Is Intellect A Safety Net?

This past weekend I was part of a 2-day training on how to speak publicly about suicide. I was in a room with six people, two other trainees and three facilitators, two of whom were also part of the unique group of “suicide survivors.”  All five of us have very different stories to tell, different relationships to the people we have lost but the circumstances of why we were in that room together is what we have in common.  It instantly created an intimate bond that is hard to explain.

I have written and spoken ad nauseam about my mother’s suicide including several previous posts in this blog.  I’ve got it down to a science.  As I’ve said before, my mother’s life has become a series of ten or so bullet points about her trajectory in my retelling.  The more I have been forced and encouraged to delve a little deeper, the more I’ve realized that I’m doing her a terrible disservice.

After the first day in which we shared and cried a bit for each other, we were tasked with writing a 15-minute presentation that we would share with the group the following day, for feedback and constructive criticism.  We were given 6 guidelines and told to limit what our point was, based on the audience we thought would best suit us, to about 2 or 3 main themes.  The facilitators who I had interviewed with prior knew that my story was very complex and touched on topics including Holocaust survival, double-suicides, painful dreams, mental illness throughout the generations, the differences in how siblings grieve and so on.  As the day progressed I focused on some common themes and went with those.  Later that night when I finished writing,  I read it to my husband who said it was perfect and that my thoughts hung together in a way that made sense.

The next day, we plunged right in with our presentations.  The first was given by a woman, a statuesque and stylish 50-ish year old mother who lost one of her sons.  I had already spent the first day crying over her utterly devastating loss, but hearing it all in the context of a 15-minute synopsis was almost too much to bear.  She powered through and when she was finished, we gave her, and her son, the silence they deserved.

I volunteered to go next.  I had my words typed out in a 14-pt font but tried to avoid reading them verbatim.  I covered the basic themes and focused on disclosure, secrets, and knowing too much about this very complicated situation that has now pervaded 4 generations.  There were a couple of times when people jotted something down which I would learn in the critique.  No one was sobbing and I was surprised that I hadn’t struggled with certain pieces of my story.  Not until I pulled out the below picture did I get a visible reaction from my small audience:

Obviously the person in the middle is me.  I am flanked by my stunning mother around the time she came to the United States and my daughter, whose eyes are the blue of my mothers.  That’s an old picture of my daughter but we are all there, in each other, 3 generations of mothers and daughters.

The first thing people did was compliment my writing.

“I feel like I was just in a bookstore hearing you read from your memoir.”  For me, it doesn’t get any better than that, but, I sensed that for the two lead facilitators, both FANTASTIC and experienced women in the field, I had missed the mark.

They wanted to know where was the feeling, the “me” in the story?  And then, the mother who had lost her son, completely without judgement, said this:

“I think you use your intellect as a safety net.”

Whoa.  Wow.  Holy shit.

I am under NO illusion that I’m any sort of “intellect.”  Yes, I have a fairly decent vocabulary and I’m a pretty good wordsmith, but intellect?  I tend to forget the content of every book and every New Yorker article I’ve ever read.  I get the facts wrong in the re-telling.  Am I a deep thinker, searching for the meaning of life?  Do I sit in a wood paneled library, smoking a pipe, digging deeply into the language of Socrates or Stephen Hawking?  Hell no.

When I got home, I looked up the definition of intellect.  Here’s the first in the list:

The power or faculty of the mind by which one knows or understands, as distinguished from that by which one feels and that by which one wills.

I feel deeply about almost everything in my life.  I wear my heart on my sleeve, am demonstrative with almost everyone I know, I cry at every perceived confrontation, and live my life with great passion.  For this one subject however, probably the defining topic of my life, I feel it in my head and not in my heart.  There are pieces of it that happen in my dreams that are devastating and I find that those are the toughest to write about and share, but other than that, it’s the outline, the Cliff’s Notes version of my mother’s life that I can recite on demand.

There is absolutely no right or wrong in how we grieve.  I envy those who can feel the impact immediately and those who see signs that their loved ones are always present.  Perhaps one of the most important things I learned (and there were MANY) is that we need to honor the LIVES of the people we have lost, and not just focus on the nature of their deaths.  The one man in the group who I found to be extraordinarily soothing and, due to his own personal loss, is now a bereavement specialist, assures me that I’m not somehow broken, that I will get to the core of this eventually, in my own time.

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1 Comment

  1. Beautiful, Gail. I felt your emotion and know it from the tears on my face.

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