Observation

Linking Past to Present

by Elizabeth Harper Neeld

Someone might wonder: doesn’t thinking about the past just make things worse? Put the past behind you, some would say. Focus on the future. But there is a kind of thinking about the past that is valuable: sifting through our feelings and experiences –studying and investigating thoroughly how we are responding. Observation is a time of noticing and paying attention. Of recollecting. We can acknowledge the good and the bad in our relationship with the person who has taken her or his life. We can take responsibility for examining the basis for what we experience as guilt. We can work to redirect the anger we continue to feel. We can tell ourselves the truth, if we are continuing to think and behave in ways as we are grieving, that are destructive to our lives. We can begin to ask what meaning can be made, even from this terrible event? During Observation, we can explore ways to hold the actions of people who take their own lives. Observation allows us to begin asking what can be gleaned from this experience that can give energy toward a new shape for life.


Observation: Linking Past to Present

What is Normal?

  • Being able to see both the positive and negative related to the past
  • Recognizing that anger, guilt, and blame must be dealt with
  • Reflecting; spending more time alone
  • Recognizing ways you are hindering yourself

A widow tells this story:

Long after Donald died I kept telling people the story of his suicide. A man who worked for the telephone company came to the door to say he was going to do some wire repair on the property. As he was leaving, the man remarked on our beautiful house. I replied that my husband built it and that now he was dead. Before the man could step off the porch, I was telling him every little detail about how Donald died. Later, I thought, “This is the pits. All I am doing when I keep on telling my story is making myself feel terrible and the stranger I am talking to.” I know it’s healthy to be honest when someone has died by suicide. But I suddenly realized that I was telling my story to get sympathy. And I asked myself the question, “Why do I keep on doing this so long after Donald died?” There was value just in asking the question.

A parent gets clarity:

When our adult son ended his life, I was so angry at him. “He didn’t have to do this,” I said again and again. “He had many other alternatives.” But now I see that, yes, he did have other alternatives, but he also had the alternative of suicide. That was an alternative. Certainly not the alternative I would have chosen, but it was his choice. He thought that by killing himself he could be free of whatever trauma he was living in his life. Therefore, I have to respect that even if I don’t agree with it. Somehow, it seems releasing just to say that our son made a decision based on the best thinking he was able to do at the time. And, while we wish with everything in us that his decision had been different, it was for our son at that moment the decision that seemed the best to him.

The Choice for Observation:

To Look Honestly

This is a choice that requires enormous courage. It requires us to be alone with our thoughts; to focus on our responses rather than on the event of the loss itself.

The choice to look honestly requires us to call a moratorium on what we may have been doing to “cope” with the loss – things like losing ourselves in our work, involving ourselves excessively in the care of others (usually others we perceive as weaker than we are), running constantly, dwelling obsessively on the past, depending on sleep, drugs, alcohol, television, spending money, or partying to ease our pain. Instead of these, we choose now to grapple with the only questions that can lead to wisdom: How am I choosing to respond to what has happened? How do I intend to act in the future? These are questions of import, questions of power.

What helps during Observation:

  • Sifting through memories
  • Reviewing the good and the bad from the past
  • Spending time alone, reflecting and reminiscing
  • Looking at photographs
  • Considering how the things that gave your life meaning in the past might be brought forward into the present, even if in different forms

© Elizabeth Harper Neeld, PhD