Maureen and I meet at the church half an hour before the second session of the Suicide Grievers group. We've planned the session in the intervening week, but we want to get the room set up: the refreshments out, contact info the group members had requested distributed at each person's place at the table. We also want to greet each member individually, do a little personal check-in as they come in.
Jack arrives first. He surprises me by giving each of us a hug before he removes his coat, which Maureen takes to hang up. "How are you?" I ask, searching his face. He shrugs. "It was a hard week. I was surprised that Franny ended up coming. I'm glad, I guess. Well, sort of." Jack's son Rob completed suicide. Franny was Rob's girlfriend. Franny is talkative, self-absorbed, seems superficial, though Maureen and I know that may be a defense. She has no idea what Jack is feeling; in the group last week, when she described how Rob died, she didn't see Jack's face. She focused her description on her experience, her horror and shock, her fury and disgust. Her description was brutal; I had considered cutting in, and had met Jack's eyes down the table. When I raised my eyebrows at him, he responded to the query with a quick, small shake of his head: no, don't stop her.
"What was it like for you to have her talk the way she did?" I ask. Jack sighs. "I felt like Rob wasn't there. That for her, his death isn't about him." He takes a deep breath. "For Franny, it's about Franny." He laughs, a short, harsh exhalation. "She's young. It's different for her. There will be another boyfriend." He looks around the room, where Maureen is, and then back at me. "There won't be another son," I say quietly. There's a long silence, and then Jack says, "No. There won't be another son." He holds my gaze, and when I put my hand on his arm, he covers it with his own for a moment.
Eleanor and her son Ed arrive. Eleanor looks tired. Ed wears sweat pants and a hoodie again, but he has combed his hair. "Hi," he says to the room in general, keeping his head down. He takes a bottle of water and a granola bar, and sits down, turns inward. Eleanor stops to talk with Maureen and me by the door. "He didn't want to come today," she tells us. "I told him he had to. We had a fight. I told him that I couldn't bear it if he left me too." Maureen and I exchange glances. "Left you too?" I echo, seeking clarification. "Yes. I'm so afraid that he might." "Might what?" I ask gently. She looks down, the epitome of a Dutch painting of the grieving Madonna. I realize that I have to be direct. She doesn't have the words.
"Are you worried about depression? About Ed harming himself? Killing himself?" She lifts her face to us. "Of course I am," she says, dully. "How could I not be?" I look over at Ed, his face hidden in the hoodie. "I understand," I say. As I walk over to Ed, to assess his current mood before the group begins, I hear Maureen say to Eleanor, "It's so good you came today." Eleanor responds, "Oh, I had to."
Ed is actually all right. He even talks a bit during the group. Maureen and I introduce the topic of social support after a suicide, and Franny leaps in, telling us at length about her conversations with colleagues and friends, and her mother's insistence that Franny "make this a teaching opportunity" to help her third-grade class "learn about death." Maureen and I exchange glances again, and Maureen says firmly, "Let's not go there right away, Franny." At that point Ed speaks up, a counterbalance to Franny's spill.
"I don't have anybody to talk to about Mark," he says. "Guys I know don't want to hear about him, especially not about the way he died." That opens an essential conversation about the isolation after a suicide: the stigma, and the avoidance. Carla notes that she and her husband stopped talking after their son Jason's death. "Oh, not literally," she reassures us. "We were able to say, 'Please pass the salt,' at the dinner table. But for the longest time, we never talked about Jason, or his death, or our feelings. Dan seemed like he couldn't cope." She looks across the table at Jack. "Are you married? Do you and your wife talk about Rob?" Jack says quietly, "We've been divorced a long time. We haven't talked. She--my son's mother--didn't come to the funeral." We sit in silence for a moment as that sinks in.
Eventually Carla nods. "It felt kind of like we were divorced too, though we were living in the same house. We just couldn't figure out how to talk." "Have you figured it out now?" I ask. She considers. "Not really. We mention Jason occasionally: a reference to a family trip years ago, or to the Christmas when he was three. He had the flu, and threw up while opening presents." We smile at the image of the little boy Jason was. "His death doesn't feel like an elephant in the room," Carla says. "It's there, and not there. He's here--" she touches her chest. "He's here, and not here." Her hand moves to the space around her. "It sounds like maybe he has been integrated into your life and your memory," I comment. She considers again. "Yes, in some ways. But it hangs between Dan and me. Jason's there, between us, unacknowledged. I feel so sad for Dan. He seems shut down."
The air in the room feels heavy, and I hear the clock on the far wall ticking. "We don't have a lot of time left today," I say, "but I think it might be good to talk next week about what happens in families, or with other relationships where you feel a lot of attachment, when someone you love dies. Usually family dynamics shift, families have to reorganize. Sometimes relationships change, or even end." There's a pause as the group examines that process of reorganizing in their lives. "Your homework," I continue, "is to think about what's going on in your close relationships, since your loved one died. Bring a story to tell." They smile. "And bring a picture," I add. "Bring a picture of the person who died. Let's get them in the room with us. I think we want them here." I gesture to the space around us. "Here in this room, so we can take them into our hearts." They nod.
As Maureen starts the guided meditation that will end the session, I watch Ed. Along with everyone else, he closes his eyes as Maureen begins. I notice, a moment later, that a single tear is easing down his cheek. He doesn't wipe it away. He lets it flow.