Thursday, October 27, 2011

Collaborative Grieving: Many Voices Building Hope in The Spoken Coast Project

One of the gifts that has come out of my grief is the concept I've called collaborative grieving. I think of collaborative grieving as the opposite of isolation in our grief process. While the unspoken message in our society is that grief is something to process in private, outside of work hours, and as quickly as possible to return to someone's version of normal, I chose the opposite. I grieved out loud, in public, in workshops, with strangers, and now I feel free of my suffering because I had to do so.

In the rest of the world, collaborative grieving is ingrained in ritual and in culture. When I traveled alone through Asia for two years in 2000, I discovered grief was a part of daily life. There grief is not something to fear, or quieted to exist merely in life's shadows. Death and grief happen in community - and it is shared and processed out in the open among its members. In Indonesia on the island of Bali, processing death even has its own month - August - where villagers have their teeth filed, the dead body wrapped in a white sheet is placed on an altar to be carried by its community, and the body burns while its ashes float over loved ones into the tropical air. When I stumbled on this ritual during the month my parents visited me on the road, my father became uncomfortable - frustrated even - while I had to remind myself not to stick out my tongue, as if catching flakes of snow. I like to think that moment was my personal foreshadowing, as to how I might arrive at my personal place of comfort with death.

But being in Asia didn't bring me to collaborative grieving, or to sit on my comfortable cushion with death. It just gave me a glimpse into the concept. I had to struggle and grieve myself - and bring what I was experiencing after my boyfriend's suicide into my community - in order to find solace.

Insert The Spoken Coast Project.

I met Marissa Krupa, the creator of The Spoken Coast Project, shortly after Bryce's suicide. She most likely knew me as the girl in a heap of emotions who cried out my sorrow to strangers. Fortunately, I was able to return that gift of listening when she learned that her mother, and her brother, were both diagnosed with late stage cancers. Marissa went through her own grieving process - and continues to do so - through her project. Her brother, Mickey, unfortunately died early this year. But the way her community failed her in her grieving process prompted Marissa to look at her own life, and to make the necessary changes in order to honor Mickey's life as well as her own. She was laid off from her job, but she chose to leave the corporate sector that abandoned her to properly grieve her brother and find her own hope. How is she doing that? By climbing every peak Mickey climbed - from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. She is feeling all of her feelings, as well as interviewing people about their own grieving process between each climb.

Marissa interviewed me this summer, and what arose from the ashes in my interview - and in all of the people she has interviewed in her path - was this trailer to introduce her project. It's about a fifteen minute film. And it's about death. But most importantly, it's about how we think we are grieving as individuals, but it's our collaborative grieving that creates the healing we have worked so hard to live with today. Please watch and enjoy. And if you are so inspired, please donate some dollars or some airline miles to her project so that Marissa can continue this very important work. She needs it. I needed it. America certainly needs it. And I imagine - that one day - you will need it too.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Real Prescription for Healing Your Loss

How in the hell do I survive my loved one's suicide?

I'm often emailed and asked this question by friends, friends of friends, and just last week, from a woman in South America who lost her boyfriend and found my story in The Courage Companion: How to Live Life With True Power. Near and far, we are all reaching out for someone to help us navigate this traumatic loss.

I decided that the research, grief work, and learnings from my boyfriend's suicide five years ago is necessary for me to share with all of you. Not only because doing this all cleaned my slate to start anew, but because my grief allowed me to seek out diverse methods for healing fully in all areas of my life, and to come up with a real prescription for what I believe might just work for many of us left in the wake of suicide. To be honest, there is also a selfish incentive to sharing what I've learned with other survivors. Each time I share what I've learned, I get to watch myself heal and grow even further. It allows me to chart my progress and then take what I've learned to support others along this trecherous path.

Before I launch into what a magazine would probably title, Top Eight Ways to Heal Your Loved One's Suicide, I want to say that I am so sorry for your loss. I truly mean that. If you are here, this may be the first time that one person can say to you, "I know exactly how you feel," and really mean it. It is the first time in my life when I've felt 100% aligned with others (survivors, that is) and the first time in my life when I've felt I truly belonged (even when I didn't want to). No one should have to experience the level of guilt, shame, anger, confusion, and trauma that comes with the messy package that is suicide. But what I have learned in just five years is that if you take the time to process your grief fully, go into the trauma instead of treating it as just another aversion, and care for your heart as if it's the sweetest guest in your house, then the possibility to grow and expand and become more compassionate in this lifetime is more available to you.

What I've learned for myself after Bryce's suicide is that suicide is incrementally painful for three reasons:

1) it is shocking and often unexpected, even if we happen to later see that the signs were possibly there;

2) often our peers don't have the tools to talk about it with us because our society doesn't;

3) it's a stigma death, one that's unnecessarily loaded with shame and guilt in our world culture.

I have had to work very hard to move through all of the above. But the only way out is through, and through has now become a purpose in my life, to help others navigate suicide as I did. This way, we can rid ourselves of the shame and the stigma, and then educate ourselves so that no one has to suffer beyond the loved one we lost who suffered too much already. We may only have one life, so let's save ourselves while we're living it.

Here is my prescription for how to survive after a loved one's suicide:

1) Join a Suicide Support Group - it doesn't matter how far or close you were to the person who took their life, suicide has a profound ripple effect. Suicide Support Groups (which I trained to lead and will begin next year) can be found through AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) here and through the American Association on Suicidology here. They both have incredible resource pages, as well. I did my suicide support group with San Francisco Suicide Prevention and they list their groups here. Being in a suicide support group or grief group gives you a community of people who are going what you are going through, so they understand your pain and they are the people you can talk to about all that you are feeling. They are the only people I can go to to talk about suicide, fully, even today. They are the only ones I feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of my loss, of the trauma, of the secrets that died in the shame. In fact, I had brunch with four people from my suicide group last month and it continues to help process our grief today. A suicide support group is grounding, it is safe, and it is necessary. Studies prove this fact.

2) Process your grief fully - I also did a grief group that had a mindfulness focus because the eight week suicide support group had not been enough. I feel grateful that I had seven years of meditation practice under my belt when Bryce took his life, and as I was comfortable with the topic of death from my meditation practice, the Zen Center where I live in San Francisco offered exactly what I needed in a mindfulness-based grief group. Help yourself by giving yourself the time to process the grief, no matter how long it takes. Many people will expect it *should* take you less time than it actually does. I have learned that often that is because they may be uncomfortable with their own ideas around death, or because your grief is too much for them. Let that stay with them, you have enough to deal with at this time.

During my loss, I had to teach myself and educate my peers by pulling back, hunkering down, saying no to outings, and to the needs of others upon me. Saying "No" taught me my limitations during my grief, and by doing so, I magically taught them that grief is personal and grief takes time. When I was soft with myself, others were softer towards me. It also taught my friends and family how to be with me during the grief years.

3) After you've helped yourself, help others - Early on in my meditation practice I realized that doing service always deepened my compassion. But I have found this to be particularly true with suicide prevention. This came much later down the road, after a few years, when I had worked through my grief quite a bit. How I did that is the following: 

-Zen Hospice Project —where I worked for the last year as Volunteer Coordinator & serve as a Volunteer Caregiver at the bedside one day a week—was where I eventually landed to lean in toward death in order to heal my grief. This is not recommended in the first year from your loss, but can be an incredible act of service to another and to oneself when the time feels right.
There I learned by watching family members and residents that when we don't fully process the grief that happens throughout our lives, it shows up in our bodies, in our minds, in how we relate to our loved ones, and to others in our current day-to-day life.

-Overnight Walk & Community Walks with AFSP - these are healing opportunities to gather with other survivors and honor your loved one by walking overnight through cities in America. I did mine in New York City years ago and will never experience the camraderie and hope I felt gathered with other survivors as we made our way through all of Manhattan and Brooklyn in the middle of the night to great sunrise.

-AFSP's Suicide Support Group Facilitator Training - trains survivors to lead a suicide support group. I took the training and found that my own support group was invaluable, as mentioned above.

-Volunteering as an adult facilitator with Challenge Day - I was drawn to this work when I saw it on Oprah just after Bryce's suicide. As a volunteer adult facilitator, I join the organization when they go into middle schools and high schools and teach teens how to break down the barriers, the bullying, and talk to us about anything. Often they talk to us about their pain, their cutting, and their suicidal thoughts. For teens, these actions are often an extension of what is going on at home, on top of the pressure & bullying they now have in schools. It allowed me to learn how to be with teens and heal what Bryce first experienced as a teen himself.

4) Therapy and 12-Step family groups - I realized after my two grief groups that it wasn't enough. I still needed to talk out the trauma and the pain. I asked for recommendations in the field and sought out a suicidologist. The therapist I found taught suicidology to graduate students and had worked with survivors for years. She knew exactly the level of pain I had suffered and was a wealth of information. This one-on-one relationship was invaluable. When I finished my time with her (she had come out of retirement to work with me), I leaned heavily on Al-Anon, a 12-Step program for family members of alcoholics. People often assume that Bryce suffered from addiction when I am in "the rooms" (a term they use in 12-step regarding meetings), but this was not the case. What I did learn, through the opportunity of tracing the lineage of my desire to be with him while at a 12-Step based rehab treatment facility for a family member the summer after Bryce died, was that I survived too many codependent relationships. I needed to learn to live my life anew, and this time with the knowledge of recovering from the effects of the family disease of alcoholism, along with the support of others doing the same.

5) Grief workshops - One day I mistyped my blog address and magically landed on Nancee Sobonya's website for her documentary, The Gifts of Grief. Nancee and I both came to the conclusion that there are gifts in grief if we allow ourselves to process our grief in order to find them. I highly recommend the film and her subsequent workshops.

6) Create a ritual - Ritual around death is severely lacking in our culture. I feel fortunate enough to live in the Mission district of San Francisco where the Latin culture celebrates Dia de Los Muertos. Bryce's birthday is November 1st, and every year on his birthday or the day after Dia de Los Muertos arrives in my neighborhood. I join other mourners and walk the city by candlelight in a procession that leads us to altars that people in the community have created to honor their loved ones they have lost. It is an incredibly healing night for me. If you don't have access to such celebrations, lighting a candle to honor your loved one on their birthday-or doing something kind for yourself to honor your loved one on their death day-is incredibly healing. This year on the anniversary of Bryce's suicide, I took a bit of his ashes out to the beach and sprinkled him out there. How I received his ashes four years ago was a surreal experience, but I have vowed that since Bryce and I loved to travel the world together, I will take a little bit of his ashes whenever I go to places where he never went. 

7) Trim the Fat - One thing I learned very early on was who I could and could not spend time with after the suicide. Some of my friends were very angry at what Bryce "did to me" and voiced their opinions, sometimes too honestly. Other friends had an ingrained sense in them to just listen, as much as possible, whenever I needed it. Guess which friends I ended up spending more time with after the suicide? Bingo. There are some friends that require more than we have to give on any given day. These were the friends that I knew I couldn't spend much time with, if only because all of my extra energy (of which I had little) was spent tending to my grief. I made sure to let people know how I was feeling at all times and made no promises that I couldn't keep.

8) Read, read, and then read some more - Some of my best understanding as to why people die by suicide was by reading books on those who have researched the topic, and by those who have survived a loss themselves. Below are the most helpful books I read on grief, death, & suicide. And there is a whole stack on my bed stand that I have the rest of my life to read. I often feel that homicide and suicide are so similar because they are the most unexpected ways to die, leaving survivors behind to pick up their pieces. Remember, your life may feel it's in pieces now, but I can assure you that will evolve over time if you tend to your grief. Hold those pieces with tremendous care - the pieces of your broken heart - and eventually, once put back together, the hole in your heart can be filled with new love and a new life.

Recommended books on death: 

The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion is an articulate writer and this won the National Book Award. It's a stunning portrait into losing your partner and what you have to face. 

Angel Catcher: A Journal of Loss and Remembrance - this journal written by a mother-daughter team who lost their son doing aid work for the UN in Africa is perfectly scripted to help you journal your loss and remember the details your loved one left behind for you. Fill it out so you don't forget. Read it later to chart your progress.

Tear Soup - this book is simple, kind, and it's perfect for kids. Or it's perfect for you when the heavy reading is just too much. I wrote an article for a magazine where I was staff writer entitled, "Serve Them Tear Soup, Kids Can Handle It", about how I discovered this sweet book and how deep inside me I somehow just knew how to talk to kids about suicide and death. Keep it simple. Kids do.

Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death - this was helpful regarding the trauma we face as humans when looking death squarely in the face. 

On Death & Dying - the bible on death by Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross

Half a Life - Darin Strauss' memoir about a tragic accident describes perfectly what life can be like while living it with unanswerable questions.

Recommended books specifically on suicide:

Touched by Suicide: Hope and Healing After Loss


No Time To Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One - Carla Fine does a *fine* job navigating the intricacies of losing your partner to suicide.

Why People Die By Suicide - a son who's father killed himself, so he became a suicidologist and wrote the best book that explained suicide in concrete terms for me.

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide 


An Unquiet Mind both by Kay Redfield Jamison - she stuggles with depression herself, is on staff at Johns Hopkins Medical School, and is also on the AFSP Board in NYC. She knows her subject matter deeply and lives with it everyday.

I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression - this book put the pieces together for me regarding men and suicide and insight to untreated early childhood trauma and how it can lead to depression later in life.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron - he was a master in his time to write about his depression.

Go into your grief,
for there your soul will grow.
                                            - Carl Jung

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Courage to Prevent

As I wrote a few months back, a fellow Litquake committee member published her recent book, The Courage Companion: How to Live Life with True Power. which profiled my story of courage as one of the chapters. Insert The Voice of America, which broadcasts to 125 million people around the world and decided to do a story on the book and interview three of its contributors. I was happily one of them. You can read the story while listening to its broadcast on The Voice of America website here. And if you're so inspired, leave a comment on my blog about your own act of courage, comments are what I look forward to after sharing a story or two.
One of the things you try to do as a writer while pounding away solo at the keyboard for days (or waking up grateful for jet lag that book themes, stories, and ideas are racing through your head), is get yourself some press. I'm lucky to have lived in San Francisco long enough to make nicey-nice with fellow writers, that once in awhile, press happens.