Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Well of Grief: Public Loss, Private Tragedy

Photo Credit Jane Ray Frog Prince

Those who will not slip
Beneath the still surface of 
the well of grief

Turning downward into its black water
to the place we cannot breath
Will never know the source from which we drink
the secret water, cold and clear

Nor find in the darkness
the small, round coins thrown away
by those who wished for something else.

-David Whyte

There are many despairing people in the world. And sometimes, those despairing people complete suicide. It's a hard thing about which to speak- suicide- unless, of course, a celebrity dies. Then, everyone is an expert.

I've been watching social media commentary recently, and I'm reticent to speak about Robin Williams,  a man I never knew personally, except to extend my most profound compassion and empathy to him, to his family, and to all those who do know and love him.

Since 1996, I've spent  more than 35,000 hours working directly with traumatized and grieving parents, grandparents, siblings, and children, one of the most vulnerable populations in the research. Many, at least initially, feel hopeless and desperate. Their children and spouses were murdered, they lost 2, 3 or 4 children, sometimes in one tragedy, their much-loved babies died suddenly, their precious children endured months or years of painful cancer treatment, their children died as a result of an unintended accident, sometimes caused by a parent. Oh the anguish!  They sit on my couch and share things with me that they cannot - and would not - share with anyone else. They bare their souls, the innards of their suffering and despair.

We turn toward the blackness, together, we speak honestly with one another, we explore the existential and axiological questions about mortality and angst. We review details of their chid's death (and sometimes their child's dying process), we look at photographs together, sometimes of a death investigation scene, we go through baby clothes and locks of hair, and many, many, many tears are shed in the corner of my off-white, agreeable couch.

And, some of those with whom I sit have experienced the death of their precious, beloved child or spouse to suicide, one child as young as eight years old.

I've also spent a great number of hours for the past eight years researching and publishing empirical studies on traumatic grief.  Both my role as a professor and as a counselor have cultivated within me a sense of wonder about how one endures this loss, and other losses, integral to the human experience.

What do we do when we cannot understand another person's actions? We talk. Too much. About things we cannot possibly comprehend. And we make guesses, postulations that often hurt.

Yet, another something strange happens as a culture when a celebrity dies, particularly traumatically, or in the case of highly publicized tragedies. Many are mesmerized. Now, we are able to talk about trauma and death, at least temporarily, and there is often a public outpouring of attention and shared grief. Why don't we stay engaged, continue to talk about death, loss, and human suffering, and continue to extend our compassion beyond our brief attention span? Becker tells us why here.

I remember, explicitly, Princess Diana's death and the millions who watched her funeral as it was recorded for television viewing.  Oddly, the same week a concerned woman called me, desperately meaning well, because her sister - whose baby died during birth - wanted to video tape the funeral. She felt it macabre, abnormal, and wanted me to convince her not to do it. I, very gently, inquired, "Did you happen to watch Diana's funeral?"  It an instant, she got it.

This is the occasion where the public invokes a false sense of interpersonal connection to a stranger whilst disconnecting from the one they actually know and love. Strange.

And this is why there are countless 'experts' and laypeople judging the recent tragedy involving Mr. Williams from behind their windows. Meanwhile, many other, non-celebrities, are also being judged from a distance every day, their families subject to ridiculous banalities people tender about loss, particularly when disenfranchised. These commentaries are likely to help no one, not those who are in a moment of suffering and contemplating suicide and not families who, themselves, have endured this particular type of traumatic grief.

When we are frightened and in pain, we need others with whom we can be honest. We need others who can enter the abyss with us.  We need to reach out to someone who is safe, who will not judge, who will not shut down or shun our pain. We need someone there for the long-haul to slip beneath the well of grief, with us, and let us, when we are ready, find our glistening coins at the bottom. And, when we are hurting this much, we may need to borrow, muster, or scrape the   courage to actually reach out to others. But please, let's not foist blame on anyone. This is complicated, and many variables beyond our knowing need to be considered.

If you want to help, you need not be a therapist. You can listen deeply, non-judgmentally. You can offer an open and compassionate heart, giving them a place to be honest about their pain. You can share in their suffering so they do not feel so alone. You can help them feel that they belong. You can invoke minute amounts of hope just by loving them, without being patronizing.

We cannot, certainly, save every life. What we can do is be kind, really see one another in this lost and busy world, and consider the ways in which we publicly speak about traumatic death, those from suicide, homicide, baby/child deaths, and premature conjugal deaths.

This is someone's Beloved One. This is someone's Beloved One. This is someone's Beloved One.

For more information about suicide intervention and education
you may contact CASPER
or to talk with someone immediately in the U.S.

My new book on traumatic grief now available here.
If you cannot afford it and need it, please contact me.

If you are looking for a clinician or paraprofessional
trained in our method of traumatic grief counseling, please visit here

To become trained, also visit here


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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