Monday, May 27, 2019

"Grief is love not wanting to let go."


This week, I was moved by a mindfulness teaching about surrendering attachments, living lightly on the earth, and recognizing the fleeting nature of existence. But when I tried to meditate on the “let go, let God” mantra, I was overcome with tears. It’s not just that I’m a tough audience for the “letting go” message, given my history. (I’m an only child who lost my small family in my formative years and my younger son in mid-life; I’ve always been fiercely attached to my attachments, having never had enough of them to feel secure.) It’s that for those of us dealing with traumatic loss and grief, the invitation to let go can feel discordant, insensitive, and downright scary.
“Grief is love not wanting to let go,” writes Rabbi Earl Grollman. And the prospect of letting go after a suicide or major trauma will always be different than letting go amidst the normal ups and downs of life.

In the first few years after my son Noah’s suicide, I clung desperately to every memory, every possible explanation, every offer of support or comfort from friends or strangers. I couldn’t let go of the living Noah and my living love for him, even though I knew he was gone and our connection would have to change. And I couldn’t shake my sense of guilt for not being able to save him. Letting go of these things felt like abandoning my child.

Being told to “let go” while grieving a suicide sounds like the common wisdom to “get over it” or “be strong” so we can “move on.” Many of us need to sit with our grief for a long time. Some survivors wait months or years before they’re ready to sort through their loved one’s belongings or clear out their room or apartment. Some cling to anger at God or doctors or relatives who they blame for the suicide. While a small number of survivors may get stuck in extreme forms of unhealthy grief, most of us should not be hurried or pushed. It’s when we allow ourselves to fully express, explore, and process our grief, experts say, that we become open to post-traumatic growth.  (And survivors with PTSD from the suicide may need professional help, like EMDR therapy, as part of healthy processing.)

Maybe it’s best for survivors to let the unclenching happen naturally, gradually, over time, and notice it looking backward, rather than with intention, looking forward. A year after my son’s death, I realized that I’d stopped crying every day. At two years, I’d stopped needing to talk about the suicide all the time. At three years, I still carried a great burden of guilt but could feel a bit of it easing into regret. I’ll always be a survivor of suicide loss, but I’ve loosened my grasp on that identity today, six years after the suicide, compared to the early stages.
I’ll never fully let go of grief because it’s bound up with love and has formed me over many years. Intense, all-encompassing phases of grief still surface--and that’s OK. Meanwhile, grief is changing in its size, shape, and location in my life. Maybe what I need to let go of is any expectation of what grief should be and instead be mindful of how it actually feels in the moment.

To my fellow survivors: What comes to mind when you think of “letting go” as you move through grief after suicide? Does letting go appeal to you or feel threatening? It can be helpful to step back at intervals and take stock of what has shifted over time, with or without your efforts. Are you as easily triggered now as you were six months ago? Have some physical symptoms of trauma subsided? Do you notice even the slightest lifting of the pain you carry every day? Take note of the ways you are moving toward healing, in your own time.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

After the 6th Anniversary: Grief in Transition


I thought I should spend time with mementos of my son’s life before the sixth anniversary of his death so I would feel more attuned when the day came. Then why did I have to drag my feet toward a closet whose box of artifacts still feels radioactive? Why did I feel for weeks afterward like I was walking through water rather than air? And why did I avoid going to the cemetery?
I thought my husband and I should spend March 19 away from home like we have for the past several years--walking the beach with our dogs, writing Noah’s name in the sand, looking at photos, trying to relax. Then why could I barely get out of bed all day, my stomach too queasy to walk or eat? An alien weather system had swooped in and immobilized me, as if to say: Stop. Enough mourning. Let it be.

Noah died a week before Passover in 2013 and I thought that by now, the holiday was no longer so weighted by our loss. Especially when it came a full month after the anniversary in this year's lunar Jewish calendar; I thought I was emerging from the depths. Then why couldn’t I stop crying at public events the week before our family’s Seder? When I finally realized it was a week before Passover, I could calm myself. I went outside, closed my eyes, and tilted my face to the sun, listening to the swish of palm trees not far from where Noah first learned to surf.

I thought a bereaved mother should think about her lost child more often than I do. That when people say, “I think about him every day,” even after the first few years of suicide loss, they must be exaggerating. What does it mean to always have a dead loved one in your heart? No matter what you’re thinking or doing, grief is a stowaway in your veins. The pain of losing that person is lodged in your steps, your gut, your breath.

I read that remembering can be an act of mindfulness: holding someone or something in your awareness, letting remembrance inform your life or letting it be. That’s what happened when I was making chocolate chip cookies for a memorial meal for Noah last month and flashed on how I used to make those cookies to greet Noah and his brother Ben whenever they came home from trips or from college. I made those cookies with love when Noah was alive; now I make them with love in his memory. I felt wistful and peaceful simply keeping Noah in mind as I baked.
My grief is in transition. I find myself resisting the things I used to do or thought I should do as a mourning mom and suicide loss survivor. How I’ve marked anniversaries up to now with intentional mourning and rituals and writing may no longer work. With the fading of the intensity of the first few years, the ground of my grief is in flux. I’m bereft—and confused.

Maybe it’s time to release the “should’s” and play it by ear, listening to the body’s cues. 


*
To my fellow survivors: How do you notice your grief shifting over time? Have you made changes in how you mark birthdays and anniversaries or do the same rituals continue to bring you comfort? What "should's" are you carrying as a loss survivor that you can let go of now?

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Remembering Noah @ 6 Years


Noah Langholz     
June 28, 1991 – March 19, 2013

It always pains me to write those dates for my son. Each time that I do, I engrave the fact of his death more indelibly.
This year after a cold winter, our yard is missing the usual outburst of star jasmine blossoms that mark the season with their bittersweet reminders. Instead, there’s a profusion of camellias to float in bowls and the promise of peach, nectarine, and apple trees already in flower. When Noah and his brother Ben were kids, we used to make huge floating platters of camellias. Noah would get absorbed in, almost transfixed by things like that. He resonated with beauty and the ephemeral.

What do we pray for after the person we’ve been praying for is gone?

I wish I’d known this blessing practice, inspired by Buddhist lovingkindness metta practice, when Noah was struggling; maybe I could have sung it to him to soothe his soul:

            May you be safe
            May you be free
            May you have space to simply be
            Ken y'hi ratzon, Ken y'hi ratzon (May it be so, may it be so)
            And may you find your way back home
Would that Noah could have found his way home to his healthy, life-loving self and to all of us who loved him.     
Today on Noah's death anniversary, I send out this blessing to my fellow loss survivors and to anyone else in need.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Time Lost, Stand-Ins, and Regret: Three Thoughts on Approaching Six Years



1.
A dear friend was talking about a breakdown she’d had that led her to quit her job. It was news to me and disorienting, since this friend and I are very close. How could I have forgotten something so important? I asked her what year it happened, but I already guessed: 2013. 

2013: the months my husband and I were consumed and confused with worry over our son Noah’s mental decline, then devastated by his suicide. I was oblivious to everything outside our world of trauma. “I didn’t want to burden you,” my friend explained. I didn’t realize that Noah’s death had added yet another weight to her depression, even while this friend remained my wise and steadfast companion in grief.

One day I want to hear more about that breakdown. Meanwhile I wonder: What else have I missed in the past six years of missing Noah?

2.
Have you ever looked at family around a holiday table and felt cheered and disheartened at the same time? That’s how it was for me recently, excited to see our son Ben laughing with cousins at the “big kids’ table” but longing to see some flicker of resemblance or reference to Noah in their faces and conversation.

My husband asked our nephew to go for a hike and chop wood at our cabin. The young man knows he is a proxy; he let us borrow himself for a while. Our other nephew is always inviting us to visit him out of state, ready to make room for us in his life. He and Noah were a mutual admiration society who shared a taste for the wild.

Noah’s best friend came to see us with his new girlfriend, showed her the many photos of or by Noah in our house. We recounted the occasion of the photos in hushed, almost wistful tones; Noah’s story is passing into history. They stayed for hours. Noah’s friend offered up his youth, his travels and exploits to us, as there will be no more of those for our son. We, too, are surrogates for this young man as he searches our house and faces for reminders. Like us, he hopes we’ll drop a stray crumb that will close a gap in the puzzle, rekindle a memory. We're glad to see him happy, at peace, growing up—like Noah might have been by now.

3.
It took ten days for me to realize I forgot to visit Noah on Valentine’s Day. I usually shower paper hearts or rose petals on his grave or on his stone at the Children’s Memorial Garden. This year, I was focused on valentine wishes for the living. That’s natural as the years pass, you may say. But I’m not ready to cast off the little rituals that keep my child on my calendar and in my thoughts. As the years move on without Noah in them, I wish I thought of him more often than I do.

Today I brought a shiny red heart to Noah’s stone in the Garden and thought about regret. So many things Noah missed out on that might have led him to hope and healing. If only he’d stayed, he might have started meditating, read philosophy, found the right treatment, landed in a stable relationship, finished college, created something that made him proud—in short, had the chance to grow past 21. He could have traveled with his brother, rallied his grandparents, reconciled with me. Who knows what might have sustained him through suffering?

There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in, Leonard Cohen intones in “Anthem.” If only Noah had heard this song and understood.

To my fellow survivors: How do you feel about the cracks left behind after suicide loss? Can you hold them with gentleness and love, imagine them filling with light? Maybe you’ve heard of the Japanese kintsugi tradition of repairing broken pottery with gold and prizing such pieces for their beauty, far more than perfect vessels. That is you now. That is us.

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.