Suicide?s Legacy of Complex Grief and Compassion
Host: Dr. Gloria Horsley
With guest: Dr. Cay Randall-May
March 9, 2006

G: Hello. I?m Dr. Gloria Horsley. Welcome to Healing the Grieving Heart, the show that deals with the realities of surviving after the loss of a child. You may feel that your life has ended and that you can?t make it another day, but hold on. My guests and I are here each week to tell you that we have made it and so can you. We realize that what was important to you before your child died no longer has meaning. You are going to be changed. Today I wanted to start with a quote from my show on September 22 with Father Al Johnson, a bereaved dad. Father Al says: ?I think the hardest thing to accept in the world is that things like this just happen. I don?t understand why they happen. I know they happen. I?ve simply come to accept that they happen so I don?t think these things happen because somebody needs to be punished.? Well, thanks, Father Al, and he did a great show for us. I also want to give you an email today. I received an email from Robbie and Robbie says that she recently purchased the CDs, Healing the Grieving Heart, and listens to them. You can still get a 10 set of CDs through The Compassionate Friends of my first ten shows. She says the CDs were very helpful. She said her granddaughter passed away in December and she had a heart syndrome, four-and-a-half months old. Robbie?s main concern is her daughter. She feels that her daughter is not really grieving for her child. She?s choosing to deny it, forget, I?m really not sure how I can explain what she?s doing. She closed the door to Claire?s room and only goes in if needed. She says this is really bothering her. She wants to know, she?s getting some help herself, I?m seeing someone, and she wants to know if I have any advice for her. She?s talked to her daughter?s husband and she?s not speaking to him either. Her daughter says to her mom that she really doesn?t want to talk about it. She?s afraid what will happen to her down the road and she?s asking me, should she be concerned? Well, I want to say, Robbie, that I would not be concerned about your daughter right now unless you feel like she might be harmful to herself. If she?s just saying she doesn?t want to talk about it, and she?s functioning ? she has a five-year-old also. I wouldn?t worry about it too much as we bereaved parents know, December is not a long time to have lost a little four-and-a-half-month old baby. As we all know, grief is unique and everybody grieves in their own way and it?s not unusual for somebody to close the door and not change the room. We can go on for a year with keeping the room the same. Eventually, we may want to move on but it?s very early and I think it?s great, Robbie, that you?re getting help yourself. That?s an important thing because for you to be strong for your daughter and to be there for her is a great thing. Thanks a lot for sending in that email, and keep the emails coming.
We have a great show today, and if you?d like to join us on the show, our number for the show is 866-472-5792 and that?s a toll free number. Today our topic is Suicide?s Legacy of Complex Grief and Compassion, and I have a wonderful guest, her name is Reverend Dr. Cay Randall-May. Cay is an author who was writing a book on prayer groups when her 27-year-old son, Paul, who was a senior in college, ended his life in August 1998. Cay found solace through prayer and artistic expression. This tragedy has taught her much about the severity of untreated depression, the toll which suicide takes on loved ones left behind, and compassion for anyone faced with complex grief. She and her husband co-facilitate a suicide survivor?s group in Phoenix, Arizona. Cay, welcome to our show.
C: Thank you, Gloria, it?s a pleasure to be here.
G: It?s wonderful to have you on, and we so appreciate your coming on and you are, I was saying to you earlier, you are an amazing woman. You have a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Can you tell our audience what that?s in?
C: I have a Ph.D. in entomology that I earned many years ago as I went directly through high school and into undergraduate school as a biology major, and then followed through in entomology, which is the study of insects. That was many, many years ago, back in the 60s. Then, of course, I had several experiences which turned me more to spirituality.
G: Right, and you became a minister before your son died?
C: Yes, I?ve been an ordained minister since 1982, and my son died in 1998.
G: And what got you to become a minister?
C: The various experiences that I?m talking about that I alluded to including an experience in which I was healed through prayer, spontaneously, of a rather major hemorrhagic incident but then also a lot of spectral study and prayer groups and that kind of thing.
G: And I do want to talk to you later about your book on prayer groups and that kind of thing. And also, I was reading your bio, your father was missing when you were a child.
C: Yes, my father, I eventually did find out what happened to him just recently within the last year
G: Oh, my goodness.
C: and so was able to complete that and close that, which was an open-ended grief for many years.
G: I know our audience is going to wonder. Would you like to tell us what happened to him?
C: Well, my parents had a divorce when I was eighteen and apparently my father immediately remarried. My mother, out of many complex emotions, never told me and never allowed me to stay in touch with him. I found some letters where he tried to reach me and I never received them. So he went off, joined another family, had more children, apparently, and so I eventually have his obituary in which he died in ?86 or ?87, and he had died of a heart attack, but I wasn?t even mentioned in the obituary, but at least I know what happened to him.
G: Well, that will be interesting to come back to that after we talk about your son just in terms of what you would recommend for people and how you?ve dealt with that and how you have, as you said, you closed the loop on that with your father, and I imagine there were some things you did to do that and maybe we?ll want to get back to that also. Could you talk about your son?
C: My son, Paul, was a wonderful student. He was a very disciplined individual, had a great sense of humor, and always appeared to be quite normal in many ways. Apparently, he was depressed over a long period of time but I didn?t realize it at the time even though as a minister I had been trained through my ministerial training in seeing signs of depression. He hid it very well, and he was very functional. He was a senior in college when he committed suicide and was about to enter his last semester. He was also in a relationship and the will just seemed to be at a low place for him financially. He had a lot of weight on his shoulders and yet I saw him the night before he died, and he didn?t mention to me what the debt was that he had, which was not extraordinary,
G: but probably seemed a lot for him.
C: It did, but I could have wiped it out.
G: Cay, it looks like it?s almost time for us to come on break. Could we come back to this, when we get back from break?
C: He was going to come to our home on the following Saturday. I saw him late Thursday night and he was going to come on Saturday because we were going to have a world peace prayer day celebration at our home. We were going to have this big affair. One of the last things he said to me was that he?d see me on Saturday. He worked all night as a security guard so that was his job. Apparently, he worked all night, and the next morning around 7 o?clock, he emailed me and he also emailed his best friend saying that he had seen something too strange the night before on duty that he couldn?t tell us what it was, that it was something extraordinarily strange and that email was not secure enough to tell us what it was, but that he would tell us the next day when he saw us. Then that was it, and then he was dead by noon.
G: Do you think he had a psychotic break or something?
C: At the time I did not. At the time I thought that something. Because what happened was the police just called me on the phone and told me, they said, ?Mrs. May, do you have a son in college?? I said, ?Yes.? ?Well, he shot himself.? I said, ?Well, where is he? Let me go.? I think I was thinking he was in the hospital. ?No, he?s dead.? That?s what he told me. I was in shock. I thought it was a joke and I couldn?t believe it. I went immediately into shock and then I could not believe that he had ended his own life even though after several hours, the detective came by, I insisted on seeing someone, and he came by and said that it was suicide, self-inflicted. I said, ?It can?t be. I have this email. Something very strange was going on.? I thought it was murder. And I went out the next day or so, my husband and I hired the best detective we could find, paid thousands of dollars. The detective spent over three weeks looking over everything. I went to the home where Paul was, his apartment. I?m an artist and I went ahead and documented every bit of the area. I drew it out. I did the trajectory of the bullet, the whole thing, trying to see. And he had set it up very strangely. He had run water in the bathtub. He had set it up to make it look like other people were in the room. He had locked himself in. So he had planned it. I found his journal among his items and in it he described what he was going to do but he described it two or three years beforehand. He left no note. So he purposely set it up to be a mystery. And eventually, of course, I had to come to grips with the fact that he had taken his life, but it wasn?t an immediate acceptance thing.
G: And how long was that before you accepted that?
C: I think it was just a matter of weeks when I kept going back to the police and they kept getting out their tape recorders because I was so angry. I kept insisting there had to be another explanation, that somebody had to have struggled with him. There had to have been this, that and the other thing, and so they kept telling me, no, that wasn?t the case. It probably was about a month before I was able to accept the fact that yes, he had taken his own life.
G: So he was at his apartment.
C: He was at his apartment. He had just recently moved into the apartment with his girlfriend. I also found out on the same day that I found out he was dead that I was going to be a grandmother and so he left his girlfriend pregnant. So there were just a lot of things.
G: Yes, I would say so. So you have a little grandchild.
C: Yes, I do.
G: And are you connected?
C: Yes.
G: Oh, great. How about your husband? How did he deal with all this?
C: My husband is Paul?s stepfather so I was previously married. My former husband as well was involved with his present wife so it was a complicated extended family situation. Everyone was in shock. Nobody saw this coming. Nobody had an inkling that this sort of thing was going to happen or that it might.
G: So what do you make of it now and what did you make of it then? I know that you?re involved with depression, a group for mentally ill.
C: My husband and I are very active in the survivors of suicide groups. However, we are also active in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill which is called NAMI. This is a national organization of people who are affected either through their family or personally by mental illness including major depression, but at the time, we really didn?t leap to that conclusion that Paul was even depressed, and I agreed with what Father Johnson said. We had to finally come to the point to realize that an action such as this is not caused by a single event. An action such as this is very complex. It is mysterious. We will never know the complete factors involved. We will just never know. So it?s undoubtedly, there are many emotional, physical, and situational factors that came together to cause this overwhelming, shall we say, act of desperation.
G: Now what about personal responsibility or guilt? Do you feel like people who have had a suicide in their family have that?
C: Oh, it?s very, very common. The first thing I did was begin to immediately have a sense of remorse. I must have failed as a mother. I went back thinking, oh gosh, if I had only done this differently or this differently or this differently. I remember the day that I followed that train of thought back to had I never been born, this wouldn?t have happened. It?s one of those unending things and one of the most commonly felt emotions that makes this type of loss more complex than maybe some others, not more difficult, by any means, but just more complicated, is the grief that is made worse by feeling of remorse. Had I only been there to hold his hand, I would have prevented it.
G: Well, let me say one thing about it and I think my listeners will identify with this. I felt very guilty that I had taken my son down to Washington, DC, where he was killed in an automobile accident. Had I gone out with him that night, had I done this, had I not done that, and I hear my other listeners who have kids that die of terminal illness say if I heard him wake up, if I?d felt the lump earlier, there is just a huge amount of guilt in losing a child in every realm.
C: That?s true, I?m certain that is absolutely the case, Gloria, however, in this case with suicide, there are people who will say to you that had you parented differently, it might not have happened.
G: So this comes into the stigma, which the other kinds of deaths, you don?t get the stigma. You do have the guilt but you don?t get the stigma of everybody reinforcing it because they didn?t reinforce my guilt. They?re like, oh, you know, it would have happened anyway. But your,
C: They did.
G: There?s some reinforcement going on.
C: I can remember one time I was leading a prayer in a worship service not long after my son?s death. As a minister, I?m called upon to lead prayer, I?m called upon to preach, and that kind of thing. A woman came up to me, she looked me right in the face and she said, ?well, if he had been better taught according to the faith, this wouldn?t have happened.? I mean, it?s like, duh, she might as well have thrown mud in my face.
G: Well, there is a thing of people saying didn?t you catch it earlier? There is a little of that going on but I?m sure with death by suicide there?s got to be a whole lot that goes on on a regular basis and reading about it in the paper, and also therapists look at your family to see what your family is doing to make this happen. A lot of people go that direction.
C: Right, and, of course, they look to family history. Of course, I began to look at the family history and the two and two began to dawn on me realizing my uncle had committed suicide. I?ve been able to trace suicides in my family back for five generations. So I realize now that there is a tremendous amount of ? there?s a large genetic component to depression.
G: Also, do you feel that suicide is more an option. Did your son know about that?
C: An option?
G: For our family. That other people have done it.
C: You mean in terms of actual imitation? Well, these other losses were way before I was born even. I doubt that
G: So you?re thinking more it might be a genetic depression kind of thing.
C: Right. Bipolar disorder, I believe. The thing is however, there is this element of shall we say, imitation, contagience which is a factor of suicide and it really has a lot to do with how suicide is portrayed in the media. Sometimes, it?s overly dramaticized. It?s even in operas and it?s in movies everywhere. It can be romanticized and glorified and we see this all the time. In fact, I was just listening to a program this morning where they?re talking about training a very young Jihadist from the time they are very tiny that they don?t even call it suicide, they call it martyrdom. It could be just literally the idea that if your friend commits suicide, then you?re more likely, if your sibling commits suicide, you?re more likely, and this is a factor. That?s why many schools don?t talk about it.
G: Well, let?s get to that when we come back, the secrecy behind suicide. When we went to break, we were talking about what I would call the conspiracy of silence around suicide. Can you talk a little bit about that? What comes up for you when you?re at a dinner party and somebody asks you how many kids you have? How do you deal with all this?
C: In previous generations, often when someone ended their own life, they would never be mentioned again. And in some cultures, for instance, such as the Native American culture here, in the Phoenix, Arizona, area among the Papagos and some of the others, it?s part of their beliefs that you do not ever mention that person?s name again and that of course used to be reinforced by the church and other belief systems.
G: Yeah, at one time you couldn?t even have a church burial.
C: That?s right. So the stigma goes back to medieval times and therefore people are often reluctant to mention it and so what?s happened is, say I?m at a dinner party or I?m meeting somebody or just casually riding with people in a car or something, and they?re all talking about their children, some of their daughters are going to these wonderful universities or they?ve just had their second grandchild, and it finally gets to me and they say you seem very quiet. And Cay, tell us about your children or do you have children? I say I had two sons. I have one surviving son and usually that?s the end of the conversation. But sometimes they say, oh, what happened? Did he die in a car crash or did he have a terminal illness? And then I?ll say, ?He ended his own life,? at which point the silence usually is deafening. It usually goes no further. But then, and I even had this happen to me one time when I was interviewed on television and the well-meaning host of the show said, ?Well, what caused him to do that?? And at which point, I say, it wasn?t a particular one factor and that it still remains an unanswered question, and that?s part of the pain of suicide, in that there is no simple one direct clear-cut answer.
G: Now, let me ask you a question: Do you get to the point, and maybe you never do, where a child?s death ? they?re dead ? does it matter why? Is there any point?
C: Do you mean in terms of how I think about it or in terms of how others might think about it?
G: How you think about it.
C: For me, I haven?t. It?s been seven years. The lingering aftermath of suicide is such that there?s a ripple effect throughout the generations that persists so if and, of course, I can?t compare with my present living son, but I did, for instance, have a miscarriage many years ago. I really was anticipating the birth of a daughter. She was going to be born in my own birth month of July. I really was looking forward to that. I was so excited and then I had a spontaneous miscarriage and I still to this day grieve the loss of that child even though I never bore her and so there?s a poignantness to that. But I do not have to carry with me the feeling that she did it on purpose, that she left me, but with Paul, I have his picture. I see it every day. I?m still, probably will to the day I die, coming to grips with turning it over through prayer so that I don?t blame myself, so that I don?t enter into self-recrimination. It?s a constant, prayerful approach I find.
G: Now talk to us about your prayer group. I know you were running that before your son died.
C: Oh yes. Our prayer group has been meeting regularly for more than 20 years now and it is a huge part of my ministry, in fact the major focus of my ministry.
G: Now how many people are in the group?
C: Well, it varies. Usually we have a small group of about 12 people but it varies and people come and go and you can imagine we still have some people who originally were here 20 years ago that are still coming but then over the years you get people that come and go. So it has served hundreds of people over the years.
G: And you wrote a book about prayer groups. You were writing one when Paul died.
C: That?s right. Pray Together Now, How to Find or Form a Prayer Group, which was published by Element Books in 1999, and I was under contract and was actually completing my manuscript so, for instance, I had the experience of speaking and interviewing one of the people for my book, James Twyman, three days after Paul?s death. I interviewed him on the phone and he?s a wonderful person, a peace troubadour, and I spoke with him and he actually prayed with me because I broke down and started crying.
G: Oh, of course, three days after.
C: I said my son?s name was Paul. He said, well, what was your son?s name? I said it was Paul. He says his name is still Paul. He prayed with me and it was wonderful. So I called the members of my prayer group immediately. After calling my former husband and telling him and a couple of other people in the family, I called the prayer group and they came over immediately. The whole room was filled with people immediately and entering into prayer and hugging me. I can remember lying on the couch and literally yelling in mourning and members of the prayer group calling other people because we had to cancel a big prayer function the day after and so they had to say it?s not going to be. We couldn?t hold everybody in the room for the next prayer group. I couldn?t lead it, I was so choked up. Somebody else led it.
G: Well, tell me, did you feel like your faith was tested through this?
C: Faith is always tested in living. I found great comfort in my faith. I think that had I not had that perspective, I would not have been able to cope because what I found was I had this enormous reaction to the shock and the loss. First anger, then crying, and then yelling and moaning and all this but at the deep core, because so many people were praying with me and for me, people of different faiths. Not just one faith. Not just one denomination but all different faiths. I felt this odd inner peace. It was like at the core, there was an inner peace that all this turmoil around. It was like I was standing in the eye of the storm, but it was only through prayer. I didn?t question God or say, oh, my God, why did this happen to me and all that kind of stuff. That didn?t really happen. It was that I turned to prayer because I was so submerged in it. I was so much involved in it that I was really the first recipient of the benefit of my book because I wrote the book to benefit people who needed prayer and I was the first and probably the primary recipient of that because I was able to contact thousands of people literally throughout the world. Somebody took my prayer request and put it on the wailing wall in Jerusalem and there were Catholic nuns who were praying for me in the monastery and there were people in the new age who were praying and it goes on and on and on.
G: Has forgiveness been a factor for you in this?
C: Of course.
G: And how has that worked for you?
C: First I have to forgive myself for my shortcomings and failures in this process and, of course, to forgive Paul for the choice that I feel that he made out of his desperation and to forgive everyone else who was involved who might have in any way contributed and that has not been easy. It?s a continuing process. Forgiveness to me is a continuing process. It?s not like well, hey we?re forgiving today and that will be it. No, it?s constant. You go back and you go back and you go back and it?s a matter of easier, easier, easier, but you still have to forgive.
G: Now has that been a part of your involvement with your prayer group?
C: Absolutely.
G: How does that work?
C: Every time we have a prayer meeting, in the beginning in the preparation for prayer is that we go through first counting our blessings and then forgiving others because this is a scriptural thing. It says if you have anything against anyone that when you come to worship go first and clear that up and then come and worship. This is scriptural. You have to do that. What you do is every time before you approach prayer, you count your blessings, get yourself to the place where you feel abundant, and then from a place of abundance, you can reach out and wish that abundance on others, therefore, forgiving. Give of your own abundance to others you therefore forgive, you clear it up and then you move forward. Otherwise, your prayers are kind of stuck, at least mine get stuck in that roundabout business of well, you know, I wish everybody love and peace except for these people.
G: It?s time for us to go break again. When we come back from break, I would like to tell people how they can get in touch with you and if they wanted to do a prayer group, how they could communicate. If you have something on the web for them or whatever, so let?s talk about that when we come up from break. If there?s anything you would like to bring up during the next segment, please let me know. We have some listeners and some groups out there that feel you should not say that your child committed suicide. I?m kind of puzzled by that. Have you got any thoughts on that?
C: It?s not an issue that?s ever come up to me before. My son did commit an act that was a terminal act. He shot himself. Now he did it because, I believe, he was depressed from many reasons, one of them probably is his ongoing battle with bipolar disorder. I did not know at the time that he had that. Now I have a surviving son who also suffers from serious depression who has not ended his life and is on medication. Depression is a treatable condition. There are some forms of depression which are not amenable to treatment in the same way and there are many forms of depression and that?s why my husband and I are very involved with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the Survivors of Suicide Impact and also the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and American Association of Suicidology. All of these are groups which are presently involved in research to prevent incidents such as what happened with our son, Paul.
G: But in all of those groups, they might say committed suicide.
C: Of course, I?ve never had an issue with that.
G: The only reason I ask that is I feel that suicide is such a difficult topic for people to discuss. If they are willing to come forward and talk about oh, your child committed suicide, I get a little concerned that you wouldn?t want to say, no, we don?t say that, we say died by.
C: I don?t make that distinction.
G: It might be correcting them a bit. Well, if people want to get a hold of those organizations, how would they do that and talk about your website.
C: Definitely, the NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. You can go on the internet and just put in that and you can get information but they have an 800 number as well. 1-800-626-5022. The Survivors of Suicide does have a 24-hour crisis line and that is 1-800-SUICIDE or in the Phoenix area, 480-784-1500.
G: And that would be if you had other family members that you were concerned about?
C: No, that would be if someone is at risk of committing suicide. Then also the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention which is based in New York has a web site, afsp.org, and the American Association for Suicidology also which is out of Washington, D.C., is suicidology.org.
G: Now those are basically for if you?re concerned that somebody is going to kill themselves. Now what about if somebody already has. What groups do you suggest?
C: Then we have the Survivors of Suicide Network and there?s a survivor e-network from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and they have survivor support groups. The American Association for Suicidology also. They all do provide information and support for survivors as well as national days, conferences. There?s a whole national suicide awareness week which I believe is in May every year. So there are many many programs. A lot more education at this time.
G: Right, however, a lot of it is for prevention.
C: And survivors and there?s where there?s confusion again with terminology because sometimes people think well, survivors of suicide, you?re not a survivor of suicide. If you?ve lost somebody to suicide, they think it would be somebody who has survived a suicide attempt; however, there are groups through NAMI and other mental health organizations for people who have been attempters. However, those of us who have lost a loved one to suicide are also supported by these groups, which are in the area of prevention because there is a much higher risk among people who have lost someone.
G: Right, and that?s a scary thing I?m sure for everyone out there who has, worrying about their other kids or other family members.
C: Absolutely, it?s a constant concern.
G: How do you deal with that?
C: I deal with it through prayer and through education and through listening to my loved ones and if there is a problem making certain that they are compliant with their meds if they are on medications. Making certain that they have peers and others to speak to because sometimes as a young person you?re not necessarily going to want to speak to your parent but you would maybe speak to a peer.
G: Of course, in the end, people do have their free agency.
C: Absolutely.
G: And we don?t bear all responsibility for everything people do in their lives.
C: Absolutely, and yet there are huge contributing factors from depression and depression is a disease and it is a disease which can be fatal. So there?s more and more and more information now and research that takes this out of the realm of a moral decision and the idea, well, if you end your life by suicide, it?s somehow a moral defect, that this is, no, this is not the case. My son I feel was suffering from an undiagnosed and untreated disorder which was just as fatal as if he?d had cancer.
G: So, Cay Randall-May, could you please tell people how they could get in touch with you and also you are a fabulous artist and you sent me these wonderful cards with chili peppers on them that I love. Do you sell those?
C: Yes. My art site is www.cayrandallmaysart.com and you can reach me through my regular website, cayrandallmay.com, but the chilis have a bit of a story. After a few months, I was not able to paint or draw. Then the first thing I did was draw. I did a collage of Paul?s art. His paper from his school. I did a collage with that of the balloons that we released at his memorial and then further on a few months later I began painting chili peppers and it was the paintings of the chili peppers that took me for a whole year, and I painted chilis to represent my own grief process.
G: And with the seeds inside is hope.
C: Yes, the seeds of hope, the idea of life coming from this. To me, the grief I was experiencing hurt and there was physical pain with it and it was the burning kind of pain just like when you eat chili peppers. That was the only way I could show it visually was that I was burning up inside.
G: They?re beautiful cards and done with such heart. It?s time for us to end our show and I want to thank you, Cay Randall-May, for being on the show. It?s been wonderful and you?re an amazing person and I hope all of those out there who are suffering the loss of a loved one will be able to find some solace in this and also some great ideas on prayer and get in touch with me or Cay if we can be of support to you.
C: Thank you, Gloria. Thank you for this opportunity.

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