Deathaversary IX

Another year passes
since the unthinkable.
We still think about it, of course.
And you.

Your picture stays,
a constant on the mantle,
soft brown eyes, no aging wrinkles,
no additional gray.
Same, steady smile.
Nothing to betray the passage of time,
other than a little dust around the edges of the frame.

Your sons’ pictures tell a different story.
Birthday celebrations,
athletics, concerts and travel.
Photographs accumulate, line the walls, accent end tables and bookshelves,
fill boxes and scrapbooks,
and cover the baby grand piano, marking accomplishments and moments.
Formal portraits,
Casual family gatherings,
Graduations,
Football teams,
School events,
Baptisms and confirmations,
Days at the beach,
Ski weeks,
Fishing trips.
Smiles, laughter and silliness.
Brotherhood in many forms.
They move through their young lives,
With growing confidence.

I see glimpses of you
in his brown eyes, of course,
in the angle of his chin,
in his stoic expression, succumbing hesitantly into a quiet grin.
I see hints of your influence
in his gentle interactions with his little cousins,
in the instinctive, confident stance he displays at the podium
and also in his awkward gait.
And yet they become uniquely themselves.

They have lived more years now without you
than they did with you,
even the “little one” is taller than you.
They live their lives,
with love, integrity and joy.
You remain in their hearts, if not at their sides.
The long shadow of your death too ephemeral to dim the light of your life,
a light in their lives.

Deathaversary Reprise

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week

 

It has been almost nine years since my first husband died by suicide. We acknowledge the day every year, but the word “anniversary” doesn’t convey the right amount of heartbreak when observing the “anniversary of a death.” Instead, we made up our own word to mark this particular occasion: “deathaversary,” a word that balances both the gravity and the accomplishment of the day.

The passing of another year after the death of a loved one is not necessarily cause for celebration, and yet… when we acknowledge how very far we have come in the process, when we think about how proud our loved one would be, when we notice that we can still laugh and love and run and play and find joy, well then, we will celebrate. We are grateful for our loved one’s life in our lives, we miss them dreadfully and we cry, or shout or smash big rocks into little rocks. Our hearts break wide open. A little time passes. The heart still beats. More time. The scar begins to heal. Months go by. Hearts beat. A year passes. And love is still. It’s astonishing.

Our family has, over the years, observed significant deathaversaries in various ways. We have played baseball games and gone away for the weekend. Dinners out work well. Preferably with a glass of something red. Laughter, tears and dark chocolate – all on the approved list. A visit to a gravesite or favorite park. Occasionally, we have ignored a difficult date, but that strategy usually backfires. I prefer the “grab the bull by the horns” approach. Obviously.

It is true that by doing or saying something to mark the passing of the year, we risk opening up sad feelings. On the other hand, not saying anything is almost certain to hurt. Personally, I prefer to have my feelings hurt by somebody who is attempting to say something because the fact of the matter is that my heart is already broken. And maybe, just by saying something – even something stupid – the underlying message is that they care enough to notice my pain and try (even risking failure!) to help.

More often than not, I just have to say stuff out loud – whether I am noting an unfairness, sharing an insight or seeking a clarification. I cannot help myself. My therapist calls me a truth-teller, but there are those who have a less flattering view on this trait of mine. It is both my Achilles heel and my superpower. In the arena of mental health issues and suicide awareness, however, speaking out loud is strength. I believe that these honest, difficult conversations can bring light and healing, maybe even save a life.

We can reduce the incidence of suicides by speaking out loud, by having the hard conversations, especially with young people and teenagers. We can let them know how desperately they are loved, how worthwhile their lives are, how many internal and external resources are available to them. There is hope. Many people have suffered the death of a friend or family member by suicide; not so many talk about it. Thankfully, that silence is changing.

Our town – like all towns – has been home to several suicides over the last few years. Every time, I respond in the way most natural to me. I run. I talk. I write. After a local suicide, I wrote an article for the town newspaper. In support of National Suicide Prevention Week, I’d like to share that letter again. Unfortunately, it is still relevant, and we have much work to do, so here it is… Please share it with someone you love.

The Speech 

I am a lecturer of some renown. If I do say so myself, I am passionate, articulate and persuasive. My audience is often glued to their seats in anticipation of my next dispensation of wisdom. That, plus they have their seatbelts firmly in place (clearly as the result of a previously delivered lecture), and they are my hostages. At least until they are 18 and self-sufficient (another plentiful source of lectures). Yes, I deliver countless lectures for the benefit of my captive audience of sons.

And here’s today’s: Every, every, every problem has a solution. And your father and I will always, always, always love you. Period. End of speech.

But I have so much more to say.

I am keenly aware of the impact suicide has on a family. It struck ours in 2007. My heart breaks for the family of the young man who took his life at his high school last week. For the students, teachers and staff at the high school who were witness to his death. For the friends who have lost a loved one. And for the young man himself. Suicide is a confusing, messy death. At the end of it all, mental pain and anguish is as lethal as a sudden heart attack or an undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside.

My boys can ask me anything. They know they can count on me for an honest answer, but after today’s speech they continued their normally scheduled programming of Facebook, xBox and homework, not necessarily in that priority. I trust that they will revisit the issue when they want to talk. My sons know that they can count on me for the truth insofar as I know it. And I know that the conversation is not likely to end after a 10-minute dialogue.

The tragedy of suicide is how much suffering the victim endures on his own without help. When my cousin was battling cancer – a fight she ultimately lost – she had casseroles delivered, therapy, childcare and pain medication. When my husband was suffering from depression – a fight he likewise lost – he fought it alone. This provides the theme for many of the speeches that I inflict upon my sons. Life is a team sport. Proceed with friends. We are meant to support each other and live in relationship with each other. Especially when life is hard. Tell me three people you can reach out to if you need help – this is one effective way to inoculate yourself from mental pain.

I do not believe that Life only gives us the challenges we can handle. Life routinely hands out way more than we can handle alone. I am, however, a great believer in the power of Love. It was Love whose face I did not always know, but whose presence I recognized, who delivered countless meals for my sons and me. Love showed up on my doorstep like a drill sergeant rounding up socks, shoes, homework, lunches, backpacks and ushering us up the hill to school on time in the morning. Love mended a favorite blanket that had been shredded in a fit of grief. Love rolled up her sleeves and cleaned out my closet, carefully packing all of Sam’s shoes, suits and belongings, labeling everything and storing it carefully where I could deal with it in my own time. Love got up at 5:30 in the morning to run with me – and to watch my children while we did. Love took my hand, and introduced me to the man I married over five years ago.

I pray every day that our sons will find their way through the challenges that life throws their direction. I am devastated that this young man was unable – for whatever reason – to find his way through the pain he was enduring. And I hope that as a community, we will find ways to support each of the broken hearts left in the wake of his death.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your path. And open conversations about mental health.

 

Deathaversary VII

We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself

the means of inspiration and survival.”

~ Winston Churchill

It’s Sunday afternoon, almost dinner time, and we have finally finished cleaning up from our family brunch. Tim and I are exhausted. The house is quiet, dishwasher humming. The boys are settling in with homework (homework seeming the lesser evil than laundry), the dogs are down for a nap (like overtired toddlers after an afternoon with grandma), the cats are contentedly crunching, and I’m curling up with a cup of tea and a book. I’m having a hard time concentrating, however, because tomorrow marks the seventh year since Sam’s suicide.

Our brunch included all eight of the boys’ grandparents: Sam’s parents, my parents, Tim’s parents and his first wife’s parents. Add our nuclear family of six, and that’s a lot of bagels. To be fair, two of our boys are away at college, but my sister and brother-in-law volunteered to bring strawberries to our grandparent gathering, and I certainly wasn’t going to decline their offer.

We don’t have a table big enough for everybody to sit comfortably, but we do have nice weather and patio furniture and the kind of family who is willing to scooch up a chair, eat in his own lap, risk spilling on her neighbor’s lap and laugh out loud. We share stories, coffee and the better part of the day. The logistics are rarely simple in our family gatherings, but I am grateful. My house and my heart are full. So is the dishwasher.

On her way out, Sam’s mother pulls me aside. Although she speaks more comfortably in Spanish, she addresses me in English, as a courtesy. She tells me that she is so proud of all four of my sons, and (like the self-respecting jewish mother-in-law that she is) she also frets over each one of them. She is going to go to the cemetery tomorrow, and she is going to tell “Sammy” how well his sons are doing and that his wife has created a beautiful little family. She tells me that she knows Sammy will be happy and very proud.

And I know he will be. And while Sam’s approval is gratifying, it is his mother’s approval that moves me to tears. I have a friend who refers to her daughter-in-law as her daughter-in-love. My mother-in-law has similarly treated me as her own. Years ago, as she was walking with me on one side and her own daughter on the other, she laughed and said “I have two daughters — one blonde and one brunette.”

She shuffles toward her car with her cane in her left hand and my arm in the right. She explains to me that she does her physical therapy exercises consistently, and I know this to be true. In fact, she even turns on music and “dances” her exercises across the length of her apartment. She’s in her 80’s. My father-in-law shakes his head and smiles. He has been smitten with her for nearly 60 years, and it’s easy to see why.

I cannot imagine what she has suffered in the loss of her son. And yet, she makes it a practice to dance across her living room every day. It is very hard to understand how her son lost his way, but I believe with all my heart that he is, indeed, proud not only of his wife and children but also of his mother. It is no coincidence that, despite the heartbreak and challenges that life has brought, her children and grandchildren find their way with joy and tenacity.

She dances every single day.

***

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

Deathaversary

The word “anniversary” doesn’t convey the right amount of heartbreak when observing the “anniversary of a death.” We couldn’t find the word to mark this particular occasion, so we made up our own: “deathaversary.”

Somehow the word “deathaversary” carries a better balance of the gravity and levity of the day. The passing of another year after the death of a loved one is not a celebration, and yet… when we acknowledge how very far we have come in the process, when we think about how proud our loved one would be, when we notice that we can still laugh and love and run and find joy, well then, there is reason for celebration. We are grateful for our loved one’s life in our lives, we miss them dreadfully and we cry – or at least I do – because I (not to be confused with the men in my life) am a sissy crybaby. Personally, I believe the fountain of tears has contributed in no small part to my ability to heal, gentlemen, but I digress…

Our hearts break wide open. A little time passes. The heart still beats. More time. The scar begins to heal. Months go by. Hearts beat. A year passes. And love is still. It’s astonishing.

We have, over the years, observed significant deathaversaries in various ways. We have played baseball games and gone away for the weekend. Dinners out work well. Preferably with a glass of something red. Laughter, tears and chocolate – all on the approved list. A visit to a gravesite or favorite park. Occasionally, we have ignored a difficult date, but that strategy usually backfires. I prefer the “grab the bull by the horns” approach. Obviously.

It is true that by doing or saying something to mark the passing of the year, we risk hurting feelings. On the other hand, not saying anything is almost certain to hurt feelings. Personally, I prefer to have my feelings hurt by somebody who is attempting to say something because the fact of the matter is that my heart is already broken. And maybe, just by saying something – even something stupid – the underlying message is that they care enough to notice my pain and try (and maybe fail!) to help.

Our town has a deathaversary coming up. It is more than a little painful. Last year, a senior boy committed suicide on campus at our local high school. The year before, a sophomore took his own life at a neighboring high school. Our Number 2 son found out about both events before any of the rest of us because friends were texting him (in school, of course, but don’t tell the Dean of Discipline).

How do we let these kids know how desperately they are loved? How worthwhile their lives are? I don’t know, but I want to try. At the time, I responded in the way most natural to me. I went for a run. I used my words. I talked to my children, and I wrote an article for the local paper. In the interest of grabbing that deathaversary bull by the horns, I’d like to share that letter again, and I apologize because some of you might have already seen it, but I think it’s still relevant, so here it is…

The Speech

I am a lecturer of some renown. If I do say so myself, I am passionate, articulate and persuasive. My audience is often glued to their seats in anticipation of my next dispensation of wisdom. That, plus they have their seatbelts firmly in place (clearly as the result of a previously delivered lecture), and they are my hostages. At least until they are 18 and self-sufficient (another plentiful source of lectures). Yes, I deliver countless lectures for the benefit of my captive audience of sons.

And here’s today’s: Every, every, every problem has a solution. And your father and I will always, always, always love you. Period. End of speech.

But I have so much more to say.

I am keenly aware of the impact suicide has on a family. It struck ours in 2007. My heart breaks for the family of the young man who took his life at his high school last week. For the students, teachers and staff at the high school who were witness to his death. For the friends who have lost a loved one. And for the young man himself. Suicide is a confusing, messy death. At the end of it all, mental pain and anguish is as lethal as a sudden heart attack or an undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside.

My boys can ask me anything. They know they can count on me for an honest answer, but after today’s speech they continued their normally scheduled programming of Facebook, xBox and homework, not necessarily in that priority. I trust that they will revisit the issue when they want to talk.  My sons know that they can count on me for the truth insofar as I know it. And I know that the conversation is not likely to end after a 10 minute dialogue.

The tragedy of suicide is how much suffering the victim endures on his own without help.  When my cousin was battling cancer – a fight she ultimately lost – she had casseroles delivered, therapy, childcare and pain medication. When my husband was suffering from depression – a fight he likewise lost – he fought it alone. This provides the theme for many of the speeches that I inflict upon my sons. Life is a team sport. Proceed with friends. We are meant to support each other and live in relationship with each other. Especially when life is hard. Tell me three people you can reach out to if you need help – this is one effective way to inoculate yourself from mental pain.

I do not believe that Life only gives us the challenges we can handle. Life routinely hands out way more than we can handle alone. I am, however, a great believer in the power of Love. It was Love whose face I did not always know, but whose presence I recognized, who delivered countless meals for my sons and me. Love showed up on my doorstep like a drill sergeant rounding up socks, shoes, homework, lunches, backpacks and ushering us up the hill to school on time in the morning. Love mended a favorite blanket that had been shredded in a fit of grief. Love rolled up her sleeves and cleaned out my closet, carefully packing all of Sam’s shoes, suits and belongings, labeling everything and storing it carefully where I could deal with it in my own time. Love got up at 5:30 in the morning to run with me – and to watch my children while we did. Love took my hand, and introduced me to the man I married just over a year ago. (Three years now!) 

I pray every day that our sons will find their way through the challenges that life throws their direction. I am devastated that this young man was unable – for whatever reason – to find his way through the pain he was enduring. And I hope that as a community, we will find ways to support each of the broken hearts left in the wake of his death.

 ***

Wishing our teenagers light and strength. And extra snacks.