99 New: Slow Learner

I give you this boot. It’s a beautiful boot, especially after I shined it this afternoon, but it’s still a boot.

The boot is here because I can’t sort out what I think about watching Anthony Bourdain on TV. He is the famous chef who hung himself earlier this year. In his television show, Parts Unknown, he is endlessly fascinating in a self-absorbed, careless kind of way and attractive, I imagine, to people of all orientations. So I watch him, thinking how enormously charismatic he is, or was, while I puzzle over his death, asking the question every idiot asks, why would such a person want to end his life?

It is a question with a hundred mile answer. I can’t even start.

I try to imagine being the spouse or the parent of a person who died by suicide; I try to imagine being a suicide survivor. Except I can’t really. You’d think it would be easy since I’ve known several people who have suffered this way. But I try to put myself in their shoes and I can do it only so far as sensing the bottomless grief or more accurately acknowledging my fear of the bottomless grief. Both of which make me want to cover my face with my hands.

And the thinking and sorting out that comes later, probably for years. The sifting through of reasons and context, things that weren’t known, things that were, the endlessness of analysis, how long does it take not to ask the rookie question, not to be the dumb, incredulous person looking at pictures of beautiful people who have died by suicide and asking why would such people want to end their lives.

I don’t understand but I’m working on it.

 

 

 

 

99 New: Fooled Us

In the last episodes, you can see it coming but only if you know how it turned out with Anthony Bourdain ending his unique, envied life by himself in a hotel room while the rest of the world thought he was on top of it, rolling wild flavors on his tongue, sipping endless indigenous spirits like he had all the time in the world, in no hurry to push himself away from the table, the light from the streetlamp and the single candle glowing his worn face, giving his eyes sparkle they may not have had in the day’s sunshine.

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Photo: kottke.org

 

 

 

 

 

Deep Space

The world doesn’t need me to weigh in on suicide. But I will, if only to sort out my own thinking.

I’ve been depressed but not clinically. I’ve never wanted to end my life. I cannot fathom feeling that suicide is the best option. But I can’t fathom deep space either though I know it exists. So I take Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade at their word. They determined suicide to be the best option. They alone knew the vast dark dimensions of their own deep space and I won’t second guess them.

Or their loved ones.

When a high profile suicide occurs, the implicit blaming begins. How? With the quick supposition that had only someone reached out, offered a hug and a phone number, the suicide could have been prevented. Be sure to tell your children, parents, friends that you love them! Hug your children. Let them know you care. So we say I love you all the time so as to avoid that awful eventuality. Oh my God, had I only told him I loved him this wouldn’t have happened!

This makes a suicide the product of the survivors’ deficiencies. If we had done better, been more expressive, hugged more, dialed more phone numbers, found better doctors, and stood guard every single minute of every single day, the suicide would not have happened. It makes the suicide the result of our behavior, a terrible measure of how much we care and how good we are at putting our caring into practical solutions. Who wins at this game?

Casual observers win. Because for sure now they will smile more at people because lord knows everyone is fighting their own battle and they will tell all their friends to reach out if they are feeling really awful. Call me if you are feeling really depressed. Okay. And you will do what exactly?

People who love someone who has died by suicide lose. Because they didn’t do enough. They couldn’t navigate a deep terrifying space they could not fathom but knew to exist. They could not transplant their belief in tomorrow and hope for the future to someone depleted of both. They could not be there every minute, could not watch every minute. At some point, they had to sleep.

You can’t hug or love your way out of a heart attack. Cancer doesn’t care if it’s watched. But there is treatment for both. Complex treatments that require teams of doctors and nurses. Innovations all the time, treatment centers that fly flags that say they are #1 in the country. Places compete with each other to have the most cutting edge treatment. So if someone you love has a heart attack or cancer, your job is to drive them to one of these places with a #1 flag and go down to the cafeteria and wait.

If you love someone with a mental health challenge that includes suicidal thinking, you’re out there with a mop and a pail. On your own. Calling people who have crammed appointment books, filling prescriptions that won’t take effect for six weeks, afraid to turn your back for a single second. And waiting for what you have come to believe is an inevitable end to your efforts to keep someone you love alive. It’s hellish.

We need mental health treatment centers flying #1 flags and organizing teams of professionals. It’s no different. Mental illness can be just as lethal as cancer and heart attacks.

Analyzing the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade is impossible. If you are not a traveler in their deep space, you don’t know what you are talking about. And you have no standing. Love couldn’t cure them. They were loved. And the people who loved them shouldn’t carry the burden of their suicides. I don’t know them but I would readily believe that the people who loved them did all they could. They didn’t fail. Nobody failed. People died by suicide. No one is to blame. But we can all do better and we must.

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Photo by Thom Schneider on Unsplash

Late Lessons

I think you have to be careful about how bad you feel for someone else because it puts a burden on them that you probably don’t intend.

I realized this long after I’d listened to a friend tell me about her daughter’s suicide. At the time, I felt almost paralyzed by grief, as if there were invisible droplets of nerve gas hanging like tiny Christmas lights all around me.  I listened and tried to manage my body language.

She told me things, the truth as it were, she told me the truth. I tried to reconcile this truth with what I was doing which was eating, I was sitting eating a wrap and coleslaw as if everyday I listened to tragic death stories over lunch. The obscenity of it struck me. What had happened was hideous in all ways. Unjust, terrible, and irrevocable. I nodded but I wanted to rend my clothes, rip my shirt to shreds, but, no, I sat quietly not wanting to reveal my secret bleeding.

The other night, riding around town with two homeless street outreach workers, I asked them how they managed to talk to people in such dire need, say, a man burrowed deep into a tent in the woods off a busy street who would only reach out his hand for a sandwich, and they answered that at the beginning they went home in tears every night.

And then, one of them said, they realized that their sadness was a burden on the people they were trying to help. This wisdom struck me. I was reminded of Thomas Cromwell’s advice to “arrange your face,” and it occurred to me that it was the easy thing to indulge this secondary sorrow, to well up and cry about other people’s pain, but it was a hard thing to manage yourself, to restrain your reactions. To know your place.

After I talked to my friend about her daughter’s suicide, it seemed that she pulled back from me. We weren’t terribly close friends but connected in odd ways too hard to explain here. But I could tell in our communication that a veil went down. It was a while before I realized that she was probably protecting me.  I wanted to say to her, “I can take it!” but the truth was I probably couldn’t. And she knew that.

I loved her for protecting me but I wish it hadn’t been necessary.

I learned this from my friend and from the outreach workers: Draw a circle around your grief and sadness and pull the knot tight. Don’t let your sloppy tears fall on people who are already crying. Don’t be someone who needs to be comforted by a person sick with grief. Arrange your face to be the comforter. That is the right thing to do.

I’m lucky to have learned this but I regret that it took so long.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Book Mark

When my friends’ son died by suicide, I bought them a book.

I can remember standing in a bookstore near the San Diego harbor, pulling book after book off the shelf, looking for just the right one that would speak to my friends’ terrible grief. Then I decided to mail it to them, somehow thinking that whatever insight that was offered in the book simply couldn’t wait for me to return to Milwaukee to give it to them in person. I wrote a weepy note which I tucked inside the cover and sent it off.

The topic of the book was how to manage grief. My sense at the time was that if they read the book, they would feel better. Thinking back, my naivete seems unbelievable, like a 5-year old with a bunch of dandelions showing up at a crash scene to comfort the survivors.

When I saw my friends a few weeks later at a memorial service for their son, I stood in line with many others to give my condolences. When I reached my friends, they both looked so bereft, so torn, that I put my hands on their faces, first one and then the other, almost pushing back their hair like they were children. I wanted to mother them. I wanted to console them. But there would be no consoling. Neither my grief instruction manual nor my physical presence could pull the knife out of their hearts by a single inch.

So I steered clear for a long time. Their grief seemed monumental. Out of my league. I told myself, you have no business butting in on their grieving. You don’t know what you’re doing. You did enough. Sending that silly book.

Then another friend lost her son to suicide.There is no comparing one to the other. Each is horrifying in its own way as only suicide can be. The shock, the suddenness of going from a normal life to one where every moment and every word are questioned, piled on top of what might be called ‘normal grief,’ that seems to be the essence of suicide.

I was out of town when this friend’s son’s funeral was held. I sent messages to her on Facebook and email and then, not being able to stand having done nothing, I took her a book and a candle. This time the book wasn’t an instruction manual on how to handle grief, or maybe it was. It was Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, that traces her coming to terms with her mother’s death as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. A few years later, my friend would post on Facebook that she’d had a Little Free Library built in her son’s name and my book was one of the first on its shelves. I don’t know if she ever read it. She had at least handled it. I’d told her I loved the book and I gave it to her. So there was that. It was not nothing as we used to say but it wasn’t much. She had better friends, I thought, even though I had known her a very long time. I knew she had better friends so I stepped back.

Then, unbelievably, another friend’s son died by suicide. This one was hard. The distant waves of grief I’d experienced with the other two now lapped at my feet. This one felt close for many reasons. So I sat down and wrote a poem. In the poem, I tried to speak to my friend’s grief, speak to my friend. I tried to be wise. I tried to rise above, not realizing until much later that the perspective I needed to gain was my own.

In the months since that time, I reach out, as she calls it. Thanks for the reach-out, she says. That’s all I do. She has better friends. I know that to be true. But I keep on, sending messages every now and then if only to tell her that her grief lives over here with me, too, for reasons I can’t explain to her or myself. So that’s what I do. It’s what finally feels right to do. Not to presume, not to intrude, but not to forget either, not to go on as if nothing happened. So I send my messages and we go back and forth and it feels right.  But still I felt the need to buy her a book. I bought her Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and I bought a new copy for myself because, you know, I had given my copy away to someone else.

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Photo: Syd Wachs, Upsplash

More on Suicide: No One is to Blame

Suicide seems to lead to blame. Self-blame. Blaming others. Why didn’t I…? What if he…? We often wish we could but we can’t control the decisions other people make. For better or worse.

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Suicide is different. If my husband died by suicide next week, people would wonder why I didn’t see it coming. They’d puzzle over why I hadn’t known that he was depressed and gotten him to a doctor. They’d question why I’d left him alone, why I’d decided to go to meetings all afternoon, saying goodbye to him buried under the covers of a messy bed.

They would blame me.

I remember taking a young friend to a teenage boy’s funeral. His parents stood next to his open casket and shook people’s hands. I didn’t know them but I shook their hands anyway and told them I was sorry. In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘how could you have let this happen?’ And then just as fast, I thought ‘anything can happen.’

Anything can happen.

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The Limits of Our Experience: Understanding Depression and Suicide

Suicide, so final, so devastating for families, so hard to understand. Here’s my attempt to sort out my own thoughts.

Red's Wrap

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We knew his face, his elastic, electric face that every second, even in repose, had the potential for explosion, a firecracker of surprise. I loved his face. He had the face of a favorite cousin, the one who could charm everyone with a new card trick learned last week at camp, who was thinking about becoming a ventriloquist, an option he would explain while helping clear the table after Thanksgiving dinner. He was the person you always wanted to be with because he was so joyful, full of mirth, but so aware of you, conscious of what would make you laugh and what wouldn’t. Taking care of people with…

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