Review by Barbara Korbal
A Tear-Stained Letter: Surviving Multiple Sclerosis and My Wife's Suicide
Recently, Robin Williams’ decision to kill himself exposed the cultural anxiety surrounding suicide. Cowardly, selfish, and inexplicable were the words most bandied about early on in the popular response. Stirring up a cultural hornet’s nest, these comments told us more about those left behind than the beloved comedian. A few days later, informed that Williams had Parkinson’s disease, you could almost hear that collective sigh of relief. We now had a reasonable explanation for Williams’ choice to end it once and for all, whether or not we agreed with his decision.
In A Tear-Stained Letter: Surviving Multiple Sclerosis and My Wife’s Suicide, Vern Beachy writes a sincere memoir about the loss of his spouse while living with a ruthless degenerative disease. Beachy vividly portrays the impact that the suicide of Melinda—his closest friend and soul mate—had on his heart and mind. Beachy’s memoir is a functional work, showing us what the various stages of grief look like when so many questions about a person’s death remain unanswered.
What started out as a therapeutic letter after Melinda’s death becomes a slim volume capturing the emotional disassociation Beachy experiences for weeks after the police show up at his door on the evening of June 2006. Taking care of institutional matters after his wife’s suicide takes on a surreal quality as Beachy moves through a painful emotional fog hampered by the physical challenges of his MS.
The strength of this work is in the way Beachy demonstrates the anguish, guilt and loneliness of a person left behind. A Tear-Stained Letter is a template of the grief stages, complicated by Melinda’s decision not to leave any explanation. Beachy shows us a man attempting to answer “why” with only speculation as his guide. And as time passes, Beachy is clear that “it doesn’t seem to get easier, but it does get ‘different.’”
A Tear-Stained Letter makes it clear that grief after a suicide is more of a jigsaw puzzle, put together one piece at a time when so many pieces are missing. “I didn’t see any instruction sheet for handling grief,” Beachy says. Robin Williams’ decision to kill himself exposed the soft underbelly of our culture, vulnerable and lacking a language to discuss suicide and the ideas surrounding this complicated topic. Beachy’s narrative offers a vocabulary and several ways to deal with the chaotic feelings that are unmoored when a person kills themselves, leaving others behind in the emotional wake. And because of this, A Tear-Stained Letter may be especially helpful as a reassurance and affirmation for those still participating in this thing called “life.”
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