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,

Susan

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 susanauerbach56@gmail.com

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Graveside Chat


I tend to avoid the cemetery where my son Noah is buried. So it took my older son Ben’s suggestion that we go together to get me there as part of his recent New Year’s visit home. 


I hate that Ben was robbed of brotherhood in adult life by Noah’s suicide. 


I hate that I was thwarted in my resolve that no child of mine would be an only child like I was. 


I hate that our family has to spend time in cemeteries talking about death and remembering Noah.


But those are the facts of our lives. And it was a comfort to spend time at the grave with Ben, to see him stride directly to the spot and set up the golden Nepalese prayer wheel he’d brought from his travels while I added tiny redwood pinecones to the side of the marker. He settled himself cross-legged on the ground above the gravestone, slumped with silent crying. Does he cry, as I do, as much for himself and the hurt our family suffered as he does for missing Noah?

I’m pleased that Ben is not afraid to cry, to talk about death, or to be among the dead. At 30, he’s asking more questions about the cemetery and the sorry business of death in America. He was appalled to learn the cost of burial and how my husband and I were offered a nearby plot for ourselves as part of a package deal at a time when our minds were so addled with grief. (All I could think of then was how I wanted to be close to my child forever; we took the plot.) I felt wistful imagining how Ben would have to come alone to these patches of ground someday.
  
We sat for a while in the breeze amid the whir of nearby pinwheels. I put my head on his shoulder. 

My husband had left a little red dreydl (spinning top) by the grave when he was there at Hanukah. Ben picked it up and gave it a spin on the gravestone. Noah would have laughed at that. Our boys used to have dreydl wars, setting a dozen spinning at once and trying to knock each other's tops off the table. 


*

A week or two after Ben left for his home overseas, my yoga teacher told me, “I can see your son is with you during meditation.” Not sure I’d heard right, I agreed it was nice to have shared her yoga class with Ben during his visit. “No, I mean your other son,” the teacher said. She’s known about Noah’s suicide for a while and not said anything. Did it take meeting my living son for her to be able to visualize my dead one?

How much of Noah is still channeled through Ben, in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world? What part of Noah does Ben carry with him? I hope it doesn’t bother Ben that I keep asking that question among the many questions I ask about his life. From his brother, cousins, friends -- I still desperately need to know any way that Noah’s spirit lives on within them. It helps me to cherish his memory.


To my fellow survivors: What’s it like lately for you to visit your loved one’s grave or other place of memory? Have you tried going there with someone who shares your grief? I treasure the visits another survivor mom and I made to each other’s young son’s graves, lawn chairs and lemonade in tow, just as I appreciate the visits I make with Ben. Bringing someone with you can lighten the dread of those visits and stir conversations that might not happen otherwise, bringing you closer to each other and to your loved one's memory.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Choosing Poetry Over Survivor Day

I missed this year’s International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day , which I’ve attended religiously for seven years on the weekend before Thanksgiving and recommended to many new survivors. The event brings us together to remember our dead, process our grief, and reconnect with community at a time when it feels like everyone else is celebrating. Survivor Day has been a touchstone for me since losing my son Noah. 

This year instead of focusing on my loss, I was pursuing one of the life-affirming new directions that has grown out of it: I was at a poetry writing workshop led by a favorite poet, Ellen Bass. When I first heard about the workshop and realized it conflicted with Survivor Day, I only hesitated for a moment; then, I chose writing. Poetry and prose have been precious vehicles for my grief since losing Noah, so I knew going to the workshop wasn’t a total departure from talking and thinking about loss. And reading grief poems, like those in the excellent anthology, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, has inspired me to cultivate my own mourner’s voice.

I first discovered Bass through her poem, “The Thing Is,” which we had read aloud at Noah’s memorial. It’s still one of the most stark and honest expressions of grief that I know, yet somehow also hopeful:

            The Thing Is | by Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
Much of the poetry I’ve written since Noah’s suicide in 2013 has been in the key of grief. “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” Wordsworth famously wrote; “it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Powerful feelings I’ve proclaimed in spades, though not always from a place of grace. Still, I believe even emotionally raw poems are worth writing—and maybe some, worth reading.

Two poems that I wrote a few years ago were recently published in a literary journal for medical professionals called Please See Me, which aims to humanize the doctor-patient relationship.  The theme of the issue was Pain. “Takeaway” comes from a dream I had shortly after Noah died that rewrites the script of the day of his suicide; that poem probably wouldn’t meet Wordsworth’s bar. “Tending the Shrine” comes from a more reflective place of regret.

A newer poem, just out in Greensboro Review, uses the cento form, altering and arranging lines from other people’s poems to form a new composition. The lines and structure of my “Grief Cento” came together effortlessly from the dozens of grief poems I’ve been collecting—and living--as if channeling my experience through well-known poets’ voices. One of the lines in my cento is from Ellen Bass. 

For a while now, I’ve cherished the dream of publishing a chapbook of poems about Noah as both tribute and testament. At the workshop, I found myself writing about my mother’s death and my fraught relationship with my father, who also died by suicide. Maybe there’s room in the chapbook for other expressions of loss. Meanwhile, there’s so much to learn about crafting poetry and about writing in different tonalities, beyond the key of grief.

*

The blessing of this Thanksgiving was hosting a young cousin who Noah adored. Four years older than Noah and infinitely cool, Gabe led him on adventures in surfing, cooking, hiking and travelling. Having Gabe with us at the table after a few years’ absence made it easy to share childhood stories about Noah, like his awe at Gabe’s daredevil skateboarding and firecracker setting. I was grateful for the chance to bring Noah’s name and memory so easily and lovingly to the holiday table.

On their way to our house on this rainy Thanksgiving, friends saw a huge rainbow that spanned the city of Los Angeles. I wish I could have seen it. I wish Noah could have seen the beauty and serenity that can follow in the wake of a terrible storm, like his biblical namesake did. Since Noah’s death, I’ve decided to take every rainbow—even the little prism of colored light on the floor of my yoga studio--as a sign of Noah’s spirit. How he dazzled us with his conversation, talents and passions. How he surfed, transfixed, in the vastness of sea and sky. How his short life spanned worlds.



To my fellow survivors: Wishing everyone hope, 
healing and openings for shared memories in this season of light.