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From the Desk of Deborah Major
Thursday, October 01, 2015 by Deborah Major
Experiencing the death of a loved one by suicide is among the most painful, bewildering losses that anyone can be asked to endure.  When the newly bereaved first call the LOSS Program seeking support, we hear the pain and confusion in their voices and in their questions.  Dying by suicide seems so senseless and so unnecessary to the vast majority who come seeking grief support.  The early emotional reactions, somatic symptoms, and intrusive ruminations about the loved one’s last moments feel unbearable, while at the same time they replay in a relentless loop that seems inescapable.  In the beginning nothing about the death makes sense, even as each survivor begins to test out tentative explanations to answer the question, “Why would he do this?”  We have heard many stories from survivors none of whom doubted the love of a deceased parent for her young children.  “I’m shocked. I just know that she would never voluntarily leave them.”  The complex relational experiences within spousal partnerships often leave bereaved partners second guessing and sometimes blaming themselves directly.  From bereaved siblings we hear, “Maybe I wasn’t a good enough sister …”   From bereaved friends we hear, “We were so close.  Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t he tell me?”  In our support groups and in counseling sessions we hear survivors struggle to make sense of a death that does not make sense to them.   These deaths are challenging on many, many levels.  They do not resemble deaths where there has been the opportunity to prepare psychologically, and to say goodbye.  Suicides are often “out-of-cycle” deaths, deaths where the person died unexpectedly and before their time.  Even in cases where a parent precedes children in death, the “unnaturalness” of the timing, and the manner of death challenge survivors’ core beliefs about how and when death is supposed to occur.  If the loved one died in a violent manner, this further challenges the survivor’s beliefs about the loved one’s identity and about the relationship they shared.  The combination of violence and total absence of anticipation challenges the survivor’s sense of control and the belief in a degree of life’s predictability.  For those whose lives had been relatively free of violence and abuse, this kind of death would also challenge one’s expectations of a world that is more or less benign and where we anticipate fairness and justice, or the sense that bad things should not happen to good people.  We have heard many people say that this traumatic, sudden death just isn’t fair; that it isn’t fair to the children, to parents, or to the partner, or to siblings or friends.  These anguished expressions point to the survivor’s core beliefs; they explain in part the assumptions that make up the way survivors understand themselves and their world.  Having one’s cherished assumptions turned upside down leaves most people feeling that they no longer understand how the world works.  Parents and bereaved partners often feel that they no longer understand who they are, since we often discover who we are in the faces of those closest to us.  They have been our mirror, and when the mirror goes dark, we are no longer sure of who we are, or how to be.  And for many adults, this begins the process of second guessing who they thought they were in the relationship. It is no wonder that many people feel totally disoriented in addition to feeling a level of anguish that is beyond words.   Because day-to-day living feels so painful and so crazy-making, many newly bereaved express a lack of certainty about whether they want to survive their own grief process.  And we know that most people need a good deal of support and reassurance to keep moving forward.   Because suicide challenges one’s central assumptions and core beliefs , the process of moving forward often involves taking a close look at prior beliefs and assumptions, examining them closely and often questioning them.  Maybe the old beliefs and assumptions are no longer strong enough to make up the core material of the boat that will carry you through the storm and forward into the future.  Many survivors find themselves doing some self-analysis, some analysis of their social world, and some analysis of how they want to participate in the wider society going forward.   Some reassess personal, educational or career goals.  Some question spiritual beliefs or make changes in their spiritual lives.  Whereas the deeper existential questions about the meaning of life (and more specifically, about the meaning of one’s own life) always seemed like questions that could be postponed prior to the death; after the loss, these questions often demand a more immediate hearing.  And we are well aware that life’s demands do not stand still so that you can all take time to become philosophers.  No, we know that the deep questioning about who you wish to be and what you want your life to be about in the wake of your loss, take place in the context of the emotional distress of missing your loved one; of having to find jobs, or keep jobs; the demands of prioritizing the needs of young children or supporting the decisions of older children, or guiding young adults.  This is why we say that grief work is very hard work.   It is also one of the reasons that survivors often feel so misunderstood by the social circle they expected to support them.  With a suicide loss the survivor doesn’t just bury their loved one and go back to the life they understood.  After the death, they return to a life that is barely recognizable; sort of like waking up in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language or understand the currency, or any of the social norms.   The old term for this experience is culture shock.  And the process of acclimation is a gradual one requiring much patience and support.  Given this strange new landscape, most survivors will manage to create something new—not because this seems like the desirable choice, but because they have to; because the old beliefs and assumptions are no longer sufficient to carry them forward.   Because the grief experience is so unique to each person, it would be presumptuous to try and state what survivors may create on their journeys.  But research on the kind of growth that can occur in bereaved individuals suggests that growth develops in part out of the struggle to understand a world that no longer fits the old story; that is, a world where the trauma itself forces a reconstruction of beliefs, a new self-concept and a new life narrative.  This is a daunting task, but one that you need never undertake alone.  It is our mission and our wish to be your companion along the way.


Archives:

From the Desk of Deborah Major
Thursday, October 01, 2015 by Deborah Major
Experiencing the death of a loved one by suicide is among the most painful, bewildering losses that anyone can be asked to endure.  When the newly bereaved first call the LOSS Program seeking support, we hear the pain and confusion in their voices and in their questions.  Dying by suicide seems so senseless and so unnecessary to the vast majority who come seeking grief support.  The early emotional reactions, somatic symptoms, and intrusive ruminations about the loved one’s last moments feel unbearable, while at the same time they replay in a relentless loop that seems inescapable.  In the beginning nothing about the death makes sense, even as each survivor begins to test out tentative explanations to answer the question, “Why would he do this?”  We have heard many stories from survivors none of whom doubted the love of a deceased parent for her young children.  “I’m shocked. I just know that she would never voluntarily leave them.”  The complex relational experiences within spousal partnerships often leave bereaved partners second guessing and sometimes blaming themselves directly.  From bereaved siblings we hear, “Maybe I wasn’t a good enough sister …”   From bereaved friends we hear, “We were so close.  Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t he tell me?”  In our support groups and in counseling sessions we hear survivors struggle to make sense of a death that does not make sense to them.   These deaths are challenging on many, many levels.  They do not resemble deaths where there has been the opportunity to prepare psychologically, and to say goodbye.  Suicides are often “out-of-cycle” deaths, deaths where the person died unexpectedly and before their time.  Even in cases where a parent precedes children in death, the “unnaturalness” of the timing, and the manner of death challenge survivors’ core beliefs about how and when death is supposed to occur.  If the loved one died in a violent manner, this further challenges the survivor’s beliefs about the loved one’s identity and about the relationship they shared.  The combination of violence and total absence of anticipation challenges the survivor’s sense of control and the belief in a degree of life’s predictability.  For those whose lives had been relatively free of violence and abuse, this kind of death would also challenge one’s expectations of a world that is more or less benign and where we anticipate fairness and justice, or the sense that bad things should not happen to good people.  We have heard many people say that this traumatic, sudden death just isn’t fair; that it isn’t fair to the children, to parents, or to the partner, or to siblings or friends.  These anguished expressions point to the survivor’s core beliefs; they explain in part the assumptions that make up the way survivors understand themselves and their world.  Having one’s cherished assumptions turned upside down leaves most people feeling that they no longer understand how the world works.  Parents and bereaved partners often feel that they no longer understand who they are, since we often discover who we are in the faces of those closest to us.  They have been our mirror, and when the mirror goes dark, we are no longer sure of who we are, or how to be.  And for many adults, this begins the process of second guessing who they thought they were in the relationship. It is no wonder that many people feel totally disoriented in addition to feeling a level of anguish that is beyond words.   Because day-to-day living feels so painful and so crazy-making, many newly bereaved express a lack of certainty about whether they want to survive their own grief process.  And we know that most people need a good deal of support and reassurance to keep moving forward.   Because suicide challenges one’s central assumptions and core beliefs , the process of moving forward often involves taking a close look at prior beliefs and assumptions, examining them closely and often questioning them.  Maybe the old beliefs and assumptions are no longer strong enough to make up the core material of the boat that will carry you through the storm and forward into the future.  Many survivors find themselves doing some self-analysis, some analysis of their social world, and some analysis of how they want to participate in the wider society going forward.   Some reassess personal, educational or career goals.  Some question spiritual beliefs or make changes in their spiritual lives.  Whereas the deeper existential questions about the meaning of life (and more specifically, about the meaning of one’s own life) always seemed like questions that could be postponed prior to the death; after the loss, these questions often demand a more immediate hearing.  And we are well aware that life’s demands do not stand still so that you can all take time to become philosophers.  No, we know that the deep questioning about who you wish to be and what you want your life to be about in the wake of your loss, take place in the context of the emotional distress of missing your loved one; of having to find jobs, or keep jobs; the demands of prioritizing the needs of young children or supporting the decisions of older children, or guiding young adults.  This is why we say that grief work is very hard work.   It is also one of the reasons that survivors often feel so misunderstood by the social circle they expected to support them.  With a suicide loss the survivor doesn’t just bury their loved one and go back to the life they understood.  After the death, they return to a life that is barely recognizable; sort of like waking up in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language or understand the currency, or any of the social norms.   The old term for this experience is culture shock.  And the process of acclimation is a gradual one requiring much patience and support.  Given this strange new landscape, most survivors will manage to create something new—not because this seems like the desirable choice, but because they have to; because the old beliefs and assumptions are no longer sufficient to carry them forward.   Because the grief experience is so unique to each person, it would be presumptuous to try and state what survivors may create on their journeys.  But research on the kind of growth that can occur in bereaved individuals suggests that growth develops in part out of the struggle to understand a world that no longer fits the old story; that is, a world where the trauma itself forces a reconstruction of beliefs, a new self-concept and a new life narrative.  This is a daunting task, but one that you need never undertake alone.  It is our mission and our wish to be your companion along the way.