Tuesday, December 11, 2018

They Are Proud of Us

Cherisse Boam lives in Utah. She is twice widowed. She lost her husband Justin in a car accident several years ago. Later, she remarried. In a doubly tragic turn of events, her second husband, Harrison, also died, this time by suicide.

Recently, a well meaning friend suggested to Cherisse that she should 'move on' from her most recent loss, and that her husband Harrison would want her to be doing that.

Here, Cherisse writes about her response to that suggestion. She writes about the experience of being a widow and especially, being a widow to suicide. Cherisse puts into perfect words what much of the frustration, agony, and pain feels like for those of us who have lost a spouse or partner to suicide. Having lost one husband and then remarrying, she also talks about the difference between moving 'on' and moving 'forward.' 

Cherisse's writing is raw, honest, and courageous. She speaks for so many of us who have lost the person we loved to suicide. I am honored that she is letting me share her writing, here:

After Justin died, I had friends who reached out to me in support. One of them called me to tell me he was thinking about me. He then confided that another friend had lost his wife. But he also said he couldn't understand why his other widowed friend started using drugs and giving in to lust (so soon after his wife had died).

I told him what I'm telling you now:
The pain of losing a spouse is unlike any pain you've ever felt. It is deep, constant, and all consuming. You do ANYTHING you can think of to end the pain for even just a second. If you can avoid feeling or thinking or being in this deep agony, you will do it. I don't drink, and I don't have sex outside of marriage, and these things are because of my covenants within the church. I also hold the belief that if I did these things, when the underlying pain came back - it would be more intense playing 'catch up' after those moments of numbness. But sometimes, I have to be honest with you, if it weren't for the church, I'd take the numbness anyway. Not necessarily the lust, but absolutely the alcohol.

Widow's brain and widow's fog are real. You can't move and you can't do things most days. Grief isn't linear, it's not depression and then anger and then denial. It's anger and then depression and then anger again, Sometimes it's all at once. In addition to the pain, which mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, it also affects every part of your being and soul. It leaves no stone unturned, until you are annihilated completely and thoroughly.

Losing Justin didn't make the pain of losing Harrison less. In fact, losing Harrison hurt worse, and in a different way. I've been told that the method of death makes a difference, and I absolutely believe it. Suicide adds layers that weren't there with the car accident. I still found ways to blame myself after Justin died. "If we had just moved to the other side of the canyon like he'd wanted..." but fortunately his mother, my Mama, was very clear with me and shut down those thoughts, fast.

It's harder to shut down the voices with suicide, because people think it was a choice, so it has to be someone's fault, right? And it couldn't have been his.

Years ago, my Aunt Rhonda was widowed, and afterward I thought she'd lost her mind. She'd say she could hear and feel my uncle. I felt, at the time, deep pity for her. I'm here to tell you she wasn't crazy. Losing someone you've shared yourself with, body and soul, so intimately, makes their passing through the veil not so distant. You CAN still hear and feel them. They do visit you in your dreams. My belief in an afterlife is absolute.

The widow's fog means you sit for hours in agony, trying to remember just how to breathe, trapped in your thoughts and trying not to think. Your life becomes about survival. You can't get up to clean. You can't get up to cook. I cherish the words that a friend said to me on one long drive. I told her I hated when people said I was strong when I went back to work. First of all, it wasn't what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be in bed constantly. (There were still times I did this. I called into work more than once to stay in bed because I physically couldn't get out of the pain enough to get up.) Second of all, part of why I went to work was I was hoping for a distraction from the pain for even a few seconds (remember that thing we were talking about earlier) and it didn't help. Third of all, I still had children to support. My friend said to me: 

"Sometimes we have to choose between the impossible," (getting up and moving) "and the unthinkable," (letting my children starve). "We can't do the unthinkable, so we choose to do the impossible." 

And that is what I did.

How long does the point of immobility last? It's different for every widow. Months. Years. The levels and intensities and lengths of time for each depth of pain varies by widow, by how well they move through their grief (or let their grief move through them), by the love they hold for their spouse, the fights or joys in their marriage, whether their spouse died slowly or if it was sudden.

Widows sometimes start with "We were married for x amount of years" as though that makes a difference in how much pain they are going through. Having gone through this twice, first with Justin, whom I was with for six years, and next with Harrison, who I was with for under two, it doesn't matter. The length of time you were married to someone doesn't matter. The depth of emotion you hold for them does.

How long does grief last? When should a widow move on? 
When should they remarry?

You NEVER get over the grief because you'd be getting over your precious, irreplaceable loved one. A widow will never move on, though they will be able to function again at some point, and maybe move 'forward' with or without a new chapter (relationship) in their life. They will take with them the old chapter as well. Harrison never asked nor expected me to get over Justin. In our marriage with each other (which is sacred) we honored our feelings, the kids' feelings, and we honored Justin. We still set a place for him at the table. When should a widow remarry? When is too soon? Pay attention, because this isn't well known. Whenever the hell they're good and ready, and not one second sooner or later. Only they know where they are in their grief. You don't. You understand me?

Finally, don't tell me what my husband would have or does want for me. This is me saying this in the absolute strictest, most angry way, NO ONE has the right to tell ANY widow how her spouse would feel. Let me tell you that our spouses, who have a beyond the grave connection with us still, who communicate with us even after their deaths, know us better inside and out, than anyone else. They know our agony, they know what we're doing and why we're doing it, they know we're trying to survive. and WE KNOW THEM. 

I remember feeling disconnected because what people told me Harrison would be feeling was different from the way I thought he'd felt. Eventually I found letters he's written and I realized I'd been the one who was right. 

Our spouses are damn proud of us for doing what we have to do to survive. 

They are proud of us for living. They are proud of us for taking care of things here.

You, an outsider to our marriage, to this grief, have no right to tell any widow that her spouse is or would be disappointed in us. They wouldn't be.

They are proud of us.

Cherisse Boam with her husband Harrison.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

José Feghali

José Feghali was a Brazilian pianist who, until his death, was an Artist-in-Residence at Texas Christian University's school of music in piano. He was the Gold Medal winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1985.
Feghali struggled with depression throughout his life.
On December 9, 2014, Jose Feghali died by suicide. He was fifty three years old.

José Feghali
March 28, 1961 – December 9, 2014

Friday, December 7, 2018

Getting there.

Survivors of suicide loss and survivors of suicide attempts both, can turn a corner toward healing when they invest in the possibility of growth, as opposed to focusing on the trauma they have endured.

Sometimes that investment is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. Judge neither your process nor your timing, but rise to face another day and know that you will get there.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

José María Arguedas

We were fascinated by the little glass spheres, by those dark waves of color, some narrow and drawn out into several swirls, and others that widened out in the center of the marble into a single bundle and thinned out smoothly at the ends. There were reddish streaks in Añuco's new marbles, but in the cloudy, chipped ones the bands of color also appeared, strangely and inexplicably.

― José María ArguedasAntología poética

José María Arguedas was a Peruvian novelist, poet, and anthropologist. Because he lived in two Quechua households (from the ages of seven through eleven) he had a rare fluency in the native Quechua language. He noted that the time spent in Quechua homes was in order to escape the trauma he experienced living with his step family, after his mother died (when he was aged two).
Generally remembered as one of the most notable figures of 20th-century Peruvian literature, Arguedas is especially recognized for his intimate portrayals of indigenous Andean culture. The American literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith said that Arguedas was "the greatest novelist of our time," who wrote "some of the most powerful prose that the world has known."
On December 2, 1969, Arguedas died by suicide. He left behind an autobiographical manuscript that noted depressive episodes that were caused by his early trauma, as his reason for suicide. He was fifty eight years old when he died.

José María Arguedas 
January 18, 1911 – December 2, 1969) 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

It is so important that survivors of suicide loss and those who love them accept the fact that grieving has no timeline. When we pressure ourselves to feel better or to move on before we are ready, we only succeed in adding another layer of pain to our grief. 

If you care about a survivor of suicide loss, it is critical that you understand that the grieving person must be allowed to grieve for as long as they need to, and to express that grief however they wish. 'Pep talks' that are meant to encourage a person to move on from a suicide loss, most often have the opposite effect. Suggesting that a grieving person is a failure or that their grief is inappropriate, only further complicates the grief and the pain experienced by the person who is trying to overcome their loss. You are far more likely to help them move forward if you tell them that you are willing to listen to their feelings, and if you do so without judgment. Offer advice only if asked. 

Know that survivors of suicide loss will most often never be the same. But we do heal and and we do recover from the initial devastation surrounding our loss. Support yourself (or support others) in achieving this recovery, by allowing yourself to get there at there at your own pace. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler was an American jazz saxophonist, singer and composer. His music was classified as avant-garde and he is large considered as having inspired numerous subsequent jazz musicians.
In particular the music he performed in 1965 and 1966, such as Spirits Rejoice and Truth Is Marching In, has been compared by critics to the sound of a brass band, and involved simple, march-like themes which alternated with wild group improvisations and were regarded as retrieving jazz's pre-Louis Armstrong roots.
In 1970 Ayer began to experience a deep depression. On November 25, 1970, Albert Ayler died by suicide. He was only 34 years old when he died. 
Albert Ayler 
July 13, 1936 – November 25, 1970

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Where the Joy Resides

For those of us whose lives have been touched by suicide, there are times when gratitude feels near impossible. But, my experience has been that finding gratitude is a significant and necessary part of healing. For those of us dealing with loss, joy may seem a lofty goal. But certainly, healing shouldn't be.

I wish I had a secret formula or stellar advice to give, about how to recover from such profound grief. However, I don't. What I can do is offer up the words above, from the author Anne Lamott. In short, gratitude begets service begets humility, and joy.

Even in the midst of our most grievous days, if we can focus on gratitude, service, and humility, I believe the joy will take care of itself.

I hope for all of us that we can find a way to be of service to one another, today. Doing service does not have to be special or exhausting. Perhaps we can take a moment to let someone else know that we care or that we appreciate them. Maybe we can make an extra effort today to ensure that all of our words are kind ones.

It is in this spirit of service that I wish you all a day filled with peace and love. And for those of you in the United States, I hope that you have a very happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Truth I Know

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.
Ernest Hemingway

Sometimes I am surprised by what I've forgotten about the day that John died. What did people say when I told them that he was gone? All I remember is that people told me that they were on their way to me. No one wanted me to be alone. But what words were said? What questions did they ask? I remember so little of those details.

Then there are the details about that day that stick with me, too. But, they are from those few short hours when I didn't yet know that he was gone. There is no rhyme or reason. It was a chilly April morning and I hadn't put a bath mat down. When I stepped out of the shower, I was annoyed at having to step on the cold floor. The memory of the tile beneath my feet stays with me. I remember debating which earrings I should wear that day, though not which ones I settled on. And I remember the brand of cereal I ate for breakfast that morning, too. All of those things, I remember. 

But then the memories fade. There is a heaviness attached to the rest of that day that makes remembering difficult. I would tell you that it was a darkness but that wouldn't be right. There were so many people who stepped forward and helped me on the day that John died, and so many who helped on all the days that have followed (and who help me still). It would be wrong of me to say that those memories are dark. But heavy? Yes. So heavy, I suppose, that they make no room for other memories to find their way to the surface.

I am so glad that I kept journals. Never in my life have I been so glad to be a writer. I can go back still and read about what it was like when I sat beside John, what it was like to laugh with him, what it was like to fall in love. I get to hold onto those things despite the heaviness that ventures to take it all away. Sometimes, I sit in amazement at the way that the people around me stepped up in order to care for me, and care for each other. My writing, I know, did the same. It served me, and when I offered it publicly - over and over again survivors of suicide loss told me that this shared grief served them as well.

Survivors of suicide loss endure an increased risk of suicide themselves. The moment John died, those of us who held him closest to our hearts struggled with the unfair dichotomy of understanding how painful these losses are for those left behind and wanting desperately to join the one we'd lost. I suppose there is an irony to the fact that eternity seems forever away when the person you love has stepped over some sort of threshold and you feel left behind.

It was in fact my fellow survivors of suicide loss who helped me salvage my own will to live. It was John's family who stood strong beside me and held me up, not just in a proverbial sense, but sometimes physically as well. It was his closest friends who circled around me, from day one, to remind me of what they were certain was true - that he'd loved me when he was alive. All of these were the people who helped me craft a steadfast belief that John still loved me, even though he was now gone.

The conviction that continued love means that the person we have lost remains alive, is an extraordinary gift when we are shrouded in grief. The love of the person who is gone, when joined by the love of those who are still living, is what lights the way through any darkness we may encounter. 

When new people join the survivors of suicide loss groups that I belong too - it is nearly inevitable that after a period of time, they ask the question: "How long will this pain last?" If their loss is fresh, sometimes they will put it into their limited perspective. "This hurts so much. It's been two months...three months... four... shouldn't the pain be less, by now?" And every time, my fellow survivors and I try to answer these questions as gently as possible. The answer is as harrowing as it is heartbreaking. Because the truth is, the pain will never go away entirely.

I often tell people that the heaviness remains, but the muscles holding onto it have gotten stronger. Now, a little over a year and a half having gone by - there are times when that strength makes holding the heaviness appear seamless, even to me. There are times when I no longer feel that this grief dictates my life. But just as swiftly, I am reminded that the trauma is still there. I am always reticent to outpace a person I love, even if we are just in the aisle of a store, or walking into a room. It is always there, the fear that if I were to turn around, my loved one will have disappeared forever. Keeping tabs on the people who are important in my life is a thankless and often impossible job. It frustrates me sometimes to be this frightened. And yet, for the most part, I try to be patient with myself. People do disappear in the blink of an eye, after all.

The acceptance of loss is critical to healing. There is impermanence all around us. For survivors of suicide loss though, inevitably, there is a sense of desperation attached to that impermanence. In therapeutic communities, they will tell you that we must embrace something called 'radical acceptance.' In short,this means that in order to effectively move forward, we must not only learn to accept that the loss has occurred, but also that we will always have pain around this fact. Ours is not an attempt to assuage the pain, ours is an attempt to live around it.

After many months of intense grieving, when those muscles of mine were beginning to proclaim their strength - I thought that perhaps it would have been easier to get through those first months, if other survivors would have lied to me. For a moment, I wished that they had told me that things would get much better. I wished that they had told me that soon enough I'd live a life where this terrible thing hadn't happened. I couldn't help but feel that maybe the earliest part of my journey of grief would have been tempered, even just slightly, if someone had told me that the sadness that had settled in my bones would find a way to escape.

Now though, when others are new in their loss and ask for this same reassurance, I understand why it is we don't lie to one another. It has been far more important for me to learn to live with this new layer in my bones. If I'd been given a false promise, then how would I know that we do recover? In my life, recovery has never looked the way I thought it would. Like any great wound, whether physical or spiritual, recovery is not clean and it often leaves a scar. Ultimately though, it is the scar itself that speaks to our profound ability to heal. I don't lie to my fellow survivors of suicide loss because I know that their healing will come from finding beauty and strength in that scar, and not from wishing that it weren't there.

Today is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. In the United States, it is the Saturday before Thanksgiving, every year. It is not so much a day that we mark our loss, but more, a day to honor the survival of those of us left behind. How fitting then, that this day always paves the way for a national holiday that speaks to gratitude. For I have found that survival and gratitude are most profound when one leads to the other.

To my fellow survivors of suicide loss, know that my heart is with you today, and always. Know that your strength inspires me. Know that your endurance heals me. And know that I am humbled by the fact that so many of us rise up and reach out, even in the midst of unbearable pain. And always know that I am forever grateful that when I have asked questions of you, that you have told me the truth.

I hope that we can honor each other today, and I hope for all of us every single day, that when we honor our losses, we will honor ourselves as well.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Jonathan Brandis

Jonathan Gregory Brandis was an actor, director, and screenwriter. He began his acting career in 1982 when he was cast as Kevin Buchanan on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live. In 1990, he portrayed the main protagonist Bill Denbrough in Stephen King's supernatural horror miniseries It. In 1990, he starred as Bastian Bux in The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter. By the early 1990s, Brandis had become a popular teen heartthrob.
His career began to wane in his twenties, and he began to drink heavily. Some suggest that he may have been depressed about career, though no clear motive for his death has been established. Brandis died by suicide on November 12, 2003. He was twenty seven years old.

Jonathan Gregory Brandis 
April 13, 1976 – November 12, 2003

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Holding Her Father's Flag

Amon Gift, a US Army veteran, was twenty three years old 
when he died by suicide, in January of 2017. 

This photo is of his daughter, at his funeral.

I first published this photo as a Beauty of Grief feature. Its heartbreaking message stands. We are losing too many veterans to suicide.

If you want to learn more about suicide and the military, I have written about it extensively here on this blog, including sharing statistics, research, and as always - the voices of those who have lost a loved one to suicide.

The reasons and solutions to the epidemic of military related suicide are varied and complex. However, the importance of showing our support to individuals is critical. Today is Veterans Day. Reach out to someone who is serving or has served in the military. Let them know that they are loved and that you care.

Remember that close to 22 veterans a day are dying by suicide. Supporting military related suicide prevention efforts should be happening every single day, as well.

If you are a veteran or actively serving member of the armed forces and you are feeling hopeless or suicidal - please reach out. You can start by calling the Veterans Crisis Line. Your service to the country is appreciated. Your life matters. You are needed in this world.

(Thank you to Kelsey Leann Tobin for permission to use the beautiful photo of her daughter, above.)