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A new stage of grief: forgiveness

SunsetDr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has described the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When a loved one commits suicide, that list is incomplete. We are haunted by the questions, “Why would he?” or “What could I have done differently?”

I’d propose one more stage of grief to Kubler-Ross’s list in the case of suicide: forgiveness. It was not until I reached this stage of forgiveness that I was able to sort out my own failings from those of my husband. In accepting responsibility for my part in David’s death, I was able to understand his sense of futility and his unwillingness to face his illness. I forgave him. And in doing so, I was finally able to understand his decision.

In all of the research I’ve done to attempt to understand David’s decision, one particularly well written piece by Jay Neugeboren sticks with me. Jay’s brother, Robert, had been in the New York mental health system for nearly forty years, and had been given nearly every antipsychotic medication known to humankind. Jay began interviewing hundreds of former patients who had been institutionalized, often for periods of ten or more years, and who had recovered into full lives: doctors, lawyers, teachers, custodians and social workers. He was fascinated with the question–what had made the difference?

Some pointed to new medications, some to old. Some said they had found God. No matter what else they named, they all said that a key element was a relationship with a human being. Most of the time, this human being was a professional, a social worker or nurse, who said, in effect, “I believe in your ability to recover, and I am going to stay with you until you do.” The author points out that his brother had recently recovered from his mental illness, without a recurrence for more than six years, the longest stretch in his adult life.

Given the lack of hope or optimism during David’s hospitalization, this study affects me deeply. But it also provides a blueprint for those of us who want to commit our lives to connecting deeply with others, especially those who may be suffering. We need one another to lead healthy lives, and when faced with the prospect of illness, be it mental or physical, we need to believe others can help us through to the other side. We need to believe that it is no different to ask for help with a brain illness than it would be for a cancer patient to ask for chemotherapy. We need to have faith in our own ability to endure, and when hope wanes, as it will with the illogical ups and downs of any disease, we should track our way back to our hearts.

Sheila Hamilton is the author of All the Things We Never Knew, available for pre-order on Amazon.com. For more information on Sheila’s story, please read prior blog posts, or contact the author below. Thanks!


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7 replies
  1. Sagi Brin
    Sagi Brin says:

    Hi Sheila,
    Just want to let you know that my brother committed suicide almost 13 years ago. Still working on the “forgiveness” part of it.


    • Sheila Hamilton
      Sheila Hamilton says:


      I’m so sorry to learn of your brother’s death. I had an interesting conversation with a friend who is in the same situation. Everyone gets to forgiveness at times and in different ways, but I hope you can get there. S

  2. Christine Moore
    Christine Moore says:

    My understanding of suicide shifted when I read “Never the Same,” a book by the director of The Dougy Center, Donna Schuurman. You may have read this; if not, it is the best book that I’ve read about losing a parent as a child, no matter how long ago that happened. (For me, it was 50 years ago.) She talks about suicide as a death by disease, a mental disease, the same as if someone died of cancer. There is usually more guilt, blame, etc., with a suicide, so yes, forgiveness is so important. After reading this book, I no longer say someone “committed suicide” or “killed himself” – that implies the person made the decision in his/her right mind to end their life – but, unless it is an assisted suicide in the case of terminal illness, their thinking is not right, they are ill, and that illness is what caused the death. That totally changed my understanding of suicide. Of course, we are never the same….

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