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.


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.