Archives for category: Coping with Suicide

I was invited by my husband, Rabbi Fred Greene, to share this message with our congregation, Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado. It was incredibly hard to deliver this “sermon” but I am grateful that it was met with much grace, compassion, and support. I’d like to share it here as well.

Survivors of Suicide Loss Shabbat Message 11/19/2021

Shabbat Shalom. In his book, The Body Keeps Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk writes, It is enormously difficult to organize one’s traumatic experiences into a coherent account-a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. I have found that to be true. But I know that I’d like to begin by telling you a little bit about my father in life. His name was Lowell Herman. He was born and raised in Brooklyn where he met and married my mother, Sandra. They were married for fifty years. He was a beloved father to my brother Aaron and me, and he was a grandfather of six. He was successful in his professional life, financially secure, well-traveled and he had many friends. He loved to dance. He was a master at Paint by Numbers, and he took his Scrabble game and NY Times crossword puzzles very seriously. And on April 20, 2015, at the age of 72, my father died by suicide.

He had been struggling with anxiety and depression for many months. In truth, I can look back and say that he grappled with both of these throughout my life, though he never had a formal diagnosis back then. In the months before his death, I spent many hours on the phone with my father offering my presence, all of the unconditional love that I could muster and the reassurance that I believed with the right help, things could and would get better for him. I met him in all of his brokenness and vulnerability, and told him that he was enough, that he was loved and that we would accompany him for however long it took to find his way to a better and more balanced place. But it wasn’t enough to save him.

Tomorrow will be the sixth International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day that I will observe as a member of the “survivors” club. It is a club that none of us wanted to join, but one that offers comfort, solace, and a sense of knowing that intimately connects us even as strangers. I have turned to the members of this club often, especially in the early years after my father’s death.

I didn’t know anyone like me in my day-to-day life. There was nobody I could turn to who understood the depths of trauma and deeply complicated grief that I was living through. The father that I loved, had taken the life of the father that I loved. And it was only among my fellow survivors that I could speak my full truth, enveloped in all its pain, with no restraint in my tears, my screams, and my seemingly unending sorrow. I could share my guilt, my questions, every Why? and every What did I miss? without being met with platitudes, shame, silence, or victim blaming.

In her book, It’s OK That You’re Not Ok, Megan Devine writes,

Here’s what I most want you to know: this really is as bad as you think. No matter what anyone else says, this sucks. What has happened cannot be made right. What is lost cannot be restored. There is no beauty here, inside this central fact. Acknowledgement is everything. You’re in pain. It can’t be made better. The reality of grief is far different from what others see from the outside. There is pain in this world that you can’t be cheered out of. You don’t need solutions. You don’t need to move on from your grief. You need someone to hold your hands while you stand there in blinking horror, staring at the hole that was your life. Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.

We live in a society that is uncomfortable with grief. Add to that the unfathomable layers that come with a traumatic loss, and we who are standing in that gaping hole can find ourselves feeling isolated and fending off words and attitudes that do little to help us find healing, and only deepen our hurt.

So, what is it that I want to tell you tonight? What are the lessons that I have learned that might allow you to better meet someone in the pain of suicide loss and to accompany them on their journey?

In the early days of my loss, I endured so many hard questions. Were there signs? How did he do it? Had he tried this before? Repeatedly I encountered variations of these probing questions. And each time that I attempted to answer them, my guilt grew stronger, my anger deepened, and my sense of otherness took root. You see, when we lose someone to a physical illness, the autopsy is left to the medical professionals. When we lose a loved one to suicide, it is we, the survivors of that loss, who get engulfed in the psychological autopsy. Our eyes become fixated on the rearview mirror. We search for every missed sign, we see everything we didn’t do, and it is unbearable enough. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said, Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death. Probing questions, whether rooted in morbid curiosity or good intentions, do not help us. They ask us to return again and again to a wound that is raw and festering. So, I would implore you not to ask them. Let us tell our stories in our own time and in a manner that allows us to honor our loss and our loved one. The details of their final moments are no less sacred, even if they might be fraught with violence, darkness, and despair.

Do not assign blame. Survivors of suicide loss struggle with guilt already. It is a heavy burden to bear. I have strived to reframe my guilt as regret over the years. One can learn to live with regret, however hard, but guilt has the power to consume us. Those questions I referenced just a few moments ago, the signs that may have been missed, those only solidify our feeling that we somehow failed our loved ones when they needed us most. And that feeling is made even more difficult when well-intentioned people lay judgment on the person we are mourning. We hear words like selfish, cowardly, cruel, and more aimed at them. But they were none of those things. They were sick. Their illness might not have been a physical one, but it was no less real or painful. So, hold your tongue if you feel ready to pass judgement on them. I lost my father to mental illness. And his memory is deserving of respect and compassion, his memory is and always will be an enduring and abiding blessing.

Show up. In his book, Living a Life That Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, At some of the darkest moments of my life, some people I thought of as friends deserted me. Some because they cared about me and it hurt them to see me in pain, others because I reminded them of their own vulnerability, and that was more than they could handle. But real friends overcame their discomfort (and in the case of suicide, I’d add their own fear) and came to sit with me. If they had not words to make me feel better, they sat in silence (much better than saying “You’ll get over it.” Or “It’s not so bad, others have it worse.” And I loved them for it.

There is something about suicide loss that keeps people away. It has the power to stop a conversation in its tracks and makes people deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps it goes back to the adage, there but for the grace of God go I. After all, if it could happen to my family then it could happen in anyone’s family. I cannot speak to the reasons people stay away, nor do I want to. What I can say is that I noticed. I noticed who came to sit with me in my pain, and who did not. Who was made uncomfortable by my grief and the way my father died, and who never gave me a hint of that feeling. I remember those who told me they did not know what to say or do, so they saw giving me space as some kind of noble deed. Show up and keep showing up. And when you show up know that we would rather have you sit in loving silence with us and acknowledge that you don’t know what to say, than to have platitudes imparted to us that cannot possibly speak to the enormity of our trauma and grief. I recall the friends who came over and ensured that I ate something, or who offered to stay with me while I tried to get some sleep. And when I moved to Boulder feeling so messy and broken only two months after my father’s death, I recall with such gratitude the new friends who allowed me to share my grief with them, and who gave me space to simply be in it. They did not ask me to contain it, to clean it up or make it more palatable. As Megan Devine writes, The more we are allowed to open up to our pain, the more we can just be with it, the more we can give ourselves the tenderness and care we need to survive this. There isn’t anything we need to do with our pain. There is nothing we need to do about our pain. It simply is. So, accompany us as we give it our attention and care. As we find ways to let it stretch out and exist, sit with us. As we tend to ourselves from the inside of it, be with us. That is so different from trying to get us out of it.

Ask us about our loved ones in life. The thing about suicide loss is that so much of who they were to us becomes encapsulated in the ending of their story. It is as if every chapter that existed prior to that dark day stops mattering. It took me years to be able to touch upon memories of my father in life without the trauma of his death engulfing those tender moments. But when someone would ask me about who he was to me or asked that I share a memory of him that made me smile, for a moment, however brief, I was reminded that even if they were buried beneath layers of traumatic grief, those memories, and the joyful, warm feelings they evoked, remained alive and accessible somewhere inside of me. And that fueled my hope that in time, they would become more attainable. And six years later, I can think of my father on the dance floor or dressed up like a human menorah on Chanukah and I can smile.

Finally, I’d ask you to consider that words matter. I have spent the last six years dodging so many triggers. Plot lines in television shows, movies or books, posts about celebrity suicides can still catch me by off guard and return me to a deeply vulnerable state. But the most frequent and difficult trigger remains the language that trivializes suicide loss. I am certain that I was guilty of this before losing my father. In moments of frustration, I can say without a doubt that I said things like

 I’d kill myself if… or

That makes me want to put a hole in my head

 I won’t go on here, as I am sure you get the idea, and it is difficult for me to even reference these phrases. But they are hurtful, and I can assure you that in a time when we are growing ever more aware of inclusive language, phrases like these and worse get tossed around regularly. From our television screens to movie scripts and in conversations that surround us, suicide loss survivors hear these phrases with stunning frequency. And most of the time we hear little else of what follows. We all know that there is no truth in that old rhyme that

Sticks and stones may break our bones

But words will never hurt us.

Words or gestures that make light of suicide and self-injurious behavior do hurt.

We can never know who within earshot has been touched by suicide loss unless they choose to divulge that to us. So, guard the words that come out in moments of frustration, do not share jokes or punchlines that trivialize the very real pain we the survivors of suicide loss must carry. And please, when the cause of death is suicide, make the effort to use trauma-informed language. To say that my father “committed” suicide is to reinforce the notion that his death

was a criminal or sinful act. Using neutral language like “died by suicide” helps to chip away at the shame and blame that surrounds the death of our loved ones. It is a small change that can have a big impact. Remember that our language reflects our attitudes and can influence the attitudes of others. The conversation around suicide loss has a long way to go. But we can be a part of changing the dialogue.

Friends, there is so much more that I could share. Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “It takes enormous trust and courage to allow yourself to remember.” Remembering is hard. Writing this was hard. And speaking tonight in front of all of you, some of whom I know and others that I do not, required a great deal of courage. It is all hard. I am a trauma survivor. The trauma I carry is that I lost my father to suicide. I can name the moment my life became divided into the before and after of that loss. I went food shopping on a Monday morning, standing in the produce aisle of Whole Foods I answered the phone and heard the words that altered my world forever. I will never again be the same. I picked up the broken pieces of my life and I continue to work to put them together anew. Some pieces no longer fit, others feel sharper and more defined, still others have taken on new and different dimensions. I carry scars that cannot be seen, but they are ever-present. My brain and body have spent far too much time engaged in fight or flight, imprinted with and altered by the way I lost my father. My faith has been fractured. My relationship with God has found some healing, but my relationship to our liturgy has not. I do not come to services because the prayers are often painful for me, these words that speak of an intervening God do not bring me comfort. And though six years have passed, some moments and milestones can bring me right back to those early days of suffering. What I want most is to be seen in my entirety, fissures, cracks, and all. I will never get over this loss. I have learned to carry it with me, to incorporate it into my very being. Some days the weight of it is barely noticeable and still on other days it has the power to bring me to my knees. I am surviving this loss every day. I will be surviving this loss for a long time to come. But I am finding ways to thrive as well. The pain ebbs and flows, as does my progress through the valley of the shadows. Grief is not linear. The traumatic grief of suicide loss is made even harder to navigate, stacked with stigma, guilt, isolation, the unanswerable question of why, anger at our loved ones, anger at ourselves and the shame of a nation that remains uncomfortable dealing openly and honestly with issues of mental illness.

That is my truth, and it feels so vulnerable to share it with you tonight. But I hope that in doing so, I have imbued my journey and yours with some meaning, so that we may walk it together with a greater sense of knowing and understanding. I’d like to close with an excerpt of a prayer that I wrote and shared on my own blog, Reflecting Out Loud:

Our world, our lives, our souls, our hearts, our family is left with fragments; like the tablets Moses threw upon the ground…
the broken pieces are now a part of us
the aftermath of a suicide we must carry within us
and we will never again be the people we were before.

Help us to honor the fragments; holding them in the tabernacle of our hearts, just as the Hebrew people carried the shattered tablets with them on their journey toward the Promised Land.
They are a part of our story now. A sacred and sad reminder of what was & what will never be.

Adonai our God, like a mosaic comprised of broken glass, help us to rebuild ourselves, our souls
bit by bit, shard by shard, broken piece by broken piece.
Be with us.
Accompany & carry us through the valley of grief.
Stay with us.
Help us to find a new wholeness.
Help us to find peace.
Help us to tell our story.
Because it is in the telling, that we honor their life, their loss and all that they were to us.

Photo by Frank Cone on Pexels.com

People who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People to sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in helpful vigil to our pain. Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior

I had my first panic attack a few days ago. It was an absolutely terrifying feeling, being locked into that fight, flight, or freeze mode for the entirety of the day beginning at 4 AM. I did all of the things that I know to do in order to bring my body back to a more balanced state. I meditated, I did my breathwork, I distracted myself with a puzzle and other activities, but none of it worked. And the more I struggled to wriggle free of that space, the more frightened I became. It’s a vicious cycle and one I had never fully understood until this past week.

I have been struggling a lot with anxiety of late. There are many things going on at home that have played into that feeling. I’ve been dealing with some chronic nerve pain, I am empty nesting and there are other challenges that are not yet ready for public consumption but that feel like the weight of the world has descended onto our household. I think, if I am honest with myself, anxiety really began to unpack its bags and make itself at home, over the course of this pandemic. The collective fear, worry, and angst that engulfed every decision, the social isolation, and the consternation and apprehension that wrapped itself around me like armor when I had to leave my home all became familiar feelings day-to-day. As a trauma survivor, however, those feelings also served as a trigger, activating the muscle memory that engulfed me for years after my father’s suicide. If part of the coping mechanism that had helped me move out of that state of being was to remind myself that the terrible thing had already happened, that I had survived it, and that I was now safe, living through a pandemic and the collective trauma outside of my front door turned that thinking on its head, making it harder to convince myself and trust in that knowing. As the days went on, right up until the present moment, I simply acclimated to living with a daily sense of unease. Some days it was a little ripple, other days it was a wave, and still, on the hardest days, it was a tsunami. Each new dawn could bring with it the receding of the tide or the threat of a storm surge. That is the rhythm I became accustomed to living with.

I made the decision over the summer to try going on medication. I was having a particularly hard time when I would start to rouse at about 4:00-5:00 AM and my mind would immediately perk right up and start its day, the wheels would begin turning and I could not quiet them enough to get the rest that I so desperately needed. I had seen the benefit of medication in my own family and hoped to find the same result for myself. Unfortunately, my first foray into the world of anti-anxiety medications gave me insomnia, which only fed my anxiety and strengthened it, all while making me fearful of trying something else that might bring me some real relief. So I continued simply trying my best to manage. And some days I did a damn good job. But never underestimate the power of the mind to make its needs known, and never underestimate the power of life to disrupt and dismantle the solid ground we are striving to stand upon. That is what happened to me the other day. The chronic nerve pain and the worry that creates, particularly when there are no easy answers, a bad reaction to a medication, fear over other family health concerns, all came together for a perfect storm and all I wanted to do was to navigate myself into the eye of that storm, that place of calm in the chaos, so I could catch my breath, slow my heart rate, find my center and convince my body that I was not in any danger, that we could move from fight, flight or freeze into a steadier space. But I could not will myself out of the panic and it scared me.

The psychiatric nurse that I have been working with asked me recently if I thought I was depressed. I told her that I didn’t think I was depressed but that I was sad. I’ve been struggling with my empty nest and grieving the daily presence of my daughters, the only bright spot to come from this pandemic was having them all at home with us. They are where they need to be and I am grateful that to whatever degree possible, they’ve been able to resume their lives safely. But the fact that they all left at once and we did not ease into this life transition one child at a time made their absence more palpable for me. The ongoing realities of covid still make social connectivity a challenge, especially as our state and county remain at very high rates of transmission. Some days I am really hurting physically and those “not yet for public consumption” truths that our family is grappling with linger in the background like an ominous cloud just waiting to release its full fury. So I told her that I feel sadness, that I cry very easily, and that I feel my bandwidth has been stretched to capacity. It’s harder for me to muster the energy for things that might’ve come more readily before. I feel tired. But no, I didn’t see that as depression. I suppose the fact that I get up out of bed every day, that self-care remains a priority, that I find ways to connect with others and engage with the world, that I still laugh and find reasons to be joyful, allowed me to make this distinction without much thought. However, in the days since my panic attack, I’ve been trying to contemplate the full truth of where I find myself. And I think perhaps that when anxiety stepped into the back door and moved itself in, depression might’ve been hiding in its suitcase. And because depression chose to lay rather low in the background, I simply didn’t recognize that it too had become my companion. Every time I voiced to my husband that I simply wanted to feel more like myself again, I think I may have been offering a tacit acknowledgment of that fact. I don’t know. But I’m opening myself up to that possibility.

What I do know is that writing has always helped me to process what I am feeling and the response I get when I share hard truths usually serves to remind me that I am not alone. The comfort of that knowledge can never be overstated. I had stopped writing for a long time. Partly I wanted to step away from the piece of my life that revolved around surviving my father’s suicide. Partly I stopped making time to sit down at the computer. And as I’ve written today, I also ran out of bandwidth. I wasn’t sure I could craft the words, or share an insight of meaning or value. But I know that other people are struggling, especially right now. And I also know that some of the baggage and fears I carry around my father’s suicide and how they cause me to perceive my own mental health struggles are not unrelatable to those who have endured this kind of loss. It’s a big T trauma that permeates so many aspects of our lives. So of course it touches this piece as well. It impacts decisions about the types of medications we can consider, it creates worry about genetics and I know that as I sat in the midst of that panic attack the other day feeling so out of control of my own body, I kept wondering if this was part of what my father was feeling in the days, weeks and months before his death. I did not wonder because I have thoughts of hurting myself, which I don’t. I wondered because there will always be a part of me that is searching for where his spiral, his descent into the darkness began and because I want to protect everyone I love, including myself, from ever reaching that place. And I wondered because for the first time I could empathize, not just sympathize, with the feeling of palpable physical fear that he must’ve held all day every day. I was exhausted after one day of that feeling. I cannot imagine the level of emotional exhaustion he must’ve reached.

I started another medication two nights ago and so far I seem to be tolerating it. It has a sedative effect which is helping me to sleep, as I take it at night. I have moved my therapy sessions from bi-weekly to weekly, and I am grateful that my neurologist, therapist, and psychiatric nurse are all working together so that I can make decisions about my emotional and physical well-being with the most holistic approach. Today the nerve pain isn’t too bad, and I always hold abundant gratitude for those days. And it is a sunny, cool autumn day that allowed me to get outside and walk which is good for my spirit. I’m working to take this journey one day at a time, sometimes one moment at a time. But I am doing the work because I do want to feel better and more like myself again. And I found the bandwidth to write today. And you know what? It helped me to process my feelings and it helped me to get some of what lives tucked away deep inside of me, out into the light. Somehow that makes it easier. Talking about our mental health struggles can feel scary and vulnerable, so too often we don’t. And that only allows shame to take hold. I never wanted that for my father though I know he felt it, or for those, I know and love who struggle with mental illness. So in putting this out there, I am refusing to allow that for myself. In case you are struggling too, let this serve as a gentle reminder that you are not alone. You are worthy of care, compassion, and healing. So am I. We do not have to hold our struggles in some kind of sacred silence. We can name them out loud. And we can honor our truth, even when it feels so damn messy and hard!

Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it, just as we have learned to live with the storms. Paulo Coelho

Dear Dad,


It’s hard to believe that today marks 6 years since you died. In some ways, it feels like a lifetime has passed, and in other ways, it feels like it was just yesterday. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about you. How I remember you varies from day to day, sometimes from moment to moment. It has gotten easier to think about you in life, to hold some of the more joyful moments that we shared. It took so many years of wading through layers of trauma to reach that place. And if I am being honest, each day is still touched by the way in which you died. It can be a fleeting thought that comes on its own, or it can be a trigger that brings about a tsunami of remembrance and pain. I have learned that triggers about suicide loss lie in wait around every corner and navigating them can be exhausting. Some days when I am stronger they are like a painful jab, and when my wounds are open, they can take hold and bring me to my knees. The good news is, I have learned that I have the resilience to pick myself up again each time. But I have also done the very hard work through therapy and I know it is not resiliency alone that has carried me forward. There has been a lot of grit and determination involved on my part. Grief work is hard dad. It’s really fucking hard. Trauma work makes it even harder. But I have not given up, though there are times when I’ve really wanted to.


I’ve been thinking about how grateful I am that I got to visit you at the cemetery just weeks before this pandemic really took hold. There was so much I needed to say to you, so much I needed to release and forgive in those moments I spent at your grave. I cannot imagine carrying those burdens along with me this past year. I am not sure I could’ve held myself upright amidst the collective grief, trauma, loss, and anxiety that surrounded and at times enveloped me. I’m not mad at you anymore dad. I was so mad for so long. I was angry at the wreckage your suicide had left behind. I was angry that you left. I was angry that it was so hard for me to pick up the shattered remnants of the person I was before. I was angry at God and I was angry at myself for all that I did not see, and for not saving you from yourself. I let all of that go when I wept at your graveside last year. I released it. There was no more room for it in my heart. It took up the space I wanted for more fond and joyful remembrance. Remembering you as you lived, in all of your complexity, not just as you died. That’s been a gift I gave myself.


I miss you Dad. And you missed so much. You would be so proud of the girls. Yes, you would be proud of their achievements and aspirations. They are going to accomplish amazing things in the world. But more than that, you would be so proud of the very fine human beings they are. They are filled with compassion and empathy, they believe deeply in justice and working for change. They are a force for good in a world so often longing for that. They are brave and bold, not afraid of trying new things and stepping into new and uncomfortable spaces. I know you would have admired that kind of courage. I dare say you would’ve envied it as well.


It’s been hard not having a place to remember you here. If I lived in New York I could visit your grave. When I go to Florida, I stand on the beach and feel you in the sounds of the ocean. And of course, if we were still in Atlanta, I’d sit on the porch swing you loved so much and stare at the magnolia tree to feel your presence. But here in Colorado, I have struggled to create a place and space that I can go to and be with my memories. After all, you were never here. My life here is all firmly rooted in the chapter that came after your death. I think I finally figured it out though dad. This year, I’ve asked for a front porch swing and it is being built as I write this.


You see, the hardest part of your suicide is thinking about all of the pain and turmoil you carried into your last moments on this earth. It haunts me that at the end of your life, the voices in your head drowned out all of the beauty of the life and legacy that surrounded you. But when I think of you on that front porch swing at our home in Atlanta, I have a vision of you at peace, content, finding joy in the quietest and simplest of things. And that is what I want to cleave to. I want to sit on my swing, stare at the trees we are planting this spring, and think of you at peace. And won’t it be lovely when mom comes to visit and she can sit beside me? We’ll swing and reminisce together.


Dad, I’ll always be sad and sorry that you felt so alone at the end of your life. I will always regret not seeing how deep your wounds were. I saw only what you let me see. If you had revealed it all to me, I would’ve helped you. I loved you as you were. I love you still. I hold deep within me all of the good and happy times we shared. And I hold the harder truths of our relationship, the times of deep pain, conflict, and hurt. But I hold those parts with greater compassion and understanding for us both. And I am grateful that in the end, love gave us a few more years together and forgiveness brought us closer. We were stronger at the broken places Dad. And in the world I have navigated in the aftermath of your suicide, I have come to embody that as well. I am wounded. I have scars that will never heal. But a new hero of mine, Dr. Edith Eger says, “healing isn’t about recovery; it’s about discovery. Discovering hope in hopelessness, discovering an answer where there doesn’t seem to be one, discovering that it’s not what happens that matters-it’s what you do with it.” I have discovered that I can do more than survive your suicide, though I will always be a survivor of suicide loss. I have discovered that I can thrive. I have discovered that posttraumatic growth is real. As Victor Frankl put it, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” I couldn’t save you. But I could save myself from living in a sea of guilt, despair, and pain. And I have. You’d be proud of me dad. I’m proud of me.


I miss you and I love you always. I pray that you are at peace and that there is a porch swing in heaven from which you can look out and see us all. I hope that makes you smile dad. Your beautiful living legacy continues to grow and thrive and you will always be a part of us.

Love,

Deborah

Dear Why,

You have traveled this journey with me as an ever-present companion. We have traversed through this terrain, so unfamiliar and unsteady.

But like a Dear John letter, I write to say that we have reached the fork in the road. I want to travel on without you.

The hardest and simplest truth is this:

For my father, living hurt too much. He chose to end his life.

I must live with that for the rest of my days. But the key words there are

I

Must

Live

I must live with the never knowing.

Live with the loss.

Live with no answers that will ever fully mend that which has been so irrevocably wounded.

But I must also live with purpose, intention, love, joy, and forgiveness. Your grip pulls me away from those things. You yank me back as if I were a child lurching into the street.

I forgive my father.

I forgive myself.

Perhaps one day, I will even forgive God. I believe you stand in the way of that. I still want accountability, an entity to blame. God has shouldered most of that, as I answer you with a finger pointed in the direction of The Divine.

If I continue to hold you, I am bound by the shackles of his suffering.

If I continue to hold you, I dwell in the darkness that consumed him.

If I continue to hold you, my compass will forever point me only backward.

Holding on to you holds me back.

You have nothing left to offer me. I have learned every lesson that you have to teach. I have shared those hard truths in the hopes of helping others whose lives may hang in the balance. You have given me at least that much. Looking back with you has helped me empower others to look ahead for the subtle signals that indicate Danger Ahead. For that I am grateful.

It was an illness of the mind that drove my father to suicide. It was a darkening of the soul, a final act that comes from a depth of suffering I hope never to know.

And it wasn’t my fault.

You must let me go, or perhaps I must let go first. I must surrender to the senselessness of it all. No clue, no warning, no greater understanding will ever give it the meaning I seek.  I know that is why I have tightened my grip. I wanted more than that. Like that childhood game Red Rover, anytime that painful certainty threatened to penetrate, I grasped you with full force lest it break through.

I am deserving of this unburdening.

It has taken me a long time to believe those words.

I loved him. I choose to believe that he knew that. Because that was not enough to save him does not mean that I was not enough.

I will lay you down, knowing full well that at times, our paths will cross again. You will find my shadow and on the cloudiest of days, you’ll visit for a while. You’ll arrive unannounced, uninvited, as is your way.

But I will answer you with this, as it is the only truth that I know.

If he had asked for help, I would have given it.

If he had removed the mask, I might have seen more.

He lost any hope that life would get better.

I will not.

Yes, we’ve traveled hand in hand, you and I for far too long.

Finger by finger, with bare knuckles, I am prying you loose. I will free my grasp to reach toward remembrances of my father in life. That is how I will carry him forward on this voyage with me. Let those memories and reflections be my travel companion. Let them accompany me where once you did. You have asked enough of me. I have told you all that I will ever know. You take up too much space on this path. You cast a shadow that distorts my view.

Absolve me, as I absolve myself.

Exempt me, as I exempt myself.

Release me, as I release myself.

Liberate me, as I liberate myself.

Let go of me, as I let go of you.

I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering up its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.
~ Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

deb dad company picnic

 

 

 

deb and dad prego

Belly to belly, my dad and I just before his first granddaughter was born.

 

Dear Dad,
April 20th is coming. I hear it, like a soft drumbeat in the distance, inching ever closer. Soon it will be three years since you died. I blink, and it feels as if time has just flown by. I draw a deep breath and it feels like only yesterday. How can it be that the passage of time exists with such duality?
This year, the blanket of trauma that once enveloped me, has slipped from my shoulders. I still carry it, but it does not bear the same weight it once did. It did not happen magically, rather I have done the hard work of grief, peeling it off inch by inch, layer by layer, stitch by stitch. They do not call it grief work for nothing, this unscripted test of endurance, courage, resilience, strength and fortitude. I have discovered that I carry within me an abundance of these traits, a wellspring so deep and seemingly without end.
Yes, time and process have been like a salve on my many wounds. Some have begun to heal, others are now covered by a thin scab, yet even three years later, some remain open.
Grieving your death has been far from simple. I pass from stage to stage, and back again. It’s as if I exist in a play, a story I never could have imagined. Each act reflects my journey through the valley of the shadow.
Act One
The ground beneath me shifted, and there I stood amid a psychological autopsy, searching for the reasons why you ended your life. My days were spent in hindsight, searching for the missed signs, the things I did not see, the questions without answer. Was there a prelude to your tragic end? Foreshadowing? Guilt and regret consumed me, as the questions played on a never-ending loop in my head. The rearview mirror was like an appendage, a prop that accompanied me every moment of the day.
Act Two
Swept under by the tsunami of trauma, I tried desperately to reach the surface. Wave after wave of anger and abandonment swept over me, and there was a pain so deep I could feel it pulse through my veins. I spent my days fighting the undertow, flailing about, feeling vulnerable all the time. It was a victory if I could simply tread water and stay afloat.
Act Three
On my knees, I began to pick up the pieces of my shattered self. Gently I gathered them together and held them to me, cleaving to the remnants of what was, mourning for what would never be again. Laying them all out, I sifted through each piece one by one, searching for what still fit, what was now unrecognizable, unsalvageable and what might be different but still had a place in this new mosaic of self. It felt awkward, uncomfortable, unfamiliar to carry those fragments, taped together, separated by every fissure and crack that was now a part of me. I wondered if it was even possible to feel whole. Would I always be a stranger to myself?

Act Four
This is where I stand today. Having navigated through layer after layer of trauma, a long, arduous and painful excavation, I have finally revealed the grief. What I feel most now is the sorrow of missing you, not because of how you left, but simply because you are gone. The never of it all breaks my heart.
Never will I …
Hear your voice
Dance with you
Tell you that I love you
Feel the comfort of your embrace
Never will you…
Call me by my nickname
Tell me you love me
Bear witness to the life that I have built
Celebrate the milestones of my daughters
Laugh with me
Cry with me
Reveal your stories to me
Allow me to better know you
Grow into my friend
Answer the question of why you left
The list of nevers goes on.
Three years have gone by. So much between us was left unsaid. Like a silent interlude, there was no goodbye. The conversations we shared ended abruptly, never to be resumed, revisited; there will be no picking up where we left off.
The acts will go on, and time will not stand still. It is unfathomable to me that your story will never have another chapter.
I miss having a father in this world. I miss the certainty of your presence. I miss the belief that we would always have tomorrow. I long to pick up the phone and hear your voice. I still want another chance to save you from yourself. I miss all that was before your final, tragic bow.
My grief has no intermission.
April 20th is coming. The drumbeat grows louder with each passing day. I am healing. The journey is getting a bit easier.
The eternal truth is this Dad, I miss you very much. We were both flawed characters. I loved you the best that I could, and I know you did the same. I forgive you for the way that you left me. I will carry the sorrow of your loss every day. But I am learning to carry the joy and sweetness as well. Thank you for being my father and for the complex, imperfect, at times tempestuous, wounded, but ultimately resilient, enduring, deeply held love that we shared. That is the truth that remains, the encore that follows every act, the final curtain call of our story.
I miss you so very much Dad.
I love you always.
D

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom. (Rumi)

Last night, we hosted our first seder in three years. These are the words that I shared at the start of our gathering. This morning, I feel proud of myself. I have put my whole heart into the task of grief work, so aptly named for the effort it requires. And though I know that journey is not over, I have marked a powerful milestone in the healing process. And today, my heart is full.

Bruchim Habaim (Welcome Guests)

This is the first Seder that we have hosted in three years. When we lived in Atlanta, our home had become the gathering place for fun, festive and lively Seders. We squeezed friends into every corner of our tiny dining room as we told the story of Pesach, sang songs, shared traditions and created beautiful and lasting memories.
But on April 20, 2015, my father took his own life and my world was forever altered.
This time of year is hard for me. When we moved to Colorado just two months after my dad’s suicide, I could barely get through any of the holidays, but Passover was one of the most difficult for me.
The symbolism & the story were riddled with triggers. I felt as if my father had died in his own personal Egypt. I was left wandering the desert of trauma, grief, guilt and a heartbreak that made it hard to breathe. If my father’s final moments on this earth left him feeling shackled, trapped in a pain that he feared would never end, a pain that left him feeling as if death were his only escape, then how could I simply leave him behind? How could I seek a promised land without abandoning him?
These were some of the questions that I grappled with. That first Passover we opened the Haggadah, and within minutes I asked that we close it. I couldn’t do it. We had a Passover dinner, but there was no Seder. The second year, I managed to get through the Haggadah, but it held no real meaning for me. I was just trying to reclaim some part of my connection to God, faith, and tradition.
These past few weeks have been full of preparations for the holiday. It is the spring cleaning of our people, the clearing out of chametz (leavened foods) from every corner of the kitchen & pantry. There is a beautiful symbolism to the process, even for those of us who hate to clean. That symbolism felt somehow more tangible for me this year, particularly as I reflected on my own journey & the grief work that has been so much a part of my life.
As I delved into the work of readying the house for Passover, the metaphors held a far greater meaning for me. I have had to dig deep, emptying off the shelves of pain, sorrow, loss, regret, and questions that will never find answers. I have sorted through the emotions, trying to figure out what I can let go of and what I can hold on to. I have stared at the empty spaces contemplating how I can fill them up, knowing that some far corners will remain forever empty. I have de-cluttered every broken piece of myself, laying them out, discovering what still fits, what never will again, and what is forever altered but still a part of me. And I have found some healing.
I have discovered that moving forward in my life, and seeking out a place of promise, is not abandoning my father. Just as Moses carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, I carry my father with me. I look at the salt water and the bitter herbs on the Seder plate, and I know that I will always carry sorrow, but I don’t have to carry his. I savor the sweet taste of charoset, and I remember that my father’s story, and the story that we shared together, had moments of great joy, love, and celebration as well. And I am finally able to reflect on those moments. I think of Miriam dancing when the Israelites had finally crossed the Red Sea. And I close my eyes and see my father dancing with abandon, the way he did in life and it makes me smile to remember that.
I know my journey through the valley of the shadow is not over. I know that in just a few weeks there is another painful milestone that I must get through. And I know the path is far from linear. There is no finish line, but I do not travel alone, and I have not stood still. I am not wandering without direction. One foot in front of the other, like the Israelites, I am walking toward my own Promised Land.
And so, I finally feel ready to rediscover the joy of this holiday. I feel ready to gather with friends old and new, to create memories and celebrate all that this holiday teaches us. I am grateful to all of you not only for sharing in this Seder with our family but for marking this milestone of healing with me.
Finally, I know that we all find ourselves dwelling in Egypt from time to time. We feel imprisoned by our own demons, held captive to the challenges in life that we must endure. It is easy to feel trapped, shackled, immersed in the darker moments; we lose sight of our own strength, resilience and, the wellspring of courage & fortitude that lies within. I pray that going forward we can each hold on to the hope of better days, believing even in the worst of times that, gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass. And with that belief in our hearts, may we each journey forward toward hope, wholeness, healing, and happiness.
Bruchim Haba’im welcome friends, we feel blessed & grateful to have you here.

On Friday we are hosting our first Seder since my father’s suicide. Sometimes there are tangible milestones that allow me to know I am healing.

Year one I could not bear to even read the Haggadah, we simply ate a Passover dinner. Year two I managed the telling of the story, but gone was the joy I once found in the holiday. Those years it was simply the five of us, as I did not want witnesses to my pain & struggle.

But I finally feel ready to open our home and fill that space with friends, music and a lively, boisterous & celebratory Seder. I know that I will never be healed from the trauma & loss of my father’s suicide. There will always be a hole in my heart, and a wound in my soul. But I am healing. I have lived in my own personal Egypt for almost three years now. I have wandered the desert of the valley of the shadow, picking up the pieces and learning to live a new normal. There is no Promised Land that will ever allow me to go back to the person I was before my father took his own life. And grief has no Promised Land that marks a finish line. It’s a lifelong process, this much I know.

The waters of pain & sorrow, guilt & trauma did not magically part. I have had to wade through them, trusting that I would not be pulled under, trusting the lifeboats of love that surrounded me, trusting my own endurance & strength. But in doing so, I have found a different kind of promise … the promise of renewed joy, the promise of letting go, the promise of hope, the promise of forgiveness & the promise of resilience. That is the sweetness that I will celebrate this year. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.

I woke up this morning and sat in the quiet spaces of my home and my heart. And I started to weep. What do I want most in this New Year? What is my resolution?

I want to find a way to let go of the guilt and the anger I carry about my father’s death. I want to find a way to accept that I will never, ever get an answer to the question of “why” he left. I want my mind to stop searching for some way to have it all make sense. It never will. It will never amount to anything more than a senseless, terrible tragedy. If I can surrender to knowing only that it was an illness of the mind, perhaps my quest can end. Perhaps that will be the beginning of healing this rift I have with God and my faith. I still want to hold someone, some entity accountable. And so where do I go? I didn’t stop him. God did not stop him. He did not stop himself. To carry that everyday hurts. I am in pain every single day. I’ve learned to compartmentalize it. But it is palpable to me, even if I hide it from others. I know I’ll always hurt. I know I’m not the same person I was before his suicide. I will never be the same.

But I’ve had moments of healing. I’ve known measurable and tangible moments of joy, happiness and peace. And as time passes, and I do the continued work of therapy, I’ve found a better balance. I’ve laughed more than I’ve cried. The wounds are still there, some fragile scars have formed around them, they’re less raw than they were. It has taken great strength for me to reach this place. I don’t often give myself the credit for that. But I have walked, crawled, trudged and inched my way through the valley of shadows with every fiber of courage, resilience and strength that I possess. And so I have to believe that my wishes for the new year are possible.

I cannot simply make a resolution and have it be so. If only it were that easy. But I can keep putting in the effort, it is called grief “work” for a reason. And I can cleave to the vision of how far I have come, and let that fuel me for the road still ahead.

May this be the year I surrender to the unknowable and unanswerable and find a way to live in some peace with that. May this be the year I let go of the need to punish someone, some entity or thing, for my father’s suicide, especially myself. May this be the year my daily pain, becomes less palpable. May I find a way to give it a nod, acknowledge it and lovingly be able to put it aside. It will always reside within me. But perhaps it can occupy a smaller space and place in my heart, opening up more room for healing, hope, happiness and an exploration of this newer version of myself. May this be the year that I nurture those other parts of me, the goals, the desires, the strengths, the aspirations, The me that is defined not by trauma or loss, but by creativity, compassion & courage. The woman who deserves not to be punished, not to merely survive, but to thrive!

Healing does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather allowing what is now to move us closer to God. (Ram Dass)

partial-solar-eclipse-clouds

Who cares if one more light goes out?
In a sky of a million stars
It flickers, flickers
Who cares when someone’s time runs out?
If a moment is all we are
We’re quicker, quicker
Who cares if one more light goes out?
Well I do  (lyrics One More Light by Linkin Park)

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