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From the Desk of Deborah Major
Sunday, March 01, 2015 by Deborah Major
The loss of a loved one to suicide represents a critical turning point, because it imposes into the survivor’s life a crisis of attachment and of identity.  What we hear in the first moments of every caller’s voice is shock, devastation, confusion and a sense of feeling utterly overwhelmed.  We hear these questions sometimes openly stated, at other times implied beneath the details of each caller’s story: “How am I to make sense of this? What am I supposed to do next?  How could this have happened? Why did he do this?”  Often callers interpret the suicide as containing a message from the loved one that the survivor feels compelled to decode: “What was he trying to tell me?”  Those who did not receive a note persist in the hope of finding one, a final communication that would explain why she chose to end the relationship so abruptly and in such a painful manner.   Those who did receive a note return to it repeatedly, hoping to understand the loved one’s frame of mind and the meaning beneath the words.  Suicide, more than other deaths, holds significant relationship meaning for those left behind.  In the earliest phases of the grief process, survivors see the suicide as encrypted with deep meaning about the relationship that they shared with the deceased.   Indeed, if we lose a loved one to cancer, the crisis of attachment may also emerge, but the struggle with the relationship meaning will never be connected to the cancer itself.  

Because of the many factors that differentiate suicide loss from other deaths, we recognize a more extended grief process as normal and to be expected.  Indeed, recent research on how parents cope with the death of a child to suicide found that a sample of traumatically bereaved parents had higher levels of posttraumatic stress for three or more years after the loss (Feigelman, Jordan, et al., 2012).  As we receive new members into the LOSS family, our first step is to provide a compassionate holding environment, a space both physical and psychological that may offer a cradle of stabilization to help ease the grief spasms until survivors develop a capacity to dose their exposure to the pain. Many LOSS members remain with us in monthly groups or individual counseling because they learn that this is one place where they can speak openly about the person they lost and about the pace of their adjustment to the loss, however slowly that adjustment progresses.  Indeed, the grief process and each individual’s reactions will vary widely according to many factors: including the individual’s personality and coping style, their history of previous losses, the nature of the relationship with the person who died, the presence of and willingness to make use of social supports, the nature of internalized family-of-origin relationships, as well as the degree to which the survivor feels responsible for the death, etc. (Shapiro, 1994).  We hear firsthand that many new LOSS members worry about whether they are grieving “the right way,” in part because they are caught off guard by the intensity of their emotional reactions and in part because of the many messages from friends and colleagues that grieving beyond a certain period of time is suggestive of “grief gone wrong.” These are the concerns of colleagues speaking through our culture which is largely death- and grief-phobic.  As a culture we are quite invested in “letting go” and “moving on.” Some of this stems from the philosophical underpinnings of the birth of this nation.  From its infancy the United States promised the right to happiness, albeit founded on the belief in a certain rugged individualism, that is, each person had to be determined to pull herself up by the bootstraps to claim it.  Couple this philosophy with early psychoanalytic models of adult mourning which assumed that the successful resolution of the grief process was a “decathexis” or detachment of “libido” from the loved one (Freud, 1957).  And today, most corporate leave policies for death and funeral rites are typically five days or fewer, subtly suggesting that the grief process can be resolved with efficiency and brevity.  

Fortunately, models of adult mourning have been evolving to include more relational orientations. Relational theories point out the centrality of our attachments, giving us better ways to explain the enduring connections that we experience long after death, and why it may be a sign of good health to retain them.  One noted grief scholar explains, “It is always surprising at first to realize how densely “peopled” our habits of mind and of daily living are, how many of our associations lead spontaneously to thoughts of those we love” (Shapiro, 1994, p. 22).   While we remain philosophically a culture that focuses intently on the needs and rights of the individual and the experience of a bounded self, we would do well to wonder, “What is the self and how real is it?”  When we lose a loved one, we discover how inextricably intertwined our identities are with the identity of the deceased.  For better or worse, we discover ourselves in the midst of an internal crisis of identity while at the same time experiencing an external crisis of attachment.  It should be no surprise that the experience feels so thoroughly disorienting and frightening when death takes us by surprise.  

We now know that as a species we are “hard-wired” for deep attachments to our loved ones, and that the sequence of attachment and separation behaviors (crying, protest, searching for the lost loved one), are not solely to ensure the protection of vulnerable babies; but also, that these behaviors have been found to persist from cradle to grave, and that internalizing our relationships is what provides the security we need to go out into the world and do the myriad things we must do (Bowlby, 1969; 1980).  The loss of a centrally important person threatens our sense of safety and security, while simultaneously raising the deepest questions about who we are in the wake of the death.  Grappling with these crises is at the heart of grief work.  Through the grief process, we unpack the relationship with the deceased and explore the extent to which our identities with the deceased are collaborative co-constructions that have evolved in space and over time.  When a life partner exits tragically and without warning, all of the relationships in a family will be transformed, including the survivor’s relationship with the deceased and the survivor’s relationship with the self.  Attig (1996) refers to this transformational process as “relearning” our relationship with the deceased and “relearning” ourselves.  It means transforming the nature of our connection to our loved ones and the places they hold in our lives going forward.  What legacy do you wish to see upheld and embodied in the stories that remain of your loved one’s life?  What interests and values does your loved one’s life continue to inspire in you?  What do you find yourself being passionate about as an outgrowth of your relationship and how does that passion influence your actions and lead you into the future? Your choices around “relearning” your world are essentially acts of personal creativity bounded only by the limits of your imagination and your wish to reconstruct a life of meaning that would honor the life of your loved one.  

Attig, T. (1996). How we grieve: Relearning the world. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Volume 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Feigelman, W., Jordan, J.R., McIntosh, J. L., & Feigelman, B. (2012). Devastating losses: How parents cope with the death of a child to suicide or drugs.  New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Freud, S. (1957). Mourning and melancholia.  In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.) The Standard Edition, Volume 14, pp. 239-260.  New York: Norton. (Original work published 1917)
Shapiro, E.R., (1994). Grief as a family process: A developmental approach to clinical practice. New York: The Guilford Press.



Archives:

From the Desk of Deborah Major
Sunday, March 01, 2015 by Deborah Major
The loss of a loved one to suicide represents a critical turning point, because it imposes into the survivor’s life a crisis of attachment and of identity.  What we hear in the first moments of every caller’s voice is shock, devastation, confusion and a sense of feeling utterly overwhelmed.  We hear these questions sometimes openly stated, at other times implied beneath the details of each caller’s story: “How am I to make sense of this? What am I supposed to do next?  How could this have happened? Why did he do this?”  Often callers interpret the suicide as containing a message from the loved one that the survivor feels compelled to decode: “What was he trying to tell me?”  Those who did not receive a note persist in the hope of finding one, a final communication that would explain why she chose to end the relationship so abruptly and in such a painful manner.   Those who did receive a note return to it repeatedly, hoping to understand the loved one’s frame of mind and the meaning beneath the words.  Suicide, more than other deaths, holds significant relationship meaning for those left behind.  In the earliest phases of the grief process, survivors see the suicide as encrypted with deep meaning about the relationship that they shared with the deceased.   Indeed, if we lose a loved one to cancer, the crisis of attachment may also emerge, but the struggle with the relationship meaning will never be connected to the cancer itself.  

Because of the many factors that differentiate suicide loss from other deaths, we recognize a more extended grief process as normal and to be expected.  Indeed, recent research on how parents cope with the death of a child to suicide found that a sample of traumatically bereaved parents had higher levels of posttraumatic stress for three or more years after the loss (Feigelman, Jordan, et al., 2012).  As we receive new members into the LOSS family, our first step is to provide a compassionate holding environment, a space both physical and psychological that may offer a cradle of stabilization to help ease the grief spasms until survivors develop a capacity to dose their exposure to the pain. Many LOSS members remain with us in monthly groups or individual counseling because they learn that this is one place where they can speak openly about the person they lost and about the pace of their adjustment to the loss, however slowly that adjustment progresses.  Indeed, the grief process and each individual’s reactions will vary widely according to many factors: including the individual’s personality and coping style, their history of previous losses, the nature of the relationship with the person who died, the presence of and willingness to make use of social supports, the nature of internalized family-of-origin relationships, as well as the degree to which the survivor feels responsible for the death, etc. (Shapiro, 1994).  We hear firsthand that many new LOSS members worry about whether they are grieving “the right way,” in part because they are caught off guard by the intensity of their emotional reactions and in part because of the many messages from friends and colleagues that grieving beyond a certain period of time is suggestive of “grief gone wrong.” These are the concerns of colleagues speaking through our culture which is largely death- and grief-phobic.  As a culture we are quite invested in “letting go” and “moving on.” Some of this stems from the philosophical underpinnings of the birth of this nation.  From its infancy the United States promised the right to happiness, albeit founded on the belief in a certain rugged individualism, that is, each person had to be determined to pull herself up by the bootstraps to claim it.  Couple this philosophy with early psychoanalytic models of adult mourning which assumed that the successful resolution of the grief process was a “decathexis” or detachment of “libido” from the loved one (Freud, 1957).  And today, most corporate leave policies for death and funeral rites are typically five days or fewer, subtly suggesting that the grief process can be resolved with efficiency and brevity.  

Fortunately, models of adult mourning have been evolving to include more relational orientations. Relational theories point out the centrality of our attachments, giving us better ways to explain the enduring connections that we experience long after death, and why it may be a sign of good health to retain them.  One noted grief scholar explains, “It is always surprising at first to realize how densely “peopled” our habits of mind and of daily living are, how many of our associations lead spontaneously to thoughts of those we love” (Shapiro, 1994, p. 22).   While we remain philosophically a culture that focuses intently on the needs and rights of the individual and the experience of a bounded self, we would do well to wonder, “What is the self and how real is it?”  When we lose a loved one, we discover how inextricably intertwined our identities are with the identity of the deceased.  For better or worse, we discover ourselves in the midst of an internal crisis of identity while at the same time experiencing an external crisis of attachment.  It should be no surprise that the experience feels so thoroughly disorienting and frightening when death takes us by surprise.  

We now know that as a species we are “hard-wired” for deep attachments to our loved ones, and that the sequence of attachment and separation behaviors (crying, protest, searching for the lost loved one), are not solely to ensure the protection of vulnerable babies; but also, that these behaviors have been found to persist from cradle to grave, and that internalizing our relationships is what provides the security we need to go out into the world and do the myriad things we must do (Bowlby, 1969; 1980).  The loss of a centrally important person threatens our sense of safety and security, while simultaneously raising the deepest questions about who we are in the wake of the death.  Grappling with these crises is at the heart of grief work.  Through the grief process, we unpack the relationship with the deceased and explore the extent to which our identities with the deceased are collaborative co-constructions that have evolved in space and over time.  When a life partner exits tragically and without warning, all of the relationships in a family will be transformed, including the survivor’s relationship with the deceased and the survivor’s relationship with the self.  Attig (1996) refers to this transformational process as “relearning” our relationship with the deceased and “relearning” ourselves.  It means transforming the nature of our connection to our loved ones and the places they hold in our lives going forward.  What legacy do you wish to see upheld and embodied in the stories that remain of your loved one’s life?  What interests and values does your loved one’s life continue to inspire in you?  What do you find yourself being passionate about as an outgrowth of your relationship and how does that passion influence your actions and lead you into the future? Your choices around “relearning” your world are essentially acts of personal creativity bounded only by the limits of your imagination and your wish to reconstruct a life of meaning that would honor the life of your loved one.  

Attig, T. (1996). How we grieve: Relearning the world. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Volume 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Feigelman, W., Jordan, J.R., McIntosh, J. L., & Feigelman, B. (2012). Devastating losses: How parents cope with the death of a child to suicide or drugs.  New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Freud, S. (1957). Mourning and melancholia.  In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.) The Standard Edition, Volume 14, pp. 239-260.  New York: Norton. (Original work published 1917)
Shapiro, E.R., (1994). Grief as a family process: A developmental approach to clinical practice. New York: The Guilford Press.