After Suicide, Transforming Grief into Peace

I was consumed by guilt for a long time over my father’s suicide, in 1978, mainly because I thought I was helping him. I did not understand the nature of his illness, so some of the things I did were actually harmful to him (for example, trying to talk him out of his delusions). Most importantly, I failed to recognize that he was in a life-or-death situation, and to this day, it still seems to me that my failure to help him contributed to his death. But through compassionate retelling of the story of his death, I found freedom from the feelings of guilt I once had.

Imbuing the story with compassion — which is “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” — helped me see unquestionably that I would never have done anything to cause his death. His mental and emotional pain overwhelmed him, and his dilemma overwhelmed me too. He did not know how to escape from his pain without taking his own life, and that’s what he did. I did not know how to help him other than to do what I knew to do, and that’s what I did.

Whatever failure exists in what each of us did or didn’t do deserves understanding, not judgment. Indeed, I feel “deep sympathy and sorrow” about what happened, and I embrace a heartfelt yearning both that his suffering could have been alleviated some other way than by his suicide and that my suffering about his death will continue to be transformed into the peace that now characterizes my life.

My compassionate retelling of the story also helped me see that several forces much more powerful and influential than I contributed to his death. Responsibility for his death is shared by a healthcare system that failed to help him even though his caregivers knew his life was at risk; by a society that did not offer assistance to him during a lifetime of dysthymia and alcohol addiction; and by him as an individual who did not take care of himself over the course of his lifetime.

Interestingly, his own responsibility for his death has prompted in me the most compassionate reaction of all. Just as I truly did not know where or how to find out what I would have needed to know to be more helpful than I was in the final months of his life, he truly did not know where or how to find out what he would have needed to know to help himself during the entire course of his life — and that stirs in me the purest “feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune.”

This compassionate view has evolved over a 33-year journey, which began with feelings of guilt and blame and anger so severe that they nearly crippled me emotionally. Today, I can say without a doubt that my journey has left me feeling only great compassion for those who have died by suicide and for those left behind to mourn their deaths.

Excerpted from “FJC’S Journal: Stories of Loss Deserve ‘Compassionate Retelling’” at bit.ly/compassionateretelling-fjc on the Grief after Suicide blog.

 

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Franklin Cook

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Franklin Cook is owner of Unified Community Solutions (http://bit.ly/copewithgrief), a private consultancy in Boston, Mass., specializing in suicide grief support and education as well as in project development, management, and leadership. He served from 2010 to 2012 as Director of Survivor and Bereavement Programs for SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, http://www.save.org). Franklin began his career in suicide grief support in 1999 as a volunteer with Black Hills Area Survivors of Suicide and co-facilitated the group for 10 years. He also served as a member of the Pennington County (S.D.) LOSS Team. He helped found the Front Porch Coalition (http://www.frontporchcoalition.org) in 2001, a grassroots suicide prevention task force in Rapid City, S.D., and served for four years as FPC's executive director. During his time in South Dakota, Franklin co-authored the S.D. Strategy for Suicide Prevention and continued facilitating its implementation through 2010, including working on project management and training for two statewide Garrett Lee Smith projects in South Dakota. For many years, he was a member of the Survivor Council of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP, http://www.afsp.org) and continues as a trainer with AFSP's Facilitating Suicide Bereavement Support Groups training (http://bit.ly/afsp-facilitators). Franklin was a member of the board of directors of the Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN USA, http://www.spanusa.org) for six years, prior to its merger with AFSP in 2009. He is also a longtime member of the Survivor Division of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS, http://www.suicidology.org), and was named AAS Survivor of the Year in 2013. Franklin has been a member of the Consumer-Survivor Subcommittee of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline since 2005, and led a subcommittee work group in creating the Suicide Grief Support Quick Reference (http://sg.sg/griefreference). He edited and published the online news magazine Suicide Prevention News and Comment (http://bit.ly/aboutfjc) from 2008 to 2010 and now blogs at Grief after Suicide (http://www.personalgriefcoach.info). Franklin is a survivor of his father's suicide in 1978.

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