Grief and the Art of Consolation: A Personal Testimony
by Troy Organ
Dr. Organ is distinguished professor emeritus at Ohio University, Athens. This article appeared in the Christian Century August 1-8, 1979, p. 759. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The morning of September 19, 1978, promised a golden autumn day. The sun shone in my eyes at the breakfast table, and I asked my wife, Lorena, to pull the curtains on her side of the table. Over breakfast we chatted about the evening before -- we had been to a party, and I had not seen her so radiant for months. I noted a few lumps in the cooked cereal -- a phenomenon most unusual in the 40 years she had been cooking for me, but a matter too inconsequential to be mentioned on this warm, sunny morning. After breakfast she drove me to the university for my eight o’clock class. As I got out of the car I gave her a pat, saying: “I’ll be home for lunch. I want to take a short nap before my afternoon class.”
“See you at noon,” she replied, and drove off.
A Blast of Hot Blue Air
By 11 o’clock the day was so warm that I shed my coat as I walked the mile from my office to our home. I noticed that the garage door was down. Perhaps Lorena had closed it to keep the house a bit cooler. When I found the front door locked, I pushed the doorbell. I was prepared to greet her with “Lady. I’m the Fuller brush salesman,” or “I’m selling Bibles to work my way through college.” But she did not come to open the door for me. I walked around the house and entered through the back door.
“I’m home, dear,” I shouted as I opened the door off the patio. The silence puzzled me. In the kitchen I found no preparations for lunch, although the breakfast dishes had been washed. The bed was made, and the rooms were in perfect order. I noted that the door to our attached garage was closed. When I opened it, a blast of hot blue air hit me. The odor of exhaust fumes was overpowering. Then I saw Lorena slumped behind the steering wheel of the car. I rushed to open the garage door and shouted to a neighbor to call an ambulance and the police. Then I discovered that the ignition was on, though the motor had stopped. I began to shake her body, but saw at once that there was no life. I realized that the motor had run until all oxygen had been exhausted. My wife had committed suicide.
Lorena had suffered from recurrent periods, of mental depression during the past 12 years, had undergone shock therapy, and had spent six weeks in a mental health center in an effort to learn which antidepression medication could help her. In two previous bouts with depression, medicine had turned the tide. She had been physically better during the summer. Almost every day she had swum a mile and jogged more than a mile. We had played many rounds of golf. I had hoped that the autumn of social activities would stimulate her to the enjoyment of living. Of course, I knew that she had been having difficulties doing the common tasks like cooking, shopping, sewing and writing letters. Even talking with friends required too much effort. Only a few months earlier she had assured the psychiatrist that she would not try to take her own life, because, as she said, “It is not right.” Although I had heard her say to herself many times, “I wish I were dead,” she told me when I challenged her that she would never try to end her life.
Shock and Relief
Within a few minutes, neighbors had gathered to see what had happened. An ambulance arrived, and the attendants began working over her body. Policemen and firemen arrived. The garbage collectors who were working our street were on the scene. One of the men held me, supposing that I might do violence to myself. I broke away and began pounding the house with my fists, screaming, “Why did you do it?” I had the strange feeling of being three persons. One was the person in shock. The second person felt a strange sense of relief: no more psychiatrists, pills, shock therapy and hospitals. A third person witnessed the other two: “Look at that fool weeping and yelling, and look at that other fool already experiencing relief from 12 years of sympathetic suffering.”
I was glad that the paramedics did not put a sheet over her face as they put the body in the ambulance for the trip to the hospital. That seemed to suggest that they had some hope of reviving her. I wanted to follow at once, but the coroner had arrived.
“Maybe I ought not to discuss this with you now, he said.
“No, do it now. Ask your questions. Get it done.”
Then a neighbor drove me to the hospital. “You couldn’t do a thing, could you?” I queried the nurse.
She dodged: “You’ll have to talk to a doctor.”
The doctor came. “We tried to save her, but we couldn’t.”
“I know,” I said. “I want to see her.”
“But that is most unusual,” I was told. I responded with enough emotion to destroy all resistance.
After a few minutes I was allowed to be in the room alone with her. I kissed her forehead, removed her wedding and engagement rings, and took one last look. The neighbor drove me home, insisting that I must eat to keep up my strength, but roast beef and corn on the cob were more than I could handle. I settled for a dish of applesauce. The meal was interrupted by the funeral director, who was taken aback when I told him that I wanted cremation, I did not want the ashes returned, and I did not want a funeral service. I telephoned our two children, and returned to our home.
Friends poured in all afternoon. There were never less than a dozen people with me during the rest of the day. As each arrived, there was a brief expression of sorrow, and then conversation turned to the weather, politics and university gossip. I wanted to talk about Lorena, but everyone else seemed to find this an embarrassing topic. Almost every half-hour someone arose to make another pitcher of iced tea. By early evening my son had arrived, and I had an excuse to remove myself from the assembly of well-wishers. One couple insisted on going with me to the bus station to greet my son -- fearing, I suppose, that I might attempt to join my wife in death.
‘Going Out the Back Door’
As a teacher of philosophy I had often referred to death. “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, so Socrates is mortal.” How often I had used that standard example of a syllogism! Sometimes I had substituted “I” for “Socrates” to give the dull syllogism an existential impact. I had called attention to the Stoics’ “When death is, you aren’t; and when you are, death isn’t. So what is there to fear?” I had also pointed out the wisdom of the Stoics in referring to suicide as “going out the back door.” And I had even argued that the ability to take one’s own life is one of the noble distinctions between humans and the lower animals. When I read that Heidegger thought learning how to die the Achilles heel of a philosophy of life, I had added that learning how to live seemed to me more important. Now I experienced the suicide of one with whom I had pledged 40 years ago to live “till death us do part.”
I had supposed that I could handle death. After all, I had witnessed the death of both my parents, and as a clergyman I had conducted many funerals. But the death of a spouse by suicide proved to be something else. In a study by Thomas H. Holmes and Richard H. Rahe of the University of Washington medical school, surveying the opinions of 394 individuals on the amount of readjustment required to meet life events, the death of a spouse had been given the highest rating. Below the 100 rating for death of spouse were such items as divorce (73), marital separation (65), jail term (63), death of a close family member (63), and marriage (50). An evidence of the accuracy of the high rating for the death of a spouse was their discovery that the number of deaths of widows and widowers during the first year following the death of their spouse is ten times greater than the deaths of others in their age groups.
Other studies have revealed, as might be expected, that the death of a spouse by suicide requires even more readjustment than a natural death. This is the opinion expressed, for example, by Joanne E. Bernstein in her book Loss and How to Cope with It: “Being the survivor of any death is difficult. Suicide doubles the difficulty and multiplies the complications. . . . Suicide is brutal. The problems of surviving suicide are unique, complex, and very difficult” (Seabury, 1977, pp. 94, 95).
In our youth-oriented society, death is ignored until it intrudes into our lives. We do not know how to cope with it, whether as the expectation of our own death or the death of a loved one. But this is not a new, nor a Christian, nor a Western predicament. Job did not know how to deal with the loss of his family. Equally we are unable to bring consolation to the bereaved. Job’s comforters were inadequate.
Peter Matthiessen in his delightful account of a trek in Nepal says that Tibetans have learned how to deal with sorrow and consolation. He reports that when the cook for the expedition received a letter telling him that his wife had left him to live with another man, the deserted husband went to a village and read his letter aloud. The villagers, all strangers, wept with him. Matthiessen comments: “A Westerner would have slunk off and kicked stones; you have to admire the Sherpas for being so open about everything.” The Tibetans, writes Matthiessen, are “so open, so without defense, therefore so free, true Bodhisattvas, accepting like the variable air the large and small events of every day” (The Snow Leopard [Viking, 1978], p. 147).
Not all Westerners slink off and kick stones. When one of my grandchildren learned of the suicide of her grandmother, she went to her room to cry. But another grandchild went to tell the neighbors. When he returned, he said, “I went to tell four neighbors. We all had a good cry, and I feel better now.”
A Necessary Purgation
Grief can become a way back to health. I have found that one must work through grief. This process involves reliving the events, the feelings and the actions of the original shock. For me, it has meant the talking out of the events. I have felt compelled to talk about Lorena’s suicide openly, frankly, and often. I’m sure I have bored many in sharing my woe in offices and homes, while jogging with friends on streets and roads, and while sharing a meal in a restaurant. I am normally introspective, but throughout the healing process I poured out my grief to friends and strangers. It was a necessary purgation.
One friend who had suffered a similar loss told me she could never refer to her husband’s death as suicide. That has not been my experience. I have avoided all euphemisms. Never have I said that my wife “passed away.” Rather she “took her own life” or “committed suicide” or “ran the car motor in a closed garage.” I am sure that often my hearers have not comprehended what was happening to me as I related the events that had brought so much anguish into my life. How right was C. G. Jung when he said that “one understands nothing psychologically unless one has experienced it oneself” (Collected Works, Vol. 17, p. 200).
But I have not constrained myself because another did not understand. I wanted the other person to listen. Grief can be resolved, but not if it is ignored, forgotten or hidden. It must be brought into the open. It must be relived and shared both verbally and emotionally. For me the expression of grief has been necessary in my struggle to return to joy in living. Lionel Tiger has expressed this principle excellently: “Rather than being a matter of indulgence, or frailty, or neurosis, or intransigence, grief becomes a predictable and healthy response to losses of sociobiological consequence, rooted in the body, expressed through it, and relevant to its eventual health” (“Optimism: The Biological Roots of Hope,” Psychology Today, January 1979, p. 29).
Talking, Touching, Weeping
The experience of losing my wife by suicide has given me insights not only on how to grieve but also on how to give consolation. First, it is important to listen. There is consolation in finding someone to talk to. The listener does not have to offer advice or cite similar experiences he or she may have suffered. The one who grieves needs to talk; he or she is frustrated if the listener seeks to avoid discussing the cause of the grief. Some comforters seem to want to talk about everything except death. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has said: “When we lose someone . . . we are enraged, angry, in despair; we should be allowed to express these feelings” (On Death and Dying [Macmillan, 1969], p. 156). She adds also -- and I agree -- that this is no time to speak of the love of God. That can come later.
Then there is the importance of touching. Suffering the death of a loved one is a lonely experience. How often have I met a friend who shook my hand when I wanted an arm thrown about my shoulders. If one cannot speak the right words to the one who is hurting, one can at least touch him.
Again, weeping has its role in the healing process. It is helpful to weep with another. Even if the other does not weep, it is healing to be able to weep unashamedly in the presence of another. We must cease assuming that weeping is a feminine activity. Men also need to weep.
Although it is true that time heals wounds, one of the cruelest things to say to the one in the shock of grief is that in time the grief will end. Such a remark was made to me within an hour of my discovery of my wife’s body in the garage. It cut to the quick, and I still hurt when I recall the remark. Equally cruel at a time when someone is suffering the death of a loved one is the advice: “You must do some selective forgetting.” I doubt that forgetting can be rationally controlled. Other emotions will in time displace the immediacy of shock and grief, but the counselor ought not to say so.
One experience for which I was not prepared was the barrage of letters I received from monument companies. One company wrote twice about their special sale of gravestones with once-in-a-lifetime bargains. This seemed to me a cruel type of salesmanship. Even worse was the newspaper obituary sealed in plastic, sent to me with the information that this wonderful memento cost only one dollar. The plastic container was decorated with a border of lilies; the 23rd Psalm was printed on the back. I ordered none.
Perhaps the consolation I most resented in the early weeks of my mourning was the well-intended promise: “Call me any time you need help.” Naturally I never called. Such counselors ought to know that the time to give help is now, not later. Grief is a helplessness that does not cry for help. One cries -- and hopes that help will come unbidden. Those who say, “I’ll have you over to dinner sometime,” and then offer no invitation, increase rather than diminish grief. How much I appreciated a friend who said to me: “You are to be my guest every Thursday evening at 6:30. I have already set aside a napkin ring for you.”
Consolation is indeed an art. It is the art of active love. Thanks to the consolation of those who listened, who touched, who invited me into their homes, and who wept with me, I have found my way back to life. Although our patterns of grief and consolation have not been worked out as they should be in our Western culture, I have received comfort from the Christian community, and I am indeed grateful to those who have sincerely tried to assist me in the very difficult task of dealing with the loss of a loved one through suicide.
Wistful moments come when I recall what was, what is, and what might have been. As light displaces darkness, I recognize my debt to those who have been my comforters, and I pray that I have learned out of this experience both how to grieve and how to console.