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As we move into April two dates stand out for me. 15 April is tax day and we are asked to do our duty and support our federal and state government. The other date is 1 April which is April Fool’s Day. I can remember as a kid that that was a day when we would try to pull tricks on adults or our peers and then yell “April Fools”! Sometimes people would be embarrassed and humiliated and the joke would backfire, or other times there would be uproarious laughter. I recall fondly those humorous experiences on April Fool’s Day. I was thinking of that day recently in the immediate aftermath of the sudden death of Michael Scott. If you recall, Michael Scott died very suddenly of a gunshot to the head. Some theorists immediately said that this was a suicide while others discounted this theory. It was to be investigated further. Michael Scott was a very prominent Chicagoan and many friends and family members could not believe that he would take his life. One well-known public figure declared on the radio “that only cowards take their lives and Michael was not a coward”. Now that is a foolish statement. It prompted a reporter from the Sun-Times to call and talk to me about such an egregious statement. I tried to set the record straight. Suicide is not a cowardly act or a selfish act or a brave act. It is simply an act of desperation. The person who completes suicide is saying the pain has become too much to bear and suicide is the only way out.
Over the years, survivors have shared comments that family members or friends have said to them (the survivors), while meaning to be comforting and helpful. Survivors became angry with statements such as, “Thank God, you have three other children,” to someone who has lost a child. Survivors don’t have to be reminded that they have “three other children”. They know that. They don’t have this one who has taken their life. That is why they are sad and grieving because they don’t have this child with them anymore. This child took their life. People who make such comments do so meaning well and wanting to comfort and support the survivors. They are pointing out reasons to be thankful and trying to help the grieving parents. Comments such as these are not helpful in the grieving process. In the immediate aftermath of a suicide survivors find very little to be thankful for or find very little hope in their lives. This is all part of the journey of grief which is very foreign to a newly grieving person. They have never traversed this path before. They are literally trailblazers trying to find their way on this path and searching for direction.
Another comment that I have heard over the years to people who have lost a spouse is: “You are young enough now and can get married again”. The farthest thing in the mind of a grieving spouse is the thought of getting married again. This whole experience of absorbing the fact that a spouse has taken their life is more than the survivor can handle at the time. They can’t even envision getting married again. Again, such a comment is meant with the best of intentions and is meant to soothe a survivor’s broken heart. It does not soothe, but in fact has the opposite effect. It can cause anger and resentment. Grieving spouses know that they can get married again, but they cannot get married to this person who has taken their life. That is who they would want to get married to again–not some stranger in the future.
The lesson that I have learned over the years is that people surrounding survivors want to instill hope and bring comfort to their family member or friend. These comments are made with the best of intentions. They want to be positive and not dwell on the pain of the survivor. The fact of the matter is that in the immediate aftermath of a completed suicide, survivors find little else to concentrate on except the fact that they have lost a loved one to suicide. They are consumed with this pain. They are literally drowning in the pain of grief. This part of the grief process can last several months. I rarely like to put a specific time frame on the grief journey because it can differ with each individual. I am more concerned how well the grief process is unfolding and how successfully the pain is being resolved into one’s psyche. That is the crucial part of the journey. I am not saying that time is of no concern, but the more critical aspect of the journey, in my estimation, is the thoroughness with which the pain is resolved, and the comfort level that survivors feel as the pain becomes ordinary within their souls.
Family members and friends have the best of intentions as they reach out to survivors. They do not mean to hurt or be offensive. They just do not know what to say and they want to try and alleviate the pain of the hurting survivor. They feel helpless in the face of a tragedy and they do not want to sit idly by while a loved one is suffering such excruciating pain. My suggestion to survivors is that when someone says something that is inappropriate or hurtful that survivors simply say that that statement is not very helpful in the grieving process. Leave it as simple as possible. Sometimes survivors don’t know what they need but they do know when something is not helpful or is increasing the anxiety. It is helpful to express feelings and indicate just how these people can be helpful. People are at a loss as to how to reach out to survivors. They want to help but don’t know how.
Years ago survivors developed a list of comments that they compiled to show examples of inappropriate or unhelpful suggestions or statements. If you want to share any of these, feel free to send them to me by email or letter or phone, and we can compile a new list and occasionally share them with other survivors. This is not meant to humiliate anyone or cause harm. It is another way to educate people about the difficulties of the grief journey and what is helpful and what is not helpful. I remember the last time that we compiled such a list and the laughter that was generated as survivors read statements that had been made to other survivors. Again, the laughter that was generated was not meant to make fun of anyone but was a reaction about the incongruity of some statements that were made to survivors. Overall, survivors are very grateful for the support that they receive from family members and friends. But there are instances when such help can cause hurt and misunderstanding. That is why honesty about such comments is the best way to solve the situation.
As always, I want to assure each and every member of the LOSS family of my thoughts and prayers on a daily basis and I encourage each of you to do the same for each other –especially for those who have recently joined our family.
Keep On Keepin' On,