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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Rethinking Triggers

When you’re a new survivor, painful triggers lurk everywhere. Your heart and mind are so fixated on and tormented by loss, your body so shaken with shock, that everything reminds you of the tragedy. In the early months after my son Noah’s suicide, my mind would be wandering and suddenly, I’d flash on finding him dead; I’d be so traumatized, I’d have to stop everything, including the car, and talk myself down. Or just the sight of the driveway would pummel me with the realization that a smiling Noah would never walk up it again.

Many loss survivors have PTSD and need to avoid triggers of traumatic memories, like the site of the suicide. Some of us use EMDR and other therapies to exorcise the worst of these from our minds. We need to do this to claw our way out of the pit we’ve landed in or, once out, to maintain our delicate balance. 

I’ve tracked grief milestones on this blog by noticing how some triggers shift in shape and lose their sting over time. There was the point when I could look at Halloween decorations again, drive through our old neighborhood again, make it through Valentine’s Day without crying. 

Six and a half years out, some triggers still crush me. Like when reading a survivor’s story comparing her husband’s major depression to cancer as a disease complete with remission, drug resistance, and terminal risk, I came to the part about how the final months of his life were like being in hospice care except his family didn’t know it. I let out a howl and had a big cry, haunted by images of Noah’s last numb weeks at home. It was the worst grief surge I’ve had for a while but I was overdue.

I was grateful to the author for giving me new insight into those terrible weeks. As a psychologist notes, triggers are "unhealed emotional wounds" that can be our teacher; "they give us an opportunity to observe and reflect, which enables us to heal." I was also grateful for the catharsis of tears that brought me back to my grieving soul. Because it doesn’t surface as often anymore. As the years mount since Noah’s suicide and life fills with other things, grief still resides within me but doesn’t take up as much space.


It’s easier with time to choose which triggers to let in. Like at a ballet lecture, watching a video clip of the scene where Romeo finds Juliet dead, holds her limp body in his arms, and—to my horror—actually begins to dance with her corpse. I turned away; I couldn’t see the beauty in movement that reminded me of holding Noah’s dead body. Just like I don’t need the colorful, down to earth reminders of Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead that death is a part of life; it’s been ever too much a part of mine. 

There will always be dangerous triggers for some survivors and for those who’ve been traumatized in other ways; dealing with these is tough work that can take years. Some people with anxiety wrestle with triggers on a daily basis.

But for others who are years out from a traumatic event, triggers need not always be feared. After all, to trigger something means to cause it to happen, to set it in motion—so the question is, what do triggers activate in each of us? The answer is so individual. For me, triggers can unlock a door that’s stuck and lead the way back to the mourning grove when I’m overdue for a visit. Or they can open a window into memory, both good and bad, that still needs processing. So at this stage, I welcome most triggers because they remind me of what I’ve lost—and because I can handle them now. Both are blessings. 


To my fellow survivors: How do you look upon and handle your triggers? Have they or you changed over time? I’d like to hear your take on triggers, whether in a comment on the blog or at susanauerbach56@gmail.com  Find out more about emotional triggers here and many reputable places online. And if you’re haunted with highly disturbing, disruptive memories or flashbacks around the suicide, I hope you’ll seek help for PTSD.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Preparing to Forget: Notes After Burning Man


My husband Bryan and I went to Burning Man this summer to see an art installation by our son, Benjamin Langholz . Along with desert survival gear, costumes, angel lights, and gifts for the community that Ben told us we had to bring, he encouraged us to bring photos or mementos of Noah for the Temple. 


The Temple is the largest structure at Burning Man, a quiet sanctuary for people to rest and grieve or simply sit with their losses, regrets, and sadness. Ben told me he was grateful to have a place to bring such feelings in the early years after his brother’s suicide. The burning of the Temple at the end of the week-long encampment, for Ben and many others, is a cathartic release of the pain of loss. “Leave behind what no longer serves you,” read signs as you drive into Burning Man and as you walk into the Temple.


As readers of this blog know, I’m a holder-on, not a letter-go, especially when it comes to Noah’s memory. I’m so concerned that I’ll forget facets of who he was and how he lived that it’s hard for me to even consider what I want to forget. While preparing for Burning Man, I forced myself to make a short list of forgetables, all related to Noah’s mental health struggles and the scene of his death. 

Among the things I want to forget:

- seeing Noah dead

-       - Bryan’s face when I told him Noah killed himself

-       - Ben’s wail when the coffin was opened

-       - the coffin being lowered into the ground

-       - watching Noah suffer over two years as his demons stole away his heart, soul, and life force—his terror at near-death anxiety attacks, his agitation during a psychotic break, his months of affectless numbness 

It pains me so much to remember Noah’s suffering; of course, I’d rather picture him in the prime of his life. Yet if I allow memories of his struggles to recede, will I ever reach a truer understanding of his despair? Already after six and a half years, the “facts” of Noah’s decline reveal themselves differently; if I loosen my grip, what future insights might I miss? I decided that I wasn’t ready to release those memories at Burning Man, but I could bring a photo of Noah from the last year of his life that didn’t look like him, so transformed was he by his illness. I was glad to surrender that image to the ashes, along with the first few items on my list.


Inside the Temple, I was struck by the hush of hundreds of people silently filing through an enormous collective shrine. The walls inside and out were plastered with large pictures of the dead, their clothing, shoes, jewelry, and prized objects, along with their stories. There were way too many photos of young people and I couldn’t help thinking: suicide and overdose. I was touched by how many Temple visitors stopped to read the stories and immerse themselves in others’ grief or to hold someone who was crying. With all the cool-headed “leave it behind” messaging, I hadn’t expected to feel such a communal outpouring of sorrow. I regretted that I hadn’t thought to bring bigger pictures and reminders of Noah’s life to add to the mix. 

Driving home from Burning Man, Bryan and I indulged in our usual would-have/should-haves while traveling: how Noah would have jumped at the chance to help build Ben’s installation, how he would have thrown himself nonstop into Burning Man revels and delighted in meeting fellow free spirits from around the world. Of course, we have no way of knowing if, had Noah lived, Ben would have become such an avid Burner or reinvented himself as an artist. As Ben said as we were leaving the Temple, grief can be a mighty spur to creativity. If so, then Ben’s installations are, in part, his brother’s legacy.

In the wake of Burning Man, at the end of Suicide Prevention Month, in the middle of these days of awe and remembrance in the Jewish calendar, I like to think that had Noah lived, he would have channeled his intense feelings after a friend’s suicide into his own artistic vision and recaptured his life force.
To My Fellow Survivors: What are you ready at this point to set aside about your loved one’s suffering and suicide? What is on your list of forgetables?

Friday, August 2, 2019

7th Would-Have/Should-Have-Been Birthday: Inventing Memories

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About a month ago on our son Noah’s would-have/should-have-been 28th birthday, my husband and I were on vacation in Grand Teton National Park. Trying to focus on Noah's life rather than his death, I found myself inventing would-have/should-have memories.

We could picture Noah in the Tetons, playing around in a kayak on Jackson Lake, goofing off or racing with friends. He’d first gotten interested in kayaks as an exchange student in France, living with a host family on a houseboat next to a kayak center. He tooled around on the river with his host brothers, one of whom was a member of the French national team. We were surprised when Noah joined the kayak racing team at his lycée. I can remember visiting the houseboat and looking down to see Noah sitting tall in a single kayak, paddling away as if born to the sport. 


We could imagine Noah leading a kayak or raft trip like the one we’d just been on with a local outfitter. A job keeping a group of tourists happy would have called on his many talents: athlete, outdoorsman, cook, conversationalist, jokester. Maybe some kid on the trip would have looked up to him, like he as a kid admired the adventurous leaders of wilderness trips. Like them, he yearned to live free and would have been fine with a low-paid seasonal job, living out of his car for the summer. We could have gone on one of his trips; he could have encouraged me to push myself on the water or the trail.


Or maybe he would have come to the Tetons for a photo expedition with a backpack full of equipment. He could have positioned himself at dawn at Oxbow Bend for a glimpse of moose or bald eagle. Would he have sought out those classic nature shots or small, quirky moments beyond the mountainous majesty—his own angle on floating algae or his dad poring over a topo map? 


I like to think that Noah and our living son Ben could have taken a break from their busy lives—maybe Noah working for a film production company?—to meet us in the park for a family vacation. We could have hiked and kayaked, camped and eaten bad food together. Noah would have loved the natural hot spring we found off an unmarked trail. We had the meadow all to ourselves, still in view of snowy peaks. Warm, crooked streams led through clumps of monkey flowers to a little scalding pool with a ring of rocks for sitting. Noah would have gone there every day to soak and nap. He was a glutton for relaxation.


There will be no more vacations for a family of four.


Still, my husband and I often talk of what Noah would have done, would have loved. I dream up memories from the past six years of the life he would have/should have had. I invent a future for him to accompany the rest of my life. There’s a whiff of pleasure in this as I linger in his presence in my mind.

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.