Monday, April 28, 2014

Fighting Numbness

One must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief.
–Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead” (1973)

Some say that grief after suicide is like the ups and downs of a rollercoaster; I see it more as numbs and downs. I know that numbness is a natural reaction, protection from being overwhelmed. But when I’m numb for more than a day or so, I feel out of touch with missing and mourning my son, to the point of feeling both disembodied and disloyal. Anguish builds up and needs release, even if I am not focusing on it; I feel so much better after I can cry again.

When I speak to groups of college students about suicide awareness and suicide loss, I tell the story of Noah’s decline and suicide without a tear, choking up, or quiver in my voice. That must seem unreal, even callous, to my audience. Maybe I do this to stay focused on conveying the message of not letting fear, shame, and ignorance prevent people in distress from getting the help they need, and how those of us who love them can be a lifeline. The next time I speak in public, I’ll explain that I still cry plenty when alone, and my deadpan delivery is part of the numb spells and compartmentalization that are also stages along the mourner’s path.

A few months ago I wrote: “The energy it takes to tamp down the grief and compartmentalize in order to function and accomplish things other than grief work in the world! I toggle back and forth between the work files on my computer and the ones called Noah’s Life & Death, Grief, or Suicide Info. It’s easier to switch files than to switch gears between my grief world and the ‘normal’ world. The more I compartmentalize, the more numb I feel; the essence of grieving recedes further and further in the distance.” Now, at the 13+ month mark, the switching has become less jarring and exhausting, more a natural part of life, though not yet what grief books call the “integration” of the mourning self with the self returning to life and the future.

To fight the numbness, I recently went back to EMDR therapy . I needed help dredging up my grieving self and revisiting unresolved anger and guilt. I walk into each session with trepidation, knowing it will catapult me back into an intensity that drains me for at least a day and reminds me of the veil that still separates me from others. Each session has been cathartic and surfaced new insights, the polar opposite of numbness. Yet I find myself wondering how much more of this level of intensity I want or need!

There are other, gentler ways to stay in touch with our grieving selves, as Janie Cook reminds us in her blog, Living with the Loss of a Child :

The deeper needs that grief creates must be tended to.  And even though we know this, we often resist paying that painful attention. . .  We do not have the luxury to choose between each day’s demands and the time it takes to heal from grief.  Both are necessary.  So, how can we learn to manage ?

When we take the time to stop, take a deep breath and collect ourselves in the present moment, we give our spirits time to catch up with our bodies.  Giving ourselves a regular “dose” of moments in which we focus on what we feel inside is critical.  The more concrete we can be about this the better.  When we give ourselves this kind of compassionate care and attention, we gradually learn the balance of living in the clear minded reality of both loss and blessing. . . . both sorrow and gratitude.    

I give myself those moments when I stop to take the time to write, meditate, pray, or do yoga; when I allow myself to crawl back in bed if I need to. How about other survivors out there? How do you make time and space for your grieving self? And how do you deal with numbness?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Grief Poems 2

My collection of grief poems, or poems to grieve by, is growing. The first one below, more of a blessing, captures stages on the mourner's path that many of us can recognize. We had it read at Noah's one-year memorial, so I changed a couple lines in the next to last verse to omit the hateful image of rope (I try to avoid that word). The Mary Oliver poem"Wild Geese" may or may not be about grief but it speaks powerfully of forgiveness and comfort. How do you respond to these poems? What poems speak to your grief? Please share . . .

FOR GRIEF (adapted from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us)

When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you gets fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence.

No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.

There are days when you wake up happy,
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.

Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.

It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To ease its grip.

Gradually, the wound of loss will heal,
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Passover: More than Four Questions

I asked Noah if he would make his aunt’s delicious macaroons for our Passover seder last year, and he agreed. A few days later, he was dead. Instead of 10 people at our house for a celebratory meal, we had 100 people for a memorial service after his funeral. Instead of the four traditional questions of the seder, we have endless questions that will never be answered. 

Why did a plague of darkness descend on our son?

What do we tell the child who is too fearful and ashamed to speak his pain?

Why didn’t the angel of death pass over our house?

Why is this year different from all other years?

Will this once-precious holiday always be tainted for our family?

We couldn’t face hosting Passover so soon after Noah's first death anniversary and were lucky to be invited to a friend’s house. Despite both feeling teary that morning, my husband and I were able to enjoy the evening. But it’s hard not to lose myself in the salt water and horseradish on the Passover table, symbols of bitter tears and slavery. It’s easy to forget the boiled eggs, symbolizing hope and rebirth, and the sweet haroset (fruit-nut spread) that are also part of the ritual. We are meant to meld the symbols together in a traditional sandwich of matzoh, haroset, and horseradish just before the meal. 

As I remember Noah’s love for Passover and other family gatherings, can I give myself permission to let the sweet outweigh the bitter?

In contemporary interpretations of Passover, Jews are encouraged to ponder our personal mitzrayim (Egypt, narrow place, oppression) and envision a way to cross over to freedom. Like our ancestors, we are invited to decide what we need to leave behind and what to take with us on the journey. 

Any loss can throw us into a dark pit, but how much murkier the path out when beset with the complicated grief of suicide loss. How much more constricting the sorrow when full of guilt and anger at ourselves and our loved one.

How long had Noah suffered in that narrow, constricted place in his mind?

How ready am I to leave behind self-blame for being a bad mother, helpless to save my child?

How can I carry with me the image of my son strong, healthy, and alive?

When will I be freed from the need to be above all a mourner, with deep grieving the center of my days?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Survivors all have triggers we can’t avoid. I recently heard other mothers speak of the cereal aisle in the supermarket, a favorite piece of clothing, a spot on a crowded freeway. For me, it’s ads for the epic “Noah” movie that seem to be everywhere lately, reminders of our Noah and the biblical one . Are these ads triggering other family and friends? No, I think as I drive to an appointment or a meal with friends, I don’t want to think about that right now. This sends me down a rabbit hole of no’s and hurtles me back into the poetry I’ve been avoiding for a year. It's still rough, like the torn edges of pictures in the magnificent grief collages of Sharon Strouse . But I need to get this ‘no’ off my chest and out there where it can resound. To be continued . . .

Noah – his name blaring
from movie billboards, signs
of disaster at every turn. No
reminders please.
His name engraved
on a stone marker, rain collecting
inside the O’s. No --
this can’t be real.
No no NO -- my screams
that day. Not
my beautiful boy. No
hope. No
more. No knowing
what or why or how bad
or how to help. A no
that can never
be undone. A life
canceled, a mission
aborted, a family

no more no’s now --
just the sweet ones
we used to sing him as a baby--
When the No-no-noah goes
bob-bob-bobbing along.*

*Note: All poetry on this blog is original unless attributed to others.