Bits & Pieces

I believe in the healing power of broken hearts. And that through an influence not my own, the most beautiful wounded souls enter into my path exactly when I need them. They show up having suffered every type of loss, death, suicide, divorce, disappointments, regrets, childhood abuse, trauma, and gently retrieve a shard of my own shattered, porcelain heart. Each friend brings that piece lovingly to me, offering hope. As I find my way back to wholeness, my own heartbeats echo the love of broken-hearted friends who brought the pieces back to me.

A few days after Sam’s death, one of the boys – in a fit of rage and confusion – shredded his favorite blanket, the one he had commandeered from his brother, the lovey that appears in countless photographs of the young child. We had once driven back home two hours to retrieve the baby blanket in order to salvage our weekend away. My son reduced his blanket to ribbons of yellow within minutes, while I stood watching, tears streaming down my face, helpless in the face of my son’s angry sadness. His constant, reliable source of comfort turned to tattered rags. Standing defiantly amidst the remains of his former blanket, the boy wept. Inconsolable.

There are so many times I longed to fix things for my sons, wished I could have fixed things for Sam, and so many friends who wanted to fix things for me. Grief doesn’t lend itself to fixing. You can’t put things back the way they were.

We clung to each other, overwhelmed by the enormity of putting a life together again.

Sometimes, in the midst of just such chaos, a lovely human being shows up with her signature talent. One of my friends is a gifted seamstress; she has also suffered and transcended a childhood loss of her own. I didn’t know these things about her. I would not have thought to ask for her help to repair the blanket. It was her idea. She carefully took the torn remains of my boy’s blanket (with his permission) and began the painstaking work of putting the pieces back together again. Of course, they would not come back exactly as they were, but she sewed with great care, keeping the pattern mostly intact, and then she attached a new backing to the whole thing. There were a few random scraps that didn’t quite fit, but she sewed those pieces into a pocket on the blanket. She’s the kind of friend who knows the value of holding each yellow fragment.

When she returned with the blanket, it wasn’t the same, it wasn’t fixed, but it was soft and whole and lovable. The restored version reminds us of the stabilizing presence of friendship in times of pain and sorrow. It continues to remind us of inner strength, survival and love.

As an aside, I had actually found a blanket exactly like the original, but that new blanket never found a home on my son’s bed or in his heart. And I couldn’t tell you where it is now. It wasn’t authentic. The “real” one had been loved on and spilled on and dragged around and tattered by grief and sewn together by a mother’s tender hands. In the words of Lewis Carroll, “It’s no use to go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”

My son preferred the well-loved blanket, the one that stayed and frayed with him through his grief, loss and loneliness, the tangible reminder of healing, hope and friendship.

When a senseless tragedy befalls someone I love, and I just cannot get my head around it, all I can do is hold her in my heart. I know there is power in hearts that have been broken open, because I have been embraced and lifted by just such hearts beating in symphony.

In times of heartache, I have been known to borrow my son’s precious pieced-together yellow blanket. I know exactly where it is. I hold it close and breathe in its healing presence. There is a sacred beauty in the wholeness that remains broad enough to include the scars, the frayed pieces and the empty spaces.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And wholeness.

Conflicted

I find something quietly gratifying about balancing my checkbook. There is one right answer. Reconciling the statement with the register, finding the discrepancy, correcting an error (usually my own transposition of numbers), then everything tics and ties. It’s my favorite constructive avoidance technique. That and laundry. A few blessed moments of balance, and I take a long inhale. Then everything gets messy and out of whack again.

There was a murder-suicide in our town a few weeks ago. Here’s all I know: firefighter-husband shot sheriff’s-deputy-wife at their home; he then dropped off their only child, a young boy, at grandma’s house; dad next radioed the first responders to let them know that they would find a dead body at the house but there would be no danger to them; and then he shot himself. Tragic and heart-breaking.

I’m at the very fringes of the tragedy, and I’m shaken by its magnitude. We experienced only a small fraction of this trauma. One of my sons was the same age and grade as the young child when he lost his father to suicide. Everything else is different. I do not even know how to begin to get a toehold to climb that mountain of grief.

I have said before and I’ll say again, For as bad as it was, it’s as good as it gets. Sam left me a note. He did not kill himself at home. There were witnesses to his jumping, but the boys and I weren’t among them. The police feared that he had attacked us, but he didn’t. The boys had each other and me, loads of extended family, and friends who feel like family. We clung to each other, and we didn’t change our address or elementary school or doctors, although we stopped attending church altogether. We were inundated with condolence cards and casseroles, but no paparazzi or news commentators parked in front of our home. We had a lot of stability, but we were still hurt and angry, hostile and confused.

Even so, I defended their father – not what he did, but who he was.

My dearest friends were still infuriated. One said, “All I know is that when I get to heaven, Sam better be ready to run, because when I catch him, I’m going to kill him.” I have this mental image of all the girlfriends who rallied to my side – and there was a legion of them – chasing after Sam in eternity. Part of me is amused and grateful for their protectiveness, and another part of me still rallies to guard Sam from the lynch mob. And the two biggest reasons to do so are our sons. These boys are graced with grandfathers, uncles, male teachers, coaches and role models, step-brothers and a step-father who loves them dearly, but none of them replaces Sam.

These tragedies shake us. Not only because we are profoundly sad at the violence and senselessness of it, but because we cannot ignore that the oneness of this person includes the capacity for both service and injury. We prefer the wholeness of a man to be singularly good, both for his sake and ours. If we are honest, it also forces us to look at our own inner darkness. Real human beings are multi-faceted, and some of those faces are scary and ugly. The task becomes to embrace the whole man, which is not to condone his terrible acts, but to accept his weakness and vulnerability as part of his humanity.

It’s easy to love perfect people, or at least the ones who indulge in the same bad habits we do. Loving imperfect people is a bigger challenge, especially the people we have loved and been betrayed by, or people we trusted and wanted to emulate before they lost their minds and hearts and self-control. It can be harder still to look with tenderness into our own darkest fears, our jealousies, insecurities, bitterness and self-righteousness.

Sam’s suicide will certainly color his sons’ perception of him. The cloud of his death distorted the view for a long time, but eventually, with healing and perspective and resilience, that fog begins to lift and a few rays shine through. We take a step back, and begin to see that the shadow does not define the man.

On about the second or third night after Sam’s death, when the reality of his death was sinking in, and his absence weighed heavily on our hearts, one of my favorite people in all the world burst through our door with her signature energy and announced, “I’ve come to fix everything!” Her eyes were brimming with tears, her arms laden with grocery bags containing about seven gallons of ice cream in dozens of flavors.

Of course, ice cream doesn’t fix anything. Not even Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia or Haagen Dazs Coffee. But the companionship on the journey is everything. So we sit together, choosing our favorite flavors, even though they melt faster than we could possibly eat. We cry, we talk, we sit, we call Sam names, and we mock his favorite flavor.

And so starts the process of coming to terms with the dimensions of this man who both jumped off a parking structure and liked vanilla ice cream. It doesn’t quite add up, but there you have it.

It is counterculture, counterintuitive and downright offensive to extend compassion toward the man who killed himself, but his child needs this tenderness. The man will always be his father. Nobody can be replaced. I cannot imagine the road that lies ahead for the young boy who lost both his parents. I hope he has a community of courageous and gentle people in his life who will help him grieve and heal and provide a larger perspective on his father than that imposed by one tragic evening, that this terrible act not be the entirety of a father’s legacy for his son. I pray that there are men and women in this young boy’s life who remind him of his father’s good qualities. Clearly, he had some. The man who shot his wife and himself is the same man who took measures to protect his son and his fellow firefighters. These aspects of the man are in deep conflict with each other; what he did was horrifying, but who he was is more complicated.

I believe that no matter how dark our despair, anguish and misery, light ultimately finds a way through. I have faith in radical forgiveness, redemptive love and a ridiculous sense of humor. I have hope that peace will surpass our failings, remorse and self-loathing.

During mass the week after this murder-suicide, I was grateful to hear both wife’s name and husband’s name read among the people for whom we should pray. The beginnings of grace.

And so I pray.

I think about husband and wife, and it is hard to hold so much love and suffering in the same prayer. But I have done this before. At the center of my petitions for mercy, for peace, for forgiveness, is the child of two imperfect parents, united in love for their son. May the boy be held securely in the arms of divine Love, may he find a path of healing and a life of light, resilience and joy. May he be blessed with steadfast friends who enter into his sorrow and loneliness with stories and photographs and silence and sweetness and presence, because ice cream doesn’t fix anything but it means everything.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And hope greater than conflict.

Presumption

Usually, my morning run calms me, or at least takes the edge off. I return home with a fresh perspective or renewed commitment or surrender or resolve or increased motivation or even a new approach to a sticky situation. If nothing else, I have spent a good half an hour with my sweet and hapless defective hunting dog. But every now and again, I come back from a run all fired up and tetchy.

Today a woman in a white Acura sets me off. I’m not sure what has her attention – a kid in the backseat, the traffic report, a text from her office – but her eyes are not on the road. My eyes, on the other hand, are fixed on her tires coming toward me perilously quickly. She is driving on the shoulder, tires so far over the edge of her lane line that you might think it was a second lane, but it’s bicycle width. There is no sidewalk on this particular stretch of residential road, so it’s just me, the dog, a rapidly narrowing shoulder and some tall landscaping. As the car approaches, I cry out. I yank the dog’s leash and we press ourselves into the hedges.

I don’t think she even brakes as she careens around the curve. I turn and issue a piece of advice, a few well-chosen words suited to her blatant and reckless disregard for human and canine lives. I don’t know whether she heard me. I half expect to hear a crash as she continues on her way. She reminds me of someone else I’ve encountered recently, hurtling her way through life without a thought for others traveling the same route.

I finish my run, each mile winding me up a little tighter, and I walk in the door thoroughly annoyed. I’m pissy and prickly, sweaty and out of breath.

Warning: I’ve caught my breath now, and I’m about to let a few choice words fly.

I like to think I’m reasonably open about this path I’ve travelled as the widow due to suicide. I try to be mindful that each experience is unique, including mine, and open to opinions that are different that my own.

There is certainly a sense in which we are all in the same leaky boat. When I meet other survivors of loss – not just of a spouse, and not only by suicide – there is frequently a softening, a mutual respect, an appreciation. This connection is enhanced by the recognition that each experience is individual.

I’ve attended presentations given by and for suicide survivors (which, by the way, I think is a terribly misleading term, but I haven’t – yet – thought of a better one). I’ve given presentations to therapists and first responders detailing life in the trenches of my day-to-day experience as a mother to four grieving sons. I cannot speak for all parents. So I don’t.

And I don’t appreciate some misguided jackass drawing conclusions about me or my husband or our relationship based solely on the fact that he killed himself.

Several years ago, a dear friend of mine had a friend who had a friend whose husband committed suicide. And she thought that this friend (I’ll call her Jessie) should talk to me. Not long afterward, I received a message that Jessie herself wanted to talk to me and forwarded her cell number to me. Naturally, I called her. Jessie didn’t answer, so I left a brief voicemail, leaving my name and cell phone and encouraging her that if she wanted to chat I would be available any time.

What I received back was a protracted, emphatic text message asserting that not only did she not want to talk to me, but she informed me that I had nothing to offer her because she and her husband were very much in love and happy. Her situation was unique among suicides, and I wouldn’t understand.

I wanted to type back: Go fuck yourself. You don’t know a single thing about me, about Sam, or about our marriage. But I didn’t. I bit my tongue and my texting fingers, sent a short apology and goodbye. And then I fumed. I deleted her message and contact information. I hoped never to hear from her again, and so far I haven’t.

Healing is hard enough without the judgment and criticism of some asshole who thinks my husband killed himself because he didn’t love me or that I didn’t love him. Or whatever the hell she thinks. I don’t need her to stigmatize my husband or shame me. And she doesn’t have a monopoly on pain. It’s not a competition; we both lost. There is so much misunderstanding surrounding suicide, and misguided criticism only perpetuates the stigma.

It would be so much cleaner to divide the world into good guy and bad guys, good marriages and bad ones, but life doesn’t work that way. Suicide is not necessarily a moral weakness or character flaw or somebody’s fault. It’s immeasurably messy.

I loved my husband and he loved me. We had children, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and a white picket fence. Sam loved his sons. He was involved in their lives, their education, coached their T-ball teams. He was a confidante, a loyal friend, a trusted advisor. He was kind and conscientious. Jessie presumed Sam had been otherwise. Or that I was. Like many couples, we had happy and sad, celebrations, disappointments and disagreements. He also, like so many of us, had job stress and family pressure. He suffered chronic and debilitating back pain from the time he was 13 years old. He must also have wrestled with demons whose names I didn’t know.

We survivors carry a terrible burden of guilt. Could I have loved him more? Or better? Probably. Would it have made a difference? I will never know. He did not have a “suicide” tattoo stamped across his forehead like a warning label. If he had, maybe I could have avoided falling in love with him in the first place. Then again, we all bear the stamp of mortality by virtue of our humanity. The risk we take when we live wholeheartedly and love imperfectly is that we will lose each other sometime, in some way. Suicide is a particularly ugly way.

I’m no expert or statistician. All I know is myself and a handful of widows. We loved our husbands as best we could, and they loved us, too. No marriage is perfect. It’s not supposed to be. If the vow was to love only during better, health and wealth, then marriages would last just long enough for the wedding coordinator to insult a favorite cousin and the caterer to spill champagne on Aunt Helen, which would amount to maybe seven minutes in ordinary time. The real challenge is to love through all the times, not knowing in advance what those times will bring.

I understand the urge to differentiate from the suicide stereotype, but that stance only increases misconception and stigma. Mental illness doesn’t look like anyone in particular or live at a specific address. People want to think that they can inoculate themselves from the risk of suicide because they exercise daily or have an advanced degree or a really good therapist, or give up chocolate. Believe me, I do all those things. Except giving up dark chocolate, of course.

Sometimes we end up in the soup anyway.

I think about the woman in the Acura, and I think perhaps I would do well to heed my own advice, not the words that went through my head as she zipped by, but the ones that I actually said out loud: Slow down. If my run doesn’t calm me, maybe today I need to sit and breathe, maybe I need to be gentler with myself.

In this moment I realize that I need to listen carefully to more of my own guidance: Just because we share the same road does not mean we experience the same journey.

I think about Jessie, and my heart softens. There is more than enough anger, shame and guilt to go around. If I could find a way to pave the path with a little more connection, acceptance and trust, even for one who offends me, this would be a far more productive endeavor.

I still don’t want Jessie ever to call me again, but I take a deep breath and a long exhale and I try to loosen the hold of my own guilt and convictions.

Love alone does not prevent suicide. If it could, suicide wouldn’t exist. Sometimes love and prayer and medication and therapy and surgery are enough to bridge that divide. Sometimes they aren’t. I don’t know why.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And slow, mindful drivers.

And my heart breaks all over again

I believe that we are strongest in the places where we have been most deeply wounded. But then another child loses his father to suicide, and I crumble to pieces. My heart breaks all over again.

I know that there is hope. In my heart, I have faith that there will be love and light and laughter. I trust in the power of prayer and of Love. I believe that Life does not abandon its children, but in this moment Life has again abandoned a young boy. The darkness is thick and hard and cold.

All I can offer is my own broken heart, which stretches a little wider.

It’s not nearly enough.

At the absolute darkest, when light and hope were truly dead and gone, I do not know how Mary held on to her faith. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe there was just nothing else to do but sit and inhale. I wonder who sat with her in the darkness. I wonder how many heavy hearts reached toward hers, beating awkwardly, steadily toward a new day.

I sit and inhale.

My heart breaks and beats.