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.