Monday, March 11, 2013

Barbara Swanston: Open Letter From a Grieving Parent

Terry, Son of Barbara Swanston

For the week, I'll be featuring Barbara, mother of Terry. Terry died by suicide and Barbara has been reaching out to others to help make people aware of depression and suicide ever since. Barbara wrote the letter below, which will be featured in two parts. Then, on day three through five, is my interview with Barbara.

Open Letter From a Grieving Parent
By Barbara Swanston

We had plans to meet my son, Terry, and his wife in Ireland in September, 2010. On August 21, 2010 at about 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time life happened when our son, our beautiful boy ended his own life. In doing this he shattered our plans, my heart, my sense of security and my life changed forever. It was and still is unfathomable and I have struggled to come to terms with his irrevocable act.

We all lose loved ones eventually, it is part of life. Losing a child is one of the most heart wrenching losses anyone can endure. Sadly, I have met many people who have lost children. I have learned you don’t ever ‘get over it,’ you come to terms with it. Even my 93 year old aunt recently wept as she remembered the baby she lost in May, 1949.  

The aftermath of suicide is overwhelming and it adds layers of emotional anguish, that are, I think, different from any other loss.

The day after Terry died I spoke to a friend who told me that she had attempted suicide several years ago. She said she had been very depressed and had entered what she called a ‘suicidal coma.’ This is a place where she was so consumed by her pain and depression that she could no longer feel her love for others or theirs for her. It seemed clear to her the only way to stop the pain was to die. Fortunately she survived and eventually she realized she did not want to die, she wanted the pain to stop. She told me that I would have to come terms with the fact I will never understand why, that to this day, she does not really understand why she attempted suicide. She said a ‘suicidal coma’ comes from an irrational state of mind that you can’t understand from a rational one. This conversation was very important and profound for me. It was my first step in beginning to come to terms with what happened.

We now know Terry had been depressed for some time. Like many others he was a master at concealing it and we had no idea, although in retrospect there were signals. His wife and closest friends knew and tried to get him to go for help but he refused, not an uncommon occurrence. Eventually he entered his own ‘suicidal coma’ where he felt the only out of his pain was to take his life.

Terry left a note addressed to his wife, his family and a dear friend who is a social worker. To her he wrote, ‘you could not help me because I would not let you, I am so sorry.’  I believe he did not feel worthy of help and that breaks my heart even more.  I now believe he may have been bipolar.

The first months after Terry died are a blur of shock, disbelief, numbness and anguish. As the fog dissipated, reality began to dawn and the real grieving began. I have learned that overwhelming grief is exhausting, miserable, crushing, unnerving, discombobulating, and extremely hard work. It takes a long time. It will never be okay, I will never 'get over it', but I will be okay. Earl Grollman wrote, 'grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love.' 

Over the last 2 years the pain has become less acute and slowly (very slowly) life has started to have meaning again. Initially it was one minute at a time, then an hour, a day. The pain is not quite as sharp now, the burden of grief is not so heavy. Still I find myself falling into grief pits and I must allow them to run their course. At times it is still exhausting, confusing, and consuming. There is no timetable or map. It just is.

Last year around the 10th anniversary of September 11th I heard someone talking about the people that jumped from the twin towers. It occurred to me that they felt suicide was better than being trapped and maybe dying in a burning building. Perhaps to Terry his life seemed like a burning building and suicide was his only escape.

The will to live is a primary imperative of all living things yet suicide is the 2nd cause of death for males under 40 and the 8th cause of death overall. Suicide occurs across all age, economic, social and ethnic boundaries. About 90% of suicides happen as the result of some sort of mental illness. There are many forms and types of mental illness (MI). It can be temporary or permanent; genetic or situational; chronic or acute. Even when there is a diagnosis and treatment is available, mental illness can be difficult to manage and treat and impossible to cure. Sometimes MI is fatal. Psychiatrist John T. Maltsberger  wrote, ‘there is no suffering greater than that which drives people to suicide; suicide defines the moment in which mental pain exceeds the human capacity to bear it. It represents the abandonment of hope.’ 

It hurts to think of the pain Terry must have suffered. 

Thank you, Barbara. Tomorrow we will include the second and last part of this open letter. 

We hope this letter helped someone in some way. 

Father God, thank You for bringing Barbara here to "Love Truth" so we can share in her experience of loss and grief. I pray this letter gives hope and encouragement to others. In Jesus' holy name. Amen.

Until tomorrow . . . reach out to help someone who is depressed.

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