We Who Live

“Suicide survivor” is such a dumb term, but I haven’t thought of a better one yet. “Suicide survivor” sounds to me like someone who tried (and failed) to complete a suicide, but that’s not what it means. The term suicide-attempt survivor applies to the scenario of someone who survives his or her own attempted suicide. By contrast, I am a suicide survivor, meaning that I have survived my husband’s suicide.

I’m not sure one ever reaches a point where she has “survived” her husband’s suicide. Done. Check. Finished. Love doesn’t work that way. Loss doesn’t work that way. It’s not over. It evolves with me. I will not get over it. I incorporate it. I integrate it. I still – yes, ten years after the fact – talk about Sam and his suicide. I learn to live with it, but it’s not that I simply subsist in a state of melancholy. I find meaning and love and joy. I live my life with passion and integrity and gratitude and laughter and intention and momentum and a full home and an even fuller heart. None of which cancels out Sam’s death. None of which precludes the sporadic incidence of crippling fear and heart-stopping anxiety. Loss and love and joy exist together. A big, beautiful mess of a life. That’s what it’s like.

Let me be clear on the issue of being widowed: All the ways to widow suck. There is no better or worse here. There is only bad. Period.

I still receive mail and even the occasional phone call for Sam, usually telemarketers, but also our local frozen yogurt joint letting Sam know that his favorite peanut butter fudge will be featured this week. Some days this irritates me; some days it amuses me; some days it reduces me to tears. His photographs are in albums, in frames on the piano and displayed prominently on the family room wall. His handwriting appears on a random post-it note, an old anniversary card and inside the front cover of a book. I introduce Sam’s cousins as mine, not only because it is easier than explaining the relationship, but after all we’ve been through together, I’ve simply commandeered them as my own. “Cousin,” for the record, is a word that I love. There’s no confusion about cousins. Everybody knows that a “cousin” might be a blood relative or might be that person (regardless of relation) who shows up at all the critical moments with a glass of champagne or a hug or both. The one who knows exactly what to say or when to sit silently. The one you count on. Now I even call Sam’s mother and father mine, because they have been parenting me for twenty-seven years. Some days this annoys me; some days it makes me laugh; some days their constant love humbles me to the point of tears.

I think about Sam every day – in phrases I hear that he would have said or that he would have found amusing, in restaurants he enjoyed, in experiences we shared, when I happen into a classmate of ours at lunch on Lake Avenue, in moments I wish he could see for himself, especially when I look into the eyes of his sons, or watch them graduate, or laugh at the hilarious things they say, or hold them tight when they crash and when life has disappointed them again. His children are suicide survivors, too.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But then it was.

Somehow this man I had known and loved for seventeen years lost his way. Somehow he left me, his children, his mind and a note behind on that clear, fall Saturday afternoon, in an effort to end whatever emotional and physical pain he had been enduring. It was impossible to believe, but somehow it was true. The psychologists call this step in the process “radical acceptance,” meaning that you don’t have to condone the event, but you do have to accept it, which sounds abundantly reasonable and straightforward in theory. In practice, my first thoughts every morning for months were, This is not my life. This cannot be my life. This was not supposed to be my life.

I did not want Sam’s suicide to define our lives, but like the lightening bolt scar on Harry Potter’s forehead, Sam’s suicide has marked us in significant, permanent ways. Suicide is a complicated death; the ensuing recovery is likewise marked with an array of feelings, stigma and setbacks. In the balance somewhere between the crushing punches of abandonment, betrayal and death and the light-filled promises of presence, love and joy, we press our way forward. We aren’t done yet. We carry Sam’s legacy with us – his laughter, his intelligence, his warmth, as well as his fears, his flaws, his death. We carry him in his wholeness, as a husband, son and father, as a competent professional and as a man who struggled with crippling back pain and depression. We continue to heal. We persevere, we laugh, we thrive. We are a family who lives with joy and disappointment, and laughter and tears; we remember, we pray, we hope.

If “suicide survivor” means that Sam’s suicide didn’t kill me, then I guess the term is accurate, but I bristle at the limits set within the words themselves. I don’t want to be identified by the ways in which I’ve suffered (or the ways he did). It is true that his suicide was unimaginably hard to recover from, but “suicide survivor” puts too much emphasis on my widowhood and not enough opportunity for my post-widow-life. I do not want to be merely a survivor, I want to thrive. I want to be a warrior princess, an emissary for hope. I want to be named after an ancient goddess. I want a superpower and a cute outfit, but “Wonder Widow” gives an altogether wrong impression. I do not mean to understate the gravity of Sam’s death. I do not want to imply that his death was somehow a gift. His life was the gift. Life and death are intertwined, of course, but suicide is unbearably confusing. If Sam had somehow accidentally fallen off the parking structure, or perhaps suffered a fatal heart attack from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect while he was picking up trash at the park after the kid’s soccer game, or died in a fatal car accident en route downtown to volunteer to feed the homeless, we might have experienced less shame, but the loss would still have been unfathomably painful. Somehow he thought we could live without him, and I resented his confidence. Somehow, we did, and I drew strength from his faith in us. That he could leave us both infuriated and comforted was one of the conundrums we have learned to live with.

“Suicide survivor” does not begin to speak to the full range of my experience. Then again, neither does the more familiar word “widow.”

When Pandora came to earth as a mortal, she was given a jar, but she was not told its contents. When she opened the lid, as any self-respecting, curious, intelligent woman would do, a tumult of evils – death, pain, selfishness, neglect, illiteracy, perimenopause, exclusivity, narcissism, cancer, gossip, fear, poverty, pride, insanity – quickly flies out to afflict mankind, each wielding its own unique brand of ugly, but a single blessing remains in the jar: hope. Her name is Elpis.

Too bad “Princess Elpis” sounds like a total drip.

Hope seems so small a power against everything evil, her small, pale, yellow self sitting humbly at the bottom of the jar, too slow to fly off with all the nasties on their worldwide adventures, her gossamer wings still folded neatly at her sides. She speaks softly but confidently, I’m here. I’m with you. I will not leave your side.

She seems a singularly unremarkable force against so formidable a foe.

When Sam completed his death, he unleashed all manner of horribles. Doubt, shame, shock, blame, fear, abandonment, suffering, sorrow, listlessness, confusion, loss, guilt, rage, regret, isolation, swirled around me and my sons and our extended family and friends with a fervor that left us breathless. Hope seemed fanciful and ineffectual in the face of so much pain, a total myth. And yet… she was relentless with her loving presence.

Despite the overwhelming darkness, light did shine.

Friends showed up on my doorstep with tears in their eyes and gallons of ice cream in their hands. Telephone calls, note cards, emails all arrived with messages of love, love for me, love for my children, love for Sam. Even on my darkest days, I had something to be grateful for. I had two reasons to get up and going every morning. I survived. I was determined that my sons would go on to have lives filled with love and joy and faith, but this would require that I likewise continue to build a life with more love and more joy and more faith. I moved from breath to breath. Within the terrifying silence, I began to hear a soft heartbeat and a voice I recognized: I am here. I am strong. This is my life.

If you had told me ten years ago that Sam would end his life on a clear blue October afternoon, leaving me and our two young sons, I would have told you that you should really stop smoking whatever you were smoking. If you had continued predicting my future, insisting that I would later fall in love with a handsome widower and open my heart to his two teenage sons, that we would get married, blend together a family with our four sons, two cats and a dog, and add an “ours” puppy to the mix, I would have told you that you should really share whatever you were smoking.

That was never going to happen. But then it did.

Finding my way after Sam’s suicide was not something I ever anticipated having to do. It was harder than I could have imagined, but my life is also more blessed and meaningful than I could have dared to dream. I am not merely surviving; I am living a full and beautiful life.

There is, I should note, one aspect of the term “suicide survivor” that appeals to me. There is a whole community of beloved souls who call themselves suicide survivors: parents, children, spouses, siblings, friends and partners who have lost a loved one in this terrible way and who continue to find light in their lives. The loss might have introduced us to each other, but it is the love that unites us, a shared faith that death cannot extinguish the light of those we love, a mutual hope another’s suicide will not overshadow our own lives. This community embodies the untold possibilities for those who continue to live whole-heartedly.

I haven’t yet come up with a better term than “suicide survivor”, but when I do, you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime, I will say this: I am a suicide survivor.

***

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

Love’s Impulse

Sometimes I think my dog’s approach to stress-inducing situations – loose Samoyeds, renegade lizards sunning themselves on the front porch, live broadcasts – is the only reasonable response to the crazy in this world. He stands there, shaking and drooling, refusing either to engage or to ignore.

In recent weeks, I have felt increasingly like Steve Martin in the opening sequence of the movie Roxanne. He’s jauntily walking down the street, eager to begin his morning. He reaches into his pocket to pull out a quarter to put into the newspaper vending machine. He pulls out one copy of the paper and continues his cheerful gait for about six steps. As the morning edition’s headline starts to sink in, he slows. He stops. Panicking, he flails his way back to the vending machine, playing a version of hot potato with the Times, reaches into his pocket for another quarter, stuffs the newspaper back into the vending machine and quickly closes the lid. Deep breath. Then he resumes his cheerful journey down the sidewalk. This scene resonates with me now more than ever. I cannot tolerate the front page of the paper. Or much of what’s on the inside. Not that I often get past Page One. Every day it seems to takes less time for me to rush the paper to the recycling bin.

I want to be informed. I really do. I want to be open-minded. I really do. I cannot stand the level of hateful, inflammatory, vindictive conduct and the divisive commentary. I just can’t. I wonder if I’m better off not knowing.

But then the truly horrifying events happen, discrimination in its ugliest forms, rapidly increasing climate change, political abuses of power that leave families stranded and hungry, an explosion aimed at children. It’s too much. The images leave us paralyzed. Fear’s intent is to immobilize us. What could we possibly do in the face of so much evil? The drooling and shaking begin.

The sorrowful night is solitary and cold.

Chaos swirls, and the overwhelming dark of evil and confusion takes over. It’s almost impossible to breathe. I wait. I sit. I cry and tremble. In the midst of paralyzing fear and frustration, there comes – briefly – a moment of stillness. Stillness, which is an altogether different experience than paralysis.

Sitting in the dark, the light slowly, confidently, begins to show its presence. I feel Love’s impulse. A moment of inspiration. A smile. A full breath. Fear loosens its grasp on my attention, and I notice that good is happening. People are moving together with one beating heart. I hear Love’s message to Her people: You are enough. Peace begins small, quiet and soft in safe, secluded places and grows in strength. Fear no longer stops me in my tracks, even if it forces a cosmic pause, and I continue forward with joy and purpose. Hope lights up a single cloud in the blue early morning sky, and it is enough to propel me into the morning.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. You are enough.

Post Office Tales

An Encounter

As do many couples with young children, Sam and I had a standing Saturday evening “date night.” This weekly respite saved our sanity more than once, especially after we found the wonderful Madeleine. She was pretty and kind and gentle, and the boys adored her. She was organized and careful, and the kitchen was spotless when we got home. We adored her, too. Maddy was a junior in high school when she first started watching the boys, but she was incredibly mature and preeminently reliable. From the first night she tucked them into their pajamas and read stacks of board books to them until the very sad day she left us to go away to college, she only canceled on three Saturday nights: her debutante ball, her senior prom and the day her mother died.

We didn’t even know her mother was sick. A cousin called us Saturday afternoon to let us know that she was terribly sorry but Maddy would not be able to watch the boys that evening. We were stunned, heavy-hearted and embarrassed. How could we not have known? And how did she have the wherewithal to make sure her cousin called? It turns out her mother had been ill with cancer for some time, and that we – precisely because of our ignorance – provided a sanctuary for her during what was a difficult and emotional time. She was a blessing to us, but we were a blessing to her, too.

Sometime after she had gone away to school and after Sam’s death, I happened to run into the wonderful Maddy at the Post Office. I asked how school was going, and she told me she had decided to transfer back to a local college. She asked how the family was doing, and I told her that Sam had died. We made sure we had each other’s current phone numbers, and soon afterward, Maddy was watching the boys again, sometimes while I was working, often when I was going to book group, and occasionally for a Saturday evening date night with a certain handsome widower.

I can’t remember if I cried in the Post Office the day we reconnected, although it’s entirely likely, but I distinctly remember thinking that this chance meeting was not a coincidence. Maddy’s presence in our lives – before and after Sam’s suicide – feels like a gift. Not only had she known the boys from the time when the so-called baby was, in fact, a baby, but she knew their father. And she knew from experience that Sam was a good and kind man, a perspective that his sons so appreciated hearing. She also knew what it was like to lose a parent at a young age, and there is much comfort to be had in the companionship of a heart that understands.

To this day, we hardly ever refer to her as simply Maddy, she is “the wonderful Maddy.” She has earned her degree and completed a credential program, she is married and has moved, but we stay in touch. We will forever hold a special place in our hearts for the wonderful Maddy, and I will always be grateful that I saw her in the Post Office that day.

 

A Conversation

A few weeks ago, toward the middle of December, I found myself standing in line at the local Post Office with a package in my hands, surrounded by folks with packages and boxes of holiday cards to mail, and needless to say, I was not alone. The young woman in front of me was initially discouraged by the length of the line, but, she confided, she was actually enjoying the time to herself. Her toddler son was home with her husband, and she would rather bide her time in line than go back home to order stamps online. She reached into her purse for a picture of the young Nicholas and realized she had left her phone in the car. She dashed out to retrieve her phone, but she didn’t need to rush. We hadn’t budged by the time she returned to her place. We were there for the duration.

Nicholas is adorable, of course, and his mother shares a story of his latest adventure and mischief. She frets about his sleeping, confessing that her mother-in-law doesn’t approve of their parenting approach. It’s amazing what people will share with complete strangers, bonded as we are by the mutual experience of waiting in line for stamps. She is exhausted, but happy. I smile and encourage her, remembering those sleepless nights with a fondness that wasn’t quite so vibrant at the time, thinking about how teenagers keep us parents awake at night for entirely different reasons. I don’t say this out loud. I marvel that parents ever sleep soundly again after that first baby arrives.

She asks whether I have children, and I am, of course, pleased to reciprocate by relating tales of my own brood of four sons. She asks their ages and what the college graduate does now, and then she admits that she’s thinking about when to have another baby and asks what the spacing of my children was like when all four of them were little. It seems a benign question, but this business of striking up a conversation with a stranger can be treacherous. I rarely lead with the conversation-stopping, “I was widowed when I was 39 and my sons were 6 and 8 at the time,” but questions like hers are almost impossible to answer without divulging this little bit of history. I didn’t give birth to all four sons, as she has assumed, although I wished for an epidural more than once as my then-teenaged boys and I navigated the early days of our relationship. I honestly don’t know what it would have been like to have all four as babies, because we didn’t come together as a family in that way.

Her face falls as she takes in this idea of a young parent’s death, a widow, and children left without a father. She recovers quickly, because she already knows that my story doesn’t end there, but she seems unsettled, as though she just remembered she urgently needs to get back to Nicholas.

 

A Connection

Today I am in the Post Office mailing a care package to my college boy, and I notice a toddler discovering her power. While her father is standing to the side, filling out the forms for Certified Mail with Return Receipt Requested, she is systematically catching the eye of every person who walks through the door and then smiling. To a person, they respond in kind. She is delighted. When she catches my eye, I do the same.

I hope she will continue to use this superpower of hers, this ability to connect and bring joy, that she will remember that she can turn a stranger into a friendly face with her own warm smile, and that she will be awed by the fact that our relationships are linked together in ways that we cannot imagine.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And on your trip to the Post Office.

Intention

Morning’s sun rises, undeterred and formidable.
A warm smile
A gentle hug
A kindness
A moment of calm
A creative thought
A grateful heart
A compassionate shoulder
In song
In word
In a steaming mug or a chilled glass
In a full breath,
The first miraculous, squalling breath of a newborn.

The essential mandate:
Let there be light,
And there was.

Find it.
Hold on.

The pinpoint seems a small comfort,
Powerless
Insignificant
In the face of extraordinary darkness,
But that little light means everything.

A Future With Hope

If you had told me ten years ago that my life today would be full of joy and love, I would have happily, but not surprisingly, believed you. If you had told me then that I would now have four sons, a so-called hunting dog that I run with several days a week, and that I would have given up my designer kitchen (which I could really use as a mother to four sons), I would have thought you were touched in the head. If you had told me that Sam would die by suicide when our little boys were still little, that I would later fall head over heels for a handsome, kind and slightly irreverent widower, and that I would be happy to have three mothers-in-law, I would have advised you to put down the glass in your hand. I might have suggested that the blood of Christ, or whatever other concoction you were drinking, had gone straight to your head, and you should consider a conversion. And become a vegan. I would have backed slowly away from you. As soon as I was safely out of your earshot, I would have called my nearest and dearest friend to mock your hare-brained idea of God’s plan. She would have said, “I can see it – the picture of you and your new husband and kids will be on the mantle, right next to your Olympic Gold Medal.” “Oh sure,” I would have said, “And you could vacation with me at my new home in the Swiss Alps that I purchased with the proceeds from my Genius Grant.” “Obviously,” she’d reply, “because you will need a quiet place to write your memoir.” “You know what I’m looking forward to most in all of this?” I would have told her, “My interview with Ellen.”

We really would have had a lot of fun at your expense.

But then in my real life, Sam did die. By his own hand. Our boys were so little. And a Genius Grant seemed slightly more likely than my ability to get through a single day without crying the mascara right off my face and onto my sleeve. Which is about the time that a faith-filled, hope-full, fear-less friend gave me a stone bearing this verse: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, to give you a future with hope. ~ Jeremiah 29:11.”

A future with hope?

It was absurd. It was infuriating. It was offensive. I wanted to throw that rock through a window. I had a pretty clear idea of what my future would look like, and Sam’s suicide was decidedly not part of what I envisioned. I stuffed the rock in the back of the drawer.

The thing is, though, that verse does not read, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, to give you the future you hoped for,” which is, I confess, often where my prayers start. When things are going well, or as predicted and desired, then a bright future is not hopeful, it’s logical. Hope is really only meaningful when things look bleak. When it’s dark and cold and impossibly sad. Hope sounds ridiculous in the midst of gripping despair and overwhelming fear.

Hope showed up in the darkness, even if I didn’t recognize her at the time. It is not so much that I found hope as it is that hope reached out for me in all her many ways. She is tenacious like that.

Hope whispers, “I’m here.” She sends a note via email in the dark hours while the rest of the world sleeps, and she offers to share her milk and cookies because she cannot sleep either.

Hope shows up unannounced, happens to be in the right place at the right time. She walks toward me along the sidewalk, as if we had planned to meet at Talbots Kids to help my sons choose ties for their father’s funeral, while I silently weep grateful tears in the corner of the store.

Hope is contrarian. She utters the word “forgiveness” while everyone around is threatening hatred and retribution, and I hear echoes of her voice in quiet moments alone.

Hope is not afraid of my ridicule. She hands me a book, even though I don’t have the focus or the time or the inclination to read. She waits patiently.

Hope is not smug. She never says, “I told you so.” She often says, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Hope is confident. She waters the dry ground long before the tiny shoots of a new life sprout up through the dirt, turning their tender leaves toward the sun.

Hope is inflammatory. She hands me a rock with her message, and she is not afraid of my despair and rage. Hope inundates me with her relentless love.

Perhaps hope’s greatest gift rests in her message that the story isn’t over. Life is yet unfolding love, joy, compassion, gratitude, strength, connection, not exactly in the form that I expected, but wholly present nonetheless.

I keep the stone in my makeup drawer, right next to my lipstick. I gave up on wearing mascara after Sam died, but I never gave up lipstick. So I see the reminder daily: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, to give you a future with hope.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a future with hope.

Frog Days

Somewhere there is a picture of my boy’s small, soft hands holding the tiny frog he caught at the edge of a pond. “Take a picture, Mommy,” the enraptured boy said, “so we can show Daddy.” I dutifully snapped the photo on my phone, since I didn’t have my camera with us. The boys and I had gone on an afternoon hike in the local mountains with the dog. Daddy had stayed home to take a nap. At least, that’s what he said he would do.

We navigated the path to a small waterfall, home to a number of very little frogs and a convenient destination for our afternoon journey. The boys and the dog had short legs and a limited endurance for hiking back then. I wish I could find the photograph, but I didn’t print it out. I’m not sure that I ever even transferred it to a computer or a flash drive. That day was so long ago, the picture might now only exist in my memory.

Daddy never did see the frog. By the time we returned from the hike, his car was missing, and a police car sat parked in front of our home instead, lights flashing silently, waiting for our arrival in order to deliver the news of his suicide. During the time we were hiking, Daddy had been rushed to the local trauma center and pronounced dead. When I picture my boy’s young, tender hands reaching toward me, gently holding the brown spotted frog, I imagine also an ambulance driver’s hands on the wheel, rushing to the emergency room with my husband on board, the nurses’ urgent hands moving efficiently through their life-saving efforts, and later, the doctor’s hands with nothing left for her to do but sign the paperwork, then the technician’s strong hands carefully transferring the broken body to the hospital morgue. None of this appears in the frog photograph, of course, but the two scenes are inextricably mixed in my mind so that I cannot think about one without the other.

I used to be more organized about taking photographs and putting together scrapbooks, but after Sam’s death it just seemed a futile attempt to hold on to a life that would ultimately slip through my hands. For a while it took a concentrated effort even to take a picture. Gradually, I began to snap a few. At first, I relied mostly on the official school photographers and the generosity of other parents who forwarded pictures of my children. Over the years, I have gotten better at capturing these moments on camera myself, but I have also developed more capacity to appreciate the precious moment in time, without the need to document each and every event. I know my memory will fade and forget; even so, I just let the present overtake me.

My son once drew a picture of the day his father died. On one side of the landscape page was a gorgeous fall day, blue sky, green grass, bright sun, cheerful flowers and a frog. He drew a line down the center of the page and scribbled black over the other half the page. What strikes me about that drawing is that the one side does not negate the other; he did not scribble black over top of the landscape. Both the beauty and the darkness exist side by side.

I can’t find that picture either, no doubt a casualty of both the chaotic state of my garage and the whirlwind pace of a life full of kids and cat and dog. I do hope I find it. But for now, I keep it in a special place in my heart, a reminder that our bleakest days do not eliminate the light in our lives. We hold the full range, including unimaginably dark and painful days alongside gorgeous fall afternoons, full of song and puppies and other miracles. Breathtaking moments like a brown, spotted frog in the chubby hands of a little boy. Moments that carry us through the dark days, with the promise and warmth of sunshine.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. And the promise of sunshine.

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.

 

Euphemism

Only rarely does the actual “s” word appear in an obituary. You might see “suddenly,” or “unexpectedly” or “tragically,” all potentially code. You might even read “accidentally” or “after a brief illness” or simply “at home,” which could be accurate, albeit misleading. Death is harsh enough without the added stigma associated with having been self-inflicted. It’s not surprising, then, that many obituaries avoid the term altogether. “Suicide” is an ugly, loaded word, and the obituary bears a peculiar gravity, as if it is, indeed, the last word on a person’s life.

Suicide sticks to its victim in a way that seems to threaten the rest of his existence. There are, of course, other manners of death that invite judgment – lung cancer, cirrhosis, overdose, AIDS, maybe even heart attack, depending. As if life isn’t harsh enough.

The first line of Sam’s obituary read simply that he died suddenly on an October day near Los Angeles, California. That one sentence was followed by six paragraphs worth of biography, achievements and relationships, but the “suddenly” sits over his whole life in print, like a storm cloud, looming over his accomplishments and redeeming qualities.

If I had the chance for a rewrite, would I use the word “suicide” in Sam’s obituary?

It is, of course, an impossible question to answer, but I’d like to think that I would. I have come to believe that speaking of mental illness, depression and suicide will reduce its stigma and bring light and healing to many who suffer.

Privately, we said the “s” word candidly and frequently. One of the best pieces of advice I received immediately following Sam’s suicide was to be honest with the children about how their father died, even though the boys were only six and eight at the time. The policeman advised me that children who knew the facts generally fared better in the healing process. He encouraged me, “You do not want them to find out the truth from somebody else,” and he was right about that. In the nine years since, they have trusted me to provide honest answers to their most difficult questions.

But publicly? I wanted to protect Sam and his reputation, as well as me and mine. I wondered if his suicide would reflect poorly on the quality of his relationships. Did his wife fail him in some way? Were his friends emotionally distant? What kind of parents have a suicidal kid? How could Sam have done this to his children? I didn’t want anyone to think less of Sam, but then why should I care? Who are “they”? And why did I believe that they would think less of him? Is it possible that they could think more of him instead?

The first time I spoke publicly was about a year and a half after Sam’s death. In many ways, I think Sam would have been appalled. After all, he did not speak a word of his struggles out loud – not to a therapist, not to his friends, not to me. There is so much shame. I was just angry enough, in the wake of his death, to expose that vulnerability. On the other hand, I know Sam’s heart. He would have wanted to help somebody else, to inspire and encourage. In fact, I am aware of at least two of Sam’s friends who struggle with mental illness, and he counseled them with compassion and strength. That’s why I share his truth. He would have wanted his life to be a blessing, and in fact, it is, not only to his immediate family but to people he never even knew.

Frederick Buechner, a theologian whose own father committed suicide when he and his brother were young boys, offers a thought-provoking interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25: 14—30). In the parable, a man is preparing to go on a trip, and before he leaves, he gives a certain number of “talents” (currency with significant value) to three of his servants. To one servant, he gives ten talents, to the next he gives five, and the last servant receives just one talent. The first two worked and invested and doubled their talents, but the third one was so afraid of losing his one talent that he hid it away safely until the man’s later return. The man praises the first two for their industry, and he criticizes the last servant for his caution, even taking that one talent from him. One suggested meaning of parable is that we will be rewarded if we are diligent with whatever “talents” (monetary or otherwise) we have been given. Buechner suggests that we think of the “talents” not as gifts, but as vulnerabilities and weaknesses. By hiding our vulnerability, we create isolation, which is in itself a type of death. When we are open with our weaknesses, we increase connection. In our vulnerability, we find our humanity and create community. We are not alone.

I was terrified that I would be ostracized after Sam’s death. After all, he had abandoned me in a public, humiliating way. Instead, I was surrounded and supported by family and friends. So many rallied to my side that I was overwhelmed by their kindnesses and casseroles.

Acknowledging the dark, scary, painful parts of life allows greater freedom, joy and love. It is a fuller, more expansive life, when it is lived with a whole-hearted acceptance of the range that life brings. It is, in fact, essential to our humanity. To live this life with as much compassion, humility, confidence and grace as possible is a gift to our families, our communities, ourselves. In sharing Sam’s vulnerability, as well as my own, my community increased and the stigma and shame began to dissipate.

Sam’s death was not the end of my story. I have found my way toward wholeness, joy and passion. My family has experienced healing, love and integrity. Perhaps each time I speak honestly on issues of mental illness and suicide, I am rewriting Sam’s obituary, creating for him a legacy of acceptance, education and hope. Because the fact of the matter is that end of his life is not the end of his story either.

Sam committed suicide on a Saturday afternoon in October, 2007, near Los Angeles, California. It was a gorgeous fall day, full of promise, the respect of colleagues, the gratitude of clients, the presence of friends, and the love of his family, his parents, his sister, many aunts, uncles and cousins, his wife and his two little boys. Sam could not feel their love, so clouded was his thinking by clinical depression and chronic back pain. He jumped to his death from the top of a parking structure.

In lieu of flowers, please be kind to one another. Share your struggles and fears and joys, be present and patient in each other’s journeys. And when love seems to fail – because sometimes love is not enough to ward off cancer or heart failure or mental illness – then love more, pray more, talk more, learn more, live more.

Services will be ongoing, in moments of grace, hope, laughter, vulnerability, strength, compassion, acceptance, gratitude, community, forgiveness, joy, healing and inspiration. Notwithstanding his death, let love remain.

Teaching a Teenaged Boy to Drive

Step 1: Don’t. If you can pawn this harrowing task off on another responsible adult, say, your spouse, or your truck-driver father with the 35-year good-driving record, do that. My husband taught our oldest son to drive, and then vowed never to teach another one. This approach has worked out brilliantly for him, but not so well for me, in light of the fact that we have four sons. I have, however, survived the death-defying experience of teaching two young men to drive, while currently an exuberant 15-year old impatiently waits his turn, so if you cannot delegate this particular parenting task, there is still hope.

Step 2: Implement a family GPA standard for driving. Make it at least as high as your insurance company’s good student discount, but preferably higher. No D’s. And yes, the GPA only counts if those good grades appear on the boy’s official transcript. If you are lucky, your son’s grades will be high enough for him to remain eligible to play sports but too low to drive. If he is lucky (and does his homework), he will put the student in student-athlete, and you will then be obligated to sign him up for Driver’s Ed, as you promised you would.

Step 3: Insist the soon-to-be driver navigate the DMV himself. This process alone might deter him from wanting to drive. But if he is old enough to drive (and has the requisite grades), then he should be mature enough to figure out the written-test/permit/behind-the-wheel/license gauntlet. Keep in mind that your primary goal is safety, and there is precious little evidence to suggest that an additional teenager on the road will improve traffic conditions. If he cannot decipher the process, drop him off at the local library so he can improve his research skills.

Step 4: Call your insurance agent. In California, your automobile insurance policy will likely cover your son while he is driving with you on his permit, and you will not need to add him to your policy officially until he earns his license. If you are really brave, you can ask your agent to give you a quote on how much higher your insurance premiums will increase after your son passes his driver’s test. I recommend that you be seated when you make this phone call, and yes, that number includes the good student discount.

Step 5: Call your lawyer. Once your son is in the driver’s seat and you are clutching the passenger door and pressing your feet into the dashboard in a futile attempt to slow the vehicle, it is too late to change your named Executor. Call your life insurance agent while you’re at it. And maybe your family priest.

Step 6: Hire a professional. Before you can legally teach your son to drive, you must pay a certified driving instructor. You will again realize that teachers are woefully underpaid and unappreciated, but more importantly, you can postpone your role in the process for another day. Or week.

Step 7: Put beer in the fridge. You cannot start drinking before you take your son driving and certainly cannot bring any road sodas on your trek together, but you will have something to look forward to upon your return to calm your rattled nerves. Trust me.

Step 8: Take a deep breath, and then exhale slowly. Continue this technique while you hand your son the keys to your car. Let him open the door for you like the gentleman you are grooming him to be. Focus all your intention on your breathing. This will keep you from gasping and shrieking, neither of which helped you, if you can recall that miserable day when your own mother was teaching you to drive.

Step 9: Speak only when absolutely necessary. If, as your son takes the wheel and eases into traffic, every thought flies out of your usually overflowing head, here is a go-to list of driver-approved commentary: “Turn right here.” “That’s good.” “Nice stop.” “Much better.” “Slow down a bit.” “You’re doing fine.” “Good job.” “A little faster.” “Careful.” “There’s a spot way over there, off in the corner, away from all these cars.” Now is not the appropriate time to discuss the disastrous state of his laundry, his latest algebra exam or his girlfriend’s piercing.

Step 10: Smile. You will both laugh about this later, much later, probably after he has earned his undergraduate degree, is paying for his own auto insurance and can enjoy a beer with you. But for now, admire the young man behind the wheel, be grateful for how far he has already come, and whisper a prayer for his safety on the road ahead. It is a privilege to sit in the passenger seat while he drives. Soon you will be waving from the curb, as he shifts the gear into drive and journeys forward on his own.

Family Funeral

We arrive more or less in black,
Hats on sunny days,
Umbrellas in the rain.
This part is always the same: We smile and cry and embrace,
Reunited,
Genuinely happy to see each other.

We knew today would come,
She was nearly 90.
Sad,
But not tragic.
We miss her already,
Especially her laughter.
She was thoughtful,
Diligent,
Educated,
Opinionated,
A gift to her many students.
She was a loving wife and mother,
Generous,
Fiercely protective,
Turned a blind eye to her children’s glitches,
Like most moms I know.
Like me.

My son serves as a pallbearer,
A role his father would have fulfilled,
If he had lived so long.

The young man would stand shoulder to shoulder
With his dad,
Maybe even taller now.
The abuelas whisper to each other
loud enough
for all to hear,
“So handsome!”
“Those eyes! He looks like his father.”

The tias smile
With tears sparkling.
They glance at each other knowingly.

The boy doesn’t remember the tias and abuelas,
who have been there for him,
Since before he was born.
They attend bridal showers and weddings,
Baby showers and baptisms and birthdays and bar mitzvahs.
And funerals.
Always funerals.
His own father’s funeral.
He was too little to be a pallbearer then.

The tias and abuelas fretted and fawned.
They hoped and prayed.
They were there.
They always are.

They share joy and laughter and pour champagne,
They bear sorrow and grief
and prepare the condolence meal.
They lift spirits and hold hearts with steady hands.
They show up
donning Chanel and pearls,
or jeans and tennies.
Love takes many shapes.
They remember,
Even if he does not.

On those very dark days,
When Life disappoints
And it is hard to believe,
May he yet have faith in the aunties.
May he feel God’s bewildering love for him,
In the kiss prints of so many tias and abuelas
All over his cheeks.