By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor
The November issue of O, The Oprah Magazine features an essay by Susan Klebold about her journey of healing after her son’s involvement in the Columbine shootings, in which 13 people were murdered and which ended in her son, Dylan, and his partner, Eric Harris, killing themselves. Klebold’s essay is a study in understatement, which obscures the fact that the voice behind the writing is that of an extraordinarily courageous and insightful woman, and I fear that the most important things she writes about will be lost beneath the nightmarish reality of what happened at Columbine on April 20, 1999.
One of the contributions she makes in her essay — a contribution that I think merits careful attention — is highlighting a very common experience of survivors of suicide loss:
While I perceived myself to be a victim of the tragedy, I didn’t have the comfort of being perceived that way by most of the community. I was widely viewed as a perpetrator or at least an accomplice since I was the person who had raised a “monster.”
That sentence, with a few changes in wording, could have been written by countless suicide survivors whose loved ones have been seen by others as weak or misfits or tainted or crazy or “monstrous” in some other way, survivors who themselves have been treated as complicit or blameworthy in their loved ones’ deaths.
This notion — that each of us who grieves over a death by suicide is “a victim of a tragedy” — is central to my own view* of one of the complications of suicide grief; and the value of Klebold’s observations about that phenomenon stems from the horrific nature of the shootings (there were 37 victims, 13 murder fatalities and 24 people wounded in the shootings), which accentuated her treatment as a “perpetrator.” If she has healed as a survivor of suicide in the face of the truly awful and starkly wrong-minded judgments leveled against her — in the most public of forums, the American mainstream media — then her healing journey likely holds lessons for the rest of us.
My interest in Klebold’s story is also based on the two times that I’ve met her.
The first was in April 2005, at the Healing After Suicide Conference of the American Association of Suicidology, which was held in a Denver suburb that year. She and I were among the 25 or so people in attendance at a conference session that closed with time for the audience to ask questions or make comments (I did not know she was in the audience, nor would I have known her if I saw her). In the middle of the Q-and-A, she stood and introduced herself, “My name is Susan Klebold …”
I cannot recount precisely what she said, but I remember a few things very clearly: She said that she had not viewed herself as a suicide survivor for a long time after her son died by suicide because of the circumstances surrounding his death, and she expressed gratitude over discovering that point of view because of how healing it had been for her. She spoke for no more than a moment, and I don’t recall her specifically mentioning Dylan or Columbine or murder, so, in fact, I was not certain who she was or what circumstances she was talking about, except that her name sounded very familiar to me. I was struck by how poignant what she said was, as is often the case when I hear a survivor of suicide loss first share publicly about his or her experience–and it seemed to me that this was the first time she had shared her story publicly as a survivor (although I didn’t know that for a fact).
As she finished speaking and the Q-and-A continued, I turned to a colleague next to me and said, “Susan Kelbold?” And my colleague replied simply, “Dylan Klebold’s mother,” and instantly I knew why the things she had said had struck me as being so powerful.
At the close of the session, a handful of people, myself included, went up and, one-by-one, introduced ourselves briefly. I simply welcomed her and thanked her for being there and for sharing what she had shared. I walked away thinking, “What a courageous woman.”
After that quite ephemeral encounter with Klebold, I had no contact with her until this February, when I had an extraordinary talk with her. I was planning to travel to Denver to deliver a suicide survivor support group facilitator training, and the colleague with whom I would be delivering the training called to ask if I would like to go to dinner with her and Susan Klebold, who had been in contact with the organization that sponsored the training. Because the conversation the three of us had that winter evening was private, I will not share the details of it, but I believe it is appropriate to share a few things in general about the context of the meeting:
- The purpose of the meeting, from Klebold’s point of view, was to explore how she might be helpful to people who are at risk of suicide and people who have lost a loved one to suicide.
- My colleague and I thought she might be tremendously helpful and were very encouraging and affirming about her possible role as an advocate for suicide prevention and suicide grief support.
- None among the three of us had a specific idea about how it might be best to explore her being helpful to the field.
In addition, I will share some of the conclusions I made from the content of the meeting:
- Susan Klebold’s personal journey after the most unimaginably hellish experience of suicide loss possible is one of the most extraordinary and inspiring stories of healing that I have ever heard.
- She left me with a profound sense of her courage, her humility, her strength, her wisdom, and her sincere desire only to be helpful to others.
- She has great insight into the nature of suicidal behavior and the role that mental illness plays in suicide.
- She is a survivor of suicide loss like any other survivor of suicide loss.
- She is also a survivor of a particular type of loss, murder-suicide, that deserves more — and more-compassionate — attention not only from society as a whole but also from the community of suicide survivors and suicide prevention workers and advocates.
One of the reasons for this post today is to state that, now, I do have a specific idea about how she might be most helpful to survivors, to which I’ve alluded, above: She could communicate the story of how she healed. What did she do to rise above the judgments of others? How did she first affirm herself as a victim of a tragedy and then move from there to being the survivor a tragedy? I want to know from her the same thing I cherish knowing from any survivor of suicide: Not just the story of her loss and of where she wound up after her long and painful journey, but also what happened along the path she has traveled between April 20, 1999, and today: What specifically helped her to survive?
*[Editor’s note: This recording, of a talk I gave in November 2008, has one statement in it that I would change — or at least that I would further explain — if I had been speaking from prepared remarks, which I wasn’t. I said that survivors should consider themselves not responsible, in an absolute sense, for their loved one’s suicide. I hope it’s not confusing to say that, on the one hand, no survivor should take it upon himself to consider that the death is his fault, yet on the other hand, every survivor must struggle in his own way with his own judgments about the role he played in the other’s life and death: That is a natural — and often very complicated and even tormenting — aspect of many survivors’ journeys. FJC]
[The abridged URL for this post is bit.ly/kleboldmom .]