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.

Inevitable

It will not be avoided, Christmas. It’s coming. It’s practically almost here. We are racing through December and heading quickly to the 25th. I’m inching my way through. I thought maybe I could get through the season without waxing eloquent on the season (which might be the case nonetheless), but then I was felled by a nasty bug. Some might say it was my annual bout with the Bah-Humbug, but it sure looked like a virulent stomach flu.

There comes that moment, when in the midst of the queasiness and misery, the only thing to do is to lie perfectly still, inhaling and exhaling slowly. It is dark and lonely, my feet are cold and my forehead is hot. I don’t even have the stomach for my morning coffee, and the caffeine headache alone might do me in. I adore curling up in bed with a novel, but this is decidedly not that. I cannot focus on a single printed word without inducing fresh waves of nausea. The closed book remains disappointingly just beyond my reach. The hours pass slowly, and I breathe.

Eventually, inevitably, there comes that moment when gratitude rears its impish head. It might look like a phone call from one of my sons, reporting a recent success or asking for guidance. It might be the gift of an audio-book from my dearest friend. It might be the silly dog’s ridiculously hopeful wag. Gratitude sneaks in with a smile and just half a mug of steaming hot chicken broth. I take it all in. I look out the window, and I am smitten by the beauty of twilight, the black outlines of the palms and the pines against the last bit of bright blue background before the sky goes dark. It gets me every time.

If Advent is about waiting, then maybe that’s what I’m doing. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. I think about Mary and her journey toward Bethlehem. At what point during the process – while riding ponderous miles astride a donkey, while settling into the stinky stall with the pigs snuffling and the hay poking into her back, while catching her breath in between contractions – did Mary reflect upon her Yes, turn to Joseph and wail, What the hell was I thinking? Or maybe that’s just me. But I think it’s okay to acknowledge that the Christmas experience is not all goodness and light. Yes, there is much goodness. Yes, there is extraordinary light. But there is also a fair (or unfair) amount of darkness and pain along the way. Ignoring my Christmas angst seems only to exacerbate it. For me, it is easier to embrace the radiance and joy when I acknowledge the yucky parts. And then, when the light and love arrive, it is breathtaking.

I can barely remember the first Christmas after Sam’s suicide. I could not tolerate the idea of having our traditional celebrations without him, so we did something different. Tim can barely remember their first Christmas just two weeks after Debbie’s death, but he thinks he tried to keep things consistent for the boys. There is no right or wrong answer to this challenge. There will be tears. There will be laughter. There will be gifts and treats and long, fretful sighs. It’s all part of the package.

I was scheduled to speak at an evening of remembrance hosted by a local bereavement group this week, but the flu bug got the best of me. I was terribly disappointed to miss. I was looking forward to the event, a special evening honoring our human capacity to feel love and loss and hope in all of its complications and mess and loveliness. I had presented at this event previously, but last year I had thought about canceling about a hundred times, because I didn’t know how beautiful and healing the evening would be. I was delighted to be asked back, and I was prepared to be insightful, inspirational and funny. We were going to laugh (because I’m hilarious), and we might cry (because life is hard, and I’m a sensitive girl). Plus, I was going to wear a cute outfit. I love cute outfits.

I was going to talk about finding light in this sometimes dark, heavy world. The kind of light that comes from inside ourselves, the light we remember when we sit quietly and wait for morning’s sunrise. That internal light we realize we still have when the sun continues to rise every day – in that comforting and infuriating way that the sun does. I was going to talk about the light that our friends and family shine on us in all their myriad ways with the warmth of a summer day, bearing casseroles and baked goods and greeting cards. The friends who urge us forward through the miles, sometimes literally, and the friends who rally to our sides when we need to sit. The many – some friends, and some strangers – who shine light in our direction with their prayers, their encouragement, their songs and their stories. And I was going to talk about the light that still shines from our loved ones, even the ones we have lost. Like the stars that shine in the darkest night’s sky, drawing our attention upward, the light from the lives of our loved ones still shines.

Personally, I was looking forward to remembering both my father and my father-in-law at the gathering. It has been a difficult year for my little family, and we are feeling the loss especially during this holiday season. And yet. And yet, their light still shines in our lives.

These days our December gauntlet looks like this: Debbie’s birthday (she would have been 50 this year), her deathaversary (9 years), her stage-4-cancer-diagnosis day (the moment that changed everything), her favorite holiday (Santa Central). She is much in our thoughts and hearts. Our Christmas celebrations looks like this: Christmas Eve with my side of the family, Christmas morning with my husband and our children, Christmas breakfast with Debbie’s parents, dinner with Tim’s side of the family, and – thank God Sam’s parents are Jewish – one night of Hannukah. We exchange stories and gifts. We might cry. We certainly laugh. We eat.

The Bah-Humbug might have taken me out for a week, but it will not deprive me of the light of this season. I went for a run this morning with the silly dog, and it was such a joy to get out and move. I have the wherewithal to eat cookies again. I love Christmas cookies. Cookies don’t fix anything, but they mean everything. Especially from that dear friend who wants to mend your broken heart with chocolate and pecans, or oatmeal and dried cranberries, or cinnamon and sugar. There is no wrong answer when it comes to cookies.

I even baked Tim’s favorite Christmas cookies, and we hid them from the kids, Scrooge-style. Our newest favorite holiday tradition.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And joy!

Resistance

I think I’ve mentioned before that I totally get where Jonah was coming from. Or going to. Or not going to, to be specific. I connect with his reluctance to tackle a job he doesn’t especially want. Or to work with people he doesn’t particularly like. Or maybe Jonah is loathe to go there because he doesn’t like who he becomes (self-righteous, angry, vindictive) in that hostile, foreign place, and the only way through the situation requires humility, creativity, flexibility and a willingness to change – not just the Ninevites – but himself, which is infinitely less fun. And super stinking hot.

I’m sitting on a hard, cold bench in a wide, noisy hallway downtown, and I’m really, really trying to pray that I will be exactly where God needs me, but I don’t want to be here. It’s my sacred Tuesday, and I want to be curled up in a cozy chair, wearing jeans and a favorite sweater, with a hot cup of tea at my side and a new book (or two) in my lap, the dogs at my feet. I would enjoy a little rain outside, especially if it’s not my day to drive carpool. I would settle for tennis shoes and running gear, even if the morning’s tasks require picking up the puppy prizes, paying bills and answering emails.

Neither of these scenarios, however, appears to be where God wants me today.

I’ve been summoned for jury duty. In the criminal courthouse. On a domestic ugliness charge. There will be testimony from a dentist. It’s not going to be pretty. I’m honestly, truly trying to bloom where I’m planted, and to be attentive, optimistic, and whole-hearted, but I’m already sick to my stomach. The judge then informs us that the defendant will be representing himself, which, of course, he is entitled to do. Apparently his experience having been convicted of two prior felonies has provided him with the confidence to act as his own counsel. My intellect and my instinct are wrestling, each struggling to be the first through the closest exit.

I do believe in due process, but it’s never convenient. I’ve appeared more than a few times and even served on a couple juries, and when the system works, it’s enormously satisfying. It restores my faith in our countrymen. When the system fails, it makes me think we should seriously consider a system of professional jurors, because the defendant’s peers are wholly unqualified to tell the time (evidenced by their consistent tardiness), let alone make a rational judgment on the matter of guilt.

It is not always easy for me to surrender to where I’m supposed to be. Sometimes I don’t want to bring the best version of myself to the table. I want to bring the sloppy, grouchy version so she will be excused early and sent home to read her book, and let everybody else sort out the mess. But I know what a bad day looks like, and it’s not jury duty. Not even on a Tuesday.

Surrendering was an entirely different matter as a newly-widow. I don’t believe in a God who plans every single detail of our lives. I bristle at the words “God’s plan.” After Sam’s suicide, well-meaning, faithful people often uttered their belief in life and God’s plan, but I got stuck on that phrase, God’s plan. God planned this? I have more than a few thoughts on God’s so-called plan. Honestly. I am not in charge, but maybe I should be. I can think of hundreds of better plans than pushing a kind and caring husband and father off the top of a four-story structure. This is His divine commission for Sam? For me?

No, thank you.

I don’t believe in a God who plans tragedy, but I do believe in a God who is present with us in the muddle. I believe in the One who holds us firmly and safely while we wage our internal struggle to come to terms with the gap between what we wish was and what in fact is. I trust the God who loves each one of us for who we are – our flawed, reluctant, beautiful selves. I pray to the God who gently catches the man who, in his pain and illness and despair, commits a terribly tragic act, leaving his wife and two little boys abandoned, confused and devastated. And I have come to know the God who scoops up those little boys and their mother and holds their broken hearts together in the palm of His hand.

Jury service should be comparatively easy.

Two blocks from the criminal courthouse is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. I have been there a couple times, and each time I am arrested by the stunning tapestries displayed along the walls of the sanctuary. Saints, regular old people and young people, line the walls, all of them radiant and focused. Each person an original. A reminder of the saints living among us, and the living saints we are, not because of our perfection, but by virtue of our participation.

When the judge releases us for lunch, I dash up the hill to the cathedral, hoping to catch the daily 12:10 mass and a sense of peace and clarity. The priest is young, with a heavy accent, and it is clear that, while English is his second (or third or fourth, more likely) language, he has invested a lot of time preparing for this service. The Gospel reading covers one of the many times that Jesus disagreed with the lawyers on a point of law. The priest’s homily was about four sentences long, with the simple message that lovingkindness is more important than legalism, which thoroughly amuses me because you can see the courthouse steps from the cathedral steps. But the most profound truth the priest uttered was at the very beginning of the service, when he smiled and opened his arms wide, in a gesture of greeting and inclusion. He said: “Welcome to this holy mess.”

Indeed.

It is a mess. God may not have planned every sordid detail ahead of time, He might not control all the particulars, but He is here with us in the mix, and we need all hands on deck. Like all the individual saints lined up on the tapestries, heading in the same direction, united in purpose, each wearing a unique style of shoe. We need each other’s differences, perspectives and skills. We will not see eye to eye on every issue. Probably not on most issues. But when you look at the eyes of the saints on the tapestries, their eyes are not on each other. All eyes are forward, looking toward Jesus. Looking toward the light.

I can do that.

I take my most authentic self to the place where I am. Today, that’s a criminal courtroom downtown. I bring a smile, an open mind, attentive ears and a book. Because chances are good that my patience will be tried in this holy mess.

***

Wishing you light and strength on today’s path. Welcome to this holy mess.