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.