Sunday, January 26, 2014

Our Grieving Selves

At a support group I visited, a recently bereaved suicide survivor was distraught seeing how people were still upset and grieving years after the loss. “Does it ever stop?” she wondered. “We’re not always like this,” a more experienced group member explained. “This is where we bring our grieving selves because we know we’ll be heard and understood.”

Our grieving selves—a whole new self for many survivors, who must shed one skin and grow into another. It may feel too tight, rough and unfamiliar. We are no longer who we were. We don’t know how to present ourselves to others with this stricken face, heavy gait or unpredictable weepiness. How to walk the mourner’s path out in the world when everyone else still plies their regular route? We may need to hole up for a while as we get our bearings, feel our way. Eventually, we learn where we can bring our grieving selves and when it’s best to leave them at home.

Eventually, we find that we are more than our grieving selves. We do not always need to give voice to our grief, at least once past the most intense early period. My husband’s co-worker came to the door the other day, face serious, arms out to give a silent hug to a mourning mother. I happened to be laughing about something as I came to the door before I saw his face; I gave him a brief hug like I would have if I had seen him at the office holiday party. The moment was jarring for both of us. It reminded me of how grateful I am when people acknowledge my loss in the depth of their eyes and the strength of their hug or handshake, if not in words. But at that particular ordinary moment, I wasn’t thinking of Noah or needing support. Ten months after his suicide, I am not always grieving, and that both surprises and confuses me. 

This blog is where I bring my grieving self. I am not always crying and missing Noah and trying to make sense of what happened. But when I am and I want to share it with others, here is a place where I can fully express and explore my grief. Having this outlet has taken the pressure off needing to unburden myself in social situations, as I felt compelled to do especially during the first several months. Here, my grieving self is expected, welcomed, enfolded in the virtual embrace of friends and fellow survivors who read the blog. Thank you to everyone who reads this for accepting my grieving self.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What Prepared You for This?

I read about a religious man in Israel who, upon hearing that his son had been killed in combat, immediately thanked God for the 19 wonderful years he had with his son. Rabbi Sharon Brous commented that the father’s years of religious observance had made him more ready to deal with this tragedy—not to remove his pain but to have the strength to see a way forward (from Comins, M. 2010. Making prayer real. Jewish Lights Publishing).

I am in awe of this father’s ready response of gratitude. Even now, 10 months after Noah’s suicide, I am too hurt and angry to feel grateful for the 21 years we had with him. And I resist the idea that people are only given as much sorrow as we can bear, as if Noah had somehow calculated, “My mom is strong. She’s been through this before. She’ll be OK.” 

The Israeli father’s story makes me think about what prepared me for this journey--or rather, since none of it was planned, what fortified me to be able to walk the mourner’s path without completely collapsing or withdrawing from the world. The answer: nothing and everything.

Nothing prepared me for the shock and sorrow that still feels like a dagger in the gut. If I don’t move or think about it too much, I can almost forget it’s there; then I move a different way, have a stray thought or a triggered memory, and the pain sears.

We call on everything and everyone we have after a loved one’s suicide. What I call on comes especially from 37 years of mourning and from attempts in recent years to nurture a spiritual practice. I lost my parents when I was 19 and 26; my father died by suicide hours before I was due home to visit. Had I not already spent much of my life in the mourning grove that most people dread to enter--even had I not studied Greek lament traditions in my 20s--how much more lost I would have been upon losing my child. At least some of the terrain was familiar. 

A few years ago, I went through a tumultuous time as I reached the age my father had been when he took his life. I re-grieved my parents and reviewed their lives and my own; I turned to writing and therapy to rearrange the pieces of myself that lay in disarray on the floor.

As part of remaking my life, I sought out Jewish tradition for comfort, guidance, and the gift of Shabbat. I began to cultivate gratitude and compassion and to pray for my suffering son, which I had never done before. That start at a spiritual practice and my membership in a supportive community give me a wellspring to draw from today when the pain is overwhelming. I am grateful for that foundation, even as I still feel abandoned by God.

To my fellow survivors: What in your experience has allowed you to withstand this shock, move through this grief?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Vulnerable Among Us: Of Birds and Men

We lost another pet hen this week, with too many reminders of the fragility of life and our helplessness in the face of it. I couldn’t help thinking of Noah through it all.

Lulu had gotten stuck in a narrow spot between fences, where a neighbor’s dog attacked her wing. She set up an unearthly howling that sent me running next door. Just as I had desperately called my husband the day of Noah’s death, there I was calling him again, to no answer. Just as my neighbor had helped me after I found Noah that day, here he was valiantly cutting a hole in the fence to pull the chicken out. Lulu amazed me by flying up out of a deep box and running into the garden, evading capture as usual. Maybe she’s OK, I thought. That day, with Noah’s skin still warm, please let him live please

A bird lover friend told me that birds hide their ailments and act normal as long as possible so as not to attract predators; by the time they show their injury or illness, it’s often too late. So bird owners must be ever vigilant to notice the slightest change from routine that might signal a problem.

Did Noah hide his illness as long as he could? Did he run around, trying to mimic his old ways, so as not to attract attention from those he thought would harm him, like doctors? Did we see signs of mental illness, followed by near normal behavior, and think he would be OK? We didn’t know how grievously he was wounded till it was too late to reach him.

At the vet, we had to put Lulu down. Last year about this time, we lost another beautiful hen to disease after nursing her inside for two weeks with hand-fed water and treats. We tended her, perused the Internet, tried another vet-- to no avail. It was hard to know how to help her.

Noah’s suicide last year came about two months after we put down that hen. There is no comparison, none. But sometimes I think that those weeks nursing the helpless hen were a harbinger of what was to come when Noah came home from college for the last three weeks of his life. My son, tall and strong but inside, fragile as a bird. We thought we were being vigilant. It was so hard to know how to help him.

After the neighbor pulled Lulu out of her tight spot in the fence, he handed me a perfect green egg, the first Lulu had laid in months. 

What gifts do our loved ones leave behind that are still too buried in sorrow for us to see and appreciate?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Another Calendar -- and New Year Intentions

I’ve been wishing people happy new year half-heartedly. It feels like something distant and disembodied. Losing Noah has made me mark time in new ways. I’m operating on another calendar, a different frequency, set in an alternate universe. I’m attuned to the end of the first year since Noah’s death, which will be March 19, 2014. It’s a long countdown that brings back too many desperate memories. When I think of 2013, I think of the engagement calendars I am saving: his, with its entries that stopped in the spring, and mine, with its stark reminders of doctors, funeral arrangements, and visits from Noah’s friends in a year that still seems unreal.

As 2014 begins, I want to send words of hope for a better year to my fellow survivors and all who are struggling. For that, I turn first to the blog, Living with the Loss of a Child, by Janie Cook. She describes how we can feel drawn to a new year that is “fresh, unburdened” and at the same time be leery of letting go of a year when our loved one was still with us. She writes:

We have no choice but to live into this next year, so what might help?  

 - moments of intentional remembering, cherishing the gift of our child’s life and love

 - time spent with others who understand and are patient with our roller coaster ride
 - making efforts - even small ones - to see the goodness that is still around us
 - listening for what our precious child’s life has taught us
 - and more moments of intentional, deeply grateful remembrances

And for mourners recovering from the stress of the holiday season and having trouble with the notion of gratitude, here is a teaching from Rabbi Yael Levy. She points out that hoda’ah, Hebrew for gratitude, also means acknowledgement or recognition:

Let's set an intention to treat ourselves and each other with care and, when faced with the question, "What am I thankful for?," let's notice the sensations and emotions that arise. And when gratitude feels beyond our grasp, let's say to ourselves and each other:
I am present to . . . the sadness in my heart.
I notice . . . that this has been a difficult time.
I am aware of . . . the grief I am feeling.
I acknowledge . . . my struggles and the struggles of those around me.

In the new year, may we set an intention for remembrance and be present with whatever is in our hearts.