I Want You to Know

Here’s what I want you to know about my husband’s suicide:

I didn’t see it coming. In retrospect, I can read some of the signs differently, but at the time I did not know he was so close to the edge.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his parents’ fault, or his kids’ fault, or his cousins’, or his sister’s or his friends’ fault. It wasn’t his doctor’s fault, or his boss’s fault or any of his colleagues’ or clients’. It wasn’t entirely Sam’s fault. It just was, and I cannot explain the why of it any more than anyone can explain why some people develop cancer or multiple sclerosis and others don’t.

It wasn’t for lack of love. His death is not a reflection on our capacity to love him. Or his capacity to love us.

Sam was not bi-polar. He was not diagnosed with any mental illness. He was not in any sort of treatment or taking any medications. He had a prescription for Vicodin for his back pain after multiple surgeries, but he refused to take it.

I don’t know what would have happened if he had lived. Whether our marriage would have remained intact, whether he would have been hit by the proverbial bus or an actual one, whether he would have survived another back surgery, whether we would have gone to family camp for another twenty years, whether we would have moved to Colorado or Canada, whether circumstances might have pushed the boundaries of our patience in ways we hadn’t yet been tested, or whether we would have lived happily ever after until death did us part when we were in our 90’s surrounded by our children and grandchildren. Or whether that last scenario might just be a story I read once upon a time.

I will never know exactly what happened and every why detail. The not-knowing is part of the deal. I know this now.

 

Here’s what I want his children to know about their father’s suicide:

You were the greatest gift of your father’s life. You were his joy, his light, his inspiration. This does not mean it was your job to save him. Your role then – as it is now – is to be yourself. Be your funny, spirited, smart, wonderful, glitchy, imperfect self. His death cannot take you away from you.

Your father loved you with all of his heart. His death is not the end his love for you.

He would never have left you willingly. Not in a million years. I know it looks like he chose to leave, but I promise you with every ounce of my being that if he was in his right mind, he would not have left you. No way. The only way I can reconcile the fact that he took his own life with how much he adored you is that he must have been gravely ill. Somehow in the warped operation of his mind, he was convinced that you were better off without him. This makes no logical sense. I hope that, as you navigate the course of your own life, you will be able to come to terms with this paradox.

You are not destined to repeat your father’s path. Be alert. Suicide and depression run in families, but they do not own you. Know yourself. Ask for help when you need it. Trust that you have resources and agency.

You didn’t deserve for your father to die. Life is not about what we deserve. Do your best to let go of life’s injustices and to hold on to moments of grace.

On the night your father died, I sat with each of you tucked under my arms. You were small enough then that the three of us fit in one armchair. I told you something that is as true now as it was then: Your father’s love for you will always be with you. Always. Forever.

 

Here’s what I want Sam to know about his suicide:

Your death caused us more pain than you could possibly have imagined. We forgive you and love you anyway.

To be unnervingly honest, I do have several friends who have no intention of forgiving you. I’ll just say that when they get to heaven, you’d better get ready to run.

You must have been experiencing more pain that we could possibly have imagined. We hope you forgive us and love us still.

The little baseball team you coached was devastated at your death – not because of your academic or professional accomplishments, not because you were the greatest baseball player or coach, not because you were somebody’s daddy, but simply because you were a kind man who cared enough to spend time with them on Tuesdays and Thursdays and every Saturday afternoon. I want you to know that your goodness is what we hold on to.

We are creating lives that would make you proud. We live with joy and passion and faith and integrity. We laugh and sing and run and play. We shout and swear and sweat. We have traveled to places you never got to go, and I’ve let the kids go places you might not have wanted them to visit. For the record, they loved it. We had your favorite comfort food for dinner last night, turkey meatloaf with garlic green beans and spaetzle with parmesan. We raise a glass to you on your birthday, your deathaversary, on holidays and random days. Sometimes it really irritates me that you believed that we could live full lives without you, but more often I am grateful.

I fell in love. I didn’t think I would ever do that again. He is handsome and kind and funny. He loves me, and he loves our sons as his own. Tim was also widowed, and he has two sons whom I love with my whole heart. We have created a family together, and I cannot find the words to explain how beautiful this life is.

I want you to know that we are happy.

***

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

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.

Infatuation

The last night of Sam’s life was one of the strangest of mine. I knew about his chronic back pain, but I didn’t know about the crippling despair. I knew about the job stress, but not the intensity of his shame. The pieces only made sense in retrospect. And by the time I put them together, of course, it was too late.

The night before Sam died, I found our Wills and Trust sitting out on the counter. It didn’t strike me as odd because I was a practicing trusts and estates attorney, and I had been thinking about revising our estate plan. We had had a second child since we originally executed those documents, and I wanted to update our Wills and Trust to include both boys by name (as opposed to “our son Michael and any other children we might have”). So when I noticed the binder of documents on the counter, I said to my husband “Oh good. I’ve been meaning to get those out so I can revise them.” He said not a word. After the fact, I realized that butthead had been reading our Trust to make sure that the boys and I would be covered even if he left our estate plan alone.

Out of the blue, he said, “Jim Wilson was a smart guy.” I can picture exactly where I was standing in the kitchen at the island when I threw up my hands and replied emphatically, “Jim was an idiot! He left a wife and two kids.” Jim was in our law school class, and he was, in fact, a very smart guy. Before attending law school, he had graduated from medical school, so he consistently ruined the curve. We would have hated him, if he had not also been such a nice guy. But somehow he lost his way. Several years after we all graduated, Jim committed suicide by jumping off the parking structure at his office, leaving his wife and two young children. Only later did I realize that what Sam meant was that Jim knew how to get the job done. More women attempt suicide, but more men die from it. Sam had his heart set on it.

That same night, Sam said, “I’m so sorry I failed you.” Again, I heard his words, but I didn’t understand his intention. I responded unequivocally, “Failed me?! What are you talking about? What part of this was failure? We have each other, we have two gorgeous kids, we even have a ridiculously cute little black dog and a white picket fence!” But Sam didn’t hear me either. As I replayed that conversation in the hours and days immediately following his death, I realized he hadn’t heard my answer because he wasn’t trying to apologize. He was trying to say goodbye.

Our conversation seemed so peculiar. We spoke in that shorthand that couples use when they’ve been married a long time, but we weren’t understanding each other. He was preoccupied and distant. I intuited that something was wrong, but I couldn’t wrap my head around what it might be. I began to fear that maybe he was having an affair. It was the worst thing I could think of. I didn’t know he was flirting with his own mortality. Late that evening, I looked him in the eye and asked the question that terrified me, “Are you sure you’re not having an affair?” It didn’t occur to me that he might be suicidal. “Oh Charlotte,” he said, looking at me with tenderness and shaking his head. “No. I would never.”

He wasn’t so much tugging on a lifeline as he was pulling a ripcord.

Sam never came to bed that night. I have often wondered whether if he had slept – even just a few hours – things would have looked brighter in the morning. The sun rose on a new day, but he had already checked out, seduced by the promise of a better place.

In retrospect, it appears obvious. At the time, I missed the signs completely. We couldn’t connect because we were operating from two different levels.

When the boys and I left the house the next morning to go to the little one’s soccer game, Sam stayed home to take a nap. I learned later that he literally raced out of the driveway and down the street, uncharacteristically erratic behavior for a man who was protective of pedestrians and the local children. He was a man consumed by a passion.

I don’t know if I could have stopped him, or if he even would have slowed down long enough to take a nap or take a breath. The attraction was too strong. He had completely disengaged, inspired by the hope that Death would take him.

I believe that the allure of suicide came upon him suddenly and beguiled him with a promise to end his pain, both physical and emotional. I believe that he acted quickly in order to keep me from stopping him.

I returned home later that day, anxious because I hadn’t been able to reach Sam. I arrived to find a police car in front of my house, lights flashing silently. Two uniformed police and a priest waited for me in my driveway. Sam’s silence and his words clicked into place: I’m so sorry I failed you. Jim was a smart guy. Oh Charlotte, No. Suddenly, the pieces fit together in a way that I didn’t want to believe.

I have certainly berated myself plenty for having missed the clues. And I’ve beaten Sam up, too, for dropping hints and then leaving me, for betraying our trust and abandoning our children. I have – over years filled with therapy, long walks, reflection, Pinot Noir and dark chocolate – come to terms with the limits of my own power to save anyone other than myself. Although sometimes I fail her, too.

I will confess that it was a comfort to know that Sam was enchanted by a mistress whose name was Death, instead of, say, Dahlia. I do not know that I would have handled that well. After all, Death will have the last dance with each of us in this life. I hope She has been kind to Sam.

***

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

iPhone Irony

My ______________ (fill-in-the blank, husband/child/friend) seems depressed. What should I do?

This question terrifies me. Obviously, I wasn’t able to save Sam. It baffles me how many times in the last eight years people have asked me for advice on this issue, because every time there’s a part of me that thinks, Why would you ask me? Don’t you realize I failed? Ask a professional!

By putting the question out there, however, they are already a step ahead of where I was in the process. I didn’t know the depths in which Sam was struggling. I saw the clues in retrospect, of course. Loss of appetite, insomnia, job stress. All pointing toward depression. But a cursory internet search will also yield that the opposite signs of increased appetite, exhaustion and inability to focus may signify depression. Or pregnancy. If you had asked me before his death whether Sam would have been more likely to commit suicide or to become pregnant, I would have chosen the pregnant option. I wouldn’t have even hesitated.

There’s a lot of misinformation, stigma and confusion surrounding the suicide scenario. It’s not as straightforward as an “easy” way out. It’s not necessarily manipulative or vindictive. How much is attributable to mental illness and how much is a matter of individual responsibility remains a valid question. It is unspeakably ugly.

If Sam had had a diagnosed anything – cancer, heart disease, mental illness – we would have rallied to his side. We would have wanted to do something to empower him in the face of suffering. Instead, he struggled alone. Picking up the phone must not be easy when you’ve convinced yourself that the ones you love most in the world are better off without you.

Sam was not what you might call a computer wizard. He was rarely interested in keeping on the cutting edge of technology. He relied on his computer-savvy cousin for technical expertise, who during law school was, conveniently, also his roommate. Convenient for Sam, that is, when he ran into a technological glitch while preparing for a moot court competition at 3:00am, but not exactly endearing for his cousin.

But in the summer of 2007 Sam was enchanted by the new iPhone. The very first release. It’s already hard to imagine our world before smart phones, not quite 9 years since the iPhone initially came out. In fact, when Sam purchased that first iPhone, he didn’t use it as a phone; the iPhone was a cheaper, more powerful alternative to a small laptop. He kept his cell phone for making actual calls, and he used the iPhone to access the internet, research stock information and send emails.

After Sam’s death, I had three cell phones (mine, his and the iPhone), which in 2016 doesn’t seem like overkill, but was at the time. Eight-year olds didn’t have their own cell phones and tablets in 2007. We still primarily used our home phone. It seems logical now, but at the time I had to decide which cell phone to keep, and the iPhone was extravagant and expensive. In the process of consolidating the phones, I noticed that Sam did not have a single contact saved on his iPhone. He had a grand total of ten contacts saved in his cell phone: “1Charlotte”, his mother, his assistant, a friend and two cousins. Also, the Apple Store, Baja Fresh, California Pizza Kitchen and Supercuts. Of those contacts, only six were people, four family members, one friend.

His whole world seemed condensed and small in that moment. He must have felt so alone. It made me sad that so few of us comprised his entire universe.

It’s a lot of pressure to be the one he should have called but didn’t. Should he have asked for help? Definitely. Should I have paid closer attention? Probably. It has been easier to forgive him. It has been harder to forgive myself.

Did he truly not realize how many people cared? I could have readily named 30 more. The exotic, stoic girl at the dry-cleaner with the thick black eyeliner burst into tears talking about Sam, years after his death. A little kindness touches people more significantly than we realize. I do not know how he could have marginalized himself. I do not understand how he became so disconnected from his faith – in himself, in life, in others. I can only caution my children (and everybody else) to ask for help before they reach that point, if – God forbid – they ever find themselves drawn toward that dark, dark place.

Any one of us on his contact list would have helped. Even the person answering the phone at the Apple Store (live people answered the phone back then) could have looked up the telephone number for a suicide hotline (still answered live).

One of his favorite clients routinely called Sam himself – not exclusively for financial advice – but for reassurance. She struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, and he often counseled and encouraged her.

But when he was the one suffering, he didn’t reach out. He didn’t call. He didn’t ask.

He entered that dark tunnel where he somehow genuinely believed that we would be better off without him. He took his own life and left us with a paradox: Either we would founder and fall apart and fail, because we couldn’t survive without him, thus proving him wrong; or, we would find a way to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and build new dreams, demonstrating that we did not need him and therefore proving him right. It is crazy-making logic at its worst.

We choose to believe that we honor Sam’s life best by living our own with integrity, love, joy and hope. We live with the paradox.

So, if you want to know how to pick up the pieces after the unthinkable has happened, I do know a thing or two about that. It starts with a single day, a time devoted to healing and radical self-care. A sacred space designated for intentional breathing, contemplation and snacks. It starts with Tuesday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And Tuesday’s peace.

Funeral Attendance

I grew up in a family that wasn’t big on attending funerals. It’s not that they don’t care. On the contrary, they care deeply, but they are very clear on their understanding of life’s eternal nature. So much so that they really, truly view “death” as a blip on the radar that we might not get at this moment, but will someday completely understand. Which sort of renders a funeral service incongruous.

I am reasonably clear on the eternal life bit, but my heart lives here, along with the other broken hearts remaining after the death of a loved one. Broken-but-still-beating hearts that often benefit from the ritual and ceremony and community of attending a service. Funerals can be heart-wrenching or heart-lifting. A good funeral is both. And I am now firmly in the never-misses-a-funeral-if-she-can-help-it camp.

The first funeral I remember attending was when I was in my early 20’s, for one of my college classmates, Russell. We always thought he was much older than we were, because he regaled us with these amazing tales that would have been impossible for someone our age. Some of these feats would have been impossible for a person of any age. We might have been known to mock him for this particular behavior, but he was also preeminently reliable, the sort of friend who was good to have in your corner. Maybe he was an old soul, or maybe he really was older, or maybe that’s just what he wanted us to think. Maybe he somehow sensed that his heart would give out long before his years, so he imagined a life beyond its natural borders. In any event, I happened to be traveling to Houston on business that week, so I tacked the weekend onto my travel plans for the funeral of an old, young friend. I attended more because it was convenient than because it was compelling. Besides, funerals are excellent occasions to connect with long-lost friends. As the Lyle Lovett song says, “I went to a funeral. Lord, it made me happy seeing all those people that I ain’t seen since the last time somebody died.” It does put the fun in funeral, but that’s not why I’m a funeral-attending convert.

Funerals can be a healing place, but they are hard. So first, a word on guilt: SushiTuesdays is a guilt-free zone. I will never tell you to miss your favorite yoga class for a funeral, because – believe me – I know that practice can be both grounding and sacred. There are a thousand reasons not to attend a funeral, and pretty much all of them are valid. Say, for example, your four-year-old niece has a ballet recital that day, or your nephew is pitching for his high school team. Go watch the little ballerina! Cheer for the baseball player! They need you now, and the dead guy will still be dead tomorrow. And the day after that. I’ve got news – even after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, especially after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, the family of the dead one will appreciate your love notes, a handful of tulips or a large lasagna. There are so many ways and times to show support and encouragement, and attending the funeral is only one of them.

I attend funerals because people showed up to honor Sam at his funeral, and their presence was a gift to me and my kids. I didn’t know quite how many to expect when I was planning my husband’s funeral, and by “planning” I mean staring into space and nodding/shaking my head numbly in response to the questions of my many friends who did all the actual work of writing an obituary, confirming the date of the service, planning the service itself, printing programs, and coordinating the catering, the florist and the rentals for the reception. I talked to the cemetery and the rabbi. My friends did everything else.

You never know exactly how many to expect for a funeral, because there’s no RSVP protocol. By the time all those people show up, it’s too late to set out extra chairs and order more sandwiches, so it helps to have an estimate, even if you don’t have a clue. The element of suicide, of course, often has a repelling effect, and it was entirely possible that I would be left alone with dozens of turkey sandwiches and ten gallons of Chinese chicken salad at the end of the day.

The rabbi specifically asked me which chapel to reserve, and this was one of the few questions on which I had a definite opinion. He explained that there were three chapels, seating 100, 200 or 300 people, respectively. Before I could respond, however, there were a couple family members who answered the question. They knew Sam as the little brother, the baby, but they didn’t know him as a professional. They didn’t see him as a grown man, a father, a confidante, and they didn’t understand his community impact. They were deeply embarrassed by his suicide. Simultaneously, and with the same dismissive hand gesture, both of them stated that there would not be more than 100 people there.

The rabbi turned to me and waited for my answer. I shook my head, Give me the one for 300.

On the day of the funeral, I could not see people arriving from where I was waiting in the secluded alcove. I did not know whether the large chapel was empty or full. I could see a handful of my nearest and dearest seated in the front rows. They were all the support I needed. The rabbi called me to the podium to give the first eulogy, and as I walked toward the microphone, I lifted my eyes to see the pews. I gasped. The chapel for 300 was not just full, it was overflowing, standing room only, with more people filling the sidewalk outside. They had come to celebrate Sam’s life and to mourn his death. They were classmates, colleagues and clients. Friends and neighbors. Cousins in abundance. They had come, and the biggest chapel wasn’t big enough to hold them all. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their presence. To be perfectly candid, a little bitchy part of me also thought, I told you so. But mostly, I was grateful. The fact of all those present was no small consolation, an affirmation of Sam’s life and his kindness.

In the midst of the day that was largely a blur, I can vividly remember only a few faces. I suppose I could look back at the guest book (assuming I could find it in its dust-covered box in the chaos that is my garage), but it doesn’t matter. Not everybody is comfortable going to funerals. The communion of hearts happens in a multitude of ways, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve attended several funerals in the last six months, including services for a teenager, a young woman, and my own father-in-law. These sorts of sudden, tragic, altogether-too-soon deaths often draw a large attendance at the memorial service. In fact, my clearest recollection from Russell’s funeral was fact that the procession went on for miles. Literally. It’s probably true that some people (and a few ambulance-chasing lawyers) are there to watch the train wreck, but most people come because their presence is the most important gift they can offer that day. I believe that these types of funerals draw crowds simply because it requires that many hands to hold so much heartbreak. Indeed, we cannot make sense of the senselessness.

So instead, I leave the garage in its current state of disarray, neglect the dog’s morning walk, and forgo yoga. I dress in black and show up.

***

Light and strength.

What If?

Sam committed suicide in October nearly eight years ago. There is so much stigma surrounding suicide that it is still strange to say out loud.

One of the boys tells me that sometimes, instead of using the “S” word when people ask how his father died, he tells them that Sam fell accidentally, so they won’t think less of his father. I get that. Immediately after Sam’s death, I expected to be ostracized by my community, my church, my sons’ school, even potentially my own family. It’s the world we live in. A world that criticizes death by suicide. A world that marginalizes the grief wrought by a loved one’s suicide. A world where a young boy feels compelled to protect his dead father’s reputation.

I wasn’t treated as an outcast after Sam’s death. I was held and fed and heard. I think this is a testament to the progress that has been made by raising awareness and increasing compassion toward mental health issues, even in one generation. But we still have work to do.

Sam’s last words to me were “Bye, sweetie. I love you.” What if, instead, he had been able to say, “I need help”? What if he had been able to let me – or someone, anyone – know that he was in a kind of pain that wasn’t addressed by an aspirin and a nap? What if he had been able to articulate that he was in so much anguish that jumping off a parking structure seemed like a rational idea?

I have learned not to get caught in the “what if” loop, because “what if” wasn’t and “what is” is. It might not have changed everything. It might not have changed anything. But there is a place for “what if” thinking; it is the place where we hope to create progress, a place where we provide community and a gentler world for those who follow. We might not have been able to eliminate Sam’s pain, but what if we could have taken away his shame? Maybe he would not have felt so alone in the darkness. Maybe he could have heard my last words to him, “Bye, sweetie. I love you.”

Sam had chronic and debilitating back pain, and he rarely (and then reluctantly) asked for help. Then again, his back pain was impossible to mask, wincing as he got in and out of the car, shuffling along old-man style. In fact, he had a prescription for vicodin left from his most recent back surgery, but he resisted taking the pain-killers for fear of becoming dependent on them. The toxicology report showed that he had vicodin in his system when he died and, as a result, was not likely in any significant physical pain. I found this fact oddly comforting. But what if, instead of reaching for the bottle, he had reached for the phone?

Asking for help does not necessarily come naturally, and some of us seem to struggle more with this than others, especially if we fear being judged. When life’s problems do not yield to simple solutions, these are the times that companionship along the journey is especially important, but silence suffers alone. Sam had fewer than ten contacts saved on his cell phone; more than half of those were his favorite places to order take-out. What if he had called any one of the ten? I imagine that even the pizza guy would have wanted to help. It might not have changed everything. Or anything.

Sam didn’t call anyone.

September is the official Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month, and even though it’s October, the conversation continues. Believe me, I know these are hard conversations to have, but silence makes the stigma worse. What if, by increasing awareness and compassion, we open up the possibility for the kind of world where someone in distress can reach out for help without fear of judgment? It’s a legacy worth talking about.

***

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

Conflicted

I find something quietly gratifying about balancing my checkbook. There is one right answer. Reconciling the statement with the register, finding the discrepancy, correcting an error (usually my own transposition of numbers), then everything tics and ties. It’s my favorite constructive avoidance technique. That and laundry. A few blessed moments of balance, and I take a long inhale. Then everything gets messy and out of whack again.

There was a murder-suicide in our town a few weeks ago. Here’s all I know: firefighter-husband shot sheriff’s-deputy-wife at their home; he then dropped off their only child, a young boy, at grandma’s house; dad next radioed the first responders to let them know that they would find a dead body at the house but there would be no danger to them; and then he shot himself. Tragic and heart-breaking.

I’m at the very fringes of the tragedy, and I’m shaken by its magnitude. We experienced only a small fraction of this trauma. One of my sons was the same age and grade as the young child when he lost his father to suicide. Everything else is different. I do not even know how to begin to get a toehold to climb that mountain of grief.

I have said before and I’ll say again, For as bad as it was, it’s as good as it gets. Sam left me a note. He did not kill himself at home. There were witnesses to his jumping, but the boys and I weren’t among them. The police feared that he had attacked us, but he didn’t. The boys had each other and me, loads of extended family, and friends who feel like family. We clung to each other, and we didn’t change our address or elementary school or doctors, although we stopped attending church altogether. We were inundated with condolence cards and casseroles, but no paparazzi or news commentators parked in front of our home. We had a lot of stability, but we were still hurt and angry, hostile and confused.

Even so, I defended their father – not what he did, but who he was.

My dearest friends were still infuriated. One said, “All I know is that when I get to heaven, Sam better be ready to run, because when I catch him, I’m going to kill him.” I have this mental image of all the girlfriends who rallied to my side – and there was a legion of them – chasing after Sam in eternity. Part of me is amused and grateful for their protectiveness, and another part of me still rallies to guard Sam from the lynch mob. And the two biggest reasons to do so are our sons. These boys are graced with grandfathers, uncles, male teachers, coaches and role models, step-brothers and a step-father who loves them dearly, but none of them replaces Sam.

These tragedies shake us. Not only because we are profoundly sad at the violence and senselessness of it, but because we cannot ignore that the oneness of this person includes the capacity for both service and injury. We prefer the wholeness of a man to be singularly good, both for his sake and ours. If we are honest, it also forces us to look at our own inner darkness. Real human beings are multi-faceted, and some of those faces are scary and ugly. The task becomes to embrace the whole man, which is not to condone his terrible acts, but to accept his weakness and vulnerability as part of his humanity.

It’s easy to love perfect people, or at least the ones who indulge in the same bad habits we do. Loving imperfect people is a bigger challenge, especially the people we have loved and been betrayed by, or people we trusted and wanted to emulate before they lost their minds and hearts and self-control. It can be harder still to look with tenderness into our own darkest fears, our jealousies, insecurities, bitterness and self-righteousness.

Sam’s suicide will certainly color his sons’ perception of him. The cloud of his death distorted the view for a long time, but eventually, with healing and perspective and resilience, that fog begins to lift and a few rays shine through. We take a step back, and begin to see that the shadow does not define the man.

On about the second or third night after Sam’s death, when the reality of his death was sinking in, and his absence weighed heavily on our hearts, one of my favorite people in all the world burst through our door with her signature energy and announced, “I’ve come to fix everything!” Her eyes were brimming with tears, her arms laden with grocery bags containing about seven gallons of ice cream in dozens of flavors.

Of course, ice cream doesn’t fix anything. Not even Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia or Haagen Dazs Coffee. But the companionship on the journey is everything. So we sit together, choosing our favorite flavors, even though they melt faster than we could possibly eat. We cry, we talk, we sit, we call Sam names, and we mock his favorite flavor.

And so starts the process of coming to terms with the dimensions of this man who both jumped off a parking structure and liked vanilla ice cream. It doesn’t quite add up, but there you have it.

It is counterculture, counterintuitive and downright offensive to extend compassion toward the man who killed himself, but his child needs this tenderness. The man will always be his father. Nobody can be replaced. I cannot imagine the road that lies ahead for the young boy who lost both his parents. I hope he has a community of courageous and gentle people in his life who will help him grieve and heal and provide a larger perspective on his father than that imposed by one tragic evening, that this terrible act not be the entirety of a father’s legacy for his son. I pray that there are men and women in this young boy’s life who remind him of his father’s good qualities. Clearly, he had some. The man who shot his wife and himself is the same man who took measures to protect his son and his fellow firefighters. These aspects of the man are in deep conflict with each other; what he did was horrifying, but who he was is more complicated.

I believe that no matter how dark our despair, anguish and misery, light ultimately finds a way through. I have faith in radical forgiveness, redemptive love and a ridiculous sense of humor. I have hope that peace will surpass our failings, remorse and self-loathing.

During mass the week after this murder-suicide, I was grateful to hear both wife’s name and husband’s name read among the people for whom we should pray. The beginnings of grace.

And so I pray.

I think about husband and wife, and it is hard to hold so much love and suffering in the same prayer. But I have done this before. At the center of my petitions for mercy, for peace, for forgiveness, is the child of two imperfect parents, united in love for their son. May the boy be held securely in the arms of divine Love, may he find a path of healing and a life of light, resilience and joy. May he be blessed with steadfast friends who enter into his sorrow and loneliness with stories and photographs and silence and sweetness and presence, because ice cream doesn’t fix anything but it means everything.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And hope greater than conflict.

Presumption

Usually, my morning run calms me, or at least takes the edge off. I return home with a fresh perspective or renewed commitment or surrender or resolve or increased motivation or even a new approach to a sticky situation. If nothing else, I have spent a good half an hour with my sweet and hapless defective hunting dog. But every now and again, I come back from a run all fired up and tetchy.

Today a woman in a white Acura sets me off. I’m not sure what has her attention – a kid in the backseat, the traffic report, a text from her office – but her eyes are not on the road. My eyes, on the other hand, are fixed on her tires coming toward me perilously quickly. She is driving on the shoulder, tires so far over the edge of her lane line that you might think it was a second lane, but it’s bicycle width. There is no sidewalk on this particular stretch of residential road, so it’s just me, the dog, a rapidly narrowing shoulder and some tall landscaping. As the car approaches, I cry out. I yank the dog’s leash and we press ourselves into the hedges.

I don’t think she even brakes as she careens around the curve. I turn and issue a piece of advice, a few well-chosen words suited to her blatant and reckless disregard for human and canine lives. I don’t know whether she heard me. I half expect to hear a crash as she continues on her way. She reminds me of someone else I’ve encountered recently, hurtling her way through life without a thought for others traveling the same route.

I finish my run, each mile winding me up a little tighter, and I walk in the door thoroughly annoyed. I’m pissy and prickly, sweaty and out of breath.

Warning: I’ve caught my breath now, and I’m about to let a few choice words fly.

I like to think I’m reasonably open about this path I’ve travelled as the widow due to suicide. I try to be mindful that each experience is unique, including mine, and open to opinions that are different that my own.

There is certainly a sense in which we are all in the same leaky boat. When I meet other survivors of loss – not just of a spouse, and not only by suicide – there is frequently a softening, a mutual respect, an appreciation. This connection is enhanced by the recognition that each experience is individual.

I’ve attended presentations given by and for suicide survivors (which, by the way, I think is a terribly misleading term, but I haven’t – yet – thought of a better one). I’ve given presentations to therapists and first responders detailing life in the trenches of my day-to-day experience as a mother to four grieving sons. I cannot speak for all parents. So I don’t.

And I don’t appreciate some misguided jackass drawing conclusions about me or my husband or our relationship based solely on the fact that he killed himself.

Several years ago, a dear friend of mine had a friend who had a friend whose husband committed suicide. And she thought that this friend (I’ll call her Jessie) should talk to me. Not long afterward, I received a message that Jessie herself wanted to talk to me and forwarded her cell number to me. Naturally, I called her. Jessie didn’t answer, so I left a brief voicemail, leaving my name and cell phone and encouraging her that if she wanted to chat I would be available any time.

What I received back was a protracted, emphatic text message asserting that not only did she not want to talk to me, but she informed me that I had nothing to offer her because she and her husband were very much in love and happy. Her situation was unique among suicides, and I wouldn’t understand.

I wanted to type back: Go fuck yourself. You don’t know a single thing about me, about Sam, or about our marriage. But I didn’t. I bit my tongue and my texting fingers, sent a short apology and goodbye. And then I fumed. I deleted her message and contact information. I hoped never to hear from her again, and so far I haven’t.

Healing is hard enough without the judgment and criticism of some asshole who thinks my husband killed himself because he didn’t love me or that I didn’t love him. Or whatever the hell she thinks. I don’t need her to stigmatize my husband or shame me. And she doesn’t have a monopoly on pain. It’s not a competition; we both lost. There is so much misunderstanding surrounding suicide, and misguided criticism only perpetuates the stigma.

It would be so much cleaner to divide the world into good guy and bad guys, good marriages and bad ones, but life doesn’t work that way. Suicide is not necessarily a moral weakness or character flaw or somebody’s fault. It’s immeasurably messy.

I loved my husband and he loved me. We had children, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and a white picket fence. Sam loved his sons. He was involved in their lives, their education, coached their T-ball teams. He was a confidante, a loyal friend, a trusted advisor. He was kind and conscientious. Jessie presumed Sam had been otherwise. Or that I was. Like many couples, we had happy and sad, celebrations, disappointments and disagreements. He also, like so many of us, had job stress and family pressure. He suffered chronic and debilitating back pain from the time he was 13 years old. He must also have wrestled with demons whose names I didn’t know.

We survivors carry a terrible burden of guilt. Could I have loved him more? Or better? Probably. Would it have made a difference? I will never know. He did not have a “suicide” tattoo stamped across his forehead like a warning label. If he had, maybe I could have avoided falling in love with him in the first place. Then again, we all bear the stamp of mortality by virtue of our humanity. The risk we take when we live wholeheartedly and love imperfectly is that we will lose each other sometime, in some way. Suicide is a particularly ugly way.

I’m no expert or statistician. All I know is myself and a handful of widows. We loved our husbands as best we could, and they loved us, too. No marriage is perfect. It’s not supposed to be. If the vow was to love only during better, health and wealth, then marriages would last just long enough for the wedding coordinator to insult a favorite cousin and the caterer to spill champagne on Aunt Helen, which would amount to maybe seven minutes in ordinary time. The real challenge is to love through all the times, not knowing in advance what those times will bring.

I understand the urge to differentiate from the suicide stereotype, but that stance only increases misconception and stigma. Mental illness doesn’t look like anyone in particular or live at a specific address. People want to think that they can inoculate themselves from the risk of suicide because they exercise daily or have an advanced degree or a really good therapist, or give up chocolate. Believe me, I do all those things. Except giving up dark chocolate, of course.

Sometimes we end up in the soup anyway.

I think about the woman in the Acura, and I think perhaps I would do well to heed my own advice, not the words that went through my head as she zipped by, but the ones that I actually said out loud: Slow down. If my run doesn’t calm me, maybe today I need to sit and breathe, maybe I need to be gentler with myself.

In this moment I realize that I need to listen carefully to more of my own guidance: Just because we share the same road does not mean we experience the same journey.

I think about Jessie, and my heart softens. There is more than enough anger, shame and guilt to go around. If I could find a way to pave the path with a little more connection, acceptance and trust, even for one who offends me, this would be a far more productive endeavor.

I still don’t want Jessie ever to call me again, but I take a deep breath and a long exhale and I try to loosen the hold of my own guilt and convictions.

Love alone does not prevent suicide. If it could, suicide wouldn’t exist. Sometimes love and prayer and medication and therapy and surgery are enough to bridge that divide. Sometimes they aren’t. I don’t know why.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And slow, mindful drivers.

Stigma

I never wanted Sam’s death to define me or his children or to define Sam himself. This is sort of a challenge because the last impression he left us with was rather a shock. Believe me, suicide is not the way you want to become your town’s local sensation.

While we as a culture have made significant inroads in the area of mental health, death by suicide continues to carry with it a significant stigma. From the outside, suicide looks more like a choice than an illness. It is very hard to reconcile the matter of Sam’s death with the manner of his life.

As I was preparing the eulogy for Sam’s funeral, my youngest son said, “Mommy, it would take a whole year to say all the good things about Daddy.” Indeed. It would take much longer for us to accept the fact of his suicide as a part of the package.

I married Sam because he saw me truly as I am and loved me anyway – warts and all, as they say. I was safe with him, and I grew into myself in the shelter of his love. This was his gift to me for almost 17 years. It was inconceivable that he was dead at age 41, let alone by his own hand. Sometimes I wondered whether I had really known him at all.

As usual, I turn to my dogs for inspiration, levity and acceptance. We have a little dog, a black and tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, with a pedigree a page long. He has a small white patch on his chin and another patch of white on his chest. It looks like he has spilled milk down his front, and he is too cute for words. Unfortunately for his breeding career, according to “breed standards,” these white patches, along with a nose that is just a tad too long, disqualify him from competition. The breeder dubbed him “pet quality,” which has since become my favorite euphemism for a doggy stigma.

He is, in fact, the ideal family pet. His little tail wags from the moment he wakes up until the moment he wiggles under the covers down at my feet. He is always happy to see us, and he is a complete joy. We call him “love in a dog shape.” His faults have not rendered him less lovable.

Our local catholic church has started hosting a weekly adoration. On Tuesdays. Not that anybody asked me, but adoration is most definitely a Sushi-Tuesday sanctioned activity. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, here are the essentials: a priest places the sacramental bread on the altar, and people sit around reverently. That’s all. Anyone can participate. You don’t have to lose ten pounds or get a job. You don’t have to dress up or wear mascara, or take a shower. You don’t even have to be catholic. You just have to show up. Slowing down helps. Adoration is simply about presence. It is as if Jesus says, “Just be here and sit with me.”

My Lenten practice this year has been to spend an hour in adoration each Tuesday. As I have mentioned, sitting still is not generally my strong suit, but I have managed to keep my weekly vigil nonetheless. Not surprisingly, I have found great joy in committing the time to silence, contemplation and community. And something else has happened in the process. Each week, as I sit still for a while adoring the gentle presence, I start to get the impression that Jesus might be adoring me too. Completely as I am. There is no flaw so egregious as to disqualify us from being loved by the divine.

The experience reminds me of Sam. This man with a gentle spirit was a kind father and husband, a T-ball coach, a concerned community member. Only a few weeks before his death, while walking his sons to elementary school, he noticed a van making an illegal U-turn. The driver was unaware that he was perilously close to hitting two eleven-year-olds on their bicycles in the crosswalk, also en route to school. Unaware, that is, until Sam stepped into the crosswalk between the kids and the van, shouting at the driver. Many times we wished that he had died that way – a hero’s death – instead of by his own design. These moments make his death that much harder to understand.

Our gift to him has been – through the course of our healing work – to see him as he was, the good, the bad, the ridiculous, and even the manner of his death, and to love and honor him still. How important for his children – and in fact, all of us – to be exceptional and unique and flawed. And loved through all of it. Adored, even.

None of which is to condone suicide. On the contrary, it is the biggest mistake of Sam’s life. Time and again, we have longed to delete that last little line of his biography. But over time, we have accepted that one word in particular. Suicide. And in the process we have learned that this last word does not invalidate any of the goodness, integrity and vitality that filled the preceding 41 years of his life. The boys and I have found our way to love Sam completely for who he was, even including how he died.

As I write, my “pet quality” Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is in his usual spot, asleep at my feet. The breed is known for their sweet temperament. They are affectionate, playful and gentle. All true. This companion dog is my black and tan shadow. He is the best fetcher I have ever had, and if he is awake, his tail is wagging.

As with most purebreds, the Cavaliers suffer from a specific health challenge; most will die from heart failure. Also true for mine. I knew when we got this dog that he had a relatively short life expectancy, about 8 to 10 years. He’s 8 years old now and has a significant heart murmur. He is on three different heart medications, and the combination seems to give him the most terrible gas. It’s not always sweetness and light being the dog’s favorite, as I sit here typing in the gas cloud. It makes me so sad that the dog who is all heart may very well die from heart failure. It seems completely unfair.

Sometimes I think of Sam’s suicide as a kind of heart failure. If I had suspected he might have died prematurely from a valve failure I would have married him anyway. If you had told me he was going to kill himself, I wouldn’t have believed you. And while “suicide” is harder to say out loud than “heart attack,” I don’t have any regrets. At the end of it all, there is no easy way.

In the meantime, the best we can do is to live with joy and love and laughter, which is why I chose this ridiculously adorable dog to begin with. The heartbreak and tears will come as well. My Cavalier coughs and wheezes and wags. His favorite exercise is to jump on the table searching for scraps the second that we get up from dinner. I imagine someday he will have his doggy heart attack while gorging himself on a forbidden treat. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go.

And we will love him still.

***

Wishing you light and strength. And an adorable “pet quality” dog.

Courage

Being a runner means constantly sporting an injury in some form or another, but it also means learning a great many strategies for healing. My current injury – a sprained ankle – has introduced me to kinesiology tape, which bears an alarming similarity to fixing everything with duct tape, and it just might be my new favorite healing remedy. I recommend it highly. This tape comes in all kinds of colors and patterns, and I almost wish I had had a version that applies directly to broken hearts.

If only broken hearts could be taped back together.

But healing our broken hearts required a different approach altogether, a confrontation with the dragon that broke our hearts in the first place. While I do appreciate the impulse to ignore a problem in the hopes that it will solve itself, I do not think that time – by itself – heals anything. Regrettably, very few of my problems have resolved when I ran screaming from the room. I was going to have to look this dragon in the eye and stare it down.

But here’s the thing: dragon breath.

I believe that goodness ultimately wins, that love will prevail over hate, that life is more powerful than death. But evil puts on a good show. The dragon of our reality was grief, abandonment, fear, darkness, doubt. Coming to terms with our reality required the use of many words that were hard to say out loud: dead, suicide, despair, widow, was.

Ain’t no way around it. Dragon breath stinks.

But I am a formidable opponent. Legions of friends and family rallied to my side, and they armed me with love and lasagne. I gathered my children and mustered up a little gratitude. Dragons hate love and gratitude. I relied on my education, a good therapist, a dash of anger-inspired confidence and a dark sense of humor. Plus a kick-ass pair of cowgirl boots, because I did get my degree in Texas, and sometimes you have to use the pointy end of those boots.

Sam and I used to play a game with the kids at our dinner table that we called “best and worst,” where each person shared both the best and the worst parts of his day. The conversation often segues into other subjects, which can be entertaining or insightful, but we wanted to teach the kids to incorporate the range of the day’s experience. It might be more pleasant to focus exclusively on the “good” stuff, but that’s not where the growth happens. To ignore the “bad” stuff is not only unrealistic, but it doesn’t teach the kids how to deal with adversity. Or brussel sprouts.

My father has his PhD in nuclear physics – he is the sharpest knife in the drawer – and he does all those things that faithful people do. He prays, he volunteers in prisons, he seems genuinely to love teenagers. Honestly, he is a light in the world, and a beacon in mine. He also suffers from a chronic disorder which we refer to as “unconditional joy.” He consistently finds the good in everything. It’s a little annoying.

A few nights after Sam’s death, we were sitting around the dining room table, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, both boys and myself. I have no appetite, so I start the conversation, “Let’s play best and worst.” One of the boys goes first, “Well, my worst was that daddy died.” Yup. That’s going to be his worst for a long time, but I’m grateful because he is not afraid to name the dragon. “And my best was playing at my friend’s house today.” He is, after all, only 8.

The rocket scientist goes next, “My best was meeting a lot of Charlotte’s friends…, and my worst, … Well… [pause], but they were tears of joy.”

Ding dong!

By which I mean that the doorbell rang right at that moment, sabotaging our family dinner, but saving my father’s life. I left the table to answer the door. There were two people on my doorstep – the financial guy with papers to sign and the doctor friend with Xanax in hand. Between the two of them it would be the first night I got any sleep at all since Sam’s death.

And then I went back into the house to face my father, and the dragon lady cut loose with some venom and flames of her own… “Tears of joy?!? Are you INSANE? Dad, those are tears of PAIN! Are you KIDDING ME? We are SUFFERING! I am a 39 year old widow and my little boys have LOST THEIR FATHER!”

Evidently grief is harder than rocket science.

After Sam died we observed many of the Jewish mourning traditions, including the unveiling of the grave marker 11 months following his death. There is wisdom in a defined grieving period because it ends. It is, in fact, supposed to end and welcome color back into the world. But it doesn’t end if it never began. It has to begin too. And that may be the most redemptive aspect of dragon breath. It is almost impossible to ignore. And so, we turned toward the dragon.

Life has a way of rubbing up against those old wounds. That’s why the healing work is so important. Some of the times that life will irritate the wounds are predictable, like birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. Some take my breath when I’m not expecting it, like the day I recognized a doctor’s name on the plaque adjacent to my dermatologist’s office. I couldn’t place the name, but it was so familiar. An hour later, I remembered where I had seen the internist’s name. I have never met her. I only know her signature. It’s at the bottom of a page I’ve stared at over and over again, uncomprehending. She signed Sam’s death certificate.

Dragon breath.

There is no way to avoid all reminders of our loss, but if we incorporate the loss into the fabric of our lives, we accomplish an emotional alchemy. And the dragon breath turns into a warm breeze, unpleasant maybe, but no longer toxic and arresting.

I did not muster the courage to walk into her office right then and thank her personally. Maybe someday. I did, however, whisper a prayer of gratitude for the hands that cared for my husband on the day he died, and I blew Sam a kiss.

Dragons hate that.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the courage to stare down the dragon.