Book Review: Grieving a Suicide by Albert Y. Hsu

Introduction

I’ve been directly impacted by three suicides in my thirty years of living. The first was a cousin I wasn’t close to, she died by suicide several years ago after a breakup with a boyfriend. The second was my ex-manager about 2-3 years ago after an argument with his wife. The last was Chester Bennington a couple months back, and although I’m no friend nor family of his, his death has shaken me and made more aware of my mortality.

This is why I decided to review this book by IVPress. Although it was first published in 2002, it has been revised and expanded and feels very up-to-date and relevant today.

Clarifying some terminology

I learnt several terms which I might clarify here just to make it easier for my readers. A “suicide survivor” usually refers to the person (whether a friend, a spouse, a sibling, a parent, or a child) left behind after a loved one dies by suicide. Also, the author prefers to use the phrase “died by suicide” because it is not a crime one “commits”, nor is it a project one successfully “completes” so the terms “commit suicide”, and “completed suicide” were avoided.

How the book is organised

The author, being a survivor of suicide himself after his father’s death, understands that the immediate period following a suicide can be disorienting and suggests helpfully that one can read the book in any order he/she wishes as some parts may prove more helpful than others. For myself, I read the book sequentially one chapter after the next from the first to the last and found that this was most helpful for me.

The book is divided into three parts:

  • Part 1: When suicide strikes
  • Part 2: The lingering questions
  • Part 3: Life after suicide

The first part of the book touches on the various states of mind one might be in right after experiencing the suicide of a friend, colleague or family member. The chapters appropriately titled: “Shock”, “Turmoil”, “Lament”, “Relinquishment”, and “Remembrance” accurately describes how I felt after learning about what happened to my ex-manager. The author also helpfully describes how he experienced life after his father’s death and also references other similar books on the topic.

The second section deals with suicide survivors asking, “Why did this happen?” and also theological questions that pop up, such as whether suicide is the unforgivable sin. Finally, it wraps up with the perennial question of “Where is God when it hurts?”. For Christians, this can be very helpful in providing a framework of how to process the suicide of a loved one. It’s honest and frank and does not beat about the bush with pertinent questions one might have.

In the third and final portion, the author relates to us lessons of suicide, the spirituality of grief, and the also shares about the healing community. He shares about his experience with a support group of suicide survivors which was an incredible source of relief for him because he was around a group of “people who understood the grief of suicide.” He also suggests an online resource for countries or cities without suicide survivor support groups. The Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors (http://forum.allianceofhope.org) has a forum that allows people to connect with other survivors.

Conclusion

Even though I’ve experienced three suicides, those that died were not super close to me and I was shielded from the direct impact of their deaths. However, the most recent death of Chester Bennington did wake me up to realise that people do indeed care. The global outpouring of grief after his death made me promise to myself not to do something similar even in difficult times. This book has been very useful in helping me process my grief and I’m sure will also be a good tool for this impacted by suicide.

You can purchase this book on Amazon, Book Depository or at InterVarsity Press.

grieving a suicide book cover.jpg

 

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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An extract from “Darkness Is My Only Companion”

“… St. Paul speaks of his thorn in the flesh, but we don’t really know what he was talking about. In any case, there Satan gave the thorn. And there, even there, God did not allow it to be removed but intended to use it for good. Can anything good really ever come out of any illness, even mental illness – a medical disease that can cripple the brain, mind, and even body? “Take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Could Paul have known of my condition, which itself is the captor, which wrings my mind dry of thoughts of Christ and wants to hand my soul over to hell?

Plenty of Christians before me must have had this difficulty, and many Christians surely will after me. Mental illness is not an indication of the weakness of one’s faith. It may be, however, a test and should be met like all other tests: with prayer that God will see us through it faithfully, that we may be seen faithful, and that we should be found at the last without reproach, that God will use it to our benefit and us to his glory.

After all, as I have said, faith is not primarily a feeling. It is an act. Sometimes the most pleasing thing to God is our obedience and rendering of thanks even when we don’t feel at all thankful. Jesus said that even the hypocrites love those who love them. They love when it is easy. But the most valuable thing in God’s sight is loving the unlovely, loving when no return is expected, when one has no love, hoping when hope is not seen. Then we really have to admit that all our loves and all our hopes are ultimately borrowed from God anyway.

Now the great thing is this: we are consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may thereafter think, speak, meditate and do, nothing except to his glory. … We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.

– John Calvin (1509-64)

(cf. Rom. 14:7-9, 1 Cor 6:19-20)

From a theological perspective, the most dangerous thing about mental illness is that it can lock us in ourselves, convincing us that we are indeed our own, and completely on our own, isolated in our distress. Darkness is my only companion. Mental illness can be to us a veil that shrouds our consecration to God, blocking out the glory of the Holy One. Our wounds fester. Our remoteness from the source of our healing increases. Mental illness shuts all windows and doors to the soul so that we cannot speak, meditate, or do anything to the glory of God, or so it seems. All is experienced as pain. We locked in ourselves, unable to forget our pain. How does the Christian endure such remoteness from the source of life?

O Lord, calm the waves of this heart; calm its tempests. Calm yourself, O my soul, so that the divine can act in you. Calm yourself, O my soul, so that God is able to repose in you, so that his peace may cover you. Yes, Father in heaven, often have we found that the world cannot give us peace, O but make us feel that you are able to give peace; let us know the truth of your promise: that the whole world may not be able to take away your peace.

– Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 55)

…”

– An extract from “Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness” by Kathryn Greene-McCreight which is the best book I’ve read on the intersection of mental illness and faith and would highly recommend.

darkness

Random, incoherent shouting on the MRT

As I was commuting the work today, I witnessed a random lady shouting out sentences that were incoherent.

She first approached two nurses and they calmly engaged her before she left. And then she resumed shouting after a while.

I was rather disturbed. And so were my fellow passengers on the MRT carriage I was in. We turned to look, but did nothing.

Truth be told, I felt rather helpless.

This continued for another half dozen stations before I alighted.

What could I have done? Reasoned with her? Would she listen to reason?

I wondered if her family members or friends knew about this. And even if they did, were they brave enough to confront her to seek treatment for whatever stressful situation she might have been in that triggered the random shouting?

Early intervention is key to preventing mental conditions from rapidly deteriorating. But do we have enough courage to accompany a loved one to a psychiatrist if he/she needs it?

I hope I’d be brave enough when the time comes.

And I hope you do too.

Review of Headspace, the meditation app

headspace

So I’ve just completed 10 days of meditation using Headspace on my iPhone (it’s also available on the Android platform) and I’d like to say a few things about it.

First off, even though I’ve had no anxiety issues, each time after I spend a mere 3 minutes using the app, I feel significantly calmer. I downloaded the app the night I had insomnia and thought using it might help. Even though I didn’t sleep right away, I felt my mind become clearer and my heart rate seemed to have slowed down immediately after that first session.

Pretty impressive stuff.

I tried as much as possible to do it consecutively, but failed once or twice. It didn’t matter. It was just as easy to get back into it even after missing a day or two.

The Beginner’s Basic trial pack involves 10 sessions of meditation, 3 minutes in length where you are guided by the voice of Andy Puddicombe who speaks in an appropriately quiet and simple tone.

I liked that it was not linked to religion of any sort, so any one can get into it and benefit, regardless of any faith denomination they might belong to.

Now that the 10 day trial is over, I think I’ll be subscribing to continue this incredible experience. I also like how there are also packs targeted for a specific audience and they are namely the packs for “Anxiety”, “Stress”, “Sleep”, “Depression”, “Pregnancy”, “Cancer”, “Pain Management”, “Regret”, “Anger”, “Self-Esteem”, “Relationships” and many, many more.

The pricing is somewhat affordable, with the monthly subscription going at S$17.98, the yearly subscription at S$138.98 (which works out to S$11.58 per month) and a Forever subscription costing a one off payment of S$588.98

I might review those in the future if I ever try them out, so watch this space!

In conclusion, for those needing a bit of respite from the constant storm of thoughts in your mind, this might be the solution for you.

 

Note: This is not a replacement for treatment from a psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor. Do seek help when you need to.

Grieving Chester Bennington’s suicide

I’m dancing with my demons,

I’m hanging off the edge.

Storm clouds gather beneath me,

Waves break above my head.

Lyrics to “Nobody Can Save Me” from the album “One More Light”

It’s been one month since the news of Chester Bennington’s suicide broke. I knew I wouldn’t be in a suitable frame of mind to blog a week or so after his passing, so it took until now to write this. Doing this helps me process my grief and I thought I’d take some time to explain why his death impacts me so.

I tried so hard and got so far,

but in the end it doesn’t even matter.

Lyrics to “In The End” from the album “Hybrid Theory”

I was enchanted by their very first song when I heard it (probably on radio), in 2000. Like someone online said, it was like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and it resonated deep within me.

When I saw their video, I was sold. I then saved up what little pocket money I had, and went to the (now defunct) record shop at a corner of Coronation Plaza to purchase my very first album, Hybrid Theory.

It was a little jarring to listen to it, because the rest of the songs were more hard rock compared to In The End, but I didn’t care. I studied the lyrics and listened to the album over and over again.

I’ve become so numb,

I can’t feel you there,

become so tired,

so much more aware,

I’m becoming this,

all I want to do,

is be more like me,

and be less like you.

Lyrics from “Numb” from the album “Meteora”

I won their second album from the radio station Power 98 many years back for being the first to call in when their song was played. I hadn’t heard a single song from that record, but the electric guitar riff they had was so distinctive, I knew it had to be them the second the song played.

It was an absolutely delightful album.

I quickly fell in love with “Somewhere I Belong” and “Numb” – these songs were the background tracks to my tumultuous teenage years.

Chester gave me the words I couldn’t articulate and listening to the album made things just a tiny bit more bearable.

And the shadow of the day,

will embrace the world in grey,

and the sun will set for you.

Lyrics to “Shadow of the Day” from the album “Minutes to Midnight”

Knowing someone for 17 years is a long time. Longer than some of my friendships with my closest buddies. Although he never was my celebrity crush, I feel a strange affinity with him. So much so that when I learnt about his death, I was in a state of shock.

Here was a successful musician, that in spite of all he had, felt so much pain that he had to erase his existence.

And the global outpouring that ensued just made me realise that people do care.

Though I am no superstar, knowing that people would mourn my death would probably be why I would hesitate to take my own life, just like he did, even though life can get pretty tough at times.

I think it will take a while more till I properly process my grief, but in the meantime, I know I am in good company with the millions of fans out there.

A checkup in which I come out to my psychiatrist 


So I went for my routine checkup at the hospital today.

I related to my doctor how I felt really sad last week for a period of 3 days leading up to my menses and how it’s been coming only once every two or three months.

After discussing if it’s the effect of the psychiatric medication that I’m taking and ordering a blood test to find out, we got down to serious business.

She was concerned if I’d hurt myself the next time an episode like that happens and asked if I felt like there was light at the end of the tunnel during the crying spell.

I replied saying that it’s hard for me to say because I’m fine now but when I was in it, I felt really sad and perhaps during that time I felt hopeless about the situation but maybe not life in general?

We went on a bit about how I might deal with that in the future and I told her that talking with my friends helped.

I casually mentioned that I didn’t know how I might deal with it in the future, it depends on the precipitating event, i.e. the trigger, but I had encountered this in the past and thought I ought to discuss this with her.

It felt a bit unwieldy to keep mentioning “the precipitating event” so I said I might as well tell her what it was this time round.

“I felt a profound sense of rejection by the church for being gay,” was the sentence I managed to coherently form.

“And you are still sad, aren’t you?” the good doctor observed, giving me a concerned look.

“Well yeah. I guess. A little,” I volunteered.

We went on to discuss about the conservative church, how an orientation isn’t sinful, and a couple more things.

I also shared how it was a series of micro-aggressions during sermons preached, that when accumulated over time led to this.

She was really understanding and offered some helpful advice.

She mentioned that it is during periods of depression that people most need to reach out to others. Connectivity is what keep folks alive. Because often people who eventually kill themselves are disconnected from people and feel like their loss does not matter to anyone.

That’s a piece of advice I took to heart.

Indeed, during my third day of crying at random, a friend tried to comfort me after I told her the reason for my melancholy. And I did feel slightly better.

I wouldn’t recommend coming out to any old psychiatrist, there may be some homophobic ones out there, but as for me, after getting to know mine for the , I felt like she would understand and thus took the chance.

I left her office and she said she hoped she didn’t make me feel worse, I reassured her saying that I felt mostly the same. Then went on to pay and do a blood test for my prolactin levels (to see if Deanxit (one of my meds) is the cause).

All in all I’d say that it’s been a satisfying visit to the doctor and I thank God for being assigned such a compassionate one.

Till next time, goodbye!

Relapse

pokemon mania

So, I’ve probably been hypomanic for 6 months now and I just updated the doctor again during my regular checkup yesterday. (For the uninformed, mania is kinda like the opposite of depression where you get all hyper and happy and everything. And hypomania is a low dose of that.)

Anyway, my doctor was pretty chill. We eventually determined that the dosage of medication was alright and continued on it. She asked me how it felt. I said it’s alright, I was more productive than usual, needed less sleep (8 hours instead of my usual 10), and my mood was generally stable. I also told her that this is probably my baseline.

She surprised me by saying (okay not really, because she said it before), that she wouldn’t mind being hypomanic herself. Not what you’d typically expect a psychiatrist to say, but hey, she’s a Senior Consultant, so I’m not arguing with her.

That was the first thing I wanted to discuss with her.

The second thing was that I’d read a book and determined that I’d had a touch of OCD. I told her I couldn’t step on cracks (on the pavement) or had to step on cracks, and then she asked me a couple of questions about hand-washing. I mean I don’t wash my hands for 10 minutes, but I do it much more thoroughly than the average person would after going for a course to help minister to HIV patients because that was what they emphasised on – handwashing.

She told me that if the total time of the compulsions (walking on cracks and washing hands) didn’t take up more than 30 minutes of my entire day, it probably isn’t a cause for concern. Plus I don’t have obsessive thoughts. It’s there, but it’s not debilitating. So she’d leave it.

Which left me with my most important and third issue I had to bring up to her. Which was this: How do you differentiate between hearing from God and hallucinations?

Let me give you some context. As Christians, most usually believe God will guide them or lead them through either inner promptings or with an audible voice, the latter usually being rarer. An inner prompting is usually a thought to do, or not do, something.

I explained how I’d read many books that talked about being led by God, but was also disturbed by newspaper articles of people being charged in court for doing something illegal because “God told them to do so”.

She listened patiently and then told me a couple of things that made a lot of sense:

  1. Usually what God tells the person to do is consistent with Scripture.
  2. Also, it is also consistent with the person’s lifestyle.
  3. In charismatic churches, there can be an effort to make one psychologically suggestible, especially in a group setting.
  4. A calling is usually different. When someone is called to a certain occupation, one tends to do it with passion, even after many years, and one usually doesn’t execute it mechanically, but from the heart.
  5. A calling must be discovered.

Wow! Am I thankful for this psychiatrist I’ve been assigned to from the first day I entered KTPH.

Okay, that’s all for today. For those concerned, I’m taking my medicine regularly, 2 pink tablets of Deanxit (Flupentixol & Melitracen) every night, one yellow Votazine (proMethazine Theoclate) topped off with a Melatonin tablet to help me sleep. The hypomania is under control, and I’m due to see my favourite doctor in 8 weeks.

So that’s all for today.

See you next time!