“Unfinished Conversation: Healing From Suicide and Loss”

Unifinished_ConversationRobert E. Lesoine’s best friend Larry took his life by suicide on October 15, 2005. Although Lesoine knew Larry was struggling with feelings of disappointment, dejection, and loss, along with the return of debilitating pain associated with a past injury, Lesoine did not see the intensity of Larry’s despair.

In his grief, Lesoine, who practices Buddhism, initially planned to write to Larry for 49 days following his suicide. Buddhism claims that during the 49 days following death, consciousness is suspended before incarnation into the next life. What started as a deeply personal effort to grieve and continue his connection with Larry, Lesoine later expanded into a guide for grieving death by suicide, titled Unfinished Conversation: Healing From Suicide and LossIn this book, Lesoine, along with marriage and family therapist Marilynne Chöphel, uses memoir, journaling exercises, and mindfulness practices to guide those who have lost a loved one to suicide towards greater self-understanding and compassion, which often are the hidden gems of the grieving process.

Grieving may be one of the most painful and courageous tasks we endure as human beings. Grieving is an initiation into what depth psychologists sometimes call the dark night of the soul; myths like Persephone’s Journey into the Underworld, and similar spiritual tales, were created to model the inevitability of loss and its cyclic nature, teaching us that although despair and grief are inevitable, they too shall pass. Perhaps the pain of losing someone to suicide is that the deceased was unable to foresee the cyclic nature of suffering. And as suicide’s survivors, perhaps by choosing to accept the natural order of grieving, and being willing to both be with suffering and transform it, the survivor can also transform the departed’s choice of suicide into something meaningful. This, I believe, is one of the central lessons of Lesoine and Chöphel’s guided journey through grief.

Yet without a spiritual tradition as a guide through grieving, or a community supportive of life’s inevitable losses, it’s all too easy in our modern world to avoid the journey into the underworld of despair. Instead, many of us find ourselves stuck in depression or anger or apathy, unwilling or unable to face our own suffering. The emotions that can flood us in the wake of death — shock, sadness, hopelessness, numbness, guilt, anger, even rage — are amplified when death is by suicide, and often complicated further by feelings of shame. Too often, people try to shut down these powerful feelings by rationalizing them, dissociating them, denying them. Although distancing ourselves from powerful emotions is an important and needed survival mechanism, eventually they must be given attention. When grief is unresolved, especially after a tragic loss like suicide, it traumatizes the body, mind, and soul.

In the field of psychotherapy, we speak of complicated grief, which feels a lot like acute traumatic stress. Complicated grief is thought to happen when the person who has died is too dead. The felt need to push away painful and overwhelming emotions halts the grieving process. Healthy grieving is not as much about forgetting the deceased as remembering them differently, and thus starting a different relationship with them, one that involves death as part of the story we tell about who we were in relationship to the deceased, and who we have now become without them. This story we tell to ourselves, to others, and in our “unfinished conversation” with the departed.

The power of Unfinished Conversation is Lesoine’s willingness to continue the conversation with Larry, to honestly and openly engage with the emotions and fantasies pouring forth, filling the void his friend’s death created in him. Had Lesoine shared only his imagined conversations with Larry, the book would have been a beautiful memoir and an implicit guide for healing after losing someone to suicide. Yet by providing both journaling and mindfulness exercises in each chapter, readers are guided deeper into their own healing. Each chapter shares from Lesoine’s year following Larry’s suicide, including excerpts from his own journals. Much attention is given to processing difficult emotions and constructively engaging with the inevitable imaginings of the deceased. Lesoine and Chöphel gently lead readers towards a deeper understanding of how loss impacts who they are becoming in the aftermath of suicide while also coming to understand how suicide changes their relationship with the deceased.

While Lesoine and Chöphel weave Buddhist beliefs and other spiritual practices throughout the book, they address aspects of grieving that are universal, transcending all spiritual traditions. Each chapter ends with a brief mindfulness practice, which ideally helps readers recenter in the present moment and in the body following potentially emotionally charged writing experiences. Especially through Chöphel’s contributions, Unfinished Conversation has the added benefit of including exercises specifically adapted to the latest research and practices from the field of trauma-informed care. In Appendix A, Chöphel provides an important “Tool Kit For Your Journey To Healing” that I would recommend reading before beginning the exercises. Since the fear of being emotionally overwhelmed often keeps us from exploring difficult material or remembering painful experiences, it’s important to feel emotionally safe and grounded while doing the exercises, thus avoiding the risk of retraumatization. This appendix, along with other useful resources, can be found at the book’s companion website, unfinishedconversation.com, which itself is a wonderful resource.

Unfinished Conversation is a deeply personal book and a gentle guide for grieving death by suicide. It’s also a courageous book. Lesoine unflinchingly shares his intimate journey, showing the inevitable pain and messiness that grieving involves, but also the heights of the human spirit that are reached when we are willing to face what frightens us the most.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.

10 responses

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Unfinished Conversation: Healing From Suicide and Loss” • Social Justice Solutions

  2. Thank you for addressing this very painful and hurtful issue, that all too many human beings must face. In fact, I will go so far as to say that this is probably the BEST article on the experience of the suicide survivor that I have yet to read.

    I lost my lovely 22 year old daughter, Kaycee, to suicide 5 months ago today. Kaycee had gone from a bright, happy, intelligent, college student on full scholarship, to a heroin addict facing prison time…..this drastic transformation occurred in about 3 months time.

    Kaycee’s last words in her suicide note were, “Keep my story out there. Addiction DOES kill.” I have launched into a mission to honor her final wishes and sharing her story, in hopes of educating vulnerable populations and opening up critical dialogue. Suicide survivors should not feel stigmatized. Suicidal persons should feel safe to reach out for help.

    So far, I’ve been interviewed for a newspaper article, given 7 talks to high school students, and Kaycee’s story was aired on ABC last evening as part of a news segment. Here is a link: http://wgno.com/2013/12/09/suicide-story-a-mothers-journey/#axzz2n1Wx4qb9

    I also actively manage a memorial page on Facebook called “Remembering Kaycee.”

    When I give live talks to high school students, one of the main things I say is, “So, if you wake up one morning and feel sick, do you feel ok to go to your mom or dad, the school nurse, or whomever and say ‘I have a cold’ or ‘I have a headache’?” Of course, I get lots of nods and “yes” responses. Then I tell the kids, “My goal is that someday, people who are having suicidal thoughts feel just as comfortable reporting them as they would any other health issue. I want each and every one of you and the millions more like you, to be able to go to your parents, doctors, or anyone else that can help and say, ‘I’m having thoughts about taking my life.’ In addition, I want people who are worried about a person to look them in the eyes and say, ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you considering suicide?'” Then, we discuss what to do if the answer is “Yes.”

    We have had ASTOUNDING feedback from our efforts. We’ve received multiple anecdotal reports of people who were very serious about taking their own life, then they saw/heard/or read Kaycee’s story….and they couldn’t go through with it because they suddenly realized how badly they would hurt the people left behind. In fact, several people who have reported these experiences to me are now assisting me and working on the front lines, trying to share Kaycee’s story…..trying to save more lives.

    I have had several people express concern, however, that this endeavor is consuming me. I have asked myself this question over and over again. One person asked, “Are you doing this in order to avoid your grief?” Your article made me once again consider this….

    In your article, you stated, “And as suicide’s survivors, perhaps by choosing to accept the natural order of grieving, and being willing to both be with suffering and transform it, the survivor can also transform the departed’s choice of suicide into something meaningful.” I am no expert on surviving such catastrophic grief….I’m stumbling along and surviving the best I can. But it’s always been part of my nature to do everything in my power to make something good come out of something bad. I think this is what Kaycee wanted.

    At the same time, I don’t believe that I am avoiding my own grief….I face some very powerful emotions when standing up to tell Kaycee’s painful story, over and over again….looking at her photos, telling the very graphic account of how she shot herself in the head. I cry during every single talk. If anything, I think I’m facing my grief head on. I also spend private time writing and crying. And I am good about stepping away and taking breaks when I need to.

    I am going to get this book. My grief counselor told me that she wasn’t a fan of any books on this issue….maybe she isn’t aware of this one? She told me that if I came across any, to please share with her.

    Again, thank you for writing this….and doing even a small part to open up a dialogue that can save lives.

    • Thank you for sharing so deeply. And thank you for all of your efforts to change how young people respond to their suicidal feelings. The work you are doing is truly heroic.

      With regards to the issue of whether or not the work you do interferes with grieving — or counts as grieving — I cannot say. I have known mothers who, like you, lost children to suicide, which is so devastating. Their experiences seemed to call out for an answer to the unspoken question, “How does one stop being a mother?” And in answering this question, many mothers try to help others.

      As a trauma-focused psychotherapist, I must work with managing vicarious traumatization. This means learning how to take care of myself on a very deep level while taking care of others. I think this is a balance all people who choose to tackle painful issues must do, especially when they resonate with one’s own wounds and losses. I heard the situation described as having only so much tread life on your therapy “wheels,” which helps me keep a focus on self-care. Because truthfully, it is easy to get consumed, especially when you see how great the need is for the work you do.

  3. The night before my Mother’s Suicide, she tried to apologize (for “being such a lousy mother”) to my sister & I…and I replied: “It sounds like you’re going away, and I don’t believe you’d do that, and I refuse to forgive you.” Before taking me to summer school the following morning, I asked my (Deputy Sheriff) father why his gun was in the car (We both knew he had two handguns), but he didn’t answer my question. When I returned home from school, I found my mother with my father’s other handgun in one hand, the Bible in her other hand, and ‘a bloody mess’ in between.. She had produced our church sesqui-centennial pageant two years earlier.My father remarried one month and twenty days later. I ‘moved away’ five months after he remarried [then aged 15 1/2]. After 28 years of flashbacks of that day, and shutting down emotionally every year before Mother’s Day through the anniversary of her suicide, I did EMDR and the flash-backs stopped, …and I started addressing the guilt about my response to her request for forgive-ness, my “shattered faith”, fore-shortened sense of the future [and its influence on my "long-term" goal setting], other suicides or violent deaths of ‘fallen comrades’ I’d witnessed/learned about, etc. When I did Critical Incident Stress Debriefing training following the loss of an Aviation Public Safety job ( amid preparing the first Mass Casualty plan during that time

    • Robert,

      I think of the Bodhissatva Warrior — the warrior of the heart of compassion — when I read what you have endured since that fateful day when your mother decided to end her life. It’s nothing short of heroic. This includes your choice to reach out to others in their suffering.

      Like you, I have used EMDR to let go of traumatic memories. And like you, I found survivor’s guilt requires it’s own journey of healing. I have been thinking about survivor’s guilt a lot, as it is a theme in the book I am writing. On the one hand, survivor’s guilt keeps us reaching out to help others who need help, and perhaps hurt as we do. On the other hand, it keeps the suffering ongoing, and as you point out, shatters faith and impairs the capacity to invest energy, or even imagine, a hope-filled future.

      I am studying mythology and early cultures, especially the significance of grieving for the spiritual and emotional health of the collective. Perhaps grieving is also part of how we have evolved to deal with survivor’s guilt. This is speculation on my part, and yet honoring the dead has been so central to the evolution of human society, that I wonder how much of how we suffer is related to the lack of opportunities to grieve with others, and in ways that lead to ‘relationships’ with the deceased that support living without them.

      One of the nuggets of wisdom I read in Unfinished Conversation speaks to this issue:

      “The ancients say that the soul of the deceased travels to the other shore — the land of the ancestors — across the river of tears that we, the living, cry in our grief. This gives our grief a higher purpose. Without tears there would be no watery passage for the departed.”

      I rarely talk to people with traumatic pasts who don’t eventually speak of survivor’s guilt. And I wonder if learning how to grieve, and being supported in our grieving, is central for dealing with the very troublesome and lingering suffering that we call survivor’s guilt.

      Thank you for sharing. Your words and actions are evidence of the courage and compassion within you.

  4. Here is good new, accessible research that shows how old animal decision making is the the very primitive levels it acts at and instantly. “Scientists find brain region that helps you make up your mind. …the lateral habenula, a region of the brain linked to depression and avoidance behaviors, …may be integral in cost-benefit decisions.””

      • Thanks for sharing the link. Very interesting research. In relation to suicide, I would imagine that difficulties with decision making could contribute to seeing fewer possibilities, such that a person may only imagine suicide as a solution to problem. Depression is also associated with more generalized goals when more specific goals or actions are needed, which also seems to support this research. Thanks again for sharing.

      • Perhaps. Well it clearly the worst kind of self-harming behavior. It also violate the first principal of life – self preservation. Literally, no offsring = end of gene line.

        The remarkable thing is that for the first time in human history, we can actually look inside the brain and uncover the mechanisms that cause these behaviors. We are far from knowing all the indepedent variables but the anatonomy is getting much better – and faster.

        So instead of just cultural beliefs and folklore – aka, subjective experience – we cannow have reall neuronal models and test them, in peer-reviewed experiments. Think – all the great minds of the past – combined – knew less about the brain > behavior than a smart HS student does to day. Einstein knew nothing. Kant, Newton, Plato, Keynes, etc…..Freud appears to have known themost, actually, but the rest — no more than a washer woman, maybe less!

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