I begin this week’s blog by revealing that I survived my father’s 1994 suicide. Since that time, I’ve also lost two clients and one student to suicide. This probably sounds overwhelming for you as a reader, but I think that the most important thing I can give you is to say that my felt sense in this discussion isn’t that of being overwhelmed, but really one of humble resolve. My resolve is in this: it’s time to de-mystify client suicide survival. In truth, counselor training does a lot of great work in sharing assessments and decision-making models for addressing suicidal clients. Yet, I think that we do little to prepare counselors for the likely fact that they will lose current or former clients to suicide. Is it that as counselors and educators, we are at a loss of how to describe the feelings that are associated with a suicide loss? Do we simply have no instruction or guidance to give because, in truth, there is no ability to feel settled with client suicide? I’ve had some time to think about this of course. I’ve also had years of grief counseling, self-help, prayer, meditation, cleansing- you name it. Lots of work to stop the intrusive dreams, the staggering experience of loss, and perhaps most challenging of all: the guilt. What I came to realize in all of this is that my mission in trying to heal from suicide, and to finally get past it, was really defeating me. The flaw was in my belief that I would somehow “get over” anything. When I stopped doing this, and finally came to recognize that my grief would always be a part of my life, something was radically transformed. I became open to celebrating lives past in a fundamentally different way. I came to see the dignity and gifts that each of these lives had brought mine. I also realized that making anyone’s choice to commit suicide about me was entirely my own arrogance. They didn’t commit suicide at me. They committed suicide in responses to overwhelming depression and seemingly insurmountable life odds. I wish, with all of my heart, that these decisions had not been made. Yet, I also realize that another person making such a decision did not make me a bad daughter or a bad counselor. In my present life, I have adopted the Mexican tradition in celebrating El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), in which I and my best (living) friends come together to celebrate our dead. On our communal alter, I place my student’s paper (with the name removed) and items that commemorate my time with my clients. Next to my father’s picture, I place a beer and a pack of Camel Lights. A feast is prepared, and we spend the evening reflecting on the living presence of our dearly remembered- a presence that seems to be all around us during that night. Their deaths, although never diminishing as tragedies in my life, take on a new perspective. For this one night a year, if in no others, the living spirit of these folks in my present day life can be fully felt and celebrated. The tears come, but so do the laughs, the wisdom they gave, the love they held in their hearts as fathers, mothers, sons, husbands, wives, lovers, best friends. My experiences, I realize, are my own. Yet, my wish is for us as counselors to unbind ourselves and our profession from the Eurocentric beliefs and fears about death. I would also wish us to liberate ourselves from the mistaken belief that grief is finite and resolvable. If basing this exclusively on the evidence of my own life, I would say that by embracing death as an extension of life, we come to understand something very different in ourselves. We come to embrace our grief in our present life- not as a thing to be resolved or gotten over, but as part of a living presence that continually informs how we can embrace life, both present and past.
Stacee Reicherzer is a counselor, a faculty member at Walden University, and a private consultant with special interests that include: transgender issues in counseling, lateral (within-group) marginalization, and sexual abuse survival.