Archives for category: mental health

dad memory tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Fundraising Page for the Out of the Darkness Walk

 

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To live a life of meaning is to know that nothing is ever set in stone. Possibilities dwell on each new horizon and even the setting sun is touched by the promise of tomorrow.

And yet today, 14 months after your suicide we dedicate a stone that stands in stark contrast to that notion of hope and promise. This stone feels so very final, noted with a beginning and an end. The words speak of who you were to us in life; a husband, a father, a grandfather, a brother and friend. But there is no space or place to honor who or what you might have become. The finality is undeniable and in truth, still unfathomable.

And then there are those fourteen words, meant to share what mattered most to you, and how you will be remembered. What did you value in your time on this earth?

To bask in the loving warmth of family and friends was his greatest blessing.

Stones…

They can be used to build bridges or be a source of destruction

They can trip us up, placing obstacles in our path, or be the foundation of a new beginning

They can be collected as remembrances of new places we visit and memories we make

They can be polished, smooth, turned into ornaments

They can be rough and jagged, worn down by the elements

They can weigh us down if we try to carry too many of them on our own, a truth we know all too well

And …

They can mark a final resting place

An eloquent monument for a loved one we’ve lost, whose death didn’t have to be.

 

Dad, today I lay on your footstone a piece of my home

Stones, shaped like hearts from the flatirons of Colorado

Lovingly gathered for me by friends that you will never get to meet

From the mountains so beautiful, that you will never get to see.

 

Mother Theresa said:

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

We who loved you are the ripples

The continuing legacy to that stone your life cast

And it is in those ripples that we must find you and carry you forward

This stone we dedicate today will stand for eternity

It is heavy like grief

Yet strong like the human spirit

It will not wither

Neither is it left untouched by passing storms

It is not where we find you, but where we instead honor you

It is where we come to remember, to cry, to talk and to feel as if we are with you.

 

And as we strive to move forward in a world without you

One where so many others know the same pain that you felt

Suffering in silence and feeling alone

I offer you one last promise

It won’t be for nothing nor be without meaning.

No stone will be left unturned

No matter how deeply rooted they are in shame or stigma

If even one life can be saved from telling our story

Then the ripples of your legacy, your life

And even your loss

Will be without end.

July 5, 2016

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Honored to have my voice be apart of this first podcast from The Mighty. I hope that you will listen to my story and the others featured. Sharing our truths helps us to humanize the issues of mental illness and suicide, and allows us to break down the barriers of shame & stigma.

I pray that my story of that morning in Whole Foods, those beautiful strangers and the loss of my father to suicide will bring meaning to his death. I will not be silent when lives can be saved. My truth carries no shame, but it does carry purpose.

Mental Health Podcast on The Mighty

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The other day, while in Target I overheard two young women in the bathing suit department. One held up a bathing suit and jokingly showed it to the other, asking “How about this one?” The other girl responded “I’d kill myself if I had to wear that.”

The following day I was in Kohl’s camp shopping for my daughters. A frazzled mother was talking aloud to herself as she passed me, her toddler in tow. “Did I get a gift receipt? I can’t remember if I did. Damn it!! I’d like to just shoot myself today.”

Both moments felt like a sucker punch and momentarily took my breath away. We are so flippant in our language. I am certain I was once guilty of it too. It’s so easy to make light of suicide-until it touches your life or the life of someone you love. And then, you quickly discover, there’s not a single funny thing about suicide.

Survivors of suicide loss spend much of our days dodging triggers. We sit down to watch a television show only to have a joke made about suicide. We deal with the drug commercials that lump suicidal thoughts & actions right next to hives and rashes, when discussing possible side effects; as if they are even close to being on par with one another. We try to tune into election coverage only to hear words like “political suicide” tossed about. 

Yeah, here’s the thing–if you can wake up in the morning, kiss your loved ones, walk outdoors and breathe in the fresh air, then there is no “suicide” in the demise of your political career.

We survivors are everywhere. And there is nothing funny about the loss we are learning to live with. 

So how about we stop treating it like a punch line or a reasonable response to a moment of frustration. How about we treat it like the serious and painful issue that it is; an issue that claims another life every 12.8 minutes in this country and shatters the world of those left behind.

The triggers are abundant, we dodge them all day long. But that places the burden on us. And quite frankly, our shoulders can only take so much before our knees buckle.  So please, take ownership of your words. Because I’m fairly certain a missing receipt or an ill fitting bathing suit is not something you would seriously end your life over. And if they were, I promise you, it would be no laughing matter.

This piece also appeared in The Mighty & Upworthy

 

 

 

When I was little my father had a magic trick. He would light a cotton ball on fire and put it in his mouth to extinguish the flame.  It never failed to impress.

Then one day, an actor who was famous at the time for his role in Grizzly Adams had an accident. A flaming drink set fire to his beard and he was hospitalized with severe burns.  News of that accident caused my father, who also had a beard & mustache, to stop performing his magic trick. It turns out that trying to swallow fire could be far more dangerous than he believed.

I think of that trick often these days as I reflect on my father’s suicide. Depression is the flame not extinguished when swallowed. Rather, it grows and festers in the darkness. And in time, it was the depression that consumed my father.  Like a sweeping brushfire its power was overwhelming, it progressed too fast to be put out; anxiety an added accelerant, fanning the flames, further & higher. A wildfire bent on destruction of spirit and soul. Still, he kept the full truth of it contained.

No, depression is not meant to be swallowed. It needs to be exposed to the light. Because left to smolder on the inside, its flame will smother the embers of hope and ignite despair.

Once upon a time my father knew that swallowing fire could be dangerous. Until one day, it was the fire that devoured him. And we who loved him most are left standing in the ashes.

swallowing fire

 

I will admit that it was hard to revisit that morning, when I learned of my father’s suicide while standing in the middle of Whole Foods. But I am moved and incredibly honored to have the chance to tell my story out loud as part of this radio interview with Erika Lantz of NPR Boston’s Kind World series. It is my fervent prayer that my words have reached those strangers in one form or another. And I hope that through my voice, the voice of my friend Pam and the retelling of that dark morning, I can help to further humanize the truth of suicide loss and the pain that we, the survivors, must endure.

Here is the link to the radio interview:

WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station Kind World #24: Imprint

Today I am sharing some reflections on one of the final and most heartfelt conversations that I had with my father, just before his suicide.  Words that bring me some understanding, even if they can’t ease the pain.

“My father’s suicide was not a selfish act. It was not the act of a coward. It was the act of a man who was in agony and didn’t want to hurt anymore….”

To read more visit Our Side of Suicide

 

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Dear Facebook,

I know it is coming.  On April 20th, you will remind me of what I posted “One Year Ago Today.” But I need no reminder. I have been learning to live with and accept this truth every day since I wrote it.

These are the posts that announced my father’s death…

My Father’s Death (written 4/20/15)

Early this morning, my father lost his battle with mental illness. My heart is broken. May his memory be for an eternal & abiding blessing… and may he know how grateful I was for the gifts of reconciliation & healing–I got these last few years with my father, and that is a gift I will forever be grateful for. I will miss him more than words can say… I only wish I could tell him how much he meant to me, one last time. To hear his voice, to say I love you–and if only I had another chance to remind him-that it would get better, to hang on to hope even if only by his fingertips–but instead, I travel with my family to New York, to say goodbye to a beloved father, father-in-law, grandfather, friend, brother and husband–and to return his soul to God. I love you daddy!

He is Gone (4/20/15)

My beloved father Lowell Jay Herman. I want just one more moment–one more hug-one more I love you–I want to wake up from this horrific nightmare and know that you are still here–that the despair you were feeling, the depression–did not truly take you from us–but I will not get that. My heart and soul ache with a sadness I cannot even put into words–Depression robbed our family of so many years–so many joyous moments yet to be, so many more opportunities to say I love you–and I feel as if I am stuck in quicksand–barely able to breathe, to think, to process. My father, my friend–how can it be that you are gone? I will cherish and miss this smile for the rest of my days. I only wish your last moments on this earth were not filled with so much pain–I love you daddy–always! I hope your soul is finally at peace…

Facebook, the memory that you share is a traumatic imprint that is forever a part of me. And in truth, I still stand in disbelief at times waiting for this nightmare to end. Because there are days I think to myself, “This can’t be true.” But it is. 365 days have passed. The pain is still sharp. But some healing has come. I miss him every day. I wish with all of my heart that love had been enough to save him. So thank you for the reminder, but my tears beat you to it. And I won’t try to stop them, I will simply let them flow.

April 20, 2015 the day my life was forever altered, the day I became a Survivor of Suicide Loss. One Year Ago I lost the first man that I ever loved. My father, my friend, oh how I wish I could rewrite the end of this story. Oh how I wish you could have stayed.

 

Whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole world. (Talmud)

Soon, Passover will be here. It is usually one of my favorite holidays. I love the ritual of preparing the house, the smell of the food and the joyous atmosphere at the Seder table.

But this year is different. Passover will begin only three days after the one year anniversary of my father’s suicide.

My father was trapped in his own Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is defined as “narrow places or straits.” And that is where my father found himself.  At 72 years old, he was in the midst of a deep depression coupled with overwhelming anxiety. Those illnesses of the mind left him feeling shackled, unable to see a way out of the suffering and the pain. And on April 20, 2015 he took his own life.

And here I stand, just one year later, still in the midst of my own exodus. I am traveling through this unfamiliar, uncomfortable and at times uninhabitable terrain of traumatic grief.

At the Passover Seder we will read about the four children. One who was wise, one who was simple, one who was wicked and one who did not know how to ask. It is this last one that resonates most with me this year.  I did not know that my father was in danger of hurting himself. I was not prepared to read into the warning signs that he presented. I did not know to ask him if he was considering suicide.

I don’t say all of this from a place of guilt, but rather a place of regret. I have learned so much about mental illness and suicide prevention in the aftermath of his death. And I know now that the signs were present, both the overt and the subtle. And if I had the chance to do it all over, my father might be here with us today.

Every 12.8 minutes in this country another precious life is lost to suicide. On average there are 117 suicides per day. Each year we lose approximately 42,773 Americans to suicide.

How can we change that? It begins with honoring our sacred obligation to reach out to those who find themselves in places of darkness.  We can no longer afford to harden our hearts to the suffering that mental illness can bring, acting as Pharaohs, feeding further into judgement, stigma & shame. We issue too many decrees in the form of platitudes & easy answers. “So let it be written, so let it be done” is not a plan for recovery. For some, the strength to take even the first step on the long exodus toward a land of more promise is too hard. Their pain is far too great a burden. So we must accompany them.

And when we are witness to suffering that causes us concern, when we feel somebody is in danger of harming themselves, we must know how to ask these four questions:

Have you had thoughts about suicide?

Have you thought about a plan to take your own life? (This speaks to suicidal ideation, means and timing)

Have you attempted suicide before?

Do you have access to a gun or other means that you could use?

Asking such blunt & hard questions may leave us feeling “heavy of mouth & heavy of tongue” just like Moses. But we must strengthen our stance, imbue our lips with courage and ask anyway. We must be unambiguous. Because asking these questions can decrease the risk of suicide, simply by showing someone that we care, that we are willing to listen and that we want to help.

This Passover, let us pledge to no longer be “one who does not know to ask.”

I tell the story of losing my father in Mitzrayim in the hopes that all I have learned since can free another soul from despair. The plague of darkness can touch anyone. None of us is immune. So let our words be a source of light, life and hope. Know when to ask, know what to ask.

If someone you love is struggling, know the signs that he/she might be in crisis. For more information please visit The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention  and learn how to respond to these questions by enrolling in a mental health first aid course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Self,

I know that you are hurting. The date on the calendar is looming and soon you will mark the one year anniversary of your father’s suicide. The mere thought of it feels like a ton of bricks have been laid upon your chest. It is hard to breathe, and even harder to fathom that 365 days will have passed since your world was changed forever.

I know that you are tired.  It’s okay. You have been a full time student of traumatic grief. You have sat in support groups and therapy, facing the hardships head on. It is called grief work for a reason. The stages of grief have been anything but linear and navigating through them is depleting.  Some days all you want to do is lie in bed, and pull the covers over your head. It would be easier to hide from all of the emotions, the firsts, the triggers and the loss. But you don’t.

Every day you get up and out of bed. You put one foot in front of the other and you live your life. You take care of your precious family. You make room for love and laughter.  You are present for those you care about. You turn to the things that bring you joy; taking a hike, reading a book, listening to music and the creative joy of cooking.  It is time that you give yourself credit for all of that.

You have not hidden from the truth of your loss, not once. You told all who would listen that your father died by suicide. You were honest about his struggles with depression and anxiety.  Right from the start you were determined not to allow his death to be a source of shame or stigma. And you wrote the story of your grief, sharing it with loved ones and strangers alike.  You have turned pain into purpose, even when you have done it through an abundance of tears.

I know that one year later you look in the mirror and you feel as if your father’s death has aged you. And I know that you are wondering why you are not further along in your healing. Sometimes you allow a perception of weakness to sneak in and take hold. You think to yourself:

If I was stronger, it wouldn’t still hurt this much

If I was stronger, I’d have found a better balance by now.

If I was stronger, my grief would be a thing of the past and I would once again feel whole.

But deep down you know that is not true.

You lost your father in a traumatic way and it has left a painful imprint on your soul. The news of his suicide forever altered you and you were shattered. One year later, I want you to see the strength it has taken to simply gather up the pieces. You are slowly putting them in new places, even if they are held there on little more than spit & a prayer. I want you to honor the emotional healing that you have worked so hard to attain, and that allows you to turn towards life & hope.  Anyone can go to therapy, but you do the homework. The session begins and you allow your feelings to come spilling out. I want you to forget about that imaginary finish line on the road of grief and instead look back and see all of the things you could not do or feel in those early days of loss, that now you can. Those are victories & milestones to be savored.

I want you to think about that letter you wrote to the women who cared for you when you got that devastating phone call in Whole Foods that morning; and how it has traveled across social media, around the country and across the ocean.  You helped to humanize the face of suicide loss and got people to talk about a subject that most never want to look at, lest it happen to them.  Writing is healing for you, but you must see that your writing has helped to bring some healing to others. You have heard from survivors of suicide loss, survivors of suicide attempts and those living with mental illness and something you said allowed them to feel less alone. And in turn their words reminded you of how many accompany you on this journey, strangers in every other way, but connected in this struggle.

You are a survivor of suicide loss. And survival takes strength, tenacity, courage and resilience.  To survive is to carry the hardship that life has dealt you and to persevere, to strive to move forward. Survival is the opposite of defeat. So please don’t be defeated.

One day, one moment, one breath at a time you are carrying this loss. And you continue to move through the valley of the shadow, striving towards life’s peaks. Some days your stride is certain & quick. Some days your legs feel weak and you inch along ever so slowly. And some days you take ten steps back and surrender to the sadness. But every day you get up and you keep going.

April 20, 2016 is coming. You will have endured a whole year of firsts without your father.  You have honored his memory. You have learned to honor the grief & the loss. But you must also take the time to honor yourself and all of the growth that you have shown.  Honor the brave survivor that you are.  Let your scars be a testament to your strength & spirit. And keep on striving towards healing, one baby step at a time. You will get there. Look how far you’ve already come.

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Dancing with my father… the last dance we would ever share.