Saturday, August 31, 2013


After reaching the limits of prose recently, I was moved to try poetry again. Here, work in progress, part of grief work in progress:


Our dog set free
on a beach
for the first time
stares at us in disbelief,
then romps
along the scalloped foam,
dashes full speed
toward the silhouette
of a dog unshackled
in the distance,
doubling back to galumph
over breakers and chase
rafts of pelicans,
hundreds of them,
floating, flying,
nose-diving down to a prize
the dog cannot see
or reach.

Our young son, gone
these five months,
would have
should have
raced him, shouting,
into the surf.

For a few minutes
as we revel
in the dog on the beach,
we forget.

Who Shall Live & Who Shall Die? Fearing the Jewish New Year

Normally, I approach the Jewish High Holidays* with appreciation and zeal for the tradition of life review, repentance, and celebratory reunion with family and friends. But this is not a normal year. This year, I don’t need the shofar (ram’s horn) as a wake-up call to remembrance and reassessment, or a month of preparation for pouring out my soul; I’ve been doing all that daily since N took his life. This year, I cringe at the thought of every intense, soul-searching theme of the holidays, every expectation of spiritual renewal. How can I have a “sweet year” when in the synagogue, there is a new memorial plaque for our 21-year-old son? 

“May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” So say the prayers and greeting cards for Rosh Hashanah. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, always a bit foreboding, now feels threatening: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed . . . who shall live and who shall die, who shall die at his predestined time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire. . . Who will be at rest and who will wander . . . who shall be at peace and who tormented. . . But repentance, prayer and good deeds can avert the severity of the decree.” Our ancestors recognized the presence of tormented souls and wandering Jews, though they failed to include “who by their own hand” in the accounting of ways to die. Where is it written that a beautiful young man full of promise had to reach the end of his days before they had barely begun? N’s death was not part of any divine plan or the result of any decree for wrong-doing. I reject that God of judgment (as do many other Jews). And no amount of atonement can reduce the severity of this loss.

We raised our son to embrace the Book of Life but somehow, on the verge of a new chapter, N lost hold of the binding—to loved ones, the life force, his own tender soul. We didn’t know he was no longer on the same page of assuming that life, despite struggles, would go on. The best I can do this year is to pray that everyone who loved N—especially the young people--reaffirm our place in the Book of Life and our ties to one another. And I can seek a compassionate God in the stirring Avinu Malkenu prayer that I have loved since childhood.

My rabbi tells me to be gentle with myself during these High Holidays. Other suicide survivors in my support group say that anticipation is often worse than a holiday itself and the important thing is to have a plan for how to spend the day. Both the rabbi and the group remind me to be open to the healing power of ritual and community. I will try and continue to reflect in this space as I approach the 10 days of repentance.

*Note: I offer reflections on Jewish tradition in this blog not as an expert but as a mourner moving through the Jewish year. I hope some of the themes will resonate with people of all (or no) faiths.

Monday, August 26, 2013

So Much Sorrow, So Much Love

The first few weeks and months, I was overcome with how much sorrow there is in the world. It was as if I had suddenly sprung an antenna tuned to signals I’d barely noticed before. Sorrow flooded in full force from all directions, just as simple happiness had once surprised me in pregnancy and early motherhood. Awash in the universals of death or birth, there was no filter to sentiment or sentimentality. I felt weighed down by the sorrow around me, especially losses other parents had to endure like a living hell. 

There are so many ways to lose a child. The hand-wringing helplessness of losing young children to disease before they can even enjoy their childhood. Anguish at the randomness of losing children to violence or accident. And the living losses that last for years or a lifetime: Losing teens to addiction, anorexia or depression. Losing adult children in faraway places to family estrangement. And especially, losing young adults to serious mental illness, struggling to keep them safe and healthy while subsisting on remnants of relationship. I’ll never know if that might have been our family's trial, too, trying to banish the demons that had moved in on our child’s sense of self, praying they were only temporary.

I was going through this litany of losses with a friend, someone who lost a living brother long ago to mental illness. I was about to say how much sorrow there was in the world when she said, “I know, there’s so much love in the world.” She reminded me of the surrogate brothers who had blessed her life, of the many people who stepped up to support us since Noah’s death, of the ways families keep hoping for healing. 

To sense life only as a world of sorrows is to think like Noah may have done—to feel only the unbearable pain, tuning out a world of love. There were so many people who loved our son and hoped to reconnect with him when his troubles eased. Even when laid low with pain and loss—especially then—we need to leave ourselves open to the gift of simple happiness, however fleeting.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Limits of Compassion

In my Jewish meditation group this morning, in preparation for the High Holidays, I tried to focus on forgiveness. The best I could do was to summon a bit of compassion. For two years, as I watched my son struggle with depression and anxiety, I prayed that he be blessed with rachaman compassion for himself—along with shalom peace, simcha joy, chesed loving kindness, and shlemut healing or wholeness. Now that he is gone, I pray for all those things for myself, my family, and N’s friends. Compassion feels like an accessible door to the much more complicated place of forgiveness.

I feel compassion for N’s terrible suffering. But today, exactly 5 months since his death, my compassion is qualified, more in the head than the heart. I know he suffered and was too overwhelmed by pain to see another way out; I know I shouldn’t blame him for this. But I am still too conflicted, too hurt and angry. To fully experience compassion, I need to open myself up to the extremity of his pain—and except for a few moments this spring, I have held back from that. It’s still too scary a place to visit.  

In Jewish tradition, we pray every Shabbat, “God, the soul you have given me is pure.” I used to love to chant that line with a sense of hopefulness. Now I feel tainted, bursting with the impurities of bitterness, self-pity, remorse. I cannot yet find a pure, open-hearted compassion for my own poor child, maybe because I cannot find it for myself.

In yoga meditation the other day, I briefly saw a light behind my eyes in the shape of hands cupping a human heart. I thought of N and how, at 21, he didn’t yet know how to cherish or protect his tender soul. Was the image a gift from him, handing over that soul to me, reminding me of our connection and how I loved and tried to nurture that part of him? Reminding me of the need to gently hold my own vulnerability and imperfections in the light as I grieve?

Monday, August 19, 2013

"I have to man up to my problems."

N said this three weeks before he took his life. “What kind of bullshit is that?” I would later rage. I had never heard such an expression from my sensitive son, raised by a feminist mom and a gentle dad. "Real men know when they need help," I told him, but he only shook his head. 

In the months since his death, as I tried to piece together the puzzle of his descent into a black hole, I began to see where the “manning up” may have come from. Older men he admired who urged others to “be a man” when they cried or despaired. College buddies who thought they were “bulletproof” in the face of tragedy. A cousin he adored who was “his own man,” living alone in the woods. Macho movies he seemed to be watching more often. Drafts of screenplay scenes featuring tough guys so extreme, they were like caricatures. Why should I assume that N was immune to media messages about what it means to be a man? The more vulnerable N became, the more he believed he had to hang tough. 

A psychiatrist writing in the New York Times recalled that as a young man, he had no idea what to do with sadness. I wonder if the same is true for many young men as they stumble into their 20s. There is little sense of how sadness fits with the rest of life, no voice or outlet for it. If they become mired in depression, it seems unstoppable; there is not enough life experience yet to recognize the pattern of ups and downs and how moods might be managed. Nor is there a readiness to seek help. And all this just at the age when they are most at risk for the onset of mental illness.

I was horrified to learn that there is whole class of young men in Japan who go into hibernation with depression for years, shutting themselves in their parents’ homes with video games. There are hundreds of thousands of these hikikomori and they are at high risk for suicide. A Buddhist monk is trying to lure them back to life with support services and activities.* 

Maybe we have a parallel phenomenon in the U.S., only its potential for danger goes unrecognized. It’s just boys being boys, retreating into the man cave, venerating tough guys. My son didn’t play video games, but he got lost in the dark of that cave, groping for a way to man up—and out.

What can we do to shine a light on this cave and open the way to other paths toward manhood?

*MacFarquhar, L. (2013, June 24). Last call: A Buddhist monk confronts Japan’s suicide culture. The New Yorker.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What I Gave

I gave Noah my all – everything I had, everything I knew. All the fun of singing and stories and teddy bear picnics. All the appreciation of arts, nature, learning, travel, world events. All the ways of understanding and being with others, all the strong cultural and family roots along with the freedom to explore beyond. More love than I knew I had. I poured it all into this child, maybe because he seemed so receptive from an early age, so eager to engage in conversation. Maybe because he was my last and youngest. 

I gave him my all and it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to prepare him for the frightening abyss of young adulthood or to protect him from his own demons. 

Of course, I was not the only hand shaping him, nor would I want to be.  So much intervenes between a parent’s years of nurturing and who a child is as they move into their 20s, only some of which a parent knows. So much that we cannot fathom intervenes between the formation of a child’s cells and a parent’s attempt to form his character, though I still resist this idea.  

But within this messy web of influence, parents are the foundation, the source of core self-esteem and values. We try to give our kids the grounding they need to be resilient and believe in themselves. That life is dear and rich and worth living goes without saying; we show this by example. Do we need to actually say it? Maybe I assumed too much. I imparted many values to my children, from the political to the personal, but it never occurred to me that I needed to reinforce the life force. I thought self-preservation was human instinct. 

We give our children life and love and all the opportunities we can muster to help them make a life they love. When they throw it all away in a moment, we lose not only our child and our hopes. We lose our life’s project as parents, our faith in what we have to give.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dread of Dates

Dates loom large lately. 

There is the date when everything changed: March 19, 2013. The dates of panic attacks we did not know about till after N’s death. The dates in the past year that we had no idea would be his last September 3 or January 15, his last birthday or Chanukah. The dates marked in his calendar for trips never taken, deadlines for term papers never written, and all the blank dates left in 2013. The months of struggle that we assumed would heal with time and care, while we went on with our lives. 

I see a random date on an e-mail, a photo, a work document from before March 19 and my heart sinks: that was then, when we were innocent. We had no inkling of the disaster that would upend our lives. I yearn to go back to the most ordinary day from that time and hold onto it. To climb the tower, like in Back to the Future, and turn back the clock. I would freeze it in August, 2010, before N’s life was forever shadowed by a friend’s suicide.

As the Jewish new year approaches, I dread the life review, repentance, and remembrance that I usually look forward to at this season. For five months of this year, I had no younger son, no relationship to resolve to mend. Instead, an unaccountable absence, drop-off into an abyss.

I cringe to write or see the dates 1991 – 2013. The narrow span of his life still stuns me. The dates that will define N for the world on his gravestone. The dates I cannot bear to write in his scrapbook because to do so would mean The End. 

The weeks and months unravel since his death. The shock of the first two months, the chilling reality of the next two months, the struggle to balance bouts of despair with reclaiming our lives. Our calendars are already filling with obligations for the fall—days without time for grief work, memories slipping through my fingers. The prospect of the first anniversary of his death next March and the unveiling of his gravestone—the final public marking of his passing. All the painful anniversaries to come.

Dates, relentless reminders. Time moving forward without N in it.