Tuesday, July 30, 2013

More On Tears and a Note on EMDR

What I know now about tears:
-          There are as many kinds of crying in grief as there are kinds of snow in the Arctic.
-          You can feel that tingling creep up the nose and let it subside.
-          You can cry without tears and without sound, just a grimace and internal heaving.
-          You can have a little cry and if you wear glasses, it may not be noticeable, even if you think you look stricken.
-          You can sound like a moaning cow, a baby, a woman in labor, a cat.
-          When you lie on your back, tears leak down your temples and into your ears.
-          You can be so overwhelmed with grief and shock that you are only able to cry in short bursts.
-          You can be so overwhelmed with grief and shock that you can sob nonstop for an hour and a half and feel purged.* Strangely, this may bring on a purge from your bladder!
-          You can get an infection of the eyelids from too much crying, which irritates the ducts and dries the eyes.
-          You can move in and out of crying on a regular basis and still (eventually) smile at pets and babies, take an interest in others and the world.
-          Best places to cry: In the car (going slow or parked). In bed. In the shower. By moving water. At your place of worship or spiritual practice. In EMDR* sessions, suicide survivor support groups, or wherever you find a safe space.

After a big cry, I go back into the world feeling like the walking wounded for a day or two, on the verge of crying again at any moment. How can I be hurting so much and appear normal? Tears bring me closer to missing N so if I go more than a few days without them, I worry that I am losing my connection to him. But tears are a renewable resource, ever replenished, to be cherished.

* Note on EMDR: If you are experiencing trauma associated with grief, as after a suicide, you might consider EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). Mental health professionals trained in this technique often use it with people who have PTSD. It involves alternately stimulating both sides of the brain with eye movements, tapping, etc. while visualizing traumatic images, telling your story, and learning to replace disturbing images with healing ones. I don’t understand how it works but I found it incredibly helpful and cathartic during the several sessions I had. Unlike traditional talk therapy, it is grounded in the body and seems to unleash and redirect raw emotion. Of course, other mind-body approaches and behavior therapy may have similar benefits. You can read about EMDR online and check web sites of therapists in your area to see if they offer it along with other types of therapy. Any suicide survivors out there who have found useful therapies want to chime in here?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Memory Shift

Memories of N are shifting, as if seen through a kaleidoscope.

The first few months, I was haunted by images of N dead and N suffering; all I could remember was recent time when he was severely depressed and not himself. Trying to piece together the puzzle of his state of mind kept me submerged in troubling memories. I couldn’t face looking at pictures from happier times; they seemed distant and unreal or tainted by N’s suicide, as if they could never be restored to simple happy memories.

Then I spent a couple weeks sorting through photos and other people’s memories while preparing a scrapbook for N’s birthday. I paged through the scrapbook incessantly as I assembled it, then later slowly and sadly with a cousin and a few others. The scrapbook was creating a very different narrative than the mental health history I had so painstakingly compiled in the first three months. It was a gathering in of interests, phases, people and talents in N’s life that made me feel my son had lived a lot of life. Meanwhile, my husband and I started mentioning memories of N—the vital, healthy, seemingly happy N-- more in conversation.

When we came home after vacation, we were swamped by the unreal reality of his death yet again. How can this be, how could this have happened? I loop back to the same anguished questions. But they feel like different questions now that I am no longer in shock and no longer a helpless prisoner of bad memories. The good memories have inserted themselves, taking up space. My universe has tilted on its axis. Now I see the questions from across N’s rich lifespan, and I am more confused than ever. How did we get from all that curiosity, energy, and zest for life—from being what a friend of his called “a bunsen burner of joy”—to a year of despair and the violent ending of life? How can the ongoing conversation with N that brought me and others such joy be forever silenced? 

Now the vitality of his life seems most real and the possibility of mental illness unreal. After all, he lived well 20 times longer than he suffered.

Maybe the memories will keep shifting, the sweet with the painful, until they settle into a balance we can accept.

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Lower your expectations of others."

The literature for suicide survivors tells us to lower our expectations of other people’s response to our pain and accept that what they say or do is what they are able to offer at this time. We are told that if we can accept this, we will not be so easily disappointed. Everyone, including family members, grieves in their own way and on their own timetable. I see the truth in all this. But head and heart are on different tracks right now.

A friend advised me to visit relatives with zero expectations, and I tried. I did OK with the usual family joking around; I probably appeared normal. But later, I realized how much strain I’d been under with all that smiling and small talk. Not one family member asked how I was feeling, unless questions about work are a safe way of asking that. Not one shared any memory of N, even in passing, although my husband and I signaled it was OK to talk about by mentioning him several times. When we made a toast at dinner to N, “who should have been here with us and who we all love and miss,” there was an awkward silence after a somber clink of glasses. 

It felt as if N had never lived and as if the tragedy of his death had never happened. This made me furious. I know I’m supposed to be tolerant. I know I’m supposed to understand other people’s need to keep sorrow and discomfort at bay and distract themselves from painful thoughts. I know I’m supposed to have empathy for their not knowing what to say. But damn it, we parents of the child who is gone are the chief mourners. Why should we have to worry about other people’s needs? Why don’t they show more concern with our needs? 

It continues to take a lot of energy to figure out my needs, I guess because they are in such flux. (So how can I expect others to figure them out?) In the early weeks, I needed to have someone around every day who could listen and comfort. And I needed to unburden myself at least a couple times a week with major, 25-tissue crying fits, after which I needed to hold someone. Gradually, I realized I didn’t need so many people around; in fact, too many people trying to have coffee with me or take walks with me was draining. 

More recently, I’ve learned that as long as I am able to freely express my grief with a small number of friends, family, and therapists, I do not need to go into it with everyone I see. I do not need to bring those expectations of talking about N, his death and our loss into every social encounter. I can be grateful for the precious people who welcome talking about it, but I do not have to resent others who cannot, as long as I have some around me who can. Maybe I got frustrated with relatives because it had been too long since having one of those precious talks. I felt angry, hurt and disappointed. Instead of zero expectations, I had zero tolerance. 

Maybe having zero expectations of others is asking too much of myself and fellow suicide survivors. We need to own all the conflicted feelings that come along with this unpredictable journey.

First Family Vacation

Another first in the first year after N’s death full of firsts: first family vacation without N, bittersweet. It was good to get away from all the immediate reminders of his death at home. I could relax and enjoy myself much of the time, though it felt strange devoting the days to pure enjoyment. It was good to spend a whole week with our older son; his company cushioned my husband and me from the pain that might have engulfed us more often if we were alone. Every day but one, I thought and wrote about N and cried.

He should have been there with us. He should have been on one of the sailboats bobbing in the lake, on one of the surfboards carving the waves, charging ahead of us up the mountain trail. He should have been joking with his cousin, talking motorcycles with his uncle, dissing me with his brother. He should have been gorging on seafood, berry pies, and plate-size pancakes. He should have been using his duffel bag, not us. He should have taken a photo like this, only much better.

I had a bunch of photos of N in my purse so that I could bring him with us on this trip. Mostly I took them out and cried in my moments alone. One day I took out the recent ones and showed him the wilderness beach where we were. All the places you could have gone, the things you could have done. The person you could have been, if you’d only given yourself a chance to heal and grow up. I resolved to take him with me everywhere when I travel, to bring him where he can no longer bring himself.

Wandering down a quiet beach, I found myself drawing in the sand with a piece of driftwood as tall as my shoulder. I started with a heart, and ended up putting N in it and facing the message toward the sea, just in case his spirit is out there.
I plan to draw him a heart on every beach I visit from now on. Feeling our way, creating new traditions . . .