The medicine of sorrow

Sorrow is a universal human experience. It is feeling all too familiar these days.

Years ago, when Haiti was slammed with devastating storms, a woman said when the first storm came through she lost her home, when the second one came through she lost all eight members of her family. She was now left with one plastic pale and the clothes on her back. That’s it, that’s all she had.

Two thoughts come to mind with the enormity of that kind of loss.

One, I am reminded of the concept of medicine as in the American Indian medicine pouch. The pouch might contain a feather or piece of bone that symbolized an experience where the individual came to understand their inherent strength of character, an aspect of self.

Medicine in this context is defined as power, and a power that can never be taken away from you. Therefore, it is not your car, your job, your bank account or your relationship. Medicine is what you are made of; it is the wealth of your experiences and wisdom. It is the you that has been stretched, fired and tempered by life. It is how you perceive the world, see yourself and choose to be in the world.

Loss of any variety or potency requires some personal medicine. Grief is crazy-making. It takes time to accept the unacceptable. It takes time to feel the undulations and reverberations of loss. The attachment has been severed; there is a hole. And, usually, all we want to do is fill the hole with what was. Because – and here is my flair for the obvious – loss mandates change. And change is often uncomfortable, new and unknown. This makes loss scary. The road ahead becomes rocky; walking becomes an effort to maintain balance and stay upright.

Sorrow stretches a heart and teaches us a whole new way to open our hearts and love. Sorrow cracks us apart and can bring us to the edge. Sorrow is transformative. It rearranges priorities and possibilities.

My second thought is of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Blanche allowed that she relied upon the kindness of strangers. I think all denominations of heartache require kindness.

And in what might be a kind of emotional homeopathy, what cures a broken heart is more heart medicine. Be it the sharing of a common experience or as Joan Didion described in A Year of Magical Thinking, the simple act of a cup of tea and sandwich left for her as the bleary-eyed and numb survivor. It can be the hand held in the hospital, a hot meal, shoes and a coat for the winter or the kind word that comforts the depleted and weary. In some ways it matters little what it is, what matters most in the connection, heart to heart, that says, “I care.”

We heal through our heart connections, be it the ones we have lost and hold close or be it the ones who bear witness to our grief journey and tend to our shattered hearts.

Grief, which is another way of loving, and caring, are potent medicines that speak directly of the power of the heart. And the elements of the heart — caring, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, generosity — lead us to healing.

 

 

Suicide and mental illness

Suicide is considered a mental health issue. Why would someone want to take their own life? They must be crazy.

And, sometimes, they are. There are people who cannot function on a day-to-day basis, do not bathe for a year, receive messages to kill themselves or others, or believe their fillings are wired to Martian intelligence. There are very real neurological and biochemical influences that place these patients at high risk.

Untreated depression is considered the number one cause of suicide. If you, or someone you love, has experienced the reality of major depression, you know what a devastating, debilitating, and a biochemical illness it is. The depressed person does not see or think clearly. She is locked inside a black, airless box that offers no light or perspective.

Hospitalization and medication have saved many lives. William Styron, in his memoir, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1992), eloquently detailed his descent into, and recovery from, depression, which he called, “a howling tempest in the brain . . . dreadful, pouncing seizures of anxiety.” Styron understood the stranglehold of depression: “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.”

Along with major depressive disorder, the psychiatric illnesses that can lead to suicidal actions are bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression), borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and other psychotic disorders.

Did you know that the single greatest risk factor for suicide is a history of suicidal behaviors and attempts? Of course, this makes perfect sense, and if someone you love has these behavior patterns, take them seriously.

If you have lived with a loved one who has suffered from any of these mental illnesses, your life has not been an easy one. Nor has theirs. No one chooses to live with a debilitating psychiatric or psychological disorder that frequently moves in and out of crisis. It is painful, chaotic, exhausting, and terrifying for both the patient and loved ones. Ongoing treatment and meds are usually necessary to help make life more manageable.

A psychiatrist colleague of mine, once shared this with me: The majority of her patients who ended up in the hospital emergency room had stopped taking their medications, which then precipitated the subsequent disintegration.

Whereas, Nancy Kehoe, PhD, RSCJ, a Harvard Medical School professor, clinical psychologist, and nun, offered a new take on psychiatric hospitalizations during a lecture I attended decades ago in Boston. She allowed that for many of her patients, a psychiatric hospital gave them a much-needed sense of community and connection. And, with that sense of community and connection, they were able to heal. And by heal, I mean to find some stability so that they could return to the world as a functioning participant.

This made me think of the African tribes as well as many of the Indigenous people who work as a community and address the soul to help those in pain (of any kind) to find relief. There are many paths to wellness and wholeness.

Deep Peace to You

This traditional Gaelic blessing is both meditation and prayer to me. The cadence and rhythm of the words moves me into a place of stillness and expansiveness.

In our topsy-turvy, fast-paced world, may I offer you this bouquet of soulful words.

Deep peace, deep peace of the running wave to you;
Deep peace of the flowing air to you;
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you;
Deep peace of the shining stars to you;
Deep peace of the gentle night to you;
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace to you.
Deep peace to you.

—Traditional Gaelic Blessing

Our miracle medicine

Jungian analyst, poet, and cantadora (keeper of the old stories), Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells us that the wise, elder women of her family would say,

“The only miracle medicine we have is each other.”

And so it is with suicide as well. Allow yourself to be held and heard as you walk your personal path of grief and sorrow.

 

Suicide and cumulative stressors

As we continue to look at some of the whys suicide has been chosen, let’s consider the impact of cumulative stressors and trauma:

A darling Celtic client of mine had a great saying, “Life does life.” She was right. It does.
There are times when life throws us a major curveball and we are seriously rattled. We lose our footing, and our wherewithal is seriously diminished. If there are continuous stressors such as disasters, losses, medical conditions, and financial issues, a person who has been functioning well may begin to feel the onslaught, for it is akin to non-stop blows to the body.

Stress is cumulative, and non-stop stress allows no room to take a breath, to process, or assess. You are going from one thing to another. Before you know it, you are holding on by a thread. Life has become overwhelming. There seems to be no meaning and no point to it all. You are psychologically shattered. Then one more stressor knocks at your door, and you can’t imagine how you are going to keep going on like this. You have tried your best, but you are tired. You are worn out.

Think of the rash of “suicides by economic crises” in several European countries. Imagine the suddenly homeless, the ostracized and shunned, the failed crops, the medical emergencies, the bereft husband, and the bankrupt. They have endured much, and this accumulation of stress and being powerless can prompt suicidal feelings.

Be it an injury to the body, mind, soul, or an emotional shock that upends a life, trauma is pervasive in our world. Trauma can be a sudden death, combat service, childhood sexual abuse, a natural disaster, terrorism, catastrophic illness, and violence such as unrelenting bullying.

For some, that acute stress and shock of the experience(s) does not fade away or diminish; it becomes entrenched in an insidious way. The body-whacking, heart-thumping, mind-numbing, horrifying, excruciating, and unfathomable traumatic experience holds a person hostage in a complete mind-body-heart hell.

This chronic pattern of neurological and physical responses is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is particularly prevalent, and most understandable, among survivors of childhood sexual abuse, victims of bullying, and combat soldiers. They are at high risk for suicide given the horrors they have lived through, have been tormented by, and have survived.

Imagine the VA Hospital and a group of vets waiting to attend a PTSD treatment group. Their hands are shoved into their pockets. Very few are holding cups of coffee because their hands shake from the increased cortisol in their systems.

Imagine the student who has been bullied to such an extreme that he cannot focus on his classes. He sits in terror waiting for the next attack and wondering how he can protect himself.

Imagine a sexual abuse support group. The women share their difficulties sleeping due to nightmares replaying nightly. The terror and the body memories flood their systems frequently; sleep is anathema. Pain is a constant companion.

For those in the hell of PTSD, suicide can be seen as an option to end the recurring cycles of pain and horror. Sometimes, too much is just too much.

 

Grief is a kind of love

Sometimes, we forget that grief is kind of love.

And we know love. Love, like an unending vine of shiny green leaves, winds and curls itself into the crevices of our lives and tenderly wraps us int its embrace.

We have met love, witnessed love, and, even, challenged love. We have held, hugged, laughed, cried, whispered and howled because of love. Love reverberates from our deepest being, rattles our knees, expands our vision and hums in our ears. Love is the current that turns us upside-down and inside-out. We are never the same after love and, most certainly, we are never the same after grief. Love and grief are energies that transform us into something more, something better.

“Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning. For grief is just love squaring up to its oldest enemy, and after all these mortal human years love is up to the challenge.”

                          Kate Braestrup

 

Pain and suicide

Pain does not discriminate. It moves among us equally, wearing many faces, including that of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain.

Pain can look like a physical wound, broken parts, a speeding mind cycling through multi-dimensional layers, heartbreak, trauma, abandonment, shattered dreams, a wailing debate with God, homelessness, hunger, failed attempts, low-slung despair, high-pitched anxiety, self-hate, the endless push and pull of addiction, torture, and the intractable agony of chronic pain, among other conditions. Both cluster headaches and trigeminal neuralgia are called the “suicide diseases.” The excruciating levels of pain associated with each disorder make the individuals want to die to be free of the inordinate pain.

Unrelenting pain can wear a person down. It feels as if it will never end. It feels like there is no solution. It hurts so, so much. That sort of pain can leave you breathless. And, that kind of fetal-positioned, tear-producing pain can prompt thoughts of suicide.

A very brief history of suicide

Suicide has been part of the human experience, across the globe, as long as we have been recording our history. Over the centuries, suicide has been perceived as a personal choice, a mortal sin, a social issue, a mental illness, as well as an act of honor, piety, or shame.

In ancient Egypt, it is said, “There is no direct archaeological evidence for suicide . . . nor for any discriminatory treatment of people who died at their own hand.” In other words, suicide did not break any laws or codes. There was no taboo against it.

Romans and Greeks (with the exception of Pythagoras for mathematical reasons, and Aristotle due to his belief in a finite number of souls and the consequences of same) were not troubled about suicide. Roman and Japanese soldiers were known to take their own lives if defeated in battle. It was considered a point of honor or a ‘patriotic suicide’ and may have also served as a way to avoid capture and possible torture.

Early Christians, often en masse, chose voluntary death and martyrdom in lieu of persecution. These suicides were considered a great act of piety. In the fourth century, St. Augustine was the first Christian to publicly declare suicide a sin.

During the Middle Ages, a time that was deeply influenced by the venal actions of the Roman Catholic Church, suicide was shrouded in great shame and fear of eternal repercussions. If you took your own life, your body became an object of public ridicule and torture. You were excommunicated from the Church, your property was seized, and you were prohibited from burial in consecrated or sacred ground.

Suicide moved out the Dark Ages and became a topic of social interest during the Renaissance and Reformation. Shakespeare, as we know, wrote of suicide in a number of his plays, as did the poet John Donne. The philosophers Voltaire and Montesquieu also defended an individual’s right to choose death.

French sociologist, social psychologist, and philosopher Émile Durkheim wrote Le Suicide (1897). This book was the first social analysis of suicide, and it helped increase awareness of suicide as well as decrease the shame surrounding suicide.

Sigmund Freud stepped onto the world stage in the early twentieth century, and with his arrival, mental illness was first viewed as a medical condition. Studies in psychiatry and psychology blossomed; suicide awareness, education, and treatment strategies were created. In 1983, the Roman Catholic Church reversed its canon, and those who died by suicide could have a Catholic funeral and burial.

Today, suicide is a worldwide epidemic that is indifferent to the boundaries between cultures, age, religion, gender, and socioeconomic classes. Suicide has many faces, and each one is part of humanity regardless of our differences. Suicide may be a response to despair, pain, illness, and the pull of inner demons. It can be an act of war, a reaction to violence, or a final surrender.

How do we help a loved one who has lost someone to suicide?

Suicide is often a sudden, unexpected death. It leaves loved ones reeling with shock, confusion, heartbreak, anger and whole panoply of emotions.

When word gets out about a death by suicide, there is a ripple effect. The loss moves out in ever-widening circles and whoever hears or knows anyone impacted by the loss wants to do something. Bake lasagna, make the calls, organize logistics, walk the dog, help with the service, be a shoulder, lend an ear. They want to feed you, nourish you and hold you. They want to help you stay afloat when you are drowning in heartbreak. They feel your loss, and your loss becomes their loss.

Loss is primal; we all feel it. And this is especially true when we hear of a suicide, and especially, the suicide of a young person with their unfurled life before them.

It is hard to see our loved ones doubled over in grief and pain. We want to do something — anything — to help ease their misery.

What can we do when someone we care about loses a loved one to suicide?

Read more here.

 

N.B. The HuffingtonPost Canada retitled this article to “Don’t be Afraid to Talk about People Who’ve Died by Suicide.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/adele-mcdowell/dont-be-afraid-to-talk-about-people-whove-died-by-suicide_a_23280876/