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Dear Dad,

Yesterday, the girls and I participated in our second Out of the Darkness Walk in Denver. It was a little bit easier than last year’s walk. We had a beautiful day, the air was crisp and the sun was shining. It was certainly better than the gray, cold and dismal weather that we encountered on our first walk. It seems only fair that a walk to prevent suicide, a walk to shed light on a topic so often cloaked in darkness, should be met with warm sunshine and the gentle touch of Mother Nature.

Team Tikvah (Hebrew for Hope) raised over $6,000.00 this year. And since we lost you, including last year’s walk, we have raised over $11,000.00 for The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Yes dad, we’ve taken our sorrow as well as our story, and tried to build for you a legacy of hope and of life.

I must admit that it is always the Memory Tree area that tears away at every scab I’ve managed to build up in these last 17 months. Trees are such an enduring symbol of life. They encapsulate the very things that root us, that strengthen us, that allow us to branch out & grow. They endure the harshest of winters, only to once again blossom in the springtime.

But this tree is different. The branches are filled with pictures of all of the precious lives lost to despair & hopelessness. The leaves hold beautiful smiling faces, comprised of all age groups, races and cultures. And on the back of each leaf there is a name, a story, a message of love, a remembrance. It feels both sad and sacred to stand there, to bear witness to the human cost of suicide. And each time that I place your smiling face on that tree, the sorrow that I have learned to live with, rises up like a tsunami and breaks my heart all over again.

But the beauty of the walk is that I cannot stand and remain in that place for too long. None of us can. Slowly, I step away with tear filled eyes and I join in this family of strangers, survivors of suicide loss or suicide attempts, and I am reminded that I am not alone on this journey. The tears that are shed, the stories that are told, resonate for all of us. And because ours is a loss that is often pushed to the periphery lest it make others uncomfortable, we garner strength in the chance to stand front and center with our pain & our purpose. I look around me at the Out of the Darkness Walk and I know that my own efforts to stop suicide are part of something much bigger and more powerful. And that gives me the strength and resolve to keep on fighting.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Standing on the podium yesterday and gazing out, I was reminded of that truth.

Yes, our stories and loved ones fill that memory tree and it is easy to simply get lost in the despair. But instead, we dig down to our very roots, and like the trunk of a tree we straighten our backs and strengthen our stance. And with every step we take on that walk, each lap around the stadium, we reach out our hands like branches, we take hold of one another, of our losses, and we carry them beyond ourselves. We carry them into our communities, our houses of worship, our government and our schools. And we imbue our memories and our mourning with a deeper mission. We, the survivors, are like the tree that has faced winter’s cruelest storm, but we will not simply wither away.

Dad, I hate to put your picture on that memory tree. That picture, my favorite one of you, draws such a stark contrast between your greatest moments of joy and the darkness that ultimately consumed you. The memory tree is full of those contrasts, beautiful smiling faces whose lives ended in pain & despair. And I suppose that same contrast is present for those of us there to walk in loving memory of each smiling face. We remember and we smile. We remember and we cry. We learn to live with unimaginable pain and we find a way to engage with life again. Tears stream down our face until a smile emerges once again. We feel alone in our loss, but we look around and we are reminded of the community that carries us forward. Our steps are sometimes heavy with the weight of what suicide has taken from us and they are strengthened with the determination to make it matter. That memory tree area symbolizes loss, love and life. And for me, so does the walk itself. I face your loss, I remember & reflect upon the love and with each step that I take, I try to build for you and for me, a legacy that blossoms with life and hope.

dad-memory-tree-2016He who plants a tree, plants hope. (Lucy Larcom, Plant a Tree)

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It has taken me a while to sit down and write this letter. Yesterday, when I first read this piece by Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman on The Mighty, I was deeply upset and outraged. It was difficult to find the right words to articulate my thoughts in a manner that could be heard and, I hope, be part of a greater dialogue of understanding.

On September 8, 2016 The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention showed up in force outside of the Good Morning America studio in recognition of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. In a sea of blue t-shirts that read, “Be the Voice #StopSuicide” they stood ready to bring the message of suicide prevention to the millions of viewers who tune in to your show every day. They came on a mission of hope, ready to offer thoughtful resources, insights and support to those who might need it. They came to shed a bright light on an issue that is most often shrouded in darkness & fear.

And then, in a deeply disheartening and disturbing  turn of events, they were asked to move out of the camera’s view and told, “It’s the top of our morning show. We don’t want suicide on the brain.”

In my mind, that decision by your show was not only woefully misguided and callous, it was a missed opportunity to help save lives.

I know a little something about missed opportunities. On April 20, 2015 at the age of 72, my father died by suicide. I often wonder about the missed opportunities that my family and I might have had to save him. I don’t share this from a place of guilt anymore, rather from a deep regret that I did not know enough to recognize the signs that my father might be suicidal. If I had known then, what I know now, there is a chance I might have been able to respond differently. There is a chance that my father might still be here today. The missed opportunities are now part of my story, and every day I strive to share what I have learned in the aftermath of my father’s death.

Yes, I may have missed the opportunity to save my father’s life, but in his memory perhaps I can help to save the life of another precious soul and spare another family from the pain that mine has endured. So I tell my truth. My painful journey began in a Whole Foods market where I received the call that my father had died by suicide. Mine, by the way, is a story that went viral after I wrote an open letter to the strangers in that store who comforted and cared for me in the immediate aftermath of that devastating call. If they had responded the way that your show did, by deciding that it was simply too early on a Monday morning to deal with “suicide on the brain” the darkest moment in my life, might have also been the one in which I felt the most alone. Thankfully, that was not the case.

And when my story went viral, I heard from hundreds of survivors of suicide loss. Once again, strangers reached out to me, reassuring me that one day healing would come, one day I would be happy again and they reminded me that I am far from alone on this journey. As I became stronger, I sought to do the same for others who were newer to their loss and whose wounds were fresh & raw. From the deep roots of our shared sorrow, we gave one another faith and hope. “Suicide on the brain” in our community of survivors means that we understand intimately what the other is feeling and we want to be a beacon of light and a source of support for one another. That shared sense of knowing binds us together, though we are strangers in every other way.

For many of us, it also means that we want to learn from what we have endured. We have lost those we love in the most senseless of ways. It feels like such a waste. We want to give their death some meaning.

I have educated myself about the prevalence of suicide in our nation & what can be done to turn the tide on what is now the tenth leading cause of death. Much of what I have learned and the support that I have received began with the very organization that you asked to step out of the camera’s view, lest their shirts and their message upset those who had tuned in to your show. I have raised money for this organization, participating in their Out of the Darkness Walks, supporting their efforts to reduce suicide 20% by 2025. And I have lobbied on Capitol Hill with them to bring the message of suicide prevention to our country’s leaders. This is an organization that embodies hope. “Suicide on the brain” for this group of people means devoting every day to contemplating how we can do better and help those who are deep in the depths of despair. It is about motivation to open minds and hearts so that lives can be saved. Ignorance may be bliss for some, but knowledge is power and power can be used to break down the very walls of shame, stigma and silence that your show chose to feed into last Thursday morning.

Missed opportunities are hard to live with, especially when we know we won’t ever get another chance to make things right.  I may have missed the opportunity to save my father, but I sure won’t waste the opportunity to imbue his death with purpose and allow his legacy to be one of life and of hope.

The representatives of your show said they didn’t “want suicide on the brain” at the top of your morning show. If the estimates are that someone in this country dies by suicide every 12.3 minutes, then in the span of your two-hour show approximately ten people will have been lost to suicide. And every day that you air a new episode approximately 117 people will die by suicide and their loved ones will represent one of the largest mental health casualties of this largely preventable form of death.

On September 8th, just two days before World Suicide Prevention Day, your show missed an opportunity to talk about suicide with the very people devoted to stopping it. But you get another chance, another opportunity to make it right. It isn’t enough to visit this issue only in the aftermath of another celebrity death. It’s time to talk openly and honestly every day and to stop relegating those of us who have lived experience, or who have lost someone we care about, to the periphery, far outside of the camera’s view. We deserve better than that. And we will keep raising our voices for as long as it takes.

You owe this community of survivors, advocates and messengers of hope a sincere apology. And to truly make this right, you owe us a place in front of the camera and a platform from which to speak. Let us say the word suicide, let us put it on the brains of those who tune in to watch your show. Let us empower, educate and share a message of hope. The shirts we wear say, “Be The Voice #StopSuicide” so let our voices be heard. Because the truth is, it might just save the life of some of those very same viewers that you sought to hide us from.

Sincerely,

Deborah Greene

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I went out in my Be The Voice #StopSuicide shirt today It’s  a message of hope!

 

be the voice

 

And so it begins, my second Suicide Prevention Awareness Month as a survivor of suicide loss. Sometimes I try to think back to the days before losing my dad to suicide and I wonder if I had any awareness that such a month existed. And if I was aware of it, whether through social media, or something I read in a passing article, what did I think? How much attention did I pay to the statistics, the stories, the human cost behind the headlines? I wonder if there were any headlines at all?

The truth is, I don’t remember. I’ve long been someone who stood in support of greater mental health awareness. My own daughter struggled terribly with anxiety for years and years, and through therapy and medication found her way to a better place. There was never shame. I know others in my circle who’ve dealt with a variety of mental illnesses, and I’ve never seen it as something to be ashamed of. But suicide? I’m sure I looked at it with a heart full of sympathy, but I am also fairly certain that I never, ever thought that it would touch my world or someone I love. I was wrong. I was dead wrong.

I woke up this morning with a heavy heart. Something about the start of this month triggered me and I couldn’t quite explain why. I wave the flag of suicide prevention & awareness almost every day. Sometimes it’s through my own words, other times through lobbying, raising money or simply sharing insightful & important articles with my peers and on social media. I tell my story often and with great openness. I’m not ashamed of how my father died, but I am determined to bring meaning to his loss. And yet today felt heavier for some reason. I know those days come and sixteen months later, I know they will also pass.

Still, I had errands to run, so I put on my Be The Voice #StopSuicide T-shirt from The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and I went out to the stores. The shirt has at times led to some meaningful conversations. Recently I wore it into Pet Smart and the woman behind the counter read it, and asked me to tell her what it meant & what group it helped to support. I told her about my own loss and the work of AFSP & she told me that suicide had touched the lives of people she cared about as well. She thanked me for having the courage to share my story and for my efforts to raise awareness about this deeply personal tragedy. “You’re making a difference” she told me. I thanked her, paid for my items then got into my car, where the tears quickly followed. It’s not easy to be so vulnerable when standing face to face with a stranger. It’s far easier to open up from behind a computer screen.

Today brought me to Costco. It was pretty quiet there, I did my shop, paid and stood waiting to have the gentleman at the door check the receipt against the items in my cart. He looked at my shirt and read it out loud. “Be the voice. Stop Suicide.” And then he followed it with, “You know that it’s the voices that lead people to suicide.” Nobody was behind me, there was no rush out the door, and vulnerable as I felt today, I took a deep breath and answered him. “Actually sir, its mental illness that leads to suicide. The voices that tell people that there is no hope left, that their loved ones would be better off without them and that death is truly the only way to end their pain, those voices are lies that depression, anxiety and other illnesses of the mind trick them into believing.” He looked at me, looked behind me and saw that there was still nobody else waiting. “You’re right young lady. Do you mind my asking why you wear that shirt?” Another deep breath, another gulping back of tears and I answered, “Because 16 months ago my father died by suicide. I am his voice now. And I want his death to have meaning. I want to try to save lives in his memory. And sometimes that starts with a simple conversation that helps build awareness. Conversations like the one that you and I are having.”

By now there was a line. He looked me in the eye and expressed condolences for my loss. I thanked him, barely holding back the tears that seemed to determined to flow today. I started to head out when he said “I’m sure you make your daddy proud young lady.” Unable to speak any further, I nodded my appreciation, hid behind my sunglasses and walked as quickly as I could to my car. And then, when I was safely hidden away from that public space, I cried.

No, it’s not always easy to wave the flag of suicide prevention and awareness. Sometimes I need to turn away from it to tend to my own healing & spirit. And some days I take a more passive approach. I put on a shirt, I walk out the door and I open myself up to stares, to questions and sometimes to conversations like the one I had today. And one human being at a time, I hope that I am making a difference. I hope that I am honoring my father’s story and that his voice can be heard each time that I share it.

dad memory tree

Last year, only months after my father’s suicide, I participated in the Denver Metro Out of the Darkness Walk. I remember most vividly the pain of creating a leaf for my father on the Memory Tree and seeing his beautiful smiling face, hanging there, surrounded by hundreds of other smiling faces, all lost to suicide. It took my breath away. How did we end up in this place? How is this my family’s reality? How did we miss the signs? My daughters and I wept openly as we stood there, far from alone in our tears.

Regret is my constant companion since April 20, 2015.  It started as guilt, but I soon found that guilt could consume me if I let it. Regret, I can live with, even if it isn’t always easy. The regret of missed signs, of not knowing then, what I know now. What if, if only & why, still reverberate, quieter now almost 16 months out, but still present.

But regret serves as my fuel. Daily I wake up with the mission to try and make some meaning come from my father’s loss and my family’s pain. Regret drives me forward, with a fierce determination to take what I have learned, what I have lived, what I have lost and use it to spare another family the anguish of a suicide loss. Regret busts down the walls of shame or stigma and imbues me with a voice far more powerful than they could ever be. I tell the truth, I tell my father’s story, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a roar, sometimes through tears, and sometimes clear eyed and determined.

This blog has brought so many other survivors into my world. Survivors of suicide loss, those with lived experience and those struggling just to get through each day. That has been a blessing. Strangers have continued to touch my world, long after those women who surrounded me in Whole Foods when I learned about my father’s death. Every voice, every story, every heartfelt exchange fuels me to continue in my mission, to bring meaning to my father’s death and to be a voice for the voiceless.

I don’t use this blog to self-promote, but here it goes anyway. Since you’ve shared in my journey, I will share with you that I will, once again, be walking in the Denver Metro Out of the Darkness Walk with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention this September. If you are so inclined, to help me in my efforts to raise money for the research, advocacy, education and prevention efforts of this amazing organization that is devoted to stopping suicide, I’d be most grateful. Any donation, big or small, would be a gift. And if you can’t, I continue to be grateful that you have opened yourself up to my story and allowed me to share out loud in a way that feels safe and full of support.

In Jewish tradition, 18 signifies “chai” or life. Last year, I raised over $5,000 but this year, I took a derivative of 18 and used that to set a goal of $7200. Our team is Team Tikvah. Tikvah, in Hebrew means hope. My dad loved lighthouses, and so that is our team symbol. As we strive to be a beacon of hope to those who are lost in despair.

Regret fuels me forward. I use my voice, my words, and my feet to honor the father I loved so much and lost far too soon. I know I’ll cry again as I walk. As I stare at that tree that will once again bear his image, my heart will break all over again. Because I still can’t believe that we lost him the way that we did. I’m walking for him. And I’m walking for everyone who has shared their pain with me, and to honor all of the precious lives lost to suicide.

I have a shirt that says, “Be The Voice: Stop Suicide.” I am my father’s voice. And I hope that I am making him proud, as I try to build a legacy of life, out of the ashes of his death.

My Fundraising Page for the Out of the Darkness Walk

 

dad memory tree 2

homeless kindness

 

If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren…you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Deuteronomy 15:7-10

I drove into Boulder yesterday to meet a friend for lunch. As I always do before I leave, I checked to ensure that I had a supply of food donation bags in my car.  While it isn’t quite as often that I give out  these bags here in the suburbs of Superior, I can always be certain that as I drive around Boulder, there will be ample opportunities to offer some sustenance to a person in need.

As I came off of the parkway, two young men stood along the side of the road, cardboard sign in hand. I was at the end of the line of cars, far back from the traffic light, but I rolled down my window and got the attention of one of the men. He came over to the car, and I offered him two bags, telling him each contained a little food and drink for him and his companion. He smiled graciously, gave me a compliment on my “beautiful smile” and offered me blessings for my kindness.

We chatted a bit, and as a result, by the time I reached the stop light, it had once again turned red. The second gentleman, who had remained by the light, apologized to me for the fact that in taking the time to chat with his friend, I now had to wait just a few minutes more to make my turn and get to where I was going.  I told him quickly that he owed me no apology at all. I was glad to be able to slow down, offer the bags of food and share in a moment of kind conversation. He responded by thanking me again for the food. “People don’t always realize that sometimes we don’t eat anything at all for two days or so,” he said.  “I can’t imagine how hard that must be,” I answered. “Truly, I’m simply glad to be able to do my small part to change that, at least for today.” His friend had come back to his side by now, and the chat continued. I went on to share that we made these bags as a family, to help ensure that we would never drive by a person in need and not be able to respond. And then came the answer that remained with me throughout the day. One of the young men said to me, “Sometimes people forget that I’m somebody’s child too. Thank you for seeing that.”

Though hidden by my sunglasses, I welled up at his response.  I answered that we are all God’s children, connected in this human family of ours. And in that family kindness, compassion, love and warmth matter.

The light turned green, they once again offered their thanks and wished me a blessed day. I wished the same to them, turned down the road and continued on my day’s journey. I’m always struck by those words, each time we are given the chance to simply put a little food and drink into the hands of someone who is struggling.  They offer their “blessings” to us, without fail, each and every time. We who are blessed with ample food, drink, warmth and shelter receive the blessings of someone with so little to give. It seems to me it should be the other way around.  We have the ability to bestow blessings of our own making; a kind word, a smile, spare change, food and drink. These aren’t acts that will alter the course of any of the men and women who we encounter on the streets or while volunteering for homeless programs in our area. But, they reflect our belief that we are all created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image).

If we all carry a spark of the Divine spirit within us, then truly, we are all “somebody’s child.”  We are all God’s children. And we must see one another, really see one another. Each encounter that I have, whether volunteering for the Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow program at Congregation Har HaShem, or just offering an individual who is in need, a little something to eat or drink, allows them to know that they are seen. They are not just a sign, or a person standing in line for bread or soup. They are seen as a human being. And in the end, isn’t that a universal desire that we all share? Don’t we all want to be seen, to be offered a warm smile, an acknowledgement of our struggles, but also of our humanity? Don’t we all want an outstretched hand, and an escape from judgement about where we are in life and how we got there? Can we ever truly believe that we know somebody else’s story, simply because we get a glimpse of one single chapter? I’m somebody’s child. And I have children of my own. And when they look out at the world, I want them to view it with open eyes and open hearts.

Our little bags comprised of fruit cups, nuts, cereal bars, crackers, water and more, cannot change things on any large scale. And our evenings setting up blankets and handing out food for our homeless neighbors in Boulder, are but a small and temporary answer to an issue that is much larger. I know that. I do.

But when I reflect on the interaction that I shared yesterday, I can’t help but think that in those shared moments, each of us is changed for the better. How we see “the stranger in our midst” softens. How we see ourselves in relation to our fellow human beings, is strengthened. And the humanity that fosters within this family of God’s children offers glimmers of hope for the future.

Their signs and faces vary. Some are young, some are old. They are children. They are veterans. They ask for food, for money, for jobs. Some ask on their signs for any act of kindness, even just a smile. They are us. We are them. It is only circumstance that separates us.

“I’m somebody’s child,” the young man said.

Yes, he is.

So am I.

In that respect, we are no different.

So, let us be kind to one another; in word, in deed and in spirit.

A blessed day is sometimes defined by the smallest of moments.

girls food bags

Our daughters with the food bags that we put together.

If you walk down the street and see someone in a box, you have a choice. That person is either the other and you’re fearful of them, or that person is an extension of your family. (Susan Sarandon)

 

 

 

 

 

 

shamash

In a place where there are no humans One must strive to be human (Hillel the Elder)

It is the holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. It has been our family tradition these past few years, to perform eight mitzvot (moral deeds) over the course of the holiday, one for each light & night of Hanukkah. Our hope is that with each deed, each act of kindness that we perform, we can help to bring light and warmth into the world; at least our own little corner of it.

Last night, homemade cookies in hand, we headed to our synagogue, Congregation Har Hashem in Boulder, Colorado. On a cold and windy Tuesday night, we were housing and feeding members of our homeless community in partnership with BOHO ( Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow). We laid out the blankets that our guests would sleep on for the night. One blanket that served as their bed on the hardwood floors. We greeted them, served them food and rotated around the room offering desserts. We had the opportunity to talk to some of our guests, others were tired, cold and hungry and simply wanted to eat and close their eyes for some rest.

As we drove home, our daughters, ages 17, 16 and 13, reflected on the evening. The experience granted them perspective on their own lives, but more than that it allowed them to challenge the stereotypes so many of us have about the homeless. They reflected on the warmth, the gratitude, the eloquence and even the sense of hope that they encountered with so many of the people they served. They noted the smiles that met their own & reflected on the diversity of our guests. They were young, they were old. They were disabled and able-bodied. They were quiet and they were outgoing. They were single and they were couples.

It isn’t the first time we’ve given our daughters the chance to participate in a volunteer project that serves the needs of others. We’ve done it many times. It’s an important value for us. But yesterday evening, I believe, gave them the greatest opportunity to see, really see, the human beings who are without homes, not simply “the homeless.” They were moved by the people that they met.And each of them agreed that they very much wanted to participate in BOHO again.

This weekend, at the culmination of Hanukkah, we will head into Boulder with bags that we put together on the second night of the holiday; bags full of water, hand warmers, snacks and notes of kindness. We will personally hand them out to our homeless neighbors, those we so regularly encounter on the streets of this college town. We will keep the rest on hand in our cars, to ensure that whenever we pass another human being who is hungry and in need, we can give them a little something to quench their thirst, fill their bellies and show them that we care, that we see them and that they matter. We will also volunteer some of our time with Community Food Share. We won’t avert our eyes to the strangers in our midst. We can, in whatever capacity that we are able, reach out and act with compassion, faith and humanity. That is what we want to teach our daughters. That is the ultimate lesson we hope that they will carry through life.

So, what does all of this have to do with Donald Trump? I’ll tell you. It’s quite simple you see. Donald Trump offers sweeping, hateful, fear filled generalizations of people. He labels, he demonizes and he feeds on the worst notions that we have of the stranger. It’s hard to out shout him and we certainly can’t out spend him or find for ourselves the same type of bully pulpit from which he espouses his views.

But here is what we can do. We can give our children and ourselves the opportunity to have encounters with those who are different. We can engage in dialog with those whose socioeconomic, race, religious or even political views, are outside of the daily realm of our own lives. We can look them in the eye. We can introduce ourselves and we can talk to them. We can offer a smile or a kind gesture. We can, in short, begin to recognize the humanity behind the label or the circumstance. This is what happened for our daughters last night. This is what we hope will continue to happen each time we act upon the teachings of our Jewish faith.

Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the task [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” Pirkei Avot

I know, our food bags and our time serving others isn’t a global movement, nor does it address the overwhelming and very real challenges we face as a nation and as a people. But it does teach our children, our three precious daughters, to open their eyes wider. It teaches them to meet the stranger with compassion and to refrain from easy judgments and stereotypes. It teaches them humanity and compassion for others. It teaches them to answer hate with love, bigotry with acceptance, apathy with action and cruelty with kindness. And, we hope, it helps to protect them from getting swept up in demagoguery that categorizes anybody else as simply an “other” or an entire group of people as evil or villainous. It is our own family’s answer to the dehumanization of another human being based on race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic standing or other differences. Answer with humanity. Answer strongly and with your whole self. Answer wherever & whenever you can. And where there is darkness, seek always to be a source of light.

The Shamash is the candle that lights the others. Be a Shamash (Rabbi David Wolpe)