Grief After Suicide—Profound loss with complicated feelings

The primary focus of my work with schools is to equip teachers, parents, and teens with the tools to support emotional well-being and to detect risk factors and warning signs related to mental health issues before a suicide attempt occurs.

Unfortunately, as we’re learning after the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, even with comprehensive support and treatment—and loving family and friends—people coping with mental illness can still die by suicide.

It’s a tough subject, I know, I’ve experienced this profound grief personally. My sister died by suicide after years of struggling with mental health and substance use issues. And this week’s news is bringing back some painful memories.

Understand and be prepared for:

Guilt—The most common feeling loved ones express after losing someone to suicide is remorse. “Was there something I could have done to prevent this?” In Jill Bialosky’s memoir, History of Suicide, she too grapples with this question. Off and on over the years, she wondered if maybe she’d missed something, a clue. If only she’d known what her sister had planned, or how despondent she was, maybe she could have stopped her.  Professionals call this survivor’s guilt and while it’s a common response, those who experience it must work through it in their own time, in their own way. It’s important to come to the conclusion that no one has complete control over another person’s actions.

Shame—How many of us have seen or heard people talking about suicide in hushed whispers, fearful of the reactions of those around us? Bialosky writes, “I also became more sensitive to this tendency when anyone spoke of a suicide; even in her death, I wanted to protect Kim from that kind of ridicule or shame.” She wondered if her sister’s memory would be diminished or tainted by suicide. After my sister’s death, I was open with others about her struggles. No doubt my honesty made some people uncomfortable, but I believe this discomfort is necessary if we’re to end the stigma associated with mental illness.

Anger—I’ve shared in an earlier post that when I was in high school my father died of a heart attack at age forty-seven. Irrational as it was, I admit there were times I was angry at him for leaving me. Feelings like these are normal, yet they’re especially difficult to contend with if you’re grieving a loss related to a loved one’s suicide. That said, it’s important to remember that along with deep depression come some intractable thinking, thoughts that convince a person others will be better off without them.

Relief—For many friends and family, the weeks and months, and sometimes years, leading up to the death of a loved one by suicide have been a rollercoaster of emotion. In cases where repeated psychiatric hospitalizations, incarcerations, and/or inpatient rehab stays have become commonplace, it’s normal to feel a sense of relief that the unpredictable nature of life has come to an end. Sadly, these feelings often cycle back to guilt or shame. While it may feel wrong to be relieved, it’s perfectly normal to grapple with these feelings.

Sadness—Feelings of profound sadness accompany all kinds of grief. Yet a common nuance as it relates to loss through suicide is sadness over lost potential, over the hopes and dreams never to be realized, as well as all the what-could’ve-beens.

I was deeply moved by Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide. It’s a beautiful story about two sisters, and a thoughtful exposé about grief and loss and suicide. Above all it is compassionate. I highly recommend reading it, as well as Joan Wickersham’s, A Suicide Index—a memoir about putting her father’s death in order.

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If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, here are ways to help.

Call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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Lynne Reeves Griffin RN, MEd teaches family studies at the graduate level and she’s the author of the family novels, Girl Sent AwaySea Escape, and Life Without Summer. She’s also the author of the nonfiction parenting guides, Let’s Talk About It: Adolescent Mental Health and Negotiation Generation. You can find her online at www.LynneGriffin.comor on Twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin.

Changing The Way You Think About Women’s Fiction

It’s a reality that male writers are often taken more seriously than women writers. All anyone needs to do to become disheartened is read the Vida numbers. Trust me, I wanted to laugh with abandon when The Washington Post’s Ron Charles talked about “women gossiping about how their little books are treated by media,” except that too much of his totally hip book review was spot on.  Still I’m comforted to know that attitudes about equality among men and women do change–and have–through respectful discourse. To that end, I do my part to make a difference, working to empower our girls to use their voices and, like many educators, I use new research to focus my attention on how we socialize our boys. As a novelist, I’ve parlayed my experience as a family therapist into writing about the emotional and sometimes dark side of relationships in an effort to connect men and women any way I can. Recent studies confirm what every novelist knows: “The novel is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life.”

Though I don’t bristle at the term “women’s fiction” I do see it as narrow and exclusive. In a culture where we’re forever dishing about wanting a sensitive partner, do we really want men to think (or anyone to reinforce) that what women read is for their eyes only?

In an op ed reflecting on the fifty years since Betty Friedan’s seminal work on feminism, Stephanie Coontz, a noted historian and teacher of family studies, claims that the progress toward gender equity no longer lies in changing personal attitudes. Tell that to David Gilmour, who recently set social media on fire with his statements about why he doesn’t teach fiction written by women. No doubt we will always need to force attitudinal change with loud and clear voices, yet we must break down structural barriers to equity too. Readers and writers can play a role by merely turning the label women’s fiction on its head.

Nearly a year ago, Meg Wolitzer wrote an essay that got me thinking about how the term excludes. Nine times out of ten, the first question a reader asks when he or she learns I’m a novelist is, “What’s the book about?” Never once since I began writing fiction have I been asked about genre by anyone outside of publishing. If you’re aligned with Wolitzer’s thinking, that the women’s fiction label can relegate novels to second class status, why not consider a genre makeover?

I propose that like science fiction (fiction about science) and mystery fiction (fiction about a mystery) that we use the term fiction about family. #FamFic if you’re into hashtags. Take a look at the copyright page of any of your favorite family dramas and you’ll find the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data already does this. The first category listed in Justin Torres’s We The Animals is family. For Wally Lamb’sThe Hour I First Believed, Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, and Steve Yarborough’s The End of California you’ll see family fiction’s synonym, domestic fiction. And if you’re one to frequent Amazon, you’ll find family life fiction is a prominent label categorizing novels online.

So for readers who’ve got to have their labels–who are opposed to fiction just being fiction– fiction about family ticks all the boxes. Without playing the sexism card, it gives women the heads up a book is for them. And it tells men, this one’s for you too. Research shows that when anyone reads fiction, neurologically speaking, our emotional state is positively impacted. Reading trains our brains to work more efficiently. And better brains, lead to stronger hearts, and thus more compassionate action.

Women shouldn’t be the only ones reading about families. Without a doubt there are lots of good reasons for men to read fiction. In the thirty years I’ve counseled families, I’ve seen firsthand how family life education of any kind leads to positive attitudes toward motherhood and fatherhood, changing the way we think about children.

We all want to help women and men become better women and men. If we were to embrace a gender-neutral genre called fiction about family, then writers included in this category would be Meg Wolitzer and Jonathan Franzen, Chris Bojahlian and Jody Picoult, Joshua Henkin and Elizabeth Strout. Wally Lamb, Lionel Shriver, and the list goes on and on.

If you believe like I do that words matter and that novels have the power to influence attitudes about everything from the politics of childcare to understanding addiction, then join me once per month at LitChat.com for conversations about good books. Let’s use our voices to change the way we think about men and women and fiction about family. (#FamFic if you’re into hashtags)

The Power of Fiction to Teach

In my ongoing series, Conversations, I talk with interesting people who have something compelling to say about family relationships. Today I’m chatting with Rachel Simon, bestselling author of The Story of Beautiful Girl and Riding The Bus with My Sister.

Lynne: I often talk about what a wonderful vehicle fiction is for teaching. I found The Story of Beautiful Girl to be a powerful narrative that does so much to educate readers about people with disabilities, what they want and hope for, how universal our dreams and desires are. How do you think novels in particular educate readers, as opposed to nonfiction?

Rachel: Two answers come immediately to mind. In fiction you don’t have to come to a single way to respond to what’s being written about, you may even experience ambiguity. Fiction can prompt a reader to rethink previous positions on the issues at hand, about characters; the reader may go deeper than they’ve gone before emotionally. Enlarging their perspectives. In fiction, writers aim to move our hearts.

The second real difference between fiction and nonfiction, is that in fiction a writer with a great toolbox, real skill, can write from multiple points of view. Allowing readers to see the world through many different people’s eyes. With more than one story, many issues can be addressed, none of which have to lead the reader to any particular conclusion. Multiple points of view in a story, ask readers to imagine other lives. In this way, these stories are so powerful. I believe great novels of the past, even the bible, have stood the test of time for this reason.

Nonfiction on the other hand has only one perspective. And of course the danger of writing nonfiction, is writing with an agenda. It shouldn’t be a writer’s intent to write with specific messages in mind.

Lynne: You’ve written nonfiction memoirs. Most notably, Riding the Bus with My Sister. When do you choose to write a story from a nonfiction point of view or as fiction? When you get the germ or seed you know will become something, how do you know it will be fiction or nonfiction?

Rachel: For me there has always been a lot of considerations. When I was an event coordinator for Barnes and Noble, I saw fiction events not well attended. For nonfiction of all kinds, events were well-attended, we sold books. At that time, memoir was a big trend. It was the rise of the stories like Angela’s Ashes, The Color of Water. I’ve always wanted my work to be read widely, and I thought perhaps I can try my hand at memoir.

Enter serendipity. I wrote a piece on my sister and her bus schedule for the Philadelphia Inquirer. My colleagues said, “This is a memoir.” I wondered how would I structure it, and then with a lot of thought, hard work and support, I wrote Riding the Bus with My Sister. The book became a big deal, then movie, and led to speaking engagements about my experiences having a sister with disabilities.

For nonfiction, I have to have a strong need to say something more. It must be dramatic, and if others are writing about similar experiences, I’m forced to ask, “Why should I be the one to write it?”

Lynne: So you’ve written nonfiction about your experiences, and now a novel exploring similar themes. Do you consider yourself an expert on persons with disabilities?

Rachel: No. I’m only knowledgeable about my experience. Every day is a learning process. The older I get the more I listen. Both experiences—my writing in general—have invited people to share their stories with me. And each one reminds me what I know and what I don’t know. I am increasingly curious. I try to live consciously with an open mind and heart—even though at times I don’t.

My whole idea of society is informed by my sister. I believe we are here to help each other. From that you gain a strong sense of what social justice is. It’s part of why I’m here. To do the right thing. To encourage others to do the right thing. To be a translator. I see myself as playing a key role in helping others to understand her, to help her to understand the world.

What I’ve learned that’s so valuable is that so often our stories may at first may seem at odds with each other. The parent, the teacher. But in fact they aren’t. There is something larger at play.

A skilled writer writes from the vantage point of a person’s truth, about psychological understanding of themselves, who they love, or she invites others to go on a journey with fictional characters. Somehow this allows readers the opportunity to examine universal truths.

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Rachel Simon is the award-winning author of six books and a nationally-recognized public speaker on issues related to diversity and disability. Her titles include the bestsellers, The Story of Beautiful Girl and Riding The Bus with My Sister. For more about Rachel, her books, and her speaking engagements visit her website.

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Lynne Griffin is the author of the family novels Sea Escape and Life Without Summer and the parenting guide Negotiation Generation. You can find her online here: www.LynneGriffin.com, and atwww.twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin and at www.facebook.com/LynneGriffin.