Sunday, January 18, 2015

When Couples Grieve, Part 1: Apart and Together

The hole that a child’s death blasts through a family can tear a marriage apart. Friends reminded my husband and me of this when we snapped at each other in the days after Noah’s death. The anger, guilt, and remorse surrounding suicide loss compound the risk of lashing out at or withdrawing from one’s partner. This brought my husband and me to couples therapy for a while and still resurfaces. 

How can someone who is suffering this most grievous loss comfort a partner who is suffering the same thing? In the early months, we didn’t have much comfort to spare. We were too depleted by shock and despair. We cried alone and confided in friends, support groups, therapists, and a precious cousin. If we reached out to the other during a crying fit, we were both in tears, both struggling for calm. We clung to each other at night, awake in separate nightmares. We were doing parallel grief, like children’s parallel play.
I had only rarely seen my husband cry, never several times a day, sobbing and rocking on a bench in the backyard. I had never seen his good-humored face so crumpled, his eyes so cloudy, his shoulders so defeated. His features were stricken for months, then settled into an unfamiliar glumness. I felt terrible for him who had never had a major loss before. I wished I could enfold him in a soft cocoon—and that he could do the same for me. 

Especially in that first year, I worried that if I was upset and he was numb, any lament from me would catapult him back into misery. Or if I was feeling steady and didn’t realize that he was teary, whatever I did might jar with his mood. It was hard to know from one moment to the next whether we could grieve together or grope our way out together, whether we needed time alone or with others. Like many couples, we struggled with how much space to give the other before it became a chasm-- only more so while living in a blur of pain. 

Of course, people grieve differently. It’s one thing to say this and another to live it every day with your spouse in a broken family. One of us took a leave from work; the other went back after two weeks. One of us became immersed in reading and writing; the other in gardening, home improvement, and hobbies. One of us promptly left social gatherings when uncomfortable; the other felt obliged to be present. One of us found Noah dead and couldn’t go in the garage for many months; the other felt at home there because it was the last place Noah had been. Sometimes one of us, sometimes the other, could relax and enjoy a little.

We came together over comfort food , comfort TV, Shabbat services at our synagogue, and visits with our living son. We shared inspiration from our respective support groups and frustration from gatherings with relatives who avoided saying Noah’s name. We teamed up to arrange psychological autopsies and followed every clue we could find to our son’s condition. We planned memorials and Noah’s birthday and agonized over what to put on his gravestone .

Gradually, we began to remember our lost son together. We unearthed pictures and videos, and searched for more. We brought each other stray memories like gifts. We treasured every message and visit from Noah’s friends. 

Now, a year and 10 months after Noah took his life, we are on firmer ground. We can usually tell if the other is having a grief surge and offer a simple hug. We freely bring up anything to do with Noah without worrying that the other is not ready to hear it; his life and death are so often on our minds that any mention, anytime, anywhere, seems natural. 

We still grieve differently*. I still delve into the ‘why’s and ‘what if’s of Noah’s situation and of suicide generally; my husband doesn’t want more information.He visits the cemetery regularly to talk to Noah and give him the latest news; I generally avoid the place. I want to travel to refresh my mind and carry on Noah’s wanderlust; my husband feels safer at home. 
So that's what it's been like for us so far grieving as a couple--both constraining and sustaining. We know each other better for walking the mourner's path, alone and together. 

What is it like for other couples? Does anyone want to share their story, break the silence that seems to surround this aspect of the suicide loss experience?

And to my fellow parent survivors without partners: I think of you and hope you have found other people in your life who can accompany you as you move through this journey.

*Note: Psychologists call couples' differences in grief "coping asynchrony" and find a common contrast between more "instrumental" approaches to grief that are action-oriented versus more "intuitive" approaches that focus on the outpouring of feeling (see J. Jordan & J. McIntosh, 2011. Grief after suicide: Understanding the consequences and caring for the survivors. NY: Routledge.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Letting Go, Holding On

I am one who holds on. I think friendships should last a lifetime. I never know when it’s time to put something aside to clear the way for something else. I hold onto life and can’t imagine doing otherwise. 

Noah let go of everything. The instinct of self-preservation no longer had a hold on him. Letting go of life must have felt like the only way out of his pain.

Letting go . . .  is a courageous act, an expression of inner power,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Slater  . “It is, perhaps, the hardest thing we will ever do, as every letting go is in anticipation of our final release from this life. We—rightly—cling to life, but we become habituated to holding on, even when letting go may be the source of blessing.” 

Maybe so in the normal course of events. But Noah’s letting go was a curse. The only source of blessing for those of us left behind is learning to let go of our loved one’s pain -- and eventually some of our own--as we move through mourning. 

I cling to every memory I can muster, as to a lifesaver. 

When Noah was nine, our family was on a small fishing boat in the Galapagos that sailed between islands at night. Noah was horribly seasick; he never went below and could only sleep outside on a bench on deck not far above the surface of the water. He was so light, I worried that he'd be tossed overboard. So I held onto him all night, and told him to hold onto the rail. We held on together through the pitch and roar of the open ocean. Each morning, we emerged in the quiet bay of an island to walk among magical creatures. 

How I wish I could have held my son through the storm that engulfed him 12 years later, be a beacon to guide him to safe harbor. I never dreamed there would be a morning without him in it.

Noah marveled at the iguanas, tortoises, and blue-footed boobies of the Galapagos, and he loved swimming with the sea turtles. But most of all, he adored the round-eyed, whiskered fur seals, who reminded him of his dog back home. One night on deck, we saw a seal sitting regally atop the landing skiff that we towed behind us, hitching a ride. As we moved in for a photo, the seal dove over the edge and was gone.

How I’d like to think that Noah’s spirit is still tied to us, holding on for the ride.