Falls or jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived to tell about it: “One survivor stated, ‘I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable–except for having just jumped.’ Another said, ‘My first thought was What the hell did I just do? I don’t want to die.’ ”

According to Joiner, “Those who die by suicide have two simultaneous mental processes unfolding. One is mundane (and yet in a way incredible) and is happening in virtually everyone (including those whose deaths by suicide are impending): ‘Should I change jobs? What will I do this weekend? Should I get a new car?’ . . . The other is far from mundane, and is difficult for most people to even conceive of: ‘Why don’t I just die? It would be a relief. . . . Why don’t I just get it over with?’ ” (Myths About Suicide, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010, 64, 63, 69).

So now I understand a little better how it was possible to be in the same room with Mary hours before her death and not recognize in her behavior the devastation that lay in her thinking. After all, she filled water glasses before dinner, made a witty remark during dinner, and cleaned up the kitchen with her father after dinner. Maybe she was not merely trying to hide her thoughts; maybe she really was wavering between life and death.