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From the Desk of Deborah Major
Saturday, November 01, 2014 by Deborah Major
When you lose a loved one to suicide, there is so much work involved in getting back to living; so much work involved in getting to a place of wanting to reclaim your life. And we know in the early going that survivors get very, very tired of the fight to reclaim something that resembles a life worth living.  Sometimes people feel like giving up.  We know because from time to time we hear, “I can’t go on like this.” “I don’t want to go on like this.” “How can I go on …?” Parents of young children often say, “I have to go on, but how?

As survivors start to push aside the “Why” question (not because they have answered it, but because they come to realize that it doesn’t really take them anywhere), new questions arise about how long the pain is going to last, how they can survive it, whether they should bother, and if they should bother, what they should do with their days.  These questions suggest a shift in focus from the loved one’s mind to the survivor’s own mind.  Ever so gradually survivors begin to wonder what it might mean to “move on” (especially when others begin to suggest that moving on is in order). Does it mean letting go? And what would letting go mean?  People wonder if they are “stuck” or if they are grieving in a healthy manner.  And what would that look like? We sometimes hear these questions when survivors attend a monthly group and meet someone whose loss occurred several years ago, but who still appears to be in significant distress.  This encounter is pretty scary for many people, because on the one hand most survivors fear that they will never recover, while at the same time most would prefer to experience a degree of recovery that allows them to reengage a life that is at least livable.  

Because suicide so brutally assaults what we thought we understood about our relationships, ourselves, and way the world is support to operate, there are many places where one might “get stuck” along the way.  It’s possible to get stuck right at the outset on the tyrannical Why question, or further down the path on a very pessimistic set of ideas about one’s own failings, or someone else’s failings, or life’s unfairness, or God’s unfairness, the cluelessness of friends, or your loved one’s shortcomings.  Sometimes survivors find themselves feeling so depressed that they can get stuck in a kind of existential nihilism leading to profound dead end despair.  I don’t point out these possible sticking places to make anyone feel worse about getting stuck, but rather to make the point that suicide presents survivors with an exceptionally challenging life (and identity) reconstruction process, and moving forward will likely require more flexibility and curiosity than one might have believed oneself capable of mustering.   

Most survivors find themselves questioning their relationship with the person they lost. We all make assumptions and draw conclusions about our closest relationships.  We think we understand the other person and what we’re doing together, but suicide explodes those assumptions and leaves us feeling dumbstruck.  Prior to our loss we may have held a view of ourselves that felt relatively stable.  We hold fast to our assumptions about who we are in various roles (as wife, mother, sister, daughter); about how we’re doing in those roles or who we intend to be in them.  Suicide turns these assumptions upside down as well.  We hear a great deal of self-blame, much more than we believe would be the case had the loved one died under other circumstances.  This is an especially painful place to become stuck, as survivors imagine their loved one communicating something about not being a “good enough” parent or “good enough” spouse to live for.  And as if these aren’t difficult enough, there remains the challenge of navigating one’s wider social circle, the ambiguity and stigma with which suicide is viewed, the absence of routine social courtesies and social support that accompany other deaths, and the many myths that abide.  Ambiguous social treatment leads to more assumptions about others’ intentions, often followed by social distancing and increased isolation.  Isolation becomes yet another place where one might become stuck along the way.

In fact it’s rather amazing that so many survivors dislodge themselves from the stuck places and continue forging ahead.  How does this happen? Processing the grief that emerges in the wake of suicide is a slow, laborious and mysterious process. It finds its way into all of the cracks and crevices of one’s life and one’s mind.  How survivors inch away from that place of overwhelming and uncontrolled pain to a place where emotions can be more readily modulated is difficult to articulate clearly.  This is one of the central questions that the newly bereaved routinely ask of more seasoned grievers in our monthly groups.  “How long will this last? When did it start to change for you?  What did you do to get through the pain?”  I almost always recommend attending the monthly or 8-week groups so that survivors have that direct experience of sitting with others who are working hard to reconstruct their lives.  LOSS members are not necessarily “letting go” in the way that one might imagine severing a limb.  Adapting to the tragedy is not so much “letting go” as it is a process of integrating the loss.  Because these relationships hold such deep meaning for our core identities and basic sense of security, it makes sense that the loved one’s sudden and tragic death could not result in any expeditious letting go.  We are all exquisitely designed to form deep and lasting attachments.  This is central to what it means to be human. And recent qualitative research on attachment and bereavement reveals that these bonds may continue after death.  While everyone must give up physical closeness to the loved one, survivors have much more choice about psychological closeness.  Continued psychological closeness after death need not mean the kind of anguished preoccupation with the loved one and with the suicide that is characteristic of the newly bereaved experience.

Because our loved one is not present in the flesh, continued connection will mean a reconstruction (not necessarily a relinquishing) of the bond. And the nature of that reconstruction can be as unique as each griever.  As a way to begin, Robert Neimeyer, grief researcher and editor of the journal Death Studies, recommends accessing the “back story” of your relationship by exploring questions that underlie it, but that you may not have considered:  “What lessons about living and loving have I learned in the course of our shared lives? In the course of my bereavement? What would my loved one see in me that would give him confidence in my ability to survive this difficult period?”  Consider the ways in which you may have assimilated bits and pieces of your loved one into your sense of self.  This is a kind of “inheritance” that has left a deep imprint on your life and that transcends your loved one’s death.  To the extent that we attach deeply, we will also grieve deeply.  This is the way we are made.


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From the Desk of Deborah Major
Saturday, November 01, 2014 by Deborah Major
When you lose a loved one to suicide, there is so much work involved in getting back to living; so much work involved in getting to a place of wanting to reclaim your life. And we know in the early going that survivors get very, very tired of the fight to reclaim something that resembles a life worth living.  Sometimes people feel like giving up.  We know because from time to time we hear, “I can’t go on like this.” “I don’t want to go on like this.” “How can I go on …?” Parents of young children often say, “I have to go on, but how?

As survivors start to push aside the “Why” question (not because they have answered it, but because they come to realize that it doesn’t really take them anywhere), new questions arise about how long the pain is going to last, how they can survive it, whether they should bother, and if they should bother, what they should do with their days.  These questions suggest a shift in focus from the loved one’s mind to the survivor’s own mind.  Ever so gradually survivors begin to wonder what it might mean to “move on” (especially when others begin to suggest that moving on is in order). Does it mean letting go? And what would letting go mean?  People wonder if they are “stuck” or if they are grieving in a healthy manner.  And what would that look like? We sometimes hear these questions when survivors attend a monthly group and meet someone whose loss occurred several years ago, but who still appears to be in significant distress.  This encounter is pretty scary for many people, because on the one hand most survivors fear that they will never recover, while at the same time most would prefer to experience a degree of recovery that allows them to reengage a life that is at least livable.  

Because suicide so brutally assaults what we thought we understood about our relationships, ourselves, and way the world is support to operate, there are many places where one might “get stuck” along the way.  It’s possible to get stuck right at the outset on the tyrannical Why question, or further down the path on a very pessimistic set of ideas about one’s own failings, or someone else’s failings, or life’s unfairness, or God’s unfairness, the cluelessness of friends, or your loved one’s shortcomings.  Sometimes survivors find themselves feeling so depressed that they can get stuck in a kind of existential nihilism leading to profound dead end despair.  I don’t point out these possible sticking places to make anyone feel worse about getting stuck, but rather to make the point that suicide presents survivors with an exceptionally challenging life (and identity) reconstruction process, and moving forward will likely require more flexibility and curiosity than one might have believed oneself capable of mustering.   

Most survivors find themselves questioning their relationship with the person they lost. We all make assumptions and draw conclusions about our closest relationships.  We think we understand the other person and what we’re doing together, but suicide explodes those assumptions and leaves us feeling dumbstruck.  Prior to our loss we may have held a view of ourselves that felt relatively stable.  We hold fast to our assumptions about who we are in various roles (as wife, mother, sister, daughter); about how we’re doing in those roles or who we intend to be in them.  Suicide turns these assumptions upside down as well.  We hear a great deal of self-blame, much more than we believe would be the case had the loved one died under other circumstances.  This is an especially painful place to become stuck, as survivors imagine their loved one communicating something about not being a “good enough” parent or “good enough” spouse to live for.  And as if these aren’t difficult enough, there remains the challenge of navigating one’s wider social circle, the ambiguity and stigma with which suicide is viewed, the absence of routine social courtesies and social support that accompany other deaths, and the many myths that abide.  Ambiguous social treatment leads to more assumptions about others’ intentions, often followed by social distancing and increased isolation.  Isolation becomes yet another place where one might become stuck along the way.

In fact it’s rather amazing that so many survivors dislodge themselves from the stuck places and continue forging ahead.  How does this happen? Processing the grief that emerges in the wake of suicide is a slow, laborious and mysterious process. It finds its way into all of the cracks and crevices of one’s life and one’s mind.  How survivors inch away from that place of overwhelming and uncontrolled pain to a place where emotions can be more readily modulated is difficult to articulate clearly.  This is one of the central questions that the newly bereaved routinely ask of more seasoned grievers in our monthly groups.  “How long will this last? When did it start to change for you?  What did you do to get through the pain?”  I almost always recommend attending the monthly or 8-week groups so that survivors have that direct experience of sitting with others who are working hard to reconstruct their lives.  LOSS members are not necessarily “letting go” in the way that one might imagine severing a limb.  Adapting to the tragedy is not so much “letting go” as it is a process of integrating the loss.  Because these relationships hold such deep meaning for our core identities and basic sense of security, it makes sense that the loved one’s sudden and tragic death could not result in any expeditious letting go.  We are all exquisitely designed to form deep and lasting attachments.  This is central to what it means to be human. And recent qualitative research on attachment and bereavement reveals that these bonds may continue after death.  While everyone must give up physical closeness to the loved one, survivors have much more choice about psychological closeness.  Continued psychological closeness after death need not mean the kind of anguished preoccupation with the loved one and with the suicide that is characteristic of the newly bereaved experience.

Because our loved one is not present in the flesh, continued connection will mean a reconstruction (not necessarily a relinquishing) of the bond. And the nature of that reconstruction can be as unique as each griever.  As a way to begin, Robert Neimeyer, grief researcher and editor of the journal Death Studies, recommends accessing the “back story” of your relationship by exploring questions that underlie it, but that you may not have considered:  “What lessons about living and loving have I learned in the course of our shared lives? In the course of my bereavement? What would my loved one see in me that would give him confidence in my ability to survive this difficult period?”  Consider the ways in which you may have assimilated bits and pieces of your loved one into your sense of self.  This is a kind of “inheritance” that has left a deep imprint on your life and that transcends your loved one’s death.  To the extent that we attach deeply, we will also grieve deeply.  This is the way we are made.