Saturday, December 28, 2013

When Did the End Begin?

I’ve had a hard time with endings since our son died. When making a scrapbook of Noah’s life, I couldn’t face writing the year of his death or figuring out what to put on the last page, because there shouldn’t be a last page to your child’s life. Books, movies, TV episodes leave me teary even if they aren’t that sad, simply because they are ending. I start to get upset as I sense a story moving toward its ending. It reminds me of how we didn’t know that our family was moving toward an ending. What we thought was the beginning of getting well was the beginning of the end for our son. We thought he was coming home from college to get better; he knew he was coming home to die.

When did the end begin? When friends stopped answering his calls, when he stopped smiling, when he had his first anxiety attack and didn’t tell us, when he lost a good friend to suicide and almost lost another? When something else happened that we’ll never know? 

Those contemplating suicide have the end in mind, obscuring everything. We survivors-- blindsided by love, worry and our own limitations--can’t seem to see the dead end till it’s over. 

The first anniversary of Noah’s suicide, which will be March 19, 2014, has been looming for a while. But the next few months could be even worse, marked by little anniversaries of the steps leading to the end—how he fell apart, how we failed to help or even recognize the full extent of the danger. Reliving each step in our son’s decline makes me wonder if anyone could have intervened to change even one thing, whether Noah might have been diverted from his path. Instead of those steps leading to the abyss, they could have led him, no matter how circuitously, back to life. 

The mini-anniversaries hurl me back into the pit of what-ifs, could-haves, should-haves, if-onlies. There is no end to these as we move toward the anniversary of an ending.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Don't Let the Light Go Out

We are in the season of light, linking solstice, Christmas, Chanukah, and New Year. Since Chanukah got swallowed up (literally) by Thanksgiving this year, I want to dwell on it a bit longer.

At my Jewish meditation group, we did a candle meditation in front of the fully lit Chanukah menorah. What should have been calming and inspiring agitated me and I had to leave the room. I couldn’t focus on the promise of the lights, the task of tending the flame of our inner light. All I could think of was my two boys at an elementary school holiday program years ago singing:
Don't let the light go out
It's lasted for so many years
Don't let the light go out
Let it shine through our love and our tears
Noah’s light was gone now, snuffed out by his own hand. In truth his light went out some time before as depression overtook him and wiped out all feeling or connection. 

I’m grateful to Noah’s photography professor who told us how passionate he was in her class a few months before his death, how she would look up from lecturing to see his face glowing. Somehow that class reignited him; his flame rallied. I wish I could have witnessed that last firing up of my son’s spirit.

I wish I could say to the loved ones of depressed people everywhere what I now understand better: Don’t let the light go out. Be alarmed; don’t hold back out of deference to the person’s privacy or autonomy. Intervene before he or she is too far gone to be reached. 

“We are holding Noah in the light,” Quaker friends wrote after Noah's death. I tried to hold him in the light with prayer and healing energy when he was suffering. But it’s hard right now to summon light around the thought of my child in a box in the ground.

The days will be getting longer. I think of my family and fellow survivors of suicide loss feeling bereft this holiday season. Will we be more ready as time passes to let in more light? To tend the flame both of our loved one’s memory and of our own lives?

Friday, December 13, 2013

What is Left

All the sweetness is gone. Those wide, all-seeing green eyes. That full, springy head of hair and loping gait. That vitality, curiosity, and marvelous conversation. The promise of my younger son growing into his adult self while I grow old, bringing more life into mine. 

What is left is the cold of the glass in picture frames when I try to kiss Noah’s head like I used to, the absence of smell where there should be smoky-fresh hair scent. A few T-shirts packed in zip-lock bags to seal in his scent, still there, though every time I open them I dread their decay. Desperate writings mixed in with his college notebooks, full of despair and poetry I never knew he had. A small box of mementos that he sorted through a few months before his death, lingering over it for hours--contemplating the end? 

They say the loved ones we’ve lost live on in our hearts and memories. Maybe so with those who die naturally in old age. When a child of 21 dies by suicide, the pain, confusion, and emptiness can block our way back to the sweetness. At least from this point on the mourner’s path, nine months on.

The pop singer essence nails it in the song, Shape of You:

 Is sorrow all I have left of you
Besides the wall your name is carved into?
I’m not tryin' to get over, I just gotta get through
All I've got is a hole in the shape of you . . .

Or in the words of an old English ballad, here adapted from sweetheart to sweet child:

Once I had a sweet child and now I have none
Once I had a sweet child and now I have none
He’s gone and leave me, he’s gone and leave me
He’s gone and leave me to sorrow and moan.

Last night in sweet slumber I dreamed I did see
Last night in sweet slumber I dreamed I did see
My own dearest child, my own dearest child
My own dearest child sat smiling by me.

And when I awakened I found it not so
And when I awakened I found it not so
My eyes were like fountains, my eyes were like fountains
My eyes were like fountains where the waters do flow

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Comfort Food

My husband has been making apple cake just about every week for the past few months. He’s not much of a baker, so he’s been experimenting. It started with a bumper crop of Fuji apples on his parents’ tree and a quest to recapture the moist, Old World simplicity of his grandmother’s apple cake. There were pie-like and coffeecake creations, from barely to super sweet, from the Jewish New Year to Thanksgiving, till he found the taste and texture he wanted. The apples have a fermented tinge that melds with the richness of the dough and the char of roasted nuts. Wherever we went recently, we brought an apple cake, and people marveled over it, as if reminded of their own grandmothers.  
Our son, Noah, loved to cook and to eat. He practiced flipping crepe-like Norwegian pancakes at age eight. He got serious with French bread and tarte tatin as a teenager, when smitten with all things French. I picture his tall, skinny frame hunched low over the kitchen counter with some delicate operation, like overlapping apple slices just so, giving it his full attention. He and his cousin devised elaborate pizzas, and he perfected the art with an Italian friend. He made pizza, omelets, dumplings and pasta dishes for friends at college. He was almost as good as his dad at making latkes, the fried potato pancakes of Chanukah—most memorably on an outdoor grill on the deck of his host family's houseboat near Paris, where he lived as an exchange student.

A few hours before his death nine months ago, Noah made himself a toad-in-the-hole toast and egg breakfast. My husband couldn’t see why someone who was planning to kill himself would bother.

Maybe my husband has been channeling Noah’s spirit spending so much time in the kitchen. Or maybe it’s part of his deep need to nurture and connect with living things, stronger now than ever. Since losing Noah, he’s spent a lot of time gardening, picking apples, canning, cradling our chickens, and hiking with the dog. Noah would have adored his dad's apple cake, just as his brother does.

Meanwhile, I feel listless in the kitchen these days. I’ve botched some dishes I’ve been making for years with careless mistakes.  I don’t have the patience for new recipes or even for my usual improvisations.  Everything seems way too complicated.

When Noah was at home the last three weeks of his life, I tried to make nice meals as often as I could in the hopes of pleasing him or inducing him to linger over dinner. He seemed mildly moved to be at Shabbat dinners on Friday nights with wine, challah bread, candles, and blessings; there was a glimmer of feeling on his face that we hadn’t seen for months. Once, I convinced him to make felafel together, but I couldn’t get him to try a new baguette recipe or do much of anything with me in those weeks. He was already too far gone, from me and from life’s pleasures. So it’s no wonder I’m avoiding elaborate operations in the kitchen; they remind me of my beautiful boy and all that we couldn’t share at the end of his life. 

What I would give now just to sit down to a simple meal with him . . .

Tonight, we will bring an apple cake to a potluck of suicide loss survivors as part of the Recipes for Healing theme of the event. I’m looking forward to the comfort food and stories that others have to share. If you’d like my husband’s apple cake recipe, it is here ; use a little less sugar and pass it on. And feel free to post your comfort food recipes and stories.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Grief Holiday?

Suicide survivors are supposed to allow ourselves grief holidays, designated time out from grief, as if we can turn it off and on. But more often than respite from mourning, I seem to need release from the obligations of functioning in the “normal” world so I can retreat into my private griefworld. When I’ve tried to declare a grief holiday, it’s meant holding myself together for the sake of others—my husband, my living son, holiday guests—not myself.

This Thanksgiving was a different sort of grief holiday. Our first big home holiday without Noah, it was suffused with sadness, unknowns and ambivalence. How to make room for sorrow at the celebratory table without burdening everyone? We ended up hosting dinner for 10 rather than running away, as we’d been tempted to do. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than being alone or having other hosts set the tone. We went through the usual motions of shopping, cooking, laying the table, and greeting guests, only we needed more rest from it all than usual. After much deliberation, we came up with a short speech noting our distance from gratitude this year as we feel the pain of Noah’s absence. After practicing an early draft, I cut out the words that made me cry; at the meal, the speech felt dry and disembodied. We lit a Mediterranean blue candle in Noah’s memory to evoke his love of the ocean, of France and Italy, and of good food. Everyone readily joined in a toast to Noah’s life, as if relieved to show support. We sat back and let a few lively talkers give the meal a fairly festive air. I was still going through the motions, getting through the day by rote with some moments of pleasant distraction. My husband was unusually quiet; he didn’t want to be there. Sleep fell heavy that night as we crossed from a noisy, normal, peopled space back to our own lonely planet.

Next time, we’ll know not to host. Mourners need to be able to appear or disappear at will, free of any expectations or responsibilities. Rather than a grief holiday on such occasions, maybe we need a reprieve from holidays.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Flight Response

I used to think of myself as someone who faced adversity and would rather confront the truth than hide it. Since Noah’s suicide, I have been running from many things, unable to face certain symbols, rituals, dates. 

I fled from the prospect of an open funeral. No, no, I pleaded, only the family, please. The cantor of our synagogue gently convinced us that having the community present could be a comfort, and that we could sit in a private space during the ceremony. 

I cringed at the thought of going to Shabbat services, my raw grief exposed. Just come for the last 10 minutes, say the Mourner’s Kaddish, and leave, urged the rabbi. We did that for weeks until gradually we could sit for longer periods and face the music (literally) without collapsing.

As Noah’s birthday loomed closer, I wanted to shut out the world. Make a plan for the days you dread, I heard somewhere. I planned to have a scrapbook of his life ready for the day, go to the beach with my cousins and make a pizza with them like Noah used to do. It was a hard day but better than hiding.

It happened again with my fear of the Jewish High Holidays, especially Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance.

For Thanksgiving, I longed to escape to another country or at least take a road trip to the desert, far from home and reminders of Thanksgivings past. Connect with those you love on holidays, I read. Slowly, we began inviting guests and planning the menu. We’re still talking about how we will make a toast to Noah’s memory and ask for what we need.

Each time, what I most feared turned out to be what I most needed. 

But not always. I got a last-minute invitation to be a keynote speaker at a candlelight vigil for those touched by suicide or mental illness. I panicked and listened to my fear; I didn’t have to do this if I wasn’t yet ready to come out publicly. Instead, I lit a candle at the event and arranged to speak to a small group of college students being trained in suicide awareness.

One thing I have not run from is support groups and therapy. I have run towards those as to a rescue helicopter. November 23, 2013 is International Survivors of Suicide Day. There is a conference in Los Angeles sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention*. That is where I need to be.

*The free conference for survivors is Sat., Nov. 23, 9am-3pm, at 617 West 7th Street (7th floor) in downtown Los Angeles.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Our Coping -- and Theirs

When someone asks how I am these days, I usually say OK, as if worried about reassuring them. (I’m less inclined to launch into a tale of woe than I was in the early months.) A more accurate answer would be, “I’m compartmentalizing” or “I’m coping.” 

As hard as the first raw period of grief is, the later stage of re-entering “normal” life and switching constantly back and forth between mourning and functioning can be even more despairing and draining (see Dyregrov et al. 2010 After the Suicide). Bereavement trails us like a scent; we rarely feel fully present in the world we used to inhabit. This is true after any major loss but especially after the shock and devastation of suicide.

They say grief is a rollercoaster. Maybe so with its unpredictable twists and precipitous plunges. But instead of ups and downs, it’s more like plateauing numbs and downs. I’m glad for the moments of forgetting and do grant myself grief holidays, but I feel most alive when I give way to grief. In weeping, I feel closest to Noah and my loving self. In holding back because I have to function in the world, the grief only mounts and presses more insistently. Tears are a welcome, cleansing release that take me far out to sea. When each bout subsides, I am left to grope my way back to dry land and stumble around for a day or two till I find a way to calm. 

Noah’s therapist said that he had poor coping skills and lacked the patience to make a plan to fight his depression and anxiety. I agree that my son had a choice as to how he dealt with his demons, especially in the early stages of his struggle. Somehow, I think it’s a mother’s job to impart coping skills and emotional intelligence--to instill confidence and resilience, along with sensitivity and self-awareness. Somehow, I failed in that task, if it was ever mine to pursue. Maybe I assumed too much and left too much unsaid to help Noah be ready to launch a life on his own. Along with whatever may have been happening biochemically, he was overwhelmed with the enormity of forging his path in life.  

Another view of coping skills comes from the extraordinary suicide note of an 18-year-old girl in the book Dear Mallory by her mother, Lisa Richards (see my Resources page). Even when she was having good days, Mallory wrote, “the pain I feel takes over every time. I’ve used coping skills--but I must be missing something because life shouldn’t just be something to cope with.” True words, spoken with the absolutism of the young that Mallory shared with Noah. Of course, life must be more than something to cope with—but those with more life experience know we have to cope with the hard parts in order to enjoy the gratifying parts. Of course, unless we know how it feels when the hard parts become excruciating, unrelenting pain over months or years, we can’t understand how young people like Mallory or Noah tried to cope as long as they could.

So now, they no longer need to cope while we mourners must muster every skill we have just to get through a day or a week. Are the people around you asking: How are you coping? Or as a friend put it, “How are you taking care of yourself?”

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Listening to Sadness

You learn a lot about people after they die. This is especially true after a suicide, which plunges the living into desperate rifling through the remains for any clue to the unraveling of a mind. When people share their memories, you seize upon each one in the hope that it will unearth another breadcrumb. 

So it was when I received the treasure of a compilation of messages and memories from Noah’s college friends. In most, I recognized the young man he had been a year or two before—his many passions, his readiness for adventure and argument, his goofiness and zest for life. But some spoke of a kindness I’d never seen, in which Noah reached out to put people at ease, even sought them out in moments of sadness to listen to their troubles:

I had been sitting there under a tree crying for a while without anyone talking to me when Noah walked by. Even though he had no idea who I was, he sat with me, asked me what was wrong, and talked to me for a while before persuading me to come eat lunch with him and his friend. 

I would run into him with my head about to explode, and he'd listen and be generous with his time. He listened more genuinely than most people I know. 

He had this ability to be so warm so fast and seemed not to allow you to feel strange or timid or anything when he was around.  This quality is so rare and it’s unreal that he's not here to be that person for so many of us anymore. 

His impulse to give, to listen and to be there, unequivocally--this is a quality that never disappeared, even when he began to struggle more and more visibly.

As I read these accounts, I remembered that Noah met his girlfriend when he noticed her standing alone looking glum at a party. He was drawn to sadness or loneliness in others, maybe because he recognized parts of himself that he rarely expressed. Not knowing how to voice his own depression, he wanted to see how others navigated it. Or he wanted to offer them the listening and comfort that his own tender soul craved. Or he just couldn’t stand to see others in pain. I think all this but will never know, will never have the chance to mull it over with him as we did so many things in our years-long conversation. What I do know is that the people around him felt heard, understood, befriended. And that my son was a mensch for reaching out to them. 

Pride is not easily come by after the destruction and hurt of a child’s suicide. But I am proud that Noah, as he was becoming the man he could have been, had the heart to listen to and lighten the sadness of others. Even if he ultimately couldn’t let in others to help himself.