Book Mark

When my friends’ son died by suicide, I bought them a book.

I can remember standing in a bookstore near the San Diego harbor, pulling book after book off the shelf, looking for just the right one that would speak to my friends’ terrible grief. Then I decided to mail it to them, somehow thinking that whatever insight that was offered in the book simply couldn’t wait for me to return to Milwaukee to give it to them in person. I wrote a weepy note which I tucked inside the cover and sent it off.

The topic of the book was how to manage grief. My sense at the time was that if they read the book, they would feel better. Thinking back, my naivete seems unbelievable, like a 5-year old with a bunch of dandelions showing up at a crash scene to comfort the survivors.

When I saw my friends a few weeks later at a memorial service for their son, I stood in line with many others to give my condolences. When I reached my friends, they both looked so bereft, so torn, that I put my hands on their faces, first one and then the other, almost pushing back their hair like they were children. I wanted to mother them. I wanted to console them. But there would be no consoling. Neither my grief instruction manual nor my physical presence could pull the knife out of their hearts by a single inch.

So I steered clear for a long time. Their grief seemed monumental. Out of my league. I told myself, you have no business butting in on their grieving. You don’t know what you’re doing. You did enough. Sending that silly book.

Then another friend lost her son to suicide.There is no comparing one to the other. Each is horrifying in its own way as only suicide can be. The shock, the suddenness of going from a normal life to one where every moment and every word are questioned, piled on top of what might be called ‘normal grief,’ that seems to be the essence of suicide.

I was out of town when this friend’s son’s funeral was held. I sent messages to her on Facebook and email and then, not being able to stand having done nothing, I took her a book and a candle. This time the book wasn’t an instruction manual on how to handle grief, or maybe it was. It was Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, that traces her coming to terms with her mother’s death as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. A few years later, my friend would post on Facebook that she’d had a Little Free Library built in her son’s name and my book was one of the first on its shelves. I don’t know if she ever read it. She had at least handled it. I’d told her I loved the book and I gave it to her. So there was that. It was not nothing as we used to say but it wasn’t much. She had better friends, I thought, even though I had known her a very long time. I knew she had better friends so I stepped back.

Then, unbelievably, another friend’s son died by suicide. This one was hard. The distant waves of grief I’d experienced with the other two now lapped at my feet. This one felt close for many reasons. So I sat down and wrote a poem. In the poem, I tried to speak to my friend’s grief, speak to my friend. I tried to be wise. I tried to rise above, not realizing until much later that the perspective I needed to gain was my own.

In the months since that time, I reach out, as she calls it. Thanks for the reach-out, she says. That’s all I do. She has better friends. I know that to be true. But I keep on, sending messages every now and then if only to tell her that her grief lives over here with me, too, for reasons I can’t explain to her or myself. So that’s what I do. It’s what finally feels right to do. Not to presume, not to intrude, but not to forget either, not to go on as if nothing happened. So I send my messages and we go back and forth and it feels right.  But still I felt the need to buy her a book. I bought her Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and I bought a new copy for myself because, you know, I had given my copy away to someone else.

_________

Photo: Syd Wachs, Upsplash

111 thoughts on “Book Mark

  1. Last year I had an awful year. I was living in shared accommodation and one of the girls round the corner from me left a suicide note. I layer found out shed hung herself. Then 5 months later my best friend had a car accident and died. My blog is all about writing to her. I find it a good outlet and helps me with my grief.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for writing this, Jan. My only son, Brady Nathaniel Henricks, died last October of suicide at age 16 and since then I have seen countless people struggling with what to say. Maybe I will start reaching out and saying it’s okay to not know. I didn’t know what to say before Brady died. To tell the truth, I still don’t know what to say to someone who has experienced a loss like this. I do have some thoughts, however.

    I’m an active participant in a number of online suicide loss survivor groups. The standard comment when a new member joins is, “I’m sorry for your loss.” This recognizes that they’ve had a loss without trying to do anything to make it better. As you note in your perceptive essay, there’s not a lot you can do to make it better. Recognizing their pain is something you can do, so that may be a good thing to do without trying to do more.

    My now ex-girlfriend lost her mother, father and brother in a 12-months period ending six months before Brady died and I learned a lot from going to all those funerals. Based on my experience standing in so many receiving lines, I think the right thing to do at a funeral is, as somebody else (I forget who) said: Show up and shut up. There is no right thing to say that will make them feel better. Shaking the bereaved person’s hand and saying you’re sorry for the loss is all you can really do. I do think that is better than saying nothing.

    At the same time, relax. In the context of my son’s death, there’s not much anybody can do to make it worse either. So what you say or don’t say is not a huge deal. Caveat: If somebody again says to me that suicide is cowardly or that Brady’s death is part of God’s perfect plan, I may get a bit hot. So watch that, please. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter that much.

    I’ve found a lot of people I thought were friends dropped away after Brady died. I think my ex-girlfriend may have been one of those. Admittedly, I’m not the best company these days. A few people I wasn’t close to have become closer. I’ve dropped some friends myself, in some cases for reasons that are not exactly clear to me. A titanic blow like this changes a lot of things, including relationships.

    Thanks again for your writing. Here’s a link to Grieve Well, my blog on evidence-based bereavement grief coping strategies: https://grievewellblog.wordpress.com/

    Best,

    Mark

    Liked by 4 people

    1. As you can tell from my post, I have been so awkward about reaching out to my friends. But I have reached out. I think people just get paralyzed thinking about the enormity of the loss. But you are so right – nothing a friend would say could make it worse. I don’t know you except right here in this place and time but I feel for the horrible loss you suffered. And I really admire your willingness to help others understand more and do better.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Garry Armstrong

        Jan, first —THANK YOU – for this post, sharing your efforts and the difficulty in finding words to express your support for those trying to cope with deep, emotional losses – loss of a loved one. Suicide is just now gaining attention as a national dilemma and tragedy.

        I made my living covering deaths – among other things. As an outsider, I was able to be “sensitive”. People always thanked me for not intruding but finding the right way to console them in my TV reports. Some even requested I be the primary reporter for coverage of a loved one’s funeral.

        Jan, that was “professional consolation”. Yes, it was sincere and, often personal, but I had the distance and “protection” of covering a story.

        It’s been so different in my personal life. I usually think, and often say, “I don’t have the words…”. When it’s suicide, those words are very hard to come by in offering genuine consolation.

        Jan, again thank you for this.

        Like

  3. Scrapbookjourneys

    Wow. This is raw and touching…I can’t bring myself to imagine how this must have felt, and you as the friend trying to do your best to be there for your friends. I believe that it meant something because you cared enough to try. Grief is like a monster that is hardly ever the same for anyone…
    When my dad died, I went into a dark hole, and this was two weeks after losing a friend. Both felt so different yet so gripping. I remember some friends opened their house to me, as they went away on holiday…which also gave me access to their library of books…I can’t remember its title, but I had a love and hate relationship with one of those books….Yet looking back it probably helped me the most at that very dark time. Thanks for sharing 🙏🏼😊

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Scrapbookjourneys

        Aaw thank you Jan 😀👏🏼👏🏼 Totally appreciated 😊 So Glad I discovered your blog this morning 😊👌🏽

        Like

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  5. findinghasunohana

    Thank you for sharing your personal story. I’m sure your friends appreciated you reaching out. Grief of that degree is so thick everyone feels it. I hope their families are doing well. You brought some great perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow that’s intense. This issue has been one of the toughest I’ve ever known how to handle, approach, or verbalize. You never know what to say or what not to say. You want to help but how? This type of loss is so sudden and unexpected, you can’t begin to fathom what they’re going through. Thanks for such an interesting take on this subject. I really enjoyed reading this. They are very lucky to have a friend in you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Being with the people whose roots are shaken is not easy but it is moment of solidarity and strength. You have beautifully brought out the impact of others suffering on us and the dynamic of being influenced by that pain while attempting to accompany them. That is why it is good to strengthen our inner person with love, goodness and spiritual strength because we are called to reach out in solidarity when we least expect it to happen. Interestingly wounded healers are specially gifted to envolop others in love. All the best in your journey!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very well written. We all find it very very hard to deal with things that we do not understand. And losing a child is totally unnatural too. I agree that a gesture is always positive even when we really do not know what to do. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. As the mother of a daughter who died by suicide, I found this to be a very heart felt post. You are not alone in not exactly knowing what to do or say. Two of the most overlooked responses are just to be available and to listen. Please check out my post on Suicide–it might help although I hope you never have to deal with this situation again!

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Phil Huston

    To keep your silence to the people you know who have better friends with deeper feelings, should you come from the darkness of yesterday? Is that wise? Or wiser to speak, to acknowledge? And say what? I knew your mother, your wife, your son, your sister from a place so small and long ago as to be worth forgetting, yet here I am with tiny words to share the hole in your heart I could walk through. Justified in knowing it is something that weighs more than nothing and then to discover it adds more pain, your being there at all. Still it must be done. The touch, the reach, the velvet hammer from yesterday you cannot leave sitting on the shelf of time. That perhaps you should…

    That’s the one with the biggest question mark.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. No-one truly understands grief for each set of circumstance is different. But by reaching out and letting each friend know that you are there if they feel the need to contact you is all we can do. Our own thoughts often take over & can often be taken out of context. A misplaced sentence or action can be long lasting with the fragility of the moment leaving a broken relationship. On each occasion you did what you felt was best. Thankyou for sharing this, it gave me a new perspective on my own grief and someone else’s actions.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Suicide is scary. It is painful. And when it happens to our loved ones it is even more so devastating. I think you were the best friend a person could have. I am like you, in the time of loss, I do what I can but I do not pry or probe. I just make sure I am present but I step back. I know my friends have other to comfort them and to be right there with them. I would only get in the way. So, the best friend I can be is to set back, but not forget or go on like nothing happened. I am present but quiet.
    I love your book idea. It is a piece of you with them now. Something you touched and gave to them. It is a beautiful sentiment. And years later it is appreciated. You are wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 5 people

  13. My younger brother died this past February, and I received two phone calls of condolence from people I’m not related to. There were no cards. No one brought casseroles, offered to watch the kids (two of whom were his, and I am raising) so that I could have an hour just to breathe, no one came by at all. I would have loved to have received one token, anything, if only because it would have acknowledged the grief that my family was – still is – struggling with. I don’t think that there is a correct protocol to follow in such helpless situations, but I am positive that your friends appreciated the gesture, simply because you made it.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I am so sorry about your brother. What a terrible loss. I do think that sometimes people convince themselves that they should steer clear of people who are grieving – because that’s more comfortable and understandable. But it’s awful to think that someone’s passing results in such a minimal response from friends. Bless the ones who tried, though. Right?

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I think you capture the sense of helplessness so well. Good on you for reaching out to your friends. No, it won’t have fixed anything. Not even close. Nothing will.

    But they know there are people thinking of them. They are there if they need it, when they are ready to receive it. They know they are loved and they know they are not alone.

    For what it’s worth, a friend of mine left daffodils at my house after I was involved in a terrible, freak event. It was one of the most touching things that anyone did. Others cooked for us or visited with food, stayed with us, gave us books or just told stories about their lives. Now, long after the pain of what happened has washed over me, it is these gestures of kindness that bring on the tears. I’ll never forget how much love I felt surrounding me.

    Never feel like what you’re doing isn’t enough, it all helps. Just not in the way you might think.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. “Not to presume, not to intrude, but not to forget either, not to go on as if nothing happened.”

    This was such a beautiful story. Even though it was about something sad, there was a comfort in your words and your feelings.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. I have a friend going through multiple troubles at once that would break most men if it were only singular in trauma. It’s the classic ‘when it rains, it pours’ narrative. It’s important we, as friends, reach out. Grief may be silent. It may be angry. It may be lonely. We may not understood it fully, but they remember who reached out. However it is, we, as friends reach out. I remember when someone reached out to me. Whether they did as a stumbling fool or not, they were not foolish. They were caring.

    Liked by 4 people

  17. What a beautiful post! I found your blog on Discover, today, and decided to check it out. So glad I did. My uncle commit suicide a few years ago. His son, my cousin, is my best friend. I live in Germany and wasn’t able to make it home for the funeral, but I came home for a week several months later. I figured he might need me there more once everyone started to drift away from the grief-stricken family, once things started to return to “normal.” I came home with this big intention to somehow help my cousin smile, again. But, as you described, I realized that grief was beyond me. Everything I did felt as you said–like handing dandelions over. It’s so tough to know what to do! But, I think doing something–anything at all–is important. They just need to know we’re there. Anyway, very nicely written. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you. I really liked your story. I think you were so right to come to your friend later after the flurry of activity right after a death. But also so right about realizing “that grief was beyond me.” Thank you for sharing your reflections with me.

      Like

  18. I did not lose a child to suicide (I can’t imagine the pain), but I did lose my wife. Yes, you change, some for the better, some not so, yet we change. Although I knew better, I could not convince myself that I contributed to her suicide. Today, after 35 years, I do not suffer; I got beyond. As hard as I have tried, I still carry the guilt. God Bless those who are survivors.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I am so sorry about your wife. Friends tell me that they find a ‘new normal” after a loved one’s death but I think that’s especially germane after a suicide. There’s so much to make sense of.

      Like

      1. Hi Jan,
        I think I have read each of the replies on this post. Some are similar to you who want to do the right thing, but are confused. Some are survivors of suicide like me. I cannot imagine why you selected this subject, but I am glad you did. Most people cannot imagine why anyone would kill themselves.One of my psychotherapists told me that it was one of the most selfish acts and it is meant to deliberately hurt the survivor. It might be true for some, but I do not believe it is the majority. After my wife’s death, I too went into a serious depression. I too wanted to end my life. I wanted the intolerable pain to stop. I got help, understood the pain, and now support anyone going through it.
        The main reason I wanted to reply again, was to share what some of my friends did that meant the most. Someone else mentioned it also. When a friend would simply listen and allow me to express my anguish. Hold me while I cried or was tolerant when I went through the stages of grief. It was comforting and appreciated when some gave flowers, food, and consoling words. You are right, that for most people, they are at a loss as to what to do to comfort their friend. When you tell the grieving, call me if you need anything, mean it, and follow up by checking on them. When they want to talk, just listen. Be tolerant, when what they say is difficult to hear. They are only expressing their grief.
        Thank you again, for sharing a difficult topic and allowing so many to express their grief.

        Liked by 2 people

  19. rniks24l14

    This happens. And then you realize only you are responsible for their loss and that is why you feel like giving them an expression of sympathy. But , you know whatever happens in this world is not in our hands, if it has to happen, it will. There is no secret way out.
    Just try to fill in the happiness in other’s life.
    And that is exactly what you did.
    Though the start was a bit abrasive , but you learned. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I lost my boy to suicide. There is nothing that helps. You don’t heal. You don’t ever be that person you were again. YOu are a different version of who you were just like you were when you first met your baby for the first time. YOu are irreparably altered. But what I can say to you is that the friends that TRY, that do whatever they feel is right they ARE right. Whatever it is, even dandelions at the road-wreck carnage that is your life now. Even them. Because you know somewhere in the mess you blame yourself and everyone and no-one and God and no God for, somewhere you have the light that is shining however strangely out of people who care enough to try and show it. Thank you for this extraordinarily moving and honest piece of writing. Just thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Perhaps they will in time, appreciate that you haven’t allowed them to simply slip into the darkness to hide. One day they might enjoy the sunlight again and think of the books and letters that helped them to crawl out of the dark, even if a part of themselves will forever remain in the shade.
    Your own emotional journey to ease their pain says a lot about the kindness and compassion you have for others.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. frenzyfellowz

    We humans should maintain EQ (emotional quotient) this is what is as important as having a good IQ . Yes you are supporting them in a very good way also make them out of these topics and show a good side of life which is waiting for them.
    Wish you a good luck …!

    Liked by 3 people

  23. My brother committed suicide a few years ago, and my mum then gave up on life. Within months she was diagnosed with liver cancer, refused any treatment, and waited for death to pitch up. To me, in all of this, there was a overpowering sense of immense loss. Of becoming an orphan. My two ‘people’ choosing to leave me. How would I react if a friend walks this road. I do not have a clue.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I had a friend once whose child had brain cancer and he related to me how he would look out the window of the hospital and all the people on the street and just wonder how life could go on as if nothing was happening. That really struck me.

      Liked by 2 people

  24. Not intruding yet not ignoring caught me. I believe Jesus has the one and only cure to guilt – Forgiveness and reinstatement, though as human we may forgive ourselves, but we lack the ability to reinstate ourselves. I think in not ignoring, we could add some minutes of prayer. I mean, if you’re a Christian though.

    Liked by 5 people

  25. Thanks so much for sharing. I was deeply touched and moved! You are a brave, full of courage and a very compassionate friend. You were able to deal with your friends’ strong emotions by being yourself. ‘Though it must have been hard for you, as your personal grieving process is different from them, you succeeded in offering to each of them a different kind of interaction, careful not to intrude into their privacy. I’m very sure your friends experience your heartfelt compassion and made a world of difference in their lives (and in yours, too!) during those difficult times. Without saying too many words, you conveyed to your friends, that you are there to ease their pain. I pray for you and your friends!

    Liked by 4 people

  26. TextPat A

    Thank you for this. My best friend’s father just passed away very suddenly and I still find myself clumsily stumbling through how to be a good friend to her. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone, and we all try. Perhaps it’s the trying that really matters.

    Liked by 5 people

  27. That was eloquently put. I love that you understand in your way that no matter what you do, no matter how you feel, it’s not about you. You know you can’t change it or fix it. But I can guarantee you, they love you for trying. We love you for trying, too.

    Liked by 5 people

  28. so brief these statements /notes of Grief. Was this intentional by the author I wonder to myself?
    to provoke a response to encourage a comment or are these just notes of all that was said from each individual experience and deep emotions connected to their Grief.
    I personally find each of these statements quite profoundly powerful and very direct and open.
    admire the author’s for publishing here, in my personal opinion this is needed.
    As all of us need, to speak more about Grief, to understand how it effects us changes us, develops us.
    Given permission to the individual experiences to express their own personal view. Without judgement also to open up and get away from any taboo about different kinds of life existence and non existence and how we manage this.
    Thank you to the Author’ Jan Wilberg’Icongratulate you on being Sincere

    Liked by 4 people

  29. You capture so well, I think, how it feels to want to reach out and comfort at monumental times as you described here but know well enough there is a point of intrusion because how can we know the right words or perform the right act of kindness unless perhaps we have walked that grieiving friend’s path? It is a difficult position to be in but because we do care so much for our friendships we go on to nurture each one of them the best we can…and our friends still love us for having done so. It seems you did and said just the right things by sharing a part of you with your friends in their times of need.

    Liked by 4 people

  30. Reaching out to people is great. I appreciated all the cards and words written in them when my husband unexpectedly passed. I appreciated the people who just showed up and some brought food. Everyone asks if you need anything to call, but that is the last thing younwant to do. Just be there for them and know you are thinking of them. I would have loved the book Wild from a friend. Very nice idea.

    Liked by 6 people

  31. We learn through experience. Even if it’s sonething as unexpected and not-good as learning better how to deal with a friend’s tragedy and the overwash of that grief into our own lives. I think you tried to do the right thing / what you could manage each time but I’m glad you finally feel right too.

    Liked by 6 people

      1. I really liked this piece. I had a good friend whose sister died unexpectedly and I felt so helpless – like it upset me too but my grief was SO minor and peripheral compared to hers. I ended up doing something similar to what you say here for your 3rd friend – sending regular messages of support and trying not to ask to much in return. I really hope I managed to help in a small way.

        Liked by 2 people

  32. Alohacanyouhearme

    I am glad you reached out to them. Losing someone tragically whether it is suicide or a tragic accident is one of the most difficult loss for anyone to deal with. There is guilt, sadness, sometimes followed with depression… However, when people acknowledge to the family left behind with calls, visits, or notes it means a lot. I lost my younger sis in a vehicle accident 11 days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. Let me tell you it took years to recover from losing her. Sadly some never asked about her or how I was doing. I treasure those who gave me hugs, prayed with me and for me, and took time to ask how I was and listened to me share my sadness and even my happy memories with her. I can suggest at a later time giving them a journal. I had a special journal where I wrote letters to my sister expressing what was going on and how much I loved and missed her. It helped me tremendously. God bless you for caring. Truly a gift giving your time.

    Liked by 9 people

  33. Thank you for your very honest and moving piece. We can only believe that by reaching out, we help those who are grieving feel a little less alone. There is so much I want to share with you but the reverence I need is in Michigan and we are now in Florida. The book I used when I taught a course on death and grief is Lament for a Son by Wolterstorff. It is his journal after his son died in a mountain climbing accident in Switzerland. I have not lost a child, but I have sobbed my way through it several times. Wolterstorff is a writer and taught at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. It is very powerful in describing his grief – and in an end-note gives an excellent perspective on how to answer the question of “how did God let this happen?”

    Liked by 7 people

  34. Years ago a woman I worked with lost her teenaged son to suicide, and two weeks later another coworker’s son died suddenly from an illness. The differences in how I handled each death were instructive. I knew them equally well, but reaching out to the first mom I felt like I was rubbing salt into her open wounds. The other, more like a balm. I don’t know how they perceived my clumsiness.

    Liked by 4 people

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