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 completed his 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.