Unfinished Conversation invites us to take a journey directly into the pain of our loss. This may be a journey we are reluctant to go on. After what we’ve already been through, to remember again, to awaken our lost loved one inside us, can feel like opening wounds. Yet the saying is true: The way out is through. As we walk through the feelings and memories we’ve been left with by the suicide, facing rather than fearing them, allowing rather than holding back, shining light into the darkness, we find our way out of the wrenching grief of our loss. This book skillfully guides us on that journey.
There is no loss quite like having a loved one take his or her own life. Our hearts are ripped open by knowing that those we cared about were in a darkness and despair so deep that they violently turned against themselves. We may want to shut down, withdraw, perhaps hide from others what happened. We may have trouble sleeping as we lie awake reviewing over and over again the circumstances of the suicide. Scarcely an hour may pass without tragic memories of our loved one arising in our mind. The days and hours leading up to their end may haunt us as we, like skilled prosecutors, question ourselves to see what we might have done differently. Their end is tragic and final, and now we belong to a club we never wanted to be in—we are survivors.
Some say we never get over the suicide of a loved one. We certainly never forget it, but we can heal our shattered hearts and even develop a new relationship with the one who is now gone. In Unfinished Conversation, Robert and Marilynne offer us the opportunity to do just that. Robert opens his own journal to reveal how, after the death of his closest friend, he was able to move over time from raw pain, sorrow, and anger to deeper love and forgiveness of both his friend and himself.
We may come to this book with our own unique stories of lost parents, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, children, teachers, friends, and coworkers. The details of our stories may be very different from Robert’s, but the process of grieving is the same. We walk through the same dark corridors toward the light of healing. Robert and Marilynne expertly and compassionately guide us in creating our own journals, knowing that as we remember our loved ones, as we delve into and explore their lives and ours, as we talk to and with them, we write our way into and out of our deep grief. Whether we lost our loved one recently or years ago, this journey can bring back to us the parts of ourselves that were also lost and join them again in wholeness.
I first read Robert’s story nearly twenty-five years after my sister Carol took her life. Writing and crying my way through the questions and suggestions wove a new and profound element into my ongoing healing. I picked up the unfinished conversation with my sister where it had left off. I joined a support group with other survivors. I could finally say the word “sister” without wobbling. Her suicide was no longer always the first thing on my mind on waking, nor did thoughts of her and her end continually intrude upon the hours of my days. I felt returned to life, not diminished by the loss but strengthened by the healing.
One of my favorite metaphors for profound healing comes from the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Special pottery bowls are used in this ritual of communion. If a tea bowl breaks, its pieces are joined together again with gold. These mended bowls are considered to be the most valuable and prized, because they’ve been broken and made whole again. Remembering, reflecting, forgiving, and loving is the gold that mends our brokenness. It isn’t an easy path to healing, but it’s a sure one.
As we read these chapters and write in our own journals, as we open the door and the pain of memories and feelings rush out to meet us, it’s important to remember that we’re here now in this present moment. We’re not back there, trapped in the horror. We’re breathing this air, sitting on this floor, looking around this room. The feelings of the past may be alive in us, but the circumstances of our lives are different now. We are connected to this present; we have this tool to guide us; we can reach out for support. As Marilynne puts it, we do this work of remembering in order to heal, not to retraumatize. By keeping one foot in the present as we enter the past, we’re able to be with the trauma, not in the trauma.
This is what the journal writing does. It keeps us conscious in the present moment even as we relate to the past. As we allow ourselves to write without judgment and without editing, freely allowing ourselves to catch the thread of the stories stuck inside us, the natural creativity of the mind begins to reshape them, reveal what is beneath, and loosen their control over our lives. Writing moves the energy. As we shine the light of consciousness on the past, we are led into the present, which is exactly where we want to be. Now, not then.
This process works . . . if we do it. We have to write the pain and by doing so, release it. As Robert discovered, journaling allows us to heal ourselves from within. We clarify our thoughts and feelings in the privacy and safety of our own journals, and there we also meet our loved one who is still alive inside us. We can take this journey on our own or with a friend, ideally another survivor. Using Unfinished Conversation as the guiding structure for a support group can bring profound healing in communion with others. To sit with a group of survivors is an invitation to meet a courage and an authenticity we don’t often find in daily life.
After my own experience of reading and following the suggestions in this book, I felt called to offer this method in a support group. We meet every other week, open and raw together. It’s not easy. We’d all rather go to a movie or do anything else but sit there facing the truth of what seems incomprehensible. But as one participant said, “We never want to come here, but then once we start talking with each other, we don’t want to stop.” Moving through the pain and sorrow and anger together with other survivors opens our hearts in love and compassion. At the end of each meeting, we stand in a circle and look around to meet the loving eyes of those we’re traveling with on this journey. When we bend to blow out the candles we’ve each lit for our loved ones, and then turn back into our own worlds, we do so knowing that we’re held in the shared framework of Unfinished Conversation. We know that the others in the group are meeting themselves and their loved ones along the same route.
Whether we walk this path alone or with others, as we give ourselves the gift of healing in this way, we can come to define our loved ones not by how they died but by how they lived. We can be healed into a heart no longer broken but opened in compassion. And we ourselves can choose to live more fully, not in spite of their death but because of it.
Coauthor, with James Baraz, of
Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to Happiness
followed by a series of interactive exercises