Friday, October 15, 2021

Never Forget? 9/11 Commemorations & Suicide Loss Survivors

 

My mother-in-law used to clip a red rose from her garden every week and put it in the kitchen window in memory of her grandson, Noah, who died by suicide. One day I noticed a small picture frame near it with the phrase “never forget.” Though the slogan and frame came from a Holocaust remembrance event that our family had attended, it touched me to see it by Noah’s rose.

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 last month and exhortations to “never forget,” America reached another grim milestone of collective grief in 2021. (The first was commemorating the horrific loss of life from the pandemic earlier this year.) All those reminders of death and outpourings of grief can be triggering for suicide loss survivors. We may identify with the stricken families of 9/11 victims. Like them, we can never forget the people we lost and the tragic circumstances of their deaths, the feelings of shock and devastation, the sense that our lives were forever changed. As 9/11 arrives every year, the whole world’s attention is suddenly focused on tragic loss and traumatic grief—realities that 9/11 survivors and suicide loss survivors live every day.

I found the commemorations especially moving this year with the greater depth of perspective that a 20th anniversary offers. I was especially taken with a New York Times article, “What Does It Mean to Never Forget?”and include some of its stories in my thoughts below. What lessons might 9/11 commemorations have for our own grief journeys as suicide loss survivors?

-                 --“Never forget” is not always good advice psychologically. We may need to forget certain traumatic images, sounds, and smells--especially from scenes of death or crisis—that are the stuff of PTSD. Visualize locking away those intrusive memories in a closed container like a locked trunk, a therapist once told me; it’s your choice as to if and when you ever re-open the container.

-                -- Traumatic loss can distort memory. We remember some details of the event but have mental blocks against others, like the fireman who berated himself for not being at Ground Zero to help when, in fact, he was. Memory studies after 9/11 found that even by 2002, 40% of those surveyed had changed their stories on such basic facts as where they were when they first heard the news. How might we suicide loss survivors not be remembering clearly or accurately about the suicide, what led up to it and followed it? What over time has shaped the narrative of the suicide or its aftermath that we carry with us?

-                --There’s no accounting for which memories might trigger us and when. A 9/11 widow was reminded of her husband by the smell of cigar smoke, the sight of a bicycle; in order to function, she said, “I compartmentalize. But there’s a permanent leak in the compartment.” Ongoing self-care helps us prepare for and recover from triggers. If we feel triggered by collective grief, we may need to shield ourselves from related media coverage, memorial events, and even casual conversation.

-               -- One of the key tasks of traumatic loss survivors is to figure out how we are going to remember the lost person. Will we leave it to chance? Will we sponsor a celebration of life or memorial bench or charity event? Will we create special actions, rituals, and occasions over time that help us to remember, alone or with others? Anniversaries bring us together with wider circles of people in collective remembrance that is often comforting and restorative. We can feel less alone when we open up our grief stories to others and offer others a structured occasion for sharing grief.

I can't help wondering: How will I remember Noah on his 20th death anniversary in 2033 when I’m 77? Who will share that occasion with me? Most unsettling of all -- how will he be remembered after I’m gone?

As loss survivors, we are immersed in questions of memory and forgetting. How could we possibly forget something so momentous as a suicide, someone so precious as our lost one? And yet … the relentless rush of life in the present threatens to engulf our sense of Before. The details of memory naturally get swept away over time; we have to take deliberate steps to hold them close. Sometimes it can feel like plugging the holes in a dike to keep back the press of time. With each memorial event, with each moment set aside to grieve and remember, the dike gets stronger—but memory, I've found, takes vigilance and care.

To my fellow survivors: What does it mean to you to “never forget”? How would you like your loved one to be remembered on the 10th or 20th anniversary of their death?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Naches (Pride & Joy): A Family Milestone



July 31, 2021, was a milestone for our family. It marked the opening of our son Ben's first major art installation to be purchased and permanently installed in a magnificent setting. For my husband Bryan and me, it was a day of pure joy and pride in Ben's accomplishment and perseverance, a complete immersion in his life and work. Why am I featuring it on this blog? Because it was also a day without a thought about Noah, our younger son who died by suicide in 2013. Arriving at total presence in the moment with one's living child is no small matter for parent survivors of suicide loss. I want to honor that moment here as part of healing and post-traumatic growth.

Stone 27 by Benjamin Langholz, first seen at Burning Man in 2019, now sits atop a windy hill in Marin County, California, overlooking bay and sea. Ben calls it a pathway of “floating stones”— an elliptical stairway of 27 boulders suspended up to 20 feet high by miles of steel cable and towering poles. Ben wants people to immerse themselves in the structure and “experience a moment of complete presence”  —which I didn’t realize was what we did until now.

Bryan and I had seen Stone 27 at Burning Man, where we were awed by its imposing presence in the desert and delighted by the thousands of happy people clambering over it. Seeing the piece the other day in its new setting, 


presiding over a wide expanse of rolling grassland and tranquil bay, made my heart swell. I could have wandered through its rigging for hours, rubbing the rough boulders and admiring the young folks who scampered effortlessly to the top. (I made it to the fifth stone – those boulders are wobbly!) A dear friend who was with us said that walking into the footprint of Stone 27 felt like walking into the weightlessness of a Gothic cathedral.

We were amazed at the monumental effort it took to get all the heavy materials and construction equipment up a two-mile dirt track and to anchor the structure underground with 36 2,800-pound concrete blocks. We were even more dumbstruck that a small team of artists, engineers, Burners and assorted friends—none of them professional builders--could make this happen under Ben’s direction.

Who dreams up such a structure, then dares to think it can be built in a place like this and clears each engineering and logistical hurdle? Who keeps the team motivated and happy with abundant music, dancing, food, and thanks? Who documents the whole project with an artist’s eye and makes sure there’s a shady canopy at the opening with cold refreshments and chairs on a warm summer day?

Wow – it’s our kid! Bryan and I were shepping naches, a Yiddish term for feeling immense pride and joy in one’s children’s or grandchildren’s accomplishments, as well as satisfaction in them growing up to be a mensch (Yiddish for a good person). 

Thanks, readers, for letting me kvell (burst with expressions of pride and joy) about this!

Because here’s the thing: naches can be elusive or hard won for parents who lose children to suicide. After the suicide, we may struggle with guilt, diminished self-worth, envy of families who can celebrate ordinary milestones. Of course we took pride and joy in our kids in the years we had with them--but we miss out on the gratification of seeing them become their full adult selves. That lost chance for naches is but one of the pleasures of parenting that, in cutting their lives short, our children took from us.

Survivors deserve to recover our capacity for happiness after traumatic loss. If we have living children, we should be able, eventually, to feel naches with them. Kids who lose siblings go through their own grief and survivor’s guilt and maybe frustration and hurt if their parents are too engulfed in grief to give them their full attention. Our living children need their own days to shine without always being in the shadow of the dead sibling. My husband thinks if Ben’s opening had happened a few years ago, it might have still been clouded by Noah’s death; it was a blessing that this year, the day was “all about Ben.” 

My friend who was at the opening sent me the photo at the top of this post and wrote: “Noah is missing, yet the three of you look complete in this moment. You appear as deeply connected, valiant triumphant survivors.” It didn’t occur to me until she said it that Noah was absent from the photo and the day. Two weeks later, another friend marveled at Ben’s creativity and can-do persistence with Stone 27 and said he “came by it honestly” from his parents. This floored me as I’ve been focused on giving Ben full credit for his work—but this friend was also affirming connections within our family. 

My friends’ remarks, along with some beautiful music at a Shabbat service, must have released sadness that had been building since our peak experience at the opening. At the service I was suddenly in tears, thinking of how far Ben has come as an artist, how Noah wasn’t around to see it, what Noah might have done had he lived. And how far we’ve come as a family. I still can’t explain the tears, maybe just that after all the excitement and Ben’s departure, capping a long visit home, my grieving self was back.



To my fellow survivors: How are things with you and your living children or other loved ones? Have you had moments of joy and pride with them since the suicide—or other moments that make you think you can be happy and whole again? If it’s too soon for that, what do you imagine for the future? 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Noah's Should-Have-Been 30th Birthday: What I Like to Think ...


Photo by Noah Langholz, 2012.

It’s been 8 years since Noah left us and still sometimes I can’t believe or accept it. The other day I stumbled into a grief surge while singing the old John Prine song “Angels from Montgomery.” Lines from the chorus seized in my throat and I could only croak: Just give me one thing that I can hold on to/To believe in this living is just a hard way to go. Was that how Noah felt in the last weeks or months of his life? How could this precious child have slipped through our grasp?

June 28 will be his should-have-been 30th birthday. I can’t help dwelling in the fantasy of it: Noah appearing at our door, radiant and healthy in the prime of life. The dogs berserk at his arrival, him leaning down to rough them up. The family party we would have had in the backyard with his trademark birthday apple pie à la mode. The late-night after party he would have had with old friends from the old neighborhood, new friends we’d never met, crowded into the den to binge on wine and movies. His arm around a lover he could be himself with, no airs.

In my daydream, what happened on March 19, 2013, when he was 21 was an attempt, not a suicide. I like to think that after a scary time and setbacks in his early twenties, he would have come back to himself. I visualize him taking charge of his mental health without shame and continuing to reach out to others who were struggling. I like to think he would have quit smoking, started meditating, gone back to surfing and to backpacking with his dad.

I’m not sure he would have managed to graduate from his beloved Wesleyan. But he would have stayed in touch with far-flung college friends and visited his European friends and French host family. I imagine that after stints working on sailboats and teaching English and interning with a photographer he admired, he might have come home to Los Angeles to work in the movie industry. He would have been a quick learner, as always. By 30, maybe he would have landed a photography job with a production company and been helping friends on their independent film projects, still aspiring to be a filmmaker himself. Might he have been relieved to step into a new decade and leave behind the troubles of his twenties?

I have to believe that Noah and I would have reconciled. He would have hugged and teased me again and sat down for the occasional heart-to-heart. And he would have drawn ever closer to his older brother Ben, joining him on Himalayan treks and Burning Man installations (though Ben may not have been living overseas or making art the way he has without having lost his brother the way he did). As they moved further into adulthood, I would have so treasured times when I could cook and hike and watch films with both my beautiful boys.

It’s hard enough for parents to get used to the idea of a living child reaching the milestone of 30. When a child dies at 21, their should-have-been 30th is all the more unsettling; we have no map for the intervening years. "He was still so young," says my husband, "he could have gone in so many different directions." All I can do is let the fantasy roll with wishes for Noah’s health and happiness--and with sorrow that I’ll never get to know and love his future self

To my fellow survivors: What fantasies of your loved one come to mind as time passes since your loss? What future self do you imagine for them? I hope these thoughts of what might have been are comforting ways to stay connected.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Other Suicide: The Story I Don't Tell

Thinking about the stories of guilt I carry about my son Noah’s suicide jogged some long-buried memories around my father’s suicide in 1982, just in time for his death anniversary this month. For 39 years, I’ve carried the story that my father took his life only a few hours before I was due to arrive home at his request. His action was a betrayal of trust. But there’s more to the story.

This is how I usually tell it: When my father sent me a telegram, being treated for severe depression please call home, I’d been living in Greece for two years and only in touch with him by letter. When I called, I was surprised and alarmed at the desperation and disorientation in his voice. I got back to the U.S. as fast as I could—which from the village to the provincial capital to Athens to New York to Baltimore took a few days. Meanwhile, my father went to the local lake and drowned himself; his body was found a few hours before I was due to arrive. I felt devastated and betrayed. How could he do such a thing when I was on my way home to help him? I was an only child who had lost my mother only six years before. It felt like a slap in the face, as if my love and care and what remained of our family were worthless.

He had mentioned depression and chronic pain in his letters but he didn’t go into detail and I didn’t take it seriously. At 26, I was busy living my adventure in another culture. I didn’t know that his therapist had wanted to hospitalize him that week and my father had refused, terrified at the prospect of a psych ward. Trying to make sense of the suicide and its timing back then, it didn’t occur to me that my father may not have wanted me to see him in his desperate state, that he may not have wanted to burden me with taking care of him, that he may have had a plan and called me home from far away so I could take care of business after his death.

Here is the part I gloss over or leave out of the story: As a young person, I didn’t want to be saddled with my father’s problems and feel the weight of his loneliness on top of my own. I thought I was being generous just writing to him regularly and trying to cheer him with encouraging words. When I arranged to fly home and realized I’d be going through New York City the night of my best friend’s wedding there, I decided to stop over for the big event before flying to Baltimore the next morning. It didn’t occur to me that the delay might not be OK. I’d never seen my father in a severely depressed state and I didn’t know what it meant for someone to be in crisis. I figured another 12 hours wouldn’t matter. And it’s possible that the timing of my arrival would have made no difference in his actions.

Looking back, I’m ashamed and disappointed at my clueless, self-absorbed younger self. I’m appalled at how little I understood, not only about depression but about kindness and compassion. I’m mortified that the last interaction I had with my poor father was telling him I was putting a fun party first before him and his needs. He must have felt crushed and betrayed, too. How could I have done such a thing to someone who was suffering?

If I knew then what I know now about mental health and suicide, I would have flown to his side post-haste after that telegram. I would have understood that it could be a life-and-death situation. In my letters, I would have questioned my father more directly about his mental state, how bad it was, whether he was getting the support he needed, maybe even asked if he was thinking of suicide. I like to think I would have visited or at least called before he descended into crisis. Maybe if I had done these things, years later I would have also had “the talk” about mental health with my kids when they were teens and been more alert and aware when my son became depressed and suicidal.

Five years ago, I wrote a tribute to my father’s life on this blog and told myself I’d try to make room for mourning him while still immersed in grieving Noah. Since then I’ve managed to tap into tender memories of my father in a few poems and prose pieces. But I’ve barely begun to process his suicide and its place in his life and mine, especially compared to all the expression and exploration of my grief after Noah's suicide. I’m realizing how little I know about my father’s mental health history and how much silence and mystery surround his suicide. And that I don’t have to be silent.

P.S. In response to those urging me not to be so hard on myself, I would say that I'm in the process of turning self-blame into regret, as survivors are often able to do over time. I regret having likely hurt my father with my insensitivity when he was in despair, just as I regret things I said to my son the night before he died. It's OK to carry regrets along with my love.

 To my fellow survivors: Is there a part of the story of your loved one’s suicide that you keep hidden from others or yourself? Have you reflected on why that is or tried sharing that part of the story with someone you trust?

Monday, April 26, 2021

Revisiting Guilt: Putting Myself on Trial for the Suicide

 “You will probably need to put yourself on trial about this suicide. My goal is that you and I [therapist] work together to make sure that you have a fair trial and that we carefully consider all the evidence.”    – Dr. Jack Jordan & Dr. Bob Baugher,  After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief

For several years, I’ve featured this quote in presentations for fellow survivors about suicide loss and my grief memoir. Yet until the 8th anniversary of my son Noah’s death this year, I never took the time to actually put myself on trial. I’d been reading The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness by Rami Shapiro and learning how the guilt we carry is baked into the stories we tell ourselves—and that we may need to reassess those stories to move toward self-forgiveness. Guilt is one of the most common and corrosive responses in the aftermath of suicide, and one of the hardest to talk about. I’m sharing a little about my “trial” here in the hope that it helps others lighten their burden.

Mine was trial by journal. I began by brainstorming some of the indictments I’ve been living with since 2013. I’ve blamed myself for so much. For not being able to save my child from his demons, first and foremost. For hardening my heart in frustration and impatience at his behavior when we were estranged. For not understanding mental illness or how to live with a seriously depressed person—the list goes on. I chose three of the worst charges against myself and listed all the evidence I could muster, pro or con.

Under “I was unable to help my child in his crisis,” I surprised myself by naming all the ways I actually did try to help Noah. These ranged from first detecting his depression and encouraging him to see a therapist almost two years before the suicide to spending lots of time with him to keep him safe and calm during a psychotic break a few months before his death. Both during that break and when I flew cross-country to bring him home from college on medical leave, I was a gentle, caring listener, helping him to navigate some of his most difficult moments and preserve his dignity with friends.

Did I make mistakes, like fail to inform myself about suicide risk and panic when I asked Noah if he was suicidal? Yes, and I will always regret these and other colossal failures. So the evidence is mixed. But had I not been deliberate about setting out the evidence on paper, I might never have given myself credit for what I did manage to do.

The aftermath of suicide with its desperate search for answers and fits of guilt confronts us with our own limitations. “What lies beneath your self-blame are the terrible facts that you cannot control,” writes suicide expert Stacey Freedenthal. “Suicidal forces overtook your loved one. You have suffered an unfathomable loss. You cannot turn back time, do it over, do it differently. Each of these is a loss. Mourning these losses is the essence of grief. Your grief deserves your compassion.”  

As therapists have pointed out, I couldn’t see the whole picture in part because of all that Noah hid from us. As fellow survivors have taught me, it’s possible to be well-informed about mental illness, proactive about trying every possible treatment for troubled loved ones, and vigilant about suicide watches—and still not be able to prevent a suicide.

After a lot of crying at the trial, I felt depleted but also lighter. I concluded that the evidence is mixed. I will never have all the evidence needed for a fair trial absent Noah’s input and an updated psychiatric assessment. And there will never be a clear causal line that can be drawn from my actions to Noah’s death since suicide is complex and influenced by many factors. I will never know whether what I managed to do or failed to do during his crisis, or over his 21 years, made a difference one way or the other for my son.

What I can do is to bring honesty and compassion to the stories I tell myself about Noah’s suicide. And take my spiritual teachers’ advice to do a “befriending” meditation, in which I give myself the understanding and encouragement I would want to hear from a good friend: You were there for him at key moments in his struggle. You loved him through it all. You don’t have to live with guilt for the rest of your life.

A day after the trial, a friend happened to send me historic videos I’d never seen of Roza Eskenazi, a Greek singer who I love but hadn't thought about for many years. I found myself singing along and dancing, euphoric to see her performance. Though still tender from my inquisition—or maybe because of it—there was room for joy.

 To my fellow survivors: What stories do you tell yourself about the suicide? If you struggle with guilt, have you tried naming the charges you hold against yourself and assessing the evidence after some time has passed? Maybe something will shift in your body or your thinking. Maybe you’ll find the words to “befriend” or even forgive yourself.  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

8th Death Anniversary: Remembering Joy, Finding Living Room


With the 8th anniversary of Noah’s death this week, I’m reminded that one of his friends called him “a Bunsen burner of joy.” His wacky wit, zest for adventure, and big heart brought joy to a lot of people and certainly to us, his family. I’m so proud of him for touching the world in that way before joy deserted him near the end of his life. 



It's taken me most of these 8 years to be able to truly remember how my son embodied joy--and to begin to pursue joy whole-heartedly in my own life, intertwined as it is with grief. If not now, when?

*

My husband and I never spent much time in the living room until this pandemic year. It’s the most pleasant place in the house for Zoom meetings and events. Wherever I sit, images of Noah hover over my shoulder as I speak, sing, learn, pray, meditate, or catch up with friends and family. Noah still takes up a lot of room in our lives and in our living room--photos of him as a teen and young man; the big painted portrait by his cousin; two enlarged black and white photos that he created in college; and a shrine with the scrapbook I made of his life for what would have been his 22nd birthday.

I wish that memories of Noah took up similar space in my daily thoughts but to my regret, that space diminishes with each passing year. So I welcome the revival of memories around his death anniversary (or his birthday or holidays or travels) that open up that space again in heart and mind. Each passing year since the devastation of Noah’s suicide has opened up more living room in my life, more space to breathe fully and seek joy.

*

How I wish Noah had found a path to affirmation mantras from yoga and meditation like “I am the light of my soul” and “I am enough.” Surely he knew that along with his brother Ben, he was the light of our lives. And more than enough.

To my fellow survivors: What kind of space does your lost one take up in your life these days? How much living room do you allow yourself as time moves on past the suicide? 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Suicide Loss and COVID-19 Loss: Accompanying the Grieving

 


With over half a million deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. and 2.5 million worldwide, we are living in a world of grief. This tragic loss is finally being acknowledged with national memorials and moments of silence. “Remember those we lost and those we left behind,” President Biden said this past week.

Grief radiates out from its source to encompass many. Each COVID loss could affect dozens of people in a family, friend circle, workplace, and community, just as each suicide loss has been estimated to bring major life disruption to about 18 people. With 47,511 American suicides in 2019, that means some 855,000 more people dealing with grief after suicide. The data are not yet in for 2020 but anecdotal evidence suggests that suicide rates may have risen due, in part, to stresses of the pandemic.

Like suicide loss, COVID loss is a type of traumatic loss that may involve PTSD-type symptoms. As with suicide, deaths from COVID often happen suddenly with no time to say good bye. Likewise, survivors may feel guilt for not having been able to prevent the death or for not realizing the gravity of the person’s condition. They may even feel shame in some communities, believing that COVID or suicide taint the family name (for example, among women in Japan). Those with COVID loss may have the additional burden of having been separated from their hospitalized loved ones and prevented from gathering for in-person funerals and memorials.

With recognition that the bereaved are secondary victims of COVID, organizations are forming to bring COVID loss survivors together for mutual support. This reminds me of the growth of suicide loss survivors support groups since the 1980s. We cry and rage and cheer each other’s steps forward in small groups; we grieve and hope together at larger gatherings of the suicide loss and suicide prevention communities. We share one another’s sorrow and healing on a path most folks don’t understand.

My entire adult life, I’ve felt compelled to reach out to the grieving. Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time mourning my parents, who died when I was 19 and 26 (my father by suicide), and knew what a scary, draining, isolating experience it can be. Or maybe it’s because I got comfortable talking honestly about death and dying in a cancer patients’ family support group at a formative age. In my twenties and thirties, my peers knew little of death, even less of suicide loss. So on the rare occasions when death touched their lives, I tried to talk with them and signal that I understood some of what they were going through and was ready to listen. I started a lifelong habit of writing notes on sympathy cards beyond the usual condolences. I envisioned myself standing at the gate of a mourning grove that others hesitated to enter and welcoming them inside. It felt like my natural habitat.

After my son’s suicide in 2013, I stood at a most fearsome gate. I now realize that I was ushered into a very special mourning grove by fellow suicide loss survivors who surrounded me with love and understanding. I met them through suicide loss support groups and suicide-related gatherings, conferences, and fundraisers—a whole community of people who, for once in my life, shared the mourning grove with me and knew the terrain. That support was life-saving for my husband and me and continues to be restorative, though I visit the grove less often today.

What other survivors did in those groups was to accompany me in my grief. They walked beside me, sometimes with wisdom and help, sometimes with silence and a hug, without pressure or judgement. I try to do the same with loss survivors who I hear about through someone’s referral or meet in person or through this blog, my book, or speaking engagements. I especially want to be there for my fellow mourning moms.

If you are a suicide loss survivor who has never had the gift of sharing time and sorrow with fellow survivors, I urge you to check out support groups and organizations in your local area, many of which now operate online (like general grief support groups). You can find listings of those groups here or here for the U.S. or here for other countries. Even if you avoided support groups in the past, consider that you may be at a different stage now, that groups morph over time as membership changes, and that an online group may actually feel more comfortable.

And if you know any COVID loss survivors, please urge them to check out groups that are forming for people like them, not only on social media platforms like Facebook (COVID-19 Loss Support for Family and Friends) but through mental health organizations, grief organizations, and hospice groups. You can find some resources here or at local organizations (for ex., in NYC and L.A. areas) here and here. I will post more as I learn about them. 

For those who are mourning both suicide loss and COVID loss at this time, what a heavy burden that must be. Please be gentle with yourself and practice some form of self-care every day.

One more resource I just learned about that may be helpful to anyone who is grieving: the Artists' Grief Deck. Check it out for stunning original images by international artists along with helpful messages and practices for the grieving.

No one need suffer alone in the mourning grove.