During the month of October, America celebrates Halloween, the second most decorative event in our country after Christmas. It is amazing to see all the decorations around houses and surrounding areas. People are going all out. When I think of Halloween, I think of masks and I also think about how flippantly people depict death.
When I think of masks, I think of the masks that people put on in masking their real, desperate feelings. Over the years, I have heard it said countless times that the person who completed suicide gave no real signs about their contemplating wanting to end their life. They hid this fact from everyone.
One would think that someone thinking about taking their life would give off some sign or message, but people in this desperate state often don’t give off signals. Why? It could be that they do not want to be stopped and fear if they shared what was going through their minds, their plans would be thwarted. People contemplating suicide have no faith in medical intervention or counseling, thinking it would be futile.
Another reason people might not share their innermost thoughts is that they are too embarrassed or ashamed of having such thoughts. They are fully aware of the stigma attached to mental illness. Yet mental illness is an illness like any other illness, and there should be no shame attached to this illness. Mental illness attacks a different part of the person. Instead of attacking the heart, or some other vital organ, mental illness attacks the mind and the brain and the soul.
When I think of masks, I also think of the masks that survivors wear to hide their grieving process. My suggestion is that survivors be honest when asked how they are doing. Survivors don’t have to give every detail about the grief journey nor should they give the impression that everything is fine. One can admit the grief journey is painful without unloading every detail.
Still aspect of Halloween is the flippant approach to death. There is nothing flippant about death. Survivors can become quite upset when they see dummies hanging from trees or other parts of a neighborhood. If some scene is particularly upsetting to a survivor, a gentle reminder to a neighbor could be warranted. My suggestion is that when the scene can be removed or altered, survivors should take the initiative and express their feelings. People are generally very sensitive to the situation and will either remove or alter the scene. Survivors do not have to suffer in silence.
Survivors look at the world through very different eyes. A scene such as a dummy hanging from a tree is not funny. It can bring back memories and a visceral response that causes the survivor to relive their own experience of the suicide of a loved one. The scene is played and replayed over again. It is never over. The suicide of a loved one becomes part of the DNA of survivors. Part of the grieving process is the successful assimilation of the experience into one’s psyche. It will remain there forever, and occasionally, it will rear its ugly head. Halloween is one of those events.
Excerpted from the Obelisk Newsletter of Catholic Charities LOSS program. October 2009. Reprinted with permission.