Thursday, October 22, 2020

Open Heart Investigation

A survivor friend once wrote to me about feeling “half-hearted” as she moved through her days a few years after her son’s suicide. I knew what she meant: the listless hours, the guilt or regret, the sense of detachment from purpose and pleasure. But I believe that over time, attending to and expressing our grief can ultimately allow us to revitalize our hearts.

My son’s suicide in 2013 wrenched open my heart. I’d never felt it to be such a vulnerable physical organ--bruised, shattered, deflated—as I did in the first year or two after the suicide. I needed to restore my heart through whatever healing practices and support I could find. “Let the heart lead the way!” a yoga teacher urged and I was desperate to follow. My heart is newly attuned to people who are suffering and more ready to reach out to them. Through meditation, study, and prayer, I’ve been cultivating compassion and lovingkindness in a way I might never have done without the trauma of this loss. And I’m trying to grow a renewed capacity for joy.

You may know the line from Psalm 126, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” It inspired a moving heart visualization exercise that I’d like to share with my fellow survivors or anyone who is grieving. It was taught at an online meditation session this month by chaplain Sabrina Sojourner, who began by suggesting that we bring in our grief and give it our attention like one of the guests in Rumi’s guesthouse. Then she had us picture the heart as a pocket, see what we find within it, and ask what that object has to teach us. (You may want to try the exercise with the steps listed at the end of this post before reading on.)

This practice was revelatory for me. I envisioned a dark cave with a deep red velvet pocket covered by a curtain. I reached in past the curtain to grasp a large heart-shaped stone like the one I keep by a photo of Noah in our home shrine. Why is a stone in the pocket of my heart, I wondered? Is it because I hardened my heart towards Noah when we were estranged and I couldn’t face or understand the full extent of his suffering? Is it that I still can’t quite penetrate to the heart of my failure to reach him in his darkest time—or to self-forgiveness? Maybe all that, I thought. But this object also reminds me that my love for Noah is as solid and enduring as a stone. And that my grief for him still lodges in the innermost part of my heart. I thought of the many times since Noah’s death that I’ve found or been given heart-shaped stones. When I hold this cool, cream-colored, delicately veined stone in my palm and rub it against my heart, it soothes me. This outward symbol of love in touch with my own reconstructed heart.

To my fellow survivors: What does your heart pocket look like and what might you find inside? I encourage you to try the visualization when you have a quiet moment. (I’ve listed the steps as I recall them; you might want to first audio record them for yourself with pauses between each one):

  •          Find a comfortable seated position and begin a series of long deep breaths.
  •          Sit in calm silence for a while. Settle into the stillness.
  •          Now imagine that your heart is a deep pocket.
  •           Reach your hand into your heart. What is the first thing you find there?
  •           Visualize taking the object out of your heart and holding it in your hand. How does it feel?
  •          What is this thing trying to teach you?
  •         Sit with that lesson for a while.
  •          Then slowly return the object to your heart and let it fill your body.
  •           Put your dominant hand on your heart and give it a little massage. Then take your other hand and cover the hand that is already resting on your heart.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

May His Memory Be For a Blessing

As grief loosens its grip, Noah is less and less on my mind. That seems both natural and terribly sad. It’s almost another Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and I haven’t set aside time to repent for what I failed to do to help Noah or to ask for forgiveness, even though I still feel guilt and regret. Instead I’ve been thinking about shortcomings of the past year and new intentions for the coming year. I’m living more in the present and, I hope, directing more loving energy to the people in my life, especially my son, Ben, who felt shortchanged in the early years after his brother’s suicide.

Yet I’ve been present with Noah in other ways in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays.

Noah was uppermost in my mind when we packed our valuables in response to the be-ready-to-evacuate warning for the Bobcat fire. Everything I grabbed when I first heard the warning was of or by Noah--photos of him, photos made by him, the portrait painted by his cousin. I filled a few bags with what's left of his life that feels like it can never been replaced--unlike mementos of the living.

I’ve also been writing poems about Noah, one that lets me dwell in sweet memories of him as a child on the soccer field and one that voices anguish at his death through lines from prayer. As I rework that poem, I am working through remorse and repentance with a different lens.

My husband and I visited Noah’s grave together in advance of the memorial services on Yom Kippur, which we’ve never done before. We added new rocks from our travels to the perimeter of his gravestone and sat beside it, huddled together under a big sun umbrella, reminiscing and imagining. Noah would have been incredulous, we agreed, about this pandemic, the unbelievable death toll, the lack of federal response and the restrictions on daily life. He would have wanted to be with friends in France or helping Ben with art installations in Berlin. If he’d been working in the movie industry, as we often imagine, he might have lost his job and had to move back home. We flipped through photos, reminded of his long-limbed grace and hold-nothing-back smile. I sang a lament I wrote for Noah soon after his death that I rarely sing these days: How I wish that I had told you/Every day and every night/That I loved you and would help you/And everything would be all right.

“May his memory be for a blessing,” Jews traditionally say after a death. I always thought that meant the wish that our lives be blessed with memories of the person. But as a tribute to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg notesthe expression also means that “it is up to those who bear her memory to keep her goodness alive … it’s up to us to carry on her legacy.” Of course, the legacy of a 21-year-old is vastly different from that of a beloved, venerated 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice. For Noah, it’s about his big love for friends and cousins and his grandfather—and for most of his 21 years, his readiness to laugh, have fun, and seek adventure. Our family honors this legacy with support for life-affirming youth activities like wilderness trips through the Noah Langholz Remembrance Fund . And as I made my list of intentions for the Jewish new year, I realized that one item on the list keeps Noah’s goodness alive and breathes his spirit through me: Make room for joy.

In spite of everything. Because of who Noah was. Because of who I am.

Noah would have said Amen to that. How I wish there were still joys for him to relish and for us to share.


To my fellow survivors: May you reap the blessings of your loved one's memory.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

How We Remember Them

How do we remember loved ones lost to suicide? Some mourning moms I know are gifted in creating moving, just-right ways to commemorate the lives of their lost children—in the same way that some people seem to know instinctively how to choose the perfect present and special flair for a birthday celebration. I admire people who are so attuned to what is needed, whether in grief or in gladness. 

One friend is facing the third anniversary of her son’s death many miles away from the jacaranda tree she planted in his memory and from the cemetery where she used to go with her family to remember him, with balloons. She’s found a “surrogate place” near her new home to mourn J.: a peaceful pond where she can sit and cry and remember. On his deathaversary, using photos, she plans to paint the glorious lavender of the jacaranda blossoms and make a collection of images of her son’s tree over the years as it matures--something beautiful that is growing in the world, much as J. was for 22 years.

Another mourning mom I know chose an oak tree with a beautiful view of an arroyo as a focal point for a celebration of her son’s life every year. Family and friends gather around the tree to share music, food, and memories of another young man gone too soon.

Her son’s favorite hiking trail and overlook in the Smoky Mountains are the site of a friend’s annual pilgrimage on the anniversary of her son’s suicide. She and her husband even bought a summer home near those mountains so they could feel closer to J.

Yet another mom, who used to enjoy Japanese taiko drumming with her daughter, spent years bringing their taiko group to a walk for suicide prevention in A’s memory. Dozens of people were part of Team A., remembering this young girl. The first time I heard them, I cried at the power of their sound and the power of their commitment. Their rousing music energized survivors taking part in the 5-K walk, helping us to keep moving through our grief.

Some moms find comfort in simply plugging in to traditional customs and rituals. For a mom who lost her son two years ago, what feels right is having a Greek Orthodox mass said for D. on his death anniversary and offering sweets to friends and co-workers on D.’s name day (church feast day). My husband and I sponsor a memorial meal at our synagogue each year around Noah's yahrzeit (death anniversary on the Jewish calendar).

Of course, it’s not just moms who have inspired ideas for commemoration. I was so touched at a would-have-been birthday for my son in 2016 when two of his young friends set up our living room as a recording studio to create a collective, improvised song for Noah. Their final mix of the recording, which includes bits by Noah’s French host brother and dad and friends, as well as his American cousin and friends and me (on the wordless vocals), is called "Belief (Noah's Song)." 

Moments of remembrance don’t have to be public, elaborate, or ritualistic to be what's needed. Sometimes it's enough to light a candle or look at a photo. And some survivors prefer not to plan anything and just see what arises when the day comes.

For Noah’s would-have-been 29th birthday this month, my husband and I will probably go to his favorite donut shop and walk on the beach where he liked to surf. Maybe we’ll reach out to one of Noah’s friends to catch up with their news. We love these young people through his love for them; being with them is the closest we can get to our son. In their company, we just might hear a new memory or get a momentary glimpse of what was. They are our surrogates for Noah and seem to be OK with that, maybe because we, too, are what’s left for them of the friend they lost.

Lines from the well-known poem, “We Remember Them,” feel different with each passing year:  

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
we remember them. . . .
In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
we remember them. . . .
When we are lost and sick at heart,
we remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share,
we remember them. . . .

To which I would add: In everything and everyone our loved ones loved, we remember them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What Is Possible, Revisited

Psychologist John Schneider poses three questions for the bereaved that are worth exploring for those living with suicide loss (as well as those grieving any type of loss during this pandemic). The questions are simple yet generative: What is lost? What is left? What is possible?

It’s crucial to address these in the most despondent stages of grief after suicide when the sense of loss is overwhelming and it’s difficult to see a way forward--to acknowledge the terrible loss while opening our eyes to what we carry with us from our loved one and what we may yet be able to do, love, understand. It’s also revealing to see how our responses evolve over time.

I recently found two sets of responses to these questions, one from a support group several months after my son Noah’s death and one from a blog post I wrote four years later. Before looking at the lists too carefully, I took stock of how the questions strike me now, seven years after the suicide. Some of my current responses:

What is lost?

A wonderful, witty, wacky soul and budding photographer.

A love like no other.

A brother for Ben.

Knowing, loving and being with the adult Noah.

Derailed or altered career paths for our family of three.

What is left?

A stone. A candle. Tears of sorrow and regret.

Memories shared and unshared; the fear of forgetting.

A closer bond with Ben.

Noah’s presence at the ocean, in a rainbow.

My voice, recovered and rediscovered; this blog, poems.

Ties to suicide loss survivors around the world.

Noah’s name on youth scholarships and suicide prevention events through our small family foundation.

What is possible?

A lot. Joy. Beauty. Laughter.

Compassion. Acts of lovingkindness.

More writing; a book of grief poems?

Ben’s art installations.

More young people & families, aware and prepared for crises.

A child named after Noah?

My thoughts from the three points in time have a lot of overlap: missing Noah and his gifts, our family of four, what might have been. Being left with the holdover of pain and guilt, the focus on his gravestone. At five months and at four years after the suicide, there were more questions, more troubling memories of his decline and death, more need to share our pain with others; those have receded somewhat. At five months, I wrote “I don’t know” under “what is possible”—but predicted, correctly, that my husband and I would get closer to Ben and that I would find a way back to poetry. At four years, I thought it was possible that I’d have moments of happiness, help others on this path, open my heart—and so I have.

A few years ago, I got a gratitude stone as a keepsake from a Survivors Day gathering. I put it by Noah’s high school picture more out of aspiration than conviction. Recently, while singing prayers for Shabbat at home, I happened to notice the stone when I glanced at Noah’s photo. I felt a wave of appreciation for my son’s life and love without the usual pang of pain that comes with missing him. So it’s become possible, finally, to feel the expansion of gratitude as the bitterness subsides. I can’t always access or sustain the feeling--but at least I’ve learned it is possible.

To My Fellow Survivors: Where do your thoughts go when you see Schneider’s three grief questions? Your answers are your own; there’s no recipe or timetable. It’s OK to feel stuck, OK to not know, OK to feel anger or forgiveness--whatever. Maybe you have other questions to add to the three. Keep a record of how you respond today and look back on it in a year or two; you may be surprised.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Grieving Suicide Loss in a Time of Pandemic

To My Fellow Survivors After Suicide:

Deserted streets. Stages and stadiums dark. Schools, workplaces, houses of worship suddenly empty. The world as we know it has shut down.

It reminds me of the windows going dark in my son Noah’s mind and the light draining from his eyes during his decline. How by a month before his suicide, he was almost completely shut down and we couldn’t get through to him. How after his death, life as I knew it collapsed. 

If you’re a recent survivor of suicide loss, you've likely been immersed in mourning one tragic death. Now, you’re surrounded by a global tragedy, unthinkable numbers ticking ever upward, each number another person gone and another circle of family and friends plunged into grief. Maybe you’ve struggled to see a path forward for yourself after the suicide; now the whole world is awash in a sea of uncertainty. Just when you’re trying to adjust to your own “new normal” without your loved one, everyone around you is talking about multiple “new normals.”

Maybe you’re so consumed with private anguish that you feel numb to the larger disaster of the pandemic and have to wall yourself off from it. Our son’s mental state was in shambles at the time of the Sandy Hook school shootings in December, 2012; I was so preoccupied trying to figure out how to help Noah, I didn’t have the bandwidth to follow the news or mourn along with the nation. Noah’s seventh death anniversary last month coincided with the declaration of a world pandemic and the first stay-at-home orders in the U.S. My eyes teared constantly at the thought of so much death; I had to tune out the grim statistics.

Do any of these situations sound familiar?

-       Your body is still reeling from the shock and grief of suicide loss, just when doctor visits have been restricted, eliminated, or shifted to videocalls.

-       You already felt isolated in your bereavement; now, you’re ordered to self-isolate. You desperately miss your lost loved one, who would have helped you get through this time.

-       The friend you used to walk with who really listened to your grief doesn’t want to meet in person anymore. Others who might check in with you by phone, text, or email are now checking in with lots of people, meaning less time for you; some of them are on “empathy overload.”

-       You finally joined a survivors’ support group and now it’s either on hiatus or switched to an online format—better than nothing but you really miss those hugs!

-       The comfort you used to find in your faith and religious community has been upended by social distancing. Online services, prayer, meditation, or classes are OK but you really need that fellowship coffee hour when you can hold someone’s hand or look into their eyes.

-       You’re already depleted by grief and here comes a whole other layer of exhaustion and sleeplessness on top of new routines for getting work done, watching the kids, buying groceries and staying safe. It’s enough just to get through a day.

-       You’re grateful every day to be healthy, fearful every day for another loss that touches you.

-       You’ve read about how grieving people shift back and forth between a loss orientation (preoccupied with mourning and memories of the loved one) and a restoration orientation (taking steps to return to living). You were just getting back on your feet, spending more time returning to living, but now you feel triggered by each day’s news.

On days when you feel anxious or overwhelmed, you can limit your exposure to the news and try mind-body exercises to calm yourself, like this yoga-inspired alternate-nostril breathing exercise that appears in my memoir, I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest forComfort, Courage & Clarity After Suicide Loss (Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2017):

With your right thumb over your RIGHT nostril (closing it), inhale slowly through your left nostril for three beats. Now lift off the thumb and close your LEFT nostril with your right index finger as you exhale through the right nostril for three beats. Then reverse: Keeping your right index finger where it is (over the left nostril), inhale through your right nostril for three beats.Finally, with your right thumb again over your RIGHT nostril, exhale through your left nostril for three beats and repeat the four-part pattern. Repeat the pattern for a few minutes, then sit quietly to feel the effects of the exercise.
Traumatic grief, depression, anxiety, suicidal feelings and other mental health struggles often feel magnified amidst a larger emergency. Below are a few resources for coping with your grief and staying mentally healthy in this tough time, in addition to whatever your county mental health department has to offer:

- From What’s Your Grief  

- From the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention  

- From the CDC  

- From National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)  

- From the Suicide Prevention Lifeline  

Please remember: You are doing the essential work of grieving. Your needs matter. Limit your exposure to the news and social media. Reach out for fellowship and support however you can. Find one way to take good care of yourself every day. Have compassion for your grieving soul.

In shared sorrow,


If you or someone you know are in crisis and thinking of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

Monday, March 16, 2020

7th Death Anniversary Amidst Fear & Uncertainty

Day after day in this coronavirus pandemic, another piece of our social fabric is ripped away. Day after day, I’m overcome with crying spells that I know are mostly for my son Noah’s impending death anniversary and memories of our family’s distress in the weeks leading up to his suicide. But surrounded now with collective anxiety and uncertainty, I’m also crying for—and fearful of--the vulnerability we share. Plus I’m on edge from sleep deprivation and sciatica pain that spiked this week—the body, right on schedule, howling its protest.

Know that we are connected/in ways that are terrifying and beautiful, writes Lynn Ungar in the new poem, “Pandemic.” Know that our lives/are in one another’s hands.

Noah would have been incredulous at the shutdown of everything he adored--travel, parties, movie theaters, cafes—even in his beloved France. He would have scoffed at the restrictions, strained against social distancing that went against his nature. He would have worried about his grandparents in California and his friends in Italy.


Scanning through photos of Noah, landing on this one at age 16 in the Alaskan tundra, I’m reminded of how his teenage hair sprang full and fluffy atop his head like … a corona. How I loved to pat that springy hair; how still today I stroke his head in pictures. 

The photo was taken on an extended family trip at a time when Noah scorned smiling for pictures. Was he really as brooding as he looked? Did the tumultuous sky and bleak expanse remind him of an inner state that he was starting to feel and didn’t know how to express? There was no place in his fun guy persona to put that darkness. There’s so much we’ll never know about the wilderness of Noah’s despair, how vast and unnavigable it seemed to him, how it drove him five years later to take his life. 


More lines from Ungar’s poem for everyone suffering from fear, anxiety, and isolation in this pandemic:

Reach out all the tendrils/of compassion that move, invisibly/where we cannot touch./Promise this world your love--/for better or for worse,/in sickness and in health,/so long as we all shall live.

Would that Noah and others who died by suicide could have kept the promise. 

Would that the tendrils of compassion and self-compassion reach everyone who is struggling with traumatic grief or mental health conditions at this difficult time.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Losing Faith in Trust

One of the deepest wounds of the suicide loss survivor experience is losing faith in trust. When someone we love takes their life, we lose trust in everything we know and believe about relationships, human nature, life itself. We can no longer rely on anything or anyone. And forget God or whatever we call the beyond. All bets are off. We’re left suspended in grief, shock, and confusion without a solid landing pad.

We thought everyone was in this life together, committed to the long haul and to helping ourselves and others with the hard times. But our loved one couldn’t stand the pain and slipped out of that social contract. We trusted that we knew them yet we didn’t fathom the depth of their despair, the plans they were making, or their capacity to act on those plans. Or maybe we knew that they had suicidal feelings and they’d promised to call us if it came to a crisis. We trusted them to confide in us and let us love and help them. Bereft, we feel utterly betrayed.

Can we ever fully know the people we love? Survivors are rudely confronted with this question as a matter of life and death. No matter how much we investigate, we’ll never fully understand why our loved ones took their lives.

Can we ever really change another person, much less control their actions? Survivors are forced to face our limitations here, too. We may struggle mightily with the “what if’s” and “if only’s.” But sometimes, no amount of love and care and treatment is enough.

Even more unsettling after suicide is loss of trust in ourselves. When I lost my son Noah at age 21, I lost all faith in my parenting, intuition, and emotional intelligence. Friends would tell me about some family problem and I was mute; I could no longer offer a word of insight or advice. Why would anyone trust anything I said? I had failed to save my child in his hour of need; I was, literally, clueless. All my ways of relating and understanding were broken. Any love I might still have to give? Untrustworthy.

This massive loss of trust on so many levels is what psychologists like Dr. John Jordan call the shattering of survivors’ “assumptive worlds”—the upending of everything we thought was true based on the experience of a lifetime. It’s terrifying to be suddenly robbed of that foundation.

Rebuilding trust in an unfaithful spouse, dishonest friend, or unethical institution is a slow, painful process.  Having to rebuild trust in everything—in trust itself, in life itself—when you’re grieving is especially daunting. I’m still not sure how I did it, though I’ve documented some of the steps in this blog and in my book, I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’sQuest for Comfort, Courage & Clarity After Suicide Loss (Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2017).

In the worst of the aftermath of suicide, I held onto a sliver of belief that I would heal, engage in life and be myself again. I sensed I could do this partly because I’d been through suicide loss before and survived. I have a stubborn attachment to the life force that persisted through the horror, a dim pilot light to follow. For a while I couldn’t handle the spiritual practices that had kept me grounded; I was just going through the motions of yoga, meditation, Shabbat. I had to learn to trust that my grief could be held in those places before I could finally reclaim their comfort.

What also helped was realizing that my story was safe with more people than I expected, whether fellow survivors in support groups, old friends who resurfaced, or readers of this blog. Love and support popped up in surprising ways, paving the path back to trust. Finding my voice again as a writer and seeing that my words could move and help others gave me hope. Gradually, I came to trust my instincts again and to renew my faith in the goodness of the world. 

A class I’m taking on Jewish middot (spiritual traits) has recently been discussing the balance between trust and control. I've always tipped overmuch toward control so balancing these traits is a key part of my personal “spiritual curriculum.” I can keep trying to develop and flex my “trust muscle.” But I can also give myself credit for how far I’ve come in being able to trust anyone or anything since March 19, 2013.

To My Fellow Survivors: Our paths to rebuilding a sense of trust after traumatic loss are as individual as our life paths before that loss. How have you been rebuilding and reconnecting? I’d love to hear your story. Comment here or contact me at