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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 first lost my father to suicide I felt like an open wound. The words to a song could be a source of comfort or deepen my sense of pain. If the song, “Fix You” by Coldplay came on the radio, it would unleash sadness so profound it was hard to breathe….

Read the full reflection on The Mighty

I didn’t get to say goodbye to my father before he died. That breaks my heart each and every day. So instead, one year ago today, I spoke these words as I stood next to his casket. I miss him so very much.

Reflecting Out Loud

Lowell BM pic

I did not get to say goodbye to my father before he took his own life on Monday, April 20, 2015. The following are the words I shared at his funeral on Thursday, April 23, 2015. A daughter’s farewell to her dad, Lowell Jay Herman. May his memory be for an eternal & abiding blessing.

greene party1517

Many years ago my father used to love to do paint by numbers. He would look at that canvas, plain, white, devoid of color & life and slowly he would fill in those blank spaces. As he did more paintings, he grew comfortable adding his own personal touches, changing the hues, the shades envisioning in his own mind what he wanted to create.

In recent months, my father began to see things in darkened & muddled shades of gray. Searching for the clarity he would need to lift the clouds, to find the sun and…

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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

fight or flight

There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds. (Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss)

These last few weeks find me in a constant state of fight or flight.  And this deep sense of urgency inside of me grows stronger as another day passes and the one year anniversary of my father’s suicide inches ever closer.

I feel as if my mind is playing a cruel game, telling me my father is going to do something terrible, flooding my senses with that foreboding knowledge. Now I can recognize the signs, the flashing lights, and the danger signs. I know now that my father is in trouble and at risk of making an irreversible and tragic decision.  The day is coming closer and my brain is telling me to act, to try and save him, to stop him. I want to change the ending. I want to fix it. I want that more than anything.

But I cannot save him. It’s too late. I’m too late.

And so my body and mind try to prepare for what is coming. For what’s already come, but feels as if it’s going to happen all over again. I’m reliving it all inside; that call, that horrifying moment when my life was forever altered. Fight or flight my mind says, my muscles tighten, and my guard is up.

What is happening to me?

That is the question I ask my therapist in tears this morning.  And she reminds me that the trauma that had receded to the background of my mind has come roaring back to the forefront.  What I am feeling is the traumatic imprint that we talk about so often. It is like muscle memory, she tells me. Your body and mind are being carried back to that place, but they are bringing with them all of the knowledge and understanding you’ve gained in the aftermath.  It’s muddled, it’s confusing. You’re bracing for the blow, while at the same time trying to stop your father’s suicide. That is how she explains it to me. And it makes sense, but really it doesn’t; because he’s gone. My father is gone and he is not coming back.

I don’t like the way this feels. Just two days shy of the one year anniversary my body is in knots. Physically I feel as if I am in the immediate aftermath of his suicide. And I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not, that this will pass, that I’ve endured the tsunamis before and I’ve found my way to calmer waters as well.  I talk to myself a lot. And I cry and I have nightmares, that is when I am blessed to find sleep.

So, what can I do?

My therapist tells me first, to repeat to myself over and over again, that I am safe.  It feels like it is happening again, but it’s not. April 20th will come and I will not have to relive that nightmare. I’m safe. I’ve survived it. I’m still surviving it. But my father will not die all over again, at least not in the physical world.

She tells me to answer that sense of urgency with the acknowledgement that I did all I could do for my father. I loved him with a full heart, I listened, I supported him and had he shared with me his whole truth, I would have met him with more of the same. I would have held his hand, and accompanied him on the journey to find the right help.  I did not leave him. I didn’t let go. I had his back. But that does not mean he would have held on. I answered his cries for help, each and every time.

And I must remind myself that I am not alone. On that day, even surrounded by those beautiful strangers, standing in Whole Foods, I was alone when the worst news of my life came to me.  So now, my therapist tells me, I must remind myself who is surrounding me. Who is holding me up? It is my family, my friends and my community that I see when I close my eyes. I’m not alone in this. I don’t ever have to feel alone in it again, not for a single solitary minute.

Muscle memory it turns out, is not just about physical injuries or rehabilitation. It is a part of trauma. Triggers come and the traumatic responses permeate every cell, every fiber of our being. This time we want to be ready, we want to anticipate what’s coming and keep ourselves safe. It won’t always be so palpable my wise therapist tells me, but there will always be moments of it. This one year anniversary is, simply put, a doozy.  My body is in fight or flight mode. April 20th will come and then it will go. The tsunami will recede. My body will relax, my mind will ease. I will breathe in and breathe out.

But for the next few days I simply have to acknowledge what is happening. I’m not losing my mind. I’m not the first survivor to endure this. It helps me to know that. But I don’t like feeling this way. It hurts, physically and emotionally. Trauma is a powerful beast; and living with the imprint it has tattooed on every part of me is the hardest damn thing I’ve ever had to learn to do.

fight or flight 2

After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.
(Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery)

A Passover Reflection for the Survivor of a Suicide Loss

Written in loving memory of my father, Lowell Jay Herman, z”l, who took his own life on April 20, 2015

 

Oh Holy One,

I lay before you the broken pieces,

The fragments, once whole, now shattered by suicide loss;

Like the tablets that Moses threw to the ground.

I have wandered through this valley of shadows, this land of traumatic grief;

Just as the Israelites wandered the desert in search of a Holy Land.

But my grief knows no final destination.

Rather it is a continual path that I must travel.

It is as though I stand at the shores of the Red Sea.

One year after my father’s suicide, I am parched and so very tired;

But the waters do not part.

I hold no staff imbued with holy powers.

I must simply wade into the waters, trusting in you just as Nachshon did;

An act of trust, and faith that you will carry me through.

But my faith is shaken.

Though I do not cleave to idols that promise an end to my pain;

I have struggled to entrust it to you.

When Miriam was struck with leprosy, she was shut out from her people.

With the passage of time, the prophetess returned.

I too have felt shut out of my faith.

I have cried out for healing, just as Moses did for Miriam.

I have reviled you God.

I have pleaded with you.

And I have sat with you in silence; tears my only words.

Esa einai el heharim me’ayain me’ayain yavo ezri

I lift my eyes to the mountains. From where does my help come?

This Passover, answer me God.

I have tasted the bitter tears.

Help me to once again savor the sweet.

Let my faith be the mortar that mends my soul.

Instill within me the courage to wade into the waters; bravely like Nachshon.

May I find in them the healing that Miriam’s Well brought to the Israelite people.

Strengthen my legs to carry me across.

And just as you guided Moses on the journey, be my compass.

Oh Holy One, restore my spirit and my soul, that they may carry the fragments of my broken self with honor and dignity.

Open my heart to renewal, to shalom, wholeness; that I may carry both the hurt and the healing in the sacred space of my heart.

Help me to return again to trusted covenant with you.

You never lost faith in me. Help me to find my faith in you once again.

 

 

 

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.

greene party1516

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

In the past two months, three personal essays appeared on this blog that, while each uniquely told, shared a tragic connection. The authors had all lost a close family member to suicide.

But their stories also shared something else in common: They were among the most read, shared and commented Washington Post stories on the days they published.

And while the comments section on a news story can sometimes give voice to the worst of humanity, the people who came to comment on these stories used the space to give thanks, to offer support and to share their own experiences with suicide loss. The three authors, Amy Marlow, Deborah Greene, and , by opening up about their own pain and their own fears and their own strengths, created a safe space for others to do the same…

To read the full article  go to The Washington Post

My family and I were estranged for six years. The reasons are complex, as are most families. But thankfully, the family ties that bind, though frayed & tattered, were never broken. It was Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) when our healing began. It was Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement & Forgiveness) when we spoke for the first time. And it was Thanksgiving, when we were reunited for the first time.

I remember so well as my husband, the girls and I pulled into the driveway of my childhood home; my father came around to my side of the car. I stepped out of the car and we embraced. He cried, I cried, and we held one another so tightly. And, in that year, as I sat around the dinner table with my own beautiful family, my brother and his family, and my parents, I got to live out in full the truest meaning of Thanksgiving. Yes, we lost six years. We will never get those back. But our story did not end there. It was not the final footnote. And from our pain, our hurt, our anger and our journey through forgiveness, we grew stronger, better. We loved more fully, more honestly, more openly. We became strongest in the very places that had been broken.

Soon, it will be one year since my father’s suicide. It is a painful day for me and my family to contemplate. I feel as if I’ve lived a lifetime without him, and as though he left us only yesterday. Yes, I count my blessings daily and I have found laughter once again. Yes, I am present for my family and my friends, and I turn towards life each day. But the loss has forever altered me and I am still putting the pieces together. But I am so profoundly grateful that I got three and a half more years with my father. I am grateful for every memory that we made, every laugh that we shared, and for every time we said, “I love you.” And I am grateful that I found the courage to reach out in that first letter, that letter that opened the door to a future together, and allowed us to leave behind the hurt, the anger and the sadness that had touched our past.

Life can change on a dime. Mine did when I got the call that my father had taken his own life. I guess my message is, where you can, if you can, and however you can, find forgiveness. My father left this world knowing that I loved him. And I know that he loved me. That might not have happened. And I cannot even begin to imagine what that would have felt like.

Families will hurt us, disappoint us, frustrate us & wound us. Some of those things I know are truly unforgivable. But, if they are not, if they can be overcome, looked past or let go of, do it. I regret many things, and I regret deeply that I could not save my father from himself, from his pain, from the depression and anxiety that plagued him. But I do not have to live with the regret of words left unspoken, forgiveness left unoffered and love left unshared. And for that, for the 3 & 1/2 years I got with him, that my children got with him, and for the love that we shared, I am profoundly and wholly grateful. Forgiveness is a gift. Offer it to yourself. It may be one of the most precious and meaningful things you ever do.

me and aaron with folks

My brother Aaron, my mother, my father and me. The last time we would all be together.

This piece was also published on The Good Men Project

Shortly after losing my father to suicide, I was watching a television interview with a fellow survivor. There was a particular part of her interview that has stayed with me throughout this grief journey. She talked about a “psychological autopsy.” When we lose someone to a physical illness, the autopsy, if performed, is left in the hands of the physicians. When we lose someone to suicide, it is left to the family and loved ones to try to piece together what it was that led them to end their life. Yes, we may know the
method by which they died. But the “why” of it all, well that eludes us….

To read the full post go to The Mighty