Archives for category: mental health

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

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.

covered-mirror

I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been working to be as fully present in the here & now as possible. It was a conscious choice to tuck the grief, the loss, the trauma of my dad’s suicide neatly into my back pocket.  I needed to turn away from it, at least for a while.

In Judaism, when you are in the period of shiva, the 7 days following the burial of a loved one, it is customary to cover all of the mirrors in your home.  In the immediate days of grief, we are not supposed to focus on our external selves. Rather, we turn inward, we reflect, we dwell not on the details of our appearance, but on the memories and the life of the one we have lost.

I didn’t observe that tradition while sitting shiva for my father. As a Reform Jew, it didn’t resonate for me. But there was another reason, a deeper one. In the moment that I learned of my father’s suicide, the person that I was shattered into a million pieces. The fragments lay seemingly sprawled in every corner. And how to even begin gathering them up seemed far too overwhelming a task. In the days that followed, I vacillated between feeling totally numb and sobbing uncontrollably. I lashed out in anger one moment, and then sadness swept in and overwhelmed me the next. There was no peace, no comfort, there was only a pain beyond words. I wandered through my home and my days feeling like a stranger in a strange land.

Looking in the mirror was the only way to find some sense of the familiar. Even with swollen eyes, I found tangible evidence that while my inside felt broken beyond repair, some small sense of wholeness still existed. I gazed into the mirror and saw that I was still me… forever altered, but still me.

I will tell you a truth. Almost 23 months later, I still feel broken. Yes, I have gathered up those fragments, and put myself together anew.  But I often feel that if one were to look at me too closely, they would be able to see every fissure & every scar that I must now carry. Sometimes I avoid my own reflection, when it seems to contradict what I am feeling inside. It feels like a cruel mind game, looking whole yet feeling fractured.

I tucked my loss away for a while. I laughed more, I found myself able to be more present for my children, my husband and myself. I read for pleasure, I made jewelry, I spent time with friends, I created in the kitchen and yes, I even needed time to heal from some physical challenges as well.

And I haven’t thought much about my dad. Not because I don’t want to remember him, I do. But reflecting on my dad in life, seems to inevitably bring me to the way he died. That horrible, violent, darkness looms at the end of his story and it permeates each and every other chapter that I try to visit. So, like the mirror in a house of mourning, I draped those reflections off. I averted my gaze with intention. Because that felt a necessary part of my healing.

Today begins the month of March. And looming ever so closely behind is the month of April. My mind has begun to go back to that place, of reliving his final weeks on this earth. I feel my body re-entering that fight or flight mode, the muscle memory of trauma. Creeping back into my psyche are all of the missed signs & the missed opportunities to try and save my father from himself. My rational mind knows there is nothing to be gained by that. But my soul still clamors for a different ending. My eyes still seek the hindsight of a more apparent truth, every fiber of my being yearns for another chance to know then, what I know now.

And so it seems, I must take the covering off of the mirror. Not so I can focus on the external, but so I can reflect. I can’t continuously wall off the pain, there is not a wall strong enough to contain it forever. My soul is crying out to me, to feel the pain, the sorrow, the trauma and the loss & to tend to it with gentle honesty. And my heart, still so full of hurt, wants to make room to sort out the memories of my father’s life; the good & the bad, the laughter & the tears, the loss & the love.

It’s almost two years. I simply can’t believe it. I miss him. I look into the mirror, and once again I feel exposed, vulnerable and wounded. But these days, I also see strength, resilience and courage.  I have survived, I am still surviving. And I am finding ways to thrive.

The mirror beckons, asking that I find a way to let these two truths co-exist. My father died by suicide. And I must live with that. But our story deserves to stand in the light; all of it… because without that, I lose him all over again. How do I find a way to let the reflection hold both of these pieces?

I look in the mirror now. I see a daughter who loved  her father. I see how much she misses him. Perhaps, if I close my eyes, and let the wall come down, I’ll be able to find my father gazing back at me. And through our tears, we can smile and for a moment, be together.

Today marks 20 months since my father’s suicide. I suppose it is time to begin counting not by months, but rather “year.” One year and a half, one year and 8 months… That word… “year” is hard for me. It makes the time since his death loom larger than I am ready for.

I remain fundamentally and forever altered. I’ve set down the advocacy work for now. Though it imbued my father’s death with some sense of meaning, it had begun to take a toll on me. Dwelling in the world of suicide loss and prevention came at a cost. It felt worth it, until it didn’t. And hard as it was to admit, I needed to step away. Harder to admit was that I wanted to.

I need to figure out who I am, outside of being the survivor of suicide loss. Yes I know I remain a devoted mother, wife and friend. But where these newly altered pieces of me fit and how to fulfill and strengthen myself remains undefined. I began building a jewelry business. A business I once found successful & fulfilling. A business my father was so proud of. Ever so slowly it has allowed me to begin to see and slowly embrace a creative purpose, an identity… artist, designer, entrepreneur. These are titles, names that are not a part of the horrific loss I’ve endured. And there is so much symbolism in this endeavor. The beads are the pieces, stringing them together one by one, is like picking up the pieces of my life. They come together to create something new, something beautiful, quite different than before. My journey is deeply reflected in such work. Fragments and pieces coming together in this new self that is unfolding. 

Today marks 20 months. I will never ever be at peace with losing my father to suicide. Every day I strive to learn how to live with it. And I strive for a balance between giving his death purpose, and imbuing my life with the same. I deserve that. Don’t I? Guilt tells me no. But I cannot let guilt define where I go from here. I don’t let many people in these days. I’m guarded, feeling vulnerable and fragile in many ways. But this is my truth. It’s still hard, every single day. But I journey on determined to find happiness, fulfillment and joy. My dad would want that.

20 months… I miss him. I can’t undo his final act. But I’ve discovered that I can’t get lost in it either. The journey is long and hard. I’m tired. But I know there is a resilience within. He lost sight of his. I must continually tap into mine, even when I lose faith in it’s existence. He lost hope. I cleave to it, the notion that it won’t always hurt like this, that it will get better in time. His death has forever altered me. But I cannot let it define me. I still want to bring meaning to such a senseless loss, but I want more than that. I need to find that balance.

So onward I walk, I step, I falter, I stumble, but I get up and keep going. So perhaps I’ve already discovered that this altered self, is strong, courageous and braver than I’ve ever given her credit for. And healing is a continual process… even 20 months later.

And still, I miss him. That will never change.

podium9

Dear Anderson Cooper,

You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but we do share something in common. We are both survivors of suicide loss. In 1988 you lost your brother Carter to suicide and 17 months ago, on April 20, 2015, I lost my father.

In just a few days you will join Martha Raddatz at Washington University in St. Louis, to moderate the 2nd Presidential Debate of 2016. This is a chance to speak to some of the biggest challenges that our country is facing, and open up a dialogue with each candidate as to how they might solve those issues, or at the very least, tackle them in such a way as to make a meaningful difference. And so, as a fellow survivor of suicide loss, I am asking you to raise the issue of suicide.

Every day it is estimated that we lose 117 people to suicide; people like your brother and my father. And every 12.3 minutes in this nation another family is left to navigate the painful aftermath that your family and mine has had to face. You understand better than most in the media, that every person who dies by suicide is more than a statistic; they are parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends and neighbors.

The most recent federal data analysis tell us that suicide rates in the United States have surged to a 30 year high. The same research showed an alarming increase in suicide among girls 10 to 14, whose suicide rate, while still very low, had tripled. The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, rose by 63 percent over the course of the study, while it increased by 43 percent for men in that age range, the sharpest increase for males of any age. And men over the age of 75 have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

Add to that the fact that we lose 20 veterans a day to suicide and that the suicide rate among female veterans is six times higher than the rate of non-veteran women.

Anderson, these are statistics, numbers, and they are staggering to say the least. But they are so much more than that. These are the casualties of a war that is being fought in the dark. These are deaths so often cloaked in shame, stigma and silence, that those of us left to grieve a suicide loss, often find ourselves feeling alone and isolated in the experience. But you can help to change that.

Don’t you think it is time that we shine a national spotlight on the realities of suicide loss, Anderson? Don’t you think it is time that any conversation about our nation’s healthcare include issues of mental health and suicide prevention? Isn’t it time that we normalize those conversations as part of our national dialogue? And I might add, isn’t it time to change the discourse in the media and on the campaign trail when it comes to the language we use, being mindful not to belittle and further stigmatize those living with mental illness?

It’s been 17 months since I lost my father to suicide. And not a day has gone by, where I have not tried to make some meaning come from his death. I have shared my story openly in the hopes that doing so can help spare another family the pain that mine has endured, a pain you are intimately acquainted with.

You told People magazine, in a March 31, 2016 interview that your brother’s suicide had a definite impact on your career.

“I started going overseas and going to places where life and death was very real and where people were suffering tremendous losses. Hearing their stories and hearing people talk about it sort of helped me to get to a place where I could talk about it, I think.”

This Sunday night, with millions of people watching, you have the chance to further the conversation about suicide in this country. The suffering of those who die by suicide is very real and families like yours and mine are living with tremendous loss. You’ve learned to talk about it, and so have I. So let’s use what we have endured to make a difference. Let’s talk about it. Let’s ask our nation’s potential leadership to talk about it. The spotlight is yours to shine, as a fellow survivor, I hope you will use it.

Sincerely Yours,

Deborah Greene

girls-team-tikvah-2016

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)