Suicide Grievers Talk About Family and Friends
Guilt, hypervigilance, mind-reading, and the unfillable void.
Posted Nov 17, 2017
At the third suicide grievers bereavement group meeting, after we look at the photographs people have brought of their loved ones, Maureen says, “We know that grief—the sadness, pain, anger, hope, and love in grief—strains some relationships. There’s so much change after a suicide. Let’s share some stories, and see how our families are reorganizing.” I add, “We’re using the term 'family' to mean people with whom we have strong attachment, so maybe friends and associates too. Will, would you start us off?”
Will sits back in his chair, the most relaxed of any of us. He smiles. “I want to tell you about a group of men. We’ve met every Tuesday morning for over ten years. We’ve helped each other through all kinds of challenges and sorrows: losing a job, divorce, bankruptcy, health problems, career changes, retirement. When Rob died, I knew right away that those men would be the ones who would get me through, if anyone could. And they have. I talk about Rob with them. Some of them are mad at Rob; some of them don’t say anything, they just listen. Some of them pray for him, and for me. One of them suggested I sign up for this group. They make sure I’m eating, make sure I have a place to go for holidays, invite me over to watch a football game. I thank God for them.” As Will speaks, I wonder if this is an AA meeting. Of course, Rotary and Kiwanis meet in the morning too, but somehow AA seems more likely. Will has a certain serenity.
Eleanor goes next. “You all have met my son Ed. He’s a loner. He has people he meets up with at a bar. They drink together. You heard him say they don’t want to hear about Mark. They’re not friends.” Her tone is bitter, and I make a mental note for us to talk about alcoholism when Ed comes back. Perhaps Will can help Ed. Eleanor continues. “You heard him say last week that he doesn’t talk to anybody. I wanted him to come here to talk. Today he wouldn’t come. I get angry with him. I don’t know what to do to help him. And I am so scared, so very scared, that he is going to do what Mark did.”
Maureen fields this one. “Does anyone else feel worried about the safety of a family member?” Carla nods. “I sometimes worry about Dan. Like Ed, he doesn’t talk.” Jennifer says, “My parents seem less able to take care of themselves since Bill’s death.” Will says, “I have no idea what’s going on with Rob’s mother. I’m not in her life, but I worry about her. And I have anxiety about Franny.”
“We tend to be vigilant after a suicide,” Maureen says. “Having lost one person, we’re afraid we’re going to lose others. Does everyone feel that sometimes?” Everyone nods, and the room relaxes: their fears are normal under the circumstances, and the group is bonding.
“We talked about guilt at the first session,” I comment. “Grievers wonder ‘Could I have done something to have prevented this?’” They look at me steadily, without expression, and I am suddenly self-conscious. I finish: “Is the vigilance a way of being extra-sure that no sign is missed, no risk run, because of the guilt you feel about Rob and Mark, Jason, Bill and Lucille?”
As I say those words, naming the guilt each griever feels—that they didn’t see something they should have seen, that they didn’t do something they could have done—literally everyone begins to cry, even Maureen, even me. I don’t have their experiences, but it’s not hard to imagine what I would feel. After a moment the group breaks into laughter at the tears, and the Kleenex box gets passed around the table. Wow!” Maureen says, “That guilt sure gets us!”
Carla picks up the thread. “I am vigilant about Dan. I secretly watch him when we’re sitting at home watching tv. He’ll be looking at the football game, and I’ll be spying on him out of the corner of my eye, trying to see what’s going on inside. I watch him all the time, trying to figure out how he is.” Eleanor jumps in: “Exactly! That’s just how I am with Ed! Except I think I’m not as good at hiding it—he’s on my case all the time, saying ‘Mom, quit staring at me,’ or ‘Mom, I’ll be home when I’m home. Don’t worry.’ As if I could help worrying.” “If only mind-reading were possible,” I say, and Carla and Eleanor nod. “If only,” Carla repeats.
Will says quietly, “I worry about Franny.” Everyone focuses on him. “She and Rob were together for 3 years, and he always looked after her. He was the stable one. She’s flighty, emotional. Plus, Franny was the one who found Rob.” Will looks at Jennifer. “You know what that’s like,” and she nods. “I was the one who found my brother. You don’t ever get rid of that, not completely. Rob’s means of death was mysterious, weird, creepy even. I don’t know what to make of it, and I know Franny doesn’t. She told me that she’s been dreaming about it, and she thinks that Rob was trying to tell her something in the method of his death. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I think that Franny is haunted, tortured even. And I worry that if she doesn’t deal with that somehow, she might break under the strain. I don’t know how to help her, since she thinks I’m a pretty stuffy old guy.” He smiles. “Which I am, I expect. But I watch her, try to keep her safe with my prayers.”
The group sits silent for a moment. Then Jennifer speaks. “My parents are in their 70s. When Bill died, they aged a decade overnight. They were suddenly old, frail, lost. They live about 15 miles from me, and right after his death I started going over to see them every day, to make sure they were eating dinner. I’ve been doing that every day. When I get there, my mother follows me around, grasping my shirt to make sure I am really there. My dad searches my face at the dinner table, and asks me several times each evening, “Are you all right, Jenny?” Jennifer pauses to breathe deeply. Eleanor hands her the Kleenex box. When she’s calm again, she goes on. “These days when I get to their door, I have to prepare myself to go in. I feel smothered by their anxiety, and by their desperate need for me to be everything to them. They want me to be Billy, the way they expected him to be and he never was, and they want me to be whole and strong, despite the fact that my brother killed himself. There’s no room in that space for me. It’s too full of their loss, their son, full of fear and loneliness. They cling to me as if I can save them, and they make it clear that if I were to have any grief, it would kill them. Sometimes I hate Billy for what he did to them, to me, to my relationship with them. He took them away from me.”
The group is still, witnessing Jennifer’s grief. Eventually Eleanor speaks into the silence. “I’m so sorry, Jennifer.” Others nod. “And I want to tell you, I’m learning from your story that I need to change my behavior with Ed. I need to be careful not to smother him. I need to show him that I love him because he is Ed, and that I do not want him to be Mark. And I need to make sure that there is space in our house—and in my heart—for him to grieve his brother.” Jennifer lifts her head and looks directly into Eleanor’s tired, worn face. “Thank you for saying that,” Jennifer says.
As we near the time of meditation, and prepare to go back out into the world, I say, “Let's hold Ed and Franny in the light, as the Quakers do.” We are quiet, thinking of the two young people in the group, and also of the young people whose deaths created this group. We want to keep Ed and Franny safe, protect them from the dangers that took the others, the dangers that can frighten us all: depression, loneliness, emptiness, despair.
A few minutes later, when Maureen and I walk out into the glistening snow around the church, I notice Eleanor and Jennifer talking by their cars. As we approach, maternal Eleanor leans over and kisses Jenny on the cheek. Jenny takes a deep breath, and then gives Eleanor a tight, quick hug before running to her car. Eleanor watches her go, and waves.