Unspeakable: On Suicide and Mental Illness

Note: I originally wrote this piece two years ago, in my “10 Posts in 10 Days” project at the one year anniversary of my brother’s death. Last year, I linked back to it during Mental Illness Awareness Week and asked people to share. It became a very popular post and I was moved to hear from people across the globe, grateful for the advocacy, many of them “coming out” about their illness. I am updating this post just a bit this year and humbly request you share it as well. You never know whose family it might touch or whose life it might save.

Unspeakable: On Suicide and Mental Illness

Did you know that we were completely blindsided by my brother’s suicide?

Completely.

My wedding day. Our Best Man.

Even though he had a serious mental illness. Even though we are a knowledgeable, well-read, proactive and supportive family. Even though we all LIVED together during his attempted recovery. Even though my father is an M.D. and my mother has a PhD. in Psychology. Even though we have a family history of serious mental illness and attempted suicide AND successful suicide. Even though we watched the light in his eyes go out and never come back on.

That is pathetic if you ask me. Of course, there are details and nuances that contributed to our lack of awareness, but I think it’s important to be totally honest about how clueless we were.

For example, I did not know until the day after he died (and neither did my parents), when I did a Google search, that Bipolar Disorder has a significant mortality rate. Exact statistics vary according to the source, but around 50% of people with Bipolar Disorder attempt suicide and half of those are successful. That is a TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT mortality rate. That means he had a LETHAL disease. Like cancer or heart disease. Deadly.

None of us really knew this. I don’t even know if Andy knew how deadly his disease was (from the public health perspective, that is) because we did not talk about it after his initial diagnosis and hospitalization. Actually, I never talked about it with him at all. At one point my mom shared with me that when he was asked about suicidal thoughts, as is standard intake procedure when you are hospitalized for mental illness, he was ADAMANT that he would never do that, that he couldn’t. After attending the memorial of one of his dearest friend’s brothers who died by suicide, he shared how horrifying it was, and that he would never do that to his family.

Andy’s high school graduation day 2005

When I heard this second-hand, I breathed a sigh of relief. PHEW! Now I didn’t have to think about that nasty word “suicide” again. Besides, that happens to other people, right? Other families. Certainly not ours.

If just one person had sat down with us or sent us a letter that said: THERE IS A LIKELIHOOD YOUR LOVED ONE WILL DIE FROM THIS ILLNESS…perhaps this story would have had a different ending. I’m not saying that Andy would still be alive or would have never attempted to take his own life. I’m just saying that we would have gone from victims to advocates. Awareness is everything.

We REALLY need to step up our game when it comes to how we handle mental illness in this country. It is everywhere. Impacts EVERYone. But no one really wants to talk about it.

I find this ironic considering our vernacular is riddled with references to mental impairment. Think about it:

It’s driving me crazy!

That’s nuts.

You’re insane.

Just another Manic Monday.

I wanted to shoot myself in the head.

I hate my life.

I’m losing my mind.

Step back from the ledge.

Going postal.

He has a screw loose.

She’s not all there.

The lights are on but nobody’s home.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point. 

Generally speaking, we know these illnesses exist, but we don’t fully understand them. We don’t know what to do about them or how to support or interact with those who live with them. We may struggle to talk to our own family member or best friend, let alone know how to help the larger populations where mental illness is such a huge obstacle (among the homeless or incarcerated, for example).

Today, we are right in the middle of MENTAL ILLNESS AWARENESS WEEK (sponsored by the National Alliance for Mental Illness or NAMI).

To give you a basic idea, NAMI says serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.

Other mental illnesses include anxiety disorders, Autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, Panic Disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, eating disorders, dual diagnosis with substance abuse disorders, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Dissociative Disorders and more.

It is a near guarantee that you or someone you dearly love lives with or has experienced one of these illnesses. I also venture a guess that there are many people in your circle who suffer silently. Certainly, we all have more to learn about these diseases and disorders and how we can support those who live with them.

SUICIDE itself is a condition associated almost entirely with mental illness. It is really important that we remember this. Suicide is not a cop-out.

I want to be absolutely clear that just because one has a mental illness does NOT mean he or she will contemplate or attempt suicide. That said, please know that:

  • Over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have been diagnosed with mental illness.
  • In the United States, someone attempts suicide approximately every 30 seconds
  • An average of 1 person every 13 minutes succeeds in killing themselves
  • Suicide is the 10th ranking cause of death in the U.S. (more common than homicide and on the rise), but the 3rd in young people. It is also the only leading cause of death that continues to rise.
  • Some of the mental illnesses most commonly associated with suicide include
    depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders (including borderline
    personality disorder), anxiety disorders (including posttraumatic stress disorder and
    panic attacks) and eating disorders (including bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa).
    • Substance abuse and addiction are associated with an increased risk of suicide.
    • Older age is associated with increased risk of suicide.
    • People of all races and ethnicities are at risk for suicide.
    • While scientists have not discovered one specific gene that causes suicide, it is known
    that people with a family history of suicide are at increased risk.
  • Although military members comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, veterans represent
    20 percent of suicides nationally. Each day, about 22 veterans die from suicide.
  • SUICIDE IS PREVENTABLE!

Suicide prevention is up to you. And me. All of us. Not just the psychiatrists and therapists and pharmaceuticals. It’s up to the families and friends and communities of the people at risk. Here is more information about suicide and here you will find what to look for and what to do in terms of identifying and assisting someone who might be at risk for attempting suicide.

In honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week, and in the name of ACTION over complacency, I am inviting you to do THREE things this week that will change your view point and could save a life someday. Are you up for the challenge?

  1. I invite you to look up more information on 3 mental illnesses you have heard of but don’t fully understand. This won’t take long. Try to find one major fact about each one that will help broaden your perspective. NAMI is a great place to start your research.
  2. I invite you to have an actual conversation with someone else about one of these mental illnesses or mental illness in general. Compare notes. Spread the word. Share this blog. Share this post. Tell Andy’s story. Put it out there.
  3. This is kind of like extra credit, but I invite you to set a goal to read Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison in the next 6 months. Why? Because I read it AFTER my brother died instead of before. It would have made a difference for us…don’t let that happen to you. Dr. Jamison is a psychiatrist who lives with a mental illness (Bipolar Disorder) and studies suicidology. At age 28, she attempted suicide after years of experiencing suicidal thoughts. She lived to tell, study and teach about it. I consider these credentials solid, don’t you? Who better to explain this reality! It is NOT an easy book to read, but it is absolutely worthwhile.

I know there are a lot of “causes” out there. A lot of “awareness” weeks and walks and pins and ribbons and efforts, all worthy of our time, dedication and love. Why not become as AWARE as possible? Will you accept my invitation and join me in this challenge this week? If so, please take a moment to comment on this post or on my Facebook page. Share this post, pay it forward…let’s get this conversation started and keep it going.

Let’s speak, finally, about the unspeakable.

Andy’s speech at our wedding reception.

Again, Awareness

Today marks the start of Mental Illness Awareness Week. Has it already been a year again? With this new life chapter before us, it would be easy to leave my family’s tragedies in the past or to keep them underground at the very least. But that wouldn’t really be honoring much of anything I have come to believe in, so here I am again, practicing the sacred art of being vulnerable.

I realize that raising awareness and attempting to create a “kinder and safer world for those living with mental illness” (The Andrew Wade Friendship Foundation’s vision) involves more than speaking out just one week of the year, so I do my best to keep this vision alive in my daily interactions, even if just by holding the space for it.

Next week will mark three years without my beloved brother and the missing of him feels just as sharp as it did in the weeks after his death. Actually, I think the sharpness has a new edge nowadays. As the trauma heals and grief trudges on in the way only time can dictate, I notice my (ever so slightly begrudging) acceptance of death’s wily sort of permanence.

I am not sure if I will write anything new this week, aside from these little reflections, but I will indeed be here with my voice, (re)telling our story, hoping somehow, somewhere, for someone, it makes a teeny, tiny difference.

To start, here is a link to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an incredible resource for those living with mental illness and all who wish to learn and understand more as allies.

http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=By_Illness

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A heart for any fate

First day of Fall.

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The autumnal equinox marks the end of summer and the near-end of this little 11-part project I set out to complete. It is astounding how much my life has changed over this past season. And yesterday was the first day in MONTHS that I didn’t feel as if I had my finger stuck in an electrical socket. That is serious progress!

This entire summer was exhilarating and fun…exhausting and painful. And these last weeks adjusting to our new life have been surprisingly difficult. I say “surprisingly” because you have to trust that we expected and planned for a GREAT DEAL of difficulty. What I didn’t anticipate was moving into a near-toxic environment of turmoil and conflict. It seems this tiny little school I am at is in the midst of administrative and vision-based upheaval. Without going into details, most of which I am just learning and processing, things are definitely in the “crisis…who knows how it will all turn out” phase (as in, what is the future of this school?) Not exactly what I was hoping for in terms of starting this educational pursuit. And as someone who is highly sensitive to energy, you can just imagine what it was like coming into this with no context or information (we live on campus among faculty and students so there is nowhere to go). Like walking into a landmine. Ugh.

But this is life. Conflict, resolution. Rupture, repair. Not necessarily right away or in that order.

I have faith that some transformation will occur, whether I am here to see it or not. Meanwhile, I will learn what I can inside and outside of the classroom and will work to enjoy the adventure of it all with my sweet family by my side. How’s that for looking on the bright side?

All summer, I have been collecting my thoughts and weaving together the mental pieces for my last post in this series. Still, I am just not there yet. The final fragments are still floating around and I will need to spend a couple of weeks pulling them in and seeing where they lead.

Meanwhile, I am living in this historical, cultural and intellectual mecca of a city. And feeling mostly rather under-dressed for the event.

One cool thing is we live right behind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house.

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Longfellow bought the property in part because George Washington lived there for two years during the American Revolution. If walls could talk, right?

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And there it is, about a 20 second saunter from my front door. It is classically beautiful and stately, with a lovely garden and carriage house in the back.

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I love that I can just mosey over there and imagine life hundreds of years ago. Ages wrought with conflict and resolution. Rupture and repair. Not necessarily right away or in that order.

I confess that even though I majored in comparative literature and literary theory, I had to go back and read through some of Longfellow’s poems to even remember his writing. So back I went. Aside from his renowned, Paul Revere’s Ride, I particularly enjoyed his poem, A Psalm of Life.

I know I have been including a lot of poems in my posts lately, which is actually sort of surprising considering poetry has never really spoken to me the way it has recently. All a bit of this personal renaissance I am experiencing, I suppose. So I will leave you with this piece…full of all sorts of satisfying rhyme and meter. It is rather spot-on if you ask me…and right in line with this theme I have been toying with all summer:

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
   Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Find us farther than to-day.

A Psalm of Life

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
   Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
   And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
   And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
   Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
   Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
   And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
   Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
   In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
   Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
   Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
   Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
   Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
   With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
   Learn to labor and to wait.
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Here, there and everywhere

We couldn’t have asked for a better gift today.

The kids wanted to do a “surprise” party for Mike when I came home from my long day in class (this basically meant we popped out from behind the couches with balloons my sweet mama went out of her way to get, but only after coaching Mike to wait outside for the “surprise”).

After this, we got ready to walk into Harvard Square for dinner. Lainey wanted to bring balloons, so we tied up three balloons and set off. We got about three feet from our front door when the tie came loose and the balloons floated up to become stuck in the huge trees in our yard. While dealing with the massive meltdown that ensued over the “stuck” balloons, we didn’t notice that the 40th birthday balloon actually disappeared up and away and into the sky. We got a couple more balloons from the bouquet to walk with and off we went. That was that.

Or so we thought.

We had our dinner in Harvard Square, (about 1/3 of a mile’s walk from home) and as we were walking toward the little boutique chocolate shop where we were going to have dessert, Aidan says, “Hey, that looks like Daddy’s balloon.” We all glanced over and then did a double take. It DID look like the 40th birthday balloon. Just like it, in fact.

But how on EARTH did it get there?

How did it float up and away and out of sight from us and then somehow make the 0.3 mile journey, landing somewhere (not always an easy feat for a helium filled Mylar balloon) where someone would have the decency to tie it to a fence that was right by where we were walking home?

I mean, come on! Seriously?

Seriously indeed. Or playfully indeed.

This was the first major overt “angel nod” from our fun-loving Zach-man. At this point in my journey, I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that it was him saying “Happy Birthday, Dad. Love you guys.”

We love you too, Z.

Here, there and everywhere.

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Tears in Heaven

 

 

Remembering the life lost this day one year ago…


Zach grad

Zach,

You are a force we can no longer see or touch, but whom we feel deeply and miss terribly.

Yours is a story written forever in our hearts.

Yours is a love we hold onto and build this new life around.

Love always,

Dad, Lisa, Aidan & Lainey

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“Tears In Heaven”

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong
And carry on,
‘Cause I know I don’t belong
Here in heaven.

Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in heaven?
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in heaven?

I’ll find my way
Through night and day,
‘Cause I know I just can’t stay
Here in heaven.

Time can bring you down,
Time can bend your knees.
Time can break your heart,
Have you begging please, begging please.

Beyond the door,
There’s peace I’m sure,
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven.

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong
And carry on,
‘Cause I know I don’t belong
Here in heaven.

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(Writer(s):  William Robinson, William Robinson Jr, Eric Patrick Clapton, Henry Cosby, Stevie Wonder, Will Jennings
Copyright: E C Music Ltd., Jobete Music Co. Ltd., Blue Sky Rider Songs, Jobete Music Co. Inc.)

Thirsty

I have been without steady internet until today and could not bear to write another entry pieced together on my Iphone, so I have been waiting. We are about 10 days into our new life here and it is, well…many different things.

I am up to my ears in my first week of school, immersed in an intensive course all day, every day this week, so I have little time to think or process or do much more than just show up and do the best I can in the classroom and at home.

I would love to say it’s all sunshine and roses, but that wouldn’t be truthful. There is mostly a lot of transition and all of the discomfort that comes from existing in that liminal space. I am standing at the threshold…still in between all that was and all that will be.

I feel disoriented and displaced, but I am trying to remain hopeful.

It’s as if I have been trudging through the hottest, driest, most barren desert for the past year, carrying the weight of survival on my back and our lives depending on my ability to put one foot in front of the other. I am so tired I nearly cannot see the ground in front of me and I have been trekking for so long without any real sustenance that my body, mind and spirit are beginning to deteriorate with each forward step. I fall to my knees and crawl sometimes, desperately seeking respite from the intensity of the elements around me, but they are relentless; there is nowhere to hide. I just crouch there with my face pressed into the sand for awhile, fighting for breath and summoning the courage and strength it will take to get up and keep walking. I am trusting that there is an oasis for me somewhere, but I don’t know where and I am depleted…exhausted…hungry…and so very, very thirsty.

I take a few more painful steps and stop to look around when I see it. Just up ahead of me shimmering in the distance.

Water.

Thirst

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

— Mary Oliver, Thirst”

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Defying Gravity

(This post was pieced together in the midnight hours during the last two days of moving and done entirely on my iphone…so just a head’s up. Please forgive the formatting and weird typing)

For my 25th birthday, I decided to go skydiving. I do not totally remember what my burning motivation was, but I recall wanting do something terrifying and to face my fear head on. Somehow my husband bravely and generously agreed to do it with me so off we went.

When the day came, we drove up to Lompoc, CA and got all suited up and oriented by our tandem professional divers. Basically, our job was to pay attention, know where the emergency pull strings were and remember to extend our legs when we landed so as not to break them unnecessarily. Since we were relying entirely on the skills and expertise of these complete strangers to keep us alive and safe, it was an exercise in complete and total trust.

I knew what I was doing was dangerous and risky, but that it just might also be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I had a relationship with fear that I wanted to break through; I didn’t want it to paralyze me and stop me from fulfilling my dreams and goals.

Of course , the reality of what we were doing didn’t really sink in until the tiny, rattley plane packed full of divers ascended to its diving altitude. There at 12,000 feet, I watched my husband silently fall out of the plane with his tandem diver, backwards from the plane’s exit hatch. There was something about watching him fall back with arms outstretched, knowing we were as high as we were, that made me want to vomit and stop the charade right there. But it was also the point of no return and before I knew it, I too was being pulled out of the exit door. I closed my eyes for that part and when I opened them we were free falling toward earth. Those seconds were the most frightening of my life; even now, just thinking about them brings hot tears of terror to my eyes. I couldn’t think or feel anything but fear and panic. There it was. The ground. My life. My mortality. Coming at me faster than a freight train. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, but I kept my eyes open and it felt like forever until the chute finally inflated and we were suddenly floating. I was still scared, but the velocity had shifted so dramatically that my brain could now make sense of what was happening. I was able to enjoy maybe 15 seconds of the whole thing as I took a deep breath and saw the Pacific Ocean to my left and the coastal hills to my right. Then the next hurdle was landing in one piece. And land we did.

This last year I found myself paralyzed with fear more times than I care to count. I have been pushed emotionally and physically beyond the point of exhaustion, irrational, discouraged, depressed, ambivalent and outraged. There were many points where I didn’t know how we were going to get through it.

Until a door opened.

And even then, this is such a huge risk we are taking at such a vulnerable time that it has made these last months even more tumultuous trying to prepare and transition. I nearly pulled the plug on the whole operation a number of times because the risk is so great and the variables so numerable. And the fear of the unknown–just too much.

In the end there I was again, facing all my fears, trusting something bigger, trusting myself, standing in faith, pushing through when I am “stuck” and ultimately, just doing it.

This new adventure wasn’t my first choice, but without even knowing how it ends, it was the best choice.

And here I am. Here we are. Finally.

Defying Gravity

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m tired of playing by the rules of someone else’s game.
Too late for second guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap

I’m through accepting limits
‘Cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But ’til I try I’ll never know

It’s time to try defying gravity
I think I’ll try defying gravity
Kiss me goodbye I’m defying gravity
(And you won’t bring me down!)

(My musical theatre roots are going to show right now because for the last few months I have been humming this song from the broadway hit, “Wicked”. Except now I am going to throw some pop culture into the mix of this wayward post because the version I keep singing is the one from Glee. So there ya go. Enjoy )

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A little less, a little more

Why do I keep doing this? Why do I write this way? Why the constant references to our losses and all of the heavy feelings that accompany them? Why this summer writing project which is once again mostly about DEATH? Why am I grieving publicly (especially given that I am a deeply private person)? I mean, don’t I want to move forward? Be happy? Get over it?

One of the best things we did for Aidan this year was to join a weekly child-grief therapy group (most losses were siblings and parents). The main purpose of the group is to “normalize” grief for children. They start each session by briefly sharing who in their life has died. Then they play hard for an hour not talking about grief or death AT ALL and they have loud, raucous, gut-busting fun (parents are in a separate room in their own group). Then the session ends with a closing ritual of sharing their favorite memories of the loved one they lost. It was a wonderful experience and so healing for him; we look forward to finding a similar outlet after we move.

I guess the reason I keep at all of this, especially through writing, is to sort of “normalize” grief on a larger scale, starting with my own community. I want to explore and embrace it all. I share our happy, blissful moments and memories right along with the heartbreaking ones. Intensity DOES lessen over time and you will probably see these death/grief posts evolve into ones with a lighter feel as we move into the next chapter of our lives. But I will never ever stop acknowledging how hard this life can be. And I will never ever stop celebrating what an incredible gift we have been given to live this awesomely intense human life here on earth. How breathtaking the gift is. How bittersweet some moments can be. The sorrow and the joy… I just cannot deny the blessing it is to be alive.

All of us have lost something or someone. Some of you have lost so big you can relate in one particularly empathetic way to what I write. Others of you have watched people you love lose big, so there is value in gaining a deeper understanding of some of grief’s many facets. And since death is inevitable, it means we are all going to lose some more as time goes by. It is certainly not a pleasant or welcome reality we have to embrace with some sort of new-age, flowy-gown, sun-kissed, chakra-balanced, zen-enthusiasm. It is perhaps just something for us to look at with a little less terror. A little less unknown. A little more compassion and a little more perspective.

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Reaching Out

Assisted by the magic of the inter-webs and the inspiration behind this blog, the universe connected me with an extraordinary woman last year. She had just lost her brother to suicide and was feeling all of the darkness. She found my blog, reached out to me and we began an email correspondence. It turned out she lives not too far from me, so we were able to meet each other in-person and a strange and wonderful sort of grief-friendship-sisterhood emerged.

There is the strangest comfort in finding someone grieving a similar loss. Grief can be a powerful connector in a general sense, because so many of us suffer and experience similar things. But when you talk with someone and can say “my brother” to each other with precise empathy, it’s a whole different bag of amazing.

I recently found one of the first emails I sent her where I wrote some of the things that helped me in the then twenty months that had passed since Andy died. I wrote this email two months before Zach died. It rather warms my heart to see how much of my own advice has saved me this past year. How my brother’s death sort of etched a deep and familiar groove for us to fall into when the unspeakable happened again.

I also see the differences. How some of the scenery and sensations changed this time around. Still, even though some is different, even more is the same.

My sweet sister-friend out there…Thank you for giving me permission to share what I shared with you. This post is dedicated to you because you are so brave and strong. I hope that you can see the reflection of just how incredible you are and I wish you deep peace and the kindling of joy as the rest of your journey unfolds.

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Here is an excerpt from my email on on June 20, 2013:
     I was just thinking, in response to your first email, of all of the things that have helped me over the last 20 months or so. Because I do want to tell you that it does get better. Somehow it does. It’s like 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Sometimes 2 steps forward, 3 steps back. But somehow, over time, you inch into a place that is more live-able. Where you can breathe full breaths of fresh air again.
     Also though, honestly, it’s never the same. I don’t think it should be, but still, it’s hard to reconcile. I think about this a lot because one of the things I am struggling with right now is that nothing I did in my former life fits anymore. For me, it’s like creating and building a whole new life. It’s overwhelming, and full of loss beyond the suicide itself, but I will also say there is freedom and excitement to it. After the numbness and shock wear off…and after months and months of grueling grieving…there just wasn’t room for any BS. What I’m seeing is that as much as I loved the old Lisa…and miss her…the new version of myself is much richer, deeper, bolder, kinder, freer, and more alive. It has come at a very high cost, yes, but it’s the unfolding of my life story. And I have to embrace the sacredness in that.
     For you, though, right now, that’s probably like blah blah blah. I know I felt like that. So here are some of the things that helped me in those first months and beyond. I also pray you know that I never want to sound preachy or like I have it figured out. I’m still learning and grieving and reeling. Though fortunately, for the most part, the intensity is FAR more manageable at this point…
  • Be extraordinarily gentle with yourself. Do all of the things that bring you healthy comfort and UNDERDO everything else. Take exquisite physical and emotional care of yourself as much as you possibly can.
  • SLEEP. Relax. Eat food that nourishes you. Comfort food is nice if you have any appetite in those first weeks, but over time crappy food just makes the grief and depression a million times worse. Eating clean and healthy food will give you a leg up in feeling all those feelings as they are and as they come.
  • Great self-care can be hard when you’re a mama. It’s okay if life changes completely—anything else would be a facade anyway. It’s also okay if you “underdo” a typical busy life for a year or two. This is uncharted territory for everyone and your emotional well being is paramount. Think of the oxygen mask scenario on the airplane. If you’re not taken care of, everyone else will suffer more. Right now, you come first.
  • Don’t hide your grief from your kids or husband. Not that you would, but I found that a hard line to tow sometimes. It’s messy and ugly, but its real. It’s hard…brutally hard…for everyone, but I think it’s actually a gift for our kids to see what real, messy and ugly life looks like. That it’s okay to fall apart. Eventually, things will come together again in a new and beautiful way. I have a new perspective that life is crappy and hard (in addition to all of its wonder and beauty) any way you slice it. While none of us wish trauma or heartache on our kids, it’s inevitable, and when life deals a hard and fast blow early on…it means a head start on building those amazing resilience muscles.
  • Take care of your marriage. It is likely your husband will carry this burden in a different way, and will need to pick up some of the balls that you usually juggle. Be upfront about what you need at any given moment. Even if what you need is to just let him know you don’t know what you need, so you’re going to go take a walk or drive or whatever and try to figure it out or stare at a wall or something to just breathe through the pain of the moment. When you feel a little more open, go on dates. Get away for a weekend. Even if it’s weird and awkward or feels funny. Do it anyhow and thank your wonderful hubs for treading water with you. Find something to laugh at whenever you can. That might feel awkward too. Awkward everything is normal. Accept and embrace awkward as one of your new friends.
  • On that note, also take care of the “family” unit in an obvious way. Do fun things. Keep up the traditions that you can and make new ones along the way. Some days the best you will be able to do is just show up. That’s ok. That counts.
  • Don’t be afraid of the pain. Kind of like childbirth–it’s there for a reason. When a wave comes out of nowhere, ride it to shore. It will pass, you will get through. Cry, rage, journal or breathe through it. Don’t worry about anything else but being in the very moment you are in.
  • Find an outlet and healing modality. Or several. Writing. Talking. Walking. Journaling. Drawing. Therapy. Massage. Hypnotherapy. Group work. Running. Hiking. Swimming. Reading. Music.
  • It’s also okay to check out every now and then. Crap TV is good for this. In metered doses. 
  • A lot of people won’t know how to be around you. They mean well and may even do or say the right things (while others straight up DO NOT), but you can just feel that they don’t get it. It’s weird. Some people may not show up at all. People you thought WOULD always be there. It’s all fine. Also it all sucks. One or two friends will likely surface as the ones you can count on. They may not know what you are going through, but they will know how to just be with you while you navigate these dark waters. Cling to them. If you can, tell them what you need. Even if it’s babysitting or laundry help or just sitting on the couch with you while you stare at the wall. You being open and honest and vulnerable and letting them take really good care of you will deepen your friendship in an inexplicable way (I found this happened with my husband also).
  • Embrace that wherever you are in any given moment, no matter how excruciating…is exactly where you are supposed to be.
  • Don’t feel the need to socialize, attend things or do ANYTHING that doesn’t feel nurturing. At some point, we all have to sit through soccer games or meetings when we don’t want to, but it’s okay to say NO even more. Even to your kids.
  • Reading “Understanding Suicide” by Kay Jamison really helped me understand suicide as an illness itself. I learned about the science and physiology and biochemisty of it. It’s not easy to read, but it helped me move forward on the path to understanding and acceptance (a path, by the way, that really doesn’t have an endpoint). 
  • There are some good books on grief out there. Lots of them. But the thing is, sibling grief is unique. And suicide grief is a whole other animal. Put them together and you have something that’s hard to find a “guide” for. Read what calls to you and pick the kernels of gold out.
  • Be ready for a rollercoaster with your family of origin. Everyone will feel this differently. Everyone will move into different stages at a different pace. Sometimes experiences will line up for closeness and healing, other times you might be catapulted into a whole new type of pain and alienation as you all figure out how to be a family without your brother. Losing him, especially so tragically, is a complete disruption to the balance and very existence of your family—no matter the dynamic before. It’s important to acknowledge that you aren’t just grieving him…but the death of your family as you knew it…and the end of the life you once had. It’s a lot of grief all at once. Too much, really. Which is why moment-by-moment is the only way to live through it.
  • Love yourself. Love yourself. Love yourself. Love your brother. Miss your brother. Mourn your brother. Wail for him and ache for him. Then love yourself, love yourself, love yourself.
I should probably stop there. Talk about overwhelming! I hope you are able to find something in all of that that resonates now. Probably something else will emerge two months from now and then two months after that. It’s a journey with no destination.
Just know that on your journey, there’s a sister who knows what it’s like to hear your own heart breaking over and over. 
We can do this. Moment by moment.
With equal gratitude for sharing yourself and reaching out,
Lisa
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Lessons from the Buddha

Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation–proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time, warding off death is our biggest motivation. We habitually ward off any sense of problem. We’re always trying to deny that it’s a natural occurrence that things change, that the sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing. It’s as natural as the seasons changing and day turning into night. But getting old, getting sick, losing what we love–we don’t see those events as natural occurrences. We want to ward off that sense of death, no matter what.

(Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart)

 

Our fish died yesterday. His name was Buddha Betta and he was exquisitely beautiful. If a fish could look like a majestic peacock, then that’s how I would describe him. Aidan named him and I am not sure where he got the idea, but the name stuck. However, he wasn’t just a pretty fish, he was also a joyful fish. When you approached his bowl with an enthusiastic greeting, he would flare his fins and swim faster, making eye contact with you and shaking himself to and fro. Mike even taught him how to jump for his food. Such a character, our Buddha Betta. When we got him, Lainey was about 18 months old and called him “Baddhu”, which remained a sweet nickname until his untimely passing.

 

He was also a strong fish. Tough as nails. On the day we brought him home over one year ago, he fell out of his container and onto the driveway as Aidan was getting out of the car, throwing everyone into a panic. As I muttered a series of expletives to myself followed by a few prayers for some sort of mercy on this poor fish who had only been in our care for 25 minutes, I hastily scraped him into a cup and ran him inside and into the sink. We then performed life-saving measures to get him into a semi-clean bowl with the appropriate water cleaning drops and watched him kind of float around in shock. My expectation that he would live was very low and I tried to prepare and cushion Aidan for the imminent death of his new fish. But Buddha surprised us and kept swimming.

Not too long after that, I walked into the kitchen one day to find that Lainey had pushed over a chair and was transferring dirt and plant food from the potted plant on the counter into Buddha’s bowl as she said, “Feed Baddhu?”

So we commenced the second round of life-saving-measures and life-expectation-management. But the Buddha lived again. 

Basically, he was the best fish ever.

So when I learned of Buddha’s passing in the midst of what is currently an incredibly chaotic and strained day-to-day life for us, I thought, “Really? Now?” Well, of course now; that’s how life works. So we braced ourselves to tell the kiddos, feeling especially bad about telling Aidan since this was his fish from the start.

After my last post, I probably don’t need to describe the implications of this death, the complicated overlay of grief and the potential for trauma triggers. I am sure you can just imagine.

So I will just recount a few of the heart-wrenchingly beautiful moments that unfolded when we told Aidan that Buddha had died. 

First, he needed to see it, and there was something liberating and reassuring for him in being able to see Buddha resting there lifeless in his fishbowl plants. Aidan threw his arms around me; I could see tears in his eyes and I actually felt washed over in relief. Aidan was grieving and letting himself feel it. That is a big deal.

Then we took Buddha out to the garden for a proper burial. I felt that familiar tug at my heart as we all thanked Buddha Betta for being such a great fish, but then Mike and I totally broke down as both kids reached in to the hole to “pet” him one last time (or for the first time really because, well, he was a fish) with their tiny fingers before covering him with dirt.

Aidan created a beautiful headstone, adorned with the flowers and plants from the fishbowl. It reminded me of the thoughtfulness I recounted in this post when he found a dead seagull on the beach two summers ago.

As Aidan arranged some rocks around Buddha’s grave, the tears really started to fall as he sought comfort from each of us. Lainey was so sweet as she repeated, “I’m sorry, Aidan.” Because what else do you say sometimes? However, his sobs actually comforted me deeply. To know that my boy could cry those tears freely when he needed to. To know that he wasn’t still numb. To know he felt safe enough with all of us to release whatever grief was there. “Mommy, Buddha was my best friend, ” he cried as I stroked his hair and kissed his salty cheeks.

After our ceremony, he seemed lighter to me all day; I could sense all that he was able to release just by feeling everything he needed to and accepting that this was just part of the game.

Children are such incredible teachers. Their honesty and vulnerability is a gift we should handle with delicate reverence. They are also masters of living in the present moment, embracing it for all it holds. For me, that is tricky business.

As the grace-filled and inspired Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes in her book, When Things Fall Apart (side note: if ever there was a book title to serve as my new survival manual, this is it.): 

Fear of death is the background of the whole thing. It’s why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety. But if we experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality and impermanence of death.

There are about a hundred metaphors and images of life and death in this story, many of which relate directly to my family’s experience and some of which I thought of sharing in this post. I also had to not get too terribly heavy about it all because otherwise it’s just SO depressing, so I cheered myself up by remembering the episode of The Cosby Show when the family fish died (does anyone else chuckle recalling all of them gathered around the toilet bowl?). 

Anyhow, I realized that the only truth I really needed to acknowledge for myself (with a deep breath) is that ever-present paradox I am fumbling with so much right now.

In life, there is always death and in death, there is always life.

 

 

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Rest in Peace, Buddha Betta. You were loved and treasured; thank you for being awesome.