HEALING THE GRIEVING HEART
Healing After a Loved One?s Suicide
Host: Dr. Gloria Horsley
With guest: Bill Ritter
August 10, 2006
G: Hello. I?m Dr. Gloria Horsley with my co-host Dr. Heidi Horsley. Each week, we welcome you to Healing the Grieving Heart, a show of hope and renewal for those who have suffered the loss of a child or a sibling and as always our message is others have been there before you and made it and you will, too. Well, Heid, this morning I wanted to discuss a couple of emails that we got. One of them was regarding our show a couple of weeks ago with Coralease Ruff. It?s from Barbara, and Barbara said that the show was going to be on health and Coralease is an expert in that area, taught at Howard University and does a bereavement course on health, and Barbara complained a bit saying that we didn?t spend enough time on health. I really appreciate these emails and comments because it does help us direct the show. We will try to have somebody else on, maybe Coralease again, and we discussed this with Coralease so, Heid, do you have any comments on that?
H: Just that I appreciate Barbara?s email and it?s always such a hard thing for us because we?re trying to honor the topic, yet we?re trying to also hear about our guest?s stories and not interrupt their process and ask questions that other people in the community may not ask about the person that died, their child that died, their sibling that died, and give that enough time, too, so we?re always juggling both, and it?s a hard place to be.
G: It is indeed, and we want to honor your emails and talk about them on the show because we think it?s so important to hear from you all. The next email we got is from Niva Valquez and she is in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and this says something about how incredible the internet is, and she said she read Heidi?s and my article on continuing bonds in the We Need Not Walk Alone magazine of The Compassionate Friends, which you can pick up by going on their website, www.thecompassionatefriends.org, and she says she would like permission to translate it in their newsletter into Spanish. She said there?s a wealth of information in your article, and we hope that we?ll be able to pass it out to everyone and also we?ll give it back to you in Spanish. So we?ll put it on our Internet site in Spanish and you can also pick it up on our site. So, Heid, did you have any thoughts about that?
H: I think that?s great. Like you said, the Internet is wonderful. It reaches many lives and that?s wonderful and absolutely feel free to pass out the article to whomever you feel could benefit from it.
G: Yeah, download it from our site and pass it out. We?re happy to have you do that. So, again I want to say if you?re listening to our Thursday live internet show, please join Heidi and me on the show by calling our toll free number, 1-866-472-5792, with questions or comments regarding the losses in your life. And remember these shows are archived on our website, www.healingthegrievingheart.org and also www.thecompassionatefriends.org website. You can download it through Itunes and we also have them on selected radio stations. Do you want to go over the stations quickly, Heid?
H: The stations are in Chicago, Boston, Richmond, Virginia, and Monterey, Santa Cruz, California.
G: So to get the call number on those, just go to our site. Also find out what stations that they?re on, and also remember we have a wonderful quote of the week on our site for our guests on the show so please go there. Again, thanks for your emails and keep them coming in because it helps us direct the show. So, Heid, would you like to introduce our guest today?
H: Sure. Our topic today is Healing After a Loved One?s Suicide, and our guest is Dr. Bill Ritter. Dr. Ritter’s first son, Bill Jr. died from suicide at the age of 27. An attorney, Bill Jr. was diagnosed with ADD, adult Attention Deficit Disorder, and died at his own hand in 1994, only four months after diagnosis. His father, a now retired Methodist minister, wrote the book Take the Dimness of My Soul Away?Healing After a Loved One?s Suicide, which has received national recognition for its thoughtful and personal look into a very difficult subject. Welcome to the show, Bill.
B: Thank you very much, Gloria and Heidi. It?s a pleasure to be with you. It was a pleasure to meet both of you at The Compassionate Friends international conference in Dearborn a few weeks ago.
G: Yeah, Bill was one of the main speakers and it really caught our attention. We thought, oh, this is somebody we?ve got to have on the show.
H: He gave a very, very powerful keynote address and we appreciated that. Yes, it was fantastic.
G: So getting into it, could you talk about Bill Jr. for us?
B: Sure, I could. Bill Jr. was our first son. He was our only son. We have a daughter, Julie, seven years his junior. Bill was 27. He was an attorney. He was a graduate of Michigan State University and University of Detroit Law School. He was in the upper tier of his law school class. He was selected for moot court. He was a law clerk for an automobile company here in the Michigan area, but he needed litigation experience. He went to a small firm and they immediately put him in the research department and he spent every day in the library. He?d always had some difficulty with attention relative to reading and the like even though he?d been an honor student all the way through. He was in absolutely the worst kind of place in terms of his problem. He ended up realizing that he was falling short of production as they required it and went to see a counselor. The diagnosis came, ADD, and Ritalin was prescribed and he went to his senior managing partner and said I realize I have not been producing at the level you had hoped I would produce and I know why, and this is what I?ve done, these are the steps I?ve taken. Please stay with me a little longer and I think you?ll see the benefits. He was fired within the week. Within four months, he was dead of his own hand.
G: Very harsh.
H: It is and he was so accomplished. I know how hard it is to make moot court and law is a difficult field.
G: Yeah, Heidi?s husband is a lawyer so she knows. She went through law school with him. We all did.
H: I can appreciate all that.
B: Well, he passed the Bar the first time and not everybody does that. The place where he did his clerking, the large automobile corporation, couldn?t believe that any of this had happened nor could a lot of us.
G: That?s incredible. How did he take his life?
B: A gunshot.
H: Which is more common for men.
B: More common for men. Females I am told, with what research I?ve done, tend to use pharmaceuticals, pills, the like, but men are more apt to choose gunshot.
G: Now, I wanted to ask you as a minister, and I?m a therapist, so when my son died, I was a therapist at the time, and one of the things I found is I actually asked a friend of mine whose brother had died, how does a therapist grieve? and he said, long, hard, and endlessly like everyone else. But, you?re used to supporting other people, and it?s difficult who?s there for you. Did you feel any of those feelings?
B: Well, sure, but I had a tremendous number of people who were there for me. I served a large church at the time, 3,200 members, and it seemed as if every one of them found a way to reach out in some way, shape, or form, all of them beginning by saying we don?t know what to say, but then again, I didn?t know what to say, either. Just by their presence, their interest, their involvement, they said it eloquently. Clergy colleagues, ironically, in addition to saying things, sent written materials. From my clergy colleagues, I got all kinds of books, which weren?t terribly helpful at the time. I appreciated the fact that somebody sent them, but I wasn?t ready to read a book at the time.
G: I was working in a psychiatric setting at the time and people wanted to pull me into their offices and interview me endlessly to see how I was doing and it was so early. It was difficult.
B: I don?t think anybody realizes how numb you are. You?re in a state of absolute shock and putting a foot on the floor and then putting the second foot on the floor and moving through an hour, let alone a day, in those first days and weeks is really difficult.
H: I remember in the first days and weeks, I didn?t want to look at any pictures of Scott because it made it too real and I was already sad enough. It was painful to even look at photographs.
G: You were in such shock. I think you?re right, Bill, people just don?t realize around you, they want to be helpful. I was raised Christian, but I found that the theology was not as helpful to me early on as the people were.
B: Well, I think the theology came through the people. As a Christian myself, I believe in an incarnational theology and the faith is manifested through persons and the way people care, the way they respond and that was just phenomenal. One of the reasons that Chris and I didn?t avail ourselves of one of these incredibly helpful healing groups is because there were so many people around us, who shared with us,
G: Kind of surrounded with love, huh?
B: told stories, and took us out to dinner, occasionally did whatever would be helpful to us and didn?t press us to do things that wouldn?t be helpful.
G: Right. Well, we?re coming up on break now, and when we come back, we?ll be talking more with Bill Ritter, and you?re listening to Healing the Grieving Heart. I?m your host, Dr. Gloria Horsley, with my co-host, Dr. Heidi Horsley. Please stay tuned to hear more and join our show by calling our toll free number, 1-866-472-5792, and you can also email us about this show or upcoming shows through www.healingthegrievingheart.org. Remember these shows are archived on our website, www.healingthegrievingheart.org. Please stay tuned for more.
By the way, listeners, Bill has invited us to call him Bill and not Dr. Ritter. I wanted to say about your book, Take Away the Dimness of My Soul, this is a wonderful book and the reason it is particularly for bereaved people is that it?s really Bill?s sermons, right, Bill? a number of sermons.
B: Five sermons. I never set out to write a book. In fact, I thought that?d be the last thing in the world I would do, but on five different occasions, I addressed the subject of suicide and addressed the subject of Bill?s suicide. The first was of course when I climbed back into the pulpit for the first time three weeks after Bill.
G: I was totally amazed by that.
H: I am, too, that?s unbelievable.
G: Yeah, tell us about that. What is your past experience with loss? Of course, you?re trained as a minister to deal with a lot of losses, but did you have personal losses early?
B: Well, I?d lost family members just before I came to Birmingham. My sister, a younger sister had died. I?d buried other members of my family, but I?ve also over the course of forty years of ministry conducted or officiated at 1,600 funerals or memorial services, some more difficult than others. I think the reason that I came back as quickly as I did was in an effort to prove that I could do it. Plowing through it is an interesting image. Plow is a work-related kind of image and that?s always how I?ve dealt with stress is put my hand to the plow and press forward. I actually conducted somebody else?s funeral ten days after Bill?s death.
G: Yeah, I was amazed by that ten days after, but I can identify with some of that because I was teaching at the University of Rochester and I supervised students on a lock setting where there were really very serious mentally ill people, schizophrenia, and whatever, and I also was the psychiatric nursing consultant to the whole surgical service and I worked with many people who were in automobile accidents and died, and you know our son was killed in an automobile accident 23 years ago at age 17, and two weeks later, I was back at work, and for the same reason that you were saying. I had to stay competent. I was falling apart inside and I was very competent.
B: I think work for me was therapy in one sense. Work was proving that I could carry on. I think everybody grieves differently. My daughter went back to Duke University for her junior year in September and proceeded to get all A?s her junior year, her best academic year at the University of the three she?d been there. Both my daughter and I had a harder time as time went by. My wife, Chris, by contrast, felt the emotions raw and early and often and she found that she worked through a lot of this or went through a lot of this faster and when I began to tank in the second year, and people tell me that men are sometimes this way, that the second year is often harder than the first year because you put all this effort into proving that you can do it and that you can keep going and carry on and then you fall apart.
G: Yeah, if people?s style is that, I think the second year is very, very difficult. Heidi, tell him what you did. You went on Outward Bound and that was quite.
H: Yeah, I went out on an Outward Bound program three months after Scott died because I was in such a bad state and I just needed to go and re-examine my life and figure out what am I doing here? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of my life now that my brother is gone? Re-examining your life. I was wondering about your daughter. You mentioned Julie and, as a bereaved sibling, I just wondered what kind of support she received at school from friends because she wasn?t at home and I wasn?t either at that time.
B: When Bill died, we immediately got on a plane that same evening, flew to Durham so that she would hear it from us so that there?d be no possible way that she would get this news without us present. We flew back with her within 24 hours and then went through all of the service preparation and then the service itself.
G: Let?s stop for a second. That must have been the hardest thing to go in and tell her.
B: Oh, yeah. She had finished her semester. She had gone, as does seemingly every other Duke student, to Myrtle Beach to hang out. So first of all we had to track her through a friend and then he had to drive her all the way back to Durham under some other excuse about getting back early and without telling her. We were then waiting to tell her and then we went from there. We also flew a pair of her friends back from Duke to be with her through that process and through the service.
H: That?s a great idea.
G: Could you just say a little about suicide, about this situation with her, telling her, and what went through your mind for our folks out there who have had children who have taken their own lives.
B: Well, she knew that the past two or three months with Bill had been crumbled and that he was under a great degree of stress and pain over his dismissal from the law firm and as with somebody with ADD, one day he would be intensely focused on the future and have a plan and the next day, he was in great despair and the roller coaster of his emotions was very strong. I don?t think she had any comprehension that this might be a possibility although we did, and so it did come as a tremendous shock to her. She felt angry and grieved and all the emotions that everybody does when we had the service.
G: Let me say one more word. I hate to keep interrupting but it?s so key when you say she felt angry as everyone does. I am very impressed that you guys are in touch with that anger and probably is part of what has been helpful because not everyone does get in touch with that.
B: Oh, yeah.
H: And I identified with that because I was thinking, yeah, and I felt the same way. I felt like my life was not supposed to be like this.
B: No. None of us did. We certainly didn?t expect this for him, nor did we expect it for ourselves, and our lives have been changed forever. You don?t get your old self back. You get through it and beyond it but you don?t ever go over it. You?re not the same person ever again, and I think instinctively we knew this, and my guess is in a way, she knew this. She did have friends when she got back to Duke who were supportive but she didn?t talk about it much, and so her roommate called my wife in October. My wife actually called the roommate and said how?s Julie doing, and the roommate said this is a real struggle. She?s not telling anybody who doesn?t already know and we don?t know how to talk to her, and so Chris flew down and they took a couple of days and drove over to the coast to Wilmington, and that was a really healing turning point, I think, for Julie in that process.
G: Now how long was that after the death?
B: If Bill died in May, that would have been in October.
H: And that must have been a little scary to hear that her roommate was concerned.
B: It was scary to hear that her roommate was concerned.
H: I know that in the past we?ve had guests on that have worried after a child has died by suicide that their other child or children would do by suicide. Was that a concern of yours at all or no?
B: Julie is a very strong person and no, that wasn?t a concern. I can?t recall
H: In fact, a lot of times the surviving kids have had to say to their parents we are not our sibling. We?re completely different people. You don?t have to have that concern.
B: Yeah, she didn?t say that, and I don?t think we needed to hear that.
H: Oh, that?s good.
B: We were simply worried about how we would get through and she would get through and how this would impact our lives.
G: Well, we?re coming up on break again, and I?m your host Dr. Gloria Horsley with my co-host Dr. Heidi Horsley.
Bill, I wanted to ask you, while we?re on the topic of your book, Heidi just mentioned it, how do people get a hold of it?
B: Well, in our area of the country, Borders carries it, and I assume that it?s on their purchase list so they?ll order it for you. Amazon.com certainly will do it. Morehouse Publishing Company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is the publisher. Those are the options.
G: It?s a lovely book and let me say to you it is only 82 pages long, has five sermons that Bill?s given on suicide or on death, and it?s really inspirational, and it?s something you can pick up and read because we were talking earlier on the show that it?s hard to read a lot of information.
H: It?s hard to concentrate.
B: The helpfulness of the book may be that the first sermon is in there and that?s from three weeks afterward, and then there?s a sermon at fourteen months after that which was occasioned by the fact that I preached the funeral for the son of the minister who preached Bill?s funeral. He, too, took his life and so in fourteen months, there was a turnabout and I stood in the pulpit eulogizing the son who took his life of the minister who helped us so much.
G: Very ironic.
B: And then the third sermon a couple years after that. The last one wasn?t until nine years afterward, after I watched the film, ?The Hours,? which was up for an academy award and I tried to deal in that sermon with a question: what happens if somebody walks in your office, closes the door, and tells you they?re thinking of taking their life. What do you say?
H: And what do you say?
B: Well, at the end of the day, you listen empathetically, you share stories, but finally you tell somebody, or I tell somebody, look, I can?t tell you that it?s going to be better, that it?s going to be all right, that the world is going to turn more favorably. I think it will, but I can?t ask you to wear my glasses if you don?t see it that way. What I can tell you is not what it feels like to leave the world, but what it feels like to be the one who is left. And then I talk about what it felt like to be Bill?s father.
G: And what do you say to them?
B: And at the end of that I then say, hey, if you can?t figure out one reason to stay alive someday, stay alive for somebody else just for a day, and if you can do that for one day as a gift to somebody else, then maybe you can do it for two days and maybe you can do it for three days and maybe you can do it for a week because many people who take their life think that they?re doing the world a favor, that everybody else will be better off.
G: That they?re a burden, of course.
B: As a result because they?re a burden and, of course, nobody will be better off. Everybody will be worse off and not just for a day or two. People will be in some sense worse off for a long, long time.
G: Now what do you tell them for our audience out there who has had a child die of suicide? What did you feel like?
B: What did I feel like? I told them I felt sad and empty and achy and lonely. I felt like it took twice as long to do anything and everything I did meant half as much, and I told them that above all else, grief feels laboriously like work except you don?t get any days off perhaps for a long, long time. I suppose after suicide, it also means to feel some degree of guilt. What didn?t I do that I should have? What did I do that I shouldn?t have? What signs did I miss? What warning symptoms did I overlook? And I suspect in some way when suicide is the issue, there?s also a sense of shame and embarrassment. We were very up front about what happened but an awful lot of people tend to hide it and cover it up and give other reasons for the death.
G: Now does that have something to do with the stigma? Did you feel any stigma of suicide like people would want to blame you and say there must be some reason? You must have done something.
B: I think subconsciously everybody feels a little stigma. We felt that we had been good parents. Bill said as much just before he died to a friend, but I think there?s always some sense of stigma. If rape is the crime that is never owned and admitted to by a good number of people because of the stigma involved in that, I think suicide is the social problem that is never owned up to because there?s some embarrassment and shame in that. By gosh, I was the minister of a 3,200-member church in a community where the church was the center of the town. I mean, you have no idea what, well, sure you do, but what it?s like to walk into a supermarket and have the cashier say to you, you don?t know me, but I?m just terribly sorry about what happened to you and your family.
H: I?m impressed, Bill. Even though you were such a public figure, you were very open about the way that your son died and I think that?s so important because being open could prevent this from happening again I feel.
B: Well, it takes too much energy, psychic energy, to keep a secret.
G: Oh, wonderful point. Plus secrets aren?t secrets anyway. Everyone knows.
B: Right, everybody knows.
G: And the more of a secret, the more it gets around.
B: Well, and then everybody plays the game of deception and if people are playing deception, then they can?t be helpful to you.
G: Exactly, they definitely don?t know what to say. I loved in your book where you talked about going to your lake place and going door to door.
B: After I preached the first sermon three weeks after Bill?s death, we thought we?d get away. It was Memorial Day Sunday and we would drive up to our lake place in Northern Michigan and I thought everybody in the world knows about this and then I realized fifty miles up I-75 that the one group of people who knew us were totally isolated from this piece of information were our neighbors at the lake and I was right. They didn?t know anything about it. And so I had to decide well, for the sake of just getting away, were we going to keep it quiet or was I going to tell the people nearest in terms of proximity to us. I thought if I didn?t tell people, then they?d find out and then they would say, well, my gosh, he was here right after that and he didn?t say anything and that would have screwed up our relationship for the next several years.
G: Well, what a wonderful story that is an example of coming out in the community, but we?re coming up to break now.
Nice to be back. This is our last break and I want to say again make sure you get Bill?s book, a wonderful book, and it?s also on our website so you can see the name of it if you?re not sure, and you can get it through amazon or through your local book store. So, Bill, it?s time for our final break and I was saying to you that I would love to have you give something to our audience, maybe a scriptural reference or whatever story before we end the show.
B: Probably with a story and scripture reference together. I think it was when I turned the corner and it was into the second year of the grief process. It was an evening I was sitting on my deck overlooking Grand Traverse Bay in Northern Michigan. I was reading and thinking and just kind of chilling out looking at the water, and I suddenly found myself thinking about little kids, mine, yours, anybody?s little kids, and how all little kids like to test themselves by jumping from high places. There they are. They?re standing on the edge of a sofa or a fence post or a stepladder, maybe even a garage roof. They?re knees are bent. They?re shoulders are harnessed. They?re poised and they?re ready to jump except they don?t jump or they don?t jump until they first capture your eye and your ear. Catch me Daddy is what they say. Come over here and catch me when I jump. And you move closer to them preparing to do just that so they do and you do. All things considered, it?s a rather remarkable arrangement, but what happens if some day they jump and you can?t catch them because your arms aren?t long enough, strong enough, quick enough, or near enough? And the reality is, I couldn?t catch Bill either. But then again, he didn?t tell me he was going to jump or wait for me to get my arms in position. When I thought about that on my deck at sunset, I cried. And then I looked down at the book I was reading and saw that the biblical verse that had triggered that line of thinking in the first place came from Deuteronomy. The eternal God is your dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms. And I realized that even though I missed Bill and that I failed to catch him and continue to miss Bill and that I no longer have him, my arms are not the only arms. My arms are not the final arms, which means that where Bill fell is not where he lays.
G: That?s wonderful. Thank you so much for that, and thank you so much for being on our show. It?s been wonderful having you on the show.
B: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to share with the folks, and that?s something I find easy to do. It?s like a can opener to the heart each time you do this but I?m a stronger person now than I was ten years ago or twelve years ago, and maybe this is something I can give back.
G: And you certainly have today on the show. We really appreciate it, and thank you so much for being on our show, Dr. William Ritter, and good luck. You?re going to be a new granddaddy.
B: That?s right.
G: Very soon, and when?
H: Good luck, Bill.
G: Good luck with that, and thanks again for being on the show.
B: Thank you.
G: Please stay tuned again next week to hear more from Healing the Grieving Heart with Dr. Heidi Horsley and Dr. Gloria Horsley. This show is archived on our website and it is on Thursdays at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time and 12:00 Eastern. We?re also on land radio. You can go on our website, www.healingthegrievingheart.org to look at what stations we?re on in the United States. This is a show of hope and renewal. We want you to remember that others have been there and made it and so can you. You need not walk alone. Thanks for listening. I?m your host Dr. Gloria Horsley. With my co-host
H: Dr. Heidi Horsley.