Supporting Loved Ones After a Suicidal Death
A blog post of the top 10 things not to say to a person recently experiencing the loss of a loved one to suicide caught my eye a few days ago. After skimming through it to see what comprised the list without reading the accompanying explanation, my initial reaction was a warped reflection of the famous line from the movie Billy Madison: “I am now dumber than when I clicked that link.”
The first no-no on the list? I’m sorry.
“No,” I thought immediately upon reading it. “I’d say the number one thing not to say is, ‘Suicide is a sin; your loved one is going to hell.’” I imagined myself face to face with that blogger, telling her that, using the ol’ backhand clap to emphasize each word.
Then, I read her post more fully. I had taken the list out of context. She’s not speaking as a psychiatrist or grief expert. She’s speaking about her personal experience with a family member’s suicide, people’s reactions to it, and how she felt about those reactions. Okay, for her I’m sorry is meaningless and awkward. For her.
That’s the thing about suicide, except for the fact that it immediately triggers sorrow and questions for the loved ones left behind, the circumstances of every death are different, and every survivor’s perspective, experience and needs are different.
Well, except, I believe one thing is universal: not one of them wants to hear “Suicide is a sin; your loved one is going to hell” — or any set of words conveying that message. I’m not saying that people cannot hold that as a religious belief. I’m not trying to police people’s thoughts. I am saying that if you feel judgmental, preachy and sanctimonious enough to say it aloud to a grieving loved one, you should be prepared to get knocked on your ass physically, verbally and socially, and you should have the grace to just walk away when it happens.
Please note: In what I say from here forward, I am not speaking of physician-assisted suicide. I know that compassionate, physician-assisted suicide can be an intensely emotional event. I’m not trying to in any way discount its impacts. I’m just saying that here, in this post, that is not the type of death I’m speaking about.
A loved one’s suicide packs a wallop that few other deaths do. Most suicidal deaths inspire a multitude of “whys” that can never be fully or satisfactorily answered. Many also trigger regrets and second-guessing in loved ones — “Maybe if I had” or “If only I didn’t.” In still-young children left without a parent by suicide, there are thoughts such as, “Why wasn’t I worth living for/caring for?” In parents whose child dies by their own hand, their thoughts may turn to, “I somehow failed my child.” These feelings and thoughts can have substantial, lifelong impacts. Insensitive remarks and questions can worsen that impact.
For some of us who have never felt so low or so trapped that we see no other way out, a young, vibrant person’s suicidal death is unfathomable. I recently, clumsily, voiced such a thought to one of my most very favorite people on Earth. Luckily, my sister-friend knows my heart and didn’t call me out for my insensitivity. It’s not that my inability to fathom the decision was out of bounds, but I should’ve been more careful in my voicing of it. Coming from anyone else, it might’ve been taken as, “What the hell was he thinking,” which is unlikely to be a reaction that a grieving loved one wants to hear – especially when the wound is fresh.
In some ways, if the loved one had a debilitating, diagnosed mental illness, it makes the death more readily accepted by people. But, for the survivors, that can be a double-edged sword. They may find that all people want to remember about their loved one is the mental illness – not the other wonderful aspects of that person’s life. If the mental illness was suspected, but not diagnosed, then the grieving loved ones may face not only their own second-guessing, but have it thrown in their face by well-meaning people who immediately launch campaigns on social media on how to spot suicidal intentions or clinical depression. All coming, perhaps, from a place of love, but not necessarily sensitive to the raw wounds of everyone grieving.
That brings me back to my original point. The circumstances surrounding every suicide are different. The needs of the grieving loved ones are individual to each person. Some will need to find an outside cause for their loved one’s action. Some will want to talk about their confusion about their family member’s death. Some will want to ignore the manner of death entirely. And, some, like the author of the blog I read, will find I’m sorry awkward to hear. There’s no set script to follow, no list of things to say or not to say that can be depended upon. Take your queue from the individual, put aside your own questions, and be sensitive and supportive.
Book Review: Mystery at the Abbey Hotel by Clare Chase
Love a cozy English mystery? You’ll love Mystery at the Abbey Hotel by Clare Chase! It’s the coziest of cozies, complete with oodles of scrumptious-sounding cakes with tea and an amateur detective who works through her suspect list by talking to her ever-present dog.
This is the fifth book in the Eve Mallow mystery series, but it completely stands on its own except for not giving much of a physical description of Ms. Mallow herself. In this mystery, Eve and her dachshund Gus win a discount stay at a posh historic hotel, and within approximately 24 hours of their arrival, the bodies start dropping.
Of course, there is a sizable group of suspects including the hotel staff, the notable hotel guests and local residents. In a cozy mystery, the amateur detective usually either has a police detective she regularly works with or a police detective who views her as a meddling nuisance. Enter Detective Inspector Nigel Palmer who rudely tells Eve she cannot question any of the hotel guests until he’s completed his questioning.
DI Palmer’s edict barely slows Eve’s investigation, and with the help of her best friend Val, her mysterious gardening love interest Robin, and, of course, her canine sounding board Gus, Eve begins winnowing her list of suspects as the body count increases. Eve tells both Val and Robin that she’d be careful and that a recent case where her investigation put her life in danger would not happen again. Almost immediately, she figures out who the murderer is, at the same moment the murderer figures out that Eve has put together the puzzle pieces. Will she be saved? Well, she is the amateur detective in a cozy mystery series…
This is a well-written story with twists and turns toward the end that fit nicely with clues laid earlier in the book. I highly recommend this book!
Short Story: Salisbury Avenue
Jared inched forward in the mile-long traffic snarl caused by the interminable project to widen Salisbury Avenue. When traffic came to yet another complete standstill, he gazed out the passenger-side window at the low slung plastic wrap barriers marking the construction boundaries. The border they defined promised that, when the project concluded, homeowners on either side of the road would be left with little buffer between their homes and the major thoroughfare Salisbury Avenue had become in recent years. For not the first time, Jared felt grateful that he didn’t own a home along Salisbury Avenue.
As the standstill stretched into minutes, Jared thought that he should’ve stayed at the office instead of wasting his time sitting in rush hour traffic. But, the office, his firm, his career didn’t hold the appeal they once did. He admitted to himself that he’d become a clock watcher. When he was a bit younger and felt the fire in his belly, he never noticed when 5:00 p.m. came and went. That fire made him successful, made him wealthy, but somewhere along the way, the work began to revolve around greed, including his own, and the fire, along with his satisfaction with his life, began to wane.
His wife told him that if he wasn’t happy with what he was doing, to do something else. Like it was just that easy — and maybe it was for her. But, he’d mapped out his whole life by age 25, and starting a new career at 48 smelled like failure to him. He didn’t know what the answer to his general malaise was, but he was fairly sure he wasn’t going to figure it out stuck on Salisbury Avenue.
He crept along another 15 minutes and finally crossed Perkins Road – another half mile and he’d exit the bumper-to-bumper parade of commuters trying to get home via Salisbury Avenue. As he followed the temporary yellow line diverting his westbound lane into what had previously been the center turn lane, he spied a woman up ahead waving a sign in front of what he thought of as “the yellow compound.”
The “yellow compound” was a cluster of structures that had seen better days. It was anchored by a sprawling, one-story, mid-century house clad in faded yellow siding. Like satellites, the other buildings were scattered around the house. To one side was a detached stuccoed garage painted a brighter shade of yellow, and on the opposite side was a building almost as big as the house painted in yet another shade of yellow. Just behind that building and to the left was a small buff-colored shed. Prior to the road construction beginning the previous year, all but the garage had been hidden behind a thick grove of trees alongside the road. With most of the trees removed, the “yellow compound” and its state of decay were laid bare to everyone driving by.
Another previously hidden feature of the property was the largest sycamore tree Jared had ever seen. It was about five feet in diameter and almost 100 feet tall, and its huge boughs extended into a broad canopy easily 60 feet wide. Its peeling bark exposed white wood beneath, making the trunk and its four main boughs appear spotted in some areas and striped in others. The first time Jared spied the tree, he was shocked to see that what he had long thought was a crowning canopy of several trees was actually just the one.
As he moved nearer at an agonizingly slow pace, he could see that the woman waving the sign wore what his sisters in their adolescence had called a “granny skirt” – an ankle-length, cotton print skirt with loads of gathers at the waistband. This woman’s granny skirt was bright pink with some sort of print – Jared assumed it to be tiny flowers. On top, she wore an oversized grey shirt and some sort of shapeless vest in multiple colors – none of them matching or complementing the pink granny skirt.
Jared was straining to try and read the sign, when suddenly the woman stopped waving it and gestured angrily at someone a few vehicles ahead. Before he could roll down his window to hear what was going on, he saw something go flying at the woman, hitting her squarely in the face. She wiped her face and continued yelling. Two more missiles went flying at her, and trying to dodge them, she fell hard, face down in the ditch. Immediately, a large pickup truck pulled into the eastbound lane, cutting off oncoming traffic, made a screeching U-turn on the opposite shoulder and roared past Jared.
Jared paid the pickup truck no mind because he was pulling onto the narrow shoulder to check on the woman. By the time he put his Volvo in park and stepped from it, she was struggling to her knees. Another driver reached her first and gave her a hand out of the ditch. He overheard the woman saying, “Did you see that little chickenshit peel outta here? What a lowlife, just like the rest of ‘em tearing up this neighborhood!” The man, clearly uncomfortable, replied, “Well, if you’re okay, I’m going to head out.”
He hurried past Jared with a nod, as Jared stepped through the ditch and over to where the woman stood beside the plastic barrier. “Hi,“ he said. “Are you all right?”
The woman turned toward him. He saw from her weathered face that she was 75 years old if she were a day. Her wrinkles creased more deeply as she smiled broadly at him.
“Oh, I imagine I’m going to feel it somethin’ awful tomorrow, but I’m a tough ol’ bird!”
Chuckling, Jared asked, “What was that all about with the guys in the truck?”
The woman waved her hand as if dismissing the incident, but then spat out, “They work for the company destroying my home, and they don’t like me protesting it!” With that, she picked up her sign. Jared reached out and held a corner of the poster board to steady it so that he could read what it said in letters no more than two inches high: Decker County and the Parsons Construction Company are destroying the land. In the name of progress, they just bulldoze everything without caring about its historical importance. Call The County to stop this atrocity!!!
Letting go of the sign, Jared said slowly, “You know, no one driving by can really read that – the letters are too small.” He kept to himself that her chaotic waving didn’t help.
The woman puffed up, and snapped, “Well, Mr. Know-it-all, I’m a small person, what would you have me do? I can’t carry a bigger sign!”
Jared smiled gently, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend – I was just thinking maybe fewer, but bigger words would be better.”
The woman looked at him a moment, and then shrugged noncommittally. Jared motioned at the compound and asked, “Your home is well outside the construction barrier – much better than some homes on Salisbury. If you don’t mind my asking, what about the construction are you protesting?”
In response, the woman walked past Jared toward the house. Nonplussed, he watched her walk away, and then called out, “I’m sorry!” He didn’t know really what he was apologizing for, but it seemed he’d clearly offended her.
“Come over here,” the woman demanded in response and kept walking. He chuckled to himself and followed her over to the giant sycamore tree, which stood about 20 feet outside the construction barrier. When the woman reached the tree, she extended her hand and touched it lovingly, and then turned back toward Jared.
“This tree is almost 200 years old. It was here when my great, great, great grandfather Harris built my family’s first house on this site. . .”
Jared interrupted, “Harris? As in Harris Plaza and Harris Parkway?”
The woman smiled proudly, “Yes, they’re named after The Honorable Morton Bartholomew Harris, my great grandfather on my mother’s side.” Then she stuck out her hand, “I’m Nadine Jensen, daughter of Molly Harris Martin.”
Shaking her hand, Jared replied, “Jared Barnes.”
Nadine, who punctuated everything she said with very animated hands, leaned her sign against the tree and continued her story. “So, anyway, when my great, great, great grandfather Edward Harris, built the original house, the nearest neighbor was miles and miles away. There was nothing but trees here with a single rutted path to get a buggy through them. He cleared the land himself – can you imagine — leaving this tree and a few others of about the same size for shade – there was no air conditioning in those days, of course, so you needed shade trees. Harrises lived in that house until 1956 when my daddy had it torn down to build a modern rancher we were all so excited to move into.” She pointed at the faded yellow house. “What I wouldn’t give now,” she continued wistfully, “to have that old, drafty limestone house with its wide front porch. They don’t build houses like that anymore.” Her voice grew softer, and her proud smile faded. “It’s gone, my daddy’s gone, my family’s gone ‘cept my brother who has the Alzheimer’s. But, this sycamore’s still here – it’s seen the war between the states, the industrial revolution, two world wars, and it’s seen seven generations of my family come and go. It’s been here for the happiest moments of my life and the saddest moments of my life, and it’s still shading my home.”
With that last, Nadine’s voice cracked, and she patted the tree as if it were the one that needed to be comforted. Then she continued more forcefully, “And, now, those. . .bastards are going to kill it!”
Jared, looking at her quizzically, shot back, “How? The tree is at least 20 or 25 feet outside the barrier.”
In response, Nadine pointed up at the tree’s canopy. “See where they cut that bough? Its branches used to extend out almost to the road.”
Jared looked up at where a huge tree limb ended abruptly, clearly sawn. The cut was more or less parallel with the construction boundary. His voice giving expression to the confusion he felt, Jared said, “Okay. . .but if that’s going to kill the tree, the damage has already been done.”
“Losing that bough will not kill the tree,” Nadine snapped, “And, I’m not some senile old woman tilting at windmills!”
Before Jared could even respond, she continued, her hands even more animated, “When I made the deal to sell them the land up to the barrier, I had no idea they were going to cut the bough that extended beyond it. That’s on me – I should’ve made myself better informed. I cried like a baby when I saw what they had done.” She paused a second, and then said, ”After that, I requested the full plans for what would be done along Salisbury Avenue. That’s when I learned that they’re going to put in a stormwater sewer on this side of the avenue, and to do that, they will have to dig down a least 10 feet.. .”
“And, that means they may cut through the roots of your tree,” Jared finished, nodding understandingly. Then trying to be encouraging, he said, “But, it’s not for sure they’ll hit any major roots or that even if they do hit one, that the tree will die.”
She replied, “I can’t just wait and see what happens,” and pointed again at the severed bough. “They plan to start digging next week. I asked them to move the stormwater system to the other side or to hold off until I can get a study done to map out the tree’s roots. They told me they have a legal right to do whatever they want outside the barrier. They said time is money, and they can’t delay.”
Jared nodded. Those were all things he would have expected them to tell Nadine in response to her requests. Thoughtfully, he said, “That tree’s a piece of living history. Did you try getting the county historical society to intervene?”
Nadine laughed bitterly. She said, “Some historical society,” and snorted derisively. “They only care about buildings. Their resources are limited, they said, and trees die. They said I should hire an attorney.”
Jared nodded and thought, but did not give voice to that thought, that hiring an attorney would be much more effective than waving a sign no one could even read.
Nadine pointed a finger at him acknowledging his nod, and continued, “Believe me, I tried. Most turned down my case without even hearing me out. Then, I paid about a thousand dollars for one, and all he did was call the same people I’d already called. He told me they’d need thousands more – upfront — to initiate any court action against the county or Parsons, but that I’d probably lose.”
Again, she laughed bitterly “I don’t have thousands to waste on attorneys who already gave up. So, I decided my only choice was to play the crazy lady by the side of the road to try to get The People behind me.” Her voice cracked, and she paused a moment trying to get her emotions in check. Then, in a voice still filled with emotion, she said, “And for my effort, I get pelted with soda and coffee cups, and my tree is still gonna die.”
As Nadine strangled a sob, Jared looked up at the tree, marveling at the history it had seen. He felt the old fire stir. Then he looked out at the barely moving traffic on Salisbury Avenue. A lawsuit would result in a stay on any further construction — freezing everything as-is and perpetuating the traffic nightmare for months. He grimaced at that thought, but it didn’t quench the growing fire. Finally, he looked at Nadine and saw a woman in the twilight years of her life trying to save the last living connection to her family history.
His eyes glowing from the fire in his belly, he said, “Nadine, I’m a litigation attorney – a damn good one.”