Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Serve Them Tear Soup, Kids Can Handle It

Tear soup When a friend’s dog was left for dead in the dirt road that led to her mountain ranch last fall, I was the one who was on the phone with her when she found him. “Oh, there’s a dog in the middle of the road,” was her first comment with just a tinge of annoyance. The next thing I heard on the end of the line was, “Oh my God, I think it’s my dog?” Her second comment was more a statement of shock slightly tinged with fear. Her last comment came through tears. “Oh, no! Oh, no…my dog is dead. What am I going to tell Liam (her eight year old)? I’m going to have to call you back.” She hung up. I called her back and got her voicemail where I said that she could call me if she needed anything, for me to pick up her two kids, whatever. Then I got in my car and drove to the bookstore in town.

Books are one of the gifts that I have been grateful for in my life lately. Books say the things that, at times, we can’t seem to say.

I asked the women at the bookstore if they had any children’s books on grief. I had spent some of my days away from my own book manuscript working in this very bookstore, so I knew where the children’s books were, I just needed the recommendation. I needed a book that was as sensitive as Liam. I sat down and opened up the children’s book, Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss, written by Pat Schweibert, Chuck DeKlyen, and illustrated by Taylor Bills.

I read each page in the silence that bookstores so effortlessly provide, with only the sound of the pages turning to disturb me from the beauty of the words written on each page. When I got to this passage, I had to catch my own tears from smudging the ink.

“Grandy found that most people can tolerate only a cup of someone else’s tear soup. The giant bowl, where Grandy could repeatedly share her sadness in great detail, was left for a few willing friends.”

I paid for the book and angled it against my friend’s art studio door that she would find later to read to her son. The next day she called me and thanked me for the book, telling me that she and Liam were able to talk a lot more easily about his dog’s death once they had sat through one reading of Tear Soup. I made a mental note to buy myself a copy in case I would need it in the future.

Three months later I did.


“I feel like I’m unraveling.” Grandy cried. “I’m mad. I’m confused. I can’t make any decisions. Nobody can make me feel good. I’m a mess. I just didn’t realize it would be this hard.”

My oldest sister was fourth in line behind my other sister, my mom and my dad of who I told over the phone of my boyfriend’s suicide. She was the sister who had recognized the summer before that I may be in over my head in this relationship and spoke to me from the wisdom of her forty years. I had listened to her while we stood facing each other on the back steps of the little one room bakery in town, but I stared at my feet instead of her eyes that were the same color blue as mine.

“Amanda, you cannot be responsible for his happiness. I’m telling you, it won’t get any easier if this kind of stuff is coming up now.” She had witnessed my boyfriend blaming me for the sale of his house which he had put on the market a year before. She was right, it was hard to hear, and I loved him too much underneath the ridiculousness of his blame to leave. But a month later, when I left for a trip out of the country, I decided to voice my concern and take a break from the relationship while I traveled abroad. Then when I returned we were good again, so I stayed. This was the beginning of a year-long pattern, but really it was an extension of a pattern that was there from the beginning. He was down, I was down. He was up, I was up. I decided my emotions according to his and my gut knew it wasn’t right, but my heart was too attached. Because when it was good, it was so good, but when it was bad, I knew I deserved better.

When I left the last time, knowing that I would go down with him if I stayed, I had to do everything I could not to go back. We were mirror reflections of one another. We were soul mates. We had been placed in this lifetime to teach each other the hard lessons that might help us evolve if we were willing to work them out. But in the reflection was more pain than either of us could handle. I know this now.

When he killed himself I reached for my copy of Tear Soup.

My oldest sister was the first one to offer that after the memorial service I come be with her and her family. I booked my reservation that day. A week later over the phone she said to me, “We’re not going to tell the kids about Bryce. We’re just telling them that you guys broke up since they just went through the death of Wanda.” I understood that the kids had gone through the death of their grandmother just a month before, but I wondered what kind of lesson was being taught to their kids if they covered up the reality of life’s journey from them. I understood not telling them about suicide. I imagined there was a certain age to reach before such a conversation, but the fact was that I would have to lie if the moment presented itself. This put me over the edge, but I didn’t have the energy to take on the fact that this didn’t seem right and change it according to my wishes. How could I visit them for a week, just a month after his suicide, and pretend that Bryce had just become my ex-boyfriend? How could I turn the tears of devastation and shuffles of my tired feet into something like a break-up? But instead I kept silent and made a mental note that when I would have my own kids, we would talk about everything.

I arrived at their house after the memorial service exhausted on a snowy night. Though my sister picked me up, we talked in monotone, and it was my brother-in-law in the front doorway who asked me the one question I still crave everyday. “How are you doing?” I stood in my hat, gloves and coat and fell into his hug. I let go of the tears and lies that I felt I had needed to hide. I was learning that a good cry was a much-needed release. I started to crave a good cry as I did the very answers to the questions that would prompt it. While I cried into his shoulder, I looked over at my niece and nephews who watched me while their eyes darted back and forth in discomfort. I wondered if they now knew.

We sat down for dinner moments later and held hands for grace. My sister started. “Why don’t we each share something good that happened to us today?” I couldn’t believe the words coming from her mouth. Did she really think I would have something good to report? My eight-year old nephew was the middle child of the three, the one who always surprised us with comments to remind us of his sensitivity, so he spoke up. “I have an idea. Why don’t we say something nice?” My brother-in-law responded. “Okay, Ethan, why don’t you start?”

We lowered our heads. “Dear God,” Ethan said as I peeked to see his eyes closed while he spoke. “Please take care of Bryce in heaven.” The tears fell down my cheeks as I squeezed Ethan’s hand hard and smiled at him. My brother-in-law whispered, “From the mouths of babes,” and looked at me with his own tears and a smile.

“She sensed that people in church believed that if she really had faith she would be spared deep sorrow, anger and loneliness. Grandy kept reminding herself to be grateful for ALL the emotions that God had given her.”

When the kids were excused from the table to do their post-dinner activities, my sister, brother-in-law and I sat at the dining room table to finally reconnect. My sister told me that they had stuck to the idea of not telling the kids until the kids had broached the subject on their own.

“On Sunday after church we told the kids that you were coming for a visit. And then Christopher (the oldest of the three kids) said, “Is Bryce coming?” That’s when we knew we couldn’t lie. So we told them.” I held my hands together at my mouth hanging on her every word, wondering if the kids had asked how he died, wondering if they had told them. “We didn’t tell them it was suicide.”

My six year old niece, Katherine, directed me in her room as we got ready for bed. “I always sleep on the top bunk, so you can sleep down there,” she pointed to her bottom bunk. “Sounds good to me,” I said to bring calm within a room that had been attacked by toys. She curled up with her stuffed animals on her top bunk, while I moved all of her pink and lavender blankets to get into the bottom bunk.

We lay still in our bunks.

“Can you talk in heaven?” Katherine said from above. “Yes,” I said. “I think you can.”

“Is dog heaven next to human heaven?” I could picture her twirling the ear on her stuffed animal bunny above me as she pondered such honest questions. “I think it is right next door,” I answered.

The week before, I had fretted about how I might answer such questions when they came, but the answers were simple when the questions asked were so real.

A few nights later, after I had had some time to bond and hug and get to know my niece and nephews outside of the few times I saw them each year, I had my laptop idling on their living room chair. Katherine and I were sitting on the floor playing the card game Memory. She giggled after beating me two times, and then she caught out of the corner of her eye a photo that flashed on the screen from my photo screensaver. It was a group shot of Bryce, me and the three kids when we had visited last spring.

She looked me right in the eye.
“You know, I cried today at school because four people who are close to me died.”
I could only account for two, her Grandma Wanda and Bryce, but I also realized that with how heavy and sad it was in the air, I, too, felt the weight of four deaths.
“I want to see more photos of us,” she said.
“Okay,” I smiled.
It was rare for anyone to ask to see my photos. I had to dig through the photos that I had separated out into my “Bryce” folder, the folder I had created in those early days after his suicide because I couldn’t handle seeing his face pop up on my screen after my laptop lay dormant for five minutes. I opened up the folder that held more of the photos from our time that visit and began talking openly about Bryce.

“Remember this walk?” I said. “When I took all of those silly pictures of you on the swing set?” Katherine giggled. “Yeah, that was fun.” Then she did that thing that I used to do at her age, ask those questions that were wiser than her years.

“Why did Bryce die?”

I wasn’t totally sure of the answer to give a six year old, or the reason as to why he died either, and I thought of one of the last things Bryce had said to me before I had left the relationship, “Promise me that you won’t ever put me into a box?” he had said. I had to tell her something other than suicide. I had to be honest, but suicide was too young for her brain to comprehend, not to mention the nightmares it might create. So I did the best with what I had.

“Bryce had a disease in his brain that made him sick.”

“What’s the disease?” she said.

“It’s called mental illness.”

As we sat back on the floor to begin our next game of Memory, I wondered if I had just put Bryce in the very box that he had asked me to keep him out of.

“There were no words that could describe the pain she was feeling. What’s more, when she looked out the window it surprised her to see how the rest of the world was going on as usual while her world had stopped.”

I left my sister’s house and realized how proud I was, how I handled the secret of suicide by being open with her children regarding death. I was taking the time to be with my feelings, and to be honest with them by sharing what felt appropriate at the time. My mom visited them last week and told me that Katherine had talked to her about our time in February.

“Aunt Amanda was really sad when she was here,” she said. My initial reaction when I heard this from my mom was to worry, but then I realized that children also need to see sadness, and how fortunate we would both be when I would see her again this coming July for my dad’s 70th birthday. Then she would see that each day since the last I had grown a little less sad.

“As soon as Grandy tasted the rich flavor of that carefully made soup, she promised herself never again to assume that quicker was better.”

When I got back home I flipped through my copy of Tear Soup. I came to the page that was just an illustration. Drawn were three pots with the words “Profound loss”, “Major tragedy” and “More than I can bear”. Above the pots were spoons hanging from the wall to stir the tear soup that Grandy had made. Above the hanging spoons was a shelf with cookbooks leaning against each other with poignant titles. The first book was entitled, “Murder,” which surprised me. As I turned my head to read the spines of all of the books, I read, “House Fire,” which I had had my freshman year in college when two guys arsoned my dorm room, then “Divorce,” which I had experienced twice in my childhood, and next was “Flunked Geometry,” which reminded me of the D grade I had received in Statistics. After reading all of the titles, I realized that grief and tears were around more often than we adults cared to admit. Then, at the tippy-top, above “Infertility” and “Spouse Died,” was the book of “Suicide”.

I shut Tear Soup and decided to keep it within arm’s reach for that day when we might have to stir our own batch of tear soup.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Tiny Bits of Kindness

One of the things that has happened since my boyfriend’s suicide is that I’m carrying the burden of not only my own skeletons, but the skeletons that he left behind. It’s a heavy burden to bear and I’m constantly reminded while I navigate this grief how it’s really a two steps forward, three steps back process. This grief, in particular, leaves a series of stones that need to be turned over with the contents beneath it inspected carefully. Especially if you’re someone like me who already moves through life trying to find answers to some of life’s most perplexing questions. It’s also very easy to reach a place prematurely where I’ve thought, “Wow, I’m doing okay today (or this week),” as I’ll seem to manage myself at work and go a week or two where I haven’t had “the conversation” (the one where I talk about it with a stranger or a friend). There are the days where I feel okay or I think to myself, “Am I really moving on with my life?” Which I am, but it isn’t something that happens overnight, and I tend to be the type who enjoys being productive in regards to my own healing. Then there are the days where I wish I could just stand in the middle of my office and scream at the top of my lungs “This is what’s going on with me! And will someone take a moment to stop and listen?” But while I’m burdened, do I really want to burden others? And the more important question becomes, “Why do I feel like I would be a burden?”

But I already know that answer.

If I lived in Indonesia, where I have traveled, the men would be getting their teeth filed come July in preparation for the month-long cremations in August. As a culture, we’d have time to look forward to the time when we, as a society, were going to deal with death as a whole. But unfortunately for me (and trust me, I’ve traveled enough to know that I’m fortunate to be an American), I live in a culture who would rather exploit death through images and movies than talk about it. Death is a downer. And suicide? It’s a secret. I still find myself whispering when a girlfriend and I talk about it over chips and guacamole at lunch at the Ferry Building here in San Francisco. But then I get angry that I feel like I have to do that, so while I’m on the bus, I pull out the book my therapist just leant me by the Father of Suicide himself, Edwin Shneidman, entitled, Suicide as Psychache: A Clinical Approach to Self-Destructive Behavior and slyly peer at other bus riders to witness their reaction. I guess it’s my own way of seeing if anyone will notice, or even better, start a conversation. It’s also my way of flicking my society off for being so scared to and of death.

And no matter how much my friends and family wanted to be there for me, they hadn’t walked in my shoes. They weren’t still plagued with the questions. They have gone on with their lives. They don’t think about this suicide or are touched by it quite like me. But once in awhile, I’ll be reminded as to how good other people can be in the wake of such tragedy. People will exemplify the best of humanity. It’s these moments that keep me going through this.

Last night was a tough one for me. I went to see my Suicidology therapist. She’s studied Suicidology for over thirty years and is doing a great job educating me on mental illness, medication, depression and what stuff I need to look at and what stuff appears to have been out of my control. At times, I feel like the college student I wish I had been, questioning her for answers in a realm where I never thought I’d roam. It was also a session where I let out one of the many secrets that I am still holding. The intimate moments between my partner and me where we sat and cried and each wondered to ourselves, or aloud, “What the hell is happening here?” I told her about the last time I saw my partner, how he crotched down on the front porch of my apartment and just cried. How I just sat there DYING to reach out and hug him and take him and tell him I would make it all okay, but knew that I had done all that I could do for too long of a time. It was the first time in a long time where he told me, “You look so beautiful.” I wondered why it had taken him years to be able to say that to me. Why it took hitting rock bottom for that thought to be shared, for when I ever asked to hear that, to get a clue as to if he ever felt I looked pretty, he said it came off as me being needy.

The tears came in drops, then they came as waterfalls, and the emotions that I had thought had been worked through bubbled to the surface like the geothermal land we had lived near which is always waiting to erupt.

“I guess I still have a lot of emotion. I don’t think I’ve shared that with anyone.”

I surprised myself. Here I was, an open book, who would say to my friends, “No, please, ask me questions and if I feel up to it, I’ll answer.” This would eventually lead to, “Ask me anything, please,” once I felt safe enough.

My therapy session came to an end. I walked to the bus stop and waited for the bus to take me to Benihana where I would be meeting three of my girlfriends for dinner. We had planned the dinner months ago, with Benihana having a celebratory effect on us all. We had traded cute emails about how excited we were to order Rocky’s Choice, or to get that first taste of soy sauce. And for the salad with that special dressing. My boyfriend also happened to have thought that Benihana had the best Green Tea ice cream he ever tasted. I agreed.

I called one of my friends. I wasn’t sure I could make it.

She was her soft, kind self. She offered to reschedule. She offered for us to just order in.

“No,” I said. “I’ve been waiting for Benihana for a month. I’m just calling to warn you and the troops that I’m not doing very well.” She was soft and told me not to worry. It felt good to do this lately, warn people when I felt like a wreck so that they could prepare or opt out before I did. Then a large African-American man pulled up in a Nissan 300x with the T-top off. He had an eighties Mohawk, smoked a cigarette and was blasting Lionel Ritchie’s “Penny Lover”. It made me smile and realized that I had to go, if only to tell this scene to one of my friends I was meeting.

I got to the restaurant before them and ordered a glass of red wine (though I haden’t been drinking lately since it usually just made me feel more depressed than I may or may not have been). They came in happy and buzzing from their earlier rendezvous with their own wine. We went to the community table awaiting our succulent shrimp and smoking onion volcano trick by the chef. All of the Benihana chefs are now Latino, a change from the Japanese chefs from ten years ago (many of us had been going to Benihana since we were little). So we cracked jokes, calling our table chef “Alejandro-san”. I was laughing within moments, and it wasn’t because of the one glass of wine.

My friends, one-on-one, have been there for me to talk about the suicide. Some have been amazing, while others have, at times, disappointed me with their ignorance. But for the most part they have been great big ears for listening and thumping hearts that care. And many times, like life, they have surprised me.

This was one of those times.

One of my friends said, “Is it time to give Amanda our presents?” And they all giggled like little girls and shuffled their hands into their pockets and purses. “Yes!” the other two chimed in unison.

“What?” One of the friend’s birthdays was next week, so I didn’t understand. “Why me?”

“Sit here.” They moved me around to sit in the middle of them. I looked around at the hundred or so people now filling the community tables at a very public Benihana.

My first friend took the humorous, yet sweet, approach, and read from a piece of paper.

Haiku for Amanda

An old friend of mine
She knows how much we love her
Let love lift her up

Then she recited another...

To be Amanda

One must first dream then act out.
Small but strong she grows.

Another poem was written on a card by my second friend...

Let your heart be true.
Let your eyes be open.
Relish the rain and sun.
Forgiveness is our road to true compassion.
Love yourself.
Honor all.

Then she followed it with one of her favorite quotes...

“Peace is every step.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

Finally, she handed me a pink crystal rock. “This is your gratitude rock,” she said. I looked at the strangers looking at us from the next table and started to cry.

The third friend opened up a poetry book from the 1940’s that she had picked up at a garage sale after skimming through it and read the following.

Giving and Forgiving

What makes life worth the living
Is our giving and forgiving;
Giving tiny bits of kindness
That will leave a joy behind us,
And forgiving bitter trifles
That the right word often stifles,
For the little things are bigger
Than we often stop to figure.
What makes life worth the living
Is our giving and forgiving.

-Thomas Grant Springer

“When you called we knew we had to do something,” she continued. “So we said, ‘Okay! We have fifteen minutes to do something for her’ and we broke to our separate corners and came up with these.”

I sat in awe. I was in the presence of tiny bits of kindness, which were around me all of the time, just waiting for me to admit that I couldn't do it alone.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Surviving Trauma: How the Suicide Support Group Saved My Life

When I got the news that my boyfriend killed himself on a rainy morning three months ago, I experienced shock for the first time in my life. I walked around not knowing what to do with myself. Once some time, screams and tears had passed, I took some deep breaths, calmed myself, and then sat down at my laptop to google “San Francisco suicide support groups”. I was acting on instinct because it occurred to me that I had finally come up against something in my life that was larger than me, something that I couldn’t handle all on my own. I needed the direction of professionals, of those who had been there before me, of others who, perhaps, were receiving the same news that same week, or even, in that very same moment.

When I could focus on the screen between tears, I found statistics that were staggering. Suicide ranked as the 11th cause of death, while homicide, which we see constantly on TV and read about in the newspaper at least one time every day, ranks 15th. One person every 16.2 minutes kills themselves and white males lead the percentages. Every suicide left at least six bereaved friends and family members, so I did the math, and that equaled 180,000 people who were affected each year by such trauma. San Francisco Suicide Prevention was the oldest volunteer crisis line in the United States and their newest program was their Survivors Group, a weekly group for the surviving family and friends. I picked up the phone.

My head started running through a case of the “shoulds”. I had left our relationship a few months before as an act of self-care. I say this to myself to this day because it’s the only thing that keeps me from feeling the guilt around the “shoulds”. It’s the “shoulds” that are always there for the taking. There’s the “I should have known” or “I shouldn’t have said that”. The “I should have done this” and “I should have done that”. The problem with the “shoulds” were that they lead me nowhere safe. They lead me nowhere where I could gain understanding, faith, forgiveness or peace. Our society wants to blame and I want to blame, it’s part of the process in trying to find answers around suicide. But I had done all that I could with what I knew how. And the reality was that now my boyfriend was out of his pain, a deep knowing said this to me, that now he was in peace. He had to be, because he had been struggling so much there at the end.

In our conversations those weeks before he took his life, I kept guiding him back to the professionals who surrounded him. I’m not clear as to how much help he sought out after our conversations from those professionals, or if these professionals could help like they “should” have. I may never get answers to those questions because there is so much secrecy behind depression and suicide. Mental health patient records are private, suicide is spoken in whispers, and depression has become more about marketing. So the question I went to after all of the harmful “shoulds”, was whether I could find some peace for myself. Though my boyfriend had to have been in far more pain to choose to take his own life, I was left to live out his pain. And if I wanted peace, the only way I would find it was to talk it out with others. With those people who also knew this pain. I dialed the number.

What followed were eight weeks of hour and a half sessions on Monday nights. There were eight of us. Five of us had lost our partners, the ones we had loved for many years. Three of us had left our relationships out of self-care, so in this first session I already saw how I wasn’t alone. There were two other women whose partners had acted the same as mine had in our last six months of our relationships. The others’ partners had all had childhood trauma. Every single one of us in the room was known in our families and groups of friends as the one who was nice to everyone. We were the ones who let things roll off our backs. We were open and friendly. We resolved conflict. We were the ones who quietly pushed when our partners wouldn’t agree to seek help. We were the loyal partners who kept their secrets. We were the ones left behind to now tell their stories which started to sound exactly the same, minus the manners in which they chose to take their lives.

In those first weeks there were tears. Lots of them. It was embarrassing at first, even for those of us women in the group who may have been used to sharing tears. But over time, the brother who found the courage to admit he wanted to change careers and become a comedian, even he shed some tears. His brother had done it at his family home. Then there was the man whose partner of fifteen years had left his note at the Golden Gate Bridge, had been picked up in his car, and then still managed to do his deed while in the hospital. I looked into the women’s eyes that had to find their partners after the act and realized that no matter how much hurt we shared, I had gained some perspective already. It had been two months, and I was happily off the Xanax and whatever else my friends had given to me which they had snuck back as over-the-counter drugs from Mexico or Thailand. These women had to leave their apartments so that they wouldn’t have to replay the trauma of their discoveries. We shared tears and trauma and pain, but I would only have a visual to imagine, not the actual memory of the act. My compassion for others, which I thought I had lost forever, started to grow.

In the latter weeks the comparisons started to end. Those who were further ahead on the healing path told the rest of us that they understood how we felt. “Oh, that will pass,” they said. “That’s where I was a month ago, too. Don’t worry.” We became beacons for one another. I shared how I would write about this and shared the ten or so books I had already stormed through in order to gain some understanding into my boyfriend’s suffering. Others shared their successes, in how they were now handling people and situations differently than they would have in the past. We had sessions where the collective emotion was anger. In another session all we could do was congratulate each other and laugh. The migraines that I brought into each session and left with every time started to dissipate. We all agreed how we hated missing even just one session as it stunted our well-being for that week. And when the time was right at about the sixth week, we started to ask for recommendations for individual therapists. I was hell-bent on finding a therapist who was an expert on suicide and so I found one. She was a woman who taught Suicidology, the research of suicide and everyone who is affected. She charged a fraction of what my past therapist had charged me and as she put it during our first session, “No one should feel they have to skimp on therapy because they can’t afford it.” We made appointments for once a week.

The group has ended, and my individual sessions have begun. I still have so many questions which may never have solid answers. Like if there are more suicides than homicides, then why is the latter more fixated on in our culture? Why is there so much ignorance surrounding depression? Why are people scared to speak up and ask for help? Would this be the worst I’d ever have to experience in my life and was that up to me? But no matter what, I know that even if I don’t find all of the answers, I had a group that walked me through the initial storm. I have their phone numbers stored in my phone so that I can call one person or eight who know exactly how I feel. And we’re meeting for dinner in a couple of weeks. We’ve continued our support group online where we can chat and post photos of us with our loved ones. And I finally have a new therapist who can talk about one of the most taboo subjects that I have ever encountered. If it weren’t for all of them, I’m not sure I would have been able to call myself a survivor, or understand that surviving is sometimes the most important lesson we’ll ever get to learn.