Sunday, March 19, 2023

In Memorium: Noah Langholz – 10 Years Gone Today

In the lead-up to my son Noah’s 10th death anniversary, I’ve been noticing the orange tree in our backyard. I’ve come to associate it with meditating on receiving and extending love. I admire the radiance and abundance of its fruit as the heavy branches spill and sprawl over the fence. I want to keep an image of this beautiful tree before me to grace this day and the years to come without Noah.

The plentitude and beauty of the orange tree remind me of:

-       the richness of Noah’s life—of the many people, experiences, interests, and talents he enjoyed, and of the love he felt and spread;

-       the outpouring of love and support from so many after his death;

-       the sweetness of the bond between my husband and I and our living son Ben, which has grown and deepened and done much to fill the empty places;

-       the fullness of life that the three of us have been able to rebuild over many of these past 10 years in spite of our devastating loss but also because of it; and

-       my hope for healing and recovery for fellow survivors of suicide loss and for those who are suffering

"And at times I'm like the tree, ripe and rustling,

standing above the dead boy's grave,

gathering him in its warm roots,

fulfilling the dream he'd lost

in sorrows and songs."

                                                    (Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours)

To Noah: Wish you were here to pick the fruit and make lots of juice, chatting in the kitchen. And to juggle oranges with your dad and brother. With love, gratitude, and amazement at all you were, we remember you.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Planning Love Notes for a Death Anniversary

I’m entering 2023 with trepidation around the 10th anniversary of my son Noah’s death. I feel called to do something different than our usual trip to a beach town, where we look through photos, watch the dogs frolic, and write Noah’s name in the sand.

I’ve decided to focus on Noah’s birthday month in June rather than his death day month in March. I hope to have a series of visits with his far-flung friends and cousins, most of whom we see only rarely, and raise a toast to Noah’s memory. Is it too much to ask them what makes them think of Noah or what memory is clearest after 10 years? I’m hungry to add their Noah memories to my own, which seem to fade and shrink with each passing year. Maybe it's more considerate to ask them what they imagine Noah might be doing right now if he were still with us, or what would be exciting or dismaying him in the world. Maybe that’s a happier thought than trying to summon up a memory.

I’ve been taking an eye-opening class about receiving and extending love. The teacher asked us to bring to mind a moment anytime in our lives when we felt truly loved and seen for who we were—not as part of a perfect relationship, just a sense of a moment. I was surprised at how many moments came to mind and how many of those were related to Noah’s death. And how easy it was to call up those memories when the teacher asked us to imagine that person or persons standing behind us, holding us up.

So instead of focusing on Noah on his death day this year, I’ve decided to turn my attention to the circle of love that sprang up around us after his suicide and cushioned some of the pain of those early years. To all those who showed up at our house for the shiva memorial after the funeral and formed a wall of sound during the prayers when I felt very small and could barely speak or sing. To those at synagogue who literally had our backs as they sat behind us at services when we were crying. To the friends and family who checked in and surrounded us with care as they listened to our anguish, brought us food and books and healing oils and walks and plants and homemade bread. To those dearest ones who kept calling and listening and encouraging as I bushwhacked through the wilderness of grief. I was thinking of the guardian spirits who lifted me up and urged me on with the epitaph in my memoir, “They will bear you up on their palms lest you stumble on a stone” (Psalm 91).

So I plan to spend Noah’s 10th death anniversary reading the cards and notes we saved from the time of Noah's death and reaching out with personal notes to everyone I appreciate from those early years. I want to let them know how much I took their love to heart back then, how it sustained and amazed me and moves me still. What a blessing at the worst time in my life to have been the recipient of such an outpouring of care and compassion. Such an experience is truly transformative. Moving through terrible grief within the safety of that circle of care allowed me to bit by bit, open up my wounded heart.

To my fellow survivors: What comes to mind when you think of moments when you felt truly loved? If some of those moments were in response to your grief, have you thanked the people who supported you lately? Next week – or anytime!—is a good time to send those love notes. . .

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Enshrined in the Heart: The Work of Remembering

With the turn of 2023, it will be nearly 10 years since my son Noah died. Notice I didn’t say “died by suicide,” as I felt compelled to do for most of those years. Earlier it felt necessary to signal that it was not only the tragic death of a young person but a traumatic death. And it felt urgent to talk openly of suicide and mental illness to dispel stigma and face what had happened. When I meet newer survivors, I see the same compulsion to name the death as suicide: this is our truth and we need to tell it.

Lately I find myself saying that I lost my younger son or my son died—full stop. Now it is the enduring fact of his death that I live with more than the nightmare of the suicide itself. The shock of how he died had me in its grip, body and soul, for the first few years, along with intense grief, guilt, and the dogged search for answers. Those reactions have since subsided, though I will always be a survivor of suicide loss. I still have occasional crying fits with the wail of a wounded animal. I still have moments when I can’t believe that this happened to my child and our family. Guilt still rears up, usually in the shape of regret, sometimes in its more primal wrenching form. Mostly there is the pang of simply missing my child.

What I am left with now, like other long-term survivors, is a grievous absence and a memory. How do you love and cherish a memory? What private grief rituals help you tend a shrine, hold memory close? With each stage of grief, I grapple anew with these questions. 

Some loss survivors greet their lost one every morning, light a candle for them every evening, sit or take a walk with their spirit in a special place. Some welcome their loved one’s visitations regularly in the form of a bird, a melody, a dream. I did all that for a while but couldn’t sustain it. I still get a lift on the rare occasions that I see a rainbow in the sky or prism light on the wall. I still write Noah’s name on nearly every beach I visit, as I vowed to do in my book --but I’m not often at the beach and when I am, sometimes I forget.

As time goes on, for me and maybe for some of you, remembering takes work. It takes commitment, vigilance, and care to fold acts of remembrance into our lives. We have to remember to remember, a task I find is made easier by pausing to breathe, meditate, or pray. We have to be ready to open our grieving heart again and again—not just to remember but to feel. And I have to be compassionate with myself if I do not remember Noah often enough or with enough clarity.

To remember Noah in 2023 and beyond, I want to turn away from his death anniversary in March and toward his birthday in June. To make sure I never miss his birthday and he gets all the celebrations he should have had as long as I’m alive to mark them. To seek joy on his birthday as he surely would have done had he stuck around. To sing the refrain of a French folk song I never learned but feel like I’ve always known, so perfect in its simplicity: Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, jamais je ne t’oublierai (I have loved you a long time, I will never forget you).

To my fellow survivors: Wishing you comfort and joy in remembrance in the new year.

To all my readers: This blog recently changed its subscription service to (Feedburner alternative), in case you’re wondering why your e-mail notification looks different or why you didn’t get notified of my previous blog post, “Empathy Lessons” in November. You can make adjustments to your subscription here 


Saturday, November 19, 2022

Empathy Lessons on Survivor Day, November 19, 2022


I’ve written before of the gift of a larger-than-life original portrait of my son Noah from our niece and how a glimpse of it can mesmerize me. Sitting in my living room this week gazing into the Zoom meeting screen, I realized my head was in just the right position to block Noah’s head in the portrait on the wall behind me. I appeared, for once, to be looking out at the world from Noah’s place in it. This was startling as it had never quite happened that way in the many Zoom meetings I’d done in that room. Did I suddenly notice the convergence of our two heads because I’d recently been reading and thinking about empathy?

I’m ashamed of how little I was able to understand Noah’s feelings and walk in his shoes when he was struggling. I was too caught up in my own struggle, helpless to help him and to find a way out of our estrangement. My own experience of depression in my 20s was very different than Noah’s and I couldn’t see why it was so disabling for him. I didn’t know that he was having severe anxiety attacks and frequent suicidal thoughts; even if I had, I would not have known how those felt. I knew he was in deep trouble but I was too frantic about it to be able to sit with him in the dark and listen.

It was only after Noah’s death, through suicide prevention training, that I learned how to be present for someone in distress and hear their story. It was only after learning more about suicide and mental health conditions that I could sense the suffering all around me, especially among young people, and try to reach out.

Empathy, I now know, is a response that can be taught, a muscle that can be strengthened. My greatest lessons in empathy have come through walking beside other suicide loss survivors on the long, circuitous path to healing. In the early years, I was stumbling through traumatic grief, hanging on every restorative word of those ahead of me on the journey. I could say anything about how I was feeling and they understood. I could ask how they could bear it and they would tell me, step by step. We were all  banished to a parallel universe, breathing the same thin air of an alien planet, trying to find a way home.

Over the past ten years, I’ve gotten into the habit of reaching out to other loss survivors, especially mourning moms, on this blog, in my book, and in person, both one-on-one and in groups. I encourage survivors not to fear their grief but to sit with it and fully express it. I invite their stories, anticipate their needs, reassure them, as I was reassured in the bleakest time. I try to remember not to assume anything about others’ grief, but to gently ask instead. I remind them to take good care of themselves every day.

Being with my fellow survivors reminds me that there are always more opportunities for empathy—giving it, receiving it. And that the more we practice it, the more it becomes a part of us and of healing the world.

Wishing everyone a heartwarming season of gratitude.

To my fellow survivors: If you want to be with some powerful empathy teachers, check out International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day to see stories of survivors from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Another great resource every day of the year is the articles and community forum at Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Tripping Over Grief and the Right to Thrive


It wasn’t until I came back from a recent trip that I had the jarring realization that I’d barely thought about or talked about my son Noah, who died by suicide in 2013. This was a first since Noah loved to travel and my husband and I often try to imagine him in places we visit. On this trip, I hadn’t even written Noah’s name on every beach, as I vowed to do in my memoirInstead, I was reveling in new vistas, tastes, and experiences with my husband and son Ben after so much pandemic isolation.

I loved the trip and getting to spend extended time with Ben. He deserves my full attention, which I couldn’t give him back when still overcome with grief. But on future family trips, I want to make a point of saying Noah’s name, making a toast to him, remembering and celebrating him together. With time, this may take more effort and intention.

Grief is a floating barge-boat,/who knows where it’s going to/moor?” –Charles Wright,“Toadstools”

In the unpredictable drift and swell of grief, I’ve been missing Noah a lot since coming home. It’s the time between my father’s 40th death anniversary and Noah’s would-have-been 31st birthday. I welcome the upwelling of sadness and regret and the good cry I had during deep relaxation at a yoga class—far better that than weeks without Noah on my mind. At 9+ years after his suicide, what I fear most is no longer carrying him with me as memories flee.

Grief is a ghost that visits without warning. It comes in the night and rips you from your sleep… It interrupts you mid-laugh when you’re at a party, chastising you that just for a moment you’ve forgotten. – Suleika Jaouad, “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted”

Sometimes I’m living my life and reasonably happy, even excited or full of gratitude,  and suddenly I trip over Noah’s death. It’s like an ambush by a little alien voice in my head. Wait – how can I be happy when I’ve lost a child to suicide? Now or ever? How can I forget the enormity of what happened and blithely move through my days? As if I’ll always bear this burden and it will always hobble me. I have to rise up, quash the demon voice and assert my right to thrive, even amid sorrow and regret.

Grief is such a small word for such big feeling. Like light, it is right on top of you one minute and halfway across the world in the next. Sarah Haufrecht

After Noah died, I thought a lot about the biblical Noah and decided to consider every rainbow a sign from my son—luminous, rare, spanning worlds. We hardly ever see rainbows where I live in southern California. But every afternoon lately when the angle of the sun is just right, I’m treated to little streaks and smudges of rainbow light skittering across the bathroom floor. With those splashes of color, Noah’s spirit is peeking into the house, leaving his mark, determined to live on among us. Every afternoon, a little bit of Noah comes home to delight me.

To my fellow survivors: With each of us at different stages, you may feel banished from joy right now. I get it. Still, summer’s here and I hope you’ll allow yourself some of its pleasures. You deserve a grief respite. You deserve a delightful day or week in spite of—because of ---everything.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Mother's Day Musings for Mental Health Awareness Month

 A parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child. When you have a child who struggles with a mental health condition, you realize how alarmingly true this truism is. I was so desperate and distraught when my son Noah was in crisis, I couldn’t think clearly about how to communicate with him or help him. Nor could I fully take in information that might have helped guide our family through those terrible months before his suicide.

I’m reminded of that nightmare time today, Mother’s Day, during Mental Health Awareness Month, when the media is full of reports on mental illness and the failures of our mental health system. Tears spring when I read about other mothers with kids in despair. Like the mother on suicide watch with her 12-year-old son, who was waiting for an opening in an inpatient treatment center. “It was the scariest two weeks of my life,” the mother said. There was a poignant photo of her with her arm around her son, sitting under a tree in the dark, heads bowed. Or the mother of a precocious, deeply depressed adolescent who lay with her arms around her son’s broken body in a hospital bed after the boy jumped from their apartment building roof. “I just held him and caressed him,” she said, knowing he wouldn’t survive. I did the same nine years ago when I held Noah’s head in my lap on the floor of the garage, waiting for the paramedics after a neighbor did CPR. I stroked my son’s warm skin and called his name over and over, knowing he was gone.

At least, I think, the 12-year-old boy was still young enough that he was afraid and agreed to a safety plan. At least, I think, his mother could keep him on a suicide watch. Why didn’t we do the same? What was it about Noah that made us worried sick but not so vigilant as to supervise him 24/7? Noah suffered for two years but my husband and I saw little of it in person; he was away at college or on his own in another city on a year off from college. We saw mainly the beginning and the end of Noah’s struggle with clinical depression, anxiety and PTSD. At ages 20 and 21, he wouldn’t talk with us about it or let us talk with his therapists; we couldn’t even make an appointment for him with a psychiatrist. The sense of helplessness and ignorance—his and ours—was devastating.

The personal is the political – another truism. Each of these wrenching stories is part of a larger problem. There’s the shortage of treatment options, the rise in child suicide, the surge in depression and suicidal thinking during the pandemic, the dearth of mental health awareness and education. Just as the pandemic has exposed so many fault lines in our society, so, too, has it laid bare the shameful gap between mental health care needs and available services.

The crisis in our mental health system may not affect most people directly – until it does. It’s never too late to inform ourselves and everyone around us about mental health and suicide prevention, never too late to have the “mental wellness” talk with our children or advocate for the accessible, quality mental health care that all our families deserve. Out of love for our children, living or dead, struggling or thriving, let’s commit ourselves to action for mental wellness this Mother’s Day. (Including our own self-care!)

To my fellow survivors: This can be a tough day for those of us who have lost a child, especially if the loss is recent. It may help to check out my blogpost,  this reflection by a mourning mom  or the many resources of the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Nine Years Gone


Noah’s grandpa had a custom of dedicating a fruit tree in his yard to each grandkid by marking it with a souvenir California license plate. When his house sold recently, I retrieved the little license plate for our yard. I hung it on the dwarf apple Noah planted with my husband Bryan in 2013, a couple weeks before Noah’s death. His name on that tree hearkens back to the grandpa he adored, to our years of nurturing Noah, to the balm that gardening became for Bryan after the suicide. Did Noah know then that he was leaving that tree behind for us? The profusion of spring blossoms evoke the growth that might have been for Noah.

Nine years is a long time.

I find myself thinking a lot of “Noah would have” statements lately. Noah would have admired the animated documentary film, “Flee” with its artful depiction of trauma and world events. Noah would have scoffed at the hydrofoil surfboards we saw turning capers in the ocean this morning—or would he have coveted one? Noah would have clambered up his brother Ben’s art installation with the ease of a cat and perched on top.

Nine years of would-haves.

I’d been saving stones from our travels to put on his grave, some from pre-COVID times. When I finally made it to the cemetery last week, after my usual procrastinating, I realized I had one for each year he’d been gone and lined them up alongside his marker. A lot happens in nine years, I told him. A lot for us, a lot that could have been for you.

This week, when I finally opened Noah’s memorabilia box--the one that for a while felt too radioactive to touch--I was struck by the heap of stones he’d saved in a plastic bag. There were some of the same beguiling green serpentines that I’d been saving for his grave. The same shade as his wide eyes that seemed to see beyond his years. The color of a cresting wave on the central coast on a cloudy day. I wonder, did we find these stones on the same beach, the one where Bryan and I go to remember him? Did he know that serpentines are considered healing stones, symbolic of heart energy? All the healing that might have happened over nine years. .  .

Let objects stir the slow simmer of memory.

In the memorabilia box I found another license plate, the real one Noah saved from his funky little vintage motorcycle. He was so excited to buy it, though he had to keep fixing it. It was too small for him and when he took off down the street with his long legs bent far out on either side, he looked like he was riding into a cartoon in a puff of dust.

In Noah’s stone collection were several flat smooth ones perfect for skipping on water. Noah would have …

In loving memory of Noah Langholz
June 28, 1991 – March 19, 2013