Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Quiet Week Ahead

Joshua Anderson Williams 9/1/84 ~ 9/2/08


Top Photo: NC Camp Counselors' Week-End Off in Atlanta. My favorite photo (click to enlarge) of the grown-up, exuberant Josh.


Bottom Photo ~ In late May of 2005, I resisted the urge to call Josh every five minutes over Memorial Day week-end. His sophomore college exams were about a week away and I was sure that he and his friends were taking advantage of the three-day week-end to engage in behavior that did not involve studying. However, I assured myself that none of them had cars and that they would limit their activities to their Chicago campus and Hyde Park neighborhood, and I stayed away from the phone. On Tuesday he called me, and said that he was emailing some photos from the week-end.

I looked at the photos as they slowly appeared onscreen and then I called him back. "That's Yellowstone," I said.

His response? "We got as far as Idaho."


Please let me know if you light a candle next Wednesday night for Josh.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What To Say?

What DO you say when you encounter someone who has recently sustained a tremendous loss in the form of the death of a child? Joan Calvin comments below that as a pastor, even she doesn't know. Please allow me to simplify.

First, remind yourself that you are looking at someone who has experienced one of the worst things life has to dish out. One of the very worst, and you have no way of knowing what that means unless you are part of this particular club. You are speaking to someone who may have sat for weeks on end at the bedside of a dying teenager, or may have witnessed or even in some way been involved in a young child's completely accidental death. He may have received the phone call at work, standing at lunchtime amid a sea of empty cubicles. She may have found her child's body. Whatever the situation, it's terrible. And you just need to know that; you don't have to say it.

Second, and I am going to switch to the feminine pronoun here, because I am the writer and I am female: walk right up to her, RIGHT UP TO HER ~ THIS IS NO TIME FOR COWARDLY PUSSYFOOTING AROUND ~ and say and acknowledge whatever is appropriate to your knowledge and the time span, anywhere from "I just heard about your son's death and I am so terribly sorry" to "I am so glad to see you; you are never far from my thoughts."

Third, if you can because you know something, offer a kind and specific remark or memory about her child. "I will never forget his speed on the soccer field." "I hadn't seen her since she was in kindergarten, but I heard she was really enjoying her job." And then pause. Give her time to respond. You are contributing to a mother's narrative of her child's life by reminding her that others remember, and want to remember. You are doing one of the very best things you could possibly do. Better than a lifetime's delivery of chicken soup.

And finally, ask something specific about how she is doing. One of my best friends tells me that the best advice I gave her came from a story I related, either here on on my other blog, about running into a friend at Borders and his asking me how I was that morning. As I recall, I was in bad shape due to an earlier telephone call, and could not have offered any rationale whatsoever for my presence in a bookstore. "How is your morning/afternoon/evening going?" will do just fine. It sounds as if you really care, and it limits the answer to a manageable parameter.

And yes, you should try your best to interject yourself into someone's life. Call and then stop by, stop by for five minutes on your way to somewhere else, email and make a specific suggestion for a meeting time and place. Risk the rejection that you may well experience, perhaps even several times over, and realize that you are dealing with someone who on some days finds that it takes too much energy to hit "Reply."

So: this is not a situation which requires imagination or creativity. This is a situation which requires courage and fortitude. And if you think that you are somehow lacking in either of those qualities, take a cue from the mother you are approaching. She needs them just to open her eyes in the morning.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Surviving a Child's Suicide

I don't know whether anyone who reads this blog has lost a child to suicide. (If you have, I wish you would identify yourself as a reader, even if only anonymously, and/or only by email.) I do know that at least one person has lost a beloved cousin to suicide, and several others have children who have died due to other causes.

Not being too sure about the audience, I think I may be posting the following mostly for myself, although any parent who has lost a child will recognize at least some of it. Much of it I have mused about in my own words (for instance, in the Five Things posts), but it's helpful to see it all in one place. And perhaps that helpfulness extends to family and friends who may wish to know more.

I have been thinking about how few people approach me directly irl. I am hard pressed to explain the fact that I go to seminary, an educational institution in which I am surrounded by pastors and would-be pastors, and I can count on the fingers of my two hands the number of people who have taken the initiative to speak to me about my son. I suppose I am a scary person. Either I am a totally crazy and horrific excuse for a person and a mother ~ how else to explain the lost child? ~ or I am just what I seem and just what most of my peers and professors are, a reasonably nice person, an ordinary combination of good and bad, a mother who could not help herself from passionately loving and conscientiously attending to her children ~ an even more frightening possibility, because that would mean that this could happen to anyone.

At any rate, some possibly useful information:

Surviving Your Child's Suicide


The suicide of a child of any age presents unique circumstances that intensify and prolong the mourning of parents and family members. Suicide is a reaction to overwhelming feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, and depression. It usually occurs when a person´s pain exceeds his or her resources and ability to cope. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 10-14 year-olds, the third leading cause among 15-24 year-olds, and the second leading cause among 25-34 year-olds.

While mental illness plays a role in many suicides, not everyone who dies by suicide is mentally ill. Many families endure the frustration caused by the child requiring years of hospitalizations and medications. Other families encounter only brief periods of conflict or worry, while some experience none at all. Sometimes there are warning signs of the person´s intentions. However, clues may be so disguised that even a trained professional or counselor may not recognize them. Occasionally there are no discernible signs, and the child´s suicide becomes a catastrophic decision that can never be understood or resolved.

One change now occurring is in the language of suicide. The terms "died by suicide," "died from suicide," and "died of suicide" are being adopted rather than the harsh "committed suicide," the language of an earlier era that carries a stigma of criminality so often offensive to families whose children have taken their own lives. Denial and feelings of shock, guilt, anger, and depression are often a normal part of grief reactions, but are especially heightened when a child has died by suicide. Though difficult to accept, it is not unusual to experience feelings of relief if the relationship with the child was stressful or destructive to the family unit.

The suicide of one´s child raises painful questions, doubts, and fears. The knowledge that your love was not enough to save your child and the fear that others will judge you to be an unfit parent may raise powerful feelings of failure. Realize that as a parent you gave your child what makes us human -- the positives and the negatives -- and what your child did with that information was primarily your child´s decision.

It isn't uncommon for newly bereaved parents to express thoughts of suicide, regardless of how their child has died. Remember that suicide is not inherited. Be patient with yourself and your family, and seek professional help and family counseling if necessary. The stigma often associated with suicide is the result of cultural and religious interpretations of an earlier day. You will find it difficult to progress in your bereavement unless you confront the word suicide, difficult as it may be. Keeping the cause of death a secret will deprive you of the joy of speaking about your child and may isolate you from family and friends who want to support you. Rather than focusing on the stigma surrounding suicide, concentrate on your own healing and survival.

You may feel anger. It may be directed at your child, those you believe failed to help your child, God, those who try to help you, or just the world in general. You may be angry with yourself because you were unable to save your child. It´ s okay to express anger, a common emotion when a child has died by suicide. Sometimes healing cannot begin until this anger is confronted and expressed. However, a healthy expression of anger does not include hurting yourself or others.

Feelings of guilt following a child´s suicide are normal-for parents and family, friends, classmates, and even coworkers. "If only" is a phrase you may find yourself repeating frequently. You may need to feel guilty for a while until you begin to understand that you are not ultimately responsible for the decisions and actions of another human being, including your child. Sometimes you need to go through a feeling to get beyond it. Believe in yourself. You are human-accept your limitations.

Some parents feel a need to ask "why?" Often, of course, there are no clear answers, which often proves highly frustrating for parents and other family members. After some time you may reach a point where you begin to realize that there are some questions about the death of your child that will never be answered.

Lack of energy, sleep problems, inability to concentrate, not wanting to talk with others, and the feeling there is nothing to live for are all normal reactions in bereavement. Situational depression, as opposed to clinical depression, should eventually wear off. You can fight this type of depression with moderate physical activity, plenty of rest, and a good diet. Allow family and friends to take care of you. You don´t have to be strong. Maintain contact with persons you value. Talking with others who have been through a similar situation may help you to cope. You may even learn from them that it is okay to laugh and smile, even though this seems impossible now. If the depression does not appear to lessen over time, you may want to talk with a qualified professional who can determine how best to help you.

Often parents find themselves in a spiritual crisis and question their beliefs or feel betrayed by God. Religious concerns about the hereafter also surface. "Why did God let this happen?" is a question we can no more answer than all other questions about imperfections in this world. Talking about spiritual and philosophical questions with other parents who have experienced a suicide may be helpful. For those with concerns of a spiritual nature, do try to find a gentle, nonjudgmental member of your faith and open yourself to that person.

As a family, talk about the death with one another; discuss your loss and your pain. Talk about the good times you remember, as well as those times that were not so good. All family members will be grieving in their own manner-don´t criticize because of these differences. Remember that it is better to express feelings than to internalize them and that crying is healthy and therapeutic. You may find it helpful to write out your feelings or to write a letter to your dead child, expressing all the things you were not able to say before the death. For many, this is a good way to say good-bye. Allow friends to help. When they ask what they can do for you, don´t be afraid to tell them of your needs and what will help you. It will also help them.

Consider becoming involved with a self-help bereavement group such as The Compassionate Friends. Through sharing with others who have walked the same path, you may gain some understanding of your reactions and learn ways to cope. Seek professional help and family counseling if necessary. Give yourself time, time, and more time. It takes months, even years, to open your heart and mind to healing. Choose to survive and then be patient with yourself. In time, your grief will soften as you begin to heal, and you will feel like investing in life again.

© The Compassionate Friends, USA - All rights reserved

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This Happens to Me a Lot

In two weeks my class in the spiritual direction program will "graduate," and yesterday I had to call the program secretary about some of the details.

"You know," she said, "when you wandered in here last fall to talk about coming back, I thought, No way; I wouldn't even be able to stand up if I were you. And then ~ you did an incredible job."

"Well, those first months," I responded, " every hour or two of doing something was followed by several days in bed."

"I'm so sorry," she said, sounding somewhat startled. I suppose she had thought that if I were dressed and articulate for an hour or so at a time, I must have been like that all the time. Instead of almost never.

Other times, people have been far more negative, and told me I have "done" too much too fast. They, too, see only what they see.

What is enough? Or too much? Or nothing? It varies for each of us.
There are two families linked on this blog who have moved cross country in this past year , soon after terrible losses. That seems like a completely impossible feat to me. But I have driven the 2.5 hours to school and spent three nights there every week ~ which works for me because both here and there I spend most of my time either with people who know and shelter me well or in complete solitude. And it requires very little organization ~ none at all in comparison to a household move.

I haven't come close to acknowledging all the flowers and letters and contributions that arrived last fall. I work at it steadily for a couple of days and then I stop for a much longer period. I can't believe how much energy a short note takes. Far, far more than a 20 page research paper. I haven't even begun to deal with my son's belongings. Surrenduring his car was so traumatic that it will probably be several months more before I can open a closet.

As far as I can tell, everyone is about the same in that they deal with the concrete details of death and the getting-back-to-life erratically at best. Some things are accomplished quickly; some perhaps never. Some kinds of work one can do, and do well; some kinds are not possible. Some people almost immediately take up tasks that require considerable concentration; others can't even read trash novels ~ for years, they say. Some go to Europe; others can hardly go to the grocery. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to any of it.

I think I mentioned that I was once asked whether I have used other things as a distraction. I don't think so. (Well, maybe some things!) I do things not because they are distracting but because it seems to me that I am invited to do them, because I am part of something more than my small self. And if they help me to regain my footing and find life, then they are steps forward rather than mere distractions.

One can only focus on loss and grief for so many consecutive minutes or hours or days without going quite mad. It is life-giving rather than death denying to step forward, and and also to retreat as necessary, both in whatever measure one can. Self-awareness, I suppose, is the key.
The reality is that I cannot be distracted. I can, however, focus on some of my work, and I think that that is a good thing.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Some of the Truth

Perseid Shower (NASA)

My life, the 56 years of it I have lived so far, has been book-ended by death. To lose your mother and year-old brother when you are seven, or four, as my other brother was: that teaches you certain things about life and death and about the universe we inhabit, which is elegant and beautiful, but also chaotic and savage. To lose your own child?
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?* One cannot even figure out who to forgive. One wonders about the Perseids: a beautiful shower of stardust, or a sign of catastrophic eruption and disintegration? Both, I guess.

I have spent much of my lucid time this past year thinking about life and death, materiality and spirit, freedom and grace, unfreedom and evil. I think about how to go forward; I wonder what "going forward" means.
The Gerstenbergers, whose story appears here, are marking the two-year anniversary of the loss of their beautiful 12-year-old Katie today. The Johnsons, here, are gathering tomorrow to celebrate the 30th birthday of their beautiful Joey, gone for fifteen months. Our Lovely Daughter turns 22 on Wednesday; her brothers' 25th birthday is September 1, and the anniversary of Chicago Son's death is the next day.

Twenty-five years ago I was a little more than 38 weeks pregnant with my boys. Thirty-eight is deemed full-term for twins, so the ensuing two weeks were full of consternation for my doctors. I spent most of my time either doing my whale act in the city pool or fending off telephone calls from concerned family, who had been primed for baby-arrival for at least a month. I'm sure that the Gerstenbergers and the Johnsons, and all the other families like ours, have similar memories, of a time of such happy anticipation that it seemed nothing could ever mar the joy.
I grew up in such a family, a family shaken by the ever-present dichotomy of life, the great gift, and death, the relentless stalker.

That my mother should have died seems impossible. My mother was beautiful, and blonde, and could sing, and four people depended upon her for almost everything. That my brother should have died seems impossible. Such a deep gurgle of a laugh he had, a sound representative of the exuberance which filled our home. People who know about such things, people who do therapy or teach psychology for a living, have on occasion told me that I must have had a wonderful mother. They tell me that my own ability to create a loving home must have been nurtured in those few years in which she enveloped us in love and delight.** And it does seem, in fact, that we lived in simplicity and freedom** in those years, with sunlight streaming onto the hardwood floors of our country house and life uncomplicated by loss.

I wanted, so much, to provide such a life for my own children. I never expected to shelter them from all of life's challenges and hardships, but I wanted to protect them from the harsh reality of early death. My husband, whose parents and siblings are all alive, said to me after our son died, "I never had any idea what you were talking about." Who would want anyone to know, really? Because,
after such knowledge . . . .

*T.S. Eliot, Gerontion (1920). **Joseph Brackett, Jr., Simple Gifts (1848).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Big Difference . . .

between the memorial service this morning for a man who married in our church 50 years ago this year, whose wife is a long time Elder and Clerk of Session, whose children and grandchildren surrounded him in his final days, whose charming and poised young granddaughters read the Scriptures, and whose eulogies by daughters and pastor reflected 80 years of generosity and humor,

and the funeral service eleven months ago for a young man, our sweet son, whose adulthood was just beginning, whose own family and life achievements lay ahead of him, who died alone, and who left such sadness permeating his various communities that it seemed the church building itself might sink under the weight.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Balancing Act Continued

Summer Hebrew was an intensive eight week course: six months of Hebrew packed into two. I have no aptitude for ancient languages, but I do have a certain degree of compulsiveness and a surprising capacity for work, and so I did well.

Toward the end of the final week, I sat outside at a picnic table for awhile talking with my professor and his wife, as I often did when I returned from my early evening walk. "You seem much calmer than you did at the beginning of the summer," his wife observed.

"Well, that's partly because I finally figured out how to study and learn the material," I said, "and partly because I have come to a new place in my grief. For a long time," I continued, "you resist it, because you cannot imagine that anyone could possibly tolerate this much pain and survive. And then you realize that people do, in fact, live like this, and you begin to understand that (as a friend so wisely wrote), while the weight of the burden does not ease, you can shift it in ways that make it possible to carry."

It was clear from their expressions that they had no idea what I was talking about. I'm getting used to that.

Today we received a note from a former roommate of our son's, a delightful and creative man from Paris. It's probably been six months since I found the language for telling such startling and horrific news in the form of a letter to someone so young, and he first apologized for his delay in responding. He has been in Shanghai for the past year and one-half, he said, and his mother had left some mail, including my letter, in a pile on the hall table for him. Then he added some lovely memories about our son and expressed his desire to stay in touch.

And I thought, OK, whatever: This is not my life.

I guess that sometimes we carry things around and sometimes we just pretend that we don't.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My Family (A Gratitude Post)

Thesis Statement: I am inexpressibly grateful for my surviving family.

I practiced domestic relations law for a number of years and did a fair amount of pro bono work in juvenile court, which in our county is the place in which parental determinations in child abuse and neglect cases are made. I have no illusions about what can happen to marriages and families under stress, or about what people can do to one another out of frustration or anger or for no apparent reason at all. My husband gave me a very funny card early in our marriage and my legal career, a card which referred to what he insisted what was my naturally pessimistic nature. I used to tell him in response that my getting out of bed every morning was a sign of indeflatable optimism.

My family has been under some considerable stress for the past eleven months: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, legal. Most of us, I'm sure, don't think much about what our family and friends undergo in all realms of life as a consequence of sudden death. I remember my father talking about how, in the 1950s, no one thought of purchasing life insurance on women who were homemakers. Losing a wife when they were both 28 and being left with two small children impressed upon him the invisible but real economic value of the work performed by wives and mothers at home, as he found himself having to pay for the childcare, cooking, cleaning, laundry, transportation, shopping, and scheduling tasks that had been my mother's. I'm sure that when he ran into friends, they remarked with sympathy upon our loss, but had little awareness that his morning may have begun with a crisis due to a sick babysitter or a checkbook that would stretch no farther to cover expenses not previously considered, any more than people at seminary, concerned about assignments and tests, know that I may have begun my day with a heartwrenching email from an attorney or insurance company.

And so, I am, yes, inexpresibly grateful for the Quiet Husband and for the Gregarious Son and the Lovely Daughter, each of them steadily doing what needs to be done each day, each of them quietly supporting one another and me through both tears and smiles, through the unexpected conundrums that arise almost weekly, and through conversations no one should have to have. My husband's season as a girls' soccer coach has just begun, my son is making plans for an LSAT prep course, and my daughter has begun her Americorps orientation. I know that each of them is weighed down and disoriented by a considerable burden, but they are all looking toward the future as well as the past. It could be so much worse . . . .

I think they're all wonderful.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gratitude in the Face of Grief

Loyola Retreat House Gardens (Guelph, Ontario)

I think I'm going to do most of my blogging over here for the next few weeks.

A disjointed but nevertheless connected concoction of thoughts:

Some weeks ago I heard myself saying out loud, "I don't want to be grateful to God for anything." I knew, even as I made that statement, that it was a bad sign. It's a beginner's mantra, that gratitude is the foundation of any spiritual life, in any tradition. But I didn't take back what I said.

Of course, we are all beginners, always. Fortunately I remembered that, before I turned on myself as well as the world at large.

Then a few of the RevGals started to post ABCs of gratitude, something, or a list of somethings, every day or so. Hrrrumph, I muttered to myself, in my best imitation of Scrooge. (Actually, what I said, possibly even out loud, was something closer to an emphatically italicized and enlarged "B.S.")

Then I went on retreat. I had practically counted the minutes, all through summer Hebrew, looking longingly at pictures and imagining a respite of silence and perhaps even the company of God. And then my five days there manifested another form of desert: a parched and unsettling place in which I couldn't breathe.

And now, I can hardly look up or incline my ear without someone saying, "Almost the first anniversay." Two emails today alone: "How are you?

Well, I am OK. Since returning home, I have avoided that raw place inside, the one that simply will not be healed yet. I think I'll know when I can take another look, but this month probably isn't the time. I need something else right now, and I'm heading for the gratitude thing.

Not every day. Not alphabetically. Or poetically or literarily or musically or gracefully. Or even consistently. Just whatever I can manage.

Coming to a blog near you: Gannet's Non-Bullshit Gratitude. Photo illustrations courtesy of The Retreat that Wasn't.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2009


I came home early, a couple of days ago.

I took Purple's much-appreciated notes about spaciousness and freedom with me, but such was not to be.

I realize I have written little about my inner religious life in this blog. Perhaps someday I will. It may be the one and only thing I have to contribute to the dialogue concerning ministry to the badly wounded.

I have read a great deal about survivors of suicide in the last year, and some about those who have contended with the loss of a child, but precious little of the material is about spiritual survival. Struggles in the mental, emotional, pyschological, practical arenas ~ those are the areas most covered. In fact, one author I read commented on how mysterious it seemed to her that suicide survivors so often mention the sense of abandonment by God as one of the most prevalent features of their newly inhabited landscape ~ and then glided blithely onto the next topic.

I'll post some pictures soon. It was beautiful, up there where I was. But the silence was too silent.