STEVEN KALAS: Therapy may help mother cope with son’s suicide

I lost my 31-year-old old son to suicide two years ago. He left a wife and five small children behind. It has been so hard since he died. The day before he died, he had come without his family and spent two days with me. I have a daughter and another son. We are all having such a terrible time trying to live with our loss. For so very long after Cody’s death I would turn all the lights on in the house. I would stay downstairs and wait for morning to come. Then I would go upstairs to get ready for work. Even now there are so many days I come home from work and sit in a chair and wait for night to come. I find myself just sitting and staring. Some days I sob hysterically, some days just weeping softly. Even now there are many days that I cannot function. I tried to do everything anyone has suggested, but my heart is broken and I don’t know how to make it better. So I guess that my reason for writing you is to ask if you have any suggestions for me. I need to learn how to live with my broken heart. Some days it feels like you are actually going to have a heart attack. It feels like you can’t even get a breath of air.

— C.J., Farmington, Utah

Oh, dear woman …

Perhaps it would help to put into words what you’re up against. This column provides limited space, so forgive me if I am direct and to the point.

Surviving suicide is a unique grief. By that I mean uniquely awful. Bereavement is a specialty of mine, and in all of my work with grieving people, nothing is harder than trying to wrap a broken heart around suicide. There are reasons for this so obvious, yet the reasons don’t become obvious until you say them out loud. And we tend not to say these things out loud because of love and fear: we desperately loved the deceased, and we’re rightly afraid of the pain the truth must provoke.

Because of love and fear, we tend to “romanticize” suicide. By that I mean we tend to wrap it in a story of poetic tragedy. People who are acutely suicidal tend to do that, too, even as they fantasize about dying. We say things like, “Think of how much pain he/she must have been in to even consider such an act.” We desperately try to mobilize compassion and empathy for the deceased.

Yet, consider this: If your son had been murdered, it is unlikely that you would have said, “Think of how much pain the murderer must have been in to even consider such an act.” You would not be mobilizing empathy; rather, outrage.

Observed clinically, suicide and homicide have more in common than not. Indeed, suicidal patients and homicidal patients are both in a lot of pain. If one deserves compassion for pain, then so does the other. Indeed, both are likely suffering some diagnosable psychological ill health. And, despite what it might appear, both patients are very, very angry.

In psychological parlance, homicide is the ultimate deflection of anger. Suicide is the ultimate retroflection of anger. It’s the same energy, just pointed in different directions. I’m saying that suicide is an act of hostility, aggression and violence. Not at all poetic.

Now, I am not arguing to vilify your boy. I’m arguing for radical responsibility. The only person ultimately responsible for suicide is the person who decides to die.

If your son was murdered, you’d be angry with the murderer. What makes suicide so ghastly painful, complicated and difficult for survivors is precisely that our loved one has murdered him/herself.

In my work with survivors, I find that debilitating grief often is protracted because the survivor can’t get to both the sorrow and the outrage. It is very difficult to do both of those things at once regarding the same human being.

I urge you to consider six to eight sessions with a caring and skillful bereavement therapist who can help you work through the many complicated layers of your grief. Also, go now to amazon.com and purchase “Stronger Than Death: When Suicide Touches Your Life,” by Sue Chance, M.D. The author is herself a survivor, and her book is not merely the best work ever on the subject. The book is an act of unspeakable courage, generosity and love.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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