Patricia McDermott lost her younger brother, Matthew, to suicide in what were tragic circumstances. McDermott devotes the latter part of her book, Resurrection: A True Story of Power and Forgiveness, to tracking her grief which, as she suggests, ‘contains an enormous amount of pain’.
McDermott references Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler who identified five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. McDermott says that while the stages weren’t sequential and often resurfaced unexpectedly they did provide an excellent framework for understanding grief. Author Niall Williams says, “Grief has its own tide and comes and goes in waves.”
What underpins the work of Kubler-Ross and Kessler is the premise that our love for the one we have lost can continue because love is eternal.
I have selected several aspects of suicide grief that I particularly resonate with.
“Tears are one of the many ways we release sadness and pain. It is important we give ourselves permission to cry… Uncried tears don’t go away; they sit there waiting to be cried… It has taken a decade and a half for the tears to almost stop.”
I still experience moments of sadness when my emotions take over and the tears flow. I am coming to understand the triggers that cause these feelings to emerge. Often they come unannounced, catching me unprepared.
My wife and I saw the movie, ‘Woman in Gold’ recently. It is a film based on the true story of Maria Altman, an elderly Jewish refugee who fought the government of Austria to reclaim a painting of her aunty that was stolen from her relatives by the Nazis in Vienna just prior to World War II. It was one of the flashbacks that touched me deeply. Maria is saying her final good-byes to her parents knowing that she will never see them again. In seeking their blessing she is charged with the responsibility ‘to remember’. As I have reflected on this scene and tried to understand my emotional response I have come to understand that it is this idea of ‘final separation’, which causes me to remember that my son Adam is gone and his life on earth over.
McDermott says, “I felt I needed to be forgiven by Matthew for my act of omission, for failing to be there for him.” McDermott was particularly aggrieved that she said no to Matthew visiting her as she was going away on a well deserved break. As she said, “I didn’t think to ask him why he was coming and he never said anything more. I can still hear his sad voice say ‘Oh!’ It was the last time he spoke to me.”
Feelings of guilt are somewhat inevitable when you lose someone you love to suicide. There are some questions that won’t go away. “Why didn’t I see that?” “How could I be so blind?” “Where was I when he needed me most?” Forgiveness isn’t possible without being aware that you have fallen short in some way.
I have to accept the fact that I failed Adam, that my word and actions were insufficient to keep him alive. Only then am I able to recall those expressions of love and to know that I’m not held responsible.
McDermott says, “When a loved one commits suicide there is a tendency to focus all of the attention on the whys and how’s, to ask what could I have done? There is also a narrowing of attention to the moments leading up to the death that obscures the rest of the life of the one who is gone. This needs to be recaptured.”
In an article on suicide, Ron Rolheiser makes mention of Harvard psychiatrist, Nancy Rappaport, who wrote a particularly moving book in which she endeavoured to make sense of her mother’s suicide, to redeem her bond to her mother, and, in essence, to redeem her mother’s memory in the wake of her suicide.
Rolheiser says, “Few things stigmatise someone’s life and meaning as does a death by suicide. It is incumbent on those of us who are left behind to work at redeeming the life and memory of a loved one who died by suicide.”
What Rolheiser is saying is that we need to reclaim the memory of our loved one. My son Adam is more than a suicide statistic. He lived and breathed and loved and lost and gave and received. He was a son, a brother, an uncle and a cousin. He was a rugby player, a fly fisherman, a market gardener, and a roofing plumber. He had a fork lift licence, a truck licence, and was licensed to perform high risk work. He travelled to New York with Camp America and went on a mission trip to Fiji. He supported Christian organisations and shared his faith with people on the streets. We have a short video of Adam’s low key 30th birthday celebrations. He died 6 weeks later.