The Grief Club: The Secret to Getting
Through All Kinds of Change
by Melody Beattie.
Courtesy of Hazelden Publishing
Breaking into Change:
Losing Someone to Suicide
It was one more day in Terri’s life. Nine hours of gopher work at the television studio, stop at the dry cleaner, work out at the gym, spend forty-five minutes grinding through L.A. traffic, pick up a Chinese chicken salad, go home, gulp dinner, edit her script for the hundredth time after another round of notes, e-mail today’s version to her agent, then haul her tired body into the shower. She was on a mission, a vendetta. She’d prove to herself, the world, and that ass of a boss she worked for that she could endure his abuse. He wasn’t going to drive her away like he did everyone else. She’d earn his respect before she was done. She’d been climbing this ladder for years, doing everything from minimum-wage jobs so she could live in this city to stand-up for a year in the freezing Midwest—whatever it took to get a foot in the entertainment industry’s door. She’d made it to the inside of a studio, but she wasn’t going to be a writing assistant forever. She was going to be a real writer. Someday she’d have her own show. That break she needed was getting closer. She could feel it in her bones.
She washed off the city’s dust, then let the hot water pound her. She was proud of her body. She didn’t have that waiflike anorexic look so popular here; she was skinny but muscular, honed. Finally she felt herself surrender to the steamy heat. Five minutes later, she climbed into bed. The light was blinking on her answering machine. “Terri, please call me tonight.” Another message from Brian. She felt a twinge of guilt. She still hadn’t returned his last call. But it was already eleven o’clock. She had to get up in seven hours. Her brother was so needy now. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to make him feel better. I’ll call him tomorrow, Terri promised herself. On my lunch break. She turned off the light and immediately fell asleep.
One hundred miles away, Brian paced his apartment floor. The gun was on the bureau—loaded, ready to go. He raged aloud while he paced. He didn’t know if he was talking to God, life, some invisible person, or all the people he knew. It didn’t matter. No one heard him anyway. They hadn’t for a long time.
He sat down at his desk. Maybe if he wrote the things he was screaming about, someone would finally get it. They’d hear him, they’d understand. He didn’t bother pouring the whiskey into a glass. He drank straight from the bottle while he wrote.
He hurt so damn bad and no one—nobody—cared.
Jason had cared. He was the only one in the world who did. Jason cared about Brian when they were lovers. Jason still cared when he got sick and their relationship changed, and they went from being lovers to friends. They never stopped loving each other. But Jason wasn’t here anymore. In the month since Jason’s death, Brian was utterly and absolutely alone. Brian had hurt before. He’d been in emotional pain most of his life. But until now he never understood the depth of pain that human beings could feel. He didn’t know people could walk around with so little hope and so much hurt in their gut and still keep breathing. You’d think that much pain would kill you. It would make your heart stop beating or something. Brian was amazed and enraged every day when he woke up and realized he hadn’t died in his sleep.
By the time he signed his name at the bottom of the letter, his scrawl was barely legible and he was making holes in the paper from pushing so hard with the pen. Brian wasn’t sure if his writing was that bad because he was drunk or because he was angry.
He dialed 911. “Please send an ambulance,” Brian said to the woman who answered. He told her his address. “I need you to take a dead body away.”
“Who is it?” the dispatcher asked. “What happened? Are you sure the person is dead?”
“The body is mine,” Brian said. “And yes, I’m sure I’ll be dead. I’m killing myself when I hang up the phone.”
“Oh, come on now,” the woman said. “You don’t want to do that to me, do you? This is the end of my shift. I’ve had a long day. If you kill yourself, I’ll be here all night filling out forms. I’m five minutes away from going home.” She had used this tactic before and it had worked. All she had to do was keep him on the line, keep him talking, until she could get someone to his door.
“Just send the ambulance,” Brian said. “I don’t want my body lying around stinking up the place. I don’t want anyone walking in and finding that.”
“You don’t want to do that to me,” the dispatcher pleaded. “I’m tired. It’s been a long day. Let’s talk about this for a while.”
Brian hung up the phone. He walked to the bureau and picked up the gun. He stood in front of the mirror and positioned the barrel against his head. Then he closed his eyes.
At first Terri thought the noise was her alarm buzzer, that it was morning and it was time to wake up. Then she realized it was the phone. She looked at the clock. It was three in the morning. Who’d be calling now? She fumbled for the receiver.
A man who identified himself as a coroner began talking about Brian. The conversation seemed surreal to Terri. Was he really talking about her brother? She knew Brian was having a hard time. But suicide? No. This wasn’t possible.
“He addressed the letter to you,” the coroner said. Terri listened while Brian blamed their mother, then attacked their father. Then the coroner got to the part that Terri would never forget. The words became branded, seared into her mind with a red-hot poker iron. And you, dear sister, even you weren’t there for me. Mom and Dad not being there I understand. I don’t expect anything from them anymore. But you? I’m going through the worst time of my life and you’re too busy to call me back? I thought you loved me and you couldn’t even pick up the phone. Seeing as it’s your fault I’m killing myself, could you at least do one thing for me if it’s not too much trouble? Make sure my ashes get put with Jason’s ashes. I want to be with him. He’s the only one who ever cared.
“Boy, he was one angry guy,” the coroner said.
Terri went on automatic pilot. She told the coroner she’d call the rest of the family. She wrote down addresses and phone numbers of people to contact the next day. She said she’d be there by early afternoon to identify the body. Then she hung up the phone, took a deep breath, and dialed her mother’s number.
Never before had Terri heard a sound like the one she heard her mother make. It was a moaning, a deep howling wail. It sounded like a noise an animal would make. Her mother’s howl would haunt Terri for years. It was the only emotion Terri would ever hear her mother express about Brian’s death.
The morgue was a cold, sterile place. Terri shifted from one foot to the other while the coroner talked to her dad. “I tried to fix his head so you can have an open casket,” the coroner said. “I think I did a pretty good . . .”
“Are those penny loafers you’re wearing?” Brian’s father interrupted. He pointed at the coroner’s shoes.
“Yes,” the coroner said. “As I was saying, I did my best to repair his head . . .”
“Where did you get those shoes?” Brian’s dad said, still pointing at the floor. “I’ve been looking for shoes like that for years.”
“Nordstrom’s, I think,” the coroner said. He started to repeat what he was trying to explain about the damage to the body. When Brian’s father interrupted him the third time, the coroner gave up. It was no use. He’d seen many trauma reactions in this room when people came to identify bodies. He’d seen people scream, faint, cry hysterically, go numb, and beg for God’s help. In all the years he’d worked at the morgue, this was the first time anyone had talked about shoes.
Did Brian kill himself because he had AIDS? Terri wondered. But the coroner’s report came back. Brian wasn’t sick. When Terri cleared out Brian’s apartment, she found his journal. The world looked at Brian and saw a laid-back, happy-go-lucky guy. He was always clowning around, making everyone laugh. Brian was openly gay, okay with being gay. Happy to be gay. That’s what he told her. Reading Brian’s journal, Terri saw a side to her brother she didn’t know existed. Whose journal is this? Terri thought. I didn’t even know this guy.
Just returned from a trip back East. Mom tried to fix me up with a “nice girl” again. When are they going to get it, that I’m gay? They keep waiting for me to meet a woman, get married, give them grandchildren. Mom keeps on me and on me. It makes me crazy. I didn’t choose to be gay. I’d love to have children. What does being gay mean anyway? Why do I have to be anything? I love Jason. Because I love Jason that means I’m gay? Why can’t I just be a human being who loves another person who happens to be a man?
I keep telling Terri that she shouldn’t let it bother her what Mom and Dad think. I tell her she’s got a good relationship, so what does it matter if she loves a woman? I feel like such a phony. It bothers me that I’m gay. I say it doesn’t matter whether Mom and Dad approve but the truth is, it does. I want them to tell me they’re proud of me and they love me. I want them to accept me for who I am. Do they have any idea how much I need that from them? They look at me and they don’t see a son they love. They see a queer.
Brian had never let on to anyone how important their parents’ acceptance was. He laughed it off. Terri thought Brian’s depression started when Jason died. As she read through the pages of his journal, she saw that Brian had been depressed and unhappy most of his life. The coroner was right. Brian was one angry guy.
There’s no place for me in this world. I don’t fit. I never have. Something is missing in me that’s in other people. Sometimes I think about that priest. I feel sorry for the way they’re torturing that poor guy now. In a way I liked him. He was the only man who ever gave me any attention when I was growing up—even if it was sexual. It was more than what I got from Mom and Dad. Then I go to church one Sunday and he’s gone. Vanished. Like he never existed and nobody mentions him again. What a joke! We’re in the rectory less than fifty feet away from our parents and we’re having sex with a priest.
Terri was the only one who knew. Every Sunday she’d ask me what was wrong. I’d tell her nothing was wrong and she looked at me like she knew I was lying. She always had that look in her eyes—like she knew the truth about everything. Mom and Dad are so dense. They don’t have a clue now and they didn’t back then. “You look so cute in your altar boy clothes,” Mom would say. “I’m so proud of you.” Why can’t she be proud of me now?
It stunned Terri to read about the sexual abuse, but at the same time it didn’t surprise her. Terri had good instincts. That priest was creepy. She could feel it when she was around him. When Terri and Brian went to church on Sundays, something came over Brian. Reading all the dirty details about what that priest did to her brother, Terri felt enraged. Week after week, that little boy was all alone in the world with nobody to tell. And he didn’t even get mad at the priest! He felt sorry for the abuser and blamed himself. Whenever Brian asked their mom if he could stay home from church, she’d try to make him feel guilty. “Are you that selfish?” she’d say.
The past month, ever since Jason died, Brian had been calling Terri a lot. Between work, trying to get her career off the ground, working out, and doing errands, it was hard to squeeze anything else into her days. A week ago, Terri and her partner had met Brian for lunch. They were sitting in an L.A. restaurant. Terri was talking about her screenplay, trying to convince Brian to move to L.A. “We could get together more often,” she said. “Now that Jason is gone, why stay all alone in that apartment down there?” In the middle of the restaurant in broad daylight, Brian started sobbing. He started crying out loud, for the whole world to see! Terri’s partner moved and slid in next to him. She put her arm around him, comforting him, telling him, “It’ll be okay.” Terri was in awe. Terri couldn’t handle her own feelings. She couldn’t handle anyone’s feelings. Feelings made her nervous, uncomfortable. Feelings are a sign of weakness. You don’t give in to them; you ignore them. How can she just hold him and let him cry? Terri wondered. Why can’t I do that? What’s wrong with me? I don’t even know how to hug my own brother.
Brian needed so much. Terri didn’t have anything to give. She didn’t know how to be there for him. She didn’t know how to be there for anyone, including herself. Being comforting and nurturing was as alien to her as trying to speak a foreign language. She thought about the messages on her answering machine, the ones she hadn’t returned. Terri, please call me. Terri, I need you.
Terri flashed back to her school days. She was so scared to start middle school. Brian was in high school by then. Every day during lunch hour, he’d sneak over to the middle school just to check on Terri and make sure she was okay. Brian loved her so much. He was her big brother. He protected her. He was always there for her. Those years at home with their parents, Brian was always the one with the jokes. When Mom and Dad criticized her and made her feel like nothing, he made her smile. He told her she was beautiful, talented, smart. When she turned eighteen, Brian was living in New York. He moved her in with him without a second thought. He loved her. He helped her get her bearings, find her dreams, then get the courage to move to L.A.
Brian’s right, Terri thought. I wasn’t there for him. It’s my fault he’s dead. She just joined the You Weren’t Supposed to Go Away but You Did, and You Left Me Here with More Pain and Guilt Than I Know How to Handle Club.
Terri watched as her mom wrote the obituary. The obituary didn’t mention Jason, the only true love in Brian’s life. She listened while her mother called other family members and friends and told them about Brian’s death. “Yes, it was a terrible tragedy and surprise. He just dropped over dead at the gym from an aneurism. It happened while he was working out. Who would have suspected? He was in such good shape, so healthy, so young. Just goes to show that we never know, do we? When it’s our time, we go.”
Without any trace of emotion, without flinching or blinking or breaking down and crying, Terri’s mother told everyone—every single person—the exact same lie.
Something clicked in Terri as she watched her mother handle Brian’s suicide. Her mother had the same emotional affect as if she was preparing a gathering for the women in her book club. The way she made up the story about how Brian died. The way she never, not once, mentioned the suicide to Terri or anyone else. At first Terri thought her mom was in shock, that she had gone on some kind of traumatized automatic pilot and was making things up as she went along. Then Terri realized her mom wasn’t winging this. These behaviors—the complete denial of the suicide, the lies, the lack of emotion, the ease with which she was handling the death of her son—were what her mother had learned.
That’s why the family refuses to talk about Grandpa’s death, Terri thought. My grandfather killed himself too. My mom watched Grandma do this. That’s how she knows what to do.
Brian was cremated. Her mom took the ashes back to the East Coast. She intended to put them in a drawer in the back room in the basement of the Catholic church. Brian had been clear about what he wanted done with his ashes, and his mom knew it. He wanted them mixed in with Jason’s ashes. Jason’s ashes had been in an urn in Brian’s apartment; now the urn was at Terri’s house. Is the back room in the church basement where they put the ashes of people who commit suicide and are gay? Terri wondered. Terri didn’t say anything. Nobody said anything to her mother. Mother always got her way.
After her parents left town, Terri went to the park with a friend and her two children. Life had been so heavy. Terri needed to be outside and watch children play. Terri hadn’t cried yet; she felt this strange numbness where her heart should have been. She watched the children play, then she decided to join them. She slid down the slide, taking turns with her friend’s children. Then Terri climbed on the small merry-go-round, the one that spins around and around in a circle while you hang on to the railing. None of the children were on it. Terri made it go faster and faster, until she was dizzy and the world was spinning. Without waiting for it to stop, Terri leaped off. When she fell to the ground, she heard her leg bone snap.
Her left leg was broken. While Terri was at the hospital getting her cast, the light was blinking on her answering machine at home. Her television script had been accepted. Terri sold her first pilot.
It took her a while to understand—they were both lucky breaks.
“My family didn’t do feelings. My family didn’t grieve. Breaking my leg put me in bed for six weeks. I couldn’t work, couldn’t work out, couldn’t even do errands. I couldn’t keep running from my feelings. If I hadn’t broken my leg, I would have carried on the family tradition. I would have pushed right past my grief.”
Terri made an important decision. She would feel everything she felt about her brother’s suicide for as long as it took. She didn’t know how to be there for her brother. She couldn’t change that. But she could start being there for herself.
Terri committed to her grief.
Most people don’t like to feel; few people want to feel pain. There’s a juncture we reach after a loss. We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can honor how we feel about what happens to us. Committing to our grief doesn’t mean we’re choosing to drown in sorrow; it means we’re choosing to heal our heart.
The stoic, strong woman who didn’t do feelings started crying. Once she did, she couldn’t stop. She lay in bed and cried for weeks. Her partner held her, comforted her, took care of her. “Would you get me a glass of water?” Terri asked about six weeks after Brian’s death. Her partner gently said, “I think it’s time you get up and get it for yourself.”
Terri got out of bed. She stopped cocooning. She went back to work.
Every day she got up, got dressed, got in the car, and cried all the way to work. She worked all day, got in her car, then cried all the way home. Terri began to notice something she never saw before: A lot of people in L.A. were crying in their cars.
Grief is overwhelming at first. It comes in waves we can’t control. None are exactly the same. We cry and sob, sob and cry, then the crying stops. It’s over, we think. We barely catch our breath, then the crying starts again. Soon we begin to see that while we can’t control the waves of grief, we can choose when we want to cry and when we need to stop. We can learn to give ourselves breaks. Nobody can cry all the time. We can distract ourselves, work, look the other way. We can even laugh. Don’t worry. If we’ve committed to our feelings and our grief, the feelings will find a way and a time to come out.
Terri joined a suicide survivor’s group. It helped to hear other people talk about how they felt. The thing that helped the most was being able to talk openly about the guilt. As the months passed, Terri surprised herself again. Terri—the woman who didn’t do feelings—volunteered to facilitate the group. Helping other people deal with their grief helped her too.
“I was sitting on my kitchen floor one night listening to Brian’s favorite CD over and over,” Terri said. “I was collapsed on the floor, sobbing, when I had an awakening. My entire life I thought that ignoring my emotions made me powerful. Now sitting on the floor sobbing, I could see that by being vulnerable and surrendering to all my feelings, I was becoming stronger than I’d ever been.”
A whole new Terri was being born. She says the worst part of the grief lasted five years. “I’m a different person now,” Terri says. “I’m more sensitive, more intuitive, more aware. I can see and feel what people need. It’s so easy in this big city to say, ‘I’ll call you,’ or ‘Let’s get together,’ and then not bother. That’s the kind of person I used to be. Not anymore. It doesn’t take that much effort and energy to be loving, to be caring, to be kind. When someone reaches out to me now, I’m there. And if they don’t reach out to me and I know they’re in pain, I reach out to them.”
Terri likes who she’s become. She’s achieved a lot of success and power in the world of television and film. She doesn’t take that power casually. She tackles the hard issues, subjects she would have avoided before. She writes scripts about being gay; she’s written shows about abuse. She makes everything she learned the hard way count. It’s one way she can honor her brother and be there for him now.
“The real irony is that because of his death, I’ve become the person he needed me to be back then. I’m not saying this to be narcissistic or egotistical, but if my brother were alive and hurting now and reached out to me, I could help him. I really believe I could stop him from killing himself. If I was the person then that I’ve become since his death, my brother would be alive. His death has taught me a lot.”
Terri sat on a chair across from George Anderson, the medium who contacts the dead. Terri’s a skeptical person. But like many people who have lost someone, she heard good things about George. She didn’t know exactly what she believed about life after death, but she was willing to find out.
“George scribbled like he does with a pencil while he talked. He started talking in partial sentences. Then he told me my brother’s name. He got it right! There’s no way he could have known,” Terri said. “George described—he told me—the exact details of Brian’s death.”
George said that Brian had some things he wanted to discuss.
“He says he’s sorry about the letter,” George said. “He didn’t mean what he said. Your brother knows how much you love him. He says he was angry, drunk, and upset. He wants you to forgive him for the mean things he said. He says you were always a light in his life.”
Forgive him? Brian wanted Terri to forgive him? Terri wanted him to forgive her.
“Terri, it’s not your fault,” Brian said through George. “I chose to end my own life.”
In many instances, suicide is more like an accident than a deliberate act, George explained. Brian didn’t really want to die. He wanted to stop the pain and he couldn’t think of anything else to do.
Many bereaved people need to connect with a loved one who’s dead. Some want to finish unfinished business. Some want to hear that the person they love is okay, alive somewhere on the other side. Some grief therapists say that when the time is right, this connection helps bereaved people heal their pain and make peace.
Terri had one more thing she needed to do. She and her partner got on a plane and headed east. Terri had a plan.
“Mom, I miss Brian so much. Won’t you please let me go to the church, get a few of his ashes out, then bring them home? It would help me so much. Please?” Terri begged. Finally her mother agreed.
In the far room in the back of the church basement was a row of locked boxes on the wall. Terri searched until she found the one with Brian’s name. She took a screwdriver out of her purse and popped the lock. Dang. The box broke! Terri ran out and bought a duplicate box. Terri put all the ashes from both men together and mixed them up. Then she put half of Jason and Brian’s ashes in the box at the church. Then she took the other half of Brian and Jason’s ashes home, where she keeps them in an urn. Now their ashes are together, even though they’re split up in two locations and half of them are at church.
“What Mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” Terri says. She feels good that she found a way to honor her brother’s last request.
Terri forgave her brother for killing himself and for writing that horrible letter. She forgave her mother for how she handled her brother’s death. “I’m beginning to see that people do the best they can do,” Terri said, “even if sometimes their best isn’t much.” Terri says the only person she hasn’t completely forgiven is herself.
“I expect I’ll feel some guilt for the rest of my life,” Terri says. “The guilt was so big I’m not sure it’ll ever go away. I’ll always love and miss Brian. Breaking my leg was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to sit still and go into my grief. I could easily have handled it like the rest of my family, which means going into denial and not dealing with it at all. They still don’t mention Brian—his birthday, his life, his death.
“With grief you either pay now or pay later,” Terri said. “My debt to grief is paid in full.”
There are 601,209 same-sex couples in the United States and Puerto Rico.
Two percent to 6 percent of the U.S. population is gay (depending on who’s counting).
The average coming-out age for gays and lesbians has dropped from ages 19 to 23 to ages 14 to 16.
The official number of suicides in the United States is approximately 30,000 a year, but the actual number may be three to five times higher because many suicides go unreported.
During times of economic hardship, the suicide rate went up, but during the two world wars, the rates went down.
Most people have had casual thoughts of suicide.
People coming from a family where someone has killed him or herself are several times more likely to commit suicide.
White men age 65 and older are most likely to commit suicide.
Of the 30,000 annual reported suicides, 24,000 are men.
Sources: Sources: U.S. Census; a study by Caitlin Ryan, Director of Adolescent Health Initiatives at San Francisco State University; and Why Suicide? by Eric Marcus
1. Are you willing to commit to your grief and stay with yourself and the process? Go over your Master List of Losses. Do you see any losses where you’ve neglected or denied your grief? Are you willing to feel your grief now? Feelings don’t disappear. Unresolved grief will come back to haunt us. We can’t force ourselves to start feeling old grief, but being willing to feel what we need to feel is often all we need to do to start the healing process. Commit to your grief; it’s a kind thing to do for your heart.
2. Have you learned how to distract yourself from your grief? It’s an art that can be learned. We can’t cry all the time when we’re grieving. It’s too much. Besides, we have to work, do errands, do other things. In the beginning, grief can and often is overwhelming. We sob uncontrollably much of the time. That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself. You’ll learn how to turn the faucet off and on. Sometimes doing something as simple as going into another room, going for a walk, watching a movie, calling someone on the phone, or even taking a shower can help us switch gears when we feel like we’ve been crying too much. Practice. Find out what techniques work for you. Our souls and hearts are smart, intelligent. The deep part of us that’s healing knows how much we can take, what we need to do, and when.
3. Write letters of comfort to people who are grieving. It’s hard to know what to say to someone who has experienced a loss. We stumble for words or we say the wrong thing. I look back at all the stupid and inappropriate things I said to people before Shane died—before I knew how it felt—and I’m embarrassed. It would have been more helpful to say nothing at all. The Jewish religion has beautiful traditions and specific rituals surrounding mourning. In his book A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort, Dr. Ron Wolfson gives a specific and helpful format for writing a comforting letter to a grieving person. He suggests acknowledging the loss and the name of the deceased; expressing genuine sympathy; listing special traits or qualities of the deceased that stand out in your mind; writing about a favorite memory of the deceased—something funny, touching, sweet, memorable, or loving; reminding the grieving person that he or she is strong and mentioning personal strengths that will help him or her get through this; offering help by saying you’ll do something specific, such as bringing a casserole next Friday evening or helping with grocery shopping; and ending the letter with warmth and love, not “yours truly.” Taking the time to send a comforting letter is a kind thing to do. Most people treasure the letters they receive. Also, if you’re trying to work through some old losses, why not send a letter of comfort to yourself? It might be just the trigger you need to help your heart heal from some old, frozen grief. Practice being nurturing and comforting on yourself. It’ll help you feel better, and you’ll learn what to do to help someone else.
4. Do you have a child or loved one who’s gay or lesbian and needs your love and support? Do you need support so you can give that? Contact Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays at www.pflag.org or 202-467-8180 for national and international chapter information.
5. Are you thinking about suicide or are you a suicide survivor? Help is available seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. Contact the National Hopeline Network at 800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433); contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) or TTY: 800-799-4TTY (800-799-4889); or visit www.suicidehotlines.com, www.suicidalteens.com, www.suicidal.com, www.survivorsofsuicide.com, or www.yellowribbon.org (303-429-3530).
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