When Comfort Shields was a freshman at Sarah Lawrence she met and fell in love with Ben, a former Navy recruit who joined the college as a second year freshman. Their relationship would impact Shields’ life on many levels. While he initially helped her cope with the tragic death of a classmate a year earlier in London, his mental imbalance proved to turn her life upside down. He didn’t return to Sarah Lawrence for sophomore year without telling her and it all kept tumbling out of control after that. When his erratic moods and behavior culminated in his not altogether unexpected suicide, Comfort is without an anchor. Finding little advice that applied to her situation or anywhere else to go, she wrote this book to provide others with what she did not have.
Having survived a suicide within my family 16 years ago this October, I was very much interested in Comfort’s story. Although in my situation it was my paternal uncle and not my lover or spouse, I was interested to read about the author’s experiences and insights. I turned 21 the week before Uncle Randy died. Although I knew that he had been sick for some time, his illness wasn’t something I had to experience very often. What sticks out the most to me when I think back on my relationship with him was how he seemed to become another person overnight. All of my dad’s brothers teased us cousins continuously and Randy was always the edgiest of the bunch; but, about 5 years before this happened, edgy became cruel. I spent many years afterwards being angry at him for how this affected his family, my grandparents, my father, and my brother. It took time and life experience for me to come to understand him. Now I’m just sad that he wasn’t able to get the medical help he needed and never got to meet his beautiful grandchildren.
What hit home the most to me when reading Surviving Ben’s Suicide was the author’s discussion of shame and guilt that is associated with those directly impacted by another person’s suicide. Even though this happened almost 20 years ago, it’s not something I share regularly or talk much about. Just like Shields, I worry about what people I don’t know well might think about me, my family, and – more importantly, my children. My family lived over an hour away from Randy’s and at the time he was his most sick, I was in college. Family wasn’t my highest priority then. I still feel guilty for caring more about my own life when my uncle and his family were suffering. I also know that this wasn’t my fault and, while I’m sure that my aunt and cousins would have appreciated my support, there wasn’t anything I could have done singlehandedly to change what happened.
As much as I could empathize with Comfort Shields, I didn’t find this book particularly insightful. I believe this was due to a combination of the differences in our experiences as well as the way in which the story was told. Had this story been told in a linear fashion, the impact would have been greater. Toward the end of the book she indicates that Ben’s suicide marked the end of his life and a major turning point in hers. Because of the back and forth, I was unable to fully identify how that turning point changed her life. Despite the fact that this was written after she wrote about meeting and marrying her husband and the birth of her two children into the world, there was a disconnect for me. I couldn’t recreate how she got there from where she started. I couldn’t identify what might have been different had Ben not been a part of her life or if he did not commit suicide at all.
Although Surviving Ben’s Suicide was not as meaningful to me as I’d anticipated, I hope that others who have shared similar experiences will read it. I will be passing my copy on to a friend whose brother, also named Ben, committed suicide 6 years ago this month. Books like this and Regina’s Closet are a wonderful way to heal from a suicide as well as create dialog about it. I wish Comfort Shields much success with this book. It is an excellent resource and I’m so thankful that she gave of herself to write it. Perhaps this is something that I should consider myself.
To buy this book, click here.