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Bittersweet Memories

In 2020, we lost my daughter Ariana to depression-suicide. We will miss her presence once again, this Father’s Day. The approach of Father’s Day brings bittersweet memories. We traditionally spend the day enjoying brunch, opening gifts and eventually end up playing a game of “croquet for dad’s cash” with my daughters, their boyfriends, and friends of my daughters who have adopted me throughout the years.

Making brunch is a family affair. My wife ensures an entree is prepared or take-out is ordered from our favorite restaurant. My youngest daughter Ashley always volunteers to make one of my favorite desserts. Ariana would have prepared her signature spinach casserole dish that was made with enough garlic to linger in the house for days.

I am embarrassed to admit that I’m showered with too many gifts that are generally beyond the budget of a young working adult. My wife often gets me something practical, such as a new shirt and matching pants for work. Ashley will almost always give me a basket of my favorite snacks from Trader Joe’s and a pair of goofy socks.

Ariana would have put some thought and time into picking out a keepsake. The keepsake that stands out the most is a gift box of handwritten letters, some of the letters have already been opened, and others are to be opened on future memorable occasions.

Ariana’s letters included “To My Incredible Dad”, “Read Me When You Miss Me”, “Read Me When It’s Your Birthday”, and many more.

Father’s Day was never about food or gifts. It was about the time spent together with family and friends. Ariana had an uncanny understanding of the value of time, whether it was coming by the house early to chat and warm up her signature dish or writing letters that now provide me comfort to reread and letters to look forward to opening in the future. Her final gift of time was taking the last minute of her life to text and say how much she loved me.

I know you’re asking yourself, what is “croquet for dad’s cash” all about. It’s a modified game of crochet where $20 dollar bills are taped to the top of the metal hoops. The objective of the game is very simple, knock the croquet ball through as many hoops as possible to win dad’s cash. Ariana never really won any money playing croquet, she was more interested in spending time talking with everyone and playfully refereeing a player’s questionable winnings.

The Ghosts of Christmas Not to Come

To My Son Peter,

On the April morning you departed us some twenty months ago, I was at work fifty miles away. My sister had texted me for your new address to send an Easter card, so I pulled up an online map of your neighborhood to check your zip code. I noticed the small county park with trails across the main road and behind the strip mall and told myself to tell you about it for walking your new dog, in case you hadn’t found it yet. I did not imagine you were soon to be heading there, gun in backpack.

I went back to my duties for a while until an overwhelming wave of peace made me stop what I was doing. I wondered where THAT sensation came from! I had only ever felt such profound serenity after deep, quiet meditation or prayer, never in the noisy bustle of my office. I turned back to my daily tasks. Within the hour, my cell phone rang. The policeman said there had been an acc –hesitated and changed it to — incident with my son. He then asked, “Do you know why he would do this?” Clueless, I asked, “Do what?” “Shoot himself,” he replied.

I believe your spirit came to me to say goodbye, to let me know you were at peace and intact.

Or else an angel came to gird me for the news I was about to receive. Only that sense kept me functioning over the next few harrowing days while we waited for the organ transplant teams. I knew that it was no longer you in that hospital bed, breathing mechanically. You had already left for another realm that morning by the stream, under the two trees that leaned together to make an arch.

A few weeks later in May, your fiancée gave me the Mother’s Day gift you had bought for me in advance, five novels of Charles Dickens, my favorite author, including A Christmas Carol. Dickens had such a heart for those who suffer due to cruelty, greed, and status-seeking in society. I think he would approve a twist to his classic morality tale.

If blessed with Dickens’ talent, I would pen “The Ghosts of Christmas Not to Come.”

First, the Angel of Mercy would lift you up and out of your own tremendous pain into the loving embrace of my departed mother who held a special place in her heart for you growing up. She would introduce you to her husband, my father, who took his life when I was a child. Of all people, he would understand what you were going through and rush in to soothe your self-condemnation with an infusion of love.

You would then be shown how those who had hurt you throughout your twenty-five years, intentionally or not, had been misled or had themselves been hurt in the past, and just did not know any better. This is your tour with the Angel of Empathy. These scenes play out before your eyes not to excuse anyone, as each will face his own life review and reckoning, but rather to explain what happened so you might understand and forgive them.

Then another spiritual guide would whisk you away to see and experience every tear of sorrow, pang of guilt, stab of rejection, and ache of abandonment your suicide caused person by person, for generations. This is the Angel of Justice, demonstrating that actions have consequences far beyond our short-sighted, narrow views. This fearful journey is not designed for your punishment, but for your instruction.

Next, the Angel of Promise would transport you to the life you would have lived, to take in a vision of your simple but beautiful wedding to your girlfriend of five years. You two were very good together and could have been better if only you had learned how to navigate rather than bury disagreements. You would meet and hold the children that you could have raised together in love, if only you had loved yourself. I remember you picked the house you bought together by the school system, so your one-day children could have a good education. You might have become a voice for the environment and the animals that depend on humans to provide space for their survival, if only you had not seen yourself as less than motivated, smart, and capable. Your professor said you had a terrific mind, and he expected to hear you had done good things for the earth and its creatures one day.

Once you had gained a panoramic perspective over the span of your life and that of those you impacted, you would be transported into the presence of the All-wise. Based on all you had seen, God would ask you to weigh the achievements and joys you had foregone against the difficulties and distress you faced, and to decide if you were mistaken when you wrote “life seems like too much of a burden” in your last note to me.

I don’t know if you’ll get the opportunity to return to earth in some form with your newfound knowledge and decision, but if you do, I pray that you never do such a thing to your priceless and irreplaceable self again, or to those who love you. Instead, you let your loved ones help you to find a better way.

The last time I saw you in person, we all ate cake in your home for your older brother’s birthday, ten days before you died. For some reason, I brought up in conversation Frank Capra’s classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, surprised to learn none of you twenty-somethings had seen it. You all said it was crazy to watch a Christmas movie in April, and I would have to wait until December for a chance to get us all together to see it. Your birthday’s just before Christmas, so we plan to watch it then. From your vantage point, I hope you can see it on the big screen and help us all take to heart what really matters in this life and the next. I believe that’s the way to earn your wings!

Love always,

Mom

Survivors Deserve a Special Gift

In December, many of us celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza, which are very happy times for the celebrants. Families come together, exchange gifts, and eat all different types of food. Years ago, I spent the holiday with my family in Ireland. My cousin shared with me that many Christmases ago the main meal was ruined because there was too much celebrating and she forgot that the meal was in the oven!

One of the key elements of this season is the giving of gifts. I believe survivors deserve a special gift during this season. By this, I mean that survivors should give themselves the gift of deciding that it’s acceptable to experience joy and happiness in the future. That is not something that is going to happen during the immediate and intense aftermath of losing a loved one to suicide.

In the initial stages of grief, one must deal with immense pain, but further on – at some point – survivors can give themselves permission to experience joy, happiness, and pleasure in the future. There is no set timetable for this and no “right” way to do it. It is just a decision that can be made at some point.

Sometimes there are obstacles to making this decision.

Wanting to stay connected: Some hold onto the pain because they think the pain is the last connection to their loved one. Survivors are always going to remember their loved ones and that is also the role of rituals. Rituals provide survivors with an exercise to remember loved ones who found life too painful to continue living.

Fear of Forgetting: Still another reason people hold on to pain is a fear of forgetting their loved ones. Again, that is the role of the ritual. Loved ones will always be a part of the lives of the people who loved them. I have never heard of survivors who have forgotten their loved ones. They do a lot of storytelling about these loved ones and the stories bring up the happier days when these loved ones were a part of a family and a circle of friends.

Guilt: Some survivors feel as if they have no right to experience joy or pleasure because their loved one took their life. This is a very normal reaction, however, survivors need to realize that although their loved ones died, they are alive and they have the right to have good times and to laugh. Survivors might not like the prospect of living a life without their loved one, but the alternative is to spend the rest of one’s life in the shadows, grieving their loss.

The grief journey is never over but there are opportunities in life that may be transformative or bring joy. For that to happen, survivors must be willing to be open to new situations. There is risk in such endeavors, yet very often the risk pays off. The first step is to make the decision to recreate one’s life and redirect one’s life into the world of renewed happiness and renewed pleasure – albeit different that it might be.

As always, I want to assure each member of the LOSS family of my thoughts and prayers during my regularly scheduled quiet time. I encourage all of you to do the same for each other – and especially for those who are recently bereaved and who find these holidays so very painful.

Keep On Keepin’ On,

Fr. Charles Rubey

Our Third Christmas Without Him

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday, but not for the commercialism, food, or festive ways it’s thrown at us. I’ve always loved the holiday for the time I have been able to spend with family, the traditions I grew up with, and because of my faith. Knowing my family was together and making memories has always been the best gift to me.

Christmas was NOT my husband’s favorite holiday, but he grew to like it very much when we got married. We would celebrate with my family. He even got to the point he would take our children Black Friday shopping. He would get VERY excited about mapping out what stores they would go to together and where they would stop for breakfast or coffee. He always found great deals, but his joy at taking our children out with him was better than any deal he ever found.

This will be our third Christmas without my husband.

On our first Christmas I felt uncertain but ended up keeping our original plans. My children and I spent the holiday with my family out of town. It turned out to be the best thing for us to do, even though we were quiet and numb the whole day while the rest of my family was jovial. They understood and gave us the space we needed. They always have, and for that we are incredibly grateful.

Our second Christmas was also with family, but we didn’t have to travel out of town.

I didn’t have to worry about decorating again, which was good because I just didn’t have the energy to do so. We made it through the day more easily than the previous year, but still missing my husband intensely.

This year, we will be celebrating Christmas at my house.

My children are once again excited about the holiday and the fact that family will be coming to us. Since my children are old enough and want to do it, they will be the ones to decorate. I enjoy seeing the decorations, and I don’t mind that they will be put up this year, but I still do not have the desire to do any decorating. I realize that’s ok, and my family understands, too. On Christmas we’ll have family with us, exchange a few gifts, and share a meal together. New memories will be made, but there will still be a void. I’ll start a new tradition this year of lighting a candle for my husband on Christmas as we move through the day.

Since my husband took his life, every holiday has become different.

There is an emptiness that cannot be filled, but as we move further out from our loss, we realize that the time we had with my husband was truly a gift. Time is also a gift in that it has offered me and my children the opportunity to learn ways to cope with our loss, move forward, and work on healing. We are no longer numb and disengaged with life around us. We are rediscovering activities and making new memories. We understand that by continuing to live our lives, we are honoring him in the process.

My husband will always be missed, and the constant presence of his absence reminds us that he will not celebrate another holiday with us in this realm again. We also know, though, that he will never truly be gone, for he lives on in our hearts and minds.

About the Author

Wisdom From Our Community

"Wisdom From Our Community" posts originally appeared on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and are reprinted with the permission of the authors. Our online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Dealing with the Holidays after a Suicide Loss

Finding hope and happiness can be hard for new survivors during the holiday season.  The first Thanksgiving and Christmas – just 7 months after our son died – felt more like an obligation than something we wanted to do. We had lost our voices and were struggling to express how we really felt. The world had moved on for everyone but our immediate family. 

We stumbled through that first holiday season with a mix of tears and profound grief. That winter, our life shut down. We didn’t take control of those first holidays.

Instead, we went through the motions as other people wanted us to. We went to Thanksgiving dinner at a relative’s house, put false smiles on our faces, and tried to pretend we were thankful – but our son was missing. No one said his name to us at first. We felt alone in a room filled with people who loved us. They were just clueless and struggling too.

We put up the Christmas tree and cried as we held the handmade ornaments our son had made over the years. What had been a cute addition in years past was now a painful reminder of his absence. We discussed if we should hang his stocking by the fireplace with the rest. (We did and still do!) We were lost and we knew we had to do something better in the future. 

With holidays just around the corner, it is time to think about what you want to do this year. When you lose a loved one to suicide, it is impossible to celebrate as you have in the past and expect things to be the same.

You are missing someone, and that is the elephant in the room. Some family and friends will want to discuss the person who is missing from the gathering, and others will avoid mentioning their name. You may not have the strength to participate in formal events. It comes down to doing what works for you. It is hard to feel happy, merry, or thankful right after you lose a loved one to suicide. The sadness and pain can be overwhelming.

I always thought the lyrics to a song called “Better Days” by the Goo Goo Dolls captured how I felt about the holidays right after our son’s death. The lyrics read:

“And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.”

Here are some tips and ideas to help with the holidays ahead:

Talk among your immediate family about how you are all feeling and what you are up to. Don’t let anyone push you to go to an event that you are not ready for. Not everyone has to attend. Do what you think will give you the most strength and energy. That may be different from what other people tell you or push you to do. Only you truly know what you are up to doing for these events. 

You don’t have to do the same activity as you have done in years past. In fact, trying to do the same event without the missing person may only make things worse. You can do something different: have a Thanksgiving breakfast, just have desserts, have a coffee tasting, or go out to a restaurant. You can take out all your photos and leave them around for people to talk about, ask people to bring stories, videos, or photos of your loved one to share with the group. Or you can stay home and have a quiet day. For a few years, we shifted to just stopping in on family and friends for only coffee and dessert after the event was mostly over. That allowed us to see everyone, but not feel the pressure to stay the whole time. Folks just want to see how you are doing.

If you attend a gathering, it may help to have a “friend” in the room – someone with whom you can speak honestly. Your trusted ally can help get you out of uncomfortable conversations.  They can be your “wingman” for the day, and provide any added strength and support you might need. 

Have a “Plan B” – just in case. You may wake up and find you don’t have the strength to follow through with your original plans. That’s when you shift to “Plan B.” It is not a failure; it is just a different choice for the day. It might be something as simple as a walk in the park, stopping by a house of worship, or visiting someplace that gives you strength and happiness. People know you are grieving and will understand that you might need a change of plans for that day.

Avoid hosting the event at your home. If you suddenly feel overwhelmed, it is hard to disappear if you need a quiet moment. Consider letting someone else host the event this year. You deserve a break.

Don’t hesitate to mention and acknowledge the person who is missing around the table. There are many ways to do this. Some people go around the table and ask each person to tell a short, positive, or funny memory about the person who is missing. Some people make a remembrance jar that can be used at any family event. Some folks even set a place at the table for the missing person and place a picture or candle on their plate. Here is an article about doing a candle lighting ceremony

It all comes down to healing the way you need to and acknowledging that those around you are also healing.

One more important tip: avoid alcohol or other intoxicating substances during these events. You need to stay sharp and manage your emotions, even though folks around you are having too much. There are always people in the crowd that will say the wrong thing and you want to be able to respond or walk away with a clear head. Alcohol can also lower your energy and just make your day worse. It is never a good idea to get lost in a drink when your emotions and grief are causing you pain. 

And last, remember it is only 24 hours. Most survivors start thinking and worrying about the events long in advance. Be kind to yourself and know that you will wake up the next day and the sun will rise once again.

A Bereaved Thanksgiving

It doesn’t seem to get any better – but it doesn’t seem to get any worse either.
For that, I am thankful.

There are no more pictures to be taken, but there are memories to be cherished. 
For that, I am thankful.

There is a missing chair at the table, but the circle of family gathers close. 
For that, I am thankful.

The turkey is smaller – but there is still stuffing. 
For that, I am thankful.

The days are shorter – but the nights are softer. 
For that, I am thankful.

The pain is still there – but it only lasts moments. 
For that I am thankful.

The calendar still turns – the holidays still appear – and they still cost too much – but I am still here.
For that I am thankful.

The room is still empty – the soul still aches – but the heart remembers.
For that, I am thankful.

The guests still come – the dishes pile up – but the dishwasher still works. 
For that, I am thankful.

The name is still missing – the words still unspoken – but the silence is shared.
For that, I am thankful.

The snow still falls – the sled still waits – and the spirit still wants to.
For that, I am thankful.

The stillness remains – but the sadness is smaller. 
For that, I am thankful.

The moment is gone – but the love is forever. 
For that, I am blessed: for that I am grateful. 

Love was once (and still is) – a part of my being. 
For that, I am thankful.

May your holidays be filled with reasons to be thankful. Having loved and having 
been loved is perhaps the most wondrous reason of all. 

 

 

Of Light and Shadows

Dear Zack,

It has been 5 1/2 months. It seems like forever. It is hard for me to remember not feeling this way. It is now November, and everyone has been doing those 30 days of Thankfulness. I am not. Of course, I could find something to be thankful for each day: your sister, brother, brother-in-law, nephews, and your dad – but it reminds me too much of what I do not have – what I have lost.

But I will write on this 28th day of November that I am grateful for you. You are my son, and you were here for almost 25 years. I think back over the years, though it is still hard for me.

I think of your energy. You had such zest for life! You were always in a hurry. It was hard to slow you down. You were always running ahead and jumping off things before I could even catch up to you. I think of the letter I still have that you wrote at age 10 to Sting, to say you were his biggest fan and would make a great partner for him!

I think of your music. Of you playing guitar in the school talent show and everyone standing and clapping wildly as you put the guitar behind your head and played the Star-Spangled Banner just like Jimi Hendrix. Of you in Battle of the Bands, your awesome hair flying as you played Metallica. Out of all the memories of your music, I cherish most the many, many nights that we would go sit out on our front porch. You would play your classical guitar for me as your little brother caught fireflies. It is one of the happiest memories in my heart.

I think of how close you and your sister were right from the start. She read to you each night, holding the book upside down and telling you stories the best she could remember –  how you loved that. I think of you playing dress up and playing Harriet the Spy with her. I am grateful for the concern and the love you shared with her when she was fighting cancer: helping me wash her hair after her surgery. You were so scared and yet so brave for her.

I am grateful for you being not only a big brother to your younger brother, but his friend too. He looks up to you so much. I remember when he “borrowed” something from your room, and the look on your face when he said he was sorry, then the look on your face when you found he had spray painted it gold. So I am grateful that you both were able to find humor in gold spray paint over the years.

I am grateful for the love you have for the man who started out as a stepdad and became your Dad, as you grew and realized how much he loves you. How the two of you shared a sense of humor of ‘Steelers and Bengals,’ and of course pink princess gift bags. I remember birthdays and Christmases, spending Christmas Eve setting up wrestlers, building Legos, putting bikes together, etc. just to make it perfect on Christmas morning. How you taped/wrapped everything, especially the guitar you gave your little brother for Christmas, it took him forever to get it unwrapped.

I think of how much you loved your dog. Of course, I remember the hard things too and words said by others that left scars on you. But I also remember you fighting through it. I am grateful for the many Saturdays we spent together in front of the fireplace, glued to a marathon of Law and Order or movies.

I remember teaching you how to draw, how to look at light and shadows. I remember telling you countless times to stop drawing on your homework and on yourself. I think of how you fell in love with the art of tattooing. How much you respected Tony, how much he taught you. I loved hearing the stories when you came home and watching you become a great artist. I am especially grateful for the tattoo you did on me. It is a part of you that will always be with me.

I am grateful for your humor and laughter! You were so funny, always making everyone laugh. I am so grateful I have some of your laughter on video. I remember every time you saw me you hugged me and told me you loved me! Unconditional love that I am sure I do not deserve, but you always loved me. I am grateful that I know you still do! I know that you loved with all that you had.

This could go on for pages, but I just wanted to say on this Thanksgiving Day that I am thankful, for singing you to sleep, for tracing your face, for playing games and having time for you always. Even though you have yet again run ahead of us, I know we will be together again. Every day, you show me more about life and that you are not gone. I am so grateful for you, my son. Thank you so much!

Love, Mom

About the Author

Wisdom From Our Community

"Wisdom From Our Community" posts originally appeared on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and are reprinted with the permission of the authors. Our online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Navigating Halloween After Loss

October is here. I find myself wondering how summer went by so fast. There is a crispness in the air now that lines the edges of even the warmest days. Trees in my yard have started to turn. Flowers are wilting … and up the street, one of my neighbors has orange lights strung through his yard.

Each year, many of my neighbors decorate for Halloween. Back in the day, when I was young, we simply put a pumpkin out. Things are more elaborate now. Last year, I’m told that Americans spent over eight billion dollars on Halloween decorations alone, not counting costumes and candy. Many look forward to October 31st, planning costumes for themselves, their children, or their pets, but those who are grieving often feel an added ache of loneliness. Their loved one is not there to help, to participate, and to enjoy.

Over the years, at support groups, I’ve heard many newly bereaved survivors say they are disturbed by some of the particularly grotesque decorations that pop up in stores and around their neighborhoods. I can understand that. Three years ago, that neighbor who is now working on the orange lights built a real graveyard in his yard … with grave robbers, half-finished … looking like they left in a hurry. Ten years before that, my new next-door neighbors, unaware that my stepson had hanged himself the year before, installed a dummy hanging with a rope around his neck, off the front of their roof. (To their credit, when my daughter mentioned our loss, they immediately took it down.)

For newer survivors especially, Halloween is often a holiday to be “endured.” 

New survivors have little emotional resilience and are in no mood for a party, especially one involving blood, gravestones, or gore. They struggle with intense emotions, often feeling suffocated by their feelings. Generalized anxiety is frequently high for new survivors. They have experienced real-life horror and are often haunted by their dreams. Many are troubled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

It will not always be that way. Things do get easier with time, but in the beginning, each landmark day brings a deepened awareness of one’s loss.

On another note, I was recently told by an Irish friend, that Halloween has its origins in Ireland’s Celtic past: that it was an important fire festival, celebrated on the evening of October 31st, and into the next day when flames of old fires had to be extinguished and ceremonially re-lit by druids. In many respects, it was a festival like our modern New Year’s Day in that it carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new.

Today Halloween doesn’t carry that connotation. Our culture focuses on candy and costumes, which for the most part, results in a lot of fun. There is no reason, however, that we as a survivor community can’t hold in our awareness that we are rekindling our fire and that of others around us… and moving into the “new.”

Bearing Witness to the Love

Valentine’s Day is approaching. It has a special meaning for me because it is also the anniversary of the day I launched the Alliance of Hope forum. I don’t think I originally planned it that way — it just happened. If you dig deep enough, through the hundreds of thousands of posts that now reside on our forum, you can still find my original post

“February 14, 2008

Hello, my name is Ronnie Walker

I am the person who created the website and this forum that links to it. My stepson Channing, took his life at the age of 21 in 1995. I created the website and this discussion forum because I wanted to support others who have lost loved ones to suicide. I hope that in some small way, this will be of help on your journey.

Ronnie Walker, MS, LCPC”

I had no idea that I had just begun a most amazing journey, or how many extraordinary people I would meet along the way. Over the last thirteen years, thousands of people have added their wisdom to the community, putting aside their own pain to reach out to others who needed encouragement and hope. There is so much love in the community – and continuing kindness expressed in both public and private messages.

I have sensed many changes in the survivor community and in attitudes towards suicide since my stepson Chan died 25 years ago. In decades past, a great many survivors hesitated to speak authentically about the loss of their loved one – lest they or their loved one, be judged negatively. Recently, more and more survivors are willing to talk about their loss. They are willing to discuss their loved one’s struggle with depression, physical or mental illness, economic or social challenges, and sometimes, the side effects they experienced from drugs.

When survivors share, it becomes clear that those who have passed are so much more than just those things that led them to end their lives.

As Valentine’s Day draws near, I invite you to view the Alliance of Hope Memorial Wall, where hundreds of dedications bear witness to the love that continues between the survivors and those who have passed. Together, we honor their spirit and heal ours.

With love,

Ronnie Walker MS, LCPC

This New Year

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.” ~ T.S. Eliot

And now here I am in the first day of another new year,
walking into the second where I’m missing your big brown eyes and how they smiled so contagiously.

I won’t say I enter this new year without you because you’re always with me.

Time is a trickster though with a necessity to keep track.
The ticks turn to miles and the miles log the distance from that doorway where we hugged the last time.

I can still feel that little hump in your shoulder, that gentle curve when you’d lean down to hug me.
It used to be a reach when you were younger.
I could feel the stretch in your back as you’d reach up to hug me.

Tick-tock through time you grew taller and that stretch turned to a downward hump.
A hump and a lean-over defined by a gentle curve.
Sometimes weightless with love, sometimes heavy with worries and sorrow.
I remember the day it was so heavy I could hardly hold you.

But it’s not your job to hold me.
Your job now is to be weightless and silly.
Riding shooting stars across the moon yelling, “Look, Mom, no hands.”
That’s what I wish for you in this new year . . . lots of shooting stars and more moons than you can count.
So off you go, unbound and forever safely tethered to my heart.

That’s what holds me . . . knowing that you are forever safely tethered to my heart.

Safely and always.

Happy new year, sweetie.

About the Author

Maria Sallese

Maria Sallese lost her 26-year-old son to suicide in 2019 and joined the Alliance of Hope forum shortly after. She finds hope and healing through writing and wishes to help others by sharing her words. Maria can be reached at: sallese.maria@gmail.comRead More »

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At Four Months – A Little Bit of Light in the Darkness

Last night was difficult. This week has been difficult

I am looking at a Thanksgiving entirely alone this year. My husband took his life on July 7th and this will be the first real holiday without him. Normally I would be with family or friends, but due to COVID-19, I’ll be “celebrating” at home alone. I absolutely dread this.

But: I’m determined to make the best of a bad situation. I’m planning to Zoom with a few friends. I purchased a small Thanksgiving feast from Whole Foods. I’m taking all of next week off of work and have a list of movies and TV that I’m planning to binge.

But still, I’m scared to death for this first holiday alone.

So: I went to Target today and bought an enormous amount of Christmas lights that I put up. There is a little bit of light in the darkness for me (and quite frankly the world, at this time). This is especially poignant as my husband refused to have any Christmas decorations at all last year. At the time, I thought it was because of his depression. Upon reflection, I think he may have been already contemplating taking his own life and didn’t want a reminder that that would be his last Christmas. Hindsight is always 20/20.

We had twenty wonderful Christmases together. I know this holiday season will be different and difficult in so many ways.

Like everything: one day at a time.

About the Author

Wisdom From Our Community

"Wisdom From Our Community" posts originally appeared on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and are reprinted with the permission of the authors. Our online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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An Angel In Every Room

We are headed into the holiday season, which is often a tough time for those grieving the death of a loved one. You may be feeling little call to celebrate, decorate, or buy gifts. Or you may be growing increasingly anxious and sad as the holidays approach. Family holiday traditions, as well as the festivities and expectations of the outside world, are hard to navigate with a broken heart.

This year, I imagine that most everyone will be doing things a bit differently – whether they have lost someone or not. The pandemic, unemployment, and economic anxieties have altered so many things for all of us. And you may be rethinking or revising the traditions of previous years in order to satisfy social distancing guidelines. I know I am.

For eight months now, I have been talking to new loss survivors who are grappling with the pandemic in addition to the death of their loved one. They have needed to social distance while managing funerals, memorials, and tending to all the collateral tasks resulting from loved ones’ deaths. Many have postponed memorials or held very small gatherings. They have been isolated, without the close, in-person support of friends, family, and counselors, which is so important. It has been heartbreaking to me, to know they are going through this.

New loss survivors are often very concerned about upcoming holidays and special occasions. If this is true for you, I’d like to suggest something that helped me immensely 25 years ago, when my grief was new. Find a way to “own” your own holiday. Take it back from the culture and make it personal. Make it just big enough and just small enough to fit what is happening for you and your family right now.

Do what you need to do to get through it

I still recall the emptiness I felt the first year after my stepson’s death when previous traditions no longer fit. I could not shop. I certainly could not put up elaborate decorations. I could barely get through each day. At some point, I decided to put an angel figure in every room of the house. That seemed appropriate. I recall that my daughter Heather gave me a pair of angel earrings with a note: “If you wear these Mom, there will be an angel in every room you enter.”

So, if I can give you one tip, as the holidays approach, I urge you to go within and honor your feelings. Seek the wisdom of your own higher self. There is no right or wrong. Our culture dictates so much, but it is possible to take things back. Think about what you want to do – what is meaningful for you – and trust your instincts. 

During that first holiday 25 years ago, I felt such deep despair I could not envision a future of anything but loneliness and pain. With the help of others, I survived and eventually begin to thrive. It was a journey of many years, but during that time, I grew stronger. I believe you will too. I grew wiser. I believe you will too. I chose to live, and then live in a way that makes a difference. I believe you can too.

Be sure to check out our website if you are looking for additional articles and holiday tips, and please know that others understand and will be there for you on the Alliance of Hope Forum. You are not alone. As always, my thoughts and prayers are with each and every member of the Alliance of Hope community.

Ronnie

Thoughts on Halloween

During the month of October, America celebrates Halloween, the second most decorative event in our country after Christmas. It is amazing to see all the decorations around houses and surrounding areas. People are going all out. When I think of Halloween, I think of masks and I also think about how flippantly people depict death.

When I think of masks, I think of the masks that people put on in masking their real, desperate feelings. Over the years, I have heard it said countless times that the person who completed suicide gave no real signs they were contemplating wanting to end their life. They hid this fact from everyone.

One would think that someone thinking about taking their life would give off some sign or message, but people in this desperate state often don’t give off signals. Why? It could be that they do not want to be stopped and fear if they shared what was going through their minds, their plans would be thwarted. People contemplating suicide have lost faith in medical intervention and counseling, thinking it would be futile.

Another reason people might not share their innermost thoughts is that they are too embarrassed or ashamed of having such thoughts. They are fully aware of the stigma attached to mental illness. Yet mental illness is an illness like any other illness, and there should be no shame attached to this illness. Mental illness attacks a different part of the person. Instead of attacking the heart, or some other vital organ, mental illness attacks the mind and the brain and the soul.

When I think of masks, I also think of the masks that survivors wear to hide their grieving process. My suggestion is that survivors be honest when asked how they are doing. Survivors don’t have to give every detail about the grief journey nor should they give the impression that everything is fine. One can admit the grief journey is painful without unloading every detail.

Still another aspect of Halloween is the flippant approach to death. There is nothing flippant about death. Survivors can become quite upset when they see dummies hanging from trees or other parts of a neighborhood. If some scene is particularly upsetting to a survivor, a gentle reminder to a neighbor could be warranted. My suggestion is that when the scene can be removed or altered, survivors should take the initiative and express their feelings. People are generally very sensitive to the situation and will either remove or alter the scene. Survivors do not have to suffer in silence.

Survivors look at the world through very different eyes. Halloween decorations may trigger painful memories, especially in the early years after the loss. With time, as survivors incorporate the loss into their psyche, sensitivity to graphic decorations tends to lessen.  

As we head into fall events and the holiday season, my thoughts and prayers are with all survivors.

It Was the Year Before Last

Dear fellow survivors:

We are beginning a new year, and I hope you will find many moments of peace and healing in the coming days.

Reading through the Alliance of Hope Forum this morning, I came across the post of a mother who wrote that this month marked 16 months since the death of her son. Many survivors find that calendar events take on new meaning following the death of a loved one. For example, Christmas is no longer “just Christmas,” but the first … or second … or third Christmas since their loved one died. Similarly, survivors encounter the first Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day and so forth. Anyone who has gone through traumatic loss will understand the calendar perspective of one who is bereaved. 

Survivors frequently report that some people don’t understand the length of their grief. “It’s been a month … it’s been a year … it’s been two years.” “Move on.” “Don’t look back.” There always seems to be someone – often well-intentioned – who recites something in this vein. 

Sometimes survivors ask, “How long will I feel this way?” There is no right answer. There is no timetable that can be or should be imposed on grief. The most important thing to know is that the general thrust of the journey that follows loss from suicide is toward healing. As Iris Bolton said, “You may never stop missing your loved one, but you can and will survive, and eventually go beyond just surviving.”

As we enter the New Year, I want to share a poem that captures this essence of the survivor journey: 

The Year before Last

The holiday season is approaching,
and with it comes the New Year.
Although for me time passes slowly,
New Year’s Day will ring in quickly.

I dread this New Year’s Day
because they will look at me
in a terribly strange way
when I get misty-eyed,
and talk about something you had done.

After you first left me,
they reasoned when I cried,
“He’s only been gone a few months.”
And I would catch that look of
understanding in their eyes,
and found some comfort that they knew.

But on last New Year’s Day,
my first thought upon awakening was,
Oh God, my son died last year,
not just a few months ago, not even this year,
but last year.
He will never live in this year.

They didn’t understand, they didn’t reason
that last year, for me, the loss was still new.
They thought, “It happened last year,
so long ago, why does she still cry?”
I could see it in their eyes.

This New Year’s Day, will it be different?
Will my first thought upon awakening be,
Oh God, my son died the year before last,
not a few months ago, not this year or even last year,
but the year before last?
He will never live in this year.

Will they even listen, should I not look them
in the eyes, for fear that I shall see,
“Why is she still crying? It happened so long ago,
It was the year before last.”

Those words that we use
to describe the passage of time,
a few months, this year,
last year, the year before last.
They don’t know that time stands still for me.

Will they understand why I cry?
Don’t they know
my son just died…

the year before last?

~Author Unknown

As this new year unfolds, please know that support is always available in the Alliance of Hope Forum. Whether your loss is new — or dates back many years — you are welcome to join in the discussion and reach out to give or receive support to others who understand. 

Navigating the Holidays

The first year after a death in the family, holidays can be particularly difficult. Many of my clients tell me they wish they could just stay in bed with the covers over their heads until January.

I too am familiar with the feelings of dread that may seem overwhelming when facing holidays. My five-year-old son died suddenly almost 30 years ago, and I can still recall the pain of the first year as I struggled to not only survive holidays but to simply get through each day.

During this season we are bombarded with the stereotype of the “perfect family,” experiencing nothing but joy and warmth as they gather around the holiday table. This commercialized myth has been instrumental in selling mass quantities of merchandise. It is, therefore, an unavoidable part of the holiday culture.

We are forced to contemplate the reality of our loss-filled family life and compare it to the myth of the perfect family closeness that we see portrayed in the media. This comparison can be difficult even for intact families, but those that have sustained losses may feel even more isolated and bereft.

However, it is important to remember that you and your family do have options about how to cope with the holidays. 

Most importantly, discuss past traditions and make changes according to the wishes of those who are hurting the most.  Do not hesitate to openly acknowledge your loss for fear of upsetting others.  It is far worse to act as if everything were normal when so clearly, it is not.

Some families choose to remember their loved one in a variety of ways that may include the following:

  • Decorate a wreath with pictures and mementos of the person who died.
  • Encourage grieving children to draw pictures and create gifts inspired by their memories of the deceased to give to other family members.
  • Donate to a favorite charity in memory of the one who died.
  • Decorate a special candle and light it at mealtime. A simple expression of remembrance can be said such as “John, we miss you and will remember you always.”
  • Share anecdotes and stories about the deceased.  This can give permission to other family members to share their own stories. If your celebration is Hanukkah, you can recall a memory on each of the eight nights that you light the Menorah.
  • Remember to allow yourself time to cry, to be alone if you wish, or to surround yourself with loved ones if that is helpful to you. There are no rules to follow, just know that the pain you are feeling is a testament that says you have loved someone deeply.

Your pain is like a physical wound that takes time and care in order to heal. Despite the fact that you will share some similarities with other grievers, your grief is unique to you and your particular loss.

With love and support, you will eventually find your own path through this wilderness of loss. 

The Twelfth Christmas

This year will mark the twelfth Christmas without my husband. I think one of the things that made his suicide so unbelievable was that he had always been so incredibly strong. In mind and in body. Even the strong and the brave, the gentle and the good can lose hope and the will to live. I would not have been so shocked if his heart had given out though a brain is no more indestructible than a human heart. In a way, his heart did give out first though not without a long and hard-fought battle.

I never say my “late” husband. I don’t think of him as gone or late. If anything, he left too soon. And the influence his life had on mine was so powerful it is still there. Seeing the world through his eyes is something that continues to be a part of me. In many ways, he made me who I am. People have that effect on one another, and I don’t expect that to change. We grew so close that when he died, part of me died, too.

I suspect it is that way with each of you and the ones you loved. For those of you who are in the early years of loss, know that you are not alone and that you can survive. For you who are further from your deepest grief, know you are living proof that it is possible to go beyond just surviving to thrive and rebuild a life, “to have happy, meaningful and contributory lives,” as Ronnie Walker, Alliance of Hope’s founder says.

I like to read about the history and mission of the Alliance of Hope, where I volunteer. It makes me feel that my small part in something that makes a difference in the world is a worthy tribute to my husband. It helps me face the holidays (and every day) with joy as well as memories that are bittersweet.

I lost my beloved husband but not what he means to me. He is always present. Always loved. Always an influence for good.

The people we have lost are not defined by the way that we lost them, and neither are we.

About the Author

Jan McDaniel

Jan McDaniel volunteers as an Alliance of Hope forum moderator, manager, and blog content provider. She is also a regular contributor to Psych Central’s World of Psychology blog and writes about survival, connection, and hope on her website.Read More »

5 Comments on The Twelfth Christmas

Holidays

Every year it seems that once the month of October arrives, everyone begins to get into the festive spirit, for this commences the time of year that holds all the most important family holidays. It has begun to be dark in the morning. The sun sets earlier in the evening. Temperatures are beginning to fall. Soon the leaves will change color. Fall foliage is emerging and then that too will fall to begin the winter season.

Everyone seems to be engaging in fun family fall activities, like pumpkin carving, apple picking, and Halloween festivities. These were things I used to look forward to, but now are things I fear.

I like many of you, am in my first year after losing my parent. I am anxious about the holiday season and how different it will be since there is a huge piece missing. I cannot picture walking into my mother’s house and seeing it not decorated with witches, caution tape covering doors, and pumpkins throughout. But this year it will for sure not have the things she always did.

It is even harder to picture going to Thanksgiving dinner and not seeing my mother struggling to make a turkey, all the sides and dessert. She always did.

And It is impossible to fathom that I won’t go to her house this Christmas and find her in her Christmas pajamas with presents labeled ‘from Santa.”

The holidays come with a sense of dread and anxiety. I’m sure many of you – especially those experiencing the first holiday season without your loved one – are feeling this as well.

I think it is important during this time … that we all take gentle care of ourselves. Here’s to wishing everyone a happy, healthy, and safe fall and holiday season; I hope this may help anyone who is beginning to have these feelings emerge as well.

You are not alone.

About the Author

Wisdom From Our Community

"Wisdom From Our Community" posts originally appeared on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and are reprinted with the permission of the authors. Our online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Halloween is Coming

After my husband died, it was terribly hard to look at anything to do with Halloween. Even just driving to work I couldn’t avoid it all. We had enjoyed a mildly scary holiday with our children as they grew up, but in the aftermath of suicide, death had new meaning. I felt the decorated yards, gruesome costumes and other things were just cruel, and they caused me fresh pain. Many of you probably feel the same way right about now.

It has been eleven years, and I have two little grandsons now, ages 2 and 4. It seems easier this year. Most of what we do is related to the harvest time of year. But this weekend there were jack-o-lanterns with lopsided grins on the front steps again, fake spider webs draped along my walls, and superheroes handing out candy at “trunk or treat.” There was music and laughter and candlelight set against the first leaves changing colors. And cupcakes.

As I watched the cutest Wonder-woman and the kindest Hulk decorate their car trunk in the sunny field, a little Batman hoisted a super-size Batman balloon three times his size and carried it here and there. Spiderman climbed into the open hatchback and declared he wanted to give out the candy while his counterpart balloon settled on the grass and nodded sagely with the breeze.

Truth be told, he and little Batman ate quite a bit of the sweet stuff as they dropped great handfuls into bags and plastic pumpkins. But there they were, an Alliance of Four. Yet another sign that life would find a way to go on. They were continuing their daily routine, creating a family, which is their strongest superpower, adding adventure, tucking in memories around the corners, building trust and love and hope brick by brick.

They wore their real identities that day. Maybe no one else knew what superheroes they really are, but I did. How much it took to finish college when all seemed lost, how many times a text or call came in “just to check” on mom, what power had to be harnessed to raise little humans and go to work without sleep when going on had so many reminders of going back.

Going on is terribly hard for a while. A long while. But there is still a good life to be lived, just like there are still good memories. And those things like candlelight and music and cupcakes will be sweet again. At the center of our lives is still the one we lost. Always present. Always loved. Always an influence for good.

How do you go on?

About the Author

Jan McDaniel

Jan McDaniel volunteers as an Alliance of Hope forum moderator, manager, and blog content provider. She is also a regular contributor to Psych Central’s World of Psychology blog and writes about survival, connection, and hope on her website.Read More »

12 Comments on Halloween is Coming

The Most Difficult Thing

Originally published in Jan 2019, pre-COVID. 

First, I want everyone who has lost someone to suicide to know I’m thinking of you. At times when I’ve had moments of intense pain, I get an image of all of us. Some are newly struggling, others are further along, and there are lots of us kind of in-between. Wherever you are at this moment, there is someone here who gets what you’re experiencing.

Next, I just wanted to share about Christmas. My family has a traditional big family gathering on Christmas Eve. I cried, hid, dozed, did a few dishes, flossed my teeth, had some difficulty breathing, checked for gray hair. I wanted and needed to go for the kids and for myself. But, as time passed and the time to leave got closer, I found more things to do. Or not do.

  • I didn’t get ready.
  • I didn’t get the kids ready.
  • I did brush one of the dogs.
  • I did write a few Christmas cards.
  • I didn’t pack up gifts to bring.
  • I didn’t feel like eating.
  • I did drink water.
  • I did eventually start getting ready.
  • I didn’t want to go.
  • I didn’t like the way a new dress hung on me.
  • I did like the way the kids looked.
  • I did get the gifts boxed up.
  • I didn’t want to go. Anywhere.
  • I didn’t want to move.

The kids were dancing around, in and out. They looked expectantly at me. I told them to get in the car and I’d be right there, but I couldn’t move. After a few minutes, I thought “the kids are going to freeze out there!” Still, I couldn’t move. Christmases with my husband, some good, some not, were blinking through my head. Thoughts of the future almost knocked me down. The pain I felt in my heart was horrible.

Somewhere, a thought came to me: “Just walk to the door.” So I did. I got that far.

There were only so many choices by this time. Walk through the door or not. I was wishing the kids would start fighting or yelling so I’d have to go out the door. For once, they were quiet!

  • I did open the door.
  • I did get in the car and drive to the party.
  • I did listen to music and finally got who “Parson Brown” was in “Sleigh Bells Ring” (thanks to my son’s labored explanation!)
  • I did feel the starless sky pressing down on me.
  • In between all of us singing off-key, I thought of the Star that led people to Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. I still felt heavy-hearted.

I’d love to be able to tell you things went smoothly and I had a light heart that night and all day yesterday. I didn’t. But, I held the lighter moments like gold.

The hardest part was walking through that door. There were a zillion little things I did before and after that. By far, though, the hardest part was walking through that door.

So we all go. Taking all kinds of steps and walking through all kinds of doors. We glide easily though some while others seem insurmountable. But, sooner or later, because we are survivors, we will walk through every door.

It’s so good to know you are there as I see more doors waiting to be opened –when I am able. Mostly there are many mini-doors just in one day, one morning, one moment.

I hope you’ll take a few moments just to appreciate what courage you have in seemingly small moments. This next week will no doubt bring challenges that times of celebration bring. Let’s hold on together.

About the Author

Wisdom From Our Community

"Wisdom From Our Community" posts originally appeared on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and are reprinted with the permission of the authors. Our online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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