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?