The Painful But Important Lessons I Learned After My Father’s Suicide

By Christiana Zenner, Ph.D.

Anthony Bourdain; Kate Spade; friends, teenagers, neighbors, veterans; my father. Every suicide is distinct and differently devastating, for those who leave and for those who are left.

Yet there are some commonalities, some moments of recognition both in terms of frequent contributing causes and also in terms of what comes next. Here are the hard and important lessons I’ve learned since my father took his life in 2007—when he was 60, and I was pregnant and in graduate school:

1. Suicide is terrifying.

Suicide is what philosophers and mathematicians refer to as a surd—nonsensical, unexpected, a cavernous impossibility that is nonetheless real.

How often do we presume that other people’s lives are on positive trajectories, if not always totally predictable ones?

Perhaps life looked fine, even good, on the outside (as was the case with Bourdain). Or perhaps friends and family members knew the person was struggling but had sought help, and they seemed to be OK (Spade).

After a suicide, many people will say it “doesn’t make sense.” In many cases, yes, there’s a stunned inability to process that the person is gone. But I think there’s a deeper fear at work here, too: the terror of realizing, “Oh my god, if it could happen to them—could this happen to anyone, even people I love, even me?

It is OK to admit that fear and the cascade of uncertainty it unleashes. Suicide uproots our background assumptions that life makes sense.

2. There are no answers.

There may be generally explicable features in many suicides, but there are no ultimate answers. Hold space for the uncertainty, for the dimensionality of who this person was.

My father was a Navy fighter pilot before he left the military to become a commercial airline pilot. Like many vets, his experiences in Vietnam were traumatizing; he talked about them only rarely, but when he did, the moral and personal agony was palpable. Did he have PTSD? Probably, and society needs to do a better job of destigmatizing veterans and people who have been through trauma. But PTSD isn’t the full story.

The most common response people have when I say that my father killed himself is, “Oh, that’s terrible. Was he depressed?” We don’t know. As a pilot, he resisted seeking psychological diagnoses that would prevent him from flying.

Perhaps he was bipolar, as many family members now think likely. It’s natural to wonder, but we will never know for sure. Posthumous speculation can clarify past patterns. Diagnoses of depression are attractive to people who want explanations. But again: Be careful with the urge to make this “make sense”—because often, that is another way to say, “Oh, this would never happen to me or someone I know.” One of the things that suicide challenges us to do is to recognize that other people’s realities and dimensions far exceed the capacity of our projection.

3. Humility goes a long way.

Check yourself: Avoid explaining what this death means to someone who is grieving a suicide. (This is especially important if you think you have insights or are convinced you are being helpful.) Be present. People in grief need to lean on you, not be lectured by you. And what is true in grief more generally is excruciatingly so when mourning a person who has died by suicide. Frankly, unless we have explicitly said, “What do you think?” it is not at all helpful to hear your speculations or interpretations of what this event means. What we need is the space to grieve and heal in our own complicated realities.

More generally, all of us can work to eliminate unnecessary sayings that are obvious triggers—like “the line at the grocery store was so awful, I just wanted to kill myself!” or making hand gestures that mimic firing a gun into your mouth. It’s been 11 years since my father’s death, and I still cringe at those expressions. Communication evolves with social consciousness, so it’s time to retire those basic expressions.

4. Suicide, I believe, stems from hopelessness—not selfishness.

Some people feel that suicide is a selfish act because it fails to account for the difficulty and devastation wrought on the people who remain. But I agree with the many experts who suggest that suicide is often the result of a total loss of hope and self amid a tsunami of despair.

Suicide may feel selfish to survivors—how could he?—but when someone dies by suicide, they do it not out of selfishness or spite. They do it out of ultimate loneliness and pain so deep that most of us cannot begin to comprehend it because it is on a totally different plane of existence.

5. High-functioning people don’t give many signals. When they do, take those seriously.

My father expressed to a few people that he was thinking of ending his life. Those people, who I know loved him deeply, took him at his word that he would seek help. But I know now that such statements are the high-functioning person’s attempt to seek help—it takes massive effort and will to reach across a divide of loneliness and despair, to entrust someone with such honesty about such heavy burdens. It is another way of saying, “I am alone. I don’t know how to proceed; please help me.”

Take these statements seriously. Accompany the person to get help, right then if possible.

Our society can be very isolating. One antidote that we can give to one another as human beings in moments large and small is in our ability to see one another—to affirm the uniqueness and worth of each individual. We can contribute to bonds and societies that feel secure, safe, trustworthy, and consistent—and perhaps make life a bit less lonely, not just when someone confides in us, but in the caliber and kindness of our everyday interactions.

6. For survivors, some grief is incommunicable.

It is not your job to make your grief legible or to make it conform to other people’s expectations. As a survivor, you will have major triggers that are unrecognizable to most people, and your reactions will vary. I can be totally leveled by the image of my dad’s back in his blue blazer as he strode tiredly away from me at my sister’s graduation, or by how I imagined him leaving the house for the last time, or the first 100-plus times I drove by the fire station outside of which he shot himself. Even the feeling of exhilaration on white water, a delight that he and I shared—these are all particularly potent emotional, geographic, and physical triggers for me, even 11 years later. Most people have no idea.

If you are a survivor, let the emotions surface, and let them pass (not easy: It’s like getting thrashed by a huge wave of rage, sadness, and ugly crying). Let me repeat: You don’t have to hide your emotions, and you don’t have to apologize for them. You don’t even have to explain them. Grief is a shape-shifting, surprising, and (in the case of suicide) often terrifying entity. Lean into people who are trustworthy, nonjudgmental, and who let you be you. And when you meet people who have also experienced the suicide of a loved one or family member, you might find yourself weeping together on top of a mountain during spring ski season (true story). It’s OK.

Presence, care, laughter, and gentleness are salves. I have personally found therapy to be fantastically helpful, and many people benefit from survivor support groups. If you are trying to support someone who is grieving the loss of a friend or family member through suicide, support them with presence and infrastructure. Just hug. Sit. Bring food. Come over to walk the dog together. Call to say you’re thinking of them.

7. Your presence will sometimes make people uncomfortable. Many will react strangely.

People say weird and even hurtful things out of their own profound discomfort after a suicide. Others will disappear entirely from your life. This sucks, but it’s true. Suicide (along with what I call the 3Ds—other forms of sudden death, divorce, and disability) can make people really nervous, and as a result they may react to your presence in all kinds of intense and often unhelpful ways.

One person with whom I was close didn’t call, text, or write me for nearly a year after. Only when I ran into her at a party by chance later did she laugh awkwardly and say, “Yeah, sorry about that. I mean, what could I even have said?” My answer now: “Just call and say you don’t know what to say, and you love me and are thinking of me.”

I have learned that people’s reactions and statements say much more about what they are grappling with than what is true for you. This doesn’t make it easier in the moment, but it does mean you don’t have to take on their stuff. Find your way with the people who let you be you, without foisting their own anxious interpretations onto you.

8. Memorialize in ways that feel right to you.

Just as everyone grieves differently, everyone memorializes differently. In the aftermath of a suicide, ritual and burial are important, though they can take many forms. For some people, traditional religious funeral services may provide important closure. For others, those same services might feel like emotional handcuffs.

As time goes on, trust your creativity and the legacy of the person’s memory. What are the moments that make you think of them with a grin? Consider memorializing a place or an activity that feels like a positive legacy—a meditation bench in a treasured spot or an annual walk with organizations that raise awareness about suicide or mental illness, for example. I have found it meaningful to memorialize my father by consciously giving him a shout out during water sports that we both loved.

Finally: The days around the anniversary of the suicide will be tough. Be gentle with yourself in these times. You also deserve love and kindness.

9. You will change, and your relationships will too.

Suicide is an extreme event that, for survivors, puts much into excruciating texture. For me, my father’s death began a decade-long journey of self-reflection—about myself, my family, my partnership, me as a parent, and society more generally. It has involved devastating anxiety that, with time and therapy and life changes, has given way to profound, gentle, exhilarating clarities. Many relationships, including my marriage, were sundered as a result of this journey.

It has not been easy. Grief doesn’t end, but it does change, and with time it becomes less debilitating, more gently poignant. I wish beyond words that my daughter could have met her grandfather. I also have found ways that my father’s positive legacy lives on in me—and in her.

One aspect of my journey is a radical honesty, forged in agonies that none of us wished on ourselves. I am the person that I am because of many factors. One of them is my father’s suicide.

10. You can be OK.

There are no neat closures to the surd of suicide. But healing can be real. Small or large changes in your life may emerge over time. Sometimes they will surprise you. But I’m here to tell you: There is healing, and believe me—you are not alone. With the life you have, you can narrate the story that you are always unfurling.

If you’re feeling suicidal or know anyone who is, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. is at 1-800-273-8255.

Complete Article HERE!

A dying mother wrote her children letters, leaving a gift of love for years

Before dying of brain cancer at age 56, Jacqueline Zinn wrote letters to each of her children, including daughter Mary Kathryn.

By Steven Petrow

My friend Jacqueline Zinn was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a brain cancer, in 2013; she died 18 months later, at age 56, leaving behind a husband and four kids. Jacquie was a triathlete who knew a thing or two about endurance, and she managed her treatment — surgery, radiation and chemotherapy — with the same skill and organization she had brought to her work as a project manager for a drug company. Once she realized that she had only weeks to live, Jacquie began planning for the next chapter: her death and its aftermath.

And so “every night for weeks she wrote letters to our children,” her husband Doug recalled. Jacquie wrote multiple letters to each child, to be opened at different life milestones. Jacquie wanted to be “present with her kids,” he said, at each of those important moments

for what I jokingly call “The End” is not for faint hearts. War hero John McCain is said to have been disciplined and firm as he planned his funeral over the past year, including the singing of the Irish ballad “Danny Boy.” But few of us have that strength. Recently divorced, I needed to rewrite my will and my medical power of attorney as well as a host of other financial and medical documents. At almost every turn, I found myself crashing head-on into the wall of denial. Just last week, my attorney begged me to acknowledge that I was at least receiving her emails, even if I couldn’t respond to them. “Yes,” I replied, tersely. All this resistance, and I’m not suffering from any terminal condition.

That’s why Jacquie Zinn’s letters to her children seem heroic to me. After all, she did have a terminal diagnosis when she sat down to write what ended up being more than a dozen letters to her children, ranging in age from 11 to 21, and she knew her time was short. I first heard about the letters at her memorial service in 2013. This past spring, working on a book about death and dying, I reached out to her second-born son, Jerry, who was writing about the loss of his mother, to ask if he’d be willing to share his letters from her. He’d already gotten two — one soon after her death and one when he graduated from college — and after some hesitation, he said okay. Now 24, Jerry will get the final letter when he marries.

“The letters my mother left me are among the most precious gifts I possess,” he told me. “She diligently took the time, the very limited time, as her life was coming to an end to sit down and think about her children’s futures.”

So one day, in perfect cursive penmanship and blue ink after her oncologist told her she had only weeks left, Jacquie wrote her first letter to Jerry, then age 19, to be opened after she died. Here is a portion of it:

“Dear Jerry, my budding film-maker,

“I know you have a lot of emotions running through you, as I did when my father died, but I was much older than you at the time, so I really can’t begin to truly comprehend what you are feeling. I am so incredibly sorry that I had to die while you are so young and I assume it sucks for you. Perhaps you can use some of these emotions and feelings in your upcoming work(s), assuming you continue to pursue film.

“Let me assure you that I did absolutely everything I could to stay alive for as long as possible. I know you realize that having been with me at many of my treatments or tests. Plus the acupuncture, tons of praying I also did. But for some reason I just didn’t make it as one of the chosen ones to be cured. But because of what I did I’m sure I lived much longer than if I hadn’t been in good shape to begin with.

“I am incredibly proud of you for everything you have done in your relatively short life. I will be watching over you every day to see what new and exciting things you will accomplish — regardless of what occupations(s) you pursue over your lifetime.

“Do your best to support Dad and your siblings, especially during this first year as it will be the hardest for everyone. I remember that from when my father died. Time will certainly help, but it takes a long time to focus on the happy memories while the sad thoughts are more immediate and closer at hand.

“I had many fantastic years on earth, more than a lot of people, hence, I have no complaints. I survived a melanoma, car accident in the mountains of West Virginia with Uncle Jerry, car accident in Durham. So I have already lived many lives and I was extremely grateful for each and every moment. Try and live your life that way and you will be a happy and fulfilled human being.

“I love more than you will ever know, my dearest Jerry.

“Love, Mom.”

On the day Jerry graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016, Doug handed over letter No. 2, written with the same pen, on the same type of note paper.

“My sweet dear Jerry,

“Well — this is it — a big milestone in your life — college graduation! Congratulations. I am so incredibly proud of you no matter what your major or minors. I know you made it worthwhile and got just exactly what you wanted to out of the experience. I know you learned an incredible amount about subjects and probably an even greater amount about people.”

Jerry said that at various times during college he had considered dropping out, but “knowing that I would never receive that letter if I did not graduate was a very strong influence in keeping me in school. The letter was a motivation for which I will be forever grateful.” Knowing Jacquie as I did, I’m certain that was part of her master plan.

In the second letter, Jacquie signs off with these words: “I am watching over you all the time, or at least I hope I can do that! Congratulations, again. Enjoy this fabulous day and all the celebrations around. Big Hugs and Kisses! Much Love, Mom.”

What a gift, an eternal gift, I thought as I read and reread the two letters. More than anything, I silently bowed in amazement, understanding how Jacquie had faced her own version of “The End.” Doug reminded me that she’d written her letters while in a wheelchair, paralyzed on one side.

With Jacquie’s example in mind, I finally sat down and read the pile of documents my lawyer had sent to me, realizing that my denial served no purpose. To my surprise, I found comfort in taking care of that necessary business — once done. I’d like to think that was something Jacquie felt, too, as she sent her missives into the future.

Complete Article HERE!

The Death of the ‘Standard Funeral’

Funeral customs are changing dramatically, leaving families with more decisions to make at just the moment they may be least prepared to make them. Making decisions ahead of time honors “ancient wisdom.”

A funeral procession from the early 1900s.

By Steve Willis

Yogi Berra once quipped, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” If there is a time that I see church parishioners facing Yogi’s confused logic, it is when dealing with decision making for a funeral and burial of a loved one. American culture is going through a tumultuous season of cultural change. The last time that people want to deal with more change is during the loss and grief of a loved one’s death. But the reality is that the American funeral experience has changed and is continuing to change dramatically.

When I performed my first funeral in 1993, there was a certain set of expectations for what would happen when someone died. It almost always went like this. Three days after the person died there would be a funeral, or rarer then, a memorial service (a worship service without the body of the deceased). The evening before the funeral there would be a visitation at the funeral home to view the body and share condolences with the family. Usually at 11 a.m. or at 2 p.m. the funeral would take place at the church. Then the family, followed by friends, would drive in procession with headlights on to the cemetery for a brief committal service. After the committal the family returned to the church for a meal and time to visit. On occasion I have been invited to drop by the family home afterwards when all had been finished and there was nothing left to do but sip bourbon and visit.

Yes, this is a very Presbyterian, and a very Southern Presbyterian funeral experience. We value brevity when it comes to funeral worship services, and we value lingering when it comes to visiting afterwards. Of course, there are many variations on a theme played out in different religious traditions, and all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. I admire the African-American Baptist tradition, which has been able to resist many of the negative consumeristic trends involved with funerals, but I do not possess the proclamatory wind to preside for several hours over a funeral service.

Things have certainly changed from when a traditional schedule was the expected norm. There are many reasons for the changes that now often require families to design their own funeral rituals. One of the most significant is that in 1970 only 5% of the American population was cremated after death. Last year 55% chose cremation. The cost of burial with embalming of the body, metal casket and metal vault can run about $11,000, and of course this has been a motivating factor for choosing cremation.

Not too long ago I performed a funeral for the beloved family doctor of his remote rural village. He had made all the arrangements well in advance of his death. Ben was buried in a simple pine box that he had made himself and was interred on a hill at the back of his farm. He had a friend who had prepared his body after death and kept the body refrigerated until his family could see it. The doctor was a keen environmental steward of his farm as well as his community, and he did not wish to add the mixture of formaldehyde, methanol and humectants to the soil of his farm. This makes me wonder what really is traditional after all, because the doctor’s method would have been common place before industrialization and the Civil War. (Check out this website for different state requirements for a funeral at home.)

Ben was on to something. Think about what you would like your funeral to be. Talk to others about it. Don’t get scared off by our American cultural reluctance to have a conversation about death. Do you want to be cremated or embalmed? There are other options now to cremation than burning the body; it can also be done with water. Do you want a religious service to mark the occasion? What will be most helpful for your surviving family? I think that religious services can be deeply moving and genuinely helpful for people. But I should think that. I am a pastor. I know that this is not true for everyone. The point is to think about this beforehand and share with your family what is important to you and make plans for it.

Let me put in a word for funeral home directors. It has been my good fortune to be friends with a couple of them and a golf partner with one of them. I have often heard terribly negative caricatures of funeral home directors, most of the time from people whose only experience has been attending a few funerals. My experience has shown them to be people who pursue their work as a calling. I have watched them at times provide funeral services for poor families with disregard to the business end of their work. If you are interested in learning what a funeral director’s life is like, then read Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal TradeHe is an American Book Award winner writer and a funeral home director in his small town of Milford, Michigan.

Lynch gives us, who live in what is often a death-denying culture, this sober reminder.

This is the central fact of my business – that there is nothing, once you are dead, that can be done to you or for you or with you or about you that will do you any good or any harm; that any damage or decency we do accrues to the living, to whom your death happens, if it really happens to anyone. The living have to live with it. You don’t. Theirs is the grief or gladness your death brings. Theirs is the loss or gain of it. Theirs is the pain and pleasure of memory.

The practical wisdom of these words reminds us that when the time finally comes for you or for me as it will for us all, water cremation, fire cremation, embalming, metal vaults, pine boxes, columnbariums, floral wreaths, funeral homilies, favorite hymns, presented flags and headstones will not matter to us. But some of these things will matter and give meaning to those who survive us.

I realize I’m not making any of this process easier. That’s my point. It’s not easy. And the ever-growing options only make for more complicated decisions. But reflecting upon death and dying and thinking about what our end will be like for others make us better human beings. And that is nothing new at all. That is ancient wisdom. 

Complete Article HERE!

Suicide survivors face grief, questions, challenges

By

The recent, untimely deaths of Kate Spade, reportedly from depression-related suicide, and of Anthony Bourdain, also from apparent suicide, came as a surprise to many. How could a fashion designer and businesswoman known for her whimsical creations and a chef, author and television personality who embodied a lust for life be depressed enough to end their lives? Crushing sadness can hide behind many facades.

According to a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates for adults in the United States are on the rise; since 1999, suicide rates in 25 states increased by more than 30%. In the US, suicide accounted for nearly 45,000 deaths in 2016.

Each person who dies by suicide leaves behind an estimated six or more “suicide survivors” — people who’ve lost someone they care about deeply and are left grieving and struggling to understand.

The grief process is always difficult. But a loss through suicide is like no other, and grieving can be especially complex and traumatic. People coping with this kind of loss often need more support than others, but may get less. Why? Survivors may be reluctant to confide that the death was self-inflicted. And when others know the circumstances of the death, they may feel uncertain about how to offer help.

What makes suicide different

The death of a loved one is never easy to experience, whether it comes without warning or after a long struggle with illness. But several circumstances set death by suicide apart and make the process of bereavement more challenging. For example:

A traumatic aftermath. Death by suicide is sudden, sometimes violent, and usually unexpected. Depending on the situation, survivors may need to deal with the police or handle press inquiries. While still in shock, they may be asked if they want to visit the death scene. Sometimes officials discourage the visit as too upsetting; other times they encourage it. “Either may be the right decision for an individual. But it can add to the trauma if people feel that they don’t have a choice,” says Jack Jordan, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in Wellesley, MA and co-author of After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief.

Recurring thoughts. A suicide survivor may have recurring thoughts of the death and its circumstances, replaying over and over the loved one’s final moments or their last encounter in an effort to understand — or simply because the thoughts won’t stop coming. Some suicide survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that can become chronic if not treated. In PTSD, the trauma is involuntarily re-lived in intrusive images that can create anxiety and a tendency to avoid anything that might trigger the memory.

Stigma, shame, and isolation. There’s a powerful stigma attached to mental illness (a factor in most suicides). Many religions specifically condemn the act as a sin, so survivors may understandably be reluctant to acknowledge or disclose the circumstances of such a death. Family differences over how to publicly discuss the death can make it difficult even for survivors who want to speak openly to feel comfortable doing so. The decision to keep the suicide a secret from outsiders, children, or selected relatives can lead to isolation, confusion, and shame that may last for years or even generations. In addition, if relatives blame one another — thinking perhaps that particular actions or a failure to act may have contributed to events — that can greatly undermine a family’s ability to provide mutual support.

Mixed emotions. After a homicide, survivors can direct their anger at the perpetrator. In a suicide, the victim is the perpetrator, so there is a bewildering clash of emotions. On one hand, a person who dies by suicide may appear to be a victim of mental illness or intolerable circumstances. On the other hand, the act may seem like an assault on, or rejection of, those left behind. So the feelings of anger, rejection, and abandonment that occur after many deaths are especially intense and difficult to sort out after a suicide.

Need for reason. “What if” questions can arise after any death. What if we’d gone to a doctor sooner? What if we hadn’t let her drive to the basketball game? After a suicide, these questions may be extreme and self-punishing — unrealistically condemning the survivor for failing to predict the death or to successfully intervene. In such circumstances, survivors tend to greatly overestimate their own contributing role — and their ability to affect the outcome.

“Suicide can shatter the things you take for granted about yourself, your relationships, and your world,” says Dr. Jordan. Some survivors conduct a psychological “autopsy,” finding out as much as they can about the circumstances and factors leading to the suicide. This can help develop a narrative that makes sense.

Sometimes a person with a disabling or terminal disease chooses suicide as a way of gaining control or hastening the end. When a suicide can be understood that way, survivors may feel relieved of much of their what-if guilt. “It doesn’t mean someone didn’t love their life,” says Holly Prigerson, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Psycho-Oncology Research, Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Support from other survivors

Suicide survivors often find individual counseling (see “Getting professional help”) and suicide support groups to be particularly helpful. There are many general grief support groups, but those focused on suicide appear to be much more valuable.

“Some people also find it helpful to be in a group with a similar kinship relationship, so parents are talking to other parents. On the other hand, it can be helpful for parents to be in a group where they hear from people who have lost a sibling — they may learn more about what it’s like for their other children,” says Dr. Jordan.

Some support groups are facilitated by mental health professionals; others by laypersons. “If you go and feel comfortable and safe — [feel] that you can open up and won’t be judged — that’s more important than whether the group is led by a professional or a layperson,” says Dr. Prigerson. Lay leaders of support groups are often themselves suicide survivors; many are trained by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

For those who don’t have access to a group or feel uncomfortable meeting in person, Internet support groups are a growing resource. In a study comparing parents who made use of the Internet and those who used in-person groups, the Web users liked the unlimited time and 24-hour availability of Internet support. Survivors who were depressed or felt stigmatized by the suicide were more likely to gain help from Internet support services.

You can join a support group at any time: soon after the death, when you feel ready to be social, or even long after the suicide if you feel you could use support, perhaps around a holiday or an anniversary of the death.

Getting professional help

Suicide survivors are more likely than other bereaved people to seek the help of a mental health professional. Look for a skilled therapist who is experienced in working with grief after suicide. The therapist can support you in many ways, including these:

  • helping you make sense of the death and better understand any psychiatric problems the deceased may have had
  • treating you, if you’re experiencing PTSD
  • exploring unfinished issues in your relationship with the deceased
  • aiding you in coping with divergent reactions among family members
  • offering support and understanding as you go through your unique grieving process.

A friend in need

Knowing what to say or how to help someone after a death is always difficult, but don’t let fear of saying or doing the wrong thing keep you from reaching out to a suicide survivor. Just as you might after any other death, express your concern, pitch in with practical tasks, and listen to whatever the person wants to tell you. Here are some special considerations:

Stay close. Families often feel stigmatized and cut off after a suicide. If you avoid contact because you don’t know what to say or do, family members may feel blamed and isolated. Ignore your doubts and make contact. Survivors learn to forgive awkward behaviors or clumsy statements, as long as your support and compassion are evident.

Avoid hollow reassurance. It’s not comforting to hear well-meant assurances that “things will get better” or “at least he’s no longer suffering.” Instead, the bereaved may feel that you don’t want to acknowledge or hear them express their pain and grief.

Don’t ask for an explanation. Survivors often feel as though they’re being grilled: Was there a note? Did you suspect anything? The survivor may be searching for answers, but your role for the foreseeable future is simply to be supportive and listen to what they have to say about the person, the death, and their feelings.

Remember his or her life. Suicide isn’t the most important thing about the person who died. Share memories and stories; use the person’s name (“Remember when Brian taught my daughter how to ride a two-wheeler?”). If suicide has come at the end of a long struggle with mental or physical illness, be aware that the family may want to recognize the ongoing illness as the true cause of death.

Acknowledge uncertainty. Survivors are not all alike. Even if you are a suicide survivor yourself, don’t assume that another person’s feelings and needs will be the same as yours. It’s fine to say you can’t imagine what this is like or how to help. Follow the survivor’s lead when broaching sensitive topics: “Would you like to talk about what happened?” (Ask only if you’re willing to listen to the details.) Even a survivor who doesn’t want to talk will appreciate that you asked.

Help with the practical things. Offer to run errands, provide rides to appointments, or watch over children. Ask if you can help with chores such as watering the garden, walking the dog, or putting away groceries. The survivor may want you to sit quietly, or perhaps pray, with him or her. Ask directly, “What can I do to help?”

Be there for the long haul. Dr. Jordan calls our culture’s standard approach to grief the “flu model”: grief is unpleasant but is relatively short-lived. After a stay at home, the bereaved person will jump back into life. Unfortunately, that means that once survivors are back at work and able to smile or socialize again, they quickly get the message that they shouldn’t talk about their continuing grief. Even if a survivor isn’t bringing up the subject, you can ask how she or he is coping with the death and be ready to listen (or respect a wish not to talk about it). Be patient and willing to hear the same stories or concerns repeatedly. Acknowledging emotional days such as a birthday or anniversary of the death — by calling or sending a card, for example — demonstrates your support and ongoing appreciation of the loss.

Helpful resources for suicide survivors are available at from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology.

Complete Article HERE!

Grief in the workplace

How to handle death, loss and trauma

By Carol Rääbus

When Jessie Williams was 30, she went on maternity leave and gave birth to her first baby.

But things didn’t go as planned.

“My baby died during labour,” Jessie says.

“It was an unexpected event and it happened two weeks after he was due.”

Instead of having months off to spend with her young son, Jessie found herself returning to work four weeks later.

The way her workplace supported her when she came back to work changed her life. Now she helps other workplaces do the same for their employees.

“My personal story motivated me to get active,” she says.

“I share my story with workplaces because my workplace had to find a way to have me come back.”

Show you care

“The last thing you want is to walk into work and feel like no-one cares,” says psychologist Breanna Sada, who works for an employee assistance program.

Instead, acknowledge the person and what they’re experiencing.

See no sadness, speak no sadness’ is not a good plan for a healthy workplace in the long-term.

Jessie says her workplace acknowledged her loss and made sure she knew they cared that she was grieving.

Her experience inspired her to work with Compassionate Workplace program to help businesses find their own way of dealing with difficult conversations and helping staff through tough times.

In this role she has seen what happens when workplaces don’t acknowledge an employee’s grief.

Jessie has found that a common reaction in the workplace is: “I don’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything”.

“When your workplace responds to you in that way, your feeling, your attachment, your commitment to that job fundamentally changes,” she says.

“For many people, they’ll leave eventually. For others, they’ll stay. But there’s like a malaise. They’re just showing up. They’re kind of a shell of themselves.”

Don’t try to ‘fix’ grief

While it’s very normal to want to make things better for someone going through a difficult time, there’s nothing you can say that will “fix” someone’s grief.

“But letting them know you’re there for them is sometimes all that’s needed,” Ms Sada says.

She says it’s best to avoid saying something like, “They’re in a better place now” or “At least they’re not in pain anymore”.

“Very rarely does an empathic response begin with ‘At least…'” she says.

Jessie agrees that you don’t have to try to fix or solve anything.

“Caring is as simple as saying to somebody, ‘I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine how it feels for you’,” she says.

Do small acts of kindness

You probably can’t help your colleague organise the funeral or pay their medical bills, but there are small things you can do to make them feel cared for. And they do add up.

“It’s OK to give them some practical support like, ‘If stuff is getting too much, let me know. I’m happy to cover for you’, or, ‘If you can’t come to that meeting, I’ll take notes for you’,” Ms Sada says.

“Be practical with your support.”

In some cases, this takes a little preparation.

Jessie says the leadership in her former workplace had a discussion before she returned to the office on ways they could help her out.

Her closer work friends were given permission to spend more time with her — having extra coffee breaks, going for a stroll at lunch — so they could talk.

She was also given a bit of flexibility with her workload for a while as she found her way through the grief.

Try not being too formal with your support

While employee assistance programs and counselling can be helpful for employees after a traumatic event, helping someone doesn’t have to formalised.

“It doesn’t have to be a formal lunchtime chat that you have. It can be just: ‘Hey, I’m really sorry to hear about your dad’,” Ms Sada says.

“[Or] ‘I’m sorry you’ve had a crap week’.”

Jessie says her work is about how everyone can play a part in helping each other.

“The core idea is that we have the capacity to care for each other,” she says.

“We don’t have to professionalise care and we don’t have to pathologise grief. Grief is just sadness.”

Start the conversation about what workplace you want

Grief will hit us all at some time, and Jessie says workplaces should talk about it openly with employees to build a supportive culture that works for them.

Australia has an ageing population. We’re encouraged to work for longer. And the lines between home-life and work-life are forever blurring, with constant emails on your phone and working from home.

“What kind of workplace do we want?” she says.

“I would hope that in five or 10 years, it would be as normal as having a mental health day — talking about grief in the same way.”

Complete Article HERE!

Cancer, Death and Finding the Words to Say Goodbye

BY Khevin Barnes

Cancer has a way of forcing us to consider the inevitable notion of our own death, and whether you want to think about that or not, I want to suggest that it need not be dramatic or discomforting if we choose to simply observe the phenomenon as something both mysterious and certain.

When a lifelong friend told me she had terminal, inoperable cancer I searched long and hard for the genuine and unpretentious words to say, knowing I had only one shot at getting it right. I’ll call her by her first name, Laura.

I hired Laura to work for me in an entertainment agency I started in California back in 1978. We were both in our late 20s. She was talented and fun and did a great comedy routine as “Mae West.” We lost touch over the years, but she reappeared again when my wife was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, since they had both been good friends. She checked in often as I did my best to be a supportive and loving caregiver for my wife who, despite our best efforts, died at the age of 47 in 1997.

Those of us with a cancer diagnosis, no matter the stage or grade, know all too well that people die from our disease. The end of a life is something we experience with increased frequency as we get older, and also as we come to know more and more people like us with varying degrees of cancer. Of course, many of us live long and fulfilling lives.

I want to share some of the actual words Laura and I exchanged by letter in her final days with some short excerpts, not simply to show the remarkable courage and insight she expressed, but to act as a visible example of how a conversation with a dying friend might evolve. I recall the distress I felt at having to say goodbye in my letter, knowing it would be the last exchange I’d have with her.

I wanted very badly to avoid being trite or patronizing, but most of all, I wanted to be open and honest and to find the words to express the sadness I felt to lose her, along with the joy of living my life while knowing her. Laura wrote:

“I found out today that my cancer has now grown significantly in my liver, along with other areas. At this point my oncologist said that he did not know of any other options for me as far as treatment, and I most likely have three months to live. He has taken me off the chemo I was on and has now written an order for Hospice. I am sorry to give you this news.”

I sat with this news for a day before writing back to her:

“I received the news that your cancer has advanced beyond the treatable stage and I’m writing to tell you that I love you and that no matter where you are in the universe, you are now and always will be in my thoughts, memories and in my heart. I know from my past experience with my wife, that many who know and love you are muted by grief and there is a great difficulty to find words for such things.”

I reminded her of a few incidents from our past working as entertainers – things we had laughed over long ago. I spoke briefly about our philosophical views of death and dying.

“My own cancer experience, along with my wife’s, has forever altered how I view life and death, and though I feel a tremendous sadness that you may soon be in another place where perhaps we can no longer be in touch, those feelings are tempered by my unshakable belief that life – just as it is – is absolute perfection. I know from our conversations that in having a complete trust in life’s ultimate plan and purpose as we both do, there is a comfort we feel in this mystery that lies ahead for you and me and all of us. Of course, it’s those we leave behind who suffer – perhaps the most – but life, at least from my perspective, is always about growth, even though it hurts like hell at times.

And finally, though we both had accepted that there was no turning back, I wanted her to know that she would not be forgotten.

“Being human, I have that familiar ferocious desire to hold on to all we love. I know I can’t hold on to you my friend, but I can always keep you close to my heart. There is a place there just for you. And I will never let that go. I promise.”

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu is a psychologist in the Stanford University School of Medicine. He said, “Saying goodbye is learning what to hold onto and what to let go of. I firmly believe that by embracing our mortality with full awareness we can learn to experience life in a deeper and more passionate way. But the internal work of saying goodbye means finding a way to acknowledge that people come and go in our lives, leaving permanent imprints in our character; we inherit traits from everybody who crosses our paths or touches our hearts.”

Laura died five weeks after we exchanged our letters. Others in my life will die, too. And then one day of course, it will be my turn. And the only thing I know with any certainty is that these goodbyes are sure to repeat time and time again, until one day, that last goodbye will be the one reserved for me.

Complete Article ↪HERE↩!

Orca who carried her dead infant is not alone – many animals grieve

The orca has been seen carrying the dead infant since July

By Michael Marshall

Over the last few weeks, many people have been deeply moved by the story of a female orca who spent over a fortnight swimming with the dead body of her calf, apparently grieving. The story is a dramatic illustration of something that has become increasingly clear in recent years: many animals grieve for their dead.

The orca is called Tahlequah and belongs to a pod known as J, which roams the north-east Pacific Ocean. Her baby died shortly after it was born on 24 July, according to the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington.

Tahlequah proceeded to carry the body for at least 17 days, during which time she covered 1600 kilometres. On Saturday 11 August, the Center reported that she was no longer carrying the body. Instead she joined her fellow pod members in chasing a school of salmon, and seemed “remarkably frisky”.

Among certain kinds of animal, such grieving behaviours appear to be quite common.

Living together

Grief seems to be most common in highly social animals that live in tight-knit groups. This makes sense: social animals would come to value their friends and family, and accordingly would feel a loss when they die. In contrast, animals that live solitary lives and do not care for their offspring would have nobody to grieve.

Orcas fit the bill: being a kind of dolphin, they are highly intelligent and live in groups. Indeed, there have been previous instances where orca mothers were seen carrying the bodies of their dead infants. The same is true of many other cetaceans, the group to which orcas belong and which also includes other dolphins and whales. Bottlenose dolphins have been seen lifting the corpses of their fellows above water, as if trying to help them breathe.

There is also growing evidence that African elephants grieve. They pay particular attention to the bones of elephants, compared to bones of other species, and become agitated if they come across an elephant’s corpse.

Perhaps more surprisingly, pig-like animals called peccaries have also been observed seemingly grieving for a dead group member. A 2017 study tracked a herd of peccaries after one of their number died and found that they visited her body repeatedly, generally either alone or in pairs. The peccaries sometimes simply stood nearby, and at other times they nuzzled the body, tried to pick it up and even slept next to it.

Monkeys like us

Some of the most extensive evidence for animal grief comes from primates like monkeys and apes: our closest living relatives.

In one remarkable incident, a female snub-nosed monkey fell from a tree and cracked her head on a rock. Her partner, the alpha male of the group, sat with her and gently touched her. After she died he spent a further five minutes with her, pulling gently at her hand as if trying to revive her, before leaving. His behaviour suggests that he understood something of the finality of death.

Chimpanzees have been seen carrying the corpses of dead infants, often for weeks. In one instance, a captive chimp called Pansy died, after which her fellow troupe members first cleaned her corpse, and then avoided the place where it lay. This behaviour resembles a funeral ritual.

Grieving does not seem to be universal among primates, but this may have to do with the environments in which they live. In hot and wet regions, corpses decay and become unpleasant very quickly, forcing the animals to abandon them. In contrast, monkeys called geladas live in cold places where decay is slow, and have been observed carrying corpses for up to 48 days.

And animal grief can take surprising turns. In some instances, apes have stopped carrying the corpses of dead infants – and eaten them instead. Such cannibalism seems to be moderately common in chimpanzees, but rare in bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans.

Complete Article HERE!