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.