This New Life:  Treehouses

If “a rose by any other name smells as sweet” (William Shakespeare), would a treehouse always be as sweet as our childhood memories tell us?

That’s what I wondered as I drove by a very nice group of houses the other day. I couldn’t help but notice the one closest to the road. It didn’t look so different from the others, but this house was home to children, very lucky children. A tall, wooden fort loomed in the side yard. Well-constructed hung below with swings and a rope bridge, it made me long for a special place like that.

A hideaway.

As a child, I loved to climb. Trees, jungle gyms, slides. I had no treehouse, but there were corners of the wooded lot next to our house that became circus tents, mud-pie markets, and pirate ships, even if they were only visible to me. The big ditch with its drizzle of water and the board I used to walk across it to my wonderland was probably not as big as I thought when I was nine years old, but it served my imagination well.

I never quite got over my fascination with what could happen in the trees, and I think now, as a suicide survivor, that’s a good thing. We all need a place to hide away, to pretend as we heal.

I imagined the children running out to the tall fort I had seen, but suddenly I wondered if something had been lost in the new construction. A dad might have put the thing together, but it may have been installed by other men. That led me to think about how different our lives are today, even our treehouses.

Life is faster now than ever before. The world doesn’t stop for those who grieve. So, what’s in a treehouse really?

Generations have pulled scrap boards into the branches, nailed floors and tiny rooms in place. Lessons passed from father to son include how to handle a hammer, what to say when fingers get hit instead of nails, and general principles of construction. Building shelters, like building a life, takes a certain kind of planning and execution and a “stick-to-itiveness” that battles frustration, no matter how rough the shape or how complicated the blueprint.

I could see some of these men in my mind, working beside sons and sometimes daughters, teaching more than woodwork, talking but also listening, mastering an unconscious bond that would guide their children throughout their lives.

Is all that gone with the pre-installed, pre-fabricated playgrounds of today? That’s the question I asked myself, but then I realized the answer is “no.”

Maybe things are different. The forts look better. That’s for sure. But countless dads and moms still spend incalculable hours rocking sick children, putting burgers on the grill in the backyard, sorting out problems, and cheering their kids on at ball games.

What does all this have to do with survivors of suicide? For me, it says. “Keep the good memories from the past, the tree-houses built under a tree instead of in one because my husband didn’t want our little girls to fall, but hold onto the new life we’re creating with those we can still hold in our arms. Build a hideaway, if only in our minds. Rest, step forward, rest, and go again.”

Families who lose a loved one to suicide must meet many challenges. Keeping those connections close after such loss is tiring, draining, and rewarding work. 

Even if your treehouse is on the ground, don’t forget to go there.  And take someone with you if you can. 

We Have Been Broken and Yet …

I work in a small town in rural Montana — population 93 if you count dogs, cats, gofers, chickens, and the occasional goat. There’s a little tiny grocery store (about like a convenience store) where I buy lunch most days. Yesterday I mentioned to the clerk, whom I’ve known for a couple years although not well – really just by name — that we went to the high school graduation over the weekend. She asked if I had a kid graduating and I told her that my son who we’d lost, would have graduated. She said “so sorry” and I never thought much more about it.

So today I go to get lunch and she asked “can I ask how your son died” so I told her Tandi had taken his life on the first day of his freshman year. And then the surprise for me — she lost her first husband to suicide many years ago. A nice long chat ensued. Turns out her niece also lost a boyfriend to suicide within the past few months (so I plugged Alliance of Hope. 😊)

My point with all this is I’ve always seen Lisa as just another person living and working in a small rural town — just as normal as normal can be. I never would have guessed she’s one of us! My perspective was completely changed. What I see now in Lisa is a pillar of healing and hope, a glimpse of what I aspire to be many years from now.

I can say with confidence that for every member here, someone in your circle sees YOU as a pillar too. You don’t see it — you’re too close to yourself — but someone does.

The son of some friends of ours fell while rock climbing late last summer. He is now at the Craig hospital in Denver rehabilitating from severe head trauma and multiple breaks in his neck/back. I follow his progress. The Craig Hospital specializes in recovery and rehabilitation for those with severe, life-threatening injuries. Many of their patients will never walk again, most will require a caregiver for the rest of their lives.

Late last week his mom posted an update that said, in part: “There is both joy and awe in watching those who are broken find the courage to pick up the pieces of their lives and find a way to start anew.” While she was referring to those in the hospital who are broken physically when I read that I thought of all of us here. Every one of us here was broken; most of us are still broken. Some see no path to healing while others are a shining example of healing and hope. Most of us are devastated and through our devastation, we can’t see our own healing that is obvious to others. Speaking for myself, I came here looking for an anonymous outlet for the pain and found hope and healing from my fellow travelers.

Every single one of you has been broken, and yet … you have the courage to trudge on. You have the courage to seek support and share your stories. Somehow, you find the courage to pick up the shattered pieces of your life and find a way to start anew. I see you finding those little pieces and I see you fitting them back together.

Seeing that develop in you brings joy to my heart. I AM IN AWE OF EVERY ONE OF US!! If you’re reading this, I refer to you. I am in awe of you. You give me hope and I thank you.

I’m Taking Him with Me

Until five weeks ago, I was suffering depression without ease, since my son’s passing eight months ago. I was torn between continuing my journey and remaining where Keeghan’s journey had ended. I was suffering anxiety over the issue and discussed that with my psychologist. I explained it as feeling like one hand being held stationary where Keeghan’s journey ended and the other hand being pulled in the other direction, trying to continue my journey and stretching me in-between. Of course, this was not possible and led to more confusion for myself.

My psychologist paused for a moment, then asked what I thought of taking Keeghan with me on my journey. This clicked with me instantly. After only a couple of affirmations to this effect, I felt a tranquility wash over me. Since that day, depression has taken a back seat in my life, but I know it’s still lurking, so I remain vigilant.

Sunday 18th of August was the first birthday since my son’s passing. He would have been 19. The week leading up to it was terrible and I returned to the darkness. The day dawned and I went to watch the sunrise, a cup of tea in hand. I spoke to Keeghan, wishing him a happy birthday and letting him know I was getting a tattoo that day to celebrate it.

The tattoo is both an affirmation of taking him on my journey and a proclamation of my love for him. Since yesterday I have felt so peaceful. A major block to my forward progress has been removed.

I Don’t Know Why

I don’t know why…

I’ll never know why…

I don’t have to know why…

I don’t like it…

I don’t have to like it…

What I do have to do is make a choice about my living.

What I do want to do is to accept it and go on living.

The choice is mine.

I can go on living, valuing every moment in a way I never did before,

Or I can be destroyed by it and in turn, destroy others.

I thought I was immortal, that my children and my family were also,

That tragedy happened only to others…

But I know now that life is tenuous and valuable.

And I choose to go on living, making the most of the time I have,

Valuing my family and friends in a way I never experienced before.

Podcast: Grief After Suicide – It’s Unique & Complicated

Last month, I had the opportunity to discuss suicide loss with Dr. Gloria Horsley and Dr. Heidi Horsley, of Open to Hope, a non-profit with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. In this 20-minute podcast, we discuss the unique and complicated grief that follows the loss of a loved one to suicide. Watch to learn more about specific challenges as well as how to talk about the loss of your loved one.

Be sure to check out the Open to Hope website. It offers hundreds of informative and inspirational podcasts to help people cope with their pain, heal their grief and invest in their future.  

Beyond Surviving: Things I Have Learned

I have learned compassion. My “old self” was so busy, I never really noticed others around me. Now I do. I even notice when strangers are unhappy. I feel for them and try to make the moment better for them, to bring them peace and comfort.

I’ve learned tolerance. Little things that used to seem so big to me, are now just a speck of dust. I’ve been through the worst event possible, so anything else should be a walk in the park. The ups and downs of everyday life, the disappointments when things don’t go as planned – well, they just don’t seem to matter anymore. Life goes on and I intend to live it to the fullest and not sweat the small stuff.

I’ve learned empathy. I can look into another person’s eyes now, or read a post on the Alliance of Hope forum, and feel the pain that person is feeling. Knowing how someone is hurting lets me offer comfort and caring.

I’ve learned to love. Without restriction, without rules, but with my whole heart and soul. I’m a much nicer person now than I was when my son died.

I’ve learned faith. It gets me through each day. The faith that all things happen for a reason, that there is a better place when life is over, and the faith that I will see not only my beautiful son again but all the others I have lost over the years as well.

I have learned these things because of my son, Josh. I miss him terribly, but I know I will see him again and I talk to him every day. I love him deeply, and I regret that he felt he had no option other than suicide. I understand the depth of his despair, and my heart aches with him.

For those just starting on this journey through grief, I hope this gives you hope. Life will go on, and if you learn from the experience, it will be a fulfilling and peaceful life again – just different from what you thought it would be before you lost your precious loved one.

His Essence Is Still With Me

I find myself posting quite often that I “lost” my son to suicide. I also find myself posting often about my firm belief that Tandi is with me. I’ve been wrestling for a while with the idea that those two seem to be mutually exclusive.

Did I lose my son or is he with me? It seemed to me that both couldn’t be true – that either one or the other must be true, but not both.

As I’ve struggled with this seeming inconsistency, I have begun to realize that both are indeed true. I lost Tandi in the sense that his physical presence is no longer with me. But his physical presence, his body if you will, doesn’t describe the essence of who he is.

If I were to describe him, I could describe him physical: 5’3″, brown skin, dark hair, dark eyes, athlete, hunter, skier, etc. I could easily come up with an accurate description of who he was physically, and we have a ga-jillion pictures as proof of that description. But I’d be describing who he was, not who he is.

I could also describe him as the essence of who he is: loving, great sense of humor, kind and gentle, a peacemaker with friends and family, etc. Who he was is indeed “lost” to me. But who he is – the essence of him – his personality, his spirit, his soul – is not lost. Who he is constitutes the intangibles that make him Tandi, whose things I can’t physically touch and feel but are clearly there.

As hard as it is to accept and find peace with losing who Tandi was, I’m thankful that I will never, ever lose who he is. May each member here never lose the essence of who your loved one is.

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Tips from Survivors: Don’t Try This Alone

Dear Surviving Parents,

Your world has completely stopped, but at the same time, it is spinning wildly around you. You can’t stop sobbing. A sound is coming from you like you have never heard. Your knees are buckling under your weight, and you are falling to the floor. You may be physically sick, vomiting until your stomach is empty. You watch professionals take your child away and wonder what he or she will look like when and if you see him or her again.

You are being asked to make decisions about what comes next for your child’s physical remains, but you are not able to decide. Your mind keeps going back to the last time you saw your child alive. You replay your last words with them and wonder if you hugged them and told them you love them. Then you go further back and think about the signs you somehow missed and how this must be your fault. Your mind will also go back again and again to the last time you saw them dead.

You will stand in the grocery store with everyone moving around you like nothing has happened. You will want to scream out, “My child is dead!” so they understand your pain. It will be like a movie playing in front of you.

You will want answers. Maybe your child left a note that gives you some solace. But the note’s content will not be enough. There are always going to be more questions. You are likely never going to understand completely why this happened. You will spend a lot of time thinking about it. You will go through his or her room, backpacks, notebooks, and computer files, looking for more information or a special keepsake he or she left for you. You may or may not find it. Either way it will still not be enough.

Some of your friends won’t know what to say, so they will stay away. Others will try to find the right words and will say something hurtful without meaning to. Some will research the right things to say to someone in your situation. Some will send you cards and e-mails months from now, and you will be grateful they have not forgotten your loss and pain. Some will offer to sit quietly and hold you.

You will have a hard time making decisions—not just big ones, like what to do with your child’s belongings or room or what the headstone should look like, but rather little ones, like what to have for dinner or what to wear.

The first few months will be a blur. You will have memory issues where chunks of time are missing or you cannot remember conversations. Your work will suffer.

You will not enjoy socializing as you once did. You will hide behind closed doors and pulled shades so you do not need to interact with others. You will avoid phone calls and texts. You will turn down invitations that you would have once happily accepted. When you do find the wherewithal to go out, you will come home exhausted and emotionally drained. It will not be because people are unkind. It will be because interacting with others will enervate you.

Some of your friends, family, and coworkers will want you to get over it and will tell you so. Your grief will make them uncomfortable. You will give yourself deadlines for feeling better. After the holidays. After the child’s first birthday that he or she is not with you. After the first anniversary of his or her death. But you won’t get over it. Grief does not have a timeline.

You might consider going to counseling and then decide you don’t need it. Go anyway. This is not a journey to travel alone.

You will be changed. But you will not always feel as hopeless and helpless as you do right now. Things will get better, but it will take time and effort.

Please. Take the time to connect with resources especially developed for those who are traveling this road. Check out Facebook and online survivors’ groups. Go to meetings. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. You will connect with people who understand your journey, who will say what you are saying is exactly how they feel. You will feel at home, especially when home feels so empty now.

You are not alone.

Peace, love and light to you on this journey.

(C) 2016

‘Twas the Night before Christmas – For Bereaved Parents

‘Twas the month before Christmas and I dreaded the days,

That I knew I was facing -the holiday craze.

The stores were all filled with holiday lights,

In hopes of drawing customers by day and by night.

 

As others were making their holiday plans,

My heart was breaking – I couldn’t understand.

I had lost my dear child a few years before,

And I knew what my holiday had in store.

 

When out of nowhere, there arose such a sound,

I sprang to my feet and was looking around,

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash

 

The sight that I saw took my breath away,

And my tears turned to smiles in the light of the day.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a cluster of butterflies fluttering near.

With beauty and grace they performed a dance,

I knew in a moment this wasn’t by chance.

 

The hope that they gave me was a sign from above,

That my child was still near me and that I was loved.

The message they brought was my holiday gift,

And I cried when I saw them in spite of myself.

 

As I knelt closer to get a better view,

One allowed me to pet it – as if it knew –

That I needed the touch of its fragile wings,

To help me get through the holiday scene.

 

In the days that followed I carried the thought,

Of the message the butterflies left in my heart –

That no matter what happens or what days lie ahead,

Our children are with us – they’re not really dead.

 

Yes, the message of the butterflies still rings in my ears,

A message of hope – a message so dear.

And I imagined they sang as they flew out of sight,

“To all bereaved parents – We love you tonight!”

Black Friday

“My son’s nutcrackers decorate the mantle. Nothing else is really needed.”

It’s the day after Thanksgiving. Known as Black Friday to retailers, the economy and bargain hunters. To Suicide Survivors it is just another Black Day we move through without someone very dear that we lost in an unimaginable way.

This Thanksgiving I reminded myself that I am thankful for having my youngest son Adam in my life for 22 years. That I would rather have those 22 years with him than not to have had him at all. I am thankful for my surviving sons as they make me want to be strong. I give thanks for the friends and family who love and stick by me. After my tragic loss I am forever thankful for this forum as it gives me a place to speak, to be heard and to be understood. Alliance of Hope has been my lifeline and I am at a point in my life where I can listen and try to offer compassion and understanding as well. I seek now to listen more as I realize what a gift that can be to others.

This weekend I decorate for the holidays. It is another sign of my survival. My son’s nutcrackers decorate the mantle. Nothing else is really needed. No reason to add to it as each piece is a reminder of him and the love and joy he brought us. He is always with us and we celebrate him all year round.

This Black Friday I light a candle as I do every day. I give thanks for Adam and my surviving sons, for true friends and loving family, and for the AOH community of support. I am a suicide survivor and I am as loving as I am strong. I’ve come a long way and know others have too. So here’s to us…the compassionate and strong survivors who hope to help others make it through the Blackest of Days.

Originally published by Audrey Crilley on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and reprinted with permission.

How Suicide Loss Prepared Me for a Cancer Diagnosis

I was in a bookstore when I got the call on my cell. I knew it had to be bad news if the doctor was calling me herself after the breast biopsy. I stepped outside and sat down. I heard “definitely malignant” and “I’m sorry” before the call ended. I teared up but didn’t break down. What do I do now? Call my husband. Go back in the store and get a book on breast cancer.

The dreaded C-word. The word that older relatives, even some doctors, wouldn’t say 40 or 50 years ago when my mother, aunt, and grandparents had it. In my family, that was how you died.

“It’s a sock in the gut, isn’t it?” a friend wrote, recalling the shock of her own diagnosis.

Yes, but my shock absorbers have changed. The worst thing that can happen has already happened to me. My child’s suicide is a nightmare that will always be with me. Cancer, at least at this point, is an unwelcome guest—a condition to be managed. We each have our own private calculus. My instinct on hearing the diagnosis was to take charge, stay calm. I would not catastrophize, I told myself, unless or until there was reason to do so. I would try not to act out of fear.

The first few weeks after the diagnosis, I felt some of the same vulnerability and reached for some of the same solace as I did after Noah’s suicide. I was tired and slept a lot, while also having trouble sleeping. I took one day at a time. I craved comfort food, like big bowls of Japanese ramen. I prayed for healing. I felt the concern of friends and family who fretted: “You shouldn’t have to deal with this right now.” I told my son, Ben, that I wanted him home for Thanksgiving and for my lumpectomy the following day. He came, as he came so often to visit us in the year after Noah’s death. Much of this felt familiar.

Unlike after Noah’s suicide, after the diagnosis I welcomed distraction and positive thinking rather than crying fits. I didn’t feel the need to find a support group or talk a lot with other breast cancer survivors. I knew that everyone handles the diagnosis differently, just as everyone handles grief differently. In 2013, I wanted it known that Noah died by suicide and that we welcomed support. In 2016, I wanted to keep the cancer news more private because I didn’t feel like a cancer patient and didn’t want to have to deal with a lot of well-wishers eager to help. With the suicide, many people said there were no words, but with a breast cancer diagnosis, people seem to know the drill. After all, one in nine American women get breast cancer while only 13.4 of every 100,000 Americans die by suicide. The C-word is a familiar visitor, no longer so fearful, but the S-word remains laden with stigma, ignorance, and horror.

I’d never had surgery or general anesthesia before. In preparation, I listened to a guided meditation on visualizing successful surgery that suggested imagining everyone who loves you, living or dead, as a “band of angels” watching over you in the operating room. Thinking of my dead son and parents wishing me well made me cry so I decided that the living were enough to protect me.

I’ve been lucky with this cancer, considering. It’s small, early, treatable. I have good insurance and encouraging, competent doctors. I don’t need chemo—the other dreaded C-word, reminding me of my mother’s shrunken face at 47, cheekbones protruding, gray tufts sprouting on her head like a baby bird. If I’d had to have chemo or my prognosis was worse, I’d more likely feel like a cancer patient, more afraid and sorry for myself–at which point, maybe I would seek a support group.

In the desert two days before surgery, I saw the biggest rainbow I’ve ever seen. Its perfect arc spanned the sky with thick bands of primary colors, like a child’s drawing. While meditating by the beach on the day before my chemo consultation, I sensed an unfamiliar deep, teal-colored light behind my eyes. I’ll take both of these signs as Noah’s blessing: You can do this, Mom.

Susan Auerbach is twice a suicide loss survivor and the author of I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage, and Clarity After Suicide Loss. This article is reprinted from her blog, Walking the Mourner’s Path After a Child’s Suicide. © Susan Auerbach 2017

Book Review: I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach

Auerbach’s intimate story will resonate with anyone who has lost a child to suicide. She is a gifted writer with a unique ability to observe and articulate what she was feeling as she journeyed through shocking loss and complicated grief. Readers will relate to her emotions, admire her courage, and be inspired by her commitment to make a difference. It is rare to find such an eloquent and powerful work in suicide grief literature.”~Ronnie Susan Walker, MS, LCPC Founder & Executive Director, Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors

A mother came home from work to find her 21-year-old son Noah’s body in her garage. She was no stranger to suicide. In her mid-twenties, her father had ended his life while severely depressed. Still, the deliberate death of her son brought her to new levels of pain, regret and confusion. She knows from her first loss that she must remain “fully awake.” In the course of taking it all in, she learns to embrace her vulnerability and express her sorrows—not always encouraged in our society.

Susan knew her son Noah was troubled but he had never been diagnosed with chronic mental illness. The suicide of a close friend in college may have triggered the depression and anxiety attacks that two years later led to his downfall. He left school and came home but like his grandfather, he rejected medical help, preferring to “man up” or die trying alone. The author laments that men in our society do not respect themselves or others if they have to ask for help.

Susan takes us through her struggles to ever so slowly regain her sense of identity and security. But this is more than an intimate portrait of the author and her family. At the end of each chapter, Susan shares useful tips for coping with grief of this magnitude and complexity. She blended her rich Jewish heritage with mind-body therapies including: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR), collage-making, meditation, dance and yoga.

For the author, writing proved especially therapeutic. With each chapter, she adds another loop or line to her grief map. Instead of an oasis or pot of gold at the end, Susan’s map through the wilderness has way stations with little gems that could easily be overlooked–like the heart-shaped stones she found under her feet when the tide went out at the beach. The only answers the universe may give is that we can survive the pain and one day recover a sense of connection to our loved one without their physical presence.

We never know how one brief interaction may affect another person. Susan recounts the experience of her friend who was in an airport when she got the call with the news of Noah’s death. Her words and sobs caught the ear of a stranger, a 15-year-old girl who handed her a note. It said she had been suicidal in the past, but after witnessing the depth of pain it caused in another, it made her “realize how valuable her life really is…so thank you…You’re beautiful.”

Susan’s story of two losses to suicide is beautifully told and full of insights. At three years past Noah’s death, she could see that for a time, constantly going over the details of her son’s life and death served a purpose. It was part of a naturally healing process of reconnecting to her son and the world in unfamiliar ways. Post-traumatic growth is the “counterweight to post-traumatic stress.”Grief after losing a loved one to suicide does not always mean disorder. It does entail a complete re-ordering–rearranging–of what we thought we knew about ourselves and others and who and what we can count on.

For survivors, there is enormous comfort in reading the personal stories of others who’ve suffered this catastrophic kind of loss and emerged transformed. It is a great relief to know that suicide can and does happen to good people in good families. Other readers can peer into the abyss of sorrow from a safe distance to see that those who die by suicide, their families and friends are not so very different from themselves or people they may know.

When Couples Grieve: Apart and Together

The hole that a child’s death blasts through a family can tear a marriage apart. Friends reminded my husband, Bryan, and me of this when we snapped at each other in the days after the suicide of our 21-year-old son, Noah. The anger, guilt, and remorse surrounding suicide loss make it easy to lash out at or withdraw from a partner. This brought Bryan and me to couples therapy for a while and still resurfaces.

When we’re suffering such a grievous loss, how can we soothe a partner who’s suffering the same thing? In the early months, Bryan and I didn’t have much comfort to spare; we were too depleted. We cried alone and confided in precious friends, support groups, therapists. If we reached out to the other during a crying fit, we were both in tears and struggling for calm. We clung to each other at night, awake in separate nightmares. We were doing parallel grief, like children do parallel play.

I’d rarely seen my husband cry before. For weeks after Noah died, several times a day, he sobbed and rocked on a bench in the backyard. I’d never seen his good-humored face so crumpled, his eyes so cloudy, his shoulders so defeated. His features looked stricken for months, then settled into an unfamiliar glumness. I felt terrible for him who, unlike me, had never had a major loss before. I wished I could enfold him in a soft cocoon and that he could do the same for me.

In the first year or so, it was hard to know from one moment to the next whether we could grieve together or grope our way out together. I worried that if I was upset and Bryan was numb, any lament from me would catapult him back into misery. Or if I was feeling steady and didn’t realize that he was teary, whatever I did might jar his mood. We were too emotionally exhausted to know whether we needed time alone or with others, and how much space to give each other before it became a chasm.

It’s one thing to say people grieve differently and another to live it every day with your spouse in a broken family. One of us took a leave from work; the other went back after two weeks. One of us became immersed in reading and writing related to suicide; the other in gardening, home improvement, and hobbies. One of us promptly left social gatherings when uncomfortable; the other felt obliged to be present. One of us found Noah dead and couldn’t go in the garage for many months; the other felt at home there because it was the last place Noah had been. Sometimes one of us, sometimes the other, could relax and enjoy a little.

In the early stages, we came together over comfort food, comfort TV, Shabbat services at our synagogue, and visits with our living son, Ben. We shared inspiration from our respective support groups and frustration from gatherings with relatives who avoided saying Noah’s name. We teamed up to track down every clue we could find to our son’s demise. We agonized over what to put on his gravestone, planned memorials, and went out for Noah’s favorite donuts on his birthday.

Gradually, we began to remember our son together. We brought each other stray memories and pictures like gifts. We treasured every message and visit from Noah’s friends.

Two years after the suicide, we were on firmer ground. We could usually tell if the other was having a grief surge and offer a hug. We could usually bring up Noah’s name without worrying that the other wasn’t ready to hear it; his life and death were so much on our minds that any mention, anytime, seemed natural. Three years after the suicide, we worked together to launch a remembrance fund that supports suicide prevention programs, as well as activities that enriched Noah’s life, like outdoor adventure and international student exchange. And we lovingly planned a celebration of life on what would have been Noah’s 25th birthday for family and friends.

Now, at four and a half years after the suicide, Bryan and I still grieve differently. I delve into the why’s and what-ifs of Noah’s situation and of suicide generally; my husband doesn’t want more information. He visits the cemetery regularly to talk to Noah and give him the latest news; I mostly avoid the place and talk to Noah’s photos around the house. I want to travel to refresh my mind and carry on Noah’s wanderlust; my husband usually feels more safe and comfortable at home.

We’re not alone in those differences. Psychologist John Jordan, in Grief After Suicide (2011), calls this “coping asynchrony” in couples and points to a common contrast between more “instrumental” approaches to grief that are action-oriented versus more “intuitive” approaches that focus on the outpouring of feeling. Many people blend the two approaches along their grief journey. Guess which way I and many women lean?

Suicide grief has both stressed and strengthened our marriage. Whatever else, my husband and I know each other better for walking this path, alone and together. It would be tougher to go through all this without a partner; I hope that my fellow parent survivors who are not in a relationship can find the support they need through others. And I hope all of us parent survivors can talk more openly about this part of our grief story, here and wherever we meet.

This article is adapted from Susan Auerbach’s memoir, “I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage, & Clarity After Suicide Loss.” Formore information, visit www.susanauerbachwriter.com © 2017 Susan Auerbach

The Journey: I Let Something Go

My son had been home for a visit the month before he died. After he died, I found a food bag/wrapper in my car. I hadn’t seen it before, but as soon as I did, I realized he had originally left it there as a joke. We had a lot of those private family jokes. Of course, discovering it when I did took the fun out of it. It served as a reminder that we really did have those interactions. If I had found it sooner, I would have laughed, texted him and thrown it away.

So, this small bag with the empty wrapper took on a lot of meaning for me. I left it in a special container in the car (thank goodness I don’t have to explain that here!) and it became known as my “memorial garbage.” My husband was especially careful that nothing happened to it during a car wash or servicing and I had to physically check that it was still there myself afterwards for a long time. My close friends knew about it.

This weekend, we were cleaning some things out of my car and I realized that the story of my memorial garbage was more interesting and important to me than the actual garbage. I know that John would not have been pleased with me keeping any garbage in my car. I can see the look he would have given me! I looked at it and I knew I could let it go. My husband reassured me that I could keep it if I wanted -but I didn’t want to. I was ready to keep the story and not the thing. I could feel my son being pleased with me and I’m okay with it.

 

Originally published by JohnsMom on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and reprinted with permission.

The Journey: A Letter to Ellie on her Birthday

Dear Ellie,

A few months ago while chatting with your dad we discussed how we might commemorate the fifth anniversary of your death this year. It is a very difficult time for us as it comes just four days after your birthday. Oh how painful and almost unendurable that is for us now, to have the day of your birth mixed with the horror and pain of your death by suicide all in the same week in May. Oh Ellie, can all of this really have happened to us?

The day of your birth was the happiest day in our life up to that point. Oh what joy to be blessed with such a precious and treasured gift. Your arrival brought us such joy and made us so happy, you were so beautifully perfect and I could not believe we could be so happy.

The memory of it, that day of your birth still shines out like a precious jewel gleaming in brilliance, it’s hues never fading with time, 32 years ago now exactly. As I lay in the hospital bed that morning unable to move without wincing in pain after childbirth but so mesmerized by the tiny perfection of you in the cot beside my bed. Days later we got home and I can still remember Dad dancing around the house with you in his arms and sitting gazing in cooing adoration in total awe at you. You Ellie our beautiful first born treasured baby.

It was inconceivable back then that in the same week in the month of May we would lose you. Ripped from the safety of our embrace in such a violent manner that it would take part of us your parents with you. Your death by suicide took us out at the knees and we have been crawling our way forward painfully through each day since. Losing the will to live at first but keeping each other up and going forward together for the sake of your brother who we cherish more than life itself now.

You were sick, I know and tried so hard to stay with us. I know you stayed as long as you could and you did the best you could to cope with it and to live. But you were overcome by it, overwhelmed and unable to go on. You died because of your illness and it is not just physical illness that can be terminal, no your mental illness proved to be terminal and it overcame you. You died by suicide Ellie but it was mental illness that killed you.

Dad suggested recently that we would focus on your birthday this year and celebrate it as the joy it was. That was not a new idea to me as I had made the same effort in recent years but on each occasion it ended up with us sitting miserably unable to even talk around a restaurant dinner table. But I was willing to try again.

I organized an early morning mass in the Franciscan friary for you, we got up at 6.30 am and attended the mass remembering what joy you brought to our lives and what happiness we enjoyed as a family when you and your brother were young children. I also cried that you are no longer with us.

We then visited your grave and lit a candle there and recalled how you loved candles. I also recalled the occasions I feared a house fire and that we might burn to death in our beds as we slept as you often fell asleep before quenching the candle on your bedside table. Dad then wanted a celebratory breakfast so we bought pastries. We got home and cooked bacon and eggs, I lit a candle at your place at the table and we enjoyed our breakfast together remembering all the joy you brought to our lives.

Last night we went out to dinner in memory of your birthday to continue the celebration. Your brother was unable to come home this weekend so he was not with us, but we did not let that deter us. We went to a lovely restaurant on the banks of the river and sat out on the riverside terrace in the early evening sunshine and watched the river flowing serenely by, with the odd duck or two.

Dad surprised me by wanting to bring your photo to place on the restaurant table with us, I say this because in the early days of our loss he could not bear to see any photos of you around the house. This was too much for me to do though as I did not trust myself not to break down in public and ruin the occasion. Anyway it all went very well indeed. We had a beautiful meal followed by dessert and a few drinks. We recalled the good times we had with you and how wonderful you were and how kind and loving you were to us.

We also mentioned the bad times which were as a result of your illness, the times when your behavior was so difficult for us all. There were many such times when we could not have any family celebration at all without it being ruined by your behavioral problems. We acknowledged that those were of course as a result of the mental disorder you suffered from and battled so hard. It was not a decision you made. No one in their right mind chooses to behave like that. We did shed tears and bemoaned the fact that mental illness does not enjoy the same credentials as physical illness and is not taken seriously with regard to its ability to be terminal for some.

We lamented the stigma of mental illness in society which labels those who struggle without acknowledging the overwhelming challenges they face on a daily basis because they do not look obviously in pain. Had you suffered those years with a physical illness that took you in and out of hospital the way your mental illness did we all would have received sympathy from those around us in a different way and that hurts me so much still.

I realize now that in your case medication for depression and anxiety did not work. It mostly swapped one set of problems for another. This I believe is why you chose alcohol and smoking in an effort to cope. This form of self-medicating caused even more erratic behavior and had you judged as just badly behaved. The stigma of suicide has clung to us in the most surprising and unsuspecting places. We have been shunned by some and insulted by others in their ignorance and blindness.

As I heal from the agony of this devastating loss I have come to a better understanding of your illness and death. I know it was as a result of a disorder and not a decision, no one in their right mind decides to die.

Overall Ellie this week in May has been easier to bear this year. We celebrated your birthday like never before and marked the anniversary a few days later by a grave visit to light a candle and bring you flowers. Yes, we miss you very much and wish you were still with us. But now, we can remember the good times with love and carry you with us every day in our hearts.

With all my love to you Ellie on your birthday,

Mum

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is coming…

When I learned for the first time that I was to become a mother, my husband and I called our parents, siblings, friends, and anyone we knew who would rejoice with us at the news. My son’s birth-day was a time of pure joy and celebration. Over the years, we repeated the ritual when three more sons were born.

Mother’s Day was a special day. It was a day to honor family, to get together, share a meal and celebrate motherhood.

On February 19, 1977, that changed abruptly with the suicide of our second born son Mitch. Our happy-go-lucky son, talented minstrel, popular, life of the party, Romeo, had unbelievably died by suicide. The unthinkable had happened. In those days, suicide was not on the public’s radar. Nobody talked about it and most people didn’t even know a family that had experienced it.

We knew secrets were deadly so we told the truth about what happened. We knew that after his girlfriend broke up a yearlong relationship, Mitch became depressed. Several perceived failures added to his hopelessness. He felt humiliated at his workplace when he made a mistake about his schedule. He couldn’t find a job performing on the piano and the guitar, which were his passions. He was conflicted as he experienced the dilemma of having four girlfriends and promising to marry three of them. He must have felt the world was closing in on him. On a Saturday morning, he shot himself in his bedroom of our home.

The rest of my story is shared in my first book My Son … My Son … A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss or Suicide. First published in l983, it was recently revised for its twenty-third printing. In it, I fully share my agonizing journey from guilt, shame, and depression to healing and hope.

As time passed and I began to reconstruct my life, I started one of the first support groups in the country, learned about untreated depression and became an advocate for suicide prevention, intervention, and aftercare. I helped create national training for S.O.S. facilitators and outreach programs for the newly bereaved through The Link Counseling Center in Atlanta, GA. I supported every suicide prevention organization I could find. I went to Washington, D.C. every year with hundreds of other advocates teaching legislators about mental illness and suicide. I was healing and I was hopeful. Without knowing it, I was beginning to give meaning to Mitch’s life and death.

Mother’s Day is coming…

For years, this special day was painful to await, and painful to experience. I was relieved when it had passed. But today I have a wiser, more mellow perspective. Today, I am grateful I am Mitch’s mother. I appreciate the twenty years I had with him. He taught me to revere life, to know how precious and fragile it is, and to cherish every moment.

On Mother’s Day, I am now reminded that it is through suffering that we humans meet one another, knowing no strangers, and that life can regain its meaning through that precious kinship.

Mother’s Day is a day to honor all mothers, including birth mothers, foster mothers, surrogate mothers, and women who give care by mothering those in need. It is a day of mixed emotions –especially for mothers whose child, of any age, died by suicide. Knowing your child is no longer here to celebrate your day may be agonizing, yet at the same time, you are grateful for knowing your child for as long as they lived.

For those whose mother ended her life, the wounding is indescribable as well. There is the pain of that loss, yet you too are grateful she was in your life for as long as she could be here. Gradually, as time softens your grief, you may remember the good times with your child or your mother, and not always associate them with the way she or he died. In other words, we don’t want to let their last act color their entire life. Many years after the suicide of my son Mitch, I can truly honor his life. I am deeply grateful I knew and loved him for twenty years.

With love for all who grieve on Mother’s Day.

Iris Bolton’s new offering, a five-year labor-of-love book and DVD entitled Voices of Healing and Hope: Conversations on Grief after Suicide, features stories of a diverse population of loss survivors as they share how they dealt with eight of the most difficult aspects of grief. Powerful online companion courses by her colleague Elaine Alpert are also available. Learn more here.

Survivor Experience: Twelve Seagulls

It was April and a little boy died. His spirit went to Heaven and from there he watched his mom. She was very sad.

The little boy thought and thought and then he had an idea. He went to brother seagull and asked him if he could borrow his seagull body to go fly and visit his mom. Brother seagull agreed and the little boy flew down, down, down and found his mom taking a walk.

He called to her “mom, mom!” But his mom didn’t recognize him. His voice was a seagull voice. She looked up, then went on her way. She was still very sad. The little boy kept coming back day after day calling “mom, mom!” and each time his mom looked up to the sky, saw a seagull and then went on.

After some time, the mom wondered why she kept seeing seagulls. She had never noticed them before. They were beautiful, their white wings against the sky. Their calls sounded very sad to her. As sad as she felt. Seeing the seagulls made her feel a little better though. She felt comforted.

The mom thought of her little boy each time she saw one, so one day the mom said “God-if a seagull is the spirit of my little boy let me see a dozen of them! Then I will believe.” God went to the little boy and told him what his mom had asked for. The little boy again asked brother seagull if he could borrow his seagull body and if eleven of his brothers could go with him to visit his mom.

They all agreed and the next day when his mom took her walk they flew down and said hello. They circled above her and the little boy called “mom, mom!”. This time when his mom looked up she saw in amazement all the seagulls. 12 of them! And she smiled! The little boy still comes sometimes to visit his mom. She smiles every time she sees him. She is not so sad anymore.

This post was written and submitted to the blog by a member of the Alliance of Hope Forum who lost her son Colin to suicide in the month of April.

Survivor Experience: Lefty Says Goodbye

The funeral for my nephew was held by a creek. All day long, their dog had been running around the whole farm area. As the service started, he still was. As the cremains fell into the spring head and began to wash down over the moss-covered rocks, his running ceased. He came to the creek, stuck his nose in the water to sniff, then lay down and stared at the spring head. He stayed fixed and staring and whining, eyes full of pain, until it was over and we all left.

As we left, he kept his head down until we climbed the hill and he had to raise it to walk with us. You could see the pain in his eyes. They had walked that land together in the past.

Survivor Experience: Just Five More Minutes

While at the park one day, a woman sat down next to a man on a bench near a playground. “That’s my son over there,” she said, pointing to a little boy in a red sweater who was gliding down the slide.

“He’s a fine-looking boy,” the man said. “That’s my son on the swing in the blue sweater.” Then, looking at his watch, he called to his son, “What do you say we go, Todd?”

Todd pleaded, “Just five more minutes, Dad. Please? Just five more minutes.” The man nodded, and Todd continued to swing to his heart’s content.

Minutes passed, and the father stood and called again to his son, “Time to go now?”

Again Todd pleaded, “Five more minutes, Dad. Just five more minutes.”

The man smiled and said, “Okay.”

“My, you certainly are a patient father,” the woman observed.

The man smiled, then said, “My older son, Tommy, committed suicide last year. I never spent much time with Tommy, and now I’d give anything for just five more minutes with him. I’ve vowed not to make the same mistake with Todd. He thinks he has five more minutes to swing. The truth is…I get five more minutes to watch him play.”

You do not know what a day may bring, so enjoy the day you have with all your heart. Much of what may seem like a waste of time may be the best memories, and much of what seems so important will be a waste. Take five minutes enjoying it all.

 

Originally published on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and reprinted with permission.