Friday, December 22, 2017

Home for the Holidays

“Are you ready for the holidays?” The question from store clerks always reminds me I’m not part of the Christmas spirit. I celebrate Chanukah, a lovely but minor holiday that doesn’t take much fuss. I don’t plan much for New Year’s either, preferring the introspection and renewal of the Jewish new year in September. And of course, as a suicide survivor, I’m often out of step with the rest of the world, never knowing when I’ll stumble on a grief surge.

This year, with Noah nearly five years gone and our living son, Ben, intent on distant travels, I feel stung that no one’s “home for the holidays”—especially when so many relatives and friends seem to be getting that best possible gift. At my inlaws’ big Chanukah party--this year on Christmas Eve--I’ll be blessed to be surrounded by warm, extended family. But the gathering of the clan and random sightings around town just remind me that no one’s coming home to my husband and me. At a poetry workshop, this slips out:
I can’t help staring at other mothers’ sons
who hover beside them, aglow with youth,
outside a holiday concert, who lean in
to shake my hand, recount their latest milestone.
On cue I ask them what’s next when what I mean is:
Can I take you home?

Today, I’m wearing a necklace Ben made for me and thinking back on childhood games he shared with Noah. I remember them making a dam in the stream, urging the dog down the sliding board, calling out “Lemonade!” to neighbors from their makeshift stand. A few days ago, Bryan and I decided to go visit Ben in Japan in February; we’ll shore up our new makeshift family of three. Next year, I plan to ask Ben, wherever he is, to come home for the holidays.

To my fellow survivors: We cling to what’s left of our fragile sense of family after suicide. So often we feel abandoned or disappointed when others can’t possibly fill the void. On celebratory occasions, we cast about for what feels right. What do you need to cheer you this holiday season? Reach out to others to ask for it, this year or the next. Wishing you moments of comfort and joy. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gratitude for 2 Families

With gratitude and sadness for our lost family of four.

With gratitude and gladness for our precious family of three.

To my fellow survivors and others who struggle on Thanksgiving: Might there be one small thing that you feel grateful for in the midst of pain? Seize on that. If you're overwhelmed by grief while others are celebrating, try to take time out for yourself. Know that future holidays will likely be easier.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Rise Up Singing

Soon as we all cook sweet potatoes/Sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes/Soon as we all cook sweet potatoes/Eat ‘em right straight up. I sang my boys to sleep with this song, rubbing their backs. In the car, I sang them Pete Seeger’s “Let’s Go Riding in the Car-car” and at their birthday parties, I had everyone make up animals and rhymes for “I Wish I Was a Lizard in the Stream.” I wanted Ben and Noah to be raised on singing, as I had been.

My mother filled our family with music--Joan Baez records, piano lessons, outings to symphonies and musicals. I loved helping her transform lyrics from “Fiddler on the Roof” and “My Fair Lady” into fanciful songs for story theater with her third graders. Thanks to her, I came of age harmonizing to the folk-rock and protest songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and joining in the counterpoint of classical choruses. 

I sang to my mother to distract her from the pain of cancer at 47, and I knew I had to at least try to sing at her memorial service. I chose a haunting tune, “Mayn Rue Platz (My Resting Place),” in the Yiddish of my mother’s childhood: And if you love me with true love/Then come to me, my beloved/And lift this burden from my heart/And make sweet my resting place. Somehow, I was able to stand up and sing, though I felt like crumpling to the floor. For years after, I’d go to my mother’s resting place in a maple grove by a lake and sing to her, Walk me out in the morning dew …

After I lost my son, Noah, to suicide in 2013, I lost my voice for a while. Songs I used to enjoy at synagogue left me gasping with grief and I’d have to stop. God, the soul you have given me is pure --for months, I couldn’t even begin the chant, so contaminated did my soul feel with guilt and remorse. Slowly, I made up verses for a lament for Noah that I sang with half a voice while staring at a stream: How I wished that I had told you/Every day and every night/That I loved you and would help you/And everything would be alright. It took a long time—a lot of yoga and mourning and conscious cultivation of breath--to feel the flow that I was watching by that stream move inside me again.

It helped to start singing in public before I was fully ready. Hesitantly at first, I joined the cantor and her prayer team on Saturday mornings at synagogue. Week after week, the rousing repertoire lifted my voice out of the place where it was stuck. I desperately needed to “rise up singing,” as the title of a favorite song book urges. I sought out voice lessons, where I learned to release my voice and find its power. 

The other day while having a singing Shabbat at home by myself, I suddenly missed Noah and grabbed a photo of him to gaze at while I sang. One line into the chant about the pure soul, my voice cracked into a croak and went down the hole again. I couldn’t meet Noah’s eyes or finish the prayer. Grief is never done and remorse still surfaces. The difference is that now, I know how to recover my breath and shape it back into the sound it wants to be. 

I’ve been cultivating my voice since Noah’s death through singing, writing, and public speaking. It’s a revelation when I bring that voice to light and others, like you, give it a soft place to land in the world.* I was recently paging through personal writings on suicide grief from a wide set of sources and realizing afresh that with this blog and my book, I add my voice to a chorus of survivors that’s been resounding for decades. We break the silence with our collective howling and soothing of the grieving soul. Though each one follows a different melody or rhythm, we’re all tuned to the key of sorrow, coming together in chords of dissonance and resolution. 

“The Power of Our Voice” was the inspired title of a suicide prevention conference in Los Angeles two years ago. Those whose lives have been touched by suicide need to break the silence, again and again. Someday at one of our gatherings, I’d like to rise up singing with my fellow survivors of suicide loss and feel the power of our collective voice.  

*Note: I’m honored to be reading from my book, I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage, and Clarity After Suicide Loss, as part of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, Saturday, November 18, 2017, 11:30am-4pm, at Venice Church, 2241 Walgrove Ave., Venice, 90066; all survivors are welcome at this free event  (for more info about this and other Survivor Day events around the U.S., see American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). I’ll also be reading from and signing the book on Thursday, November 30, 7pm at Flintridge Bookstore, 1010 Foothill Bl. in La Canada. Please come and introduce yourself if you’re in the area.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Other Mothers: Living with Mental Illness

Years ago when I was a new professor, a friend who was active in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) asked if she could give a presentation on mental illness in my classes. To my eternal shame, I declined. I didn’t think it was relevant to my students or course content. Really, I was recoiling, buying into the stigma. My friend and her family were desperately coping with their son’s descent into schizophrenia, and I didn’t want to bring that into my classroom. Mental illness was someone else’s problem.
Yesterday, I finally apologized to my friend. I told her that now, I give presentations in my classes on mental health and suicide awareness with the same urgency she once had. That I include suicide prevention information in my blog, my new book, and public speaking about suicide loss. These concerns are everyone’s problem. But it’s hard to get anyone’s attention, outside of a captive audience, until mental health conditions or suicide get personal. 

“My son was mentally ill and he took his life.” It’s taken another friend months to be able to make this statement, frozen with tears. It took more than three years after my son Noah’s suicide to understand that my family, too, was living with mental illness. Like another struggling young man and his family in Kay Jamison’s Night Falls Fast, Noah’s illness moved faster than his or my acceptance of it. My book traces the fraught dawning of this realization and my still uneasy membership in this community.
Before Noah’s suicide, I would have read from a great distance another mother’s lament about living with her son’s opioid addiction. “We’d known him since he was in the womb,” Judy Chicurel writes of her adult son, “but that wasn’t the same as knowing him now.” Yearning to connect, she conjures a quiet scene of night fishing together. This, she imagines, would soothe her son’s mind and allow the two of them to speak freely of “everything and nothing”—except his condition, his many relapses and rehabs, “anything that would cause him to crawl back into himself and become invisible.”  
Though Noah was never a drug addict, I’ve been that mother: desperate, bewildered, helpless, and exhausted as my child’s mind spun out of control and he retreated ever further from love and help. How I contrived, too, to set the scene where he could relax and return to the Noah we knew, full of conversation, charm, and curiosity. Instead, there was this hunched, haunted stranger at the table. Whatever I did to try to try to reach him, he rebuffed me with silence or “I don’t know.” Like my husband and me, Noah was desperate, bewildered, helpless, and exhausted. 

Was there some gateway drug in his youthful experimentation that messed with Noah’s brain? After his death, we learned that a bad marijuana edible triggered a massive anxiety attack; were there more such disasters we’ll never know? “The gateway to all of it is life,” Chicurel insists; “what happens, what you experience, what you choose to take in and decide to leave behind.” What Noah took in from life and what he couldn’t leave behind, like a good friend’s suicide, may have been too much for his sensitive soul to bear. But no one chooses to be seized by addiction or other mental illness. The only choice, I think, comes in finally summoning the will to get treatment and commit to it, and some people are simply too far gone for that.

“I hope this is the last time,” Chicurel says of her son’s latest visit to rehab. “I hope he can finally feel the love that surrounds him.” How Bryan and I yearned for the same opening for Noah, who spent the last months of his life seemingly cut off from feeling. How I regret not pouring out my love to him every day of the weeks he lived with us. “The last time” sparks hope for the families of addicts and those prone to manic and psychotic episodes. “The last time” for suicide loss survivors reminds us of all the moments that we didn’t know were the last chance to cherish our lost ones. 

And for all that we share, there is the crucial difference between a mother like Chicurel and a mother like me: she can always hope to take her son night fishing and see him, one day, free of pain.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Sharing Stories: How I Learned to Stop Fearing Attempt Survivors

It was about a year after my son Noah’s suicide, at a conference for survivors of suicide loss, when I first heard someone describe what led to their own suicide attempt. My hackles bristled so fiercely I couldn’t hear the details. I resisted being dragged inside that bleak and scary place, as if despair were contagious and another person's suicidal thoughts could infect me. I didn’t want to hear stories that reminded me how Noah, too, may have had thoughts of being unworthy, of disappointing his friends, of no longer enjoying what he used to love, of feeling like his brain would explode. The trauma was still too fresh, my grief too all-consuming at the one-year mark. While trying to lift myself out of the hole, I couldn’t bear the burden of another person’s desperate story. I needed a safe place, and stories of attempt survivors were way outside the bounds.
Besides, I was jealous, especially of young people who had tried suicide and survived. Why couldn’t my 21-year-old kid have called that crisis line or botched the job or had one sustaining thought so he’d still be alive like you? Why couldn’t Noah have had your resilience or good sense or just dumb luck at his lowest moment?
Over the past few years as I’ve learned more about suicide and heard more accounts of would-be suicide, those stories have lost some of their terror. The shift has come with time as I’ve become steadier on my feet, and with exposure to the worlds of attempters, wearing down the shock and fear factor. It’s come through getting an intimate, moving glimpse into the hearts and minds of attempt survivors through the work of Dese’Rae Stage, who features portraits of brave, articulate folks from all walks of life on her website, Live ThroughThis, and whose own story, along with others, is featured in the excellent documentary, The S Word, by Lisa Klein. Des’ speeches and blog, and Lisa’s deeply moving film, as well as the poignantly named Project Semicolon (“your life is not over yet”), have opened a window on suicidality and suicide attempts with such love, honesty, and even humor that I no longer have to look away.
Now I search the stories of attempters, like I search the stories of those who died by suicide, for clues to Noah’s state of mind. I feel compassion for these strangers sharing their pain, and that helps me feel compassion for all the struggling people out there, along with all those who died by suicide and the people they left behind.
I’m proud to come together in common cause with attempt survivors at suicide prevention activities and fundraisers, like AFSP's Out of the Darkness walks. We each wear differently colored beads to represent our connection to suicide—for different types of loss, for attempts, for ongoing struggle with suicidal thoughts--but all of us wear the color for those who advocate for suicide prevention.
Just as the paths of attempt survivors and loss survivors converge at the walks, so, too, are we all haunted in some way by the specter of suicide. We want to throw off the shame and stigma that taint our personal histories. We dread anniversaries and other triggers, push away nightmare memories. Some days, we stumble around in the deep gloom of our minds. Whether attempt survivor or loss survivor, we need to remember that we’re not alone and that our lives are not defined by suicide. We need to try to hold our shattered souls in the light, even if we feel engulfed by darkness.
I’ll always be searching for clues for what happened to Noah’s beautiful mind. I hope I’ll continue to learn from the experience of attempt survivors, and I hope they’ll learn about another side of suicide from loss survivors like me. I’m so glad that the attempters I’ve met decided to “stay” and are speaking out; maybe when they hear my story, as in my grief memoir, they’ll be glad they spared their loved ones the nightmare of suicide grief. We all need to share our stories to better understand the beast of suicide and protect ourselves and others from its ravages.