Archives for category: Coping with Suicide

partial-solar-eclipse-clouds

Eclipse fervor has hit. So many are traveling and planning so they might witness this historic event. The sun will be completely blocked by the moon. Darkness… and then it will pass, and once again the light will shine.

BUT WHAT IF IT DIDN’T? What if every day felt as if the sun were blotted out and darkness surrounded you? What if you no longer knew for certain that the light would surely shine again? That is the feeling so many who are struggling with despair feel. That is what the shroud of depression can feel like?

I can’t help but think about my father today. Oh how he loved the sun. On the coldest of winter days, if the sun was shining, he’d bundle himself up and sit outside. He would turn his face toward the sun and embrace all of the warmth that it had to offer. It fed his spirit, it sustained him and it carried him through darker and gloomier days.

His was a mood very much determined by his surroundings. And when the sun would hide itself away, he felt it deep within. Which is why it made sense that retirement and life in the sunshine state would be so very good for him.

It should have been. It was supposed to be.

But depression, much like the moon today, blotted out the light. It created a shroud of darkness from which he could not escape. And though the eclipsing of the sun will pass, my father came to believe that for him, it never would.

Today is a glorious celebration of Mother Nature for so many. A day to stand in awe of our blessed surroundings and be reminded that we are but a small part of the grandeur of the universe. We will momentarily celebrate the darkness, because we know the sun will shine once again.

Light is a gift. It is a powerful force. It can sustain and nurture us. It may flicker and fade but it always returns to us. We trust in that truth on the darkest of days.

But for my father, that trust was eroded. It was distorted by the clouds of depression and anxiety. And the light he once sought out, the warmth that sustained him, felt as if it had disappeared forever.

Perhaps that is why today’s eclipse is so very hard for me. It is the lens through which I see it that makes it harder to savor. The metaphor of my father’s life is deeply palpable for me today. I feel it coursing through me.

I am reminded that for so many like my dad, the darkness will remain long after the eclipse has passed.

Light lives at the end of that dark tunnel. I believe that. But for those who have lost that faith…

Today and every day, I strive to be a candle.

That is how I honor my father.

I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars. Og Mandino

 

 

warning

I want to share something with you, though it is never easy for me to admit. It is incredibly painful and fills me with regret to own it out loud, but I do it in the hopes that it might help save a life.

There were signs that my father was at risk of taking his own life. People have often asked me that question, and in the beginning every single time I was asked, it felt as if a vat of salt was being poured into my very new, raw and open wounds. It made me angry and defensive, as it constantly fed my guilt at not being able to save my father from himself.

The passage of time and my work in suicide prevention advocacy has allowed me to shift my perspective some. I still grapple daily with regret, I don’t think that will ever leave me. But today, when I am asked if there were signs, I square my shoulders, take a deep breath and tell the truth. Yes, the signs were there, but I did not know it. I did not have the training, education or experience to recognize them or to know how to respond even if I did.

Months before my father’s suicide he was struggling. That much I knew, and it was that I tried to love him through. I recognized that he was in the midst of a deep depression and I reminded him constantly that he was not alone, that I was there to listen, to talk, to offer my presence and unconditional support. I reminded him that even in his most broken state, he was loved. I’d like to believe that there were moments when that gave him some relief, some respite from the storm. I’d like to believe that maybe those things helped him to hold on a little bit longer, to fight another day, to cling to that thread even as it unraveled in his hands.

But I also know those things were not enough to save him.

My father had begun to withdraw from things that once brought him pleasure.  He expressed feelings of being a burden & a sense of hopelessness. He wasn’t sleeping and his eating patterns changed. He lost weight, was anxious and agitated.  All of these were signs I only came to know in hindsight, that he might be at risk for suicide.  He did not speak the words out loud that he wanted to end his life.  But his actions and his words whispered hints that I wasn’t equipped to understand.

It’s not that my father didn’t also wear a mask. Like so many who are struggling with mental illness, he could tuck it away, compartmentalize, and put forth an Oscar worthy performance that would convince those who didn’t know better, that he was just fine. And, he didn’t entrust us with his full truth. He didn’t come to us and tell us that he was feeling suicidal.  Though the fact is, I don’t know how long he considered ending his life. I don’t know if he planned it out or if it was, as is often the case, an impulsive act. I will never know that.

This much I do know, and this is what I want to say.  It is true that hindsight is 20/20. And there is often not much good to the old saying, if I knew then, what I know now. The knowing will never bring my father back. And the hindsight remains fraught with pain & regret. But I choose to look at it anyway & I choose to share my story with others. Because I believe that out of the tragedy of my father’s death, lives can be saved.

I chose to get trained in Mental Health First Aid, even if sitting through that class tore away every fragile scab that I had developed. I wanted to ensure that if anyone I loved or cared for was ever at risk for suicide, this time I would be better equipped to respond. This time I would recognize the signs. This time I would know what questions to ask, including the hardest one of all. This time I would know what steps to take to keep that person safe long enough to get them into the right hands and ensure that they got the proper care.  This time, I might just be able to save a life.

Francis Bacon said that knowledge is power.  The newest statistics on suicide are staggering. Based on these findings from The CDC “overall suicide rates have gone up 28 percent since 2000.”  It is particularly staggering to see that “the suicide rate among teenage girls continues to rise and hit a 40-year high in 2015, and rose by more than 30 percent among teen boys and young men between 2007 and 2015.”

But we are not powerless to change this devastating trend. The signs that my father displayed are evident now only in the rear view mirror. But the lessons that his death has given me still have purpose. I got the training in Mental Health First Aid and I share my truth with others because I believe that if we all educate ourselves about suicide risk factors and prevention, we can save lives.

I also believe that it is our moral obligation to do so. Suicide can be prevented. We are not helpless in this fight. Those who are struggling in the darkness need us to shine a light. They need us to be that glimmer of hope that helps them to hold on, to stay and to get the treatment they need. They need to feel that we can be a safe space, that we will listen and that when they show us their pain, we will treat it with compassion, care and understanding.

How do we do that? How do we as parents, spouses, children, or loved ones empower ourselves? How do we do that as educators, clergy, community leaders and people who care about our fellow human beings?

It begins with knowledge. It begins with awareness. It begins with education.

Nothing I do will ever bring my father back. But if the lessons I’ve learned can help to save the life of another, then his death will not be in vein.

To learn more about the risk factors and warning signs of suicide visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

If you are struggling and need someone to talk to call The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

To find a course on Mental Health First Aid and further this important cause click here.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
― Maya Angelou

 

 

backpack

It’s been just over two years since my father’s suicide. Some days it feels as if it was just yesterday that I was standing in Whole Foods and got the call. Still on other days, it feels as if a whole lifetime has passed. I know that I have found healing, just as I know that I will never be healed. I am learning to live with his death, just as I know that I will never be at peace with it. Such is the truth of a suicide loss.

This journey has been the hardest one I have ever traveled. In the beginning, the pain was so great I carried it daily like an enormous backpack on my shoulders. It weighed me down, as I was constantly aware of the burden I was struggling to bear. My knees would buckle, I was winded and wounded.  Every step forward was a struggle. I slipped, I faltered, I begged for the chance to go back to what was. I wanted to go home to before. That backpack felt as if it was full of stones, bricks and boulders. And I often questioned just how long I’d be able to carry it, even if I’d be able to carry it. It is no exaggeration to say that it took every ounce of my strength to keep going day in and day out. It would’ve been easier to stay in bed, wrapped in my sorrow. The terrain over which I had to lug my burden, so unfamiliar and barren, only made every step more uncertain. If there were rocks upon my shoulders, it felt as if my feet were carrying them too. Others did what they could to lighten my load, but in truth, it was and still is mine to bear.

If the backpack was the metaphor then, two years later I can say that there are days I still must carry it. The truth that I rarely speak out loud is that I am in pain every single day. It lives within me and in one form or another, it reminds me daily that it is there. But I am grateful that it isn’t always so large, so heavy, so overwhelming. There are days the backpack can stand empty in the corner, and I can carry the pain in my pocket. Some days it grows a bit larger, and I must hold it in a change purse, a fanny pack or a messenger bag. It is with me on those days, I’m aware of it, but it doesn’t weigh me down in quite the same manner.  My knees don’t buckle, I can stand up straight and my stride is far more steady & strong.

Those days allow me to breathe more easily. I can live more in the present, taking in the joy, the blessings and the love that surrounds me. I can relish even the most mundane of tasks, because it feels somehow more normal to partake in them. It is a new normal yes, but it is evidence that I am surviving and even thriving.

I wish I could plan the level of pain each day will bring, or my ability to shape how it impacts me. I try to set my intentions for the day through meditation. I use breathing techniques to center myself. I sit in stillness, and I listen to what I am feeling. Some days I get only static. Other days offer me clarity. Some days looking inward is so painful I must open my eyes, and still other days I find it soothing & comforting.

No, I never know what the day ahead will bring. The morning may allow me to slip my sorrow into my pocket, but the afternoon brings with it a storm that forces me to pick up that backpack again. And still by evening, perhaps the pain has eased and I can  hold it in the palm of my hand, look at it and lay it to rest.

The point is this…

I am carrying it.  I am living with it. I have not allowed it to hold me in one space or place. No matter how heavy it gets, I have moved along this path, one that is so far from linear. And as I look back at how far I have come, it gives me the faith that I can continue onward.

The pain of my father’s suicide will always be with me. But I have discovered that I have the strength to hold it, to bear it and even to let it go. And for that, I am grateful.

“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”
― Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy

newspaper

Dear Members of the Media,

This past week, as you reported on the death of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington, many of you once again ignored the recommendations for responsible reporting on suicide.

These recommendations are in place for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to try and minimize the chances of suicide contagion, or copycat suicides. According to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount duration and prominence of the coverage. Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines & images and repeated extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.

But I would like to add another reason that following the recommendations matters. You see for people like me, survivors of suicide loss, the notion of how our loved ones died is hard enough to live with. We may struggle with flashbacks, nightmares and PTSD. Some of us found our loved ones, some have recreated images in our own minds based upon the details we came to know. But for all of us, it is a pain that is indescribable and one we must live with for the rest of our days.

My father took his own life at the age of 72, just over two years ago. It has taken a great deal of work for me to navigate this path through the traumatic loss. And there is not a day that goes by that I am not haunted by an image of his final moments. In the beginning those images were a constant assault on my senses. Two years later they still remain but they are no longer at the forefront of my every waking moment.  I am grateful for that healing, though I can not ever think about my dad in life, without being confronted by his death. I can’t savor a memory, without the taint of pain and trauma. And I am constantly vulnerable to triggers that will, without warning, blindside me and bring me to my knees with despair.

So, when you choose to ignore the recommendations for responsive reporting on suicide loss, and I am confronted with a barrage of headlines on the radio, social media, in the paper or on the television, you also do harm to me. Because those headlines serve as a trigger, one that rips open the very fragile scab that has formed over my loss and exposes every ounce of my pain. The images I’ve worked to place on the back burner of my days come roaring in with a vengeance, the tears begin to flow and I feel assaulted by your salacious details. And long after I turn you off your words linger.

You as members of the media have the power to change the conversation around suicide. You can help to break down the walls of shame & stigma by talking about mental illness, and how none of us is immune. You can share important information that might reach someone in crisis and enable them to get the help they need. You can report on issues around suicide prevention and shed light on important programs. You can ask politicians and leaders questions about addressing issues of mental health in our country. You can take the tragic death of someone famous and help meaning to come of it. In the case of  Chester Bennington or Chris Cornell you can talk about substance abuse as well, because substance abuse and mental health go hand in hand. You can make good come out of sorrow & loss.

And you can remember the vulnerable who are watching. Those living with suicidal ideation, and struggling to hold on.

You can help to ensure that those of us who have already suffered the unimaginable, do not have our pain compounded by your words and images.

You can do your job responsibly & ethically.

It’s not that hard to do. And you might just save a life along the way.

Sincerely Yours,

A Suicide Loss Survivor

If you are in crisis and need help call 1-800-273-TALK

Click here for media guidelines on Responsible Reporting on Suicide

hands heart

“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow–this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert

Today would’ve been my parents 52nd wedding anniversary. Just a couple of months before their 50th anniversary my father took his own life. My mother went to bed not knowing that in the morning, she would wake up a widow.

They met as teenagers in Brooklyn. Theirs was not a perfect love story, those exist only in fairytales. Instead, it was one of substance, friendship, mutual respect and admiration. They loved one another through the best of times and the worst of times. They accepted one another’s flaws, shortcomings and imperfections. They nurtured one another’s strengths, dreams and spirits. They laughed and they cried. They celebrated and they fought. They let each other down, then picked each other up. Life is messy, so is love, but through it all they held fast to one another.

This much I always knew growing up in my house, my parents loved one another. Not everybody gets that in this life.

They built a family on the foundation of their love. Their children and grandchildren are their enduring legacy. And today, as I think about my parents, my heart aches that love was not enough to save my father. But death cannot diminish the love that they shared and the life that they fostered. That is where my father’s spirit lives on. That is the flame that can never be extinguished.

And on a day where my mother is missing her husband & best friend, I pray that flame will warm her soul and help to heal her broken heart. We all miss you Dad. You were surrounded by the deepest of love. It is my fervent wish that you knew that, even when the darkness consumed you. And though you are now gone… your love story is without end.  

dad mom sweet 16

My father and my mother at her Sweet 16. His enduring words to her. 

 

 

Dear Dad,

Yael is graduating High School today. I wish you were here to see it. You missed so much Dad. There were so many celebrations yet to be, so many milestones to mark.

She is wearing your bracelet along with her cap and gown. A piece of you will be with her.

I know your’re looking down with pride. But I wish you could have stayed.

She does too.

But today and every day, we carry you in our hearts.

dad and yael

April 1 does not herald in a day of jokes, trickery and laughs for me.

Instead it feels like a kick in the gut. The fight or flight mode that seeped in during the month of March, is now in full swing. I don’t sleep well. I feel anxious. My emotions feel like a daily roller coaster ride over which I have little control. It takes almost nothing to make me cry, or to push me over the edge. Raw. That is how I feel. I am remembering the days leading up to his death and regret is so present I can taste it. In twenty days it will be two years since my father’s suicide. In twenty days I will begin putting the word years around his death, instead of months.

Sometimes all I want is to go up into the mountains and scream. I want to scream at the top of my lungs. I want to scream out the pain, the trauma, the regret, the anger, the feeling of abandonment, the sadness and the missing. I want to scream at my father, I want to scream at God. I want to let all of my hurt out in the most primal way that I know how. I want to scream until I can’t make another sound. I want to give all of the grief a place to go outside of myself.

But I don’t.

Because sometimes I am afraid that if I start screaming, I may never stop. The wellspring of trauma, sorrow and loss feels, at times, as if it is without end. And so I try to contain the feelings. It’s not that I don’t express or address them, I do. I write, I talk, I go to therapy. I do all of the work so that I can continue the journey forward and find some healing. But I do it in a way that feels controlled.

And there has been progress. There has been healing. And I am so grateful for that.

But there is a wound in my soul that is hard to give voice to. And I am not sure it will ever fully heal. Words seem inadequate. Other survivors know it. They’ve shared their wounds with me. It is a deep and intimate sense of knowing, that despite being strangers in every other way, binds us together. Because only we truly understand what it feels like.

I want to scream out, but I don’t know what I want to say. I want to tap into that endless wellspring of pain that I have lived with for two years now, and like a dam that overflows, I want to let it all out. I want to rage and cry, stomp my feet, pound my fists until every ounce of me is free from what I carry.

But in truth, I know I will never truly be free of it. I’ll learn to carry it. It will ease into a dull ache. It will scab. And every now and again life will pour salt into that wound and reawaken the pain, as it did today when the month of April began.

I am sad. I miss my Dad.

Twenty days until the months become years. I want to scream out all of the sorrow and trauma; like a cleansing of the spirit. I want to scream until I am out of breath, I want to scream to reveal to those around me all that I still hold inside. I want them to know.  I want them to see. I want my screams to shake the foundation so very hard that all of the walls I erect come crashing down. It will make me vulnerable yes, but will it strengthen me as well?

And yet, I am afraid to expose my wounds. How do I allow others to bear witness to every unnerving truth? I am afraid that they won’t, they can’t understand how my father’s death haunts me, how it has altered me.

So instead, quietly, when others are not around, I scream silently into the void. And I pray that the internal tsunami will slowly subside into a wave and then a ripple. And that a whisper in the wind, will still help me to heal all that I still carry within.

mask

My father wore a mask in his final weeks on earth. He let us see much of his pain & torment. Depression & anxiety took hold and tag teamed him in every manner of cruelty. But he compartmentalized and he did not reveal to us the truest and deepest depths of his suffering. We all got pieces of the puzzle but in the end, without the full truth we could not/did not put it together.

He saw his illness of the mind as a personal fault and his inability to simply will himself out of the darkness, a failure. I don’t know, I’ll never know what was that final straw, the moment that his descension into the darkness led him to believe that death was the only way to end his pain. That part of the puzzle will always remain incomplete. Believe me when I say, the question of “why” haunts me, though not with the same fervor it did in the earliest days/weeks/months of his suicide. I believe that unanswerable question and the regret of all I didn’t know or see, will reside within me forever, but the edges have and will soften over time.

Still, I wish he had taken off the mask. I wish he had revealed all of his truth, including those about ending his own life. If he had given me his full truth I would’ve held him and all that he felt with love, compassion and hope enough for the both of us. I would’ve reminded him again that he was still deeply loved even in his most broken state, feeling vulnerable & lost. I would’ve helped him to find every tool that he needed to fight back against his illness. I would have liked the chance to help him to live, to heal and to find hope once again. I could not and didn’t promise that it would be easy. I never offered empty promises. I knew better. I loved him with all I had, and listened with an open heart.

I was only a few weeks away from visiting him & my mom. And he kept telling me how much he was looking forward to my coming, to time together to talk, really talk and simply be with one another. And I wanted to just hug him with every ounce of strength I had, to meet his pain head on, not across the telephone line. But that never happened. I never got that time, that hug, that chance…


My father wore a mask. We all do. But when that mask hides the parts of us that most need to be shared, exposed, honored and loved… the light within us begins to dim. And if we hide the truth of deep suffering, the darkness can envelop us.


I can only pray that in sharing my truth, I’ve allowed others to feel safe taking off their masks, sharing their illness of the mind and seeking help for their pain & struggles. I can only hope that my words chip away ever so slowly at the added burden of shame & stigma that compound their hurting souls & cause them to hold ever tighter to those masks.


If I can do that, I bring meaning to his death and to my sorrow. Because my father had an illness, no less true than a physical diagnosis. But it didn’t have to be fatal. If only he’d taken off the mask, he might still be here today.

calendar-photo-845x321

When we lived in Atlanta, I kept a giant calendar on the side of our refrigerator. Having three kids in three schools, plus after school activities and my husband’s busy rabbi schedule to juggle, that calendar  helped me to organize life for myself & my family. Yes, in these days of smart phones and technology, I preferred to have life laid out in black and white, on paper. I still do.

My father died on April 20, 2015. And while so much of life felt like a blur in the aftermath of his suicide, the details of that day are etched into my mind with painful & perfect clarity.

When the end of that month came, I took the April calendar down, but I couldn’t throw it away.  That was the last month that my father was alive. It was the last month that I would hear his voice, or tell him that I loved him and hear him say it in return.

And that piece of paper so starkly reflected the truth of my life. Every day leading up to April 20, 2015 was my before. And every day that followed, my after.

That is what it is to lose someone to suicide. You mark your very existence as a survivor in before & after. Because to survive a suicide loss is to be forever altered in ways that at times simply defy words.

The other day I was cleaning out some papers and I came across the calendar once again. My response, almost two years later, was still the same. I can’t throw it away. Some part of me simply can’t give up this piece of paper, filled as it is with the mundane routine of our daily lives as a family.

On the day my father died, my middle daughter was scheduled to have her braces taken off. My friend Karen so graciously picked her up at school and took her to the orthodontist, feigning a story about why I couldn’t get her myself. I recall vividly the picture Karen sent of Leora’s beautiful brace free smile at the end of that appointment. And I remember the pain I felt at knowing that the news of my father’s suicide, would wipe that smile away in an instant. And yet, there it is in black & white, what was supposed to be a far more ordinary afternoon, with an appointment scheduled at 2:00. And written underneath it are notes about carpool and a final class at Religious School. It was supposed to be an ordinary day, that became anything but.

I look at all of the things written on that April calendar that fell after the 20th, and I can’t even remember who took care of what. Who cancelled the appointments before we went to New York for the funeral? The house was due for the final inspection. Who made sure it was tidied up before we left? Who drove carpool? It is all a blur.

There was life before my father’s suicide. And there is life after. And why I can’t throw out that one piece of paper, I don’t know. Except maybe that it is the most concrete reflection of the day my life changed forever.

Time has passed. There has been much heartache, but also a great deal of healing. I try not to dwell in memories of the before. But I hold fast to one torn page from the calendar that reminds me of time I still shared with my father. He lived for 19 days in April 2015. And a single piece of paper is the evidence I cleave to. How could I possibly throw that away?

Time is the longest distance between two places. (Tennessee Williams)

 

dancing with dad at my bat mitzvah

Dancing with my dad at my Bat Mitzvah party

“Tell me something about your dad”, my heart whispered this morning. “Tell me something about his life, a sweet memory, and let it not be tainted by his suicide.”

And my mind answered,”But those moments are hard to find. It seems whenever I try to revisit those memories, his suicide, the way his life ended, inevitably comes crashing in.”

“Try anyway”, my heart answered back. “Do not let his death be all that defines him.”

Eyes closed

A deep breath.

Clearing away the pain.

Making room for something sweeter.

He loved to dance!

I mean, my father LOVED to dance. When I was younger, he and my mom would get dressed up in their disco gear and hit the dance floor on Saturday nights. I remember thinking that I had such cool parents. My mom in her spandex top & leather pants and my dad, looking so suave with his shirt unbuttoned, heading out to Uncle Sam’s disco. Date night was dance night for them.

mom and dad club night

My parents ready to hit the dance floor

But my dad didn’t have to wait for a club or an event to get his groove on. Our living room had a full wall of mirrors. And as part of my dad’s exercise routine, he would pop in an 8 track tape, put on his castanets and shirtless, with just his shorts on, he would dance. I can remember Peaches & Herb blaring through the stereo speakers singing, “Shake your groove thing, shake your groove thing yeah yeah. Show ’em how we do it y’all.” And without a partner, but with total & complete abandon, my father would just dance until he was dripping in sweat.

dad disco days

This is how I remember my dad dancing around the living room.

I don’t know if my father was ever more free, than when he was dancing. He didn’t hold back. The music enveloped him and he just radiated joy. For him, it was clear that dancing was a celebration of life, and on the dance floor, he gave it everything he had.

And he was happy. I can remember him happy. I can remember him free.

And my mind whispered to me, “Hold that memory today. Grasp it tight and don’t let go.”

And my heart whispered to me, “There is room for both the sorrow & the joy. Cleave to the joy today.”

My father loved to dance.

He knew joy. He knew celebration. He could and he did dance like no one was watching.

Today, with everything I’ve got, I hold fast to that memory of my dad.

My father loved to dance. And remembering that, makes me smile.

Let show the world we can dance
Bad enough to strut our stuff
The music gives us a chance
We do more out on the floor

Groovin’ loose or heart to heart
We put in motion every single part
Funky sounds wall to wall
We’re bumpin’ booties, havin’ us a ball, y’all

(Peaches & Herb Shake Your Groove Thing)