Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Tripping Over Grief and the Right to Thrive

 


It wasn’t until I came back from a recent trip that I had the jarring realization that I’d barely thought about or talked about my son Noah, who died by suicide in 2013. This was a first since Noah loved to travel and my husband and I often try to imagine him in places we visit. On this trip, I hadn’t even written Noah’s name on every beach, as I vowed to do in my memoirInstead, I was reveling in new vistas, tastes, and experiences with my husband and son Ben after so much pandemic isolation.

I loved the trip and getting to spend extended time with Ben. He deserves my full attention, which I couldn’t give him back when still overcome with grief. But on future family trips, I want to make a point of saying Noah’s name, making a toast to him, remembering and celebrating him together. With time, this may take more effort and intention.

Grief is a floating barge-boat,/who knows where it’s going to/moor?” –Charles Wright,“Toadstools”

In the unpredictable drift and swell of grief, I’ve been missing Noah a lot since coming home. It’s the time between my father’s 40th death anniversary and Noah’s would-have-been 31st birthday. I welcome the upwelling of sadness and regret and the good cry I had during deep relaxation at a yoga class—far better that than weeks without Noah on my mind. At 9+ years after his suicide, what I fear most is no longer carrying him with me as memories flee.

Grief is a ghost that visits without warning. It comes in the night and rips you from your sleep… It interrupts you mid-laugh when you’re at a party, chastising you that just for a moment you’ve forgotten. – Suleika Jaouad, “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted”

Sometimes I’m living my life and reasonably happy, even excited or full of gratitude,  and suddenly I trip over Noah’s death. It’s like an ambush by a little alien voice in my head. Wait – how can I be happy when I’ve lost a child to suicide? Now or ever? How can I forget the enormity of what happened and blithely move through my days? As if I’ll always bear this burden and it will always hobble me. I have to rise up, quash the demon voice and assert my right to thrive, even amid sorrow and regret.

Grief is such a small word for such big feeling. Like light, it is right on top of you one minute and halfway across the world in the next. Sarah Haufrecht

After Noah died, I thought a lot about the biblical Noah and decided to consider every rainbow a sign from my son—luminous, rare, spanning worlds. We hardly ever see rainbows where I live in southern California. But every afternoon lately when the angle of the sun is just right, I’m treated to little streaks and smudges of rainbow light skittering across the bathroom floor. With those splashes of color, Noah’s spirit is peeking into the house, leaving his mark, determined to live on among us. Every afternoon, a little bit of Noah comes home to delight me.

To my fellow survivors: With each of us at different stages, you may feel banished from joy right now. I get it. Still, summer’s here and I hope you’ll allow yourself some of its pleasures. You deserve a grief respite. You deserve a delightful day or week in spite of—because of ---everything.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Mother's Day Musings for Mental Health Awareness Month

 A parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child. When you have a child who struggles with a mental health condition, you realize how alarmingly true this truism is. I was so desperate and distraught when my son Noah was in crisis, I couldn’t think clearly about how to communicate with him or help him. Nor could I fully take in information that might have helped guide our family through those terrible months before his suicide.

I’m reminded of that nightmare time today, Mother’s Day, during Mental Health Awareness Month, when the media is full of reports on mental illness and the failures of our mental health system. Tears spring when I read about other mothers with kids in despair. Like the mother on suicide watch with her 12-year-old son, who was waiting for an opening in an inpatient treatment center. “It was the scariest two weeks of my life,” the mother said. There was a poignant photo of her with her arm around her son, sitting under a tree in the dark, heads bowed. Or the mother of a precocious, deeply depressed adolescent who lay with her arms around her son’s broken body in a hospital bed after the boy jumped from their apartment building roof. “I just held him and caressed him,” she said, knowing he wouldn’t survive. I did the same nine years ago when I held Noah’s head in my lap on the floor of the garage, waiting for the paramedics after a neighbor did CPR. I stroked my son’s warm skin and called his name over and over, knowing he was gone.

At least, I think, the 12-year-old boy was still young enough that he was afraid and agreed to a safety plan. At least, I think, his mother could keep him on a suicide watch. Why didn’t we do the same? What was it about Noah that made us worried sick but not so vigilant as to supervise him 24/7? Noah suffered for two years but my husband and I saw little of it in person; he was away at college or on his own in another city on a year off from college. We saw mainly the beginning and the end of Noah’s struggle with clinical depression, anxiety and PTSD. At ages 20 and 21, he wouldn’t talk with us about it or let us talk with his therapists; we couldn’t even make an appointment for him with a psychiatrist. The sense of helplessness and ignorance—his and ours—was devastating.

The personal is the political – another truism. Each of these wrenching stories is part of a larger problem. There’s the shortage of treatment options, the rise in child suicide, the surge in depression and suicidal thinking during the pandemic, the dearth of mental health awareness and education. Just as the pandemic has exposed so many fault lines in our society, so, too, has it laid bare the shameful gap between mental health care needs and available services.

The crisis in our mental health system may not affect most people directly – until it does. It’s never too late to inform ourselves and everyone around us about mental health and suicide prevention, never too late to have the “mental wellness” talk with our children or advocate for the accessible, quality mental health care that all our families deserve. Out of love for our children, living or dead, struggling or thriving, let’s commit ourselves to action for mental wellness this Mother’s Day. (Including our own self-care!)

To my fellow survivors: This can be a tough day for those of us who have lost a child, especially if the loss is recent. It may help to check out my blogpost,  this reflection by a mourning mom  or the many resources of the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Nine Years Gone

 


Noah’s grandpa had a custom of dedicating a fruit tree in his yard to each grandkid by marking it with a souvenir California license plate. When his house sold recently, I retrieved the little license plate for our yard. I hung it on the dwarf apple Noah planted with my husband Bryan in 2013, a couple weeks before Noah’s death. His name on that tree hearkens back to the grandpa he adored, to our years of nurturing Noah, to the balm that gardening became for Bryan after the suicide. Did Noah know then that he was leaving that tree behind for us? The profusion of spring blossoms evoke the growth that might have been for Noah.

Nine years is a long time.

I find myself thinking a lot of “Noah would have” statements lately. Noah would have admired the animated documentary film, “Flee” with its artful depiction of trauma and world events. Noah would have scoffed at the hydrofoil surfboards we saw turning capers in the ocean this morning—or would he have coveted one? Noah would have clambered up his brother Ben’s art installation with the ease of a cat and perched on top.

Nine years of would-haves.

I’d been saving stones from our travels to put on his grave, some from pre-COVID times. When I finally made it to the cemetery last week, after my usual procrastinating, I realized I had one for each year he’d been gone and lined them up alongside his marker. A lot happens in nine years, I told him. A lot for us, a lot that could have been for you.

This week, when I finally opened Noah’s memorabilia box--the one that for a while felt too radioactive to touch--I was struck by the heap of stones he’d saved in a plastic bag. There were some of the same beguiling green serpentines that I’d been saving for his grave. The same shade as his wide eyes that seemed to see beyond his years. The color of a cresting wave on the central coast on a cloudy day. I wonder, did we find these stones on the same beach, the one where Bryan and I go to remember him? Did he know that serpentines are considered healing stones, symbolic of heart energy? All the healing that might have happened over nine years. .  .

Let objects stir the slow simmer of memory.

In the memorabilia box I found another license plate, the real one Noah saved from his funky little vintage motorcycle. He was so excited to buy it, though he had to keep fixing it. It was too small for him and when he took off down the street with his long legs bent far out on either side, he looked like he was riding into a cartoon in a puff of dust.

In Noah’s stone collection were several flat smooth ones perfect for skipping on water. Noah would have …


In loving memory of Noah Langholz
June 28, 1991 – March 19, 2013


Thursday, March 3, 2022

March Sadness


To my fellow survivors: How have you been? Please forgive the long silence on this blog. 
I could say I’ve been busy but that’s no excuse for being out of touch. In the past few months, I’ve been consumed first with sciatica pain, then with leading a sponsorship group for an Afghan refugee family. Both these things left me little energy for reaching out to others, much less for reflection. Now I’m ready, I hope, to reconnect.

The star jasmine on our back fence is in bloom again with its sweet, enticing fragrance. In two weeks, our son Noah will have been gone nine years. As my physical pain has ebbed, my February/March sadness has come creeping in. Not in its usual way of weeks of dread in anticipation of his death anniversary and anguish at re-living his final stage of life, but in small spells of tears. Like when my niece turned 25 the other day and I thought of how Noah adored her and how unfathomable it is that he wasn’t here to celebrate her milestone birthday–or his own.

How can my precious child live only in the past? At least in the first months and years after Noah’s suicide, his spirit reverberated in the present; his face, his smell, his friends, his opinions and conversation still enveloped me. Everything—birds, rainbows, beaches—felt like messengers of his enduring presence. I miss the intimacy of that early phase of grief, how I could hold him close, how my heart was wide open with love and hurt. Even my sense of guilt and echo chamber of “what-if’s” kept us connected.

Over time, Noah is more memory than presence. This makes me feel furious, bereft, confused. What can I do with a memory? How do I love and mother it? How do I ask it everything I yearn to know about Noah’s struggle and his dreams? Some force like a tide keeps pulling him away from me with ever fewer remnants left on shore.

The sad truth is that Noah takes up less and less space in my mind and my life. In one way, this is natural and healthy; life goes on without him in it, without my being engulfed by grief. But the press of other things can crowd him out for weeks, even months, and I feel terrible about that. It feels like a betrayal of Noah and of the loss that defined my life in the early years.

I’m learning that if I want to be in touch with my grief and memories of Noah, I have to open up space, let the heart slow and soften, put myself in certain places or with certain people. Like standing arm-in-arm with my cousin in front of Noah’s little shrine last Thanksgiving and her saying, “Sweet Noah, we love you and miss you so much”—how it touched me to hear someone else call out to his spirit.

I first learned to pray in 2012 when Noah was suffering with severe depression. I was taught a blessing practice with lines like, “May you be blessed with peace, may you be blessed with compassion, may you be blessed with love.” I recited it like a mantra, first for Noah, then after his death for my family. Today during a guided meditation, I was startled at the thought of Noah himself as a “vessel of blessing” who might heap wishes on the family that mourns him. Who might, in his own irreverent voice, call on us to find peace, ease, and joy, however we can.

To my fellow survivors: What do you do with the memory of your lost one? How do you keep it alive? What blessings do you think that person would wish for you now? You may want to check out this advice about continuing bonds with a loved one from Alliance of Hope and this additional advice from What's Your Grief.


 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Never Forget? 9/11 Commemorations & Suicide Loss Survivors

 

My mother-in-law used to clip a red rose from her garden every week and put it in the kitchen window in memory of her grandson, Noah, who died by suicide. One day I noticed a small picture frame near it with the phrase “never forget.” Though the slogan and frame came from a Holocaust remembrance event that our family had attended, it touched me to see it by Noah’s rose.

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 last month and exhortations to “never forget,” America reached another grim milestone of collective grief in 2021. (The first was commemorating the horrific loss of life from the pandemic earlier this year.) All those reminders of death and outpourings of grief can be triggering for suicide loss survivors. We may identify with the stricken families of 9/11 victims. Like them, we can never forget the people we lost and the tragic circumstances of their deaths, the feelings of shock and devastation, the sense that our lives were forever changed. As 9/11 arrives every year, the whole world’s attention is suddenly focused on tragic loss and traumatic grief—realities that 9/11 survivors and suicide loss survivors live every day.

I found the commemorations especially moving this year with the greater depth of perspective that a 20th anniversary offers. I was especially taken with a New York Times article, “What Does It Mean to Never Forget?”and include some of its stories in my thoughts below. What lessons might 9/11 commemorations have for our own grief journeys as suicide loss survivors?

-                 --“Never forget” is not always good advice psychologically. We may need to forget certain traumatic images, sounds, and smells--especially from scenes of death or crisis—that are the stuff of PTSD. Visualize locking away those intrusive memories in a closed container like a locked trunk, a therapist once told me; it’s your choice as to if and when you ever re-open the container.

-                -- Traumatic loss can distort memory. We remember some details of the event but have mental blocks against others, like the fireman who berated himself for not being at Ground Zero to help when, in fact, he was. Memory studies after 9/11 found that even by 2002, 40% of those surveyed had changed their stories on such basic facts as where they were when they first heard the news. How might we suicide loss survivors not be remembering clearly or accurately about the suicide, what led up to it and followed it? What over time has shaped the narrative of the suicide or its aftermath that we carry with us?

-                --There’s no accounting for which memories might trigger us and when. A 9/11 widow was reminded of her husband by the smell of cigar smoke, the sight of a bicycle; in order to function, she said, “I compartmentalize. But there’s a permanent leak in the compartment.” Ongoing self-care helps us prepare for and recover from triggers. If we feel triggered by collective grief, we may need to shield ourselves from related media coverage, memorial events, and even casual conversation.

-               -- One of the key tasks of traumatic loss survivors is to figure out how we are going to remember the lost person. Will we leave it to chance? Will we sponsor a celebration of life or memorial bench or charity event? Will we create special actions, rituals, and occasions over time that help us to remember, alone or with others? Anniversaries bring us together with wider circles of people in collective remembrance that is often comforting and restorative. We can feel less alone when we open up our grief stories to others and offer others a structured occasion for sharing grief.

I can't help wondering: How will I remember Noah on his 20th death anniversary in 2033 when I’m 77? Who will share that occasion with me? Most unsettling of all -- how will he be remembered after I’m gone?

As loss survivors, we are immersed in questions of memory and forgetting. How could we possibly forget something so momentous as a suicide, someone so precious as our lost one? And yet … the relentless rush of life in the present threatens to engulf our sense of Before. The details of memory naturally get swept away over time; we have to take deliberate steps to hold them close. Sometimes it can feel like plugging the holes in a dike to keep back the press of time. With each memorial event, with each moment set aside to grieve and remember, the dike gets stronger—but memory, I've found, takes vigilance and care.

To my fellow survivors: What does it mean to you to “never forget”? How would you like your loved one to be remembered on the 10th or 20th anniversary of their death?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Naches (Pride & Joy): A Family Milestone



July 31, 2021, was a milestone for our family. It marked the opening of our son Ben's first major art installation to be purchased and permanently installed in a magnificent setting. For my husband Bryan and me, it was a day of pure joy and pride in Ben's accomplishment and perseverance, a complete immersion in his life and work. Why am I featuring it on this blog? Because it was also a day without a thought about Noah, our younger son who died by suicide in 2013. Arriving at total presence in the moment with one's living child is no small matter for parent survivors of suicide loss. I want to honor that moment here as part of healing and post-traumatic growth.

Stone 27 by Benjamin Langholz, first seen at Burning Man in 2019, now sits atop a windy hill in Marin County, California, overlooking bay and sea. Ben calls it a pathway of “floating stones”— an elliptical stairway of 27 boulders suspended up to 20 feet high by miles of steel cable and towering poles. Ben wants people to immerse themselves in the structure and “experience a moment of complete presence”  —which I didn’t realize was what we did until now.

Bryan and I had seen Stone 27 at Burning Man, where we were awed by its imposing presence in the desert and delighted by the thousands of happy people clambering over it. Seeing the piece the other day in its new setting, 


presiding over a wide expanse of rolling grassland and tranquil bay, made my heart swell. I could have wandered through its rigging for hours, rubbing the rough boulders and admiring the young folks who scampered effortlessly to the top. (I made it to the fifth stone – those boulders are wobbly!) A dear friend who was with us said that walking into the footprint of Stone 27 felt like walking into the weightlessness of a Gothic cathedral.

We were amazed at the monumental effort it took to get all the heavy materials and construction equipment up a two-mile dirt track and to anchor the structure underground with 36 2,800-pound concrete blocks. We were even more dumbstruck that a small team of artists, engineers, Burners and assorted friends—none of them professional builders--could make this happen under Ben’s direction.

Who dreams up such a structure, then dares to think it can be built in a place like this and clears each engineering and logistical hurdle? Who keeps the team motivated and happy with abundant music, dancing, food, and thanks? Who documents the whole project with an artist’s eye and makes sure there’s a shady canopy at the opening with cold refreshments and chairs on a warm summer day?

Wow – it’s our kid! Bryan and I were shepping naches, a Yiddish term for feeling immense pride and joy in one’s children’s or grandchildren’s accomplishments, as well as satisfaction in them growing up to be a mensch (Yiddish for a good person). 

Thanks, readers, for letting me kvell (burst with expressions of pride and joy) about this!

Because here’s the thing: naches can be elusive or hard won for parents who lose children to suicide. After the suicide, we may struggle with guilt, diminished self-worth, envy of families who can celebrate ordinary milestones. Of course we took pride and joy in our kids in the years we had with them--but we miss out on the gratification of seeing them become their full adult selves. That lost chance for naches is but one of the pleasures of parenting that, in cutting their lives short, our children took from us.

Survivors deserve to recover our capacity for happiness after traumatic loss. If we have living children, we should be able, eventually, to feel naches with them. Kids who lose siblings go through their own grief and survivor’s guilt and maybe frustration and hurt if their parents are too engulfed in grief to give them their full attention. Our living children need their own days to shine without always being in the shadow of the dead sibling. My husband thinks if Ben’s opening had happened a few years ago, it might have still been clouded by Noah’s death; it was a blessing that this year, the day was “all about Ben.” 

My friend who was at the opening sent me the photo at the top of this post and wrote: “Noah is missing, yet the three of you look complete in this moment. You appear as deeply connected, valiant triumphant survivors.” It didn’t occur to me until she said it that Noah was absent from the photo and the day. Two weeks later, another friend marveled at Ben’s creativity and can-do persistence with Stone 27 and said he “came by it honestly” from his parents. This floored me as I’ve been focused on giving Ben full credit for his work—but this friend was also affirming connections within our family. 

My friends’ remarks, along with some beautiful music at a Shabbat service, must have released sadness that had been building since our peak experience at the opening. At the service I was suddenly in tears, thinking of how far Ben has come as an artist, how Noah wasn’t around to see it, what Noah might have done had he lived. And how far we’ve come as a family. I still can’t explain the tears, maybe just that after all the excitement and Ben’s departure, capping a long visit home, my grieving self was back.



To my fellow survivors: How are things with you and your living children or other loved ones? Have you had moments of joy and pride with them since the suicide—or other moments that make you think you can be happy and whole again? If it’s too soon for that, what do you imagine for the future? 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Noah's Should-Have-Been 30th Birthday: What I Like to Think ...


Photo by Noah Langholz, 2012.

It’s been 8 years since Noah left us and still sometimes I can’t believe or accept it. The other day I stumbled into a grief surge while singing the old John Prine song “Angels from Montgomery.” Lines from the chorus seized in my throat and I could only croak: Just give me one thing that I can hold on to/To believe in this living is just a hard way to go. Was that how Noah felt in the last weeks or months of his life? How could this precious child have slipped through our grasp?

June 28 will be his should-have-been 30th birthday. I can’t help dwelling in the fantasy of it: Noah appearing at our door, radiant and healthy in the prime of life. The dogs berserk at his arrival, him leaning down to rough them up. The family party we would have had in the backyard with his trademark birthday apple pie à la mode. The late-night after party he would have had with old friends from the old neighborhood, new friends we’d never met, crowded into the den to binge on wine and movies. His arm around a lover he could be himself with, no airs.

In my daydream, what happened on March 19, 2013, when he was 21 was an attempt, not a suicide. I like to think that after a scary time and setbacks in his early twenties, he would have come back to himself. I visualize him taking charge of his mental health without shame and continuing to reach out to others who were struggling. I like to think he would have quit smoking, started meditating, gone back to surfing and to backpacking with his dad.

I’m not sure he would have managed to graduate from his beloved Wesleyan. But he would have stayed in touch with far-flung college friends and visited his European friends and French host family. I imagine that after stints working on sailboats and teaching English and interning with a photographer he admired, he might have come home to Los Angeles to work in the movie industry. He would have been a quick learner, as always. By 30, maybe he would have landed a photography job with a production company and been helping friends on their independent film projects, still aspiring to be a filmmaker himself. Might he have been relieved to step into a new decade and leave behind the troubles of his twenties?

I have to believe that Noah and I would have reconciled. He would have hugged and teased me again and sat down for the occasional heart-to-heart. And he would have drawn ever closer to his older brother Ben, joining him on Himalayan treks and Burning Man installations (though Ben may not have been living overseas or making art the way he has without having lost his brother the way he did). As they moved further into adulthood, I would have so treasured times when I could cook and hike and watch films with both my beautiful boys.

It’s hard enough for parents to get used to the idea of a living child reaching the milestone of 30. When a child dies at 21, their should-have-been 30th is all the more unsettling; we have no map for the intervening years. "He was still so young," says my husband, "he could have gone in so many different directions." All I can do is let the fantasy roll with wishes for Noah’s health and happiness--and with sorrow that I’ll never get to know and love his future self

To my fellow survivors: What fantasies of your loved one come to mind as time passes since your loss? What future self do you imagine for them? I hope these thoughts of what might have been are comforting ways to stay connected.