Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"Stay": An Inoculation Against Suicide

I inoculated my kids against the standard preventable diseases. I exposed them to lots of enriching experiences and discussions to engage them in life. I never knew I needed to inoculate Noah against the temptation to suicide.

I just discovered a vaccine that I wish he and other young people had absorbed as part of their education: Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Stay: A History of Suicide and the Arguments Against It (Yale University Press, 2013). She writes that we owe it to our community and to our future selves to hold on through difficult times—that staying alive is a courageous, heroic act:
None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings—the endless possibilities that living offers—and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. . . The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay. (p. 234)

Hecht’s message is precious with or without the impressive history of Western philosophy and religious thought that supports it in the book. She contends that modern secular thought made a “wrong turn” in insisting on, even glorifying, the individual right to suicide in the face of despair; Camus’ views, for example, have been misunderstood. Hecht lost two close poet friends to suicide and developed her thesis to provide “conceptual barriers to suicide” akin to protective fences or walls on bridges or college campuses. I believe these concepts need to be introduced and considered when young people’s beliefs are forming to counteract cultural messages that suicide is a right and a romantic, viable exit option for artists and other sensitive souls.

For most of his adolescence, Noah and I had long talks about ideas; they mattered to him, just as Hecht insists they matter to people's views of suicide. It chagrins me to no end that Noah and I were too estranged in the year or two before his death at age 21 to talk about anything important. What if I or one of his teachers or fellow students had floated Hecht’s argument at a moment when he was clear enough to hear it? There’s a chance that the idea of his future self might have made an impression and been stored away as a hedge against a desperate act. 

I so miss not having the chance to know and love my child’s future self.

You can read Hecht’s basic argument in short form here and here or listen to a radio interview with her here. In this new year, please pass on the wisdom of Stay to everyone you know, especially struggling young people and their teachers. Maybe it will make a difference for one person and their community and the possibility of happiness in 2016. Peace to all.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Revisiting the Why? and If Only . . .

We had a buoying visit this week from one of Noah’s college friends we’d never met. She was generous with her memories and seemed comfortable talking about Noah, though she said it took her a long time to finally contact us. I’m grateful to her for reaching out and for bringing us little stories of his college years, like how as a freshman he helped organize an all-night  Asian-style dance party and how a group of 15 friends once made a fried chicken dinner in his honor and how he inspired her to take art and music classes that became a solace for her after his death. Also how in his last weeks at school, he looked and acted different and no longer wanted to be friends—and how hurtful that was for her.
I feel I owe Noah’s friends and cousins an explanation for his suicide. I’ve felt this from the start and again with this visitor. With a reading at his memorial, I may have given some of them the impression that he was bipolar, yet we have no clear evidence of that. There are so many possible causes in the complicated story I’ve pieced together; I keep rearranging the pieces as some come to appear more prominent. No one asks directly about why Noah killed himself, yet the question hangs heavy over many encounters.
I imagine this young woman and other college friends wondering what happened. What happened to the engaged, adventurous, charismatic guy who became literally a shell of his former self? What happened in the three weeks between taking a medical leave from school and killing himself? His college friends said good bye to Noah and turned him over to me to take him home and give him the care he couldn’t get at school. He took his life while under my roof in my care. How can that be?
The day after the visit, while listening to a poignant melody by Tchaikovsky, I felt overwhelmed by the misery and mystery of those three weeks. We'd thought Noah was safe with us at home; we saw him daily, had dinner together. Yet he was far from safe from his demons. He refused to get help and wouldn’t let me or anyone take care of him as he sunk deeper into numbness and isolation. He watched TV, blew off friends who called, and saw no one besides his parents and grandparents. If only I’d known about his anxiety attacks. If only I’d understood how isolation is a warning sign for suicide risk. If only I’d brought home a psychiatrist cousin or Noah’s best friend, whether Noah wanted to see them or not. The litany of “if only’s” drowned out the music the other day. Each one still felt like an accusation.
I could tell Noah’s friends about those three weeks if they seemed interested and the time was right. I could share how confused, helpless, and angry we felt as parents—and they might know exactly what I meant. Because that’s also how they felt with Noah during his decline. No one knew what was happening or what to do.
Noah’s friends likely have their own pieces that they’ve been shuffling and puzzling over since his suicide. Even if all of us who miss him were to bring together all our possible pieces, there would always be gaps. We’ll never really know what was going on in the mind of the person we loved and thought we knew.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Diminishing To-Do List

What now? From the early months of this loss, I’ve always had a mental list of things to do for Noah. I needed to feel active and continue to do things for him and his memory, just as I do things for my living son. There were people to contact, supports to seek out, books to read, epitaphs to choose, memorials to arrange, blog entries to edit, donations to make. I would tell friends about things I’d done for Noah in the same way they caught me up on the latest news from their kids. These actions were a way to keep Noah’s name and my grief part of daily conversation. It was comforting to continue to have him on my mental calendar.

Now as we approach the three-year mark, there’s less and less to do. Of course, there’s still much to learn about the devastation of suicide. My husband and I are still mulling over a way to do good in the world in Noah’s name. I’m still adding to this blog and working on a book based on it. I’m increasingly involved in the suicide loss support and suicide prevention communities. But these are mainly public tasks. The personal items on the list are diminishing as we have less contact with his friends, fewer occasions to remember him.

I just ticked off an overdue item. About eight months ago, Noah’s college sent us a portfolio of drawings that he left behind. The huge box lay unopened for days as we realized this was the last thing we would ever receive from Noah. Most of the pieces were rough sketches; a few, like a large self-portrait, were more developed, pretty good for someone’s first art class. My husband and I agreed to frame the portrait but let it sit for months. What was the rush? When we finished this task, there would be even less on the list.

Today, before framing the drawing, I applied fixative to the charcoal. At the art store, they asked if I wanted the fixative that allows for further alterations to the work; no, that wouldn’t be necessary. This piece, like Noah, was finished forever, its imperfections suspended in time. There would be no more chances for Noah to master technique and refine his vision, or for us to enjoy his accomplishments. All we’ll ever have of his artistic aspirations are novice drawings and photographs.

We have the satisfaction now of living with Noah’s pensive, larger-than-life face in our midst. But we also have the emptiness of contemplating a list that has lost much of its urgency and substance.

The list is the unfinished business of our connection to Noah, drawn out as long as possible. Its tasks are our efforts to say the good bye that his suicide denied us. We’ll never be finished with the list. But it’s changing. What now?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A New Gratitude Practice & a Reminder

Gratitude is not only about awareness of what we have but about the acts of receiving and giving. All of us who've lost loved ones exchanged many gifts with them over the years; we carry their legacy with us. We’ve received comfort from others on our grief journey. And in spite of bereavement, or because of it, we’ve managed to give to others.

I learned a Kundalini yoga gratitude practice today that symbolically balances giving and receiving. If you'd like to try it: Sit cross-legged on the floor or in a chair in a quiet space. Take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose. Turn your palms up and bring them together in front of your heart in a cupped shape with the little fingers lined up and touching. Look into your cupped hands as you gradually straighten your arms out in front of you on the inhale (giving); then bring them slowly back to your heart on the exhale (receiving). Repeat with the inhale (arms/hands out) and exhale (arms/hands in) for a few minutes. Pause and feel the effects of the exercise.

The exercise was well-timed for the day before Thanksgiving when I happened to be thinking of my reaction to  hurtful remarks by two relatives at a family gathering. After my husband said something at the event about losing Noah, a young father nodded and said it had been a hard year for his family; they’d had to end a pregnancy for medical reasons. Was he equating the abortion of a fetus to the loss of a child we’d raised and loved for 21 years? I was incredulous but silent. “You may not believe this,” another relative said as she launched into a long story, “but when I heard about Noah’s suicide, I was jealous of you because at least you know where your child is. Mine has problems and we’re estranged.” She has no idea what it’s like to know your child is in a box in the ground and the only place you can “visit” him is the cemetery. But then, I’ve never had to deal with a series of crises that robbed me of contact with a living child.

These family members didn’t mean harm. Maybe they were even trying to connect in a sort of confederacy of loss. When we’re in pain, we can be consumed with the enormity of it and each live in our own private hell. There is no hierarchy of grief.

Still, I wanted to share the two remarks with my support group, knowing they’d understand. The facilitator asked if anyone at the event had shown sensitivity and concern for my husband and me. Yes, my sister-in-law gave me this precious photo of Noah and me, and a few others asked how we were managing. Why do I forget the kindness and focus on the slights? Why do I allow myself to feel like a victim and an outsider again?

Careless remarks remind me that I can still feel broken, shamed, and isolated by suicide loss, even as I rebuild my life. They also remind me that if I’m learning anything from all this, it’s to try to bring compassion to a world of suffering—and to stop long enough to be grateful for the good I’ve received.

It's getting a little easier to say: I am grateful for the love I gave and received with my child.

May you breathe in blessings this Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Where Do You Get Your Strength?

You do not have to be strong. So opens Mary Oliver’s famous poem, “Wild Geese.” There is entirely too much praise in our culture for being strong in the face of death—for being stoic and able to function and get on with our lives rather than give ourselves over to grief. One of Noah’s friends marveled at my strength  at Noah’s memorial, presumably because I was asking how he was coping rather than collapsing in tears. But the apparent strength of mourners may be an illusion: just because we seem to function normally in one moment doesn’t mean we’re not overcome in the next. No one who is grieving should be expected to hide or deny intense feelings in order to spare others, care for others, or quickly resume their routine. 

So I was surprised when the facilitator of a suicide loss support group asked, after hearing me talk about trying to resist shame and stigma, “Where do you get your strength?” My first reaction was embarrassment; I felt I was being singled out and immediately affirmed the resilience of other group members who had grown up with very tough family situations. My second reaction was to point to protective factors, like healthy parents who loved and encouraged me and the genetic luck of being born without a predisposition for despair and suicidality. I gave credit to being schooled in grief young with the loss of my mother and a remarkable support group for cancer patients and their families. In the 1970s, that group was ahead of its time in promoting honest talk about death and dying. It was formative for me to see death up close and learn not to be afraid. Losing my father to suicide six years later, while devastating, ultimately bolstered my life force and showed me that I would survive. When Noah died by suicide 31 years after that, I was not in completely unknown territory. 

Where do you get your strength? It’s an important question to ponder on the occasion of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day (November 21 this year). To ask where survivors find our strength is like asking where we find hope or healing. The answers are often similar, yet the sources of strength are more deep-rooted, intertwined with who we are and how we have lived. We draw on everything we’ve got to survive suicide loss. It can take strength just to get through the day, or holidays, or the year.

Some of my strength comes from luck or circumstances outside myself. I’m fortunate to have had access to therapy that I could afford and, in the past few years, to support groups for suicide loss survivors, which didn’t exist at the time of my father’s death and still don’t exist in many places. I’ve been blessed by companions in grief with every loss, especially this one--dear friends and cousins who literally flew to my side with their love, listening, and care. Sharing the loss of a child with my spouse also makes finding my way less lonely and frightening.

Other sources of strength are internal qualities or sought-out experiences. For me, that means writing, singing, and spiritual practices like meditation, yoga, or Shabbat that I thank God I was already cultivating before Noah’s death. I believe that I need to confront, express, explore, and understand my grief, and I gain courage from sharing that journey through this blog, public speaking, and private conversations. I find strength in giving strength and comfort to others who are in pain.

We do not have to be strong. We do not always have to be healing when we are hurting so badly. Strengths are not always accomplishments, and grief is not a task to be done “right.” Still, it’s important to pause, honor the strengths we do have, and be grateful. Strength, I’m convinced, comes from being fully present to our loss and having the courage to open the heart and embrace vulnerability.