Thursday, January 31, 2019

Collective Grief: Reaching Out to Another Noah

Why am I so affected by a boy’s loss of his mother in my community when I barely know the family? Is it because the boy’s name is Noah, like the son I lost to suicide? Is it because this younger Noah, too, lost a mother in her 40s to cancer? Or because thinking about this boy’s tragic loss touches off a lifetime of grief?
Each loss informs the other.

I first learned this when I was a grad student researching lament traditions in rural Greece in the 1980s. Black-clothed widows would gather around the body at the wake and insert the names of their own lost ones when leading laments. The mourning of one became the mourning of all, the wake a container for collective grief. In my walks in the hills around the village, I borrowed lines from those laments to bewail my mother’s death five years earlier.
In the U.S., where expressions of grief are so much more rare and restrained, I noticed that people cry for their own dead at other people’s funerals. Like the elderly women in that Greek village, we all need safe spaces to mourn and remember. I think of the acquaintance at the shiva memorial gathering for my son, Noah, who curled up in an armchair near the front of the room and wept through the entire service; I never knew if she was crying for a suicide in her own family or some other loss, but I knew it wasn’t for Noah. And that was OK; I’d done the same.

When I heard about the teenage Noah’s mother’s death this week, I became obsessed with writing him a note, tears streaming as I contemplated what to say. The situation tugged at deep-seated memories of my own bereft, adrift state at 19 when I took care of my sick mother for six months until her death. Soon after she died, I transferred to a new college and upon meeting new people, couldn’t help mentioning that I’d just lost my mother. After all, it was the formative experience of my life and I’d been immersed in a cancer patient families’ support group where we spoke openly of death and dying, fear and despair. I desperately needed to talk about my loss but felt so alone among my bewildered peers, who had intact families. They didn’t speak the language of death and loss that I’d been learning that goes beyond hugs and cards of condolence. I’ve been speaking that language ever since to whoever would listen, greeting others on the mourner’s path.

I wanted to speak a bit of that language to the teenage Noah. I wanted to tell him that it was OK to let out his grief and speak his mother’s name and that whatever he was feeling was normal. I wanted to tell him that as someone who also lost my mom as a teen, I understood how lonely he might feel among his peers but to keep reaching out for love, find friends who would try to understand, and have the good life his mother would have wanted for him. So I wrote all this, ending with “you are and will always be your mother’s treasure,” and sealed the envelope before I could change my mind. The note I wish someone had written to me in January, 43 years ago.
I’d written a rough draft of the note first to make sure I didn’t vent or overwhelm. I choked on the opening “Dear Noah” since usually when I write that phrase in my journal, I’m addressing my own Noah who can never reply. I didn’t mention having had a precious son named Noah who died at 21; this teenage Noah doesn’t need to know that.

But of course, as I composed the note, my Noah and our bond hovered over every word. How I yearned to shield his sensitive soul from sorrow and death. How, unlike my parents, I was determined to be around in old age for him and my other son. How Noah and I became estranged and I failed to be there for him when he most needed a mother’s love. How utterly wrong it was, how unbelievable and unbearable, that this child needed a grave before me.

My Noah was his mother’s treasure. In his despair, I hope he knew that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fall Down/Get Up? The Cult of Resilience

“Some people fall down and they lie there for the rest of their lives,” says Naomi Newman in a quirky performance piece about dealing with hard times. “But some people learn to fall down/get up. Now that is one move” she gestures, sweeping her arm down and back up: “fall down/get up.” The audience laughs and applauds her spunk.

Our society venerates the “fall down/get up” impulse, the spirit that fights against all odds. It’s part of our can-do, raise-yourself-by-your-bootstraps, get-back-in-the-saddle cultural mythology. We worship resilience of the bounce-back variety. And that’s fine for dealing with many of life’s trials.

I wish everyone who struggles, including those who die by suicide, could cultivate resilience. I wish everyone could be given tools for that from a young age. 

But for those who've lost loved ones to suicide, the cult of resilience can be a harsh taskmaster. We survivors know how it feels to fall down and lie there after traumatic loss, likely the worst loss we will ever encounter. Some of us fear we’ll never get up again. When we do, we’re saluted for a strength we may not feel; when we don’t, we’re prodded to just put one foot in front of the other. The pressure to move on, when applied too soon or too often, can silence our grief.    

When I lost my son, Noah, to suicide, I was blasted apart by the shock and pain. I fell into a pit, weighed down by a morass of grief, guilt, shame, trauma. I had to fight just to get my head above water and breathe. Everything I thought I knew or believed had been shattered. I wrote and blogged out of a fierce need to tell my story and recover a sense of meaning and agency.

With time, I’d notice bits of healing but then be swamped by another grief wave. There was no clear destination for the journey. I was living, like many survivors, in a liminal space between my griefworld and the “normal” world where life went on as before. I was moving back and forth between a loss orientation, focused on mourning, and a restoration orientation, focused on returning to life.

I’m lucky that no one rushed me to snap out of it and resume my place in the world. I’m lucky I had the outlet of this blog, where I could confront Noah’s suicide on my own terms and bear honest witness to my experience, without worrying about healing. I’m convinced that taking my time over the first three years to fully explore and express my grief allowed me to move toward post-traumatic growth (positive changes that arise after processing trauma)--and ultimately, to write a grief memoir that offers hope and inspiration to other survivors.
Experts Tedeschi and Calhoun say that the more resilient people are, as in easily bouncing back from setbacks, the less likely they are to go through the “cognitive processing” (deliberate, reflective rumination) needed for transformative post-traumatic growth. Finding resolution too quickly after trauma can shut down the potential for growth—that is, positive changes in how we relate to others, see the world, and view our own strength.

So with all due respect to the tough-minded fighters out there, I hope we can bring more patience and empathy to those who, after a terrible fall, get up in their own way, in their own time.

To my fellow survivors: I hope you have as much time as you need to be with your grief. If there are days or weeks when you feel lost and need to wallow in your sorrow, that’s OK (and if you have pressing work and/or care-giving duties, hopefully you can get some help and take some time off). If you finally get up only to fall down again, that’s normal. What matters is to listen to your heart, reach out for support, and know that things will get better with time. Try to find people who will listen and help you understand rather than pressure you to move on. It’s by attending to our griefwork that we build authentic inner strength to move forward—when we are ready.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Hidden Light

My spiritual study group was meeting in my living room last month when I happened to look up and catch a glimpse of my son, Noah, listening intently with a bemused expression. We were discussing the “hidden light” of Creation that Jewish mystics say is revealed in the Hanukkah candles. I could tell Noah was both intrigued and skeptical at the same time, as he would have been had he been present.
And he was present in a way I’d never felt before. The angle of light, seen from the side, enlivened his painted face on the wall and caught his eye, as if he were just about to speak. I had to close my eyes with sudden tears before I stole another look. He’d been listening in the whole time. Of course--he was starved for all the learning and conversation he would have had, had he lived. I always sensed he was an old soul who, in spite of youthful resistance, would turn to spiritual searching or the study of religions as he got older. I should bring home more stimulating discussions for him to audit, I thought. I was so pleased to have seen a flicker of his spirit.

The big portrait of Noah, made by my niece, shows him on a family trip at 14, seven years before his suicide. The larger-than-life image looks most like him from a distance, like when I approach the front door from outside and see his reflection in the window. It’s as if Noah is home again, his tall frame filling the entry hall. 

It was at a distance that I locked on the portrait a couple weeks later. I was looking out the window at the trees, chanting gratitude blessings for Shabbat morning. I don’t know why I turned around to see Noah; maybe I was hoping for another epiphany. This time his face was still and remote, frozen in time. I missed him with such a pang. My throat clenched shut and I couldn’t sing thanks for anything anymore. I could only croak a lament and run for tissues.
I ended up rocking on the bed holding Noah’s old stuffed animal, Deerie, as I do in my worst crying fits. When I wandered into the kitchen, drained, with Deerie, our other son’s French bulldog, Miso, rose up on her tiny hind legs and began barking in alarm. I slid the furry deer puppet onto my hand and made it bonk Miso on the head, just as Noah would have done.
He would have found that pugnacious little dog totally ridiculous and lovable. The little dog that Noah never met, that helped ease our son Ben’s shock and sadness after the suicide. That Ben eventually turned over to my husband and me, knowing that we, too, needed something small to cuddle and adore in our bereavement.

A therapist friend recently asked me to help her with a project on long-term grief and I agreed--but really, what do I know about it? Grief feels buried deep within, rarely surfacing in tears, memories, or dreams. Sometimes I wonder if my intense focus on mourning in the first few years after losing Noah made for a kind of accelerated processing so that there’s little griefwork left to do, at least for now. I wonder what I might be missing or repressing as grief takes up less space in my life. 

Noah’s presence in the living room that morning was a gift. I miss him terribly. There's no formula or to-do list as we move through the years after a suicide. I guess this is what long-term grief looks like.
To my fellow survivors: When do you sense your loved one’s presence? Where can you go or what can you do to feel more in touch with their spirit? Let them in, let your love go out to them, especially in this holiday season when we can feel so isolated and bereft. Wishing you peace and connection, with the dead and the living.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Looking for Gratitude Amidst Grief

To my fellow survivors: How are you feeling on the eve of this holiday season?
Are you looking forward to holiday activities as a distraction from grief and a chance to have others take care of you? Do you feel grateful for what you have? Are you noticing that over time since the suicide, you’ve become more open to the idea of celebrating? If so, may you enjoy these next few weeks. You may want to try something like the Grateful Remembrance Jar or Bowl if you are at gatherings with people who knew the person you lost.

Or, on the other hand, maybe you are anxious and confused as the holidays approach. Do you worry that those around you expect you to participate in festivities as if you were the same person as before the suicide?

Jessica at the Our Side of Suicide blog stresses the importance of asking for what you need on the holidays, whatever that may be. I echo most of her suggestions. But I don’t think survivors of traumatic loss should feel obliged to have a positive attitude at the holidays, especially in the early stages of grief. Trying to fit in with a festive spirit can make us feel even more alone and bereft, a reminder of how we’re living in a parallel universe.  
The first few years after my son’s suicide, I felt banished from the sense of gratitude I’d been cultivating. I couldn’t sing or pray or meditate on anything related to gratitude without ending up in tears. I had to fight and claw my way back to the slightest grip on gratitude by sheer determination—but in my own time and on my own terms, not to please others or shield them from my pain. This became easier and less fraught with each passing holiday.

A few years ago, I felt conflicted when the advisory board for Survivors After Suicide came up with the theme “Finding Gratitude Amidst Grief” for our holiday potluck for survivors. How could we help each other with this daunting task? I created a short guided meditation that I led at the event that seemed to soften the tension in the room, opening a way to feel more calm and centered, if not actually grateful. It’s one of the healing mind-body exercises included in my book to help my fellow survivors. I’m reprinting the meditation below in hopes that it will allow you to hold both grief and a bit of gratitude in your heart at the same time. 
Wishing you peace this Thanksgiving and beyond. Take good care.

Guided Meditation by Susan Auerbach*

(Note: You might want to audiorecord this and play it back so you can close your eyes and relax into the meditation.)
Close your eyes and sit quietly….  Feel your feet on the floor and your body in the chair with your hands resting in your lap…. Slow down your breath and breathe in gently for a count of 3 …  then out for a count of 3… Breathing in this moment … breathing out any distractions…  Maybe breathing in a blessing in your life … breathing out gratitude for even one small blessing … Breathing in ... and out … In … and out… [long pause] Now take a moment to bring to mind the love you shared with the person or persons you lost … [long pause] As you think of this, place your right hand over your heart, breathing in that love … and breathing out … breathing in to let that love fill you … and let it out … [long pause]. Now think about someone or something that has supported you on your grief journey … With that thought, bring your left hand on top of your right hand that is still resting on your heart… Breathing in the possibility of gratitude, now or in the future … and breathing out …  Breathing in the wish to open the heart …  and breathing out … [long pause] Relax as you continue to focus on your breath and the warmth of your heart … When you are ready, open your eyes.  

*From "I'll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother's Quest for Comfort, Courage & Clarity After Suicide Loss" by Susan Auerbach, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, © 2017.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Haunted by Hometown Memories

Dear Noah,
I’m spending a rare few hours in our old neighborhood, your home town. I’ve been avoiding the place since your suicide. It’s too full of reminders of you growing up before everything fell apart, the last place you felt happy and at home. 

I was at the library today for the first time in years, the core of the town and of many memories. I used to bring you and your brother to story time, long before we moved here. I’d take you outside and you’d clamber around the giant, protruding roots of a magnolia tree like bold explorers before we settled down to read your library books.

You used to be excited lining up on the library grounds for the 4th of July Parade with Dad, Ben and the juggling club. You were a small-town celebrity from ages10-14, juggling flaming clubs and water balloons as you marched down the main street, classmates and neighbors cheering from the sidelines. Across the street from the library, you juggled in community festivals, moving effortlessly through difficult patterns and emceeing the famous celery trick (where Dad and Ben juggled clubs until they knocked a stick of celery out of the mouth of an audience volunteer).

Next to the library is the coffeehouse where Dad used to hang out, where eventually you’d come to linger over espresso at the outdoor tables with friends, trying to look cool. Down the street is a French cafĂ© where you dreamed of working and speaking French, but never did. Dad and I ate there a couple years ago on your birthday with your best friend’s mom and your girlfriend, images of you hovering over our heads.

Not far from the library are the schools where you made lifelong friendships, debated a whip-smart conservative classmate, miraculously dragged yourself to 6am water polo practice. Here are the streets where you learned to drive, where you walked with your long, loping gait and biked and skateboarded till you hit a pine cone and fell--I half expect to see your teenage self careening around the corner. Here, too, are the friends’ homes where you went to your first girl-boy party, cooked midnight pasta, played with BB guns, and of course, drank, smoked.... 

In our last picture from ten years in this town, we are a family of four arrayed on the front steps with an aging Wags. Dad and I are about to sell the house and you are about to leave for your sophomore year of college—where a few weeks later, you’ll lose a close friend to suicide and begin your struggle with PTSD, depression and anxiety. I often wonder if losing your touchstones of home, home town, and soon after, Wags, added to your burdens.

In the weeks after your death when I was still too traumatized to drive, I tried not to look out the window if Dad and I passed through the town. I couldn’t bear seeing kids walking to school or going into Starbucks--all signs of the normalcy we’d lost. Five-plus years later, being out and about here still makes me uneasy with a faint tug on the gut that I can’t shake. 

Now our main connection to this town is the stone with your name in the Children’s Memorial and Healing Garden in the town park. I try to visit several times a year, especially on your birthday and Valentine’s Day. I sit by your stone and write and weep. Sometimes I bring others to grieve with me. Today I brought you one of those huge, shiny acorns you used to collect.

Next month, I’ll be at the library to give a book talk* on my grief memoir about losing you. I’ve given a lot of these talks but the location of this one makes me nervous, attached as it is to memories of your years of promise. I hope to see people there who knew you and miss you. I hope to feel your spirit watching over me. 


To my fellow suicide loss survivors: Are there places too painful to go that remind you too powerfully of your lost one? With time, choosing how and when you visit, you may find comfort going there--another way to keep precious memories alive. 

*Suicide is Everyone's Business: A Mother's Grief Memoir and Suicide Prevention Awareness, with Susan Auerbach, author, and Sandri Kramer, prevention specialist, Tuesday, November 13, 2018, 7pm, South Pasadena Library Community Room, 1115 El Centro St., South Pasadena, CA. All welcome.

Friday, October 5, 2018

When Talk of Suicide is Off Limits: On Both Sides of a Gag Order

It’s been five and a half years since the suicide of our son, Noah. We thought the days of dealing with other people’s discomfort with what happened were long past. So my husband and I were taken aback when a relative told us that if we planned to visit, they would ask that we not talk about Noah.

My pulse surged. The request was a stab in the gut, censoring the most important thing in our lives since 2013, as if Noah had never lived and his traumatic death had never happened. It heaped more hurt on the pain we’d swallowed in the early years when the relatives stopped asking how we were and missed Noah’s memorials. Now, Bryan and I felt silenced, shamed, and isolated all over again, as if our very presence was considered toxic.

I couldn’t live under a gag order. I knew I’d have to say something in response, but I was uneasy. Something felt dreadfully familiar.
It came to me with a pang: What had been done to us, I had recently done to an old friend during a phone call. I had silenced her, a fellow suicide loss survivor, when she was telling her story by setting limits on parts of the story that I didn’t want to hear. In shutting her down, I was protecting myself from things I found disturbing—just like my relative. Later, in apologizing to my friend, I learned that I’d said other things during the call that upset her greatly and that my whole sense of what was over the line was off the mark.

So here I was, on both sides of a gag order, impaired in my understanding of others. I felt humbled, my righteous indignation at the relatives deflated.
The email to them that I’d been agonizing over now flowed easily, touched with compassion. I wrote that Bryan and I were saddened at how their needs and our needs seemed to be in conflict. That they were entitled to protect themselves as they saw fit, and we would never wish to harm them. That when we talked about Noah among relatives, it was usually to share good memories, and that it hurt us that even this was not welcome. That we wouldn’t come to visit but hoped that we could talk in person sometime soon to clear the air.

“Thank you so much for your understanding,” came the quick reply, with a “yes” to talking it over one day. I look forward to that day, whenever it comes.
Suicide and the grief that follows it lay bare so many human limitations. The limits on our suffering loved ones’ ability to withstand the pain, have hope or seek help. The tragic constraints on our own ability to understand, help or save them. In the aftermath, limitations on how ready we are to look at pictures, deal with the person’s possessions, accept that everyone grieves differently. Some survivors avoid support groups because they can’t bear the burden of other people’s stories. In staking out what’s off limits, they are taking care of themselves—like my relative with me, like me with my friend, maybe like you.  

To my fellow survivors: How have you navigated the limitations others place on you in the aftermath of suicide? What about the limitations you notice within yourself?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Challenging Conversations: After Asking if Someone is Thinking of Suicide

When survivors of suicide loss go to suicide prevention trainings, we fortify ourselves with information and strategies we wish we’d had when our loved one was in crisis. Often we're hoping to stumble on some stray piece of the puzzle that will unlock the mystery of their suicide. Sometimes we recognize our family member in the lists of risk factors and warning signs and the testimonials of suicide attempters; sometimes not. Sometimes we are triggered; sometimes numb. We’re spurred by the need to spread suicide awareness on the chance of saving a life, sparing another family our torment.  

At a recent conference, I learned more about how to talk to people who are suicidal. I was reminded of the two times I managed to ask my son Noah if he was thinking of suicide when he was suffering from major depression and anxiety disorder. Somehow I knew then that it was important to ask; what I didn’t know was how to respond to the answer.  

The first time I asked Noah about suicide, he scoffed and said he would never do such a thing. I was relieved, though I knew he could be bluffing. I assumed he meant that he valued life and knew how devastating it is to be left behind; he had felt bereft and betrayed after a close friend’s suicide at college.

The second time I asked was on the phone when he’d gone back to college with great difficulty a few weeks after a psychotic episode. He had already called twice to say he was coming home, then changed his mind. This time when I asked The Question, he paused and said, “not right now.”

To my great regret, instead of hearing him out, I went mama-bear ballistic on the phone. “That’s all the more reason you need to go back to the therapist and tell him what’s been happening!” I shouted. “Please promise me you’ll do that.” He never did, though he did call a previous therapist 3,000 miles away, who told Noah to see a psychiatrist immediately.

I know better now. I’ve learned that, rather than suddenly provoking thoughts of suicide, being asked if they’re thinking of suicide can be a relief to people who have not been able to express their thoughts. I’ve learned that a helper’s role in these horrifically challenging conversations is to listen calmly, without judgement or efforts to persuade. That’s almost impossible advice for parents—or for anyone who feels alarmed and protective with someone in crisis—which is why we have to practice these lines and make them our own, in readiness for when they might be needed. I’ve learned the difference between passive suicidal feelings (wanting to go to sleep and never wake up) versus active ones (intending to take one’s life), and the risk of having a general plan for the method of suicide versus a detailed plan (how, when, where). (You can read about a simple 6-step screening tool here.)  

After the conference, I sat down with pen and paper for an awkward do-over of that second exchange with Noah. With what I know now, some things I wish I’d said:

I’m really, really sorry to hear that. Thank you for telling me. I appreciate your honesty.

I love you; I want to hear what you’ve been going through. I promise to stay calm and listen.

That sounds really hard.

When you said you thought about suicide recently, was it just thoughts or did you plan to act on those thoughts? Did you know how you would do it? Did you start preparing?

We know you’ve been suffering terribly and we want to help you get healthy. We’re here for you, every step of the way. Let's talk about some ways to keep you safe.

Noah might have shut me down with, “Forget it, Mom, you’re not my therapist.” Or he might have opened up, even a little.

Might words like this have helped lead Noah away from the brink? I’ll never know. It’s too late for my family, but it’s not too late to inform myself and others so we can try to make a difference when someone is suicidal.
For Suicide Prevention Month and beyond, please: Know the signs. Find the words. Reach out .