Chapter 1: The Journey Begins
I am sitting in the dentist’s chair when my cell phone rings. All I hear is screaming and crying. I can’t make out who is calling or what the person is saying. Finally, I hear the person yell, “Larry has killed himself!” I realize it’s Mary, Larry’s ex-wife.
Larry Harpel is my closest friend so I know there must be some mistake. In my mind I shout, This is all wrong. This can’t be happening. But I can only sit in helpless shock with my mouth full of dental equipment and cotton swabs, while the hygienist completes the procedure. A heavy ache begins to grow in the pit of my stomach.
When I leave, I call Mary back. She is mostly incoherent, but manages to give me the number of the coroner’s office. She thinks they will want us to identify the body. Maybe it’s not him?
I hang up, and, with clammy, trembling hands and constricted throat, I punch in the numbers on my cell phone. My call is answered by a strangely upbeat coroner’s attendant. He confirms that Lawrence Harpel’s body is at the morgue and has already been identified by his driver’s license. There is no need for us to view the body.
Larry Harpel took his life on the night of October 15, 2005. The other victims of this tragedy are the survivors of his suicide—his loved ones and friends. Those of us who lose someone to suicide are left to come to terms with the trauma we experience when a loved one chooses “self-slaughter,” as Shakespeare called it. The death of anyone we love is hard enough to accept, but when it is a suicide, we are left facing a cold, blank wall, with- out solace or comprehension. And even as we search for a meaning, at first it may elude us. I stood at that wall myself, torn between wanting to punch it in rage and longing to simply dissolve into oblivion. It was my search for understanding, healing, and forgiveness that motivated me to begin writing to Larry. I deliberately set out to finish my conversation with him through an ongoing journal that became the basis of this book.
All suicides are unfinished conversations. There is so much that we, the living, still need to say and want to hear from those who take their own lives, leaving us with no opportunity to communicate. But there are ways that writing can be used as a means of continuing the conversation between the departed and the survivor. I don’t mean this in any supernatural sense; I mean simply putting pen to paper. The exercises at the end of each chapter will guide you.
While you may want to talk about the exercises with someone you trust, or simply reflect on them, I would encourage you to actually write your thoughts and feelings in your own Grief and Healing Journal. For it is in these private pages that a person begins to reestablish the revived conversation with the departed. It is in those personal moments, and only there, that the conversation can unfold, and with it the eventual healing that the writer of the journal will experience as I did. I strongly believe that this process of self-healing really comes from writing it down—or the struggle to write it down. This is as simple as writing a letter over and over again. We can all do it. You don’t have to be a “writer” to do it. Trust it as a method, as a tool through grief to wholeness.
You might start by choosing an exercise you feel ready to respond to, then returning to the others later when and if it feels right. Journaling your experience will allow you to say all that you may have wanted to say when your loved one was alive, or to reveal your reactions to what he or she has done. This is an opportunity to express your emotions—all of your regret, all of your anger and disappointment, and perhaps, all of your understanding and love.
You may think it’s better to avoid painful emotions, but that avoidance will simply bury them. I was not even aware of all the anger and betrayal I felt until I began to express these feelings in writing. So I learned that by turning toward the pain, at a pace that was manageable, I could find my way through it. The responses to loss are unique to each person, and all are quite normal reactions to an event as life altering as losing someone you love to suicide. Any unresolved grief or trauma from the past also compounds the complexity of your current loss. Distressing symptoms remain trapped in the mind and body, easily triggered by every- day reminders of the trauma—sometimes for months or years—unless resolved in some way. You can’t change what happened in the past, but you can transform the mind’s and the body’s responses to the past. Only by facing and befriending your complicated feelings, with honesty and compassion, can you truly heal and reclaim your life after such loss. (See Appendix 1, “Tool Kit for Your Journey to Healing” and Appendix 2, “Creating Support” for suggestions on important ways to give yourself support during this time.)
Write as if your loved one is in front of you, hearing everything you are saying. Make it real. The most important part of what you will be doing is having an honest conversation, the one you didn’t have a chance to finish. Whatever helps you to have this conversation, whether it’s more emotion or coming from a place of calm, will be valuable.
Some of your writing may even take the form of interactive dialogues between you and your loved one. Write what you have to say, then listen for a response and write it, whatever it is. You will find it easier than you think to capture the voice of the person you lost. Try it. The benefit that you will gain in finishing your particular conversation will go far beyond what you can imagine.
Healing and grieving take time. So make a personal commitment to continue this process for as long as it takes. Keep the communication between you and the departed open until you have expressed whatever has been bottled up inside since the suicide, whether that was days, months, or even years ago. I suggest that you continue your writing process until you attain some sense of clarity, release, and resolution.
In the beginning I recommend that you choose a specific length of time to commit to writing on a regular basis. Initially, I wrote each day for forty-nine days following my friend’s death. I chose this length of time for my written mourning because in Buddhism, which is my particular spiritual practice, the forty-nine-day period after death is considered the time during which the consciousness of the departed is suspended between one incarnation and the next. Other religions also have traditions that call for a period of time to grieve and honor the deceased. In Judaism there’s a seven-day period of mourning after death known as “sitting shiva,” followed by a year of prayer and healing that ends with the placing of a headstone and a second memorial service. For some Christians, “the wake” is a vigil with the body of the deceased, and in many cultures
black clothing or a black armband is worn for a full year after the death as a sign of mourning.
Think of the time you dedicate to your bereavement as holding a vigil or sitting shiva over “the body of your grief.” Whatever length of time you choose, I recommend that you commit to daily writing and other forms of self-expression, to give your mourning period a shape and structure to support and facilitate your healing process.
After completing my initial period of journaling, I found myself still writing, because there was much that had been left unspoken. Be open to the realizations and insights that may continue to arise. For so great a loss, a certain level of grief may be with you for the rest of your life. But if you truly mourn, if you truly feel and express the deep grief that comes from a sudden loss by suicide of a loved one, in time you will feel whole again. Completing your unfinished conversation will be an important key to this healing. (See Appendix 3, “Clinical Theory Behind Unfinished Conversation’s Healing Process).”
As you embark on your journey, remember to stay in the light of your grief. However you experience it—be it rage, unbearable sorrow, or the agonizing angst of regret—your ongoing grieving process will allow you to access the pathways that lead you to forgiveness, acceptance, and peace. In time, your grief can begin to illuminate the truths that you know and live for. This book is offered to you in the hope that your grieving and healing journey may bring you a renewed relationship with yourself, your life, and with your loved one.
The Journey Begins
– Beginning Your Journal
– First Reactions
– About the Tool Kit for Your Journey to Healing
• This is where your journey begins. Choose a notebook to use as your Grief and Healing Journal and keep it nearby. For your first entry, allow your loved one to come into your awareness, and imagine him or her standing before you. Notice the feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations that arise inside. Take a few deep breaths and when you’re ready, write some words, phrases, or sentences to describe what you’re noticing within yourself.
Example: “As I think about losing him, I feel a gripping in my stomach and a knot in my throat. Currents of anxiety surge through me with each thought. I feel a heavy sinking feeling of deep, deep sadness. My thoughts are racing and my mind feels
in a fog . . .”
• The moment when you first become aware of your loved one’s death is perhaps the most devastating. It is important to approach those memories slowly, with honor and great care, and relate with them in manage- able increments. Remember to stay in the here-and-now as you reflect on the past. Take your time. When you’re ready to remember your feelings and the events of that moment, gently observe your reactions, and write them in your journal. Using the present tense can help you to access your experience more fully.
1) Where are you and how do you first become aware that your loved one has taken his or her own life? Example: “I am sitting in the dentist’s chair when . . .”
2) What are your first reactions? Notice the emotions, thoughts, and experiences in your body in those first moments. What do you do—or not do?
3) Now observe the emotions and physical sensations inside your- self right now, in this present moment. Write about the qualities you would like to bring forward to meet these painful feelings, such as understanding, sensitivity, kindness, empathy, perspective, compassion.
• Appendix 1, “Tool Kit for Your Journey to Healing” offers many suggestions for ways to take care of yourself during this time of healing, like meeting your experience with nonjudgment and compassion, sharing your experience with others who truly understand and care, and choosing activities that help you feel safe, comforted, and connected with yourself and others. Look over the Tool Kit, and then in your journal make a list of your Inner and Outer Resources and ways in which you can care for yourself as you grieve and heal.
Returning to the present moment . . .
Bring awareness into your body, soften your belly, and allow full gentle breaths.
With each exhalation, allow your body to soften and relax.
I am present in this moment, relaxing and breathing.