I’ve recommended many books in the last year as particularly powerful and pithy resources for recovering resilience. This month’s e- newsletter focuses on a particularly poignant as well as powerful and pithy book: Unfinished Conversation: Healing from Suicide and Loss – A Guided Journey.
It takes real courage to acknowledge, talk about, read and write about suicide. Written by my esteemed colleague and friend Marilynne Chophel MFT, and her esteemed colleague and friend Robert Lesoine, Unfinished Conversation offers a guided journey to healing from grief and loss based on Robert’s experience grieving the loss of his best friend Larry to suicide.
I was present the evening Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodron were interviewed by Michael Krasny about compassion from the Therevadan and Tibetan points of view. 3,000 people were in the auditorium. When audience members were invited to ask questions, a woman stood up and asked how to cope with the suicide of a loved one. A hush fell over the entire auditorium. Jack asked anyone who had also lost a loved one to suicide to please stand up. 300 people stood up. Jack asked the woman to look around and see how many people, in this one auditorium on this one evening, could understand her pain from their own pain, moving from the “me” to the “we” to keep our hearts open in the face of our own suffering.
Over one million people worldwide choose to take their own lives every year; that’s one death every forty seconds; more deaths per year than lives lost to homicide and war combined. The annual number of unsuccessful attempts is far greater. The largest increase in rates of suicide (30%) is now among people 55-64 years of age. Yet there is a pervasive stigma attached to acknowledging any mental illness associated with suicide, including depression, which can prevent people from seeking help, and a powerful stigma attached to talking about, contemplating or recovering from the loss of a suicide.
While Unfinished Conversation is written expressly for survivors of suicide, it is a useful guide for moving through any death of any loved one. This poignant, powerful pithy volume
“…invites you into a journey of restoration, reminding you that you can still laugh, love, and come full circle with the loved one you have lost.”
– Michael Beckwith
May these reflections and exercises be useful to you and yours.
Robert tells his own personal story of using journal writing as a tool of grieving, resolution, and healing from the death by suicide of his best friend, Larry. Drawing on the deep wellspring of Robert’s personal experience, every chapter of Unfinished Conversation offers journal exercises to guide the reader to also find their way out of raw pain, sorrow and anger through deep grief, understanding, and forgiveness to a renewed sense of presence and love. Not an easy path but a sure one. (See Exercises to Practice below.)
Robert began his journey when his closest friend, Larry, chose to take his own life. Robert and Larry had been part of a men’s group, the Lost and Found Men’s Council, for 15 years, and had been able to talk about anything and everything for a decade and a half. When Larry ended his life, Robert was left with “a cold blank, wall, without solace or comprehension….I stood at that wall, torn between wanting to punch it in rage and longing simply to dissolve into oblivion.” Robert was left with an unfinished conversation – Why? How could you? Faced with the torment of not comprehending Larry’s actions, Robert chose to finish his conversation with Larry through journaling..
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 simply mean putting pen to paper. A Grief and Healing Journal is a tool to move the energy through grief and a return to wholeness. By turning toward the pain at a pace that was manageable, I could find my way through it. In the privacy and safety of a journal, we meet our loved one who is still alive inside us. Breaking our hearts open in compassion, we ourselves choose to live more fully, not it spite of their death but because of it.
Among the guided reflections suggested (see also Exercises to Practice below):
First Reactions….Telling Others….Remorse and Regret….Creating a Place of Honor….Gathering to Say Farewell….Creating Dialogues….Talking about the Hard Stuff….Unfinished Business….Grieving Around Strangers….Being In-Between….Gifts of the Shadow….The Uncensored Eulogy….Defining Moments….Turning toward Acceptance….Forgiveness….Ongoing Conversation.
For Robert, the depression underlying Larry’s suicide became more visible, more understandable over time. As Larry’s ex-wife Mary expressed at the memorial service:
Larry was not a coward; he was not selfish; he was tired. He was in the profound pain of an illness that often allows for no hope and blinds one to the love of self and, most cruelly, insists that there is no help anywhere to the sheer fatigue and loneliness that envelops those lost in its embrace.
Robert included these lines in his eulogy for Larry:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man…
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
– Alexander Pope
In conversations after the memorial service with the new love of Larry’s life, Kathryn, Robert was able to put together the missing pieces of the puzzle of the dust balls and cobwebs of the depression and physical pain, fears of inadequacy, and anger masking those fears, that blocked the light and love from Larry’s mind and heart that might have allowed him to go on living.
Chapter 16, Missing Pieces, is a moving conversation with the reader of Larry’s unraveling from hope and joy into dark despair again. Understanding the pain of Larry’s depression and estrangement cracked open Robert’s heart to understanding, compassion, and forgiveness.
Even so, there were waves of powerful emotions to manage as Robert moved through his own bardo. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the bardo is seen as a transitional state between death and life beyond death. Robert’s bardo was the transition from the life he knew with Larry to a life without him, letting go of the dreams, the possibilities, the conversations, letting go of beliefs about how life is supposed to be. Transitioning to a deeper understanding of the light and shadows of life to a new way of being with himself, with memories, with a sense of Larry’s presence within.
The latter third of the book describes the journaling of conversations, retreats, and ceremonies in the Lost and Found men’s group that were turning points in understanding, coming to terms, acceptance of Larry’s path and his final choice. As Robert begins to move beyond Larry’s death to life without him, but carrying his aliveness in his own heart, he could show up in new ways for his life without Larry, unfolding the path he must now travel without his best friend. The unfinished conversation becomes a series of ongoing questions about the meaning of life and responses to mortality.
I am beginning to let go of the suffering I have been carrying for so long from the past, and I sense the first glimmers of forgiveness for Larry – and for myself. I can feel the pain and the price of keeping my heart closed to this man I so loved. I let these feelings carry over into my writing…For now I can summon only a whisper, my brother…I forgive you. I know that what you did that caused me pain came from your own anger, your confusion, and your fear. While I don’t agree with your choices, I can feel in my heart forgiveness for your pain and suffering, and the actions that arose from the. I forgive you. And I want you to know that whatever you did in the past, however you caused me anguish, it’s time for me to welcome you back into my heart.
Eventually I come to recognize that to truly heal, I also need to directly ask for Larry’s forgiveness. Larry, my friend, for all the ways I may have caused you pain through my judgment, outrage, hurt, and confusion, for all the ways I acted or failed to act, I ask for your forgiveness. For all the way I judged and was critical of you, I ask you now to forgive me. Please my brother, forgive me.
And I need to forgive myself as well, for all of the shame, self-judgment, and reactive anger; for the ways I have abandoned and not cared for myself, and for the relentless critical self-talk and guilt that has plagued me since Larry’s death, In order to truly heal, I have to be willing to let all that go and welcome myself back into my own heart, as if welcoming home a guest who has been away for too long. I need to say, “I forgive you” to myself.
Robert moves into an understanding of inter-being – every word, every feeling, every memory connected with you is still a part of me, and all those who knew and loved you. Death cannot take away the meaning of you to me; the relationship continues.
His last entry: What I really want you to know is….
Epilogue: Robert took care of Larry’s dog Buddy for three years after Larry’s death, until buddy was stricken with inoperable tumors. From Unfinished Conversation:
I knew there would come a point when I couldn’t allow the little guy to suffer anymore and could no longer justify ongoing treatment to keep him alive. I constantly asked myself by what authority do we humans have the right to determine when a dog’s life should be ended. I also became acutely aware of the irony of this situation with regard to my friend’s suicide. If I can choose to release my dog from life because I feel that he is suffering acutely, then why not allow for the suicide of a person like Larry who chooses to release himself due to the intensity of suffering that made him feel he could no longer remain alive? These are questions of such magnitude, depth, and far-reaching consequence, they will continue to be grappled with by poets and mystics, belief systems, and political systems, for as long as there is life, death, and free will.
Poetry and Quotes to Inspire
Unfinished Conversation: Tough to read; impossible to put down.
– Richard Heckler
* * * * *
The ancients say that the soul of the deceased travels to the other shore – the land of the ancestors – across the river of tears that we, the living, cry in our grief. This gives our grief a higher purpose. Without our tears there would be no watery passage for the departed.
– Unfinished Conversation
* * * * *
I can feel very alone in this journey, but I don’t have to take this journey in isolation. We are conditioned by our society and culture not to talk about our pain. But if we don’t talk, if we don’t create a language to express our feelings, healing will not take place. We will continue to store up and re-create the cycles of suffering/
– Claude Anshin Thomas, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace
* * * * *
Death ends a life. It doesn’t end the relationship.
– Morrie Schwartz, Tuesdays with Morrie
* * * * *
Not the loss alone,
But what comes after.
If it ended completely
At loss, the rest
But you go on.
And the world also.
And words, words
In a poem or song:
Aren’t they a stream
On which your feelings float?
Aren’t they also
The banks of that stream
And you yourself the flowing?
* * * * *
(Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved)
Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts,
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.
Your love was like the dawn
Brightening over our lives
Awakening beneath the dark
A further adventure of colour.
The sound of your voice
Found for us
A new music
That brightened everything.
Whatever you enfolded in your gaze
Quickened in the joy of its being;
You placed smiles like flowers
On the altar of the heart.
Your mind always sparkled
With wonder at things.
Though your days here were brief,
Your spirit was live, awake, complete.
We look towards each other no longer
From the old distance of our names;
Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,
As close to us as we are to ourselves.
Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,
We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face,
Smiling back at us from within everything
To which we bring our best refinement.
Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.
When orchids brighten the earth,
Darkest winter has turned to spring;
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.
May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.
* * * * *
On the Death of the Beloved
I bequeath myself to the dirt
To grow from the grass I love…
If you want me again
Look for me under your boot soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
– Walt Whitman
* * * * *
(excerpt, Song of Myself)
(read by Robert at the gathering of farewell to Larry of the Lost and Found Men’s Council)
Peace, my heart.
Let the time for parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death, but completeness.
Let love melt into memory
And pain into song.
Let the flight through the sky end
In the folding of the wings over the nest.
Let the last touch of your hands
Be gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, oh beautiful end, for a moment,
And say your last words in silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
To light you on your way.
– Rabindranath Tagore
(read by Robert at Buddy’s death)
Stories to Learn From
An important part of any journey of grieving is discovering how many other people have lost loved ones to illness, injury, sometimes even suicide, whether that is revealed or not. From Unfinished Conversation:
It is a clear crisp autumn day as I walk alone with the dogs [Robert’s dog and Larry’s dog] along the canals in Marina Del Rey where the four of us used to go together. The sky is blue without a cloud. White sailboats travel up and down the estuary. Flocks of ducks quack comically in the canal. A lone white heron, with its killing bill pointed just above the water, waits in a silent hunting ballet pose to spear a fish. The temperature is in the low seventies.
With my senses awakened by the freshness of the day, I sit down on a park bench and silently read a few lines from the poem “Full Moon Festival” by Thich Nhat Hanh:
What will happen when form collides with emptiness,
And what will happen when perception enters non-perception?
Come here with me, friend,
Let’s watch together.
Do you see the two clowns, life and death,
Setting up a play on stage?
Here comes Autumn.
The bench overlooks the gentle swells of waves, and I watch the passing boats. A cool ocean breeze blows a few fallen leaves toward the water. A white-haired couple sitting next to me on the bench asks what breed Buddy (Larry’s dog) is. I tell them a Husky mix and that I have recently adopted him when my friend, his master, died suddenly.
When they asked what happened, I told them that you’d died in your sleep, Larry. I can’t quite yet say “suicide” to strangers.
“How old was he?” they ask.
“Fifty-five,” I tell them.
“The same thing happened to my son,” the old man offers, his face suddenly becoming very solemn. “He was fifty-three.”
There is a long pause. We watch the white sailboats and feel the late October sun on our faces. Then I say, “I’m sorry about your son.” The old woman says, “We’re sorry about your friend.”
Exercises to Practice
Robert suggests: 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. Continue your writing process until you attain some sense of clarity, release, and resolution.
Sample exercises, there are many, many others:
p. 7 Beginning Your Journal
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….
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 manageable 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.
p. 18 Disregarded Warnings
Consider some of the common signs of suicide – deepening depression or dramatic mood changes; feeling hopeless, empty, or worthless; crisis in self-esteem; feelings of humiliation, failure, or decrease in performance; feelings of excessive guilt or shame; anxious or agitated; anger, rage, or self-destructive behaviors; severe loss or potential loss; feeling desperate and trapped with no way out; guilt or seeking revenge; unable to sleep/eat or sleeping/eating all the time; loss of interest; seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose; withdrawing from others and life; increased alcohol or drug use; reckless behavior; putting affairs in order, giving things away, or saying good-bye; talking about wanting to harm or to kill oneself; having access to a means of harm; talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide.
Look back to the days and weeks that preceded your loved one’s death and write about the indications that she might have been suicidal. How did you and others respond?
What were some of the circumstances that might have contributed to your loved one’s final act? Reflect on how she responded to these circumstances and how her choices affected you.
If she had ever talked about, written about, or attempted to end her life in the past, what was your reaction? Had it crossed your mind that she could or would actually end her life in this way? Take time to express your feelings in your journal.
Describe the last time you had contact with her. What did you do together? What was not done? Describe the last conversation you had, and what was said or left unsaid.
One aspect of grief is called “bargaining” trying to negotiate with reality by focusing on all of the “if-onlys”: If only that did or didn’t happen.” “If one she or did or didn’t, say or do,that.” What are your “if-onlys”? Write them in your journal and let yourself explore the thoughts and feelings that come up with each one.
You may want to try a “do-over” dialogue. Reflect on those times your loved one was depressed or suicidal, and what you did or didn’t do for which you feel regret. Choose one of these interactions and write an interactive dialogue with your loved one, re-doing what you said or did. It may seem strange at first to be “speaking as her,” but try to suspend judgment and just let it flow. Let yourself listen in your mind for the voice you knew – what might she be saying to you now? Letting yourself remember and imagining a different way can bring healing to those painful memories.
p. 52 Getting Real
Write an interactive dialogue between you and your deceased loved one. You might begin with a simple conversation about the kinds of things you used to talk about. Be spontaneous, playful, even outrageous – whatever captures the unique characteristics and nuances of your typical conversations.
Talking about the Hard Stuff
When you feel ready, let your conversations go deeper. Ask hard questions, explore differences, debate values and choices. As the dialogue unfolds, explore the disappointment, frustration, anger, and pain you both feel. Listen beneath the suffering to hear and say what you’re each really trying to communicate. Whatever had been said or left unsaid, done or left undone, express it through ongoing interactive conversations.
Guilt and Remorse
Getting real with yourself means noticing – with courageous honesty – your actions and feelings, even difficult feelings such as guilt and genuine remorse. Write a dialogue in which you express your regrets and see what the response of your loved one might be. Write a scenario in your journal in which you and your loved one both take responsibility, make amends, and experience deeper understanding and reconnection with each other.
We gain comfort from continuing the relationship with our loved one after death – from talking to those we’ve lost and sharing the latest family news. An example: the woman who used to ask her late husband, “Ed, where are my glasses?” and then she’d find them. What are the ways that you find yourself reaching out to your loved one that help you stay connected?
p. 63 Grieving around strangers
Do you find that you feel ashamed to tell others, even friends, that your loved one took his own life? Suicide has often been hidden because of the unfortunate stigma that many people have attached to suicide, depression, or mental illness. While this is changing, notice if you feel embarrassed or disgraced as you talk about the suicide. In your journal, write about a time when you might have experienced such shame. Write a letter to your love one telling him what it has been like to tell others about the suicide, or even to say how he dies. Has this changed over time?
p. 64 Transforming Shame
In your journal, write a dialogue in which you tell a stranger or an acquaintance about the suicide and are met with understanding and compassion. What would you like to hear from the other person in this conversation? Notice the part of you that feels shame related to the suicide. Write a letter to that “shame part” of yourself, expressing your understanding and compassion for the painful feelings.
p. 122 The Good-Bye Letter
When you feel ready, write a good-bye letter to your loved one:
Say good-bye to what you enjoyed with her and your relationship with her.
Say good-bye to what was difficult or painful between you throughout your relationship.
Say good-bye to the dreams that will never come true with her.
Close with, “What I really want to you know is….” And share with her how you are now holding her life and death with more perspective and meaning.
p. 128 The Gift of Grieving Again
Like Robert’s experience with Buddy, there may be an event months or even years after the death of your loved one that allows you to grieve and say good-bye at deeper and deeper levels. If you’ve had such an experience, write about it in your journal.
One aspect of healing is completing in the present what was not able to be completed in the past. Sit quietly and contemplate the way you would have wanted to care for your loved one had he died naturally. In your journal write to him what you would have wanted to say and do through the course of his dying and death. Write the dialogue that you would have wanted to share in those final hours and moments together…and after. Do now what you weren’t able to do then.
As the years go by after the loss of your loved one, allow the conversation to continue. How are you changing as a result of the suicide. Emotionally? Spiritually? What has your loved one’s suicide moved you to explore more fully in your own life? Create new dialogues when you feel called to do so, acknowledging the enduring connection you share. Add thoughts, memories, stories, and creative expressions to your journal as they arise. Just as your conversation with your loved one will always remain open, your journey of letting go and healing from such a great loss will continue to unfold.
The authors include body-based exercises and meditations at the end of every written exercise to help you stay centered, grounded in the process, such as…..
Sit with your eyes softly open or closed, and gently breathe. Notice whatever feelings are arising. You might name them (sadness, confusion, pain) and let them be just as they are. As you breathe and allow, they will change and pass. As I breathe, feelings arise and pass away.
Sit comfortably with your spine long and your belly soft. With each breath, invite ease and comfort. Let each breath be like a warm wind or a gentle wave. Breathing in I relax. Breathing out I release my pain and sorrow.
Sit with your body upright and relaxed, and gently breathe. Observe that thoughts and feelings, not matter how difficult, come and go, continually changing. Notice that the sensations in your body also change. With compassion I can hold even this….and this.
Losing someone to suicide can be traumatizing and the bereavement can be complex.
This compelling, raw and honest book…[gives readers] a powerful set of tools that can support us in navigating and healing from the suicide of loved ones. Beautifully written, this book is pure medicine for the grieving heart.
– Tara Brach
Unfinished Conversation: Healing from Suicide and Loss – A Guided Journey by Robert Lesoine and Marilynne Chophel, MFT, preface by Shoshana Alexander. Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA 2013. The book offers more than 70 exercises to guide the reader in their own journaling and healing journey. All appendices and other resources are available from www.unfinishedconversation.com.
Appendix 1 of Unfinished Conversation is a beautiful Tool Kit for Your Journey to Healing, compiled by co-author Marilynne Chophel, MFT. Excellent guidance in navigating strong feelings and stressful situations without overwhelm or re-traumatizing, remembering that as the suffering of the past is met with caring connection wise perspective, and accepting embrace of the present, the traces of pain can arise, transform, and heal. Included in great detail in the Tool Kit:
- Mindful Observation
- Five Senses
- Inner Body Sensations
- Supportive Resources
- Inner Supports
- Your Psychological Life
- Your Relationships with Others
- Your Spiritual Life
- Your Emotional Life
- Your Intellectual Life
- Your BodyYour Creative Life
- Your Natural World
- Outer Supports
- Your Material World
- Your Intellectual World
- Your Healthy Body
- Creative Nourishment
- Your Natural World
- Inner Supports
- Fellow Travelers and Guides
- Your People
- Journey Buddy
- Support Group
- Travel Guide (with links to professional counseling directories)
- Emotional Weather Barometer
- Map of the Territory of Grief
- Inner Compass
- Tonglen – Taking in Pain and Sending Out Relief
Appendix 2, Creating Support, offers guidelines for using Unfinished Conversation in a support group.
Appendix 3 offers Marilynne’s comprehensive clinical theory on the healing process ofUnfinished Conversation.
Appendix 4 offers a wealth of links to resources for survivors in general, for military survivors, and for families and children.
Appendix 5 offers resources for suicide prevention.
Appendix 6 is a bibliography of resources for survivors and the professionals who support them.
November 23, 2013 is International Survivors of Suicide Day. For one of the most beautifully moving 9-minute videos you will ever see in your lifetime: