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?