Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Hidden Light

My spiritual study group was meeting in my living room last month when I happened to look up and catch a glimpse of my son, Noah, listening intently with a bemused expression. We were discussing the “hidden light” of Creation that Jewish mystics say is revealed in the Hanukkah candles. I could tell Noah was both intrigued and skeptical at the same time, as he would have been had he been present.
And he was present in a way I’d never felt before. The angle of light, seen from the side, enlivened his painted face on the wall and caught his eye, as if he were just about to speak. I had to close my eyes with sudden tears before I stole another look. He’d been listening in the whole time. Of course--he was starved for all the learning and conversation he would have had, had he lived. I always sensed he was an old soul who, in spite of youthful resistance, would turn to spiritual searching or the study of religions as he got older. I should bring home more stimulating discussions for him to audit, I thought. I was so pleased to have seen a flicker of his spirit.

The big portrait of Noah, made by my niece, shows him on a family trip at 14, seven years before his suicide. The larger-than-life image looks most like him from a distance, like when I approach the front door from outside and see his reflection in the window. It’s as if Noah is home again, his tall frame filling the entry hall. 

It was at a distance that I locked on the portrait a couple weeks later. I was looking out the window at the trees, chanting gratitude blessings for Shabbat morning. I don’t know why I turned around to see Noah; maybe I was hoping for another epiphany. This time his face was still and remote, frozen in time. I missed him with such a pang. My throat clenched shut and I couldn’t sing thanks for anything anymore. I could only croak a lament and run for tissues.
I ended up rocking on the bed holding Noah’s old stuffed animal, Deerie, as I do in my worst crying fits. When I wandered into the kitchen, drained, with Deerie, our other son’s French bulldog, Miso, rose up on her tiny hind legs and began barking in alarm. I slid the furry deer puppet onto my hand and made it bonk Miso on the head, just as Noah would have done.
He would have found that pugnacious little dog totally ridiculous and lovable. The little dog that Noah never met, that helped ease our son Ben’s shock and sadness after the suicide. That Ben eventually turned over to my husband and me, knowing that we, too, needed something small to cuddle and adore in our bereavement.

A therapist friend recently asked me to help her with a project on long-term grief and I agreed--but really, what do I know about it? Grief feels buried deep within, rarely surfacing in tears, memories, or dreams. Sometimes I wonder if my intense focus on mourning in the first few years after losing Noah made for a kind of accelerated processing so that there’s little griefwork left to do, at least for now. I wonder what I might be missing or repressing as grief takes up less space in my life. 

Noah’s presence in the living room that morning was a gift. I miss him terribly. There's no formula or to-do list as we move through the years after a suicide. I guess this is what long-term grief looks like.
To my fellow survivors: When do you sense your loved one’s presence? Where can you go or what can you do to feel more in touch with their spirit? Let them in, let your love go out to them, especially in this holiday season when we can feel so isolated and bereft. Wishing you peace and connection, with the dead and the living.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Looking for Gratitude Amidst Grief

To my fellow survivors: How are you feeling on the eve of this holiday season?
Are you looking forward to holiday activities as a distraction from grief and a chance to have others take care of you? Do you feel grateful for what you have? Are you noticing that over time since the suicide, you’ve become more open to the idea of celebrating? If so, may you enjoy these next few weeks. You may want to try something like the Grateful Remembrance Jar or Bowl if you are at gatherings with people who knew the person you lost.

Or, on the other hand, maybe you are anxious and confused as the holidays approach. Do you worry that those around you expect you to participate in festivities as if you were the same person as before the suicide?

Jessica at the Our Side of Suicide blog stresses the importance of asking for what you need on the holidays, whatever that may be. I echo most of her suggestions. But I don’t think survivors of traumatic loss should feel obliged to have a positive attitude at the holidays, especially in the early stages of grief. Trying to fit in with a festive spirit can make us feel even more alone and bereft, a reminder of how we’re living in a parallel universe.  
The first few years after my son’s suicide, I felt banished from the sense of gratitude I’d been cultivating. I couldn’t sing or pray or meditate on anything related to gratitude without ending up in tears. I had to fight and claw my way back to the slightest grip on gratitude by sheer determination—but in my own time and on my own terms, not to please others or shield them from my pain. This became easier and less fraught with each passing holiday.

A few years ago, I felt conflicted when the advisory board for Survivors After Suicide came up with the theme “Finding Gratitude Amidst Grief” for our holiday potluck for survivors. How could we help each other with this daunting task? I created a short guided meditation that I led at the event that seemed to soften the tension in the room, opening a way to feel more calm and centered, if not actually grateful. It’s one of the healing mind-body exercises included in my book to help my fellow survivors. I’m reprinting the meditation below in hopes that it will allow you to hold both grief and a bit of gratitude in your heart at the same time. 
Wishing you peace this Thanksgiving and beyond. Take good care.

Guided Meditation by Susan Auerbach*

(Note: You might want to audiorecord this and play it back so you can close your eyes and relax into the meditation.)
Close your eyes and sit quietly….  Feel your feet on the floor and your body in the chair with your hands resting in your lap…. Slow down your breath and breathe in gently for a count of 3 …  then out for a count of 3… Breathing in this moment … breathing out any distractions…  Maybe breathing in a blessing in your life … breathing out gratitude for even one small blessing … Breathing in ... and out … In … and out… [long pause] Now take a moment to bring to mind the love you shared with the person or persons you lost … [long pause] As you think of this, place your right hand over your heart, breathing in that love … and breathing out … breathing in to let that love fill you … and let it out … [long pause]. Now think about someone or something that has supported you on your grief journey … With that thought, bring your left hand on top of your right hand that is still resting on your heart… Breathing in the possibility of gratitude, now or in the future … and breathing out …  Breathing in the wish to open the heart …  and breathing out … [long pause] Relax as you continue to focus on your breath and the warmth of your heart … When you are ready, open your eyes.  

*From "I'll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother's Quest for Comfort, Courage & Clarity After Suicide Loss" by Susan Auerbach, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, © 2017.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Haunted by Hometown Memories

Dear Noah,
I’m spending a rare few hours in our old neighborhood, your home town. I’ve been avoiding the place since your suicide. It’s too full of reminders of you growing up before everything fell apart, the last place you felt happy and at home. 

I was at the library today for the first time in years, the core of the town and of many memories. I used to bring you and your brother to story time, long before we moved here. I’d take you outside and you’d clamber around the giant, protruding roots of a magnolia tree like bold explorers before we settled down to read your library books.

You used to be excited lining up on the library grounds for the 4th of July Parade with Dad, Ben and the juggling club. You were a small-town celebrity from ages10-14, juggling flaming clubs and water balloons as you marched down the main street, classmates and neighbors cheering from the sidelines. Across the street from the library, you juggled in community festivals, moving effortlessly through difficult patterns and emceeing the famous celery trick (where Dad and Ben juggled clubs until they knocked a stick of celery out of the mouth of an audience volunteer).

Next to the library is the coffeehouse where Dad used to hang out, where eventually you’d come to linger over espresso at the outdoor tables with friends, trying to look cool. Down the street is a French cafĂ© where you dreamed of working and speaking French, but never did. Dad and I ate there a couple years ago on your birthday with your best friend’s mom and your girlfriend, images of you hovering over our heads.

Not far from the library are the schools where you made lifelong friendships, debated a whip-smart conservative classmate, miraculously dragged yourself to 6am water polo practice. Here are the streets where you learned to drive, where you walked with your long, loping gait and biked and skateboarded till you hit a pine cone and fell--I half expect to see your teenage self careening around the corner. Here, too, are the friends’ homes where you went to your first girl-boy party, cooked midnight pasta, played with BB guns, and of course, drank, smoked.... 

In our last picture from ten years in this town, we are a family of four arrayed on the front steps with an aging Wags. Dad and I are about to sell the house and you are about to leave for your sophomore year of college—where a few weeks later, you’ll lose a close friend to suicide and begin your struggle with PTSD, depression and anxiety. I often wonder if losing your touchstones of home, home town, and soon after, Wags, added to your burdens.

In the weeks after your death when I was still too traumatized to drive, I tried not to look out the window if Dad and I passed through the town. I couldn’t bear seeing kids walking to school or going into Starbucks--all signs of the normalcy we’d lost. Five-plus years later, being out and about here still makes me uneasy with a faint tug on the gut that I can’t shake. 

Now our main connection to this town is the stone with your name in the Children’s Memorial and Healing Garden in the town park. I try to visit several times a year, especially on your birthday and Valentine’s Day. I sit by your stone and write and weep. Sometimes I bring others to grieve with me. Today I brought you one of those huge, shiny acorns you used to collect.

Next month, I’ll be at the library to give a book talk* on my grief memoir about losing you. I’ve given a lot of these talks but the location of this one makes me nervous, attached as it is to memories of your years of promise. I hope to see people there who knew you and miss you. I hope to feel your spirit watching over me. 


To my fellow suicide loss survivors: Are there places too painful to go that remind you too powerfully of your lost one? With time, choosing how and when you visit, you may find comfort going there--another way to keep precious memories alive. 

*Suicide is Everyone's Business: A Mother's Grief Memoir and Suicide Prevention Awareness, with Susan Auerbach, author, and Sandri Kramer, prevention specialist, Tuesday, November 13, 2018, 7pm, South Pasadena Library Community Room, 1115 El Centro St., South Pasadena, CA. All welcome.

Friday, October 5, 2018

When Talk of Suicide is Off Limits: On Both Sides of a Gag Order

It’s been five and a half years since the suicide of our son, Noah. We thought the days of dealing with other people’s discomfort with what happened were long past. So my husband and I were taken aback when a relative told us that if we planned to visit, they would ask that we not talk about Noah.

My pulse surged. The request was a stab in the gut, censoring the most important thing in our lives since 2013, as if Noah had never lived and his traumatic death had never happened. It heaped more hurt on the pain we’d swallowed in the early years when the relatives stopped asking how we were and missed Noah’s memorials. Now, Bryan and I felt silenced, shamed, and isolated all over again, as if our very presence was considered toxic.

I couldn’t live under a gag order. I knew I’d have to say something in response, but I was uneasy. Something felt dreadfully familiar.
It came to me with a pang: What had been done to us, I had recently done to an old friend during a phone call. I had silenced her, a fellow suicide loss survivor, when she was telling her story by setting limits on parts of the story that I didn’t want to hear. In shutting her down, I was protecting myself from things I found disturbing—just like my relative. Later, in apologizing to my friend, I learned that I’d said other things during the call that upset her greatly and that my whole sense of what was over the line was off the mark.

So here I was, on both sides of a gag order, impaired in my understanding of others. I felt humbled, my righteous indignation at the relatives deflated.
The email to them that I’d been agonizing over now flowed easily, touched with compassion. I wrote that Bryan and I were saddened at how their needs and our needs seemed to be in conflict. That they were entitled to protect themselves as they saw fit, and we would never wish to harm them. That when we talked about Noah among relatives, it was usually to share good memories, and that it hurt us that even this was not welcome. That we wouldn’t come to visit but hoped that we could talk in person sometime soon to clear the air.

“Thank you so much for your understanding,” came the quick reply, with a “yes” to talking it over one day. I look forward to that day, whenever it comes.
Suicide and the grief that follows it lay bare so many human limitations. The limits on our suffering loved ones’ ability to withstand the pain, have hope or seek help. The tragic constraints on our own ability to understand, help or save them. In the aftermath, limitations on how ready we are to look at pictures, deal with the person’s possessions, accept that everyone grieves differently. Some survivors avoid support groups because they can’t bear the burden of other people’s stories. In staking out what’s off limits, they are taking care of themselves—like my relative with me, like me with my friend, maybe like you.  

To my fellow survivors: How have you navigated the limitations others place on you in the aftermath of suicide? What about the limitations you notice within yourself?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Challenging Conversations: After Asking if Someone is Thinking of Suicide

When survivors of suicide loss go to suicide prevention trainings, we fortify ourselves with information and strategies we wish we’d had when our loved one was in crisis. Often we're hoping to stumble on some stray piece of the puzzle that will unlock the mystery of their suicide. Sometimes we recognize our family member in the lists of risk factors and warning signs and the testimonials of suicide attempters; sometimes not. Sometimes we are triggered; sometimes numb. We’re spurred by the need to spread suicide awareness on the chance of saving a life, sparing another family our torment.  

At a recent conference, I learned more about how to talk to people who are suicidal. I was reminded of the two times I managed to ask my son Noah if he was thinking of suicide when he was suffering from major depression and anxiety disorder. Somehow I knew then that it was important to ask; what I didn’t know was how to respond to the answer.  

The first time I asked Noah about suicide, he scoffed and said he would never do such a thing. I was relieved, though I knew he could be bluffing. I assumed he meant that he valued life and knew how devastating it is to be left behind; he had felt bereft and betrayed after a close friend’s suicide at college.

The second time I asked was on the phone when he’d gone back to college with great difficulty a few weeks after a psychotic episode. He had already called twice to say he was coming home, then changed his mind. This time when I asked The Question, he paused and said, “not right now.”

To my great regret, instead of hearing him out, I went mama-bear ballistic on the phone. “That’s all the more reason you need to go back to the therapist and tell him what’s been happening!” I shouted. “Please promise me you’ll do that.” He never did, though he did call a previous therapist 3,000 miles away, who told Noah to see a psychiatrist immediately.

I know better now. I’ve learned that, rather than suddenly provoking thoughts of suicide, being asked if they’re thinking of suicide can be a relief to people who have not been able to express their thoughts. I’ve learned that a helper’s role in these horrifically challenging conversations is to listen calmly, without judgement or efforts to persuade. That’s almost impossible advice for parents—or for anyone who feels alarmed and protective with someone in crisis—which is why we have to practice these lines and make them our own, in readiness for when they might be needed. I’ve learned the difference between passive suicidal feelings (wanting to go to sleep and never wake up) versus active ones (intending to take one’s life), and the risk of having a general plan for the method of suicide versus a detailed plan (how, when, where). (You can read about a simple 6-step screening tool here.)  

After the conference, I sat down with pen and paper for an awkward do-over of that second exchange with Noah. With what I know now, some things I wish I’d said:

I’m really, really sorry to hear that. Thank you for telling me. I appreciate your honesty.

I love you; I want to hear what you’ve been going through. I promise to stay calm and listen.

That sounds really hard.

When you said you thought about suicide recently, was it just thoughts or did you plan to act on those thoughts? Did you know how you would do it? Did you start preparing?

We know you’ve been suffering terribly and we want to help you get healthy. We’re here for you, every step of the way. Let's talk about some ways to keep you safe.

Noah might have shut me down with, “Forget it, Mom, you’re not my therapist.” Or he might have opened up, even a little.

Might words like this have helped lead Noah away from the brink? I’ll never know. It’s too late for my family, but it’s not too late to inform myself and others so we can try to make a difference when someone is suicidal.
For Suicide Prevention Month and beyond, please: Know the signs. Find the words. Reach out .

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Waiting for the Dove

I recently returned to a retreat center in the dry California hills where I first learned to pray.

It was 2012 and I was consumed with worry over my son Noah’s worsening depression. “Have you tried praying?” the rabbi asked and seeing my startled expression, offered a formula that seemed instantly right: May you be blessed with peace, joy, lovingkindness, compassion, and wholeness. The prayer became my mantra, calming my rising panic about Noah.
I revisited the retreat in 2013 after Noah’s first psychotic episode. And again in 2014 nine months after his suicide, peeled raw with grief and shock.

This year at the center, walking through the rustle of pepper trees into the silence of the hills, a new mantra fills my head: This is where I learned to pray. This is where I came after my prayers failed. This is where I still seek solace for my broken soul.
Because I'm still convinced it wasn’t really my prayers that failed so much as myself as a mother, unable to predict or prevent my child’s suicide. The burden of self-blame has lightened with time, shifting toward regret, but I’ll always carry it with me in some form.

Looking up from a yoga session at the retreat, I notice a Chagall print on the wall with a line from Genesis: And Noah sent out a dove. I flash tears. Our Noah was so bereft in the last year of his life that he didn’t have the faith or patience to launch a dove, wait for its return, and navigate to safety. Maybe if, like the biblical Noah, he had gathered up the animals he loved and held on… if he’d let their earthy smell and solid flanks brace him against the storm… if his beloved old Wags had still been alive for him to lay down beside—he would have felt the life force stream back into his heart.

“I wish Noah had stuck around long enough to find something that worked for him,” a good friend of our son told us. She struggled for several years before landing the right therapist and treatment. Now she seems transformed, both more hopeful and more wise. She had the good fortune to endure until the dove appeared—or until she could see and seize it.
The retreat is full of parents doting on their young children with full attention, like my husband and I once did with our boys. A father tries to contain his squirming toddler in his lap; a mother hunkers down on the carpet to draw with her five-year-old. They are, thankfully, oblivious to possible peril ahead. They don’t know that the most devastating, least foreseen danger for your child may come from within.  

I pray for these parents and for families everywhere, including my fellow suicide loss survivors: May you be blessed with peace and joy. And for those who, like Noah, feel trapped in desperate straits: May you find the strength to hold on. May you be visited by a dove that brings you back to yourself.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Of Shattered Dreams and Rebuilding in Progress

I can’t get the haunting downward strains of Lamentations out of my head after hearing it chanted over and over at synagogue last night. It was Tisha B’Av, a lesser-known Jewish holiday that mourns the destruction of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. “The existential question of Tisha B’Av is not, ‘How mournful can we be?’”, writes Rabbi Noam Raucher. “Rather it is, ‘What can we rebuild after our hopes and dreams are left in shambles?’” Grievous loss contains the seeds and the imperative for renewal, he and other rabbis suggest, turning a curse, over time, into a blessing. 

I take this as a message to suicide loss survivors like me. It still pains me to remember how bereft I felt in the first few years, not only of my precious child but of our irreplaceable relationship and the dreams it carried.

What is a child to a parent but a dream embodied? From birth, we invest our kids with our hopes—scrawls on a blank slate, our best soil for the seed. They are everything we aspired to be or do, our comfort in old age, our stake in the future. We launch them into the universe not knowing where their dreams will land.  

I envisioned Noah emerging from the confusion and depression of his college years to find his passion, deep love and fulfillment. I yearned to feel close to him again, to resume our late-night conversations (even if sporadically), to share great food and art, holidays and vacations, life passages. I was excited by his young adult dreams of living in Europe and making films and all the as yet unformed dreams that would follow. 

When the dream that is a child dies, the act of dreaming dies with them. The garden lies barren; the launch pad, abandoned; our pathway, blocked under rubble. The whole edifice of what was and could be, of what we believed about love or life, laid waste. I don’t know what hurts more after suicide, the loss of our child’s hopes and dreams or our own. Maybe it’s having to give up both at once. I can’t bear to think of what it was like for Noah to lose hope that he would ever get better and, one by one, let go of his dreams.

Where do we want to go after we’ve sat in the ruins and let grief pour out of us? How can we crawl through the curse of suicide to come out on the side of blessing? Initially, I resisted the conventional wisdom of finding silver linings and new doors that open when others slam shut. I was still finding and grieving each dream that we’d lost in losing Noah. Meanwhile, new opportunities and compassion arose, opening a return to joy and a life of purpose.

This week marks a year since the publication of my book, I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage and Clarity After Suicide Loss. I had always aspired to write a memoir but never expected that it would be about the end to all my child’s dreams. My book and book talks have widened my world and put me in touch with many people in the past year, from fellow survivors to concerned therapists, from young mental health advocates to spiritual seekers. I’ve felt the release of baring tender, vulnerable parts of myself that others can honor and recognize in themselves. I’ve been showered with love by friends and strangers. The sweetest praise I’ve had is that the book is a tribute to Noah and that for one new suicide loss survivor, reading it was “like getting a big hug.” 

As I continue to promote the book, I’m expanding my public speaking to bring suicide prevention information to as many people as I can. With young people, I want to spread the message of “be a lifeline” for others and, if in distress, “stay” --for the sake of your dreams and your future self. With parents, schools, and faith communities, I want to help nurture youth resilience and understanding of suicide risk and response. 

These are my new dreams for the moment, along with continuing to write in the key of grief and see where it leads me. The new dreams will never replace the ones I had for Noah, but they are a sign of rebuilding in progress.

The Three Weeks of mourning in the Jewish calendar, capped by today’s holiday, are followed by Seven Weeks of Consolation. I’ll try to keep that proportion in mind.

To my fellow survivors: What dreams have you had to set aside? What new dreams may be starting to form? Take note of any sign of rebuilding, no matter how tentative, and take heart.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Why I Cried at the Triplets Movie: Please Don't Blame the Parents

Image result for three identical strangers trailer 
SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see the documentary, Three Identical Strangers, you might want to read this post after you see it or, as the reviewers say, “tread carefully” below.

Three Identical Strangers is a widely acclaimed new documentary about adopted triplets who were secretly separated at birth and reunited by chance at age 19. It’s meant to stoke audience rage at an adoption agency and research team that misled and manipulated families for the sake of a psychological study done under false pretenses. I found myself raging instead at the film’s cavalier treatment of mental illness and suicide, feeling attacked as the mother of a young man who died by suicide. A young man who could have been kin to these triplets with his curly dark "Jewfro" and radiant smile.

There are hints of the film’s dark undercurrent amidst the bubbly story of the triplets’ reunion: can such elation last? With a middle-aged Eddy absent from the interviews, I began to sense that he was either in prison or dead. When someone mentioned depression, I knew where we were heading even before I heard “bipolar” and “psych ward.” Like too many people with mental illness, Eddy took his life soon after being discharged from a hospital. The film briefly registers Bobby and David’s dismay, just as it briefly notes that the triplets had had psychiatric problems as teenagers. We’re given few details on Eddy’s mental state and how it compared to that of his brothers, whether at 15 or 35.

How do people become who they are? The film poses the question but barely explores answers. While the first part highlights the triplets’ similarities in spite of their different home environments, the second part stresses their differences—the implied health and success of Bobby and David, the failed life of Eddy. The story seizes on Eddy’s strict, presumably unloving father as the source of the young man's problems. It was David’s warm, gregarious father who all the triplets loved and who kept the peace among them in adulthood; Bobby’s father was a busy doctor who was less present but benign. By contrast, Eddy’s father, puttering around with his bony face and wild hair, looks lonely and clueless. A former teacher, he tears up as he wonders if he missed teaching Eddy something that would have kept him alive. As other interviewees weigh in on the primacy of nurture over nature, the message is clear: The triplets started life with the same nature, but nurture made them who they were. Eddy killed himself because of bad parenting.

This tidy moralizing reinforces stereotypes about mental illness, and especially suicide, as rooted in family dynamics rather than in  a complex mix of biochemistry, stress, and other environmental factors. This misrepresentation does a disservice to suicide loss survivors everywhere, especially parents who have lost children. It left me in helpless tears as the credits rolled.

Among the questions left hanging: How did Eddy’s suicide affect Bobby, David and other family members in 1995 and beyond? How did Eddy’s smiling wife and their children manage in the aftermath? Did the suicide drive a wedge between the two surviving triplets? Did the film not dwell on the suicide because Bobby and David were reluctant to discuss it? At the premiere at Sundance, when Bobby and David got sympathetic hugs from the audience, did anyone offer condolences for the loss of their brother?

I doubt that many people noticed the treatment of suicide in this fast-paced, many-layered film. I can't help seeing it through a lens tinged with grief and regret and ever wary of misrepresentation. Maybe I’m more sensitive to the poor parenting trope right now because I’ve been reading Sue Klebold’s memoir about surviving her son Dylan’s murder-suicide at Columbine High School in 1999. She received hate mail and messages for years, accusing her of being a bad mother for not knowing what her son was planning. She takes pains in the book to show how “brain illness” can happen in any family and how love and attentive parenting may not be enough to prevent tragedy. More on Klebold in a future post ...

To my fellow survivors: What did you think of this film or of others you’ve seen that deal with suicide? Am I over-reacting? I’d love to hear your thoughts below or privately by email.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Juggling Joy and Sorrow on Noah's Birthday

Today is Noah’s birthday, what should have been his 27th

Last Sunday was Juggle Fest! 2018, a festival in memory of Noah organized by my husband, Bryan, and the South Pasadena Juggling Club. Noah was a fanatic (and fantastic) juggler from about age 9 to 14 and a founding member of the club. He learned how to juggle from Bryan and forced himself to master the skill by juggling three balls 100 times until he could do it without dropping. He learned tricks effortlessly, especially complicated passing patterns. He reveled in camaraderie with people of all ages at festivals and workshops. 

Juggling gave Noah a fun activity to do anytime, anywhere (Parthenon, anyone?) with his brother and dad. It gave him an identity and a way to be involved in his community when he juggled at shows, parades, and a hospital children’s ward. It even gave him a topic—persistence--for his college application essay. 

It was riveting to watch the joy and fluidity of his juggling. And bittersweet at Sunday’s festival as we shared memories of Noah’s juggling days with the crowd in a speech and slide show. You can see some slides and short video clips of Noah juggling here

This morning Bryan and I walked to Noah’s favorite doughnut store. I was mulling over other things I might do to remember him, like look at photos he took on his travels or attend the Women’s March, when an old friend called with terrible news. Her daughter, 29, took her life yesterday amidst an onslaught of health problems. How is it that this horror keeps happening, cutting down young lives and laying low a whole circle of people around them? I hope I can be a companion in grief for my friend as she so sensitively has been for me these five years.

For everyone who is hurting from suicide loss right now: I'm thinking of us as I admire two newly opened sunflowers, turning toward the sun. Let's help each other keep turning toward hope and light.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Surround of Silence

If past celebrity suicides are an indication, all the noise about suicide and suicide prevention of the past few weeks will soon subside into the usual uncomfortable silence that surrounds the topic. “This silence about suicide can be deafening,” writes Stacey Freedenthal on Speakingof Suicide , “making it exquisitely hard to hear those whose cries most need to be heard.”  

In the five years since losing my son, Noah, to suicide, I’ve learned there are many varieties of suicide silence. Most often, it’s the silence of stigma that needs to be broken, again and again, so that it’s no shame to admit to suicidal feelings and seek help. We need to Send Silence Packing, as the organization Active Minds signals with its exhibit on youth suicide that travels to college campuses. The huge collection of backpacks represents the 1,200 American college students who die by suicide every year, including Noah in 2013. I gazed down on the exhibit last month from a terrace at UCLA, sobered by the many long lines of backpacks radiating across the lawn. Up close, other visitors and I browsed among the photos and stories of young people attached to each pack. Some accounts were upbeat biographical sketches; some, anguished outcries—each story different and tragic. Between the packs were signs from Active Minds, which works to destigmatize mental illness on college campuses: Seeking help shows strength. It’s OK not to be OK. Keep asking and keep searching until something helps; something will. Your story isn’t over yet.

What if this exhibit had been on view at Noah’s college? What if he’d strolled by and leaned down to read about a student whose desperation reminded him of his own? Would he have been emboldened to tell us about his terrifying anxiety attacks or to tell a therapist that he was feeling suicidal? My hunch: not likely. I think he would have avoided the exhibit, fearing exposure or another anxiety attack. He would have walked right past posters with crisis line numbers, though secretly, he may have longed to call them. As he told me a month before his death, he felt he should “man up” to his problems. Many young people who are struggling agree, though surely campaigns like Send Silence Packing give many others the courage to speak up and seek help.

What if Noah’s friends had seen an exhibit like this or called a crisis line to voice their worries about him? I’m grateful to his hometown friends who contacted me in concern when Noah was having a psychotic episode. What if they’d broken the code of silence with my husband and me before it was too late—before the once exuberant, adventurous, witty conversationalist that we all loved sunk into alarming silence? Better a mad friend than a dead friend, youth suicide campaigns insist.

Then there are the forms of silence that come after a suicide. The helpless silence of friends and family who don’t know what to say to the mourners, especially after a child’s suicide. Though honest and well-intentioned, “there are no words” can feel hollow to loss survivors; try asking us instead how we’re taking care of ourselves or if we’d like to talk about what’s on our mind. Or give us a hug and sit or walk beside us in shared grief and loving silence.

Incredibly after five years, there is still the dismaying silence of relatives who can’t speak Noah’s name or reminisce about him at family gatherings. They fear that doing so will upset Bryan and me by reminding us of the tragedy, when, in fact, it’s their silence that upsets us and we need no reminders for what is always in our hearts.

And of course, there’s the inexcusable silence of public policy and medical research on the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. And the baffling silence of media on how gun violence results in nearly twice as many suicides as homicides in this country. We need to lift the weight of all this silence with information and support, research and advocacy, compassion and understanding—a sustained national conversation and action plan. (Kudos to CNN for hosting a one-hour town hall, “Finding Hope: Battling America’s Suicide Crisis,” this Sunday, June 24, 2018, 7pm ET, both on cable and streaming live on CNN.com, with an impressive panel of guests.) 

Like many fellow survivors, I’m helping promote more informed public conversation around suicide while still haunted by the most private of silences: When our loved ones didn’t tell us how much they were hurting. When we didn’t ask if they were suicidal, or did and fumbled our response. Worst of all, the endless silence that reverberates after they’re gone.