Robert 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 Loss. In 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.