Accepting the Unacceptable
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
—2 Corinthians 4:8-10
At approximately 2:00 p.m. on November 2, 1993, my husband took his own life. That event brought me and our four children face-to-face with a death we did not understand—indeed, did not want to understand.
My husband’s suicide brought us pain that was and is immeasurable. Initially, and for some time after Bill’s death, I questioned what I could have done differently. I also experienced some regrets about things said or unsaid during the last few days of his life.
I have not felt a lot of anger this past year, mostly sadness. However, when the anger has spilled out I’ve tried to channel it in some healthy ways. Some of these ways may sound bizarre, but I’m not the least bit ashamed of them. For example, I have visited the cemetery at all hours of the day and night, and have sworn at him. I have dug through the snow and ice to uncover his grave marker in the dark so that I could stomp on it. I have been known to stand in my garage at night and hurl dishes against the wall. All these actions were very therapeutic.
One of my significant struggles has been moving from “I can’t” (I can’t be alone; I can’t be a single parent; I can’t be a widow) to “I don’t want” (I don’t want to be alone, a single parent, a widow) to “I am” (I am alone; I am a single parent; I am a widow). This whole process of acknowledgment took about nine months. I hesitate to use the word “acceptance,” for how do we “accept” what is totally unacceptable?
Wisdom for the Caregiver (from Barb)
- People brought dinners every day for two months. This was coordinated by the parish administrator and by my best friend. Two women did my grocery shopping for almost six months. Several others ran errands on Saturday for me. Another woman was at my house after school twice a week from January through June so I could continue to work full time.
- My best friend was here nearly every evening for several months until I could face being alone. She had confidence that the time would come when I wouldn’t need someone every night and we’d both know it. She was right. I think I am healthier today because of all the hours she was here grieving with me.
- Men in my church “adopted” each of my children and periodically will call one and invite them to participate in some activity, spend a weekend, and so on. This has been very significant for all of them.
- Remember that it helps to talk and talk and talk about what happened. Let the grieving person talk and you, the caregiver, ask the questions: “Where were you when you heard about . . .?” and so on.
- Urge honesty and openness. (Dealing with the fact of suicide openly eliminates speculation and whispered conversations behind your back.)
Additional Wisdom for the Caregiver
- Read “Caregiving Basics” (pp. 231-250).
- Check “109+ Ways to Say, ‘I Care’” (pp. 251-262). Also see first-person accounts and suggestions in “Death of a Spouse” (pp. 84-85).
- When talking with the family of the deceased, don’t be afraid to talk about his or her death, just as you would normally talk about the death of any friend. Don’t be afraid to mention their loved one’s name and to recall pleasant memories you shared with the deceased.
- If you don’t know what to say, just “be there” for the hurting family. Sending a note or making a phone call also shows your love and your acceptance.
Note: The following suggestions come from Lawrence (Bill) Jr. and Elsie Lamb, whose oldest son, Larry, committed suicide at the age of 36.
- Hundreds came to the memorial service. They cried. They held us. They said words we’ve forgotten or didn’t hear. We had Communion.
- Our church family and friends brought food, smiles, and listening ears. They listened patiently as I poured out my feelings.
- Some people still remember the date, January 15, 1987, and on that day they phone us or write a note. Often, I still find a red rose placed on Larry’s grave.
- Research the availability of support groups such as Compassionate Friends and Survivors of Suicide. Then encourage the grieving person(s) to participate in a support group by providing him or her with information and a phone number.
- Write notes/letters. They continue to bring comfort, strength, love, and energy as the grieving persons read and reread them. Elsie shares the following thoughts from conversations and sympathy notes that especially helped her:
- “I hug you to my heart.”
- "On Sunday mornings we greet each other with ‘the Peace of Christ be with you'. Last Sunday that prayer and promise took on new meaning as we thought of you and your pain. That prayer will continue to be our prayer for you in the days ahead.”
- "Sometimes it is not possible to express feelings. This is one of those times.” (After the memorial service this former classmate of Larry’s and lifelong family friend wept and hugged us.)
- “May you see Larry surrounded by God’s love, content and happy at last!”
- "May God hold you in his hand and carry you forward until some understanding of all this comes and healing begins. It will come and it will begin for you and all of your many friends, but for now it is so muddled. We love you dearly.”
- The following letter meant a great deal to us:
Dear Elsie and Bill,
Carol and I extend to you our prayerful concern and sympathy in your loss of son Larry. Struggle and despair do overwhelm, leading people to feel there is nowhere else to go. Larry is now in the hands of our understanding and merciful Heavenly Father and our faithful Savior, our high priest. As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Ours is not a high priest who is incapable of feeling for us in our weakness, but one who has been tempted in every way, exactly as we have been” (Hebrews 4:15). You loved Larry dearly and entered into his struggles as best you could. Our Lord, too, loves him dearly and understands the uncertainties that tormented him. You miss him and grieve for him and perhaps wish that somehow you could have said or done that one thing that might have dissipated his hurts and struggles. There is a limit to what we can do for one another. Like the waiting father in the parable, too often all we can do is to provide a home to which our children can always return when ready. And this you certainly did. And now he is in God’s good hands where hurts are healed.
Henri Nouwen has written a beautiful book, The Wounded Healer, in which he points out that it is through the wounded Christ that we are healed, and that it is the areas in which we ourselves have been wounded that can, through the grace of God, become the very areas in which we too can become healers for others who are wounded. It is our prayer that in God’s good time you may find this to be true. Meanwhile we shall pray for and with you through the difficult days to come.
- Help the person anticipate and prepare for the anniversary of a death or other tragedy. Bob Duvall, a chaplain at Gwinnet Medical who does grief counseling, believes that, for many, the anxiety leading up to the anniversary of a death is worse than what survivors feel when the day arrives. “The anniversary of a death always is very significant,” Duvall said in an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (April 16, 2000).
- “The mistake most of us make is that we don’t plan for it. We just let it happen. If we make plans for who we want to be with and where we want to be and how we want to mark the anniversary, we are able to handle it better.”
- As caregivers we can help others deal with the anticipation of anxious anniversaries by talking to our friends about it. We can ask them how they will be commemorating the special day or we can offer to spend some portion of the day with them: visiting the grave site, going to a show, having dinner, and so on. A gesture such as sending a note or flowers each year to mark the day is also appreciated.
1. American Association of Christian Counselors, P.O. Box 739, Forest, VA 24551. 1-800-5-COUNSEL; 1-434-525-9470. www.aacc.net. This
organization has a directory of counselors who are members of AACC—a great tool for finding a Christian counselor in just about any region in the United States.
2. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. www.afsp.org. Provides
news, information, answers to FAQs, research, referrals to survivor groups, and more. Check the Web for names and phone numbers of area chapters.
3. Bereavement Association of St. John’s Region, Pastoral Care Department, General Hospital, 300 Prince Philip Dr., St. John’s, NF A1B 3V6. Has a listing of books and pamphlets for those grieving suicide.
5. Salem Christian Mental Health Association, 1 Young St., Suite 418, Hamilton, ON L8N 1T8. 1-905-528-0353. www.salem.on.ca
. Provides counseling and also acts as a clearinghouse for mental health resources.
6. Suicide Information and Education Centre, 1615 10th Avenue SW, Suite 201, Calgary, AB T3C 0J7. 1-403-245-3900. www.suicideinfo.ca. The
largest English-language suicide center and library in the world. Provides newsletters and referrals to local support services.
7. The Yellow Ribbon Project, P.O. Box 644, Westminster, CO 80030. 1-303-429-3530. Suicide is the sixth most common cause of death of children ages 5 to 14 and the third most common among young people ages 15 to 24. Each year suicide takes the lives of over 7,000 children between the ages of 10 and 19. The Yellow Ribbon Project offers a way to help children and young people in need of guidance. This organization distributes a card with a yellow ribbon attached. The card says, “This ribbon is a lifeline.” The yellow ribbon is meant to convey the message that there are people available who care and who will help. If you (or anyone else) are in need and don’t know how to ask for help, take this ribbon (or any yellow ribbon) to a counselor, teacher, priest, rabbi, minister, parent, or friend and say: “I’d like to use my yellow ribbon.” Write or call the Yellow Ribbon Project for free ribbons and suggestions.
Books and Other Resources
- Chance, Sue, M.D. Stronger Than Death: When Suicide Touches Your Life: A Mother’s Story (New York: Avon, 1994). Following the death of her son, a psychiatrist shares her professional understanding of suicide and relates her own experiences of anguish, guilt, anger, and healing. A chronicle for survivors, families, and professionals.
- Dietz, Bob. Life After Loss: A Personal Guide Dealing with Death, Divorce, Job Changes, and Relocation (Tucson: Fisher Books, 1999). This book is a roadmap and traveler’s guide for those in grief. It includes helpful exercises and charts for working through your grief.
- Gentzelman, Joan. God Knows You’re Grieving: Things to Help You Through (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2001). Though shared stories, thoughtful insights, and practical suggestions, this book offers encouragement and comfort as we encounter loss.
- Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. Questions and Answers on Death and Dying (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997). The author discusses accepting the end of life, suicide, terminal illness, euthanasia, how to tell a patient he or she is critically ill, and how to deal with all the special difficulties surrounding death.
- Nouwen, Henry. The Wounded Healer (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972). In this classic, life-changing book, Nouwen shows us how to transform the shame and guilt into our strengths. By accepting our human frailties we can turn them into helpful resources and extend the gift of emotional healing to others. By becoming a “wounded healer” we are sensitized to the needs of others, offering peace in the midst of human challenge.