Franklin James Cook

Columnist Depicts Survivor Experience (almost) Accurately

In Grief, Prevention on January 31, 2009 at 11:41 am

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

ORIGINAL COLUMN —  Author Lisa Earle McLeod’sForget Perfect” column this week will strike a chord with people everywhere who have lost a loved one to suicide:

A friend of mine just got the news that another man in her neighborhood killed himself …

Another man who decided that his family would be better off without him.

Another man who will never walk his daughter down the aisle or be the best man at his son’s wedding.

Another man whose wife will forever wonder what she could have done differently.

I don’t know what happened in each of the circumstances. But I do know that when someone is depressed they lose perspective and often fail to see the true consequences of their actions.

She writes directly to people who might be having thoughts of suicide as if she herself knows what a family member goes through after a loved one kills himself:

If you’re starting to think that things would be better if you weren’t around, let me fill you in on the aftermath of a suicide.

Your kids will spend the rest of their lives wondering why they weren’t enough to make you happy.

They’ll go to bed every single night knowing that their mom or dad would rather be dead than be with them.

They’ll look back over happy moments you spent together and wonder if you were just faking it, because surely if you really loved them you never would have chosen to leave.

They’ll struggle with relationships for the rest of their life, because they’ll never feel confident that someone will ever love them enough to stick around.

With each new person they meet, at work, or in church, or at school, they’ll wonder, should I tell? Do they already know? What will they think of me when they find out?

Of course, your spouse will have to plan a funeral, sort out the mess of your finances, and manage every aspect of the household alone. But that will be nothing compared to the grief they face as the surviving parent trying to keep it together for kids whose lives will never be the same again.

Some people will even suggest to your spouse that he or she should have gotten you some help. It will hurt to hear, but it’s nothing that they haven’t thought a million times themselves.

And, if your parents are still alive, they will suffer the worst grief a human can bear, and they will forever feel like they failed.

I take issue with some of the images she draws in those passages, for example:

  • Describing children survivors (whether they are young children or adult children of parents who die by suicide) as “knowing” their parent didn’t love them is both misleading and unhelpful. The actual experience of the vast majority of survivors would be much better described by words such as “wondering” or “questioning” not “knowing,” for in fact it is the doubt, confusion, and fear about one’s relationship with the deceased that are most commonly troubling to survivors. And, more importantly, almost without exception, people who die by suicide love their families (even if they lose contact with that love as a resource for their own decision-making and behavior).
  • Using absolute terms such as “never feel confident” and “forever feel like they failed” also oversimplifies the emotional outcome of suicide. It is sadly true that, early in the grief process, one’s confidence can be crippled and one’s sense of failure can be overwhelming–and that suicide grief can be strenuous and complicated for a relatively long time. But most people who lose a loved one to suicide do indeed recover from the debilitating aftermath of the death. Survivors don’t “get it over it,” but they generally do find ways to begin living their lives again with confidence in the love they receive from others and with the understanding that their loved one’s death was not a failure on their part.

Those few blemishes in what McLeod writes are not merely nitpicking, for writing (and speaking) accurately about suicide is vital. In her zeal to say something useful to men who might be desperate enough to kill themselves, she lost sight in a few instances of what she might also be saying to survivors. Even so, her errors shouldn’t detract from the otherwise excellent observations she makes in her column about the aftermath of suicide from the perspective of the survivors left behind.

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