Tag Archives: suicide

Memories – Beautiful and Painful

I recently discovered the work of a local artist who had an exhibition where I work. One painting struck me to the core: it was Malcolm! Or at least it could have been. Same build.  And the cap. And he is fishing – and Malcolm loved to fish. I had to have a copy. So I contacted the artist and now I have a print hanging in the dining area.

herb willey's malcolmArtist: Herb Willey                                                                                                                              https://www.facebook.com/herb.willey


The painting was a beautiful reminder of Malcolm. Another reminder at work recently was completely devastating. A young man jumped off the parking garage to his death. I was at work when it happened and it plunged me into a depression. I should have been able to save him. Why hadn’t he waited, maybe I could have talked him down?  Magical thinking, of course. I didn’t even know him and had no way of knowing what he planned to do. But reason had nothing to do with my reaction.

A few weeks passed. The anniversary of Malcolm’s death loomed. And then the daughter of one of the patient’s on my floor committed suicide and they asked me to come and support her brother – he felt guilty. The mother was in a coma, and would probably never know. So he was actually losing both of them. I couldn’t do it. I had nothing to offer; I felt empty.

I walked out. I told my boss I needed a few days off.  A few days turned into a few weeks and now I am heading back to work tomorrow. (Positive thoughts and prayers would be welcome.)

What have I learned from this? Life is full of reminders, positive and negative. I cannot ever be free from them. However much we might try to insulate ourselves emotionally from the effects of our loss, there will be days when we are stabbed in the heart once again. There are suicide attempts in the hundreds every year in my city and some of them will end up in the hospital where I work.  It is inevitable. I have to find a way of keeping myself emotionally protected while being able to offer support and empathy. A difficult dance. But March 19 comes around every year, so I have no choice, I have to find a way – or give up my job as a hospital chaplain. And May 14 comes around every year, too – his birthday. I don’t want to miss the positive reminders so I will have to accept the painful ones, too. The painful and the beautiful memories – every year.


Holiday Blues


The following is part of a presentation I gave on grief. This part deals specifically with the holidays.


The problem with “Firsts”

We are in October, there are already Thanksgiving decorations on sale; soon there will be Christmas ones. If this is the first year after a loss these events will be difficult, just like other celebrations – birthdays etc. But these holidays are not private they are celebrated publically and everybody wants to wish you joy. Some years ago a tradition developed to hold a prayer service on the longest night of the year for those who had lost loved ones. It’s called a Blue Christmas and is described as a service of remembrance and hope. You might look for one this year.

” The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  John 1:5


Let yourself off the hook – don’t try to recreate past holidays

Let go of Guilt – you’re hurting, you’re sad, give yourself a break! You don’t have to keep taking care of everyone else

Make some decisions for self-care –

  • make a restaurant reservation way ahead of time
  • don’t decorate the house, or do so minimally like a potted            rosemary tree instead of a full Christmas tree
  • Order out
  • Divide the duties

If you are having people over, order a pre-cooked dinner, or turkey, and /or           have  everybody bring something specific on the menu, including paper
products (you don’t need to get out the silver and the china), soft
drinks, and a table decoration.

69  New Normal continued

  • If you can afford it, get a maid service to come and clean
  • Get away for a few days with someone who knows and cares
  • Choose a new venue
  • Make new memories
  • Start new traditions
  • If you used to go to a special church and a special restaurant then this year choose new ones
  • Have a white elephant activity or some other fun activity on Christmas Day
  • Get some people together to go caroling in the neighborhood or at a local nursing home or hospital
  • Spend the morning feeding people at a shelter

Doing something for other people really can help us get out of our head

70   DON’T

  • DON’T show old family movies – you might be ready but everyone else might not
  • DON’T try to make everything seem as if it’s all the same as it was
  • DON’T ignore your feelings
  • DON’T ignore your Loss – or the absence of your loved one – have a special toast or add a special prayer for the one who is not there
  • DON’T drink too much – alcohol is a depressant


  • Remind yourself of your good but imperfect past holidays – it wasn’t perfect before so it doesn’t have to be perfect this year
  • Nurture yourself – Have a private memento or picture in your pocket that you can touch when you need to so you don’t feel you are leaving them out, so that they are “coming with you.”
  • Take time outs if and when you need to for a quick weep.
  • Remember that other people around you are grieving, too, and everyone grieves differently an on a different schedule – denial, avoidance, anger, bargaining, sadness, depression, acceptance – and around and around again. You can’t fix them, but you can be patient with them, whatever stage they are in.

72  Some books and Quotes

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.” ​ 

​“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” ​

“We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” ​


Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, http://www.ekrfoundation.org/quotes/​

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”​

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning​

“Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.” ​

 74      Resources online




77    Resources for your phone

  • Daily 7 second meditations on your phone from http://www.7secondmeditation.com/
  • “Insight Timer” APP for your phone – for hundreds of meditations. Some just music, some nature sounds, some guided meditations.

This is a sad song but listen ’til the end.

Hope in Seasons of Loss

traces of hope

How do I process my grief?
Does suffering have any meaning?
Do we live in a random chaotic universe?
Is it time to re-evaluate my understanding of “God”?

This book is for anyone who has suffered a loss – of safety, of one’s home, of health, of a loved one or a relationship, or of one’s faith … and found themselves asking, “Why?” And then wondering, “Who am I asking?” and hoping they were not alone.


The Giant Sad


Once upon a time there was a little boy called Malcolm who had a mummy and a daddy who loved him very much. And he had a baby brother called James that he wasn’t so sure about at first, but who he grew to love and love.

Little Malcolm really liked to laugh and make jokes. He loved camping and fishing and making a secret language with his cousin T.J.. Little Malcolm had a giggle like his mother. But some days Malcolm was sad, and some days he was very, very sad. And the Sad inside him grew like a big rock.

When Malcolm was all grown and finished college he came back home top live and study some more. His baby brother was all grown up too and just starting college.

Time passed at home and Malcolm had some lovely days and lots of good friends. He went to Austria and took beautiful pictures. The sad inside him was still growing but there was room for the Happy, the Silly, the Serious, and the Helpful as well. Malcolm was helpful to lots of people, and even to his own mummy when her Sad became too big.

One day Malcolm began to feel that his Sad had grown too big; there was no room for Happy and Silly. But Helpful continued to smile a big smile so no one noticed. Then Malcolm began finding it hard to breathe because Sad was so big it filled up his whole chest.

Malcolm was so good at helping others but he hadn’t learnt to help himself. His smile was so big it could shrink other people’s Sad, but it didn’t help his own. If only he had believed he deserved help; if only he had believed he deserved people’s time and love. But he didn’t believe it. he never had.

Then one day the sad was too big altogether. It was bigger than Malcolm. And Malcolm did a very bad, very sad thing.  He took a gun and shot himself in the heart. It was the only way he could think of to get rid of his giant Sad. But he didn’t get rid of it, he passed it on to his mummy and daddy and his brother and all his family and friends. And when he shot himself he killed his whole Self – the Happy, the Helpful, the Silly, and the Serious as well. Now there was nothing left of his beautiful smile.

And now Malcolm’s mummy and daddy and his brother James  have a giant enormous Sad that is Malcolm-shaped and is sitting on their hearts and making it hard for them to breathe.

The End.


From Faith to Doubt to … Hope

This is a draft of an introduction to my next book. I would very much appreciate feedback.

Natural disaster, institutional evil, the suicide of a loved one. The experience of each of these tragedies results in grief and loss: denial, anger, blaming, depression, and eventually, so the theory goes, acceptance and renewal of hope – a new beginning. In the face of tragedy, understanding the common stages of grief and loss can offer victims some sense of order in an otherwise chaotic emotional landscape. But what if, while reeling under the impact of a tragedy, we also face the loss of our religious faith, and along with it the very structures of meaning that have held us together for so long? What if we find ourselves doubting the goodness of our church, the existence of God, the purposeful nature of creation, the meaning of life, the very possibility of hope?

Three separate tragedies – Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic abuse scandal, the loss of a son to suicide – connected through the common ground of grief and loss, and carrying in their wake a profound challenge to religious faith. This may seem too wide a topic for a single book, but it can’t be: this book is not an intellectual exercise; these tragedies tell the story of my life. The questions I raise here surface from the depths of my own grief and sorrow and from my desperate need to reclaim hope, the hope I once relied on, the hope I tried to offer my students, the hope that my son wrote of, even as he prepared to die.

If you are looking for a story of spiritual transformation, a wrenching tragedy followed by a poignant renewal of faith, then this book is not for you. If you need to find immediate comfort, and the reassurance that God has a Plan and everything happens for a Reason, this book will not serve you well. I’m telling you this because I don’t want to cause any more pain: grief and loss are too damn difficult already. But if you are grasping for a raft in the midst of overwhelming tragedy, emotional chaos, or spiritual drought, if you are disillusioned with organized religion, and not even sure about God, let alone God’s plan, then we are on a similar journey and maybe we can share the road for a while.

Typically, spiritual odyssey stories generate speaking engagements, t-shirts, and affirmation cards. They take the reader from the pain and chaos of suffering, sin, and loss to the comfort of forgiveness and the renewal of faith. This story travels in the other direction: from a career teaching theology and leading liturgical music — feeling that I was in God’s hands — to the desolation of suddenly feeling that God had let go.

I used to readily call myself Catholic; now I don’t know what label fits. If “Catholic” can be a cultural descriptor, the way “Jewish” is for many Jews, then I am certainly Catholic. I was born and raised in the Church, received all the relevant sacraments, earned two degrees from Catholic universities, taught theology for nearly three decades in Catholic schools, and raised two sons in the Church. I would not hesitate to check “Catholic” on a census or on a hospital admissions chart. Nonetheless, I am currently ambivalent about God and find it too distressful to attend Church with any regularity.

My story will not nurture a soul hungry for immediate spiritual enrichment, but to those who are struggling to make sense of suffering and God it offers the consolation that you are not alone. It may even help you let go of the guilt of doubting God. And for those who are searching for some sense of meaning and purpose when life seems devoid of any, perhaps it will even offer you a little hope. That is certainly my hope.

Highs and lows of grieving

It is a cliche to talk about living with depression as a roller coaster ride, but cliche or not it’s true. And grief feels like depression in this way. There aren’t real “highs” so much as incredibly intense moments of joy when one recalls and shares a memory, a story, an event. But such joys are a double-edged sword  (another cliche) because as intense as that moment of bliss is, that crest of the roller coaster, the intensity of the the following fall is magnified exponentially, as the realization of the loss hits one’s psyche like a punch in the gut. And like a roller coaster ride that goes through a pool of water, you are left feeling breathless, submerged in sadness, wondering if you will have enough energy to complete the ride, enough air to take you through to the next stretch of track.

The stigma of depression

It is still not OK to talk about depressed children. When you have a child who is depressed you cover up, you make excuses, you lie. Anything but tell people he is suffering from depression. Why? In our case I could say that we wanted to spare our son embarrassment and that sounds noble, right? But why should he be embarrassed? Is it because we are embarrassed? Do we think that others  will blame us for our child’s depression? Sadly, they might. But that is their problem. We can’t control that.

By keeping things secret we are just adding to the shame that the depressed feel.  Would it have helped Malcolm if we had been more open about his depression?  If he had been diagnosed with diabetes, would we have kept that from his cousins and grandparents and teachers? No! We would have wanted them to know, so they could help support his healthy behavior and look out for signs of  any medical crises.

I have diabetes, Type II. I take medicine twice a day and I know that if I don’t manage my blood sugar levels I am putting myself at greater risk for heart attack, stroke, blindness and limb amputation in my future. I don’t fight taking my diabetes medicine. But my depression medicine? That’s another story. I struggle all the time. “If I were a strong enough person and more in control I could do without it.”  “I don’t need it any more, I am feeling better.”  It is so easy to dismiss depression as something I can control, “if I put my mind to it.” Even though I know that depression like diabetes is a bio-chemical issue. Regardless of whether one has “emotional issues” depression is, by the time it manifests, a bio-chemical problem as well. Even with therapy, an adjustment in one’s body chemistry is usually going to be necessary. One’s chemistry has to get re-aligned; one’s serotonin levels have to get adjusted up. Maybe your body will be able to sustain the appropriate levels once it has readjusted, but for many people, like myself, medicine is necessary long-term. I know because I have tried multiple times to do without, only to discover that, yes, it really does make a difference in how well I can cope and how low my mood gets.

I hate myself for needing antidepressants; I don’t hate myself for needing diabetes medicine. What’s the difference? Again I come back to the issue of shame. I feel that I am judged by society as being “responsible” for being depressed. As if it is a character weakness. But because I am not morbidly obese, and therefore not obviously “responsible” for my sugar levels being abnormal, society doesn’t judge my diabetes as a character flaw. The truth is, both probably have a genetic cause to some extent, and my behavior has certainly contributed to my developing diabetes. On the other hand I have done nothing to “cause” my depression.

So, what am I saying? I am saying we need to redefine our attitudes to depression. We need to be supportive of family members who are depressed and not communicate any shame messages. Ask them how they want to deal with telling people, but encourage them to share information with others in order to get support. Don’t encourage secrets because that suggests to them that you are ashamed of their depression. Let them know clearly that you are not ashamed, and if secrecy is their choice, you will comply only because they want it, not because you do.  Of course, if you have been hiding your own depression it is hard to support this attitude convincingly. So maybe the first course of action is to be honest about your own illness, if you suffer too. Joining a support group, getting on medication, and or getting into therapy yourself can model a good attitude towards depression. You don’t want to share your “issues” with your children but you can show them that depression is a medical condition that one need not be ashamed of.  And you need to keep telling yourself until you really believe it.

Two and a half years

Anniversaries don’ t happen just once a year. They happen every day at 3:30pm. Every Monday at 3:30pm. Every 19th of the month.  Every March 19th.

My husband marked every day at 3:30pm for a long time. Maybe he still does, he just doesn’t talk about it. I couldn’t do that. It was just too awful. But I marked every Monday at 3:30pm for at least a year. Now I have moved to every month on the 19th. And this month it was two and a half years.  We toasted our son at 3:30pm on Saturday. That was the time of day when he put a gun to his chest and shot himself through the heart. I still feel strange to be toasting him. How can one toast a tragedy? But I remind myself of the Irish tradition of raising a glass in memory of a loved one who has passed, and then it makes sense. We live in a permanent state of “waking” our son, in the Irish sense of the word: gathering together to console each other, to share stories about the one who has passed, to celebrate their life and wish them well in their journey. I know Malcolm would approve of the “raising a glass” part.

I will carry you

Amy Grant, Carry You

Lay down your burden I will carry you
I will carry you my child,
Lay down your burden I will carry you
I will carry you my child, my child.

I was reminded of this song today. I once sang it as a duet in a Holy Week service.  I always found it so moving as a song about God’s love, but it takes on such a different poignancy imagining it as a mother singing to her child.  The truth is, we can only carry our children as long as, or when, they allow us to.  As soon as they can walk they wiggle out of our arms to get down and be free of restraint. But when they’re tired they let us carry them again.

I have two great-nieces now, and I love holding them when I get the chance. They is nothing as tender as the pure and absolute trust of a child who rests in your arms and falls asleep on your shoulder.

How can anyone abuse a child?  The abuse of that trust is at least as violent as any abuse perpetrated on a child’s body. A world in which child abuse can happen so often,  and with such impunity in the case of abuse by priests, is a world that can seem overwhelmingly dark, hopeless, airless. I feel responsible for exposing my sons to that world when they became aware of my story; perhaps silence would have been better after all.

Did my abuse help to darken the world in which Malcolm found himself? No doubt. I realize that it was not the reason for his death, but it must have made living a greater struggle for him.  Did he dread a future filled with the same kind of ongoing battle with depression he witnessed in my life?  Did he feel unable to share his struggle for fear he would be adding to my burden? Did he fear having to “carry me?”

I am so sorry Malc, for adding to your pain. I wish I had another chance to carry you and ease your suffering. I love you so much.

#1 #2

Our second son, our #1 #2, has started his career, the nest is truly empty. It’s strange, though, having both sons away at school meant the nest was often empty for months at a time. So it is possible to rest in the illusion that they will both be coming home again soon. A wonderful illusion.