Held and remembered

The other day, a small rectangle of a yellowed newspaper article, taped onto a cut piece of an index card, fell out of book that was a pass-along from a friend. I was touched by the compassion of these words, the knowing of the hold and pull of grief on the heart as well as the talisman these words served for my beloved, long-time friend:

“You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You recognize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrow and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevator first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember.” (Author unknown)

The second piece of paper to flutter out of the book was a post-it reading “Be here now.” Again, how apropos amidst the bittersweet knot of loss to be reminded to stay present, carrying on with our hearts full of love and memory. As our unknown author says, “to keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember.”

I have two thoughts: One, a life well lived, clearly carrying forward the memory of our loved one, is the greatest homage to the one(s) we have lost. And two, the ones who are no longer physically present are most certainly present within our hearts and our souls. I often feel they are the quiet guides who help us along the way.

We remember. We hold. We go forward with our someone in our heart.

 

Grief is a kind of love

Sometimes, we forget that grief is kind of love.

And we know love. Love, like an unending vine of shiny green leaves, winds and curls itself into the crevices of our lives and tenderly wraps us int its embrace.

We have met love, witnessed love, and, even, challenged love. We have held, hugged, laughed, cried, whispered and howled because of love. Love reverberates from our deepest being, rattles our knees, expands our vision and hums in our ears. Love is the current that turns us upside-down and inside-out. We are never the same after love and, most certainly, we are never the same after grief. Love and grief are energies that transform us into something more, something better.

“Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning. For grief is just love squaring up to its oldest enemy, and after all these mortal human years love is up to the challenge.”

                          Kate Braestrup

 

Son, I won’t come to your grave by Diana DeRegnier

For twenty-three years I have grappled with my identity as a mother of a son who took his own life. I am also a woman, a sister, a child, a writer, an activist. I have met many life challenges, yet the scars and weight of the loss of my son make other assaults on the body or soul insignificant in comparison.

It is very hard for others to listen to someone stuck in the anguish of losing a child and doubly so when there is insatiable anger and guilt at ourselves and others, and when we aren’t yet reaching for peace because we think we have to do something about the anger and guilt in order to be worthy of healing. In my journey, I had to decide I wanted healing and peace and love even if I don’t deserve it; I cannot live in the vomit of my son’s suicide.

All losses of loved ones are inhumanely cruel, and suicide comes with an extra-large bottle of the toxins guilt and anger which some of us feel obliged to drink again and again—it never does empty. Some of us have an insatiable need to see everything, talk about the loss, to examine each aspect, to learn every detail of our child’s life that we can. And then many of us stay stuck in experiences of sorrow, disappointments, regrets, guilt, and anger. We may move so slowly through the totality of our story that no one, including us, can discern change within us.

When my son died, it was extremely important for me to see, hear, touch, and feel what happened from all available angles. I’ve done that now. I understand and know all I need to know of the circumstances. With work and self-tolerance, I finally arrived at the point where even without every detail, I see the large picture and each snapshot available to me, and let the rest go.

Not every parent of a child who suicides will feel this way, but when we do, it is excruciating and so rare to find the support of someone who will stand on the shore as we trek through neck-high muck. In addition, some parents whose child did not die by suicide will go through similar angst. For each soul has its own challenges.

Now, I have put the memories of my son’s death, linked with a part of my own death, into a secret room for which I hold the key—to lock myself out as well as others. I may enter for moments, or I may crack open the door to remind myself of some item or to grab something in there and retreat. I enter with great caution and do not immerse myself in the totality of that room.

That room is polluted with toxicity and danger. The evils of suicide beckon. Our children were not evil; they were poisoned by real and imagined demons in the harshness of life. They were seduced by suicide.

Greg Furth, author of The Secret World of Drawings: Healing through Art, said to me that my son did not commit suicide; suicide took him. My son became addicted to the idea and immersed himself in a romanticism of suicide. “Suicide ideation” professionals call it, but for me, giving something a catchy idiom turns it into a cliché that doesn’t do a suicide victim justice.

So much belongs here in between the beginning of my journey and where I am now, but what I want to tell you is that there came a time when I could no longer willingly jump into the well of despair—what a small word for what I feel. The climb out was killing me and nothing had changed when I reached the top. I was still in anguish and only more weary. I felt no relief. I felt no resolve.

In 1991, I wrote a note to my son on the anniversary of his death that explains some of my crossing:

Dear Son,
I won’t come to your grave today
I won’t do that to me.
If you have any kind of existence
You know the pain of my loss is always with me.
I don’t need to hurt more today
Though I can’t help it
My rational mind and my heart are not in sync
My subconscious won’t let me forget that this is the day I lost you
Flashes of memory and dreams of horrors come unexpectedly.

But your grave doesn’t offer solace
It only tempts me to follow
So if I’m going to live
In protest of the choice you made
If I’m going to see my life to its natural end
And fight my demons rather than lie down for them
I won’t come today.

I’ll go somewhere that comforts and strengthens me
In honor of you
The you that was music and beauty and genius and life
And in compassion for the beaten spirit who took your life
I will not condone your grievous error by following
I will keep reaching for life
And seeking its treasures with whatever strength I hold within.

All my love,
Mom

 

Diana DeRegnier, a former columnist for UPI and author of the children’s storybook, Mortimer Loses a Friend, is a wicked dancer,  cancer kicker and way-shower living in the deep green of the Pacific Northwest.

 

This essay was originally published in Making Peace with Suicide: A Book of Hope, Understanding and Comfort (2015).

Slipped Away by Jean Mellano

March 15, 2015 was the darkest day of my life.  It was the day I lost my life partner, Steve Tarpinian, to suicide.  We had been soul mates for over 33  years.

Have I made peace with his suicide?

If I separate the cause of Steve’s death from the tragedy of forever losing the love of my life, I can say yes.

I have come to terms with the fact there is nothing that I could have done that would have resulted in a different outcome.  Steve’s mental anguish must have been so intense, so much so, that he lost sight of all the love surrounding him.  He had already tried suicide once before and failed, so it seems out of his hopelessness, he was determined to try again. That is how insidious the disease of the mind is.

The first two years after losing Steve were filled with  so many unanswered questions;  ; “Why, he had so much going for him”, “What if I had said…” , “What if I didn’t say….”, “What could I have done differently?” , so there was no possible way for me to make peace with his suicide.  At times these questions still haunt me, however, for the most part, I have accepted the fact that Steve made up his mind on his course of action and nothing anyone could have said or done was going to dissuade him.  The suicide and mental illness collateral damage such as destroyed relationships, being blamed for his death, uncalled for vitriol aimed at me and judgments on how I grieved are fading from my memory. Hence, I believe I have finally made peace with his suicide.

Losing the love of my life is what I still struggle with even though I realize that this is now my new normal  and that Steve and I will not grow old together and share the same pillow.  There is a huge hole in my heart that can never be filled.  Steve and I had a once in a lifetime relationship, filled with a deep respect and love for each other.  When we love deeply, we grieve deeply.  I  am  forever changed by Steve’s death.  Yes, I still have days with meltdowns and not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, but, I am only human.  My tears and sadness over the loss of Steve  is now a part of who I am.  As such, I have come to accept and embrace it.

My grief journey has taken me in directions that have helped me cope with my great loss. It is a daunting task and I must continuously remind myself to stay on track and not to fall back into the bottomless  pit of despair.     I realize  that trying to make peace with losing Steve, regardless of the cause of his death, will be a lifelong commitment that will not come easily for me.

How do I cope with my loss?

Living in the moment  and trying to pay it forward  have helped me the most in moving forward in a life without Steve.

Within 7 months of Steve’s passing, I wrote and published his memoir; Slipped Away, a single minded task that did not permit me to wallow in self pity.  Yes, it was draining, but, I was able to re-live many happy moments in my life with Steve.  I wanted Slipped Away to be more a celebration of Steve’s life and how he positively impacted so many people rather than a book about suicide.  The focus it took for me to complete the book  truly allowed  me to live in the moment.

Since publishing, I now do book talks, write blogs and use social media in an effort to inspire conversation about suicide and mental health issues.  These  topics, even to this day, are still stigmatized and most people are embarrassed to talk about these issues and would prefer to stick their heads in the sand.  As a suicide survivor, I have experienced this first hand.

In an attempt to try and have something  good come out of such a tragic loss, I wanted the telling of Steve’s story to allow him to continue helping people even though he is no longer with us.  The proceeds of  Slipped Away are donated to Project9line.org;  a  non-profit organization of veterans helping other veterans deal with depression and PTSD that provides outlets for them in the arts (writing, music, comedy etc.).    It was through Project9line that  I was introduced to AirborneTriTeam.org (ATT).  ATT’s mission is to promote teamwork and endurance sports to help veterans “… better their life style, change their attitude towards life and give them a purpose”.  There was a great synergy with myself and ATT since Steve was an Ironman triathlete many times over and the company Steve built was responsible for the foundation of the sport of triathlon on Long Island.  Supporting  the veterans of ATT in their mission gives me a sense of purpose.

Steve was not a veteran, however, even though the paths that lead our veterans to suicide are different than Steve’s, they shared the similar pain of hopelessness and mental anguish.   The end results of suicide are the same, the tragic, sudden loss of a precious life and the loved ones that are left behind, feeling the terrible heartbreak  of loss, with so many unanswered questions, wondering if they could have done something different to help their loved one.

Never in my life I would have thought I would be affected by the suicide of a loved one, let alone trying to make peace with suicide.  The time has come for me to accept my reality and as a suicide survivor, I can now say I have made peace with suicide.

Jean Mellano retired in 2010 from a 37-year career in the Information Technology industry. After so many years in the computer industry using the analytical side of her brain, she decided the time was right to exercise the more visual and perceptual side of her brain. Graphic design was a natural next step. Jean began to do the creative work for the event business of her 33+ year soul mate, Steve Tarpinian, designing event logos and promotional print work.

When Steve took his own life on March 15, 2015, her world changed dramatically and her life was turned upside down. Jean began to take solace in writing about Steve and found purpose in trying to bring more awareness to mental health by telling Steve’s story and published his memoir, Slipped Away.

In addition to her goals of keeping Steve’s legacy alive and inspiring conversation about mental illness and suicide, she is donating the majority of the profits from Slipped Away to a non- profit organization that is focused on supporting veterans suffering from PTSD and depression.  

www.SlippedAway.org

Suicide Notes — Voices from the Past

The sadness will last forever.

—Vincent Van Gogh

I am now about to make the great adventure.
I cannot endure this agonizing pain any longer.
It is all over my body. Neither can I face the impending blindness.
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

—Clara Blandick, age 82,
Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time.
I begin to hear voices.

—Virginia Woolf

I must end it. There’s no hope left. I’ll be at peace.
No one had anything to do with this. My decision totally.

—Freddie Prinze, actor

To my friends: my work is completed. Why wait?

—George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak

My pain is not caused because I am gay.
My pain was caused by how I was treated
because I am gay.

—Eric James Borges, part of the suicide note
from a gay, teen filmmaker

Sally’s Story


Sally and Pete had found each other. It was the second time for both of them. This time, they both felt like they had hit the jackpot. They simply loved being together and enjoyed their small adventures, like traveling to the shore for lunch or even playing toss in the grocery store. It was always fun, always a good time. Pete lived in the here and now. He was playful and spontaneous. He was Sally’s best friend.

In 2001, Pete was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent a radical prostatectomy. Pete never wanted to know the details of his medical condition; he focused on getting better and had Sally act as his point person. Sally researched his illness and did everything she could to keep Pete healthy and alive. The doctors finally convinced Sally to accept and believe that Pete could live a long life, given that his type of prostate cancer was slow growing.

In the fall of 2005, Pete discovered a sore in his mouth. The dentist sent him to an oral surgeon, who, in turn, scheduled Pete for a biopsy. The oral surgeon was vacationing when the pathology report came in. The pathologist called Sally and said, “What are you guys doing? You can’t wait. Your husband has stage 4 oral cancer.”

Sally was furious. Totally enraged. Pete had been smoking cigarettes on the side. She didn’t know. She was madder than hell at what he was doing to her and the kids. He was destroying his life as well as hers.

They were referred to a specialist for surgery. The surgery was botched. Pete left the hospital with an infection. There was chemo and radiation and a referral to an amazing doctor in New York City. There were more surgeries. They cut open Pete’s jaw and neck to take out the infection; they stripped muscles from his chest and wrapped and packed them into his neck for his body to absorb and fill the spaces where there had been infection. His neck was like raw meat. Over and over, there were surgeries—and there were infections. Through all of this, Sally had the utmost confidence in Pete’s doctors and knew they were doing everything in their power to save his life and restore him to health.

Sally learned how to dress and change his wounds with special gauze pads and sterile gloves twice a day. She dealt with doctors, as Pete never wanted to know the nitty-gritty. He was focused on beating the cancer.

Sally had returned to work when Pete got sick. She never missed a day of work. She couldn’t. She used her vacation days for surgeries.

There was unbelievable stress. “I wanted him to live. I wanted my life back. I did everything I could. My emotions were all over the place—I loved him with all my heart and soul, but at the same time I felt betrayed and was so full of anger because Pete continued to smoke after he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001. I totally believed he had quit. I had been working so hard to help him beat the prostate cancer that when the oral cancer diagnosis was delivered, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I had been fighting for his life and he was destroying his life with smoking behind my back.” It took a tremendous toll on them both.

In the summer of 2007, Pete realized he couldn’t beat it. He had no quality of life. He had already undergone several major surgeries, and more were on the horizon. He wasn’t going to live this way and be a burden to his family. Pete started talking suicide. Sally would hear nothing of it. This was too painful. Sally had lost her dad to suicide.

Pete took his case to the Ethics Committee of the hospital, and they ruled he could stop the feeding tube and refuse any artificial feeding methods.

Sally was beside herself, stressed, and furious with Pete. “It was hard enough watching him die.” Pete was unable to eat or drink anything from March 2006 until he died in September 2007. During the last few months of his life, it became increasingly difficult for him to talk; in fact, Sally’s nerves were so raw that it became difficult for her to understand what Pete was saying.

“We resorted to having Pete write out his part of the conversation and I would answer him. My nerves were shot. I had a hard time focusing and was fighting for my own survival. I was not in a good state of mind. At times, I was a total witch with him. I couldn’t eat. I was taking care of Pete, doing the best I could while working full time. I didn’t know which way to turn. I just wanted off the merry-go-round and a return to normalcy. I wanted my husband and our lives back!”

Another surgery was scheduled for early October, 2007. It was Labor Day weekend, Pete was home that Saturday, and Sally was working. Normally, Sally’s daughter would stop by unannounced to check on Pete. However, that weekend the kids were away. When Sally got home from work that day, there were notes on the doors.

Pete had left identical notes on both the front door and garage door: STOP. DO NOT COME IN. CALL THE POLICE. Sally knew immediately and ran to her neighbor’s, banging on the door, telling them to call 911 and saying, “Pete killed himself. I know he killed himself.”

The police arrived. They took Sally’s door keys, opened the front door, and her dog came flying out of the house. The police cut Pete down and put him on a stretcher. (Pete had used the most vulnerable part of his body—his neck with the tracheostomy opening and skin grafts—and hanged himself. He had been hanging there awhile.)

Sally was told that Pete was conscious and still alive, but the scene was too gruesome and they would not let her see her husband at that moment. They medevac’d Pete to the hospital. He flat-lined in the helicopter, and they brought him back to life. When Sally arrived at the hospital, she fully expected that Pete would be awake. It turned out he was on life support. The hospital kept Pete alive for another day so that the kids could make it home to say their good-byes.

When Pete died, Sally had so many emotions she thought she was going to die. Her weight had plummeted to 102 lbs. Sally was furious with Pete for taking his life. How could he? Sally was at a full boil, full of fury and deep despair following Pete’s death. She spent the next year living her life on autopilot, going to work, eating meals over the sink, walking the dog when necessary, and retreating to her bedroom. There was precious little relief.

For a solid year, every day, Sally looked for a note from her husband. “I thought he died hating me because of everything we had gone through. I was a witch, fighting for my sanity. My pregnant daughter needed a biopsy in July, and that was two weeks of torture. There was so much going on. ”
One year to the day after Pete’s death, Sally was in the garage, getting ready to do yard work. She noticed a police car driving around the circle of her street. She knew they were there for her. Sally went to the front of her house and there was the police car.

Chris, the police officer, told Sally that something told him to get the note and come today. “If you don’t want it, I won’t give it to you.”

Sally said, “I’ve looked for a year for a note. I thought Pete died hating me for everything I said and my inability to maintain my sanity throughout our ordeal.” Of course, she wanted the note.
Chris handed Sally the original note that Sally never knew existed.

Sally couldn’t read the note by herself. She read it with her daughter. Pete had written paragraphs to everyone—Sally, the kids, neighbors, favorite aunts, uncles, and cousins. He said it was his time to go. He told the kids how proud he was of them and reminded them that “Mom will need you now.” He thanked the neighbors for their help and support; he told anecdotes of happy memories with his relatives. And to Sally, Pete told her he loved her, he was sorry for all the hurt and pain. He apologized for his stupidity in smoking. And, if there is another side, he said he will be there waiting for her.

Given her initial rage, Sally later said that if she had found that letter when Pete had first died, she would have torn it into a million little pieces. Now, his note is very precious to her, and she is so thankful for it.

“My husband gave me the ultimate sacrifice: he killed himself so I could live. I owe it to him to live. It took me a long time. I was not sure I wanted to live. Now, I look forward to life…never thought I’d say that. There is happiness beyond it all. You have to want it and you have to work for it.”

This is what grief looks like

Loss hammered you incessantly. Grief hollowed you out until you were gasping for breath, empty and fully spent. Your heart was broken and battered into a heap of crumbled bits and pieces. And still, you stood.

Anguish carved you open in unexpected and totally disorienting ways. You lost your footing; you lost your way. Nothing made sense anymore. There were moments when thoughts of your own death seemed like a cool pillow on a sleepless night, blessed relief for the heated pain that endlessly coursed through you. And still, you stood.

You stayed alternating between almost-catatonic numbness and torturous, cycling agony.

Please click here for the full article.

 

Collateral damage

The 50 year-old American Association of Suicidology’s  (AAS) mission is, in brief, developing strategies to prevent suicide,  advancing education and scholarly work around suicide and, promoting research about and training in suicide. Edwin Schneidman, Ph.D., the founding President of AAS, said:

Survivors of suicide represent the largest mental health casualties related to suicide.

Of course, this is heartbreakingly true. Suicide leaves a wake of complicated grief and trauma. It is a hero’s journey to work through the emotional undertow and dig out of the dark hole to rebuild a shattered live.

The taboo has been broken. You are knee-deep in loss, shock and whirling feelings. It seems insurmountable. Your grief is debilitating; your pain is off-the-charts. It’s hard to breathe. You hold the thought of the very thing that has broken you as a possible way to end your own pain.

For your consideration, here is a link that you might find helpful about being a of a suicidal loss and another link about understanding the grief of suicide.

Go gently. It takes time. There will be a day when you can take a deep breath.

 

Jan Richardson’s Blessing the House of the Heart

Blessing the House of the Heart

pinkheart
If you could see
the way this blessing
has inscribed itself
on every wall
of your heart,
writing its shining line
across every doorway,
tracing the edge
of every window
and table
and hall—
if you could see this,
you would never question
where home is
or whether it has
a welcome for you.
This blessing wishes
to give you
a glimpse.
It will not tell you
it has been waiting.
It will not tell you
it has been keeping watch.
It would not
want you to know
just how long
it has been holding
this quiet vigil
for you.
It simply wants you
to see what it sees,
wants you to know
what it knows—
how this blessing
already blazes in you,
illuminating every corner
of your broken
and beautiful heart.
—Jan Richardson
from The Cure for Sorrow

“A blessing meets us in the place of our deepest loss. In that place, it gives us a glimpse of wholeness and claims that wholeness here and now.”

—from the Introduction of The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

Jan’s much-anticipated new book enters with heartbreaking honesty into the rending that loss brings. It moves, too, into the unexpected shelters of solace and hope, inviting us to recognize the presence of love that, as she writes, is “sorrow’s most lasting cure.”

Odd Thomas on grief

Grief can destroy you – or focus you. You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone. Or you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of the each day, and didn’t allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it.

But when it’s over and you’re alone, you begin to see it wasn’t just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill. It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it.

The answer to the mystery of existence is the loved you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time, you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss. And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.”

character Odd Thomas, from Odd Hours by Dean Koontz

 

Odd Thomas is a wonderfully unique character created by novelist Dean Koontz in a series of seven unusual mysteries. These words are from the fourth book in the series, Odd Hours. I resonated with Odd’s words on loving imperfectly, the deeper beauty of loss, and the sacredness of love. Perhaps, you will as well.

Go in peace.