Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Bittersweet Taste of Italy

I recently had the good fortune to travel to Italy with my husband, Bryan. He ended the long-distance travel ban he'd clung to after we lost our son, Noah, to suicide in 2013. Before, Bryan needed the routines and comforts of home —and the reminders of Noah there--to keep him centered, while I craved travel as a grief holiday . Now, Bryan was more willing to venture into the unfamiliar and put up with the discomforts of travel. As it turned out, this trip was full of reminders of Noah and the need for the healing routines of home for both of us.

This was no pilgrimage like my last trip to Europe, alone, one year after the suicide. I didn’t need to carry traveler’s blessings and protective poems anymore. This was a pleasure trip that I was intent on enjoying, starting with the beautiful roll of Italian on my tongue. And enjoy it I mostly did, though still in the somewhat blunted way of everything joyful in the past few years.

Flying over the quilt of gold and green fields in Europe, I thought of Noah’s passion for the place and how he imagined himself a polyglot citizen of the EU. As an exchange student in France, he met international students and wanted to visit all of them. He wished he could move freely among the EU countries and attend great universities gratis, as they did. He visited his good friend Filippo in his home town in the Italian Alps and was supposed to meet up with him and other friends in Berlin a few weeks before he died. (Here is Noah, center, in Paris in 2009, with Filippo on the right and another exchange student on the left.) I’m sure that had he lived, Noah would have flown often over the route we were taking. He would have made many sojourns in Europe to master its languages, savor its views and cafes. He would have visited Florence again, this time with cash in hand so he wouldn't have to sleep in the train station.

On the streets of Italy, we saw tall, dark, bearded Noah look-alikes with curly hair and Roman noses. I realized, in a tiny osteria in Siena and in a long line outside the cathedral in Florence, that I found excuses to talk with these young men so I could get a better look at their faces and linger in the fantasy. Please, could you translate what’s on that blackboard? Where exactly is that concert tonight? Flashes of familiarity—Noah yet not Noah--in places where he might have, should have been.

In churches and museums, I gravitated to sculptures of the Pietà that I never cared much about before. Mary’s lamentation, frozen in gesture over the centuries, cried out to me; I knew her anguish cradling a dead adult son in her lap. I was struck by how sorrow and shock transfixed the figures around her in Ippolito Scalza’s Pietà in Orvieto. I got teary as I approached each Pietà and backed away. Yet I wish I could have seen more of these monuments to a mother’s grief.

Despite having Noah so much in mind, Bryan and I somehow forgot to pick up a stone or other little memento of our trip to bring home to put on Noah’s grave. I guess we were too busy taking in all the delights.

I wonder if Europe will always feel infused with Noah’s passions while tainted with sadness. Agrodolce: bittersweet--a powerful draw.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

With Hearts in Hand: Grief Tokens and the AAS Healing Conference

While groping in my purse for a pen, my hand closes on two little hard objects. One is a tiny, pointed crystal, the other a strip of porcelain with “always” printed on one side and “believe” on the other. I’ll always love you, I think. I’ll always believe you loved me and loved life as long as you could.

I never took notice of such things before losing Noah to suicide. But in the pit of early grief, I needed little tokens to anchor me, sprigs of lavender in my pocket to breathe in calm. Now I collect talismans from survivor gatherings--ceramic hearts, gratitude stones, miniature origami cranes-- to carry with me or array beside photos at home. In my wallet, a fortune cookie promise: You will find happiness in mind and heart. On my wrist, the nine charms of a memorial bracelet , each an emblem of Noah and our connection. Thus fortified, I go out into the world.

I got the crystal a few weeks ago at the closing ceremony of the annual American Assn. of Suicidology (AAS) Healing After Suicide Loss Conference , which was the highlight of a long day of talks and workshops. The session was led by Iris Bolton , a wise, warm, and gracious founder of the suicide loss survivors support movement and author of the classic, My son . . . my son. . .: A guide to healing after death, loss, or suicide (Bolton Press, 1983) as well as the new Voices of healing and hope: Conversations on grief after suicide (Bolton Press, 2017). Iris slowed our breathing and brought our hearts into the room with the mellow tone of Native American flutes and drums. We passed tissue boxes around and introduced ourselves to our neighbors. I can’t remember what was said, only that some 40 years after the death of her son, Mitch, Iris could speak to the pain of all in the room, from the stunned newly bereaved to the stalwart 20-year veteran. She invited each person to come up and choose a crystal from the table, then form a big circle around the room. We spoke, first, the names of those we had lost and finally, one word for our feelings in that moment. Thus held gently in community, we could return to the world.

It wasn’t like that at my first healing conference in 2014, about a year after Noah’s suicide. I went desperately seeking answers, but the onslaught of information on suicide prevention and postvention (care for survivors) couldn’t penetrate the daze of my grief. I was especially shaken at the time by the stories of people who had attempted suicide and lived. By the end of that day, the closing ceremony felt rushed and formal, leaving me exposed and bereft in the hotel lobby.

This time, three years later, I could hug and reassure other mothers, enjoy meeting people, recognize some names on the conference program, and marvel at the many ways survivors had “turned grief into action” with research, advocacy, and outreach. I could show people notices for my book that will be out in a few months, I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage, and Clarity After Suicide Loss, and feel a rush of gratitude when they pointed to the title or the cover photo (of Noah’s name written in the sand) and said, “I’ve done that, too!” In the conference registration area, I could find the color-coded heart stickers for name tags and put a red heart (for losing a child) on one side of my name and a purple heart (for losing a parent) on the other and feel relieved to publicly wear my heart(s) on my sleeve. And I could see others with similar stickers and strike up a conversation with, “I see we share a heart.”

To my fellow survivors: Indeed, we do share a heart, whether a sticker on a badge, a token in the hand, or a memory of a loved one. I hope you have a chance to unburden your heart in the company of others who understand your grief. See the Resources section of this blog to find support groups in your area or an online community like Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors  , and consider attending the next AAS Healing Conference, Saturday, April 28, 2018, in Washington, D.C.