The trauma of personal loss:
Life is contradictory. Our thoughts and actions bear witness to this fact. We believe in empowering people but have trouble accepting help from others. We espouse the importance of de-cluttering while hanging on to stuff that evokes memories and brings a smile to our face.
We all have a drawer full of what author Stephen King calls ‘unvaluable valuables.’ Shiny pebbles from distant shores, a box of bling, a lock of hair, a rusty fishing lure and a cricket ball that speaks of a forgotten past.
We know what it is to be ‘alone but not alone,’ to sit on a park bench and watch the world go by. To be lost in our thoughts while observing young families making their way to the playground, businessmen talking loudly on their smart phones, and walkers committed to their daily exercise regime.
Professor of anthropology, David Berliner says,
To understand more fully how we can be ‘alone but not alone,’ I want to draw on the experience of Holocaust survivors, explore a novel by Charlotte Bronte called Villette, and share what I have learned as a survivor of suicide loss.
The experience of Holocaust survivor Heinz Wallach, of North Texas is a poignant reminder of what it is to live a contradictory life, to be ‘alone but not alone.’ Wallach, who lives in an Independent-Living Community, celebrated his 100th birthday on Sunday May 24, 2020. The occasion was marked with a drive-through parade of cars and visitors social distancing and wearing their masks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Wallach says he has seen some of the best in humanity and some of the worst in humanity. After his home was destroyed in Kristallnacht, Wallach and his father were sent to a concentration camp. He lost his mother, father, and sister to the Holocaust. Heinz survived, married Doris, and had two daughters.
Arnold Zable is an Australian writer, novelist, storyteller, and human rights activist. His mother Hadassah grew up in Poland, escaped the Holocaust, but lost her entire family, except for two sisters, to genocide.
The traumatic experience of loneliness during the war years had a lasting impact on her life. She nurtured deep within the pain and sorrow of her profound loss. She lived with contradiction, alone but not alone.
Zable writes about his mother in his latest book, The Watermill. He says,
“Life had broken her. She retreated from the world. She was unable to overcome her sense of life as a betrayal and find solace for her wounded spirit. Unable to overcome her unjustified guilt for not saving her loved ones. She could not forgive herself for surviving and would not allow her talents to flourish.”
Despite the trauma, the loss and regret, she channeled the energy and purpose she had left into raising her three sons, helping her husband at his Victoria Market stall, sewing garments for the factories and singing Yiddish songs around the house – songs she had once performed in public at community celebrations.
“There were moments when she was no longer there, she was in that other place.”
Villette is an 1853 novel written by English author Charlotte Brontë. After an unspecified family disaster (presumably the death of her close family), the protagonist Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small French-speaking town of Villette.
Charlotte Brontë’s autobiographical novel, the last published during her lifetime, is a powerfully moving study of loneliness and isolation.
Lucy Snowe is a ‘plain’ woman with no fortune or connections. Her personality is shaped by the trauma of her shadowy past. She is reluctant to show her feelings and is prone to bouts of depression. On occasions she suffers from nerves, nightmares, and headaches, particularly when she is alone.
Lucy wants to be loved but her expectations of marital happiness are remote. She regards herself as an insignificant person unworthy of notice. She is resolved to getting through life alone.
One episode captures the loneliness and hopelessness that Lucy feels. During the long vacation when teachers and students travelled to distant places Lucy was given the task of caring for a disabled pupil whose stepmother in a distant province would not allow to return home. Lucy was distraught. She says,
“My heart almost died within me; miserable longings strained its chords… Looking forward at the commencement of those eight weeks, I hardly knew how I was to live to the end. My spirits had long been gradually sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down fast.”
Lucy is eventually relieved of her caring responsibilities. She finds herself alone with her thoughts. She imagines the happy and relaxing times her acquaintances are experiencing. She spirals into a depression so terrible and lonely that she becomes physically unwell and faints on the snowy streets of Villette.
She is attended to by Dr John, the young English doctor who visits the boarding school where she works. Dr John has little understanding of mental illness. He describes her breakdown as ‘nervous fever,’ and recommends that Lucy control her emotions. He says,
“Happiness is the cure – a cheerful mind the preventive: cultivate both.”
Lucy knows mental illness is not a choice. She thinks to herself,
“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me as hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure.”Lucy Snowe: Villette, Charlotte Bronte
People with a mental illness often feel on the outer. These feelings can be exacerbated if they sense people do not understand.
Despite her vulnerabilities, the anxious thoughts and hidden insecurities, Lucy Snowe pursues a purposeful life. She is a teacher at Madame Beck’s Pensionnat for young ladies. She is resourceful and reliable and willing to accept a challenge. She seems to be suited to a structured environment with its routines and clear expectations. It is here she can make sense of the contradictory notion that she is ‘alone but not alone.’
This past week, news feeds reported the death of a 38-year-old retired Australian Rules Footballer. The cause of death was suicide, although there is a reluctance in the media to use this term. It is a familiar script: Retired sportsperson struggles to find a renewed purpose following the end of their professional career. In this instance there were also underlying mental health issues that were not being addressed.
I have said it many times, suicide is always a tragedy. I think of the communities affected – the immediate family, the sporting fraternity, and the public in general.
We struggle to know how to respond when we hear of a suicide. It is so counter to all we think and feel. Perhaps it is not. When circumstances are against us it is easy to feel despair, to wonder whether we can turn life around. It can be a lonely place.
People who take their life have this perception that no-one could possibly understand; that there is no help available; that the struggle is personal.
But this is not the case. Remember, it takes courage to admit that you need help, that you cannot do it on your own, that you may have to be accountable to someone else for your thoughts and actions. The desired outcome is life not death.
I think of the wife of the footballer who took his life and the feelings that will assail her – feelings of rejection, abandonment, fear, guilt, anger, resentment, emptiness, betrayal, sadness, despair. Suicide grief is all-consuming. It becomes a part of who you are. It is a life sentence.
And then there are the two young children. If you are thinking life is unfair, you are right. Every child deserves a daddy. You will have many questions. Some will never have an answer. Be prepared, one of your friends is going to innocently ask, “Why did your dad kill himself?” Do not feel obliged to give an answer. Only he knows.
Whether you are having suicidal thoughts or trying to reclaim your life after a suicide loss, remember, you might feel alone, but you are not alone.