Friday, June 28, 2024

Of Birthdays, Rainbows & Trauma

My son Noah would have been 33 today. How I wish I were making him apple pie à la mode, his go-to birthday treat in the last years of his life. Or at least talking to him on the phone, wherever in the world he might have been. (My guess is he would have been in France helping the host family from his exchange student days move out of their beloved houseboat and into their first-ever home on land.) My husband and I went to a French bistro called Entre Nous last night to reminisce about Noah and the food and people he loved. How I wish that Noah were still among us to enjoy that place, to have a rendezvous with me to reconcile “between us.” How I wish that I did not need to start a new computer file called “Blog Posts – Year 11 and Beyond.”

I was recently interviewed for the podcast “Untethered: Healing the Pain from a Sudden Death”  by traumatic grief specialist Dr. Jennifer Levin. It was an occasion to look back over the years and explore how my grief has evolved with time. The biggest change is simply that grief takes up less space in my heart and mind than it did in the first 3 or even 5 or 6 years after Noah’s suicide. In the early years, the intensity of traumatic loss filled my every waking moment, and my role as a suicide loss survivor was at the core of my identity, relationships, and activities. Gradually, with a lot of work processing the loss, the intensity subsided, leaving room for other feelings and experiences. Joy, faith, and gratitude crept back in. Grief and regret over losing Noah will always be a part of me, ebbing and flowing, but they no longer dominate my days. I hope this gives hope to the newly bereaved after suicide who question if it ever gets better. (Dr. Levin’s podcast  is on a break at the moment but I recommend browsing past episodes to learn from many types of suicide loss survivors, as well as grief experts, and checking out the resources on her website .)

There are signs of this shift in grief orientation as I walk through the house and notice my different reactions to pictures of Noah and my living son, Ben. The pictures of Noah are years old and static; they will never be replaced by newer ones. The pictures of Ben are ever-changing on a digital picture frame full of his adventures and our family gatherings. I blow kisses to images of both my beautiful boys. But when I see Ben, my heart quickens in anticipation of talking with him, visiting him, traveling with him, seeing him with his cousins and grandparents—all the ways we continue to deepen our relationship and enrich each others’ lives. With photos of Noah, there is no promise of connection, no future together—only memory, weighted with regret and unanswered questions.

Lately, I’ve been feeling Noah’s presence in a more vital way in, of all places, the bathroom. Some afternoons there’s a trick of the light there that bounces off a bevel in the mirror, bending into little rainbow shapes on the tub and floor. Rainbows are rare in our southern California skies and I long ago decided that any sighting of them is a sign from Noah—even if he, unlike his biblical namesake, never got a chance to witness the miracle of a rainbow after the deluge that engulfed him. When I see the little wisps of rainbow spectrum in the bathroom, they cheer me. It’s as if Noah’s spirit found a way to reach out after all in the most humble of places at unpredictable moments. In a poem to him, I wrote: “You are teaching me not to seek/ but to notice what is given.”

Speaking of poems, I want to leave you with excerpts from a couple that may resonate. First from “trauma is not sacred” by Kai Cheng Thom :

all bodies know how to heal themselves given enough

time …

beneath the skin of every history of trauma
                there is a love poem

waiting deep below

And from Padraig Ó Tuama’s “The Lifeline:

            When death sounds, I forget most

            of what I learnt before …

            I carve that hole in my own

            chest again, pull out all my organs once

            again, wonder if they’ll ever work again

            stuff them back in again. Begin. Again.

To my fellow survivors: Wishing you many lifelines as you move through grief.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

11 Years Gone: What We Place on Our Hearts


In honor of Noah's 11th death anniversary today, I send out excerpts from a heartening teaching by Rabbi Yael Levy to all who are bereaved or suffering:


What do we place upon our hearts

When our hearts are broken,

Weary,

Anguished,

In despair?

 

We place upon our hearts

Names of those we love.

We place upon our hearts

Names of those who have loved us,

Names of those whose challenges, joys,

Pain and achievements we carry.

 

I place upon my heart

The intention to be present,

Even in the face of loss and grief.

I place upon my heart the intention

To seek the light

Shining in the brokenness,

Always.

 

I place upon my heart tender memories of Noah and and the intention to carry him with me, always.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

March Sadness: Tugs of the Season

The three weeks leading up to Noah’s deathaversary have always been harder for me than March 19th itself. Those were the days 11 years ago of bringing Noah home to heal, only to helplessly watch his decline as he refused treatment. Before mental illness robbed our family of Noah and his love, it robbed us of the chance to help him.

I used to start counting down the days to March 19 after my February birthday. Last March, I was busy preparing for the 10th death anniversary with love notes and travel plans; the anticipation of celebrating Noah’s friendships kept me hopeful, even buoyant. This year post-birthday, I got COVID and couldn’t think about loss or much of anything.

Now the familiar downward tug of March sadness is back. While trying to recover my strength, the double blow of COVID and grief has literally stopped me in my tracks. I’ll be 15 minutes into an easy neighborhood walk and need to sit down. I’ll plan two things to do in a day instead of one and need a nap by 1pm. I toss and turn all night. As in the aftermath of the suicide, the body takes a hit.

I woke up this morning with my mind on Noah and his illness. Bryan and I like to dwell on what our son might be doing if he were alive but we tend to skip over how he would have had to battle his illness or learn to manage it. So much damage had already been done to the boy we knew and loved by the time he took his life. That’s a tough truth to remember. Might he have emerged from the ordeal with new self-awareness, deeper love and compassion for others, openness to mindfulness or spirituality? Might our family have found a new balance?

An old friend who came to be with me right after Noah died hasn’t visited much since then. She was here last month, overtaken by tears at one point. “I keep thinking about Noah,” she said. “It’s so sad and there’s nothing to be done.”

So what to do? I take a hot bath in the middle of the day. I make a lot of soup. I cuddle with the dog and marvel at the chickens. I put on the last gift Noah ever gave me, a silky black shirt covered with odd little chickens. I reread a chatty letter in Noah’s careful handwriting from 2008, signed “miss you” and “love.” I remember a dream with messages flashing in hot pink and purple lettering on his memorial stone. I couldn’t read the words. But what mattered was that they were from Noah in colors I associate with his spirit. What mattered was that I felt his love.

It's been a cold, rainy winter. The star jasmine vines that usually announce the month have been slow to spill over the fence with their entrancing fragrance. I’ve been checking and the blossoms are doubling now from morning to evening. The first rock rose and California poppy are out in the garden and we are awash in backyard eggs. March sadness may be a perennial but harbingers of spring abound. What matters is to notice.



To my fellow survivors: What’s it like for you as your loved one’s deathaversary approaches? What do you notice shifting over the years? Wishing you comfort, courage and clarity as you move through your days.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Past & Present Connections: Where Will Your Love Go?

I’ve had this list of resolutions on my office wall since 2017, four years after my son Noah died by suicide. Though I rarely notice the list anymore, I’ve internalized much of it. I tell Noah he should have been here for a family party or my reunion with his old friends or the latest Kore-eda Japanese film. I nurture my friendships and love to spend time in mountains, near and far. I wrote a book of grief poems that will be published next year. Still, I wish I did more things more often in his name: visit his grave, travel, relax.

When I made the list, I was desperate to stay connected with the living Noah, much less Noah’s memory. I could already feel him taking up less space in my heart and mind. From then till now at the 10-year mark, I’ve agonized over what has felt like a gradual, inevitable loosening of the bond as the pleasures and demands of the present rush in. Noah’s struggle and horrific death no longer crowd out everything else as they once did.

Our son, Ben, just gifted us a digital photo frame loaded with photos of his (Ben’s) life, our beloved little Frenchie, trips together. I wanted to add pictures of Noah but my husband said the pictures on the frame should be from the present. This startled me: does Noah belong only to the past? All the pictures we have of him are at least ten years old while everyone else is moving on in their lives. How can that be?

Ben has given us wonderful photos of himself and his art, which we gladly display. Was the digital frame another way to assert himself in our home amid plentiful images of and by Noah on the walls? Does our living room feel like a shrine to his brother that leaves him out? I plan to talk with Ben about this in the new year and may reconsider. At the moment, I still want to walk by and sit near signs of Noah’s presence in our lives.

It is often said that grief is love with no place to go. I felt that so acutely in the early years, as if I had a phantom heart; I kept reaching for it but it was utterly shattered. As if all the love and care and worry for Noah that had flowed for 21 years suddenly hit a mighty cliff face and exploded into an abyss. No outlet. No response. No home for the love I thought would fill a lifetime.

As I document on this blog, it took time and effort and a lot of support to let grief open my heart again. Sometimes I found places to bring my love; sometimes they found me. Sometimes I was (and still am) more numb than I want to be. The journey continues …

Wishing everyone heartening connections in the new year.

To my fellow survivors: Wishing you more hope and healing in 2024. If you feel grief is love with no place to go, how might you revitalize that precious flow of love you had with your lost one? To what or whom might you now direct it? What’s on your list of ways to cherish their memory?

 

 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Of Triggers and Tears—& Survivors Day November 18

For the past month, though our family has no loved ones in the Middle East, I’ve been immersed in collective grief over events in Israel and Gaza. As when the nation mourned 500,000 COVID deaths or yet another mass shooting, I found myself easily caught up in the global anguish; I was already bereaved and it didn’t take much to remind me of losing my son Noah to suicide. I could cry along with masses of people I didn’t know because I know how it feels to mourn or to lose a child. I felt especially vulnerable as the war intensified and anti-Semitism flared around the world; as in the aftermath of suicide, so much of what was trusted and taken for granted is in disarray. I hope any of you feeling overwhelmed by the news can pace yourself and set limits on your media consumption, just as survivors learn to “dose” our grief.

I also found myself suddenly in tears reading about the suicide deterrent steel nets that are finally being installed at the Golden Gate Bridge. More than 2,000 suicides have taken place there since 1937. Why did it take so long to build a physical barrier? I cried out of frustration for all the deaths that might have been prevented. I cried because there are still so many unprotected “suicide bridges” out there, including one in my home of Pasadena, CA. And because there are no physical barriers possible for some means of suicide. I wondered whether Noah had ever considered jumping when he was living in San Francisco and riding his bike over the Golden Gate, taking in the magnificent views. So many ways you could have died, I wrote shortly after his death. On surfboard, snowboard, motorcycle—/just one blindsiding wave, curve, car. …

Maybe I’m more triggered than usual because I’ve been reading Sushi Tuesdays: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Resilience by Charlotte Maya. Her 41-year-old husband jumped to his death from an office building in my town. It’s been several years since I read a grief memoir and it’s bringing back lots I’d forgotten about the aftermath of suicide, from dealing with the coroner to having to take care of others in their grief. Maya’s story is especially vivid in depicting her and her young children’s anger at being abandoned and betrayed—an emotion that is often given short shrift in the suicide loss community. She also has much to say about the heartening support the family received from a seemingly endless supply of helpful “Janes” in her community.

“Grief is like a heavy sandbag at your feet,” a survivor friend tells Maya. “And if you do not pick it up, it will trip you for the rest of your life. But when you do pick it up, you will notice there’s a little tiny hole in the bag. That’s where the grains of sand start to fall out.” Maya struggles with the sandbag as she goes through a highly self-aware, intentional grief process. “If there is to be any healing,” she writes, “learning to navigate the storm will be key. What a shame it would be not to be changed by the experience.”   

Lifting up and checking out that sandbag is key to post-traumatic growth, as many of us have found. The image reminds me of Edward Hirsch’s lines in Gabriel, a book-length poem about the sudden death of his son:

I did not know the work of mourning

Is like carrying a bag of cement

Up a mountain at night …

 

Look closely and you will see

Almost everyone carrying bags

Of cement on their shoulders

 

That’s why it takes courage

To get out of bed in the morning

And climb into the day.

To my fellow survivors: Here’s to hefting those bags together and climbing into the day as we move into the daunting holiday season. If you haven’t ever attended an event for International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day—Saturday, November 18th this year--you may find fellowship and comfort there. Click here to find an event near you and take good care.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Mission Accomplished -- Now What?

The 10th year pilgrimage to visit our son Noah’s friends in Europe is over. I needed to make the trip to reassure myself that he is still loved and remembered and missed. Mission accomplished – and I’m so grateful to have reconnected with these wonderful people.

We toasted to Noah at almost every meal. Everyone seemed pleased to see us and to have the chance to talk about Noah, remarking how easy it was for him to talk with anyone from any walk of life. “You made a good man,” said Vasco, his best friend from home who now lives in Paris (in photo with my husband, Bryan).

I asked everyone what they thought Noah would be doing now. They imagined him working in film or photography, sailing in the Greek islands, finding a way to live in Europe, and, to my surprise, having a child or two because “he was always thinking of the next steps in life.” Notably, everyone pictured him healthy and full of life like he used to be. Bryan saw Noah arriving in Paris by boat and coming to join us at an outdoor café at the top of some stairs near Montmartre; I visualized his long legs jostling the tiny, teetering tables and his slipping into laughter, drinking, bravado. I kept wanting to text him news of what all his friends were doing.

“So much has happened in 10 years,” said Vasco. “At 21, we were all still trying to figure things out.” He teared up often as he threaded memories of Noah through our walks around the city. Losing Noah to suicide had made him and others more compassionate and ready to reach out when friends are struggling.

Our last visit was with Filippo, Noah’s best buddy during his year as an exchange student. Filippo cooked for us, as he often did for and with Noah. The two of them used their homemade pasta carbonara as a ticket into high school parties when they weren’t invited. We learned how mutual friendship with Noah, then grief over Noah’s death brought him and his lovely partner together. At one point, answering their questions about Noah’s last months and seeing their stricken faces, I wanted to leave the room and have a good cry. But their baby kept beaming her crooked smile at me and I couldn’t help smiling back. We all agreed that Noah would have delighted in their new family and would have wanted everyone he loved to enjoy life-- like Bryan and I had been doing a few days before, hiking with our son Ben and his girlfriend in the Dolomites.

After that last visit, my body felt suddenly heavy, like I could barely walk. I felt the long, leaden weight of the past 10 years, of everything I’d been carrying, of the nightmare months just before and after the suicide. There won’t be another pilgrimage like this. This is maybe where I stop living for Noah and making trips he would have made.

I arrived home in a daze of cumulative fatigue. I'd felt slightly queasy for weeks. I had enjoyed the visits and the beauty and the adventures but the gut doesn’t lie; I still couldn’t fully digest the loss I was marking. I promptly got sick and hibernated for a week. I needed to be still and process the journey.

And I needed to care for Miso, our little French bulldog, whose cancer had worsened while we were away. Miso: a funny little creature with a dozen nicknames and a determined trot who could stop adults in their tracks with her 15 pounds of muscle and stop traffic with her cuteness, who barked fearlessly at big dogs and skateboards and purred when you held her close to your heart. She’d been in the family for 10 years, the same years when we’d most needed comfort and joy after losing Noah. He never met Miso and would have scoffed that she wasn’t a real dog but he, too, would have had to laugh at her and love her. Bryan, Ben and I were together yesterday to cuddle Miso and say goodbye.

Ten years gone. The end of an era. What, I wonder, is the next chapter?

To my fellow survivors: Do you keep in touch with the people in your loved one’s life? If not, I urge you to reach out – they, too, may need to talk and reminisce and make sense of what happened. And if you don’t have a comfort animal, I hope you are finding comfort on your journey from other beloved beings, things and places. 

Saturday, May 13, 2023

On Enough-ness & Gratitude, Mother's Day and Beyond


I’m struck by the messaging of NAMI (National Alliance on MentalIllness) for Mental Health Awareness Month this May. Like: “If someone you love is going through a hard time, you don’t need to have all the answers. Just being there is #MoreThanEnough. Learn more with @NAMICommunicate at nami.org/mhm.” Everyone is included and everyone is reassured that they are enough in situations when too often, nothing feels like enough.

Suicide loss is one of those experiences that shatters our sense of self-worth. We can beat ourselves up for years over our inadequate response to our loved one’s struggle. Can we ever believe we were a good enough parent, child, partner, friend to the person we lost? Can we ever feel we did enough to prevent the tragedy? Especially in the early years after the suicide when guilt and shame often assail us, it’s hard not to list all the signs we missed, all the actions not taken and words left unsaid. We have to wait for the storm of self-blame to subside a bit to remember all the good things we managed to say and do to try to help--and to face the possibility that ultimately, our lovedone’s act was outside our control.  

Even ten years on, I find it takes intention and practice to enter into a place of enough-ness, which is essentially a place of gratitude, a willingness to be with what is. There’s always that nagging presence hovering at the edge of awareness, reminding me of Noah’s absence, my grief, and my helplessness in the last months of his life. How can I be enough as a person, as a mother, when my child took his life? How can I ever grieve enough for this loss?

I can’t help being aware of that nagging presence, dragging me back to the deepest sadness and regret of my life. But I can choose to resist its pull when it gets in the way of living the life I have now. A full life, in spite of and because of traumatic loss.

None of this embracing the “enough” is quick or easy. Meditation helps center me in the present, connecting to the fullness of breath. Gratitude practices also help, like keeping a daily appreciation notebook or taking a gratitude walk. We can try to be open to love, joy, self-compassion and whatever grace we find as we move through grief. Over time, we have the chance to recover the sense of gratitude that the suicide may have destroyed. Even if we’re not convinced we are enough in the global sense, what about at least allowing for moments of enough-ness?

Our loved ones, when struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts, were enough.

Our efforts to help them the best way we knew how were enough.

Our way of grieving the loss of them is enough.

It’s often said that grief is love with no place to go. When we allow gratitude back into our hearts, we realize there are a lot of places to bring the love we would have given to and received from our lost one. As I embark this month on a trip to visit Noah’s friends, I hope to bring that love with me to share with others, along with the love Noah would have heaped on those friends had he lived.

To my fellow mother survivors: May you be open to love and gratitude this Mother’s Day, with moments of “enough-ness.” As poet James Crews writes in “Gratitude”:
[Gratitude] is the faithful companion

we have always been seeking,

this feeling of fullness

that follows us everywhere

we go, less like a shadow

trailing the body, and more

like a glimmer held in the heart

that promises never to leave.