Thursday, January 31, 2019

Collective Grief: Reaching Out to Another Noah

Why am I so affected by a boy’s loss of his mother in my community when I barely know the family? Is it because the boy’s name is Noah, like the son I lost to suicide? Is it because this younger Noah, too, lost a mother in her 40s to cancer? Or because thinking about this boy’s tragic loss touches off a lifetime of grief?
Each loss informs the other.

I first learned this when I was a grad student researching lament traditions in rural Greece in the 1980s. Black-clothed widows would gather around the body at the wake and insert the names of their own lost ones when leading laments. The mourning of one became the mourning of all, the wake a container for collective grief. In my walks in the hills around the village, I borrowed lines from those laments to bewail my mother’s death five years earlier.
In the U.S., where expressions of grief are so much more rare and restrained, I noticed that people cry for their own dead at other people’s funerals. Like the elderly women in that Greek village, we all need safe spaces to mourn and remember. I think of the acquaintance at the shiva memorial gathering for my son, Noah, who curled up in an armchair near the front of the room and wept through the entire service; I never knew if she was crying for a suicide in her own family or some other loss, but I knew it wasn’t for Noah. And that was OK; I’d done the same.

When I heard about the teenage Noah’s mother’s death this week, I became obsessed with writing him a note, tears streaming as I contemplated what to say. The situation tugged at deep-seated memories of my own bereft, adrift state at 19 when I took care of my sick mother for six months until her death. Soon after she died, I transferred to a new college and upon meeting new people, couldn’t help mentioning that I’d just lost my mother. After all, it was the formative experience of my life and I’d been immersed in a cancer patient families’ support group where we spoke openly of death and dying, fear and despair. I desperately needed to talk about my loss but felt so alone among my bewildered peers, who had intact families. They didn’t speak the language of death and loss that I’d been learning that goes beyond hugs and cards of condolence. I’ve been speaking that language ever since to whoever would listen, greeting others on the mourner’s path.

I wanted to speak a bit of that language to the teenage Noah. I wanted to tell him that it was OK to let out his grief and speak his mother’s name and that whatever he was feeling was normal. I wanted to tell him that as someone who also lost my mom as a teen, I understood how lonely he might feel among his peers but to keep reaching out for love, find friends who would try to understand, and have the good life his mother would have wanted for him. So I wrote all this, ending with “you are and will always be your mother’s treasure,” and sealed the envelope before I could change my mind. The note I wish someone had written to me in January, 43 years ago.
I’d written a rough draft of the note first to make sure I didn’t vent or overwhelm. I choked on the opening “Dear Noah” since usually when I write that phrase in my journal, I’m addressing my own Noah who can never reply. I didn’t mention having had a precious son named Noah who died at 21; this teenage Noah doesn’t need to know that.

But of course, as I composed the note, my Noah and our bond hovered over every word. How I yearned to shield his sensitive soul from sorrow and death. How, unlike my parents, I was determined to be around in old age for him and my other son. How Noah and I became estranged and I failed to be there for him when he most needed a mother’s love. How utterly wrong it was, how unbelievable and unbearable, that this child needed a grave before me.

My Noah was his mother’s treasure. In his despair, I hope he knew that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fall Down/Get Up? The Cult of Resilience

“Some people fall down and they lie there for the rest of their lives,” says Naomi Newman in a quirky performance piece about dealing with hard times. “But some people learn to fall down/get up. Now that is one move” she gestures, sweeping her arm down and back up: “fall down/get up.” The audience laughs and applauds her spunk.

Our society venerates the “fall down/get up” impulse, the spirit that fights against all odds. It’s part of our can-do, raise-yourself-by-your-bootstraps, get-back-in-the-saddle cultural mythology. We worship resilience of the bounce-back variety. And that’s fine for dealing with many of life’s trials.

I wish everyone who struggles, including those who die by suicide, could cultivate resilience. I wish everyone could be given tools for that from a young age. 

But for those who've lost loved ones to suicide, the cult of resilience can be a harsh taskmaster. We survivors know how it feels to fall down and lie there after traumatic loss, likely the worst loss we will ever encounter. Some of us fear we’ll never get up again. When we do, we’re saluted for a strength we may not feel; when we don’t, we’re prodded to just put one foot in front of the other. The pressure to move on, when applied too soon or too often, can silence our grief.    

When I lost my son, Noah, to suicide, I was blasted apart by the shock and pain. I fell into a pit, weighed down by a morass of grief, guilt, shame, trauma. I had to fight just to get my head above water and breathe. Everything I thought I knew or believed had been shattered. I wrote and blogged out of a fierce need to tell my story and recover a sense of meaning and agency.

With time, I’d notice bits of healing but then be swamped by another grief wave. There was no clear destination for the journey. I was living, like many survivors, in a liminal space between my griefworld and the “normal” world where life went on as before. I was moving back and forth between a loss orientation, focused on mourning, and a restoration orientation, focused on returning to life.

I’m lucky that no one rushed me to snap out of it and resume my place in the world. I’m lucky I had the outlet of this blog, where I could confront Noah’s suicide on my own terms and bear honest witness to my experience, without worrying about healing. I’m convinced that taking my time over the first three years to fully explore and express my grief allowed me to move toward post-traumatic growth (positive changes that arise after processing trauma)--and ultimately, to write a grief memoir that offers hope and inspiration to other survivors.
Experts Tedeschi and Calhoun say that the more resilient people are, as in easily bouncing back from setbacks, the less likely they are to go through the “cognitive processing” (deliberate, reflective rumination) needed for transformative post-traumatic growth. Finding resolution too quickly after trauma can shut down the potential for growth—that is, positive changes in how we relate to others, see the world, and view our own strength.

So with all due respect to the tough-minded fighters out there, I hope we can bring more patience and empathy to those who, after a terrible fall, get up in their own way, in their own time.

To my fellow survivors: I hope you have as much time as you need to be with your grief. If there are days or weeks when you feel lost and need to wallow in your sorrow, that’s OK (and if you have pressing work and/or care-giving duties, hopefully you can get some help and take some time off). If you finally get up only to fall down again, that’s normal. What matters is to listen to your heart, reach out for support, and know that things will get better with time. Try to find people who will listen and help you understand rather than pressure you to move on. It’s by attending to our griefwork that we build authentic inner strength to move forward—when we are ready.