Friday, June 22, 2018

The Surround of Silence

If past celebrity suicides are an indication, all the noise about suicide and suicide prevention of the past few weeks will soon subside into the usual uncomfortable silence that surrounds the topic. “This silence about suicide can be deafening,” writes Stacey Freedenthal on Speakingof Suicide , “making it exquisitely hard to hear those whose cries most need to be heard.”  

In the five years since losing my son, Noah, to suicide, I’ve learned there are many varieties of suicide silence. Most often, it’s the silence of stigma that needs to be broken, again and again, so that it’s no shame to admit to suicidal feelings and seek help. We need to Send Silence Packing, as the organization Active Minds signals with its exhibit on youth suicide that travels to college campuses. The huge collection of backpacks represents the 1,200 American college students who die by suicide every year, including Noah in 2013. I gazed down on the exhibit last month from a terrace at UCLA, sobered by the many long lines of backpacks radiating across the lawn. Up close, visitors and I browsed among the photos and stories of young people attached to each pack. Some accounts were upbeat biographical sketches; some, anguished outcries—each story different and tragic. Between the packs were signs from Active Minds, which works to destigmatize mental illness on college campuses: Seeking help shows strength. It’s OK not to be OK. Keep asking and keep searching until something helps; something will. Your story isn’t over yet.

What if this exhibit had been on view at Noah’s college? What if he’d strolled by and leaned down to read about a student whose desperation reminded him of his own? Would he have been emboldened to tell us about his terrifying anxiety attacks or to tell a therapist that he was feeling suicidal? My hunch: not likely. I think he would have avoided the exhibit, fearing exposure or another anxiety attack. He would have walked right past posters with crisis line numbers, though secretly, he may have longed to call them. As he told me a month before his death, he felt he should “man up” to his problems. Many young people who are struggling agree, though surely campaigns like Send Silence Packing give many others the courage to speak up and seek help.

What if Noah’s friends had seen an exhibit like this or called a crisis line to voice their worries about him? I’m grateful to his hometown friends who contacted me in concern when Noah was having a psychotic episode. What if they’d broken the code of silence with my husband and me before it was too late—before the once exuberant, adventurous, witty conversationalist that we all loved sunk into alarming silence? Better a mad friend than a dead friend, youth suicide campaigns insist.

Then there are the forms of silence that come after a suicide. The helpless silence of friends and family who don’t know what to say to the mourners, especially after a child’s suicide. Though honest and well-intentioned, “there are no words” can feel hollow to loss survivors; try asking us instead how we’re taking care of ourselves or if we’d like to talk about what’s on our mind. Or give us a hug and sit or walk beside us in shared grief and loving silence.

Incredibly after five years, there is still the dismaying silence of relatives who can’t speak Noah’s name or reminisce about him at family gatherings. They fear that doing so will upset Bryan and me by reminding us of the tragedy, when, in fact, it’s their silence that upsets us and we need no reminders for what is always in our hearts.

And of course, there’s the inexcusable silence of public policy and medical research on the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. And the baffling silence of media on how gun violence results in nearly twice as many suicides as homicides in this country. We need to lift the weight of all this silence with information and support, research and advocacy, compassion and understanding—a sustained national conversation and action plan. Kudos to CNN for hosting a one-hour town hall, “Finding Hope: Battling America’s Suicide Crisis,” this Sunday, June 24, 2018, 7pm ET, both on cable and streaming live on, with an impressive panel of guests.) 

Like many fellow survivors, I’m helping promote more informed public conversation around suicide while still haunted by the most private of silences: When our loved ones didn’t tell us how much they were hurting. When we didn’t ask if they were suicidal, or did and fumbled our response. Worst of all, the endless silence that reverberates after they’re gone.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Too Much Suicide

Suicide seemed to be everywhere the first week of June. Not one but two beloved celebrity suicides dominated the media, prompting soul-searching and tweets of “RIP” and 24-hour crisis line numbers. I purposely didn’t overload on the media coverage, partly because I barely knew the work of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I heard about some irresponsible stories that focused on the means of the suicide and used the term “committed suicide” rather than “died by suicide”—both counter to suicide prevention media guidelines . But the media pieces I saw were thoughtful and compassionate, stressing the importance of help-seeking and putting a face on suicide by giving voice to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts, as well as suicide loss survivors both famous (Karl Rove!) and not so famous. 

At the same time, the CDC released a new report on a 25% increase in the U.S. suicide rate since 1999. This brought broader context to the deaths of two famous people and a factual basis to a national conversation that needs to be urgent and ongoing, rather than sporadic. Because we should be saddened about the other 862 Americans who take their lives each week and turn that sadness into policies and programs that give suicide—the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.--its due as a public health crisis. 

Friends gingerly wondered if I was having a hard week. I was, but not because of the media frenzy. It was a hard week because I was immersed in suicide for too many hours each day. I attended three suicide-related meetings, where everyone was processing the public deaths, the media coverage, the people they knew who had been triggered. I was working on a project that involves reading and editing articles about suicide loss. I was emailing a dear friend whose daughter had just lost a middle-aged aunt to suicide and planning a dinner for new friends whose son’s death anniversary is this week. And I was slogging through messages on a suicide listserv that had accumulated while I was out of town. As I’ve become more involved in suicide prevention, I’m learning that I need to dose myself by limiting the time that I focus on suicide —just as loss survivors need to “dose” our bouts of grieving when it becomes overwhelming. I also need to take care that I’m not over-compartmentalizing by tamping down my own reactions. 

In the early months after losing my son, Noah, any news of suicide could be traumatizing. It was scary how much suicide there was in the world. Still raw with pain and obsessed with my loss, each well-publicized suicide seemed to magnify my own private nightmare. But over the past few years, as grief has become more integrated into my life, my mind has filled with other emotions and preoccupations. I can still be triggered by talk or images of suicide—I had a terrible flash of the scene of Noah’s death about a week later--but the upset is more fleeting. Maybe friends and family of survivors worry about us when there’s a media frenzy over suicide because it reminds them of what we can never forget. 

To my fellow survivors: I’m sorry if recent suicides in the news have made your loss even harder to bear. Let’s hope these stories open up conversations with others who sincerely want to help and understandand spur action to save lives and spare other families.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Passover's Four Children: The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask

Seder Plate

Passover is a powerful holiday in Jewish tradition, memorable for its foods, customs, and story of oppression and liberation that speaks to many forms of suffering, both individual and communal. In an article in Tablet Magazine, I trace how I repurposed Passover ritual and symbols to help me both express and move through grief after suicide. I expand on these themes in “Healing the Broken Jewish Soul After a Child’s Suicide,” an illustrated book talk open to the public on Friday, April 27, 2018, at 7pm (following services at 6:30pm) at Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, CA, as part of Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Festival of Learning (you can see a short video preview here). 

A fellow survivor blogger named Deborah reminds us that the Haggadah, or guide for the Passover Seder, speaks of four types of children, including “one who does not know how to ask.” This was my son, Noah, who didn’t know how to ask for help when he most needed it. In another way, I, too, am that child. I didn’t know how to ask if Noah was feeling suicidal—or rather, I didn’t know what to do after I asked. I panicked. I didn’t know the importance of staying calm and listening because sometimes just having the chance to vent scary thoughts is enough for people who are struggling. I didn’t know to ask—or didn’t have the guts to ask--whether he had a plan, which might indicate a higher level of risk.

Deborah lost her father to suicide around Passover a few years ago and, like me, has been haunted by the symbols of the holiday. She writes: “This Passover, let us pledge to no longer be ‘one who does not know how to ask’… The plague of darkness can touch anyone. None of us is immune. So let our words be a source of light, life and hope. Know when to ask, know what to ask.” In a reinvention of the Haggadah’s Four Questions, she urges us to find the courage to ask the following when someone we know is struggling: “Have you had thoughts about suicide? Have you thought about a plan to take your own life? Have you attempted suicide before? Do you have access to a gun or other means you could use?”

You can get basic information to prepare yourself for this difficult conversation here (Know the Signs, Find the Words, Reach Out), with more detailed advice from psychotherapist Dr. Stacey Freedenthal available here and here.  

To my fellow survivors who celebrate Passover: Do you have a plan for how you'll take care of yourself this holiday? I hope that with each year, you can recover a bit more of the joy and  meaning of the season.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

5 years

Five years after his suicide, we ache for our son, Noah. Each year, the pain is a little less acute, the loss a little more woven into who we have become since his death. This anniversary means looking back on five years without Noah, as well as the toll that five years of grief have taken in the life of our family. I want to pause and recognize how low we once sank, how far we’ve come. The landscape keeps shifting as I look back on the terrain we’ve crossed. Will this milestone anniversary open up new vistas, new ways of restoring our lives amidst grief?  

To my fellow survivors: Which have been the landmark anniversaries for you? Did #5 matter as much as #3 or #10? If you’re counting the months, when did you notice a shift in your ability to cope? Give yourself credit for every step forward and understanding for every step that feels like it’s backward again. If you’d like to know more about my grief journey, in addition to my grief memoir , I was recently interviewed for a podcast that updates my perspective to the five-year mark and also discusses losing my father to suicide; you can listen here (click on Episode 4: Surviving a Second Loss). 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Walking Among Shrines

Our son, Ben, has lived in Japan for most of the past year and a half. I wanted to visit him during the summer Obon festival and float a paper lantern down a river, like the Japanese do for their ancestors, in memory of his brother, Noah. We finally visited Ben there this winter, and I struggled to think of a remembrance ritual we could do together. Nothing came to mind; the pleasures of Japanese culture and ten days with our living son kept grief mostly at bay.

The highlight of our trip was a walking tour on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route south of Kyoto. Every half mile or so tucked into the woods was a humble shrine with small statues, some just plain, round-topped columns, some with faintly formed human faces. All had endearing red bibs and some had knitted caps. Traditionally, these jizo statues were said to protect travelers, children, and pregnant women. So I prayed at the shrines for Ben’s health and happiness and for more fantastic family trips. 

Back in Kyoto, I was delighted to find dozens of little jizos lined up in a quiet corner of a huge Buddhist temple. They felt like old friends. Later, I learned that jizos are also memorials for children who die before their parents. Parents often maintain the shrines and set up little rock towers nearby so the children’s souls can ascend. All that time on the trail, I’d been walking among shrines that parents like me made for their lost children; I'd been walking their mourner's path.

Grief rolled back in as our visit neared its end. I was already missing Ben, wishing we could be more a part of his life and he ours. I was slammed with a wave of regret that he didn’t have a brother to joke around with--to escape from parents with--on a trip like this one. Noah should have been there with us.

Back home, I walked past our shrine to Noah with that familiar sinking feelingFive years gone. How can we have lived without his wit and warmth in the world for so long?  I grabbed one of the stone hearts on the shrine and touched it to my heart. I've never done that before. There are still more ways to remember Noah, to tune into his spirit, to grow amidst grief. 

The lead-up to this anniversary is gentler than the past few years. I’m still basking in Ben's love and in the blessings of those little jizos we met along the way.

Monday, February 5, 2018

On a Cemetary Visit, a Remarkable Visitation

I’m finally making a rare visit to the cemetery. I told myself to go for months but kept putting it off, putting it off. I hate being reminded that my beautiful boy is in a box in the ground, that he’s been there now almost five years. I worry that I’m coming empty handed but once parked, I find things in the car that I’ve been saving so long, I can’t remember where they’re from: a shiny acorn and two rocks, one streaked with purple like a twisted heart. I have something to give my son Noah after all.

Up on the hill where his marker is, a breeze ruffles the palm and olive trees. Metallic pinwheels left by mourners whir blue, green, and red like hummingbirds in the silence. The nearby grave of a teenage girl is smothered in flowers and teddy bears. A row of cars and a clump of black-clad people across the way signal a fresh grave, fresh grief.

I sit leaning, keening over Noah’s gravestone. I finger the snug ring of shells and stones people have placed around it that are now ground into the earth. I’m riveted by his Hebrew name, Noach Chayim. The guttural “ach” in Noach, the suffering within that we failed to ease or understand. The middle name pictured above, Chayim (life), that I chose instead of my father’s name or middle initial because it seemed like bad luck to name a baby after a grandfather who died by suicide. Was that a fatal mistake, to tie my father’s life to Noah’s even with the hope that he'd choose life?

Ruing all this with head down, I sense someone nearby and look up to see a long shadow behind me. It’s an older woman in sweats and a red baseball cap, squinting at me from a plain, creased face. “Can I give something to his fund?” she asks. 

His fund? Does she know Noah? How does she know we have a memorial fund? “Do I know you?” I say, wondering if she’s someone from my synagogue whose name I can’t place.

“No,” she shakes her head, “I’m nobody. I just saw you looking very sad and that made me”—her voice cracks—“sad.”

I ask how she knew we had a charitable fund named for Noah. She says only that there are a lot of young people in this part of the cemetery. Unbelievably, she’s taking out her checkbook and asking the name of the fund, stumbling over the spelling.

She says she has a son who’s 24. Ah, another bereaved parent. “Is he here?” I ask and she says, “No, he’s at work right now.” Of course, why should any 24-year-old be here! “I come with my sister to visit our parents’ graves, our uncles, but they all had long lives,” she continues. “These young people” –she gestures outward—“it can happen to anyone.”

She hands me a check and I read her name and address. “Thank you, Natalie,” I say slowly, “you’re very kind.” I hand her a postcard for my book about losing Noah, wishing I had something better to give her.

“I could have been an ostrich,” she mumbles as she starts to turn away, “buried my head in the sand. But I saw you here looking so sad. And you could have said you just wanted to be by yourself, but I just thought I’d come over.”

“Thank you,” I say again, and she’s gone, a few minutes after she first appeared.

I’m stunned by this gesture of lovingkindness from a complete stranger. Her visit brings me gently back to solid ground and tells me it’s time to go.

Was this one of those random acts we read about on bumper stickers or something more? I can’t help thinking of the 36 tzadikkim (righteous people) who, according to Jewish tradition, appear at times of crisis to reveal the “Hidden Light.”

Whoever you are, Natalie G. from Venice, California, thank you for the gift of your presence.

After suicide, we survivors need all the acts of kindness and mystical visitations we can get.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Making It

He didn’t make it, say the war buddies, the fellow sufferers, the family members. Didn’t make it through the barrage of bullets, the months of malnutrition, the Stage 4 cancer, the plane crash, the wildfire. Didn’t make it out of the ICU after heart failure, poisoning, or suicide attempt. Didn’t make it, though others did.

My son, Noah, didn’t make it through college.
Didn’t make it to adulthood.
Didn’t make it through a tsunami of despair and anxiety to higher ground.
Didn’t make it home to his true self.

By all rights, he should have been a survivor. Noah knew he was lucky, blessed with health, strength, wit, talent, love, opportunities. He should have been the one leading parched travelers out of the desert, finding the oasis. Maybe that’s what made it so hard for him: With everything to live for and so much he’d been given, why did he feel so lost and worthless?

Noah’s peers are in their late twenties now, trying to figure out how to make it in their various pursuits--or at least how to find their vocation. Noah didn’t make it to this cusp. He let go before getting anywhere close.

He made it to the top of Mt. St. Helens.
He made it onto the high school water polo team, though he’d never been on swim team.
He made it through a year of study abroad at a French lycĂ©e with Latin 3, though he’d never had Latin before. And in France, he made it inside another language, family, and identity that he prized (the photo is from his return to the U.S.).
He made it into the only college he really wanted, Wesleyan University.
He made it so that people were drawn to him, swept up in his conversation and wild schemes.

He made it hard to get close with the mask of charisma he nearly always wore.

He made it through one good friend’s suicide and another’s attempt. 
He made it out of bed while dragged down by depression. 
He made it to a year of therapy.
He made it hard to help him when his symptoms worsened.

He made it to the finish line at the L.A. Marathon, two days before he set his own finish line for life.

He made it hard to understand that someone like him couldn’t or wouldn’t make it.

With how he lived and how he died, he made it into so many hearts.

It’s the turning of another year. In a couple months, we’ll mark five years without our beloved Noah in this world. The fact that he’s gone is more undeniable every day yet still unbelievable, unacceptable.

I’m touched by Noah’s brief appearance as “little bro” in a new rap song by his older cousin, Gabe Braun , and by Gabe's lines on the aftermath of suicide that capture the plight of those left behind:  
            a heavy stone in my chest
            weigh me down or help me grow

To my fellow survivors: In what ways did your loved one make it in life, despite not making it to the lifetime you would have wanted for them? What can you do to make the weight bearable and eventually, make way for new possibilities?