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, 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.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Too Much Suicide

Suicide seemed to be everywhere the first week of June. The suicides of two beloved celebrities dominated the media, prompting soul-searching and tweets of “RIP” and 24-hour crisis line numbers. I purposely didn’t overload on the media coverage, partly because I barely knew the work of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I heard about some irresponsible news stories that focused on the means of the suicide and used the term “committed suicide” rather than “died by suicide”—both counter to suicide prevention media guidelines . But the media pieces I saw were thoughtful and compassionate, stressing the importance of help-seeking and putting a face on suicide by giving voice to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts, as well as suicide loss survivors both famous (Karl Rove!) and not so famous. 

At the same time, the CDC released a new report on a 25% increase in the U.S. suicide rate since 1999. This brought broader context to the deaths of two famous people and a factual basis to a national conversation that needs to be urgent and ongoing, rather than sporadic. Because we should be saddened about the other 862 Americans who take their lives each week and turn that sadness into policies and programs that give suicide—the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.--its due as a public health crisis. 

Friends gingerly wondered if I was having a hard week. I was, but not because of the media frenzy. It was a hard week because I was immersed in suicide for too many hours each day. I attended three suicide-related meetings, where everyone was processing the public deaths, the media coverage, the people they knew who had been triggered. I was working on a project that involves reading and editing articles about suicide loss. I was emailing a dear friend whose daughter had just lost a middle-aged aunt to suicide and planning a dinner for new friends whose son’s death anniversary is this week. And I was slogging through messages on a suicide listserv that had accumulated while I was out of town. As I’ve become more involved in suicide prevention, I’m learning that I need to dose myself by limiting the time that I focus on suicide —just as loss survivors need to “dose” our bouts of grieving when it becomes overwhelming. I also need to take care that I’m not over-compartmentalizing by tamping down my own reactions. 

In the early months after losing my son, Noah, any news of suicide could be traumatizing. It was scary how much suicide there was in the world. Still raw with pain and obsessed with my loss, each well-publicized suicide seemed to magnify my own private nightmare. But over the past few years, as grief has become more integrated into my life, my mind has filled with other emotions and preoccupations. I can still be triggered by talk or images of suicide—I had a terrible flash of the scene of Noah’s death about a week after Bourdain's death--but the upset is more fleeting. 

Maybe friends and family of survivors worry about us when there’s a media frenzy over suicide because it reminds them of what we can never forget. 

To my fellow survivors: I’m sorry if recent suicides in the news have made your loss even harder to bear. Let’s hope these stories open up conversations with others who sincerely want to help and understandand spur action to save lives and spare other families.