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In the Aftermath of a Suicide

Suicide activates a search for meaning.

Three weeks ago to the day, I was having a rather intense conversation with my longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Harriet Cobb. Harriet had been going through a very rough patch lately, and we were game planning an adaptive path forward. Earlier that week her depression was severe enough to warrant a suicide assessment, in which she acknowledged suicidal ideation, but denied intent and contracted for safety. Thankfully, she was looking much better that day.

I have expertise in suicide risk assessment and the treatment of suicidal behavior. Harriet always emphasized self-care and carried herself with a demeanor that exuded confidence and grace. We both were core faculty members in a clinical-school psychology program that emphasized self-reflective awareness, connection, and the promotion of human well-being via an integrative lens.

A couple of hours after that conversation, Harriet took her own life.

I believe a central element of human psychology is that we humans operate, either implicitly or explicitly, on a justification narrative that guides our actions and lives. One implication of this assertion is that when events unfold that are in contrast to that narrative, the need to make sense out of them is extremely powerful. This was one of the most central dynamics of this entire event.

Our program prides itself on authenticity, humanistic values, and using psychology to both understand and improve the human condition. I pride myself on my ability to conceptualize. I am the “go to” person for suicide risk assessment. If these things are really true, how could Harriet’s suicide have happened? Doesn’t her suicide challenge what we stand for? In addition to the pure feelings of grief and loss and managing the void she left behind, these questions about how and why it happened and what it meant about us and our system were at the very heart of the storm we faced.

I share this story to remind readers of the dynamics following a suicide. Stigma is associated with suicide because, in its aftermath, it directly or indirectly raises fundamental questions about the people involved. This happens regardless if anyone explicitly says anything about it or not. It is an evitable consequence of humans being meaning making beings.

Awareness of this dynamic and the courage to face it has been one of our system’s greatest assets in the aftermath of this tragedy. As I comment in my eulogy (shared below), our program had the fortitude, compassion, insight, and resolve to face those questions. There was, indeed, a narrative for what happened, and the story does not fundamentally undermine what we stand for or what we are about. Ultimately, it was our collective response to the act, rather than the act itself, that carried far more implications about what we are truly about.

My eulogy for Harriet:

The Legacy of Harriet Cobb

It was about a decade ago when I stumbled across an advertisement for an assistant professor to work in the kind of program that I would have said only existed in my dreams. The program recognized the profound problem of fragmentation in professional psychology, and it cut across the practice areas in a way that offered an integrative vision for doctoral level training. It also offered a unique blend of emphases on scientific knowledge and humanistic values and sought to create a community of individuals who strove toward self-awareness, social responsibility, and a global ethic. Where on earth did this program come from, I wondered. I would later discover that it was the result of the vision and the efforts of one person more than any other…Harriet Clare Cobb.

As I am sure is the case for many of you, when I first met Harriet in 2003, I was taken in by her unique combination of grace, warmth, and professionalism. She and I immediately took a liking to one another, and we quickly became good friends. She invited me to her home, and regaled me with stories of her family, her sisters, and especially of her son Adam, whom she so deeply loved. She guided me as a junior faculty member and provided helpful advice about ways I could smooth out the somewhat rough edges of my public persona. She coached me on how to incorporate more warmth and praise into my supervision of our students. And, in the context of graduation ceremonies that could seem endless, she, along with Anne Stewart, taught me how to appreciate the enormous variety of species of women’s shoes…conservative, bland, stylish, sexy boarding on___.

When, at the age of 4, my son Jon suffered from a pretty intense bout of obsessive compulsive behavior, Harriet was there, both as a friend and a guide. She coached me and my wife Andee on an intervention of radical acceptance that had a markedly positive effect, and within a few months Jon was completely symptom free. When I struggled with cases in the therapy room, she was there as a wonderful sounding board, both supporting me and offering extremely helpful insights. When I led two professional conferences, she was there, using her interpersonal gifts to help pull together many different people toward a common vision. And when I became Director of our program, she was there, almost as a co-leader, supporting me, helping me find my footing, and clarifying the direction our program was headed.

Harriet and I had very comparable worldviews, and we had endless lunches and coffees, joyfully exploring their implications. She loved thinking about the big picture, and the nature of the universe, and I always felt that she was at her best when dialoguing about the intersection between the sciences and the humanities. She was well-informed about politics and economics, often extolling to me the virtues of a free market and articulating the kinds of governments that are best suited for human nature. I always felt connected to her during our coffees and lunches and will miss them deeply.

When an unexpected vacancy emerged in the role of the Department Head, Harriet stepped in as the interim head for two years. It is the case that, when she was in this role, not everyone agreed with every decision she made. For example, some of her academic colleagues—myself among them—questioned the wisdom of bringing a horse to the Department meeting... But what must be acknowledged is that, in the end, Harriet had the vision to see what our group needed in the long run. She was instrumental in bringing Dr. Robin Anderson in as her successor, and Robin has provided the Department with a transformative leadership style that brings out the best in all of us.

A glance across Harriet’s more than 30 years of contributions to the university, the community, and the profession reveals one accomplishment after another. From her early years as a school psychologist in Bath County to her ongoing contributions to the Harrisonburg community via her professional practice to her leadership of the award-winning school psychology program to her founding contributions to the C-I Doctoral program I now direct, Harriet’s influence is easy to see. And she was continuing to grow and expand into new areas like collaborative practice, primary care, and Intergroup Dialogue. It is a testament to the power of Harriet’s capacity to sense the way professional psychology should be organized and taught to note that, just within the last year, the APA Education Directorate has released a proposal for ‘Health Service Psychologists’ that directly echoes the integrative vision that Harriet promoted for over two decades.

It is of course the case that, like all of us, Harriet was not perfect. If she had been perfect, we would not be here today. Harriet knew how to give help, especially to those who were vulnerable. Yet, she had enormous trouble receiving help, especially when she was vulnerable. Her polished professionalism was, in part, compensatory, and it was connected to some deep scars left from her difficult childhood. This combination of elements interacted with recent stressors in her life with tragic consequences. And it is in the wake of that tragedy that we are gathered here to today and are left to struggle, not just with feelings of grief and loss, but also with profound questions as to how this could have happened and what does it all mean.

To live true to the values of self-reflective awareness, authenticity, openness and integrity that our program—Harriet’s program—so cherishes, we must not shy away from such questions. Instead, they must be asked and they must be faced. I stand before you with my answer. Harriet lost her way in the end, but the value of how she lived and what she left behind holds true. A two hour conversation with her son Adam revealed to me a man who is centered, grounded and clear about who he is. Moreover, the innumerable conversations that I have had with people connected to Harriet, her friends, her family, her colleagues, and, perhaps especially, the current students and graduates from our program have demonstrated to me over and over again grace and resolve, depth and compassion, sensitivity and presence. They have done so in a way that has allowed me to find more than just solace for my grief. They have done so in a way that has affirmed what we stand for, and affirmed everything that we are about. And, in so doing, they have affirmed the vision, the life, and the legacy of Harriet Clare Cobb.