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.

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