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.

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