Healing for the bereaved of suicide is a slow and arduous

From Father Rubey – July 2013 7/1/2013 7:46:00 AM by Father Charles T. Rubey Chisago

In the course of a year we see hundreds of survivors in different contexts. Some of you are seen in monthly or weekly support groups offered throughout the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Some are seen privately in individual counseling; others are seen with children in family counseling. Still others are seen at special events, at walks and golf outings that you tirelessly organize to raise awareness of suicide, or to provide much needed support for the LOSS Program. A great many of you we see only once each year at our Blossoms of Hope Brunch, an annual opportunity to join together to celebrate the lives of those we have lost, and importantly, to celebrate your determination to reinvent your lives and to find new meaning for what lies ahead.

These various contexts and events meet different needs in different ways as we try to respond to everything that follows loss. Through our efforts we try to help connect you with a sympathetic community of understanding survivors, find direction for your unique journey and resources for healing. For most, healing is a slow and arduous process, for which few have any prior frame of reference. The pain that surges up in our psyches and bodies in the aftermath of suicide is often without parallel. We meet many new LOSS members one-on-one, or in support groups, within a few short weeks or months after the death, when the psychache of the one lost has been absorbed by those left behind. Edwin Shneidman coined the term “psychache” to describe the unbearable psychic pain experienced by those who ultimately end their lives (1996). In the aftermath newly bereaved survivors find themselves “trying on the shoes” of those they lost in an attempt to make sense of the death and their relationship with the deceased. This is an inherently painful, but essential, part of the grief process as survivors attempt to wade through the ambiguous messages in the suicide. And hence we hear your questions, “Is it normal to …?” You may fill in the blank with any symptoms you experienced, but that you would never have recognized as belonging to the person you were before the death. In these early phases grievers open themselves to the pain of the loss, to raw feelings of sadness, anxiety, guilt, vulnerability. In groups LOSS members share this pain with others who suffer.

Focusing on the internal raw pain day after day is exhausting and debilitating, particularly given the concurrent demands pushing from the outside, insisting that people stand up and cope, ready or not. Many grievers feel that this demand comes too early. Many insist, “I need to do this in my own way, in my own time. I am no longer the person I was. I won’t ever be that person again.” These words indicate one of the chief challenges of mourning a loss like this one. Suicide intrudes upon all of the taken-for-granted assumptions that previously made the world understandable. Our assumptions and unspoken beliefs formed a worldview, a philosophy of life about our values, commitments, behaviors, essentially everything that guided our actions and plans. These assumptions are often invisible to us until torn apart by tragedy. Examples might be that “good” parents would know how to protect their children, or that a just God would not allow bad things to happen. Suicide can challenge these and other cherished assumptions. And with that world left in shambles we will likely feel that life is chaotic, random, unjust, and unintelligible. One LOSS member said that after her fiancé ended his life, she felt that there was no meaning to be found anywhere. That is not a place where we can remain for very long. We are presented with the monumental task of revising our assumptions, reconstructing our beliefs and searching for new meaning in our life’s work, relationships, and for some, in a new identity. This is the next phase of the process. Understandably, most people feel confounded by the demand of reinventing themselves and their lives. We hear questions like, “What now?” “Move where?”

In this phase of self- and life-reinvention making decisions can feel frightening for some, empowering for others. This may be because death by suicide presents challenges to our identities as we raise questions about the nature of the relationship and our role within it. Looking deeply can feel threatening because it raises questions and feelings about our basic sense of self and who we believed ourselves to have been. And yet, engaging this struggle is one of the chief choices we have as grievers. We often hear from survivors that the suicide and the pain that follows feels like something that is done to them, that one would never choose. And while the suicide is never chosen, the manner in which one grieves is filled with opportunities for choice (Neimeyer, 2000). Indeed, in LOSS groups, in counseling and at special events, we see you distinguishing yourselves in the many choices you make around how and when you grieve: publicly or privately, engaging the pain versus distancing yourself from it, choices in burial rituals, in anniversary markers or celebrations, in choosing to stay in the home or leave it, in keeping or giving away possessions, in continuing the conversation with the deceased or ending it, in searching for transcendent meaning or not. We hear many survivors express discomfort in response to advice from their friends or family that they stop grieving and “move on.” Yet contemporary research on bereaved persons suggests that death transforms relationships, rather than ending them (Hedkte, 2010; Neimeyer, 2000). “The preservation of connection to a vital relationship in the past can give continuity to a life story disrupted by loss, as the survivor undertakes the hard work of inventing a meaningful future” (Neimeyer, 2000, p. 46). How we meet the challenge and the choice of self- and life-reinvention is unique to each survivor. What will you create?

Keep On Keepin’ On,

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