Creative Grief and Suicide Survivors
Carole Dawn Harward
Transpersonal Integration Paper
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Transpersonal Psychology
Palo Alto, California
March 15, 2017
Carole Dawn HarwardDate
Brandon Thompson, MTP, Adjunct Core FacultyDate
Nancy Rowe, Ph.D., Chair of Global Master’s ProgramDate
Dedicated to Jason, Lindsey, and Auriel who are my heart.
This paper is a love story written in memory of my late husband,Jeffrey Harward,whose life-long battle with major depressive disorder ended when he opted out of life by suicide on July 16, 2006. His loss shattered my heart and nearly broke my spirit. This document is dedicated to the transformative power of the creative grief process and the transpersonal intervention that shifted my perspective, thereby changing the trajectory of my life. The purpose and meaning I have realized through this tragedy is a passion for suicide prevention, a love for suicide loss survivors, and a renewed zest for living. I was motivated to become a warrior for my own life after my young daughter Auriel made a commentwhen she dropped out of collegenotlong after her father’s death. She said she had been making up stories about what happened to her dad. Aurielhad hidden the nature of his death in fear and shame because of stigma surrounding mental illness.She did this because she “wanted her dad to be remembered as a hero not a zero.” From a transpersonal perspective, her dad’s life and death all served a purpose and everything is as it was meant to be. Her dad is a hero because his legacy of love lives through the work I have been called to do in his absence. It is my expectation that I will be the voice for those whose voices have been silenced by suicide because every one of the victims of suicide were someone’s hero.
Return to Me
You rise like a wave in the ocean
And you fall gently back to the sea
Now I want to know how to hold you
Return to me
You shine like the moon over water
And you darken the sky when you leave
Now I want to know how to keep you
Return to me
Everything I tell you has been spoken
And everything I say was said before
But everything I feel is for the first time
And everything I feel, I feel for you
Return to me
I am here calling the wind
I am here calling your name
I am here calling you back
Return to me
I know what it means to be lonely
And I know what it means to be free
Now I want to know how to love you
Return to me
I am here calling the wind
I am here calling your name
I am here calling you back
Return to me
I am here
Return to me
(Alder Flanders, 1993)
Table of Contents
List of Figures...... v
Some Facts...... 2
Shock and Disbelief...... 3
Layers of Loss...... 5
Emotionally Numb...... 7
Crisis of Spirit...... 9
Creativity and Grief...... 11
The Question of Why...... 14
Searching for Meaning...... 16
My Answer to Why...... 18
Opportunity in the Tragedy...... 22
Finding Meaning...... 29
Transforming Grief...... 31
Personal Note...... 36
List of Figures
Figure 1.“Shock and Disbelief”...... 4
Figure 2. “Numb”...... 8
Figure 3. “Crisis of Spirit”...... 9
Figure 4. Stages of Grief...... 12
Figure 5. “Creativity: The Seed of a New Story”...... 32
It all seems like a dream as I reflect on the life-changing event that stole my hopes and dreams along with the life I had built with the man I loved. I can still hear the sound of mournful wailing that began in the back of the house and rolled towards me like a runaway train as I stood in the kitchen. I heard my young daughter-in-law,who had just hung up the phone, struggle to speak through her sobs as she choked out these words to my son: “I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry, baby,your father is dead.” Earlier in the day my son had phoned me and said he had received a cryptic note from his father. It was a suicide note that was rather generic, angry, and yet apologetic, sent with the hope that one day wewould forgive him. He sent the same impersonal note to all three of our children. I immediately took the note seriously. I knew he would never have sent the note to the children he adored and protected unless he was, in fact, intent on ending his life. In a frenzied attempt to save him from himself, we contacted the local police department, who called the San Diego Police Department (my husband was working away from home), and we called his friends while my daughter repeatedly called his cell phone with no response. In the meantime, I spoke to my brother and expressed my worry, asking him to act as a liaison between myself and the police department. My brother tried to calm my fears; but I knew in my heart that my husband had opted out of life.
Suicide is a traumatic loss and one for which the answer as to why, is impossible to know because the motive is buried with the person who died. This is generally true even if there is a suicide note because the letter was written by a person in a disturbed state of mind. Unfortunately, the best survivors can do is to come to terms with the fact that we will never understand why. If survivors are unable to make peace with this truth, theyoften develop complicated grief.It is the purpose of this paper to explore how an intentional decision, tragic optimism, intuition, and the creative process can help survivors move with and through the grief process to avoid complicated grief, while making peace with their loss. Creativity is a survival skillthatis integral to a healthy and natural response to traumatic loss.Grief is a transformative process that is reliant on creative problem-solving and innovative solutions to transcend the grief. Sigmund Freud stated that “the task of mourning is psychical and goal oriented: specifically to detach the survivor’s memories and hope from the dead” (as cited inBolton, 2006, p.56).Because this paper is an extension of my journey as a suicide survivor it offers experiential knowledge. For this reason, I have woven my personal story throughout this paper to support my assertions.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there were
41,149 suicides in 2013 in the United States—a rate of 12.6 per 100,000 is equal to 113 suicides each day or one every 13 minutes for every completed suicide 25 people have attempted. Males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and represent 77.9% of all suicides. (CDC, n.d.)
The American Association of Suicidology (AAS; n.d.) states that, “approximately 6 million Americans became survivors of suicide in the last 25 years”(p. 2).Therefore, I am not alone in my suffering nor in the questioning as to why peoplewould opt out of life without regard for the impact it has on their loved ones. According to Edwin Shneidman, AAS Founding President (n.d.), survivors of suicide represent “the largest mental health casualties related to suicide”(p. 2). The first time I read these statistics I was beyond stunned because by anyone’s definition the numbers are staggering and easily defined as pandemic. I could not then,noreven now, understand why our society is not alarmed by these statistics because they mean most everyone will know someone who will die by suicide. Suicide is not something outside of our human experience, and something that people fall victim to. It is not a crime but a biological and emotional breakdown of healthy functioning. In many cases, people have lost sight of what matters in life, the things that give their life meaning and purpose.Suicidal ideation can easily happen to emotionally healthy people who are bereaved by suicide if they do not find or create beneficial ways to move through the grief process. It is not unusual for survivors to consider joining their loved one in death.
There are many imaginative and inspired ways to move the energy known as grief. One of the ways I found helpful was the art of free writing. Free writing is a continuous narrative where one writes whatever comes to mind, without interruption, concern for grammar rules, or judgment. The story of suicide lives in every waking moment of the survivor’s experience; writing it down puts the story to paper and each time the story is told,it loses some of the power to harm.
Shock and Disbelief
It was just another beautiful day in sunny southern California as we drove along the coastal highway towards downtown San Diego. In a shock-induced trance, I gazed at the azure blue ocean where the sunlight seemed to dance like diamonds along the wake as sail boats appeared to float on the horizon. I wondered to myself, how can they be having fun today? Everything seemed surreally perfect. Don’t they know what has just happened?(See Figure 1.) For many years I had dreamed of a vacation in San Diego with my family. First we would have gone to their world-famous zoo, followed by Sea World and then the ocean aquarium. It would have been so cool to see the extensive seahorse exhibit. We would have then eaten seafood, explored Balboa Park, and rode the antique carousel.
Figure 1. “Shock and Disbelief” byCarole Dawn Harward, ©2013.
There we were, finally in San Diego, and we were on a tour but not the one we had always imagined. Instead, we were on a tour that was dictated by the San Diego Police Department and the County Medical Examiner. Nothing about this tour was an adventure or a good time;it was more ofa suspense thriller, the kind people watch on the Lifetime Movie Channel. I had often wondered if those stories of love, betrayal, and murder were true and if not, where they came up with these tales. Could these things really happen to people? It turns out that life did imitate art as I became an unwitting character in a drama about traumatic loss and the emotional tsunami that followed. It all happened so fast, without warning, and left me stranded on an isolated beach surrounded by the wreckage of a life taken by suicide.
Layers of Loss
There are many layers of loss that occur with a suicide, the easiest of which is the death of your loved one. In thiscase,my husband’s family blamed my children and myselffor his decision and responded by treating us as if we were dead;some friends chose sides (as if there were a side);andothers turned away, afraid that they might catch suicidal ideation. The relationship between myself and my children became strained as we questioned each other about how each of us might have contributed in some way to his decision to die. I lost my primary source of income and the business I owned because I could not function.The weight of grief stole my desire to live, much less work. Nothing really mattered anymore. I was numb. It was hard to understand why this loving husband, father, and son, a person with a seemingly perfect life, would rather die than continue to be a part of a family who loved him. It was difficult not to blame each other for his death,but the overriding problem was the guilt we felt for not having had the ability to save Jefffrom himself. In the case of people who commit suicide, love is not enough to save them; and, in fact, much of the time it is love that pushes them further way. Another important factor that makes a death by suicide a difficult loss to transcend as is the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Serani (n.d.) explains:
Society still attaches a stigma to suicide. And as such, survivors of suicide loss may encounter blame, judgment or social exclusion—while mourners of loved ones who have died from terminal illness, accident, old age or other kinds of deaths usually receive sympathy and compassion.(“Understanding Survivors of Suicide,” para. 9)
As a result of this stigma, the survivors often suffer a loss of social identity. In other words, “the way people understand themselves in relation to other persons, to the world around them and tosupernatural realms” (Kralova, n.d.)is called into question, therebycontributing to the possibility that they will develop pathological grief and/or suicidal tendencies. The normal grief process can morph into clinical depression and/or complicated griefif the process is impeded. According to Young, Iglewicz, Glorioso, Lanouette, Seay, Ilapakurti, and Zisook (2012),complicated grief is
a bereavement reaction in which acute grief is prolonged, causing distress and interfering with functioning. The bereaved may feel longing and yearning that does not substantially abate with time and may experience difficulty re-establishing a meaningful life without the person who died. The pain of the loss stays fresh and healing does not occur. The bereaved person feels stuck; time moves forward but the intense grief remains.(Introduction chapter, Complicated grief section, para. 1)
A possible complication of a trauma-informed death is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a “potentially debilitating condition that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed . . . life-threatening events” (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, n.d., para. 4). Another important is factor is something called suicide contagion, which is “the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one's family, one's peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors”(U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, n.d., para. 3).Suicide survivors also have a much higher rate of suicide, which is due in part to the feelings of hopelessness and failed belonging as a result of the cultural and societal responses to a death by suicide. Guilt and family dishonor can alsoplay a role in determining the depth of the grief response.
The detective entered the room with a smile and a kind of calm distance that only experience could have taught him. He carried my husband’s backpack and a clipboard that held an itemized list of his belongings. Heset the bag on the table and began carefully removing the contents of the backpack, one relic at a time. We all watched him intently while he listed off the items. “One small spiral-bound note book; one wallet, brown leather, worn.” Then the contents of his wallet, “One Utah driver’s license, one Bank of America Visa card, one year-round pass to Disneyland.” We all looked at each other in disbelief. He had a year-round pass to Disneyland? Then my youngest daughter quickly grabbed the pass from the detective’s hands. “It’s mine!” she exclaimed. The pass was never to be seen again. Meanwhile I became fixated on the pass. I kept asking myself, “He had a year-round pass to Disneyland? Why would he have a year round pass to Disneyland?” I was stunned. Anxiety waved through my body. I felt as if I would throw up. “Why, why, why did he have the year-round pass to Disneyland!?”
The detective continued with “one silver necklace with what appears to be claws holding a pentagram.” That’s mine” my son said. Then it disappearedfrom the table. Like the Disneyland pass, the necklace became a treasured remnant of the man they knew as Dad. Just as I thought I might die, the officer continued to empty the wallet. As he was nearing the end of the checklist a picture of me at the age of 19 fell from the wallet. I watched as the photo seemed to slowly and deliberately float like a feather lost on an air current, downward towards the table. The photo had been given to him at least 25 years earlier by my father, who has kept a photo of my mom in his wallet since she was 16. Funny, my mom hated that photo. My dad treasured it. My father had thought that my husband would appreciate having a photo of me, too. Maybe he did, since the photo was still in his wallet. I remember looking at that picture and thinking it looks tired and worn out. The photograph looked like I felt. As the reality of the situation tried to push its way into my consciousness, I felt another wave of pain and then I stopped feeling anything (see Figure 2) as the memento landed on the small, round, and weathered brown table.
Figure 2.“Numb” byCarole Dawn Harward, ©2013
Crisis of Spirit
It is my assertion, based on my own lived experience and the shared experience of other suicide survivors that trauma-informed grief can and often does create a crisis of spirit(see Figure 3).Sumner (1998) explains a spiritual emergency in this way, “Spiritual distress sometimes takes the obvious form of anger toward God or inner conflict about one's religious faith. But concerns about ‘meaning’—of pain, suffering, life, and death—are equally important indicators of spiritual distress”(p. 26).
Figure 3. “Crisis of Spirit”by Carole Dawn Harward, ©2013.
My personal encounter with a death by suicide was extremely difficult and life changing. I lost my internal compass and felt completely disconnected from life. My purpose vanished and, frankly,I no longer cared if I lived or died. In truth,I was numb and spiritually paralyzed. Everything I believed to be true and held dear was taken in a tragic moment. I was left to make sense out of something for which I will never have any answers becausethe truth died with my beloved. I often tell people that his death was by far the easiest injury of the overall experience because the collateral damage caused by a suicide in the family is far more difficult to live with. My daughter said “it was as if a suicide bomb had been dropped on our family as the devastation nearly killed everyone and laid waste to everything.”