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 with 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.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Tom Forman

Tom Forman was an American motion picture actor, director, writer, and producer of the early 1920s.
Forman made his first film in 1914. With the exception of service at the front during World War I, he had a successful career as both an actor and director. Forman directed Lon Chaney's Shadows (1922), but his biggest achievement was realized directing the second screen version of Owen Wister's The Virginian (1923). After his career faltered, he was reduced to working on cheap poverty row melodramas. Forman is also known for his work with Edith Taliaferro in Young Romance.
Forman was destitute and depressed when, on November 7, 1926, he died by suicide. Tom Forman was thirty three years old when he died.

Tom Forman 
February 22, 1893 – November 7, 1926 

Monday, November 5, 2018

The transformation of our suffering can be the basis for extraordinary compassion and empathy. Your own heart will continue to heal, when you reach out to others.

Join support groups.

Reach out and let someone know that their life is important to you.

The voices of those who have been where we are, are often the ones that provide us with the most caring and hopeful words that we will ever hear.

Speak up.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

El Collie Kress
November 4, 1947  -  April 17, 2002

My mother would have turned 71 today, had suicide not taken her life 16 years ago.

I can see the ways I am like her, now. I recognize her long brown hair in my own. My hands have always been the same as hers. I can see her nose when I look in the mirror. And I can see her eyes, the same eyes we now share with my son, too.

And I recognize her every time I hear the click clack of my computer keyboard in use (though, in her day, hers was a typewriter). I am familiar with the sound of writing, because of her. Whenever anyone tells me that my writing is important to them, I think of my mother, and I know in those moments, that she would be proud.

We differ too, though. Sometimes I wonder what her life would have been like, had she been given the same gifts that have been afforded me. When broken hearted, would she have mended faster if she knew what it felt like to be surrounded by ocean water and to swim in the sea? When frightened by the darkness of life's often overwhelming turns - would she have been more strong if she'd known how to let those who loved her carry her through? If she'd been able to reach out to others, would she have understood that she was never alone?

I wonder too, what it would have been like for me if I'd had a mother present in my life during my adult years. I've had so many extraordinary women support me and hold me up. I've never been at a loss for love. But as for a mother, I've only ever wanted her. I wonder if she knew that?

I wish that she'd believed in healing. I wish that she'd believed in the possibility that one day people would better understand her illness and offer better treatment too. And I also wish that she'd been able to avail herself of every resource that might have made her illness more bearable. I wish I wish I wish. But none of those things were true for her. In the end, her life was a constant struggle between finding a will to live and yet the unending notion that her suffering would end if she were to die. The latter won and took her from those who loved her. Her desperation to end her pain took her away from me.

If I could give my mother a birthday gift, it would be this:

A belief that there is hope for those who suffer from mental illness. A belief that there are ways to mitigate it's pain, and that there will be even more effective treatments down the line. I'd want to give my mother the gift of believing that reaching out is possible, that letting people love you is healing, and that when we pull together, the fight to prevent deaths like hers, is a fight that will be won.

I wish I could give her the gift of belief in all those things. Today though, the only gift I can give her is a promise that I will believe all of those things, on her behalf.

Perhaps the healing of her spirit comes from knowing that her daughter's life is filled with love and hope. And with as much certainty that she is proud that I am a writer - I know that she is proud that I will not give up on the fight to find treatment and services for those who still suffer in the same way that she had. I know that she is proud. I do.

My heart is broken that she was not afforded the same gifts in life that I was, but I know that there is a heavenly grace in the fact that my love for her propels me to live a life dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others. Part of that grace for me, is in knowing that every word I write endeavors to honor my mother's talent and her compassion.

My mother would have been 71 years old today. I will celebrate her birthday by believing the things she didn't know how to believe. And always, I will celebrate her life by letting the world know that for every resource we now have to treat mental illness, the most important ones are to love and be loved in return.

And I promise her still, that I will celebrate her life every single day, by honoring the greatest gift she ever gave me. A dedication to writing.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Brad Bufanda

Brad Bufanda was an American actor. He was best known for his recurring role as Felix Toombs in the television series Veronica Mars.

On November 1, 2017, Brad Bufanda died by suicide. Little is known about the reason. He left notes and sent messages, but only to thank people for their role in his life or to tell them he loved them. His friends and family have said they were shocked and don't feel that he had a history or mental illness or suicidality.

Bufanda was thirty four years old when he died.


Brad Bufanda
May 4, 1983 – November 1, 2017

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Whether you are a survivor of suicide loss or a survivor of suicide attempts, do not give up on healing.

 Do not give up.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Only Compassion

A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.

Steve Maraboli

I belong to several suicide grief support groups. One of them is near my home and meets in person. Our group has over a dozen members. Another group is online. The online group has close to 2,000 members. Both of these groups are invaluable to me in terms of my healing, and my understanding of what suicide loss looks like for others.

One of the things that is repeated over and over again in all of my groups is this sentiment: "My friends and family just don't understand what it is like to lose someone to suicide."

This often comes up when we are told that we need to shake off our grief, move on, or that we need to stop focusing on the past. Sometimes our friends and family tell us outright that they are tired of our sadness or worse yet, that we are feeling sorry for ourselves.

Other times, we are pressured to get rid of the belongings or mementos of the person we lost. Some will suggest to us that the person we lost is somehow replaceable. We are told we need to date someone new, or that we should appreciate our remaining children.

While many of these suggestions may be well intended, often survivors of suicide loss feel as if we are being judged for a process that has no timeline. It is as if we are being asked to prove that we are recovered, in order to make someone else more comfortable.

I have personally experienced versions of all of these unhelpful responses to suicide grief. Because of this, when my fellow survivors of suicide loss agonize over the fact that others just don't understand - I know that often they are right.

But, I am a writer. I live by this conviction:

If people don't understand, we have to tell them.

So I am writing this post on behalf of survivors of suicide loss. We are in a club that no one should ever have to join. Always, I will do anything I can to soften the sharpest edges of our grief.

Moreso though, I am writing this for all of you who know and care about us. 

I am writing this for anyone who believes they know what is best for us.

I am writing this for anyone who believes they know what we should be doing. 

I am writing this for anyone who thinks that a survivor of suicide loss needs some heavy-handed advice in order to move on.

These words are for you.
First, it is important that you understand that the grief associated with suicide loss is unique.

Dr. Deborah Serani, a licensed psychologist in New York, has been in practice for three decades now. She is a well known expert in trauma and loss. In her Psychology Today article, Understanding Survivors of Suicide Loss, she says this about why grieving a suicide loss is different from other kinds of grief:

Research has long known that suicide survivors move through very distinctive bereavement issues. Family and friends are prone to feeling significant bewilderment about the suicide. Why did this happen? How did I not see this coming? Overwhelming guilt about what they should have done more of or less of —become daily, haunting thoughts. Survivors of suicide loss often feel self-blame as if somehow they were responsible for their loved one’s suicide. Many also experience anger and rage against their loved one for abandoning or rejecting them—or disappointment that somehow they were not powerful enough, loved enough or special enough to prevent the suicide.   
Because of these things, it is important that you be patient with our grieving. Our grief will likely be more intense and complicated than other types of grief, and healing may take us a very long time.

That is ok. How long it takes us to move forward after a suicide loss is not a reflection of how hard we are trying. More often, the lengthy time it takes for us to re-engage in all of life is due to the nature of suicide loss, and not us.

In fact, after a suicide loss our lives will never be the same as they were before. We need you to understand that, so that we can begin to feel as if you understand and care about us.

I can not emphasize this enough. Please don't tell us that we have been grieving for too long. Please don't tell us we need to be further along. Please don't tell us that we are wallowing. Please don't tell us we are focusing on the negative.

All of these sentiments are the opposite of supportive, and all of them are inaccurate in their assumption that a timeline exists for processing such a profound loss.

Worst of all, these types of words will further hurt and alienate suicide loss survivorsTelling us that it is time for us to move on will delay our healing. Regardless of how strongly you feel about wanting us to be further along in our grief, if you suggest to us that we need to move on - you are actually prolonging our suffering and not the other way around. That is the truth.

If you want to help us heal, acknowledge that we are hurting.

Are there ever times when you can offer us advice? Of course there are. But let us lead. Let us tell you that we don't know what to do. Let us be the ones to ask for help figuring it out. And you can certainly say, "I care so much about you and I see you hurting. What can I do?"  You can also ask us if we've considered counseling or a support group. Please tell us that you want us to have all of the support we can get. But don't tell us what we need to do. Let us make those decisions, and to make them at the time that is right for us. 

What we are asking for is simple. Please don't disappear. Please don't get angry or frustrated with our process. Please don't stop reaching out. When you ask us how we are doing, we just want you to listen.

More than anything else, we need your compassion.

Thank you.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Lillian Hall-Davis

Lillian Hall-Davis was an English actress during the silent film era, she had major roles in English films and a number of German, French and Italian films as well.
Her films included a part-color version of I Pagliacci (1923), The Passionate Adventure (1924), Blighty (1927), The Ring (1927) and The Farmer's Wife (1928), the latter two both directed by Alfred Hitchcock. She had a lead role in  Quo Vadis (1924), an Italian film directed by Gabriellino D'Annunzio and Georg Jacoby.
Hall-Davis also appeared in a comedy short film made in the Lee DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process, As We Lie (1927), co-starring and directed by Miles Mander.
Hall-Davis did not make the transition to talkies, and by the early 1930s, she'd developed health problems as well. Lillian Hall-Davis died by suicide on October 25, 1933. She was thirty five years old.

Lillian Hall-Davis 
June 23, 1898 – October 25, 1933