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 and find ways to take good care of yourself 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.


Thursday, January 28, 2021

"It's hard to be a human": Reflections on Tommy Raskin

Maybe you heard about the loving and honest tribute that Congressman Jamie Raskin and Sarah Bloom Raskin wrote about their remarkable son Tommy, who died by suicide on December 31, 2020, at age 25. Like my son Noah, Tommy had so much to live for. Both young men were animal lovers with big hearts, quick wits, big extended families and friend circles, many passions and talents and opportunities. Like so many young people lost to suicide, Noah and Tommy were sensitive souls who felt things deeply; Tommy famously remarked in response to gossip, “Excuse me, but it’s hard to be a human.” Too hard, it seems, with the burden of depression, which Tommy’s parents called “relentless torture in the brain.” They wrote that “despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable at last for our dear boy, this young man of surpassing promise to our broken world.”

I’m grateful to the Raskins for raising this wonderful person and for sharing this important message about suicide with the public—that suicide can happen even with many guardrails in place. I’m also floored that the family had the space in their grieving hearts to note that on the same day Tommy died, so, too, did thousands of people with COVID.

Unlike Noah and most people who take their lives, Tommy left a note for his family. It begins, “Please forgive me. My illness won today.” This brings me to tears each time I read it—that someone so full of life could be vanquished. Also that Tommy was clear-eyed enough in his moment of crisis to see and express what was happening and compassionate enough to reach out to those he loved. He understood that he had a mental illness—something our son could never fully admit or address—and apparently spent his twenties trying to cope with it while living his accomplished life.

I’m struck by the word today as in “my illness won today.” Tommy reached a day when, understandably, he could no longer rise to the fight. I can’t know what he or Noah or others who took their lives were thinking and feeling in that tragic moment or what directly preceded it. But I often agonize about the randomness of the day when a suicide takes place. What if something had happened to give these young people the strength to hold on for one more day or one more hour, which may not have felt so dire? I’m reminded of the plea made by Jennifer Hecht and the suicide prevention movement to “stay” for the sake of those you love who love you and for the sake of your future self. Of course, what if people in distress have already been holding on for lots of days, over and over, and simply can’t bear the pain any longer? It hurts me to think of the days my son may have been on the verge of leaving this life and I didn’t know—the missed opportunities to hear him out and surround him with love and care. To affirm that yes, “it’s hard to be a human.”

How I wish that Noah could have held on long enough to recover the “thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient,” like the elderly pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

To my fellow survivors: How do you respond to public accounts of individual suicides in the media? What note was left for you – or do you wish had been left for you--by your loved one? If there was no note, it may help to compose one yourself. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

"It Gets Better" -- but How?

Does it get better? New suicide loss survivors often bring this question to gatherings of fellow survivors, desperate for hope. Those of us who’ve been on this road longer typically rush in to reassure them: Yes, it gets better with time.

The effect of time on suffering is mysterious, as if time itself had healing power. Maybe it does. But what matters, suggests author Alice Walker, is what you decide to do while you are waiting for time to do its work.  As I see it, you have to be willing to partner with time.

That’s why I prefer to say: It gets better with time and support and self-care. When you tell your story as often as needed to others who will really listen. When you let yourself lean on them for help and hugs. When you learn from fellow survivors and experts so you don’t feel so alone in your grief. When you express your grief freely rather than ignoring it or letting it fester. And when you do something nourishing, comforting, or relaxing for yourself every day to soothe your grieving soul.

At a Survivors of Suicide Loss Day event last week, a mom who lost her child to suicide three years ago told newer survivors, It’s different but it’s not better. I think she meant that something about the pain changes but the heartache never goes away. I can see why at three years out, she isn’t ready to say it gets better; I sure didn’t feel much better at that point compared to, say, five years after the suicide. And I agree the wound will always be there, ready to flare up again both when you expect it and when you least expect it.

As loss survivors, our lives and emotional make-up get rearranged around the deep hurt we carry. For a long while, the pain suffuses everything we think and feel and seems to shape our every action. As we gradually open up again to love and life, the hurt takes up less inner space. We feel its presence but less intensely and less often, more an ache than a piercing stab. Our loss no longer defines us the way it did in the early months and years.

We need to recognize and embrace the ways that suicide loss changes our identity, said Dr. Donna Barnes at this year’s Healing Conference of the American Assn. of Suicidology. To grow our new identity, she says, “it helps to live out loud,” that is, to talk openly about our experience. This, along with finding new purpose in our lives, is part of the process of post-traumaticgrowth that can come in the wake of tragedy. I didn’t believe in such growth initially; I couldn’t face the idea that anything good could come from losing my child. But as grief slowly loosed its all-consuming grip, I started to notice glimmers of growth.

So yes, in my experience, it does get better. When I feel a grief surge coming on, I can hold those feelings without being overwhelmed. I can be in the spot where Noah took his life without feeling haunted by traumatic thoughts. I no longer need to obsess over the ‘why’s’ and ‘what if’s’ of my son’s suicide; I can be more accepting of what Iris Bolton calls “partial explanations.” When I reflect on what I did and didn’t do when Noah was struggling, I can recognize my limitations, with regret softening the hard edges of my guilt. I can access good memories of Noah and feel grateful for the time our family had with him without bitterness. I can enjoy holidays and family trips without constant awareness of his absence. I can be glad for other young people’s good lives without always wondering what Noah’s life would be like now. I can re-immerse myself in gratitude and spiritual practice that once felt so out of reach. I can cultivate a new compassion for others and myself.

At least, after nearly eight years, I can do most of these things most of the time. Now when I think about Noah, I am mainly missing him with deep sadness and regret. That I will always carry with me.

To my fellow survivors: What do you think--does it get better or simply different? What would you tell a newer survivor to give them hope while being true to your experience? 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Open Heart Investigation


A survivor friend once wrote to me about feeling “half-hearted” as she moved through her days a few years after her son’s suicide. I knew what she meant: the listless hours, the guilt or regret, the sense of detachment from purpose and pleasure. But I believe that over time, attending to and expressing our grief can ultimately allow us to revitalize our hearts.

My son’s suicide in 2013 wrenched open my heart. I’d never felt it to be such a vulnerable physical organ--bruised, shattered, deflated—as I did in the first year or two after the suicide. I needed to restore my heart through whatever healing practices and support I could find. “Let the heart lead the way!” a yoga teacher urged and I was desperate to follow. My heart is newly attuned to people who are suffering and more ready to reach out to them. Through meditation, study, and prayer, I’ve been cultivating compassion and lovingkindness in a way I might never have done without the trauma of this loss. And I’m trying to grow a renewed capacity for joy.

You may know the line from Psalm 126, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” It inspired a moving heart visualization exercise that I’d like to share with my fellow survivors or anyone who is grieving. It was taught at an online meditation session this month by chaplain Sabrina Sojourner, who began by suggesting that we bring in our grief and give it our attention like one of the guests in Rumi’s guesthouse. Then she had us picture the heart as a pocket, see what we find within it, and ask what that object has to teach us. (You may want to try the exercise with the steps listed at the end of this post before reading on.)

This practice was revelatory for me. I envisioned a dark cave with a deep red velvet pocket covered by a curtain. I reached in past the curtain to grasp a large heart-shaped stone like the one I keep by a photo of Noah in our home shrine. Why is a stone in the pocket of my heart, I wondered? Is it because I hardened my heart towards Noah when we were estranged and I couldn’t face or understand the full extent of his suffering? Is it that I still can’t quite penetrate to the heart of my failure to reach him in his darkest time—or to self-forgiveness? Maybe all that, I thought. But this object also reminds me that my love for Noah is as solid and enduring as a stone. And that my grief for him still lodges in the innermost part of my heart. I thought of the many times since Noah’s death that I’ve found or been given heart-shaped stones. When I hold this cool, cream-colored, delicately veined stone in my palm and rub it against my heart, it soothes me. This outward symbol of love in touch with my own reconstructed heart.

To my fellow survivors: What does your heart pocket look like and what might you find inside? I encourage you to try the visualization when you have a quiet moment. (I’ve listed the steps as I recall them; you might want to first audio record them for yourself with pauses between each one):

  •          Find a comfortable seated position and begin a series of long deep breaths.
  •          Sit in calm silence for a while. Settle into the stillness.
  •          Now imagine that your heart is a deep pocket.
  •           Reach your hand into your heart. What is the first thing you find there?
  •           Visualize taking the object out of your heart and holding it in your hand. How does it feel?
  •          What is this thing trying to teach you?
  •         Sit with that lesson for a while.
  •          Then slowly return the object to your heart and let it fill your body.
  •           Put your dominant hand on your heart and give it a little massage. Then take your other hand and cover the hand that is already resting on your heart.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

May His Memory Be For a Blessing

As grief loosens its grip, Noah is less and less on my mind. That seems both natural and terribly sad. It’s almost another Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and I haven’t set aside time to repent for what I failed to do to help Noah or to ask for forgiveness, even though I still feel guilt and regret. Instead I’ve been thinking about shortcomings of the past year and new intentions for the coming year. I’m living more in the present and, I hope, directing more loving energy to the people in my life, especially my son, Ben, who felt shortchanged in the early years after his brother’s suicide.

Yet I’ve been present with Noah in other ways in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays.

Noah was uppermost in my mind when we packed our valuables in response to the be-ready-to-evacuate warning for the Bobcat fire. Everything I grabbed when I first heard the warning was of or by Noah--photos of him, photos made by him, the portrait painted by his cousin. I filled a few bags with what's left of his life that feels like it can never been replaced--unlike mementos of the living.

I’ve also been writing poems about Noah, one that lets me dwell in sweet memories of him as a child on the soccer field and one that voices anguish at his death through lines from prayer. As I rework that poem, I am working through remorse and repentance with a different lens.

My husband and I visited Noah’s grave together in advance of the memorial services on Yom Kippur, which we’ve never done before. We added new rocks from our travels to the perimeter of his gravestone and sat beside it, huddled together under a big sun umbrella, reminiscing and imagining. Noah would have been incredulous, we agreed, about this pandemic, the unbelievable death toll, the lack of federal response and the restrictions on daily life. He would have wanted to be with friends in France or helping Ben with art installations in Berlin. If he’d been working in the movie industry, as we often imagine, he might have lost his job and had to move back home. We flipped through photos, reminded of his long-limbed grace and hold-nothing-back smile. I sang a lament I wrote for Noah soon after his death that I rarely sing these days: How I wish that I had told you/Every day and every night/That I loved you and would help you/And everything would be all right.

“May his memory be for a blessing,” Jews traditionally say after a death. I always thought that meant the wish that our lives be blessed with memories of the person. But as a tribute to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg notesthe expression also means that “it is up to those who bear her memory to keep her goodness alive … it’s up to us to carry on her legacy.” Of course, the legacy of a 21-year-old is vastly different from that of a beloved, venerated 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice. For Noah, it’s about his big love for friends and cousins and his grandfather—and for most of his 21 years, his readiness to laugh, have fun, and seek adventure. Our family honors this legacy with support for life-affirming youth activities like wilderness trips through the Noah Langholz Remembrance Fund . And as I made my list of intentions for the Jewish new year, I realized that one item on the list keeps Noah’s goodness alive and breathes his spirit through me: Make room for joy.

In spite of everything. Because of who Noah was. Because of who I am.

Noah would have said Amen to that. How I wish there were still joys for him to relish and for us to share.

*

To my fellow survivors: May you reap the blessings of your loved one's memory.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

How We Remember Them


How do we remember loved ones lost to suicide? Some mourning moms I know are gifted in creating moving, just-right ways to commemorate the lives of their lost children—in the same way that some people seem to know instinctively how to choose the perfect present and special flair for a birthday celebration. I admire people who are so attuned to what is needed, whether in grief or in gladness. 

One friend is facing the third anniversary of her son’s death many miles away from the jacaranda tree she planted in his memory and from the cemetery where she used to go with her family to remember him, with balloons. She’s found a “surrogate place” near her new home to mourn J.: a peaceful pond where she can sit and cry and remember. On his deathaversary, using photos, she plans to paint the glorious lavender of the jacaranda blossoms and make a collection of images of her son’s tree over the years as it matures--something beautiful that is growing in the world, much as J. was for 22 years.

Another mourning mom I know chose an oak tree with a beautiful view of an arroyo as a focal point for a celebration of her son’s life every year. Family and friends gather around the tree to share music, food, and memories of another young man gone too soon.

Her son’s favorite hiking trail and overlook in the Smoky Mountains are the site of a friend’s annual pilgrimage on the anniversary of her son’s suicide. She and her husband even bought a summer home near those mountains so they could feel closer to J.

Yet another mom, who used to enjoy Japanese taiko drumming with her daughter, spent years bringing their taiko group to a walk for suicide prevention in A’s memory. Dozens of people were part of Team A., remembering this young girl. The first time I heard them, I cried at the power of their sound and the power of their commitment. Their rousing music energized survivors taking part in the 5-K walk, helping us to keep moving through our grief.

Some moms find comfort in simply plugging in to traditional customs and rituals. For a mom who lost her son two years ago, what feels right is having a Greek Orthodox mass said for D. on his death anniversary and offering sweets to friends and co-workers on D.’s name day (church feast day). My husband and I sponsor a memorial meal at our synagogue each year around Noah's yahrzeit (death anniversary on the Jewish calendar).

Of course, it’s not just moms who have inspired ideas for commemoration. I was so touched at a would-have-been birthday for my son in 2016 when two of his young friends set up our living room as a recording studio to create a collective, improvised song for Noah. Their final mix of the recording, which includes bits by Noah’s French host brother and dad and friends, as well as his American cousin and friends and me (on the wordless vocals), is called "Belief (Noah's Song)." 

Moments of remembrance don’t have to be public, elaborate, or ritualistic to be what's needed. Sometimes it's enough to light a candle or look at a photo. And some survivors prefer not to plan anything and just see what arises when the day comes.

For Noah’s would-have-been 29th birthday this month, my husband and I will probably go to his favorite donut shop and walk on the beach where he liked to surf. Maybe we’ll reach out to one of Noah’s friends to catch up with their news. We love these young people through his love for them; being with them is the closest we can get to our son. In their company, we just might hear a new memory or get a momentary glimpse of what was. They are our surrogates for Noah and seem to be OK with that, maybe because we, too, are what’s left for them of the friend they lost.

Lines from the well-known poem, “We Remember Them,” feel different with each passing year:  

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
we remember them. . . .
In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
we remember them. . . .
When we are lost and sick at heart,
we remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share,
we remember them. . . .


To which I would add: In everything and everyone our loved ones loved, we remember them.


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What Is Possible, Revisited




Psychologist John Schneider poses three questions for the bereaved that are worth exploring for those living with suicide loss (as well as those grieving any type of loss during this pandemic). The questions are simple yet generative: What is lost? What is left? What is possible?

It’s crucial to address these in the most despondent stages of grief after suicide when the sense of loss is overwhelming and it’s difficult to see a way forward--to acknowledge the terrible loss while opening our eyes to what we carry with us from our loved one and what we may yet be able to do, love, understand. It’s also revealing to see how our responses evolve over time.

I recently found two sets of responses to these questions, one from a support group several months after my son Noah’s death and one from a blog post I wrote four years later. Before looking at the lists too carefully, I took stock of how the questions strike me now, seven years after the suicide. Some of my current responses:

What is lost?

A wonderful, witty, wacky soul and budding photographer.

A love like no other.

A brother for Ben.

Knowing, loving and being with the adult Noah.

Derailed or altered career paths for our family of three.

What is left?

A stone. A candle. Tears of sorrow and regret.

Memories shared and unshared; the fear of forgetting.

A closer bond with Ben.

Noah’s presence at the ocean, in a rainbow.

My voice, recovered and rediscovered; this blog, poems.

Ties to suicide loss survivors around the world.

Noah’s name on youth scholarships and suicide prevention events through our small family foundation.

What is possible?

A lot. Joy. Beauty. Laughter.

Compassion. Acts of lovingkindness.

More writing; a book of grief poems?

Ben’s art installations.

More young people & families, aware and prepared for crises.

A child named after Noah?

My thoughts from the three points in time have a lot of overlap: missing Noah and his gifts, our family of four, what might have been. Being left with the holdover of pain and guilt, the focus on his gravestone. At five months and at four years after the suicide, there were more questions, more troubling memories of his decline and death, more need to share our pain with others; those have receded somewhat. At five months, I wrote “I don’t know” under “what is possible”—but predicted, correctly, that my husband and I would get closer to Ben and that I would find a way back to poetry. At four years, I thought it was possible that I’d have moments of happiness, help others on this path, open my heart—and so I have.

A few years ago, I got a gratitude stone as a keepsake from a Survivors Day gathering. I put it by Noah’s high school picture more out of aspiration than conviction. Recently, while singing prayers for Shabbat at home, I happened to notice the stone when I glanced at Noah’s photo. I felt a wave of appreciation for my son’s life and love without the usual pang of pain that comes with missing him. So it’s become possible, finally, to feel the expansion of gratitude as the bitterness subsides. I can’t always access or sustain the feeling--but at least I’ve learned it is possible.

To My Fellow Survivors: Where do your thoughts go when you see Schneider’s three grief questions? Your answers are your own; there’s no recipe or timetable. It’s OK to feel stuck, OK to not know, OK to feel anger or forgiveness--whatever. Maybe you have other questions to add to the three. Keep a record of how you respond today and look back on it in a year or two; you may be surprised.