Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pilgrimage Preparation

I am about to go on a pilgrimage to what feels like holy ground. I will be visiting Noah’s second family that he lived with in France as an exchange student, taking the same trip he planned for his last spring break and had to cancel--just three weeks before his suicide. Noah and the French family became very close during the formative year he spent with them, and my husband and I became friends with them, too, bonding over our love of Noah, hiking, and travelling. Finally, I will get to hug Noah’s other mom and dad and brothers and mourn and remember him with them. 

I felt compelled to see them after Noah’s death but couldn’t imagine making the trip until now. It may feel like grieving him again from the beginning. I visualize breaking down in the airport when I see them and when I step into their houseboat and see Noah’s old room and the view of the river that Noah saw. I think of the memorial the family had for Noah the same day we had his funeral, how they collected messages and drawings made for him and wrappers from his favorite wine and chocolate and put them all in a tiny raft and floated it away down the river to the sea. They made us a video of the gathering with the poignant song “Remembering” by Avishai Cohen, which I have grieved to ever since. 

If Noah had lived, he would have returned to that spot many times to enjoy his French family and friends. So I feel the need to make the trip for him, just as I will visit other places he always planned to go. I know when the family and I see each other, it will make us miss Noah all the more. It should have been him they pick up at the Paris airport; it should have been him I go to welcome back home at the Los Angeles airport.

As with each new milepost along the mourner’s path, I am full of doubt and trepidation. Will I make the French family miserable with my crying? Will I feel too vulnerable away from home? How will I manage without my husband and my dog, without my usual comforts, healing routines, and time and space to retreat from the world? How will my husband feel alone for two weeks? I begin to see why he is unwilling to travel far or be bound to tickets and reservations.  

It will be a bittersweet trip. As I learned on a short solo trip recently, I need to be prepared for moments not only of grief but of vulnerability, disorientation, alienation. John O’Donohue writes in  “For the Traveler,” Make sure, before you go/To take the time/To bless your going forth,/To free your heart of ballast . . . I started getting frantic thinking of how to prepare emotionally and spiritually, all the things I would need to do before I left and take with me to feel safe while away. I’m still nervous. But gradually I realized that by now, I have what I need to take care of myself within myself. If I can just remember to take things slow and mindfully, to not overschedule and to take time alone, I can always close my eyes, breathe deep, summon up my healing color (lavender) and my safe space (by a stream), visualize draining my body of trauma (out through the palms and soles of the feet), meditate, write, chant, walk, pray. Knowing that refuge lies within is itself a great relief and another milestone on this path. And it lightens the baggage I will bring on this trip. 

To my fellow survivors: How have you fared when you travel far from home? Where do you find comfort these days, and how do you get there?

Sunday, May 25, 2014


When grief seizes you,
it roars through, sucks up
your breath like a tornado,
spits you out gasping
on bare ground, croaking 
animal cries.

You blow your nose, strain
to recapture your troubled
inhale. Like the ring
on a merry-go-round,
you keep missing it, choking
on bitterness. Like your 
lost one, you are stalled 
between worlds, exiled 
from the flow. You can only 
wait for the wild wind
to retreat, the debris 
to settle.

At last, sinuses 
unplug, air seeps in 
and with it, smell, sound, light--
the forward press of time.
The ring lands
in your hand. You
grasp it and hold on.*

This work-in-progress comes from thinking a lot about breath over the past year since Noah snuffed out his. I think about how crying fits leave me breathless, unable to sing, smell, or even see. How I grope around in the dark trying to recover my breath. And how, by contrast, with yoga (Kundalini) or meditation, I focus on deepening and circulating the breath. If I do even a few minutes of those practices every day or two, I feel reconnected with the flow. As suicide survivors, we need to let the tears flow, yes, get it all out, whenever it hits us. But we also need to consciously cultivate the flow of the life force within us if we are to move through the pain and restore our lives.

*Note: All poetry on this blog is original work-in-progress unless attributed to others.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Throwback to Trauma

It doesn’t take much to feel re-traumatized, thrown back without warning to the start of this terrible journey of suicide loss.

We got a new set of baby chicks and were raising them in a box, all downy cuteness and chirping. The yellow one seemed frail and listless and died within a few days. We got a replacement, a fine brown Welsummer, who was perky and curious. I went to check on them one morning last week and found her dead, lying on her side, eyes bulging. I burst into sobs, flashing on finding Noah dead, and had to go back to bed. Another vulnerable creature in my care, in my home, suddenly gone. Me finding it, my husband away from home and not reachable. Those same frozen, astonished eyes, as if to say: this is what happens? this is what it’s like?  An echo of the same shock in my crushed heart, the same guilt for not checking sooner (so I could have adjusted the heat lamp), the same not knowing. 

With any sudden death, I’m convinced it’s the shock we struggle with, even more than the grief, those first few months. And here it was again, in miniature: the same agitation, digestive upheaval, hyper-vigilance. The same triggering, seeing everything through the lens of loss and vulnerability.

Trying to “process” this at an EMDR therapy session, I thought back to Noah’s hospitalization when only five days old for a mysterious infection--how tiny and frail he was, howling at all the painful tests and intrusions, and me in tears in the next room, helpless to protect my newborn. There I go down another rabbit hole . . .

No more replacement chicks, I told my husband. No more delicate, dead creatures in my home. I can’t face the risk. I can’t look at it philosophically right now as part of the circle of life.

Of course, our hens have been a great comfort in the past year as they cluck and peck their way around the yard and come running for snacks on teetering dinosaur feet. I know the two new chicks will be delightful once we stop worrying about their survival. And I know they will need companions, at least one extra as insurance. So we will bring home another of about their age when they are older and sturdier. When we, too, are sturdier, we will resume tending the circle of life.

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Mother's Day Gift from Strangers

Mother’s Day felt blessedly full this year compared to the bleakness of last year. We rode bikes to meet my in-laws at a favorite breakfast place; I tried not to look at the intact families around us with young men at the table. On the way home, we passed the house where both our boys were born (Noah a few hours before an earthquake). I took a bubble bath, read the Sunday paper, and had a leisurely phone call with our living son, who sent a beautiful fruit arrangement. My husband surprised me with a card he wrote on behalf of Noah—“what I wish he could have written to you.” That evening, we hosted our book group for the first time since Noah died, the biggest gathering we’ve had aside from memorials.

For most of the day, I felt present in the onward flow of life and connected to others. For this, I am grateful. I know not all Mother’s Days will be like this. I know many of my fellow mourning moms had a tough day, and that I could, too, next year or the next.

I didn’t seek out time to grieve that day, but it came the moment I stepped into the Children’s Memorial & Healing Garden in a quiet corner of a park in our old neighborhood.

Apparently, there are many such gardens around the country, created by chapters of The Compassionate Friends, religious institutions, nonprofits or individuals, but we had never heard of our local one until recently. There was an arched gateway made of willow branches at each end of the small, shaded grove of plantings. A stone path wound past mosaics and inscriptions, a sculpture of children at play, and boulders marked with the names of young people. I immediately felt at home and sheltered. Here was a peaceful spot dedicated to remembrance that people could either linger in or walk through on their way to picnics and playground. Mourners were given their own contemplative place, set apart from yet surrounded by the beauty and activity of the park. What a gift to families in that community. How fitting to finally get to see it on Mother’s Day. I wanted to find a rock for Noah’s name. I imagined visiting the garden more than the cemetery, maybe meeting other parents there.

As I left the garden, I noticed these words engraved underfoot:
Bring all of your feelings into this garden
Let flow the emotions no time can harden.
And as you pause here to reflect,
Give those feelings their due respect.
From frustration, sadness, depression, and fear,
To the joy of remembrance, lightness and cheer,
All emotions are welcome here.

No wonder I felt safe. Thank you to the strangers who made this sanctuary—an unexpected gift this Mother’s Day and for days to come.

Monday, May 5, 2014

For Mother’s or Father’s Day: A Promise Letter

To all mourning moms and dads as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day approach: I hope you have a plan for something to do on that day that soothes your hurting soul, whether alone or with others. Maybe it’s looking at pictures and being with one of your lost child’s favorite activities, places, people. Maybe it’s about forgetting for a while, like last year when a friend invited me to get massages together or this year when I’m hoping to take a bike ride, carried by the balm of a spring morning. If you are fortunate enough to have living children, I hope you will make time to be with, speak with, devote yourself to them and they to you. Ride the wave of your grief, yes, but have a plan to keep yourself afloat.

I heard a mother tell fellow survivors how she wished she had been with her son the day he killed himself and how a friend reminded her, “You were with him.” We all need that reminder of our abiding love. 

How to lighten the dread in advance of the holiday? If you’ve never made a list of all the ways you showed your love for your child, both in happier times and when they were struggling, maybe now’s a good time to take stock of all that you did as a parent—and look back at it when you’re feeling desperate. Maybe you wish you could reach out to your child and pour out your love. If so, you could try writing them a promise letter or pledge, detailing your commitment to them and their memory.* 

Here is part of my promise letter to Noah, written a year after his death:

I will never forget you and my love for you and your love for me. I will hold you living in my memory, alive to possibilities, as you were for nearly all your years in the most wonderful way. I will tune into your spirit when doing the things you loved. In honor of you, I will strive to be more free, adventurous and relaxed. I will always believe that you could have been happy and had a good life.

I will continue to reflect on your life and death and try to understand you with compassion. With time, I will forgive you, myself, God, and the universe. I will carry with me from this journey the lesson of opening the heart, showing love and truly listening to others. I will try to give your brother all the care and attention he deserves, with a warm and rich family life and everything I can do to nurture his health and happiness. I will dance when I feel like dancing, cry when I feel like crying, and sometimes both at the same time. I will continue to do the things and be with the people that give me strength, comfort, and even joy. I will try to be happy and have a good life, though it will never be the same.  

I will cherish your tender soul. I will write your name in the sand on every beach. I will love you forever.

*Writing a promise letter to the deceased is one of the exercises in Anne Brener’s book, Mourning & Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001).