Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanking Those Who Died By Suicide

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day falls on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and is marked by events in many cities, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). While others rush around with the start of holiday shopping and partying season, we gather with fellow survivors to speak our pain and remember our lost ones. We set aside time to bring our grieving selves to a place where they are welcomed. 

I’ve been to two of these events and have appreciated the chance to learn from and meet other survivors, especially parents who’ve lost children. This year, I invited my husband, who generally stays away from events in the suicide loss community other than his support group. Amazingly, he said yes. Even more surprising, he stayed for the whole afternoon rather than leaving in discomfort. We were both struck by how nearly everyone in the break-out group for parent survivors had lost a young son. And we were moved by the wisdom of survivors who after many years have, as one put it, “found a place for my grief journey in my life journey.” (You can see Life Journeys: Reclaiming Life After Loss, this year’s helpful AFSP documentary on survivors, here .)

The closing ceremony at the Los Angeles gathering was in a church sanctuary, holding us safe.  We were given thank you stones and asked to thank our lost person for one thing, out loud. “For Noah,” I said, “thank you for your love of life.” “For Noah, thank you for spending your last few weeks with us,” said Bryan beside me. Others gave thanks for things large and small – for making us laugh, for your creativity, for introducing me to sports, for being my goofy big brother, for the memories, for the years we had together, for giving it your best shot. No one hesitated, not even those whose loss was still raw. No doubt we all could have said much more.

“What do we do with this season of gratitude?” asks survivor blogger Janie Cook . “Maybe it would help if we were simply given permission to be grateful without being happy about it.” For the gift of a life that ended too soon, we may feel “a profound gratitude that spills out of us through tears.” 

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to Bryan for joining me on the journey. To our older son, Ben, for coming home from his travels to spend the week with us. And to Noah for the love and life we shared for 21 years. I know he would have been here if he could have to bake the pumpkin pie, perch his elbow on my shoulder, and let me kiss him on the head.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Letting In Halloween

I let in Halloween this year. It just sort of happened. I found myself peeking with curiosity at outlandish yard decorations that I passed in my neighborhood instead of avoiding them like I’ve done the past few years ; I don't need so much protection from death images that are someone else's idea of fun. I put out a pumpkin and bought candy to give to the little kids next door. When I saw them prancing around giddily in their princess and Batman costumes, I couldn’t help marveling at their cuteness and how exciting this day is for kids.
I remembered how our two boys loved Halloween and how we used to make a big deal of it, draping heaps of sticky plastic spider web over the bushes and setting up the strobe light and didgeridoo music on our front porch, making ever-weirder big jack-o-lanterns and scooping out the insides for my mother’s pumpkin cake. Ben and Noah helped give away hundreds of candies to what seemed like an endless stream of trick-or-treaters. One year when he was 12, Ben sat quietly on the porch in a hockey mask and black cape, then reared up suddenly with a roar when a hesitant little girl coming up the steps wondered if he was real.

                                                   (Noah as cowboy with brother Ben)

Noah never stopped loving the holiday. As a child, he often ended up not wearing the costume we had so carefully planned but he didn’t miss out on any of the action. Candy was a rarity in our house, so Noah couldn’t wait to get home with his friends and dump out his loot on the floor, amazed at his good fortune. He’d count and sort it, then make trades for the optimum assortment.  (I put his stash away in a high cupboard to be rationed out over the next couple weeks, while I secretly threw most of it away; Noah never seemed to notice.) As a teenager, Noah would meet up with friends and gallivant in the dark streets in some random assortment of odds and ends from our dress-up bag. At college, he appeared as a convincing geisha one year, Abe Lincoln the next. For a party in San Francisco, Ben recalls, Noah wanted to be a narcoleptic person with a pillow taped to his head but ended up as a boxer in short shorts and a bathrobe with his drink taped to his boxing glove.

                                                (Noah as geisha with college friend)

 I’ve returned to normal thoughts for Halloween instead of haunting images. For Thanksgiving, too, instead of dread, I’m thinking ahead to how we can avoid the traffic and who will do the clean-up. Letting in more light.

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day this year is November 19. To find out about gatherings in your area, including screenings of a new documentary "Life Journeys: Reclaiming Life After Loss," click here.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Forgiveness Update

The fourth Jewish Day of Atonement has just passed since Noah’s suicide. I still can’t fully embrace the work of forgiveness and repentance that I used to do in preparation for the holiday. After suicide, there’s no making amends with the person who so grievously hurt us. I take comfort from Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, who says it’s OK if we don’t feel ready to forgive: “Sometimes the timetable of the High Holy Days doesn’t match the rhythm of your heart. . . . Love yourself enough to trust your own timing. Forgive yourself for not being yet ready.”

Sometimes forgiveness still feels like alien territory I can barely see over the mountain of remorse I’m still climbing. Sometimes it looms like an impossibly high hurdle; I run up to it only to retreat in tears and confusion. There’s no leap that will get me to the other side.

I’m trying to see forgiveness as a bridge—not a one-way entry to a green valley but a path that Rabbi Karyn Kedar says must be traversed over and over: “With every crossing, you discover that there is more. More darkness. More to forgive. More to learn. More light than we thought possible, just waiting to be released.” I keep approaching it with baby steps, like a toddler stumbling up one of those steep, red footbridges in a Japanese garden.

My Orthodox cousin is surprised that I struggle with forgiving Noah for leaving us, for rejecting the life that we gave him and the love we shared. In her version of Judaism, there’s nothing to forgive. “It’s a sickness,” she says. “What Noah did is between him and God, and God understands.” 

Plenty of secular folks agree that if someone is mentally ill, they can’t be blamed for taking their life so there’s nothing to forgive. Some of my fellow suicide survivors also take the “no fault” position; they’re either more understanding than me, more years out from the loss, or both. 

With time, the bitterness of the blame and anger I feel toward Noah is slowly leeching away.  Whether he was mentally ill or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that he was not himself, he was in unbearable pain, and he didn’t know how to fix it. 

The blame that remains—the most formidable hurdle—is self-blame. I was not all seeing, all knowing, all loving, or all powerful enough to save my child. Of course I wasn’t omni anything—who is? The bridge to self-forgiveness is longer, more tortuous. Veteran survivors say it’s about turning anger and blame into regret. I’m not magician enough to make that happen reliably, but I’m practicing. 

Several days after the Day of Atonement, I arrived at this private prayer: 

Open my eyes.
Open my heart.
Bring me ever closer to the bridge of forgiveness.
Teach me to walk its span, again and again,

Friday, September 30, 2016

Calling Up the Dead

I’ve often pictured what happened to my son as not just a wave of pain that swamped his soul but a veritable tsunami. Like those who try to withstand actual tsunamis, we didn’t see the enormity and power of the oncoming disaster till it was too late.

So when I heard about the Wind Phone in the coastal village of Otsushi, Japan, that lost more than 400 people in the 2011 tsunami, it spoke to me across the miles. It’s an old-style rotary phone that sits, unwired, in a glass phone booth that a Japanese man put up in his garden to talk to his dead family members. Whenever he felt like talking to them, he’d go into the booth and make a call. Eventually, tsunami survivors from all walks of life began coming to the booth to call up their dead. Japan's public NHK TV made a documentary that included audio recordings of people’s calls from inside the booth, which were later woven into a remarkable radio piece for NPR’s “This American Life, called "Really Long Distance." 

Driving home from work the other day, I heard the rough recordings in Japanese, with lots of pauses, cries, and sniffles, followed by English translations and cultural explanations by the matter-of-fact bilingual narrator. The story starts with the piping voice of a young boy greeting his grandpa with the news that he’s going into third grade. It ends with a teenage girl who’d never spoken about her father’s death giggling nervously about what to say before breaking into sobs. In between were outbursts by old farmers not known, as the narrator pointed out, for their expression of feeling. I was crying so hard I had to pull over to the side of the road.

What these tsunami survivors said into the Wind Phone felt like the most private of utterances, yet oddly familiar:
-          Where do I begin?
-          Why did it have to be you?
-          Where are you now?
-          I want to hear your reply.
-          I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.
-          I’m building a house for all of us.
-          Come back.

I and my fellow suicide survivors have said similar things out loud or in our minds, at the grave or at home. We need to call out our anguish. Some of us need to keep the dead person’s number on the list of favorites on our phones—even three and a half years after their death, as I do. We need to hear our voices trying to connect, even if the dead can no longer hear them.

There is such power in the human voice. Hearing the Japanese calls made me want to hop on a plane, find that phone booth with a view of the sea, and join the confederation of mourners who are drawn to it, who all share the trauma of sudden loss in the face of disaster. To affirm my solidarity as another type of disaster victim, though maybe a disaster that could have been foreseen and averted. And to set up phone booths around the world where suicide survivors and other bereaved people could gather and speak to our dead. We could recognize one another, bring together our voices, and be heard in the grief that transcends language. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Suicide Prevention Starts at Home: "The Talk"

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, a cause I never noticed until three years ago, and I’m reminded that prevention starts at home. Parents know we need to have “the talk” (or talks) with our adolescent kids about sex and drugs—but do we know we also need to have “the talk” about mental health and suicide awareness, whether or not there is a family history? 

I didn’t. I didn’t think our family needed it, despite my father’s suicide and some run-ins with the mental health system. I didn’t see that my talking openly and matter-of-factly about mental illness might make it easier for my kids to talk without shame and seek help with struggles they might experience. I didn’t realize that such talks can be an inoculation for resilience through the storms of adolescence and young adulthood, when many people experience severe stress and most forms of mental illness have their onset. 

How I wish I’d broached the subject with Noah when his mind was still clear and he was still open to talking with his mom. “You know that your grandfather died by suicide,” I might have said, “but I want you to know more about the depression that led to his suicide because depression is really common and can run in families. It could affect you or the people around you  and I want you to know the signs.” I could have described types of depression, its biochemical basis, how it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and how it can be helped. I could have pointed to the high prevalence of depression and anxiety among college students.

I could have mentioned other common mental health conditions--a term I find so much easier than “mental illness”--and how they, too, can lead to suicidal thoughts. And maybe extracted a promise that if Noah were ever thinking of hurting himself, he would tell me or another adult and hold on for another day, hour, or minute. “Cherish your precious life,” I should have said flat-out. “There will be hard times, especially moving into adulthood, but as you get more life experience, you’ll learn how to handle them and get the help you need.” If even a fraction of what I could have said had stuck in Noah’s mind, maybe he wouldn’t have withdrawn in shame and thought he had to “man up” when depression, anxiety, and PTSD swamped his soul.

Except that when Noah was a teenager, I didn’t have this information or a sense of urgency about the message. I rarely thought about my father’s suicide, which was many years and 3,000 miles away. I saw depression as a tolerable problem of the “worried well,” including myself and most people I knew. I’d put aside thoughts of my father’s depression, about which I knew little, and the persistent, low-grade depression of my own teens and twenties. When a friend who was active in NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) asked if she could do a presentation on mental illness for my college students, I didn’t think it was relevant or necessary; I didn’t understand how common mental illness is and how much college students are at risk. 

What if, before Noah left home for college, I’d seen a copy of something like the booklet “Starting the Conversation: College and Your Mental Health,” produced by NAMI and the Jed Foundation, and sat down to go over it with him? What if such a booklet had been prominent on the parent section of his college web site and handed out at orientation, along with wellness information and an online screening for student mental health? What if Noah had put the contacts for the college’s mental health resources on his phone, as the booklet suggests—might he have used them sooner or more often? What if we’d talked about FERPA and HIPPA and whether he would allow us access to his counselors and counseling records, should there be a crisis, before there actually was a crisis and he was determined to keep everything private? What if all this information built on strategies for mental health and wellness that he'd already learned in high school?

All I can do now is to urge other parents to inform themselves, have those difficult talks, and share information like that booklet with their new college students and their kids' high schools and colleges. For National Suicide Prevention Week and beyond, please help spread the word.