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From the Desk of Debbie Major
Monday, February 01, 2016 by Deborah R. Major, PhD, LCSW
From time to time I am invited to write for this column, most often when Father Rubey is away.  He has written this column every month for many years, and when I attend LOSS groups, often a group member will comment on how something they read in Father’s “From the desk of” column seemed to speak directly to their experience that week.  So it’s always a challenge to write here, knowing that readers are expecting words of wisdom and inspiration.  If you are reading this page, I know that you have either lost a loved one to suicide, or you are trying to help someone who has.  Our readership includes individuals and families that have lost a loved one quite recently, as well as those whose loss is many years in the past.  The Obelisk is also making its way around the world.  We have readers in Australia, in China, in Ireland.  And with the increasing popularity of our email format, it’s impossible to know where in the world these pages might be read, as local survivors with family members in the Philippines or Pakistan or Mexico can, with the click of a mouse, instantly forward the Obelisk to those near and far.  We know that survivors everywhere are searching for information, inspiration, and most importantly, for hope.  

As a therapist working with survivors young and old, and those of differing ethnic backgrounds, it has been important to pay attention to the differences and the commonalities across survivor experiences.  Each survivor brings a particular context and a unique way of responding to this traumatic, life-changing tragedy.  Everyone old enough to think and question (we have worked with extremely young survivors) struggles with why their loved one ended his life.  You can imagine that the struggle for meaning that engages a five-year-old who lost her father will differ considerably from that of her mother or her teenage brother.  Whether age seven or 77, it is each survivor’s meaning-making process that lies at the heart of healing.  To some meaning-making might seem an odd thing to consider in the wake of suicide.  The term itself may sound strange and poorly adapted to this kind of loss.  It is essentially the story that you are telling yourself about the death, about your relationship with the person you lost, and the story that you are telling yourself about yourself.  These stories are influenced by our beliefs, our values, our world view and the surrounding culture.  They are what we tell ourselves to make sense of the world.  But they are not carved in stone.  They can evolve. When we meet survivors in LOSS groups everyone shares their stories.  For those who prefer counseling, stories are shared during those encounters.  As therapists we listen for the personal meaning that each griever brings.  Within the same family, different family members may interpret the loss differently.  Everyone will make something unique of it.  And what you make of it will have consequences for you and those close to you. In a recent counseling session a mother who lost her teenage son shared a memory of her grandmother who had experienced the death of a child to disease.  She remembered her grandmother’s face, her demeanor and posture as perpetually bowed and broken by the loss.  As a child, it seemed that it was very important to her grandmother to hold onto the lost child through her experience of deep loss.  Her grandmother lived many more years, but my client never saw her smile again.  The image of her ever-grieving grandmother helped my client recognize what it would be like for her living children if the grief for her son became her primary identity.  She decided that she did not want to bury her future with her son, in part because of what that would mean for the emotional health of her living children.  

In prior columns I reflected on the ways that suicide creates a violent rift in how the survivor understands herself and her world.  Suicide disturbs our beliefs about our relationship with the person who died, and violates our assumptions about the ways that we expected life to unfold.  Our assumptions provide the guiding framework for our most cherished values and our priorities.  Without them everything feels called into question and we find ourselves thrown into existential crisis; a crisis that gives voice to the anguished question we hear from many, “What’s the point?”  The question is born of the shattered assumption that our lives should be fairly predictable, that we should have a reasonable degree of control over what happens to us and those we love, and that very bad things should not happen (to us).  It is this existential crisis that brings survivors to our doors, because the pain and the questions that accompany it, are so confounding. Beneath the “What’s the point?” question lies another, “So if this can happen to anyone, what are we doing here?” These are important questions, and they deserve close scrutiny and ultimately an answer of some kind.  They seem to speak to deeper questions of life mission or calling.  I know that in the immediate aftermath of a suicide most survivors are not focused on mission, since attending to the acute grief pangs engages all of one’s strength.  But I have met some survivors who seem to sense that it is in the arena of mission or calling that they must go, even if they are not certain of where it will lead.   
  
Making it through the pain of this tragedy involves gently but honestly examining one’s relationship with the loved one and also honestly examining one’s values, assumptions and beliefs about what was important prior to the loss.  Many survivors talk about recognizing the need to clarify or change their priorities, to bring them more in line with what feels true in their changed world.  Many talk about establishing a “new normal,” which seems to suggest a revision of the status quo.  

No one expects anything even remotely good to come from these untimely and traumatic deaths.  Indeed those newly bereaved may experience a sense of outrage at the mere suggestion. I understand that sense of outrage. But the depth of identity and life examination that this tragedy begs one to engage can lead to a more dynamic growth state than is suggested by the term “new normal.”  I have met survivors who have grown in the aftermath of the worst tragedy of their lives.  And they would tell you themselves that they are as surprised as anyone to be able to say that  today.  They would tell you not to give up on your journey.


Archives:

From the Desk of Debbie Major
Monday, February 01, 2016 by Deborah R. Major, PhD, LCSW
From time to time I am invited to write for this column, most often when Father Rubey is away.  He has written this column every month for many years, and when I attend LOSS groups, often a group member will comment on how something they read in Father’s “From the desk of” column seemed to speak directly to their experience that week.  So it’s always a challenge to write here, knowing that readers are expecting words of wisdom and inspiration.  If you are reading this page, I know that you have either lost a loved one to suicide, or you are trying to help someone who has.  Our readership includes individuals and families that have lost a loved one quite recently, as well as those whose loss is many years in the past.  The Obelisk is also making its way around the world.  We have readers in Australia, in China, in Ireland.  And with the increasing popularity of our email format, it’s impossible to know where in the world these pages might be read, as local survivors with family members in the Philippines or Pakistan or Mexico can, with the click of a mouse, instantly forward the Obelisk to those near and far.  We know that survivors everywhere are searching for information, inspiration, and most importantly, for hope.  

As a therapist working with survivors young and old, and those of differing ethnic backgrounds, it has been important to pay attention to the differences and the commonalities across survivor experiences.  Each survivor brings a particular context and a unique way of responding to this traumatic, life-changing tragedy.  Everyone old enough to think and question (we have worked with extremely young survivors) struggles with why their loved one ended his life.  You can imagine that the struggle for meaning that engages a five-year-old who lost her father will differ considerably from that of her mother or her teenage brother.  Whether age seven or 77, it is each survivor’s meaning-making process that lies at the heart of healing.  To some meaning-making might seem an odd thing to consider in the wake of suicide.  The term itself may sound strange and poorly adapted to this kind of loss.  It is essentially the story that you are telling yourself about the death, about your relationship with the person you lost, and the story that you are telling yourself about yourself.  These stories are influenced by our beliefs, our values, our world view and the surrounding culture.  They are what we tell ourselves to make sense of the world.  But they are not carved in stone.  They can evolve. When we meet survivors in LOSS groups everyone shares their stories.  For those who prefer counseling, stories are shared during those encounters.  As therapists we listen for the personal meaning that each griever brings.  Within the same family, different family members may interpret the loss differently.  Everyone will make something unique of it.  And what you make of it will have consequences for you and those close to you. In a recent counseling session a mother who lost her teenage son shared a memory of her grandmother who had experienced the death of a child to disease.  She remembered her grandmother’s face, her demeanor and posture as perpetually bowed and broken by the loss.  As a child, it seemed that it was very important to her grandmother to hold onto the lost child through her experience of deep loss.  Her grandmother lived many more years, but my client never saw her smile again.  The image of her ever-grieving grandmother helped my client recognize what it would be like for her living children if the grief for her son became her primary identity.  She decided that she did not want to bury her future with her son, in part because of what that would mean for the emotional health of her living children.  

In prior columns I reflected on the ways that suicide creates a violent rift in how the survivor understands herself and her world.  Suicide disturbs our beliefs about our relationship with the person who died, and violates our assumptions about the ways that we expected life to unfold.  Our assumptions provide the guiding framework for our most cherished values and our priorities.  Without them everything feels called into question and we find ourselves thrown into existential crisis; a crisis that gives voice to the anguished question we hear from many, “What’s the point?”  The question is born of the shattered assumption that our lives should be fairly predictable, that we should have a reasonable degree of control over what happens to us and those we love, and that very bad things should not happen (to us).  It is this existential crisis that brings survivors to our doors, because the pain and the questions that accompany it, are so confounding. Beneath the “What’s the point?” question lies another, “So if this can happen to anyone, what are we doing here?” These are important questions, and they deserve close scrutiny and ultimately an answer of some kind.  They seem to speak to deeper questions of life mission or calling.  I know that in the immediate aftermath of a suicide most survivors are not focused on mission, since attending to the acute grief pangs engages all of one’s strength.  But I have met some survivors who seem to sense that it is in the arena of mission or calling that they must go, even if they are not certain of where it will lead.   
  
Making it through the pain of this tragedy involves gently but honestly examining one’s relationship with the loved one and also honestly examining one’s values, assumptions and beliefs about what was important prior to the loss.  Many survivors talk about recognizing the need to clarify or change their priorities, to bring them more in line with what feels true in their changed world.  Many talk about establishing a “new normal,” which seems to suggest a revision of the status quo.  

No one expects anything even remotely good to come from these untimely and traumatic deaths.  Indeed those newly bereaved may experience a sense of outrage at the mere suggestion. I understand that sense of outrage. But the depth of identity and life examination that this tragedy begs one to engage can lead to a more dynamic growth state than is suggested by the term “new normal.”  I have met survivors who have grown in the aftermath of the worst tragedy of their lives.  And they would tell you themselves that they are as surprised as anyone to be able to say that  today.  They would tell you not to give up on your journey.