“What if we joined our sorrows? What if that is joy?”Ross Gay, American poet
On the first Saturday of October, I met with team WALK ON, and we wandered together on Mt. Tabor, a wooded park in Portland, Oregon. A dormant volcano, this seemed a perfect place to offer our final efforts toward raising awareness and funds toward suicide prevention and support for survivors.
Although the official and annual OUT OF THE DARKNESS walk was cancelled (due to Covid-19) our team of six decided to gather. The morning was autumn-warm and sunny.
After walking for a while, we found a glowing spot on the mountain and sat for a simple ceremony. We each shared the WHY of our efforts toward this cause. As team captain (instigator!) I told my story and was deeply moved to hear my friends share their reason for taking part—and helping to raise a lot more money than I’d set as our goal.
My reason for getting involved was a stumbling. I had begun to research. I want to write a novel about a kid who loses a loved-one to suicide and struggles to feel safe and connected and eventually finds strength through connection. My research lead to AFSP—the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
When I was 8 years-old and not yet healed from a childhood illness, I came home from school one day to find my father’s dear friend lying dead atop his blue Chevrolet, in our garage. The man had come from Georgia to live with us. I now understand why: My father hoped to help John to want to live. For I don’t know how many months, he lived in that basement bedroom.
It was horrible, and it tore through my family’s life, forever silent. Even today–almost five decades later–my father won’t talk with me about what happened or the aftermath. No one talked about it then though at some point they sent me to a shrink who I refused to talk with about anything.
Our pets died, probably without pain, sprawled on the couch. Maybe my dog, Buttons, breathed his final breaths on the pillow of my bed. He was my best friend. My parents promptly bought a replacement.
They did the best they could, but we did not deal with this tragedy together. I don’t think the AFSP yet existed in the early 70s, certainly not the internet or email, and we lived in the country. No surprise that my parents marriage eventually imploded—dying a cruel death.
Suicide is not a subject we easily discuss. The mention is often full of shame: For survivors, sometimes the question of What could I /should I have done? lingers. And the anger of abandonment is real, too. When survivors aren’t able or willing to talk about their hurt, the feelings can fester. They can haunt and will fail to find an outlet or an opportunity to be transformed into loving compassion that might help others.
In my experience—and in listening to my teammates that lovely morning—the simple act of reaching out for donations lead to rich and therapeutic conversation. Some people responded with their own stories of loss. And one team member reached out to many of the friends of his wife who died of suicide 12 years ago. They wrote him letters. They talked with him and also with his daughter in ways he hadn’t experienced over the years. They talked about suicide. They said and wrote the word.
When we speak of the sadness—the sadness of a person ending his own life and the sadness of losing a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker, cousin, uncle, aunt, or neighbor to suicide—we walk toward healing. We learn something more about humanity, about ourselves.
And, healing often requires feeling pain–which can be frightening. A wound doesn’t simply reform to health. The scab itches. The skin is never quite the same. Although my tooth is cracked and sometimes hurts when I chew, I avoid the repair needed—the crown I might someday accept.
My mission before I die is to forgive everyone—which begins with myself.
I’d best let go of critiques and if onlys.
In the same way I do not want to be held to my 10, 15, 25, 40-year old self–or even yesterday–I’d best let go, and let all beings be here now. Sounds like a lot more fun!
I know a 78-year-old man who refuses to talk to his 83-year-old brother. Maybe it’s mutual. I don’t know, but the anger, the condemnation, the abandonment now grows from their teenage selves, when the older beat up the younger. So much else has happened between then and now.
We could each be angry at someone for the rest of our lives—with darned good reason.
Humans all over the world do this thing—hold grudges, hate brothers, believe ourselves right.
When I lived for several years in a small village in the Philippines, I witnessed three brothers who wouldn’t speak to each other.
Two lived in neighboring houses. It seemed that when their parents died, the land and who owned the copra was not divided equally—or something like that.
My guess is their troubles began long before their mother’s death.
I was 38 or 40 years old by the time I realized a deep fear.
In a house on the hill, in a small town where I taught at the community college, I lived with my husband. I’d be gone all day, every day, but he would stay home. He was looking for a job, remodeling the bathrooms, the basement, pulling up blackberry brambles and planting fruit trees. He built a kitty-condo for our neurotic feline.
But I felt worried. Was he depressed? No—he yelled. But how can anyone stay in that dark house day-after-day? I wondered and worried.
And then one day, as I sped home, chest tight, I realized my trepidation: What if I get home and find him dead? What if he is depressed, gives up—and I find the cat curled lifeless beside him, both sprawled on our queen-size bed?
I felt frantic.
That day I arrived home terrified—yet also relieved when I saw them alive. I knew I now understood something about myself, important though a bit overwhelming.
His response was fury—which, of course, made it all much worse for me (and for us).
“How can you think such a thing of me?” he berated.
He thought I saw him as weak. He only heard insult though I tried to tell him this was my fear, my problem. It had little to do with him.
Years later, I met a woman while sitting in the basement waiting room at Randall Children’s Hospital. A little boy we both knew, only 2 years old, was having a diseased kidney removed. This woman told me her father had killed himself when she was a child. Then, years later her marriage was shaky. She had two kids, and she realized her dread that one day she’d come home from work, and her husband would do what her father had done.
Like my husband, he wasn’t happy she’d think this of him. Like us, they’d need to work things out.
I’d never met anyone with this kind of story—a loss similar to mine with an outcome I understood. John was not my father, but I had fallen into him. I had trusted him. In a short time, my 8-year-old self had bonded with this man like a favorite uncle. And, he had killed my dog, too. How confusing.
For so long I’d kept it to myself. Then, when I tried to talk to my husband, he misunderstood.
Talking with this woman was a gift. I felt so connected—through our sharing of sorrows. I wasn’t crazy.
I knew my life would never be the same.
She had undergone years of therapy, me, too—and my writing habit had always helped me to process feelings and thought—but this sharing of sorrows, personal story, with an almost stranger–was a sort of joy that day, eight years ago.
The boy is thriving, his remaining kidney back to health.
is small steps
through murky ponds
up craggly mountains trails
toward loving you
better and forgiving
What if when I listen to you, and you listen to me,
we fall into each other, momentarily
though more than superficially,
so we can no longer witness
each other’s pain as separate?
The witness would not wipe us out
or overwhelm but would invite us
to drop illusion
that my troubles and yours
do not live inside each other.
I imagine a world where we would
openly talk of pain and conflict
and no one could be left hungry
or sleeping on the sidewalk
because that would be neglect
Such a web
would contain all life.
We would take and we would eat
only what we need—honoring
all who give
Since death is certain, and the time of death uncertain, I best forgive NOW!
Acknowledge goodness in All!
We belong to each other.
And I know this is not so easy as I can write it.
And I’m sorry to each of you I have ever hurt.
And that probably include most of you.
And I likely won’t finish in time.
LINKS YOU MIGHT LIKE
https://afsp.org/ — American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
http://rossgay.net/ — Ross Gay’s homepage