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The Sudden Loss of a Loved One

by Pam Rivers

In Oregon, where I live, sometimes the sheet metal gray days of winter seem to drag on forever. During those times, life takes on a dreary sameness, and it becomes difficult to find peace or joy. Sometimes just to get out of bed becomes a major task. My body feels fat and my heart heavy, both weighed down by a dense fog of depression and grief. Because I am no stranger to the deep ache and longing of loss, I have learned ways to cope during these down times. For many years, I have used the Intensive Journal method as a guide out of the darkest places of pain; no matter how lost I feel. The structure of the method consistently offers me a centering place in which to work through loss, sort out feelings, and seek positive change in my life. Through the process, I can reach the deepest places of grief when I am ready, look into the darkest corners at soul level, and then take healing steps towards a healthy and full life once again.

There is one time in my life during which I believe my work in the Intensive Journal workbook kept me on sanity's side. The weeks and months following the suicide of my brother-in-law were among the darkest times I have known. A good friend had introduced me to the Intensive Journal method the year before, and using it, I was able to find my way through the seemingly unbearable grief of his sudden death. The Intensive Journal process offered me the structure and tools for healing and growth; all I had to do was take the time to quiet myself and do the work.

One of the wonderful things about the method is that one can use it in a workshop to benefit from the power and discipline of the group, or one can work in solitude with only the depths of one's own soul as audience. For many years, I have worked the method both ways, and each has worked equally well. As I work through deep grief, I most often choose a place away from others. But in working in the method, one is never alone, for as we work the process, we touch a deep consciousness where all living things are connected and reach out in understanding to each other. When one is left behind after a loved one dies, finding that deep well of connection is an invaluable gift. I came to understand that gift with clarity a few weeks after Bill, my brother-in-law, committed suicide.

It was a dreary afternoon in mid-July when a police officer showed up at our door to let us know that my husband's brother, the brother I felt closest to, had taken his own life. The shockwave that tore through our home that day is so difficult to describe. My husband had lost both his mother and father to tragic deaths during his teen years. He had endured those painful times with Bill, his only sibling. Now Bill was gone. This terrible loss left my husband desperately needing to blame someone for the abandonment he felt. Bill's long-time girlfriend was stricken by the loss, and also by guilt, because she had recently asked that they end their relationship.

I found myself alone, trying to deal with my own grief, as well as trying to help my two young children understand that they could no longer see their favorite uncle. I worked hard to comfort my husband and Kathleen, while denying the very deep and devastating pain I was feeling. Only later would I realize there was no easing the pain for others, and that stepping in to play a false hero would nearly destroy me.

Less than three weeks after Bill's death, I returned to school, where I taught language arts to 160 young people, commuting sixty miles each way to work. My husband was emotionally lost in a cave of alcohol, drugs, rage and depression. His occasional verbal battering became more frequent, so I was sometimes frightened when I was home. Having done no serious grief work myself, and finding no peace at home, I found myself sobbing as I drove to and from school. Then I would pull myself together as I arrived at either school or home, and step into the caretaker role once again, helping all those around me with their problems while ignoring my own.

As the driving and crying became routine, I began to have a vision that seemed closer to a hallucination in its vividness and the hold it took on my attention. One Friday on the way to school it was so strong that I pulled over next to an open meadow. In the vision, that was always the same in every detail, I saw myself walking into a lovely golden field, dressed in a long, loose dress. I carried a soft pastel afghan and a picnic basket. After spreading the blanket out, I opened the basket and pulled out an array of wonderful foods, and also a large bottle of pills. I ate and drank, then downed a handful of pills and fell peacefully to sleep. That day when I pulled my car to the side of the highway and stared into the meadow, thinking I wanted desperately to go to sleep forever, I realized I had a big problem. I was a young mom who loved my kids boundlessly, and I did not want to leave them or the world, so I told myself that I would take a long weekend from school and get the help I needed. I decided to start the work in my Intensive Journal workbook and see if I could find a way through the grief at least partly on my own. Beginning sometime around ten o'clock that Friday night, I worked until sunrise the next morning. My work started in a section of the workbook called the Period Log, where we quickly list moments and events connected to a specific period of time in our lives. Usually the period of time we work with is somewhere between six months to a year. But this short time was so powerful in my life that it was where I needed to focus. Ever so quickly, I listed a dozen separate moments, all holding such intense emotion that tsunami-sized waves of grief began to wash through me. Then a thick, charcoal gray fog seemed to fill my being and surround me.

Through my tears, I realized the fog was a gift from my psyche, a Period Image, to help me understand what I had been attempting to live through. As I sat in my study, in the midst of the grief and the dark fog, an image of Bill came clearly into view. It was his cold, blue face that I had kissed goodbye at the funeral home. I was sobbing and filled with guilt. We had all been recreational users of marijuana, but Bill and Kathleen had gotten into heavier drugs. I blamed myself for not realizing he had begun using heroin. If I had, I reasoned, maybe I could have saved his life. I cried for a long time before turning to another section of the Intensive Journal workbook where I began a dialogue with Bill.

I have found the Dialogue Dimension work in the workbook to be a consistently powerful force in offering clear understanding of all kinds of life issues. In this section, our dialogues can happen with people, places, events, nature, or one's body. We talk with whom or what may hold information or guidance we need.

On this night, I needed to talk to Bill, and through talking with him, I was set free from my self-constructed trap of sorrow, guilt and rage. As soon as I began to write to Bill, I was screaming at him in the words on the page. My fury with him for leaving us all, especially my kids, came rushing out. As I shifted, and wrote from Bill's voice, I heard him say that he loved us very much, but was just too tired to go on. As I continued to dialogue that night, I came to understand clearly that I had no way of helping him on the night he took his own life because Bill had fought depression for a long time, had made other attempts on his life in years before, and this time was determined to succeed. It was an awful truth that I had to accept, but I had no guilt in it.

Leaving my study early the next morning, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, but filled with relief, and a vague sense of peace. Of course, there was still a lot of work ahead for all of us. But the Intensive Journal method gave me the clarity I needed to go forward with my life--the cloud cover over my soul began to dissipate, and I was never bothered by the vision of going to sleep forever again.

It was weeks later that I did the real life-changing work around Bill's death. This change happened because of my work in one of my favorite sections of the Journal called Roads Taken and Not Taken. In this section, we return to those places where as Robert Frost described, "two roads diverged" and ask ourselves if we need, or would like, to travel down any of those roads we did not take earlier in life. As I did this work, I realized that years ago, as a teen, I had taken a road that welcomed some drugs and the people who used them into my life. I discovered in my Intensive Journal work that now, as an adult, I was ready to live a life without any drug use around me. On paper, I explored the changes I wanted to make, and the next day I let those close to me know. A year later the district where I teach asked me to head up a drug prevention and intervention program, and for twenty years I have worked to help other young people avoid that deep hole where Bill found himself, with no way out.

I know of no experience that leaves deeper or more gaping wounds than losing someone you love to a suicide, nor do I know of any method more effective than the Intensive Journal method for working through the grief. Using the process, one can work through seemingly overwhelming feelings of abandonment, emptiness, and anger, and eventually find a way to peace.

"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House. © Copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.