Monday, November 6, 2017

In the Shape of a Heart

You keep it up
You try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
What breaches and faults are concealed
In the shape of a heart

Jackson Browne - In the Shape of a Heart

On May 6, 2017, I was invited to attend a memorial barbecue held at the home of a woman who'd lost her son, one year earlier, to suicide. I didn't know her, but a friend invited me along because he knew that she and I had something in common.

At the barbecue, the attendees ate and talked. Many of us laughed a little. Most of us hugged, a lot.

For me, the most beautiful part of the day came when each attendee was handed a white balloon. A prayer was said. A few memories were shared. And then we were invited to release our balloons in memory of the young man whose life had been cut short a year prior.

Me? I thought of this woman's beautiful son, I thought of her incomprehensible loss. But I thought of my loss too. And when it was time to release my balloon, I whispered John's name.

I looked around and marveled at how releasing these balloons didn't symbolize letting go of anything, at all. Instead they symbolized all of the love that remains.

May 6, 2017 marked one year to the day that Nancy Varella Lendway lost her beloved son Vito Curreri, to suicide. On the day of the barbecue she held in his memory, her husband and her best friend stood at her side, when she released her balloon.

Nancy didn't see it when it happened, but both her husband and best friend noticed that Nancy's balloon popped while in the air. They watched as it floated back down to the ground and one of them picked it up. The next day, they gave her the remnant of the balloon she'd released in memory of her son. 

Nancy looked at it and laid the piece of rubber flat. The remnant had fallen from the sky in a very distinct shape.

Vito's balloon had floated back down to his mother, in the shape of a heart.

I want to tell you about Nancy. I want to tell you about the indescribable dichotomy of what one person looks like when they carry both the face of beauty and the face of grief.

But I cannot tell you about Nancy without first telling you about her best friend, her greatest love, and the most important person in her life. Her son, Vito.
Vito Joseph Curreri served his country honorably and with pride. For eight years, Vito was a Navy Corpsman, an enlisted medical specialist. His entire Naval career was dedicated to helping others.

This is not a surprise. Nancy describes her son as a sensitive soul. From childhood on, Vito loved animals and cared about people. Those who knew him were always touched by his kindness, and Nancy knows that this is a large part of how he will always be remembered.

Nancy also talks about his humor and sweetness. As sensitive as he was, he was just as often carefree and easygoing. This was the son she knew.

Vito changed, Nancy says, after he did a tour in Afghanistan. When she spent time with him, she could see a new and concerning hypervigilance. Vito was suddenly exhibiting fight or flight reactions to stress. These were things she'd never seen in him before. Sometimes he would be fine, and at others he was not the Vito she knew. He was like Jekyll and Hyde, she explained. 

All of these symptoms are hallmarks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD).

But it was difficult for Nancy to get her son to talk about his experiences in Afghanistan. She knows that he was exposed to profound tragedy - injuries and loss of life that would be difficult for anyone to describe. In fact, Vito was present when his own best friend lost his life. The most telling thing Vito told Nancy about these experiences spoke to the torment and impact that PTSD has on a person:

"I have seen so many things I cannot unsee."

PTSD is a significant public health crisis, and its treatment is impacted by stigma and a lack of understanding about the condition itself (even among health care professionals).

Treatment, services, and resources are inadequate. This is particularly true within the US Veteran's Administration (VA).

The stigma surrounding PTSD remains difficult to surmount. During the Vietnam era and in prior wars, suffering from PTSD was still being referred to as being 'shell shocked.' It was seen as a character defect, often attributed to a lack of courage by those who suffered from the condition. The lingering impact of these misconceptions about PTSD is difficult to overcome. Like all mental illnesses, those suffering from PTSD should not be made to feel ashamed. This type of shame often deters individuals from getting the help they need.

Even if a person suffering from PTSD does reach out for help, stigma often means that the resources needed to provide adequate services are not available. Treatment is not always considered a priority, despite the fact that severe PTSD can be life threatening.

Addressing these issues is critical. PTSD related to the recent (and ongoing) gulf wars is quickly catching up to the numbers seen in the Vietnam war. In the near future, the number of gulf war veterans who will suffer from PTSD will likely surpass those sufferers who served in Vietnam.

Vito was honorably discharged form the Navy in 2014. Two years later, he was struggling with many close relationships in his life. He had pushed Nancy away, his marriage was impacted by the strain of his PTSD, and he had other difficulties as well.

To most though, he was still someone who was easy to get along with. He retained the sense of humor he was known for, and he continued to care a great deal for everyone around him. His pushing away those closest to him was particularly out of character.

Nancy loved her son tremendously and she was concerned for him. But, when he told her he needed time and space from her, she agreed and stepped back. Nancy assumed that Vito was getting the help and support that he needed from the VA, and that he would contact her soon.

Like many survivors of suicide loss, Nancy grapples with this now - sometimes questioning if she could have done more for him. She recognizes that she was doing her best by respecting Vito's wishes, but she says it's difficult not to look back and ask herself what she might have done differently. 

Ultimately, in the last months of Vito's life, Nancy operated under the assumption that Vito was going to be ok, and that soon they would be as close as they'd always been, again. 

"I fully expected Vito to call me and say, 'Ok Mom, I'm ready to talk,'" Nancy says.

But that day never came. 

On May 6, 2016, after sending messages to family members telling them that he loved them, Vito ended his life. It was two days before Mother's Day. 

Vito Curreri was twenty nine years old, when he died.

Nancy spends a lot of time talking to other survivors of suicide loss. She is a member of a number of different online support groups, and in-person groups as well. She believes in getting support, and giving support.

Two weeks after Vito's memorial barbecue this past May, Nancy attended the San Diego Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She is also involved with T*A*P*S, The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (of the loss of someone who has served in the military).

Nancy is sometimes frustrated when people tell her they think that she should be moving through her grief more quickly. She is doing everything she can to move forward. Luckily, she has the support of experts who are well versed in grief and loss. They reassure and remind her that grief has it's own timetable.

When we sat down and spoke, she acknowledged that all survivors of suicide loss have a particular type of grief that is unique to them. The two of us share a lot in common. I was often in tears when she was sharing her experience. I understood much of what she was saying about the emotional impact of suicide on the loved ones left behind.

But, the parents of those who have died by suicide are grief stricken in a way that is hard to put into words. Every parent she knows of who has suffered this kind of loss has expressed the same thing - a deep longing for the time when they can be with their children, once again. This fact makes it no less than a miracle that these parents are surviving at all.

I do want to say this though - it is in seeing these parents take another step into another day, that I am reminded that somehow - I can find a way to do the same thing.

Nancy is not angry with her son, and she does not blame him. She recognizes the pain he was in. Vito tried to get help, Nancy explains, but he wasn't given the treatment and resources he desperately needed.

She doesn't blame others who were close to Vito, either. This includes his other family members, his friends, and his wife. Nancy says that what it comes down to is that anyone who loved Vito made his life happier when he was still alive. That is enough for her. She focuses on this truth, instead of blame. Ultimately, her feelings about others are guided by her appreciation for all of the love that Vito had in his life.

Nancy is, however, very frustrated with the inadequate services that Vito received from the VA. 

Among other friends and family members of veterans, and veterans themselves, Nancy is not alone in this frustration. 

According to the US Veterans Association Suicide Prevention Program - among all U.S. adult deaths from suicide, 18% were identified as veterans of the U.S. military. This statistic is alarming and suicide among veterans must be prioritized as the crisis that it is. 

In 2013, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs released a study that covered suicides from 1999 to 2010, which showed that roughly 22 veterans were dying by suicide per day. Recent studies suggest the number may be closer to 20 veterans a day, but the difference is negligible. The fact remains the same. The numbers are horrifying.

Researchers have found that the risk of suicide for veterans is 21 percent higher than for civilian adults. From 2001 to 2014, the rate of suicide among veterans jumped more than 32 percent. We are not getting better at addressing this issue. In the United States, our ability to support the mental health of service members returning from combat zones, is getting worse by the year.

By these numbers, just during the time that Nancy and I sat down and talked - somewhere in the United States, at least one more veteran of the US Military, died by suicide.

We must do better for the men and women who enlist to serve our country.

We must.

Vito Curerri in Guam, April, 2009

Any parent who has lost a child will tell you that there is never a full healing. It is a broken heart that cannot be unbroken. Really, all that parents are left with is the monumental task of turning away from the greatest sadness that there is, and finding a way to turn toward the love that will always remain for their child.

Nancy Varella Lendway depends on her memories and her heart to always keep Vito near. When she is at her most distraught, she still asks Vito help her. She says when she does this, she is often comforted by the sense that his spirit is present. She tells a story about a day soon after his death, when she began weeping, not knowing how she would make it to another day.

"Suddenly I felt his presence. I turned, and I could see him as a young child. He was just as I remembered him, and when he spoke, he reminded me that he loved me and that he would never leave me."

Twenty years ago, Vito wrote a poem for his mother. She has it still.

As beautiful as the wind.

So shall she follow her soul.

And when she follows her soul,

there will be love.

I can only hope that this poem is reminder to Nancy that she does have a beautiful soul, and that the love of her Vito is with her, always.
I truly believe that's true.

I do.
Nancy Varella Lendway at her son Vito Curreri's gravesite, in San Diego, California.

Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online at, or text to 838255.