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.

Sticks and Stones

An Ode to Angry

A couple of weeks ago, I had noted in my blog that I was struggling with a certain, shall we say, unpleasant situation. Within a few days, I received an anonymous Dammit Doll in the mail. If you are not familiar, as I wasn’t, the Dammit Doll (looking vaguely voodoo-ish), bears this little poem: Whenever things don’t go so well, and you want to hit the wall and yell, here’s a little Dammit Doll, that you can’t do without. Just grasp it firmly by the legs and find a place to slam it. And as you whack the stuffing out, yell “Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!” Yes, I laughed, I so need this. But who sent it?

The return address was amazon.com, and initially I didn’t find even a packing slip. Here are my top five guesses as to which of my girlfriends was most likely to have sent me the Dammit Doll:

  1. The minister.
  2. The atheist.
  3. The seminary student.
  4. The PTA president.
  5. The preacher’s wife.

It tickles me that my most spiritually attuned friends are also the most likely to appreciate my need to slam the stuffing out of an unsuspecting doll. And yes, I include the atheist in the spiritual category, because she is one whose heart has been so wounded by life that she finds it impossible to believe in a loving and all-powerful One. And the PTA president, because she is engaged with both teenagers and administrators, and if that combination doesn’t bring you to your knees in prayer, I don’t know what will.

One of my best friends used to struggle with anger, the kind that wells up and wrenches the insides, fueled by powerlessness in the face of heartbreak and unfairness, threatening to spill out in ugly and hurtful ways. He had learned, over the years, that a “mad stick” proved an enormously helpful conduit to funnel the angry out. Picture a walking stick found along the side of a hiking path – that’s the ideal branch for use as a mad stick. He would whack the mad stick against a tree or fence or cement wall that could withstand the force of his outrage. He had found a relatively safe way to let the mad go. The stick itself did not usually survive the experience intact, but my friend did.

My emotional equivalent of the mad stick is pounding the pavement. I return from a mad run physically exhausted, both fueled by anger and wrought out by the emotion. It’s a cathartic experience.

Frankly, I don’t understand people who don’t have anger issues. If you are engaged with life, if you have friends and family and dogs you love, if you think the world could be improved in both small and significant ways, then you also know that life is desperately unfair. That people disappoint (even the ones you call “dad” or “baby”). That there is evil in the world and in boardrooms and locker rooms and sacred spaces. And if you are connected with life at any level and participate with both your heart and mind, then unfairness, evil, and poverty are sufficient to make you angry enough to beat the stuffing out of a dozen Dammit Dolls. And that’s before a single interaction with the DMV.

In the Jewish tradition, mourners will often place a stone on the gravesite as a sign of respect. The rock itself represents enduring love. The boys would sometimes write notes or draw pictures on their rocks before going to their father’s gravesite. Sometimes these were love notes; other times they were more like hate mail. One day, one of my sons had carefully chosen rocks to bring with him, including one that was broken in half. He chose it specifically because it looked like a broken heart. On the center broken part, he had written “I love you.” He placed his broken-heart rock gently on his father’s tablet. And then he carefully searched for more rocks. After he had collected a few, he paused, took a step back… and, winding up like a pitcher, hurled them at the tablet. The stones crashed and collided with the grave marker. He stomped and he cried.

As painful as it was for me to see my little boy in so much agony, I stayed with him, allowing him to experience the intensity of his young wrath. I was not afraid that his launching of those rocks would somehow nullify the affection he had for his father. It was the perfect expression of little boy grief – “I love you. I miss you. I don’t understand why you would rather die than go to my soccer game.” Eventually, worn out by his emotion, he ran out of rocks. Finally, he knelt close to the marker, touched his father’s name gently with his hand, placed a kiss on the tablet, and whispered, “I miss you, Daddy. I really miss you.”

Even now, when we drive by the cemetery, sometimes the boys are silent, sometimes they say “Hi Dad,” sometimes they wave or blow a kiss, and sometimes they give Dad the one-finger salute. Depends on the day and the kid.

I honor my sons’ needs to stomp their feet and throw rocks. I had done the same myself the first time I visited the gravesite after Sam’s suicide. It’s not a bad place to start the mourning process. The important lesson is to start. Healing can happen from that first movement forward, even if that step is to stomp on the gravesite of the man you love most in the world.

I have learned to honor my own mad. Maybe the mad is enough to get me off the sofa. Or into therapy. Or to speak to a group of social workers about what it’s like to parent children in the throes of grief. Mad does its best work when I know its place. My mad is generally more productive on a long run, or on a written page, where the aggravated steam rises and ultimately dissipates, yielding to softer language, gentler steps, before meeting other eyes or ears. Angry does not make quality decisions, but it can spark an initiative for change. Indignation can provide a boost in momentum to get through difficult, unfair, challenging spaces. Angry does not stand by idly – or worse, silently – while injustice or cruelty wield their terrible blows.

Yes, mad most definitely has a place, but mad does not get the last word. When angry gets stuck it settles into bitterness or resentment and loses its purpose. But when angry has an outlet, that space surrenders to a different emotion and renewed power. That open place invigorates and builds. It strengthens resolve. It emboldens change. It inspires hope. It transforms.

Mad, at its finest, can be an invitation toward growth. Which is exactly what the preacher’s wife was counting on when she sent me the Dammit Doll.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And just enough anger to propel you toward hope.