Coping and Learning After a Client’s Suicide

A Therapist Reflects on What He Might Have Done Differently

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I’ve been in full-time private practice for almost 30 years. I’ve seen maybe 10,000 families (it certainly feels that way.) In that time, three patients in my practice killed themselves. Strangely enough, the three suicides were eerily similar. Each suicide has left me shell-shocked and questioning my therapeutic attitudes and methods.

I did not expect Adam to be one of my casualties. He reminded me of the guys I grew up with in rural Alabama. He was large, loud and rough, masking his intelligence behind a display of anti-intellectualism and cultural ignorance. I know these guys and I’ve had success at retraining them, since I’m not afraid of them or contemptuous of their fragile, hypermasculine pride and their awkwardness with emotion. Like so many of the scared, bullying men I see, Adam had been trained to fail at relationships.

Adam had grown up poor and fatherless. His mother divorced his violent father when he was 12. Adam never saw him again. He didn’t drink, he went to church a lot and he was an active, hands-on father to his own children. He hovered protectively, though controllingly, over Angela, his quiet, compliant wife of almost 20 years, who was a nurse. He had made a great deal of money building houses, and was now building a gigantic dream house for their large family.

Six months before I saw them, Adam had slugged his hulking oldest son for quitting his high school football team. After being advised by a counselor at work, Angela threatened divorce. Adam, baffled that she would consider leaving him after such a (to him) minor incident, suspected her of having an affair and got first paranoid and then violent, breaking furniture and punching holes in the wall with his fist. Angela went for help to a therapist, who advised separate therapy for her and Adam, as the conventional wisdom in those years was to see violent couples separately and try to get them to divorce. Angela’s therapist (who never met Adam) communicated both neutrality and pessimism about the marriage, and pushed for divorce.

Adam saw a psychiatrist, who put him on Prozac, which mixed badly with his two-pot-a-day coffee habit. He became toxically irritable and, as Angela pulled further and further away, increasingly violent. For the first time in all their years together, he actually hit her. Angela’s therapist advised her to call the police (I would have given the same advice). They had Adam hospitalized for a few weeks in a special program for batterers. He went willingly and was a model patient. On discharge, he went home and found Angela and his kids had moved out. He stalked her, begged her to come back and, when she resisted, beat her up. At that point, Angela called me in. She had heard I was an expert with over-the-top men.

I saw Adam, Angela, the couple and the whole family in alternating combinations. She had a court order, which, while a good idea, offered no protection. I got Adam to promise us all there would be no more violence. And there wasn’t, for the remaining few months of his life. Off caffeine and Prozac, he went into a clinging, dependent depression, but was stabilized on Stelazine for paranoia, Tegretol for explosiveness and Zoloft for depression.

I used the pressure of impending divorce to spur Adam on, as I tried to teach him some manners, some sensitivity to someone else’s feelings besides his own. I hoped the changes in him would bring about a reversal of Angela’s resolve to get away from him permanently. I saw him often by himself, developing what I thought was a great level of intimacy, full of personal revelations, shared experiences of the rural South and humor about the changing world around us. Once he was calmed and connected, I also put him in a group of non-batterers. I tried to be the gentle daddy he never had.

Adam felt in better control of himself, and redoubled his efforts to get his family back. He completed the dream house, begged Angela to move into it with him, was rebuffed and moved in alone. They had talked a lot, in my office and outside, about the terms of the separation. He was generous, sweet and apologetic with her, without control or bombast. Angela, aware of the drastic change in him, feared her longstanding tendency to pity and protect him. She held firm about divorce, but he (and I) saw her softening. I couldn’t imagine him doing better than he was doing; I couldn’t imagine that she would want anything better than the reprogrammed Adam. I thought I was doing a great job with Adam and that it was just a matter of time before Angela gave him another chance.

Adam didn’t show up for his next appointment and didn’t answer his telephone. I called his secretary and he had not made it in to work, either. She and I both somehow knew what had happened, though suicide had never been mentioned before. She went out to the new house, where she found Adam in a chair with a shotgun in his mouth and his brains all over the living room wall. The divorce papers, which Angela unexpectedly had served on him, were on his lap.

I was stunned. It was not just a personal loss (I wanted to save this guy); it was not just a blow to my grandiosity (I kept telling myself in my newfound humility, this sort of thing doesn’t happen to therapists who work as hard and care as much as I). I was sad over the loss of what Adam could, with time and effort, have become. His suicide was a dumb and preventable waste. His children were devastated. Angela felt many things, among them relief: when the abuse started the year before, a well-intentioned counselor had warned her that violent men never change. She had been fearful that she could not get herself and the kids out of the marriage alive.

I met often with Angela and the kids during the next year or so, and occasionally still do, as they and I try to recover and understand. Adam didn’t leave a note. We know he spent the day before his death shopping with a friend for kitchen appliances—not the actions of a man planning suicide. No matter how much he and I had talked about the possibility of divorce, Angela and I think the divorce papers came as a bewildering shock, snapping him out of his, and my, optimistic fantasy that a change in his behavior would get him his life back. To him, the divorce papers meant that there was no hope, no future. He wasn’t ready yet for divorce; he didn’t yet have a life apart and he was not a patient man.

As I played the case over and over in my mind, I saw clearly that I could have asked Angela to slow it down. And she would have. She was in no hurry and would have proceeded at whatever pace seemed safest for herself, her children and for Adam, whom she still loved. She had no way of knowing what I knew: that, in time, as long as his behavior was different, she would very likely feel safe with Adam. Even though I had experience, expertise and wisdom about such matters, I didn’t use it.

I don’t know why I didn’t know that those papers would be served that day. Clearly, I knew they were coming soon, but I was actively trying not to direct Angela’s divorce process, or anything else she found empowering. I was optimistic in my ability to turn Adam around and, more important, in his ability to turn himself around if he had a different model of manhood. Beyond that, I was optimistic, after so many hundreds of cases in which it has happened, that Angela would take him back and the violence would not recur. So I acted neutral. I realize from this tragedy that it is as idiotic for me to be neutral about matters of marriage and divorce as about matters of life and death.

At the time I saw Adam, I had been so influenced by the feminist critique of family therapy that I’d gotten into the pattern of treating men as amateur human beings and coaching them on just what to do—of supervising them in relationships. It worked great. But at the same time, I’d become increasingly careful to validate women’s feelings and avoid telling them what to do. The result, of course, was that many men changed their behavior quickly and many women were left nursing their hurts, feeling like victims and not noticing or responding to the changes in the men or the increases in their own levels of empowerment.

I often think about my three suicides. All three of them were men who had done the unforgivable and couldn’t get their families back quickly enough. I beat myself up about them and sift through them to find what I can do to keep it from happening again. People can make such a mess of their lives that they see no hope, but suicide is too hard on the survivors—including me. It threatens to make me cautious, pessimistic and risk-averse. To be truly helpful, I need my jaunty optimism about what can be survived in life and in marriage. Without it, I can’t keep people afloat long enough for them to get their lives back. Did I give Adam too much hope? Did I give Angela too little? Did I fail to coordinate the trajectories of the changes the therapy was bringing about by being two different kinds of therapists–feminist for her, behaviorist for him? Did I go to the wrong funeral on that last day? If I’d known the papers were being served that day, I would have been with him, even if only by telephone. If he had just called me when the papers came—

Clearly, it will never be over for any of us.


This blog is excerpted from “A Matter of Life and Death” by Frank Pittman in the November/December 2000 issue.


Photo by Ric Rodrigues/Pexels

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.