Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Passover's Four Children: The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask

Seder Plate

Passover is a powerful holiday in Jewish tradition, memorable for its foods, customs, and story of oppression and liberation that speaks to many forms of suffering, both individual and communal. In an article in Tablet Magazine, I trace how I repurposed Passover ritual and symbols to help me both express and move through grief after suicide. I expand on these themes in “Healing the Broken Jewish Soul After a Child’s Suicide,” an illustrated book talk open to the public on Friday, April 27, 2018, at 7pm (following services at 6:30pm) at Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, CA, as part of Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Festival of Learning (you can see a short video preview here). 

A fellow survivor blogger named Deborah reminds us that the Haggadah, or guide for the Passover Seder, speaks of four types of children, including “one who does not know how to ask.” This was my son, Noah, who didn’t know how to ask for help when he most needed it. In another way, I, too, am that child. I didn’t know how to ask if Noah was feeling suicidal—or rather, I didn’t know what to do after I asked. I panicked. I didn’t know the importance of staying calm and listening because sometimes just having the chance to vent scary thoughts is enough for people who are struggling. I didn’t know to ask—or didn’t have the guts to ask--whether he had a plan, which might indicate a higher level of risk.

Deborah lost her father to suicide around Passover a few years ago and, like me, has been haunted by the symbols of the holiday. She writes: “This Passover, let us pledge to no longer be ‘one who does not know how to ask’… The plague of darkness can touch anyone. None of us is immune. So let our words be a source of light, life and hope. Know when to ask, know what to ask.” In a reinvention of the Haggadah’s Four Questions, she urges us to find the courage to ask the following when someone we know is struggling: “Have you had thoughts about suicide? Have you thought about a plan to take your own life? Have you attempted suicide before? Do you have access to a gun or other means you could use?”

You can get basic information to prepare yourself for this difficult conversation here (Know the Signs, Find the Words, Reach Out), with more detailed advice from psychotherapist Dr. Stacey Freedenthal available here and here.  

To my fellow survivors who celebrate Passover: Do you have a plan for how you'll take care of yourself this holiday? I hope that with each year, you can recover a bit more of the joy and  meaning of the season.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

5 years

Five years after his suicide, we ache for our son, Noah. Each year, the pain is a little less acute, the loss a little more woven into who we have become since his death. This anniversary means looking back on five years without Noah, as well as the toll that five years of grief have taken in the life of our family. I want to pause and recognize how low we once sank, how far we’ve come. The landscape keeps shifting as I look back on the terrain we’ve crossed. Will this milestone anniversary open up new vistas, new ways of restoring our lives amidst grief?  

To my fellow survivors: Which have been the landmark anniversaries for you? Did #5 matter as much as #3 or #10? If you’re counting the months, when did you notice a shift in your ability to cope? Give yourself credit for every step forward and understanding for every step that feels like it’s backward again. If you’d like to know more about my grief journey, in addition to my grief memoir , I was recently interviewed for a podcast that updates my perspective to the five-year mark and also discusses losing my father to suicide; you can listen here (click on Episode 4: Surviving a Second Loss). 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Walking Among Shrines

Our son, Ben, has lived in Japan for most of the past year and a half. I wanted to visit him during the summer Obon festival and float a paper lantern down a river, like the Japanese do for their ancestors, in memory of his brother, Noah. We finally visited Ben there this winter, and I struggled to think of a remembrance ritual we could do together. Nothing came to mind; the pleasures of Japanese culture and ten days with our living son kept grief mostly at bay.

The highlight of our trip was a walking tour on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route south of Kyoto. Every half mile or so tucked into the woods was a humble shrine with small statues, some just plain, round-topped columns, some with faintly formed human faces. All had endearing red bibs and some had knitted caps. Traditionally, these jizo statues were said to protect travelers, children, and pregnant women. So I prayed at the shrines for Ben’s health and happiness and for more fantastic family trips. 

Back in Kyoto, I was delighted to find dozens of little jizos lined up in a quiet corner of a huge Buddhist temple. They felt like old friends. Later, I learned that jizos are also memorials for children who die before their parents. Parents often maintain the shrines and set up little rock towers nearby so the children’s souls can ascend. All that time on the trail, I’d been walking among shrines that parents like me made for their lost children; I'd been walking their mourner's path.

Grief rolled back in as our visit neared its end. I was already missing Ben, wishing we could be more a part of his life and he ours. I was slammed with a wave of regret that he didn’t have a brother to joke around with--to escape from parents with--on a trip like this one. Noah should have been there with us.

Back home, I walked past our shrine to Noah with that familiar sinking feelingFive years gone. How can we have lived without his wit and warmth in the world for so long?  I grabbed one of the stone hearts on the shrine and touched it to my heart. I've never done that before. There are still more ways to remember Noah, to tune into his spirit, to grow amidst grief. 

The lead-up to this anniversary is gentler than the past few years. I’m still basking in Ben's love and in the blessings of those little jizos we met along the way.