The following article After a suicide, something to do by Karen van Vuuren was published in Vol 5 Issue No. 2 of Natural Transitions Magazine, January 2017.
The phone rang early that morning and when I answered, I heard the faint voice of a young-sounding person. “Hi, it’s Jill. I’m hoping you can help me. My brother died last night.” I knew Jill had a brother, and I knew that he had been mentally ill. But I wasn’t aware that he’d been facing any kind of potentially terminal illness.
I tend not to come out with the rote “I’m sorry” statement when people inform me of a death of a relative or friend. I’ll express kindness and care in the tone of my voice, but I suppose I choose to wait until I am inspired to say something that for me is more authentic and original. My approach is to first open myself to understanding the other person’s pain, meeting it with compassionate action if possible. “I’m sorry” just does not feel like the most helpful first words, somehow. “That sucks” (which I wouldn’t say, of course, at least, in quite that way) might not be very elegant, but it is probably more fitting.
I guess I was shocked when Jill told me of her brother’s death. I allowed a few pregnant moments to elapse, as a cue for Jill to fill me in further. “I found him last night in our barn. He shot himself.” I knew Jill as one of the sweetest, kindest young women I had ever met. I could not imagine how she was holding it together.
In the US, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death, according to 2012-2014 data from the National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control. Nationally, suicide is most prevalent among white middle-aged men. Firearms are used in 50 percent of suicides and when a gun is chosen as the method of choice, it usually results in death. Men more than women are likely to use a gun to kill themselves. Women are most likely to choose a route such as poisoning or a drug overdose, which does not end their life but instead results in hospitalization. Most people who die by suicide have experienced depression. I suppose that isn’t much of a surprise. Jill’s brother, Ben had struggled with it for years. He was in his mid twenties and Jill was older by a couple of years.
“I saw a light on in his room in the barn late last night. I was wondering why Ben was still up” Jill told me. “Something felt wrong. I decided to check on him and knocked on the door. There was no answer, so I went in. Karen, I sat there and held him for hours. I knew that when I called 911, they’d take his body and I wouldn’t be able to be there with him. I had to take that time.”
I saw an apparition of Jill sitting in a blood-bathed room, tenderly holding her brother’s broken body, her head bowed, heavy with grief. I was glad she got those precious hours with Ben.
I went to Jill’s home with two other home funeral guides. The scenario called for a multi-person approach. We didn’t know what the family wanted. We weren’t sure how to help. Ben and Jill’s mother had already engaged a funeral home to embalm and arrange an open casket memorial service. Although Jill would have welcomed her brother’s body home once the coroner had completed the autopsy, the wheels were clearly already in motion to follow a more hands-off conventional funeral. There had been no time, no space to talk through options with the family.
Jill invited us to visit the room where Ben had chosen to end his life. Looking at the utter chaos within those four walls was like looking into Ben’s mind. Papers, books, trash, and then, still in it’s cardboard tube, we discovered what Ben had been craving. There it was, a vision of peace, a giant poster of a vast, tranquil ocean. We set to work transforming that room into a sacred space for meditation, prayer and the simple sending of love to Ben’s soul.
It happened with few words, this process of clearing and re-configuring that room. Order replaced disorder. Beeswax candles, images of Ben and his family during happy times in the past were placed on an altar. The poster of the ocean went on the wall. It would immediately draw the attention of anyone entering that room.
Even more than sadness, Jill had been overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness. Her brother’s body was at the coroner’s, to be passed on to the funeral directors who would embalm, dress and cosmetize him for an open casket viewing at a memorial service. I don’t know if Jill felt the guilt that often paralyzes families who survive the suicide of a loved-one. But I do know that she had begged for guidance about what “to do”.
Jill was Christian, but open to the wisdom of other faith traditions. We talked about her beliefs about Ben’s journey now that he had dispensed with his physical self. She felt that Ben could still receive her thoughts from his place in the spiritual realm. So we offered her various texts from our library of books to read at the altar to Ben we had created in that room in the barn. Buddhist and Christian prayers and practices to relieve suffering; they were balm for this family’s souls. Even Ben’s mother, who had been unable to enter the barn room at first, joined her other children in entering that room, now greeted by a calming expanse of ocean.
Since Ben’s death, I have witnessed other circumstances which have prevented families from stepping in to do hands-on care of the body and ritual after death by suicide. Yet, I counsel them that there are things to do, if you believe in an enduring connection between our soul and their’s after death. I always ask the question, “Do you believe in a spiritual connection? Do you believe we can still reach the dead?” If the answer is yes, there is much to do to offer comfort, strength, and love to those who could not stay. There is much solace in the performing of those practices for your dead.
As a postscript, I will share that a couple of days after our visit to the barn, Jill called me with a request. She wanted me to accompany her and her mother to the funeral home to view Ben’s body now the undertakers had finished their work. She was anxious and feared it would not go well. I agreed to go and on that chilly fall evening, we were met at that funeral establishment by a solemn, unsmiling funeral director. He ushered us into one of their viewing rooms, with, and I remember this clearly, a framed picture of a forgettable landscape hanging crookedly on the wall.
I had never met Ben, so I did not know whether the strange, powdered, and rather puffy-looking rectangular face in that casket bore any resemblance to the Ben of life. Ben’s mother clearly did not think it did. The face in the casket was so foreign to her that she kept her distance from it. “It doesn’t look anything like him,” she stated. “I’m going to tell them to cremate him and bring the ashes to the memorial.” Moments later, we were leaving.
I know that the memorial for Ben encouraged a sharing of sweet memories. But I believe that the most significant step to healing happened in that barn room, where family members sat in prayer at Ben’s altar, beholding a vast, expanse of ocean that invited peace.
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