Saturday, December 5, 2015

Six Years Later


I’ve been sad all day. I stayed in my pajamas, curled up on the sofa under a blanket. I called my mom. We had the same conversation we’ve had a hundred times, going through the play-by-play in high-resolution Retina display. It’s a birthday and anniversary ritual.

She and my dad were putting up the Christmas tree when they got the phone call. I was in Golden Gate Park watching my daughter Dolly run a race. The voicemail message from my dad, the dog barking, the ass-hole threatening to sue me if I didn’t get the dog under control, the park bench where I returned my dad’s call. I shield my eyes whenever I drive past that park bench. Those blissful moments before we knew. Were there signs we missed? Could we have done anything to stop it? There’s nothing like regretting the phone call you didn’t make.

We talk through every detail of the days leading up to December 5, 2009. We talk about his life stresses with his job and his landlord, and how irrational it was to kill himself, as if it could ever be rational. We dissect each possible clue, forgiving ourselves for missing what we can see with 20/20 hindsight, assuring ourselves that his path was set and there was nothing we could have done. It was meticulously planned: The letters. The Christmas gifts. The calls to say good-bye. We forgive ourselves for not seeing it. Because if we knew, we would have done anything, everything we could. Of course we would.

This year is the first time the dates have lined up with the days of the week. December 5, 2009 was a Saturday, like today. Yesterday at work I thought about how six years ago I still had the ability to make a difference. Instead I worked hard on an awful case, didn’t return his phone call, or even send a damn text. You think there will be time.

It’s almost harder to think about the days and hours leading up to the end, or how I imagine it in my mind. Mike alone in his apartment typing suicide notes. How dreadful. I’ll never really know. That’s part of what’s weird when someone leaves. Who am I to tell his story? I don’t know what went on in his head. Six years later it’s still a mystery to me.

Something happened to him that we will never comprehend. We just have to carry it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Haunted


Today marks the four-year anniversary of my brother’s suicide, and once again I am haunted.

Haunted by the last conversation I had with Mike the weekend before he died. He was panicked and overwhelmed over some issues with his job and with his landlord. He was being kind of a drama queen, his stress way out of proportion to the problems he was facing. I wasn’t worried because I knew things would work out one way or another. I had no idea he was teetering on the edge of sanity. Only in hindsight can we identify the warning signs we didn’t notice at the time.

Haunted by the voicemail messages he left for my daughter Dolly two nights before he died. He said he’d been having a hard time and thought hearing her voice might cheer him up. In reality, he had already made his plan and was calling to say good-bye. 

Haunted by the text message I planned to send the next day but didn’t. “Hang in there, kid.” Composed in my head as I walked into my office, but never typed, never sent. Also haunted by every detail of the work I did that day before he died, when I didn’t text or call him. 

Haunted by the walk to the park the morning he died, when I didn’t know he was already gone. I said to Dolly that we needed to call Uncle Mike after her race because he really wanted to talk to us.

Haunted by the Girls on the Run 5K in Golden Gate Park that morning, the strange voicemail message from my parents alerting me that something was wrong, the aggressive ass-hole who yelled at me and threatened to sue me because Duncan’s dog wouldn’t stop barking while Dolly and Duncan were running in the race, and the foggy notion that maybe I knew what had happened before I called my parents back because it seems like I did but how could that be possible?

Haunted by the park bench across the road from the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park where I called my parents and they told me that Mike was dead, that he had shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Whether I knew or not, whether I suspected or not, whether I had prepared myself for this eventuality after two earlier suicide attempts in his teens, no imagining could have ever prepared me for what it was like when it actually happened. The world opened up and swallowed me whole.

Haunted by the gunshot that I didn’t hear, his body by the trashcan someone else found. Haunted by my parents driving to Virginia to get him and clean out his apartment. Haunted by his suicide notes. Haunted by his last text message:  “I am so sorry. I love you all.”

Haunted by December 5 for the rest of my life. And so, so grateful the other 364 days of the year are no longer like this one.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Day of the Dead 2013

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It’s after 11:00pm, which means I missed the Festival of Altars in Garfield Park. I couldn’t quite break the isolation hibernation. Maybe I was rebelling against a sense of obligation to go. Maybe I was too menstrual. Or maybe I didn’t want to dig that deep. I sort of regret it now.

I decided last year that I was done with the Dia de los Muertos Procession. It felt a little too much like Burning Man, and was needlessly confrontational. I suppose I’m too white to complain about the cultural appropriation of a holiday that is not even mine. But it’s the holiday I cherish the most. 

On past Dias de los Muertos, I’ve gone into a grief spiral. Last year was not pretty. I’ve learned that I’m too vulnerable to be out in the crowd on this night. I prefer to stay in the park with the altars, especially before the Procession arrives.

But this year I didn’t even leave my house. Probably for the same reason I haven’t written in this blog for almost a year, or answered any of your emails.

As time moves on, it takes more effort to think about Mike’s suicide, as well the other deaths in my family that followed. The pain will always be there, because how could it not? But life moves on either way. And over time, it takes more effort to tap into the loss.

It’s a blessing, actually.

But I also feel guilty about how much less I think about it now. Shouldn’t I want to go and cry over my dead brother? I had an emotional meltdown at the festival last year, and felt horribly, infinitely alone. Why wouldn’t I rather stay home and watch movies with my daughter?

When I participated in a survivors of suicide grief group a few years ago, the facilitator told us that we should give ourselves permission to experience grief in whatever form it takes, and that it will shift over time. Mine is in this weird nothingness right now that makes me feel a little sick to my stomach.

As I’ve said many times before, grief is not linear.

Honoring Michael Paul Zinnen, 1972-2009; Paul Norbert Zinnen, 1942-2010; and Lyda Marguerite Zinnen, 1952-2012.

Many blessings to you and to those you have lost.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Three Years of Grief and Gratitude




It’s been one year since I’ve written or even looked at this blog.

The Grief. The loss has become significantly less traumatizing over time.  I accept Mike’s suicide as a fact of my life. Not to say there weren’t rough days. For example, April 20, 2012: the day our Aunt Lyda died of brain cancer.  September 28, 2012:  the day Mike would have celebrated his 40th birthday.  November 2, 2012:  The Dia de los Muertos celebration in San Francisco where I totally lost my shit in front of thousands of people after making an impromptu altar to my dead family.  December 5, 2012: The three-year anniversary of my brother’s death by suicide.


The Gratitude. If there are any silver linings to this experience of going to the place of unimaginable pain and grief and arriving at a place of acceptance and relative normalcy (emphasis on “relative”), it would be the kinship I have developed with fellow survivors of suicide, and the opportunity to be of service to others suffering with depression or grief. A couple of months ago a close friend’s brother committed suicide. I could identify with the rawness and intensity of her feelings. I was grateful to not be in that place anymore, and grateful that I could have anything to offer in way of comfort. . After Mike first died, the people I wanted to talk to the most were people who were survivors of suicide or who had also lost a sibling.

Because grief is a lifelong journey, I imagine I will still drop in on this blog from time to time. Before writing this entry, I logged into my Gmail account for the first time since December 2011. There were several messages each month from survivors of suicide from around the country and the world who somehow stumbled across this page and took the time to write to me about their loss. Aside from feeling like an ass-hole for not checking my old account, I was overwhelmed with the love and connection from these fellow survivors who helped me get through another rough day of surviving my brother’s suicide.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Two Years

It's been two years now since Mike left us, which marks my two-year anniversary as a survivor of his suicide. Here are some observations on my grief journey on this two-year deathiversary:

First, acceptance. I never thought acceptance would be possible. Mike's death was an unacceptable fact that traumatized me on a daily basis. I couldn't even imagine what acceptance could look like. But now, two years in, I have moments of acceptance. I accept that he was ill; I let go of the guilt and regret, and imagine him as something or somewhere peaceful and/or embrace a memory of him that is joyous and not wrapped up in depression and death. More often than not, believe it or not. In just two years! That's the miracle of our capacity for healing. How else could we survive? Loss is a fact of life.

Second, remember to celebrate life. As much as possible, I try to remember Mike alive. I have deconstructed his suicide ad nauseum, looking for clues, flagellating myself for the clues I didn't see or upon which I didn't act, absolving myself for what we could not possibly have known, hindsight being 20/20, that we couldn't have stopped him anyway, etc. etc. to the point of insanity. I try not to do that now. Instead, I remember his deadpan wit or individual fashion sense or beautiful photographs or goofy text messages or homemade peanut brittle and deep-fried turkey. The memories that make me smile instead of cry. Celebrate the memories and let the rest fade into the distance.

Third, connection. Death is inevitable and everywhere. Since Mike died, how many others have gone?How many of my friends have lost siblings? How many other survivors of suicide have reached out? (And just today I finally checked a Gmail account I've never bothered to check, and discovered messages from some of you lovely readers which brought tears to my eyes. I will respond to each of you, I promise.  Please forgive my delay.) My grief journey is just one of many, all woven together. Your journey helps me, mine helps someone else, and so on.

Finally, be gentle. There is no standard for what suicide survival is supposed to look like. Grief is a crazy drug. It's all over the map. I thought I could write a weekly blog. I can't even keep up a monthly blog. Sometimes I need to move on with my life. Other days I can't get out of bed. Even now, two years later.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

18 Months Later

18 months.  That little fact just sort of snuck up on me a few hours ago.  You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t written in a few months.  I had gotten to the point where the fact of Mike’s death no longer traumatized me within the first five minutes of waking every day.  I was even able to observe the fact from a cushiony distance, able to talk about it matter-of-factly rather than with a knife stabbing my heart.  So what was there to say about grief?  The fifth of the month would roll around, and I would simply groan, not wanting to unpack it.  Next month I’ll write again, I told myself.  And before I knew it, four months had gone by without a new blog post.

This week has been different.  I’ve had an unspecific anxiety bubbling under the surface.  Too much caffeine?  Then inexplicably I burst into tears last night.  And then, today, remembering the wound as fresh as if it had been yesterday, only to realize today is the 18-month anniversary.  Why today should hurt any more or less than any other day doesn’t logically make sense, but there it is. 

We learn how to carry around a painful truth and still carry on with our lives. Within the past week I found myself having a conversation with Dolly about dance shoes, while simultaneously looking out of the window of the car, seeing the park bench where I sat when my parents told me Mike was dead, registering everything I’d felt at that moment for a split second, and then jumped back into the conversation with Dolly.  Later in the week I found myself at a school picnic saying the words “he died of depression” in response to a question about how my brother died, feeling the full impact of those words register in the listener and in myself, without saying another word about it.  From there, the conversation turned to cupcakes and carpooling, but the rest stayed in my gut. 

It is much more polite to say he died of depression than he blew his brains out with a shotgun, though both statements are true.

As I write this, my mom is driving cross-country and will be here in a few days.  She is moving to California to be closer to Dolly and me.  She is seeing through the plan that she and Dad made after Mike died.  It is bittersweet for her, of course.  She misses Dad so much and had hoped to make the trip with him.  She is driving across the country with her best and oldest friend, and with Mike’s and Dad’s ashes at her side.

Also as I write this, more than 2,000 survivors of suicide have just finished the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in New York City, where they raised over $2.5 million for suicide prevention programs.  I didn’t make it this year, but I hope to go next year.  Here in San Francisco, I feel very blessed to for the support I have found from fellow suicide survivor, and can’t imagine making this journey without them.

Despite the anxiety of the past week, things have been getting better. Perhaps the pain is more integrated now and that's why it feels less disruptive?  It's hard to find language to describe it.  As I've said before, I've relied heavily on my faith in God to get me through this past year and a half, and my faith has grown stronger as a result.  I used to spend a lot of time worrying about where Mike is now, what he is now, etc., but those thoughts no longer trouble me.  It would be nice to imagine Mike sitting on a cloud somewhere with my Dad, but that is not what I believe.  (Conceding, of course, that no one knows for sure.)  I believe God is energy, and I believe that is what Mike is now, too.  He is finally with God.  He is finally free.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Now What?

I wonder lately what the next step will be.  How do I carry Mike with me now?  I want to honor his life and his death, without being obsessive about it.  The trauma doesn't feel as acute as last year, but I am certainly not healed.  Nor will I ever be.  Since I get to decide what his life and his death mean to me, I try to make sense of it all.  Mostly I look for the silver lining.

Ultimately I don't want to define my brother's life by his suicide.  Likewise I don't want to define my life by my brother's suicide.  For now, when I engage with his memory, it's all wrapped up in that day.  And the silver lining has been the connections I've made with others who have to carry this same pain.  It's too much for one person to carry.   The stronger the web of survivors, the more supported we are when we carry it.  I am closer to my surviving family now, and have a wonderful support group of fellow survivors of suicide.  So I consider stretching out the web even further.

For example, my group is talking about going on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Overnight Walk in New York City to connect with survivors from across the country.  Another idea I had was to organize a group for the next Dia de los Muertos in San Francisco to build an altar for the people we have lost to suicide.  At some point I would also like to travel to Mexico for the larger Dia de los Muertos festival in Pátzcuaro.  I could also volunteer to help out organizations dedicated to suicide prevention and/or survivor support.

I know these activities will not bring Mike back.  But they might help someone who is having a hard time making it through the day.  Maybe getting through the day is all that is next.

As for honoring Mike's life, tomorrow I will be cheering for the Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl.  Mike and Dad were loyal Packer fans till the very end.  I may not know a thing about football, but I know that Mike and Dad would be proud.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Nothing Changes on New Year's Day

It's 2011.  Ready to put the death and illness of 2010 behind me.  Ready for a fresh start.

But then.  The haunting continues.  A couple of nights ago, I had my worst nightmare about Mike to date.  In the dream, I was the one who found Mike's body, and then I was the one who had to call Mom and Dad to tell them what happened.  He was lying on the ground in the woods.  I saw him from a distance, but I knew he was dead, and was too frightened to go any closer.  The image of his still body from my dream has haunted me ever since.  I can't imagine how traumatized I would be if I'd seen his body with the rest of my family before he was cremated.

Sometimes the fact of my brother's suicide makes me feel physically ill, as though I will never be right again.

When is this acceptance thing supposed to happen?

Not yet.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

One Year Later

Today is the one-year anniversary of Mike's suicide.  I was expecting today to be difficult, but the emotional meltdown hit last night instead.  By today I felt much calmer.  Before last night, I told myself that I just needed to get through the anniversary weekend, and then I could move on with my life.  Things would be easier after the first year.  Of course, grief doesn't really work that way.  Yesterday it was bubbling under the surface, and then finally broke through.  I missed him so much.  Last night I thought about how one year ago, he was still alive, and what if there was something I could have done.  Those kinds of thoughts will drive you mad.

After the tears, and talking to women in my Survivors of Suicide support group, I realized I had unrealistic expectations for what it would mean to make it past the one-year mark.  On the other hand, they encouraged me to think about the healing and growth that has happened this year.  After all, this year was just the beginning of the grief journey.

One year in, I have an appreciation for my brother's life and his struggles in a way I didn't have when he was alive.  My friend Stacy told me that in the end, I get to choose what Mike's life means to me and what to keep of him.  My friend Jane told me that I am now the keeper of my and my brother's childhood.  Figuring out how to hold on to Mike's life--and not just his death--is a work-in-progress.

One year in, I have a greater appreciation for and dependence on my family and friends, especially my Mom.  Despite my frequent impulse to isolate, I am more aware now that living life is about our connection to other people.  Without these connections, I would not have made it through this year.

One year in, I have a stronger faith and trust in God, and a greater acceptance of the uncertainty of life and my absolute lack of control.  At the moment, I feel at peace with the chaos.

This year has been the hardest year of my life.  I know nothing really changes now as we enter Year Two Without Mike.  The only solution is to move forward.

Thanks to everyone who has stumbled across this blog and read it.  I hope you found some of it useful or interesting.  Many people have mentioned to me that they read it but have not yet become a follower.  Please consider following this blog either on Blogger or on Facebook Networked Blogs.  Also feel free to leave comments or to e-mail me, especially if you have lost someone to suicide.  In the coming year, I will be posting monthly as opposed to weekly.  The next post will be January 5, 2011.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving

One year ago, Mike ate Thanksgiving dinner alone in a motel room in Staunton, Virginia.  Mom and Dad tried to convince him to come home for the Thanksgiving, but he had to work.  Mike still had his apartment in Virginia Beach, but had recently been transferred to Staunton, a fact which caused him great turmoil.  Mike didn't like change, and being temporarily relocated from Virginia Beach to Staunton was evidence, in his mind, of how things never worked out for him.  He loved Virginia Beach, so of course it couldn't work out for him there.  He hated Staunton, so of course he was going to be stuck there.  In his mind, twisted by depression, paranoid and confused, he believed his company had a conspiracy against him.  In reality, his company went out of its way to find a place for Mike when they were downsizing.  Most companies would have just let him go.  As it turned out, a position opened up in Roanoke less than six months after he died, so if he'd stuck around, he wouldn't have been stuck in Staunton very long.  His mind, however, was not capable of seeing beyond his immediate circumstances.  Then again, his immediate circumstances were not the point.  He was healthy, educated, employed, and loved.  Yet more alone than anyone knew.

Mom and Dad offered to meet Mike halfway between Staunton and their home in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  It wouldn't have been a long drive for any of them, but Mike insisted it was too far.  Mom told him, "That's ridiculous, let us come meet you." But he wouldn't meet them.  He complained to them on the phone about being alone, but he had chosen to be alone.  Looking back, I can't remember if I talked to him that day, or if Mom and Dad conveyed to me how he was feeling.  Did I even leave him a message wishing him a Happy Thanksgiving?  I want to believe I did, but I'm honestly not sure.

It wasn't until this Thanksgiving, a year later, that I realized he was probably already planning his suicide when he refused to meet Mom and Dad for dinner.  The detective who investigated his death told us that he had been going to the shooting range for two weeks before his death.  Thanksgiving was eight days before his death.  The detective said Mike's visits to the shooting range didn't prove he was contemplating suicide; perhaps he was shooting guns for recreation, he suggested.  But the detective did not know my brother.  Mike hated guns.  He didn't pick up a new hobby in the last weeks on his life.  There is only one reason Mike went to the shooting range.  The same reason he sat alone on Thanksgiving.  The same reason we are without him now.

So now, one year later, it is time to give thanks.

I am thankful for my brother Mike, who I had the privilege of knowing for 37 years.  I have many regrets about some of that time that was wasted, but no matter what, I know that I am a stronger and better person for having Mike in my life.  I love you, Mike.

I am thankful for my Dad.  I regret that my grief for Mike has made my grief for Dad come a little more slowly.  He was a good man and a good father, and I know his love was unconditional.  I love you, Dad.

I am thankful for my Mom.  I don't know how I could get through losing Mike and Dad without Mom.  I hope she stays with me for a long time.  I love you, Mom.

I am thankful for Dolly, my beautiful baby girl.  She is my reason for everything.  I love you, Dolly.

I am thankful for all of my friends for helping me through this year, even when I have been withdrawn.

Most of all, I am thankful for God, for watching over all of us, keeping us safe as we keep moving forward.


  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dia de los Muertos

On Tuesday, I carried this sign in the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) candlelight procession through the Mission in memory of Dad and Mike.  Dolly came with me at the last minute since Duncan had to work, so the night didn't go as I had planned.  Day of the Dead is scary for Dolly.  She is scared of the crowds, the smoke, and the masks.  We walked only a couple of blocks before she was begging me to go home.  I felt torn.  I really wanted to stay, to be a witness for my dad and my brother.  I tried explaining to Dolly how important it was to me.  I also wanted to meet up with my friends who were grieving a loss of their own.  But once again, the lesson:  I am not in control.  I need to let go.

Earlier that morning, I tried, unsuccessfully, to assert my will onto Dolly.  Over the weekend she had written a beautiful essay for Day of the Dead, which she planned to enter into an essay contest.  The winners would get to read their essays at her school's Day of the Day Assembly.  That morning, however, she decided she didn't want to turn in her essay, and she didn't want to read it in front of her friends.  I was proud of her for writing it, and tried to convince her to show her essay to her teacher.  I even walked her into school, thinking I would enlist her teacher's help in convincing her.  In the end, I realized that this quest was more about me than about Dolly.  It was completely understandable that she didn't want to read an extremely personal essay to her entire school.  When I realized what I was doing, I stopped.  I turned around.  I let it go.  

Dolly and I left the Dia de los Muertos procession and walked to the festival of altars in Garfield Park.  As upset as I was about leaving the procession, as soon I got to the altars, I knew it was where I needed to be.  Someone looked at my sign and said, "Look, she's carrying her altar with her."  We went into the playground so Dolly could ride on the merry-go-round.  I had an overwhelming feeling of warmth and calm.  I thought it was Dad telling me that everything was going to be OK.  Then I cried for a long time.

Dolly and I walked around the park, looking at the altars.  I felt inspired to build an altar next year for people who died by suicide.  Next year I won't go the procession, and will spend the evening in the park only.  At one altar, there were cards, pens, and envelopes for people to write messages to those they have lost.  We wrote a note to Dad and Mike, saying that we loved them and missed them, and that we hoped they were at peace and with each other.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Building a Community Altar

On Saturday, Dolly and I spent the morning at her school to help create the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Community Altar.  Each family got to make a doll figurine (called a "calaca") to put on the altar.  We made ours in memory of both Dad and Mike, as shown above.  Some of the others are shown below.  The altar will be ready in time for the Dia de los Muertos assembly on November 2.  

Dolly and I have gone to the Dia de los Muertos procession through the Mission many times.  I have walked in memory of friends I have lost, and to honor the losses of others.  Day of the Dead will have special meaning for me this year, after losing two close members of my family.  One of the members of my suicide survivors' support group is going to one of the large Dia de los Muertos processions in Mexico.  Maybe I'll try to go next year.

I had a complete meltdown Saturday morning before the art workshop.  I wanted to bring photos of Dad and Mike to put on the altar, and although I could find many photos of Mike, I had to tear the house apart to find a photo of Dad.  I have many digital photos, but couldn't find any physical photographs.  I felt like a horrible daughter.  I started screaming and crying, and threw everything off the shelves in my office.  Dolly said I scared her.  I finally found a photo from when Dolly was a baby.  So I wiped off my tears, climbed over piles of paper, photos, and books, and drove to the school to put this grief to better use.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Do-Over

It's late Sunday night.  The weekend is over.  I had all kinds of plans for today--Patti Smith concert in Golden Gate Park, meeting on Church St., bike ride--but instead I stayed in pajamas watching movies, and now, after accomplishing absolutely nothing, it's time for bed.  The great thing about sleep is that tomorrow is a new day.  No matter how supremely lazy I was today, it can all change tomorrow. Tomorrow restarts the clock.  I can wake with a new attitude and motivation. Tomorrow I will work.  Tomorrow I will exercise.  Tomorrow I will eat well.  Tomorrow I will show up.

When Mike pulled the trigger, did he think he was getting a do-over? Does it all start over--a new day, a new life?  When I was recovering from meningitis, one of my home care nurses told me that "they say" people who die by suicide are doomed to repeat their same misery in their next life, because there is something they haven't learned yet.  How exactly "they" know that, I am not sure.  Did "they" take a poll to find out what people who committed suicide were doing in their next lives?  If you're going to just make some shit up, why decide it's going to be another lifetime of misery?  And why assume a survivor of suicide wants to hear your theory?  Can't you just say "at least he is no longer suffering" like everyone else?

A do-over would be nice.  Like rebooting a computer.  Did he think he would enjoy the nothingness?  Did he think he would continue to exist in any form, on any level?  Disconnected from misery.  Do it over.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Connection

This morning I joined 700 other San Francisco survivors of suicide in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  Together we raised over $90,000 for suicide prevention research and education, and helped raise awareness about mental illness.

It was foggy and cold as we gathered around Lake Merced.  As we walked, the fog burned off, allowing the sun to shine through.  Someone asked me if I had participated in last year's Walk.  No, I said, I didn't have a reason to walk last year.

At one of the tables near the registration booth they were giving away Mardi Gras beads.  Each color symbolized a different type of loss:  orange for loss of a sibling, gold for loss of a parent, white for loss of a child, red for loss of a spouse or partner, purple for loss of a friend, green for someone who themselves struggles with suicidal thoughts, blue for someone who supports the cause.  Every time I went to the table, I cried.  I wore orange and blue beads on the walk, and they now hang on the rearview mirror of my car.

There were many speakers who talked about suicide as a public health crisis, suicide as the nation's most preventable cause of death, suicide as the day everything changed.  The common thread of these speeches, or at least what I took from it, is that it's all about connection.  We have a short time here on Earth.  The more we can connect with others, the more lives we can save, the more we can heal, the richer our lives will be.  Connection is what life is all about.  

I walked today with my saucy suicide survivor sisters.  I'm grateful that I don't have to  do this alone.  I know people don't want to hear about Mike's suicide as much as I think about it.  It's good to know there are others who are with me on this grief journey.  

When I sent out the fundraising emails, I was surprised how many people shared that they had also lost a sibling to suicide.  I walked today for their lost loved ones, too.  From last week's blog post to now, I was able to raise $1,200 for AFSP, which exceeded my goal.  I love my friends.

Apparently there is a gun club next to Lake Merced that graciously agreed to stay closed during the Walk.  I would have totally lost it if there had been gun shots firing while I was walking in remembrance of Mike.

Mike's birthday is on Tuesday.  He would have been 38.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Butterfly


In July, before I got sick, Dolly, Duncan, and I spent two weeks in the Stanislaus National Forest outside of Yosemite. One day we hiked to a swimming hole in the Clavey River called God’s Bath, a beautiful spot in the river where a waterfall flows into a deep pool surrounded by tall cliffs.  The place is usually filled with local teens from Sonora, who go there to drink and jump off the cliffs.  This year we had the spot to ourselves.  There was a towel and someone’s socks on the flat part of the rock, but no one in sight. The water level was much higher due to all of the rain, and the current of the river was flowing much faster. There was a strange energy, too.  Duncan’s dog Bo refused to go in the water, even though he had been swimming downstream. 

After we went swimming, we walked up to the flat part of the rock to have lunch.  At the top, there is a hole through which we’ve seen people jump and then swim through an underwater tunnel to the main pool.  It was there we noticed that the towel we’d spotted earlier had been torn into strips and tied together into a makeshift rope.  Duncan pointed and told me to turn around.  On the cliff wall behind me, someone had spray-painted “R.I.P.”  Had someone jumped into the hole and not made it back out?  Did he jump into the main pool by the waterfall and get pulled under?  A few years ago we watched in terror as two guys jump off the highest spot of the cliff.  People probably drown there all the time, are here appeared to be the remnants of some stranger’s death.  We reported what we saw to a forest ranger later that day.  One of the forest workers told us there had been a search party looking for a missing person near God’s Bath just the week before.

The following week we hiked along a branch of the Tuolumne River to another swimming hole called Early Intake.  Coincidentally, this was also the day my meningitis symptoms began.  While the rest of the group hiked ahead to Early Intake, Duncan stayed behind to fish along the river.  At one point he walked into the river and stood on a big rock to get a better spot to fish.  All of a sudden the current swept him under the rock.  He struggled to get out but was stuck.  He took a breath, thinking he’d made it to the surface, but his mouth filled with water.  He said he was seconds away from the end.  I do not know what happened in those last seconds that made the difference, allowing him to be alive to tell us about it.  One of our friends with us that day summed it up by saying, “It wasn’t his time.”

Was it Mike’s time?  Was it time for the stranger who died at God’s Bath?  The obvious answer is yes, because otherwise they would still be here.  To say it was Mike’s time is to find relief in the idea that there is an order of things.  The idea that even though you don’t understand it, things are happening just as they should.

Where does suicide fit into this idea?  Was it Mike’s time on December 5, 2009 when his life ended, or was his time actually supposed to be in 2039 or 2059, but for the suicide? 

The closest I come to acceptance is to believe for just a moment that it was Mike’s time, and that nothing Mike or anyone else could have done differently would have prevented it.  Some people believe that our fates are predetermined.  Others believe that we control our own destinies by the choices we make.  I believe in a combination of the two, that our fates can change with our choices, and that although we sometimes control our choices, we do not control the outcome.  When we escape death, is that luck, or is that God?  And if we choose death, like Mike did, is it really a choice?  And when death finally comes for us, we have no more control.  Death is the ultimate surrender.

For the two weeks I was near Yosemite, a butterfly followed me everywhere I went.  I first saw it when we were camping by Cherry Lake, and it followed me on the hike to God’s Bath, and on our various hikes along the Tuolumne.  I felt Mike’s presence in this butterfly.  I felt like he was finally free.   

Sunday, September 12, 2010

40

Today I am celebrating my 40th birthday.  You know what I said to age 39?  "Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out."  Age 39 was the worst year of my life.  Even if nothing eventful happens at age 40, it will still be better than the suckiest suck suck 39.

I am so eloquent in my old age, aren't I?

Surviving 40 years on this planet is a triumph.  Many people I love didn't make it to 40.  Mike only made it to 37.  He's been gone for 40 weeks now.

And why am I still here when so many others are not?  It is pointless to ask why.  I can only say thank you, and there but for the grace of God go I.  After a year of death and illness, I am blessed to be here celebrating my birthday with people I love:  happy, healthy, and alive.

Since it's my birthday, I am making a birthday wish.  My wish is to help other people avoid terrible years like my age 39.  My wish is that other families will not have to experience the pain, confusion, and regret that Mike's suicide has caused me and my family.  My wish is that someone else's brother can get help before it's too late.

To help make my birthday wish come true, please consider supporting me in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Community Walk.  On September 26, 2010, I will join thousands of people nationwide to walk in AFSP's San Francisco Out of the Darkness Community Walk to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  I walk in memory of Mike, who I will love and cherish forever.


The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is at the forefront of research, education and prevention initiatives designed to reduce loss of life from suicide. With more than 33,000 lives lost each year in the U.S. and over one million worldwide, the importance of AFSP's mission has never been greater, nor our work more urgent.

I would appreciate any support that you could give for this worthwhile cause.

CLICK HERE TO VISIT MY FUNDRAISING PAGE.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Still Tired

I'm still recovering from meningitis, so I'm trying to take it easy and not push myself too much.  I'll be back to blogging in two weeks.  Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Family Eulogist


Somehow I've become the person in my family to give the eulogy when someone dies.  First Bedstefar (my Danish grandfather), then Mike, and, most recently, Dad.  Here is more or less how it went:

If one thing can be said about my dad, it is that he was a good man.  He did not have an unkind bone in his body.


Just a few months ago we were here to say good-bye to my brother Mike.  It's hard to be up here again, trying to find words to say.  Losing Mike broke Dad’s heart.  It literally broke Dad’s heart.  Now they are together in heaven watching over us.


My daughter Dolly, Dad’s granddaughter, couldn’t be here today because this is her first week of school.  She sent along this message that she asked me to read to you today:


Hi Grandpa.  This is my speech that I made for you that I hope my mom is going to recite at the funeral.  Grandpa, I’m sorry that you had to go through pain when you were dying.  And you were only 67, or 68.  Sorry I forgot your age.  I kind of don’t remember stuff that’s important, but I’ll definitely remember this, which I didn’t want to happen.  Well, I guess that’s just life.  And even though someone is gone, they are still here.  I mean, you’re still around the earth.  And now I have four people above my head – both of my grandpas, my great grandma, and Uncle Mike.  And I’m always going to cherish those who are above my head and those who I can see.  But just because I can’t see them doesn’t mean that you’re not there.  Bye, Grandpa.  Well, I’m not really saying good-bye cause you’re up above my head right now.  So, good-bye for now.  I love you.


That was my daughter Dolly’s message.  My message to Dad is a message of thanks.


Thank you for adopting me, for giving me the life I have today, for always believing in me, and for making me the person I am today.  I will miss talking to you and the great trips we took together.

Thank you for loving Mom for 43 years, for being her best friend, for being with her my role models for a loving committed relationship that is inspiring and the best parents anyone could ask for.

Thank you for saving Mike’s life twice and being there for him throughout his life.  He admired you and loved you.  You understood him like no ones else did.  I am glad you are there to watch over him once more.

Thank you for being a good brother and friend.  The people who have stayed by your side for decades are a testament to your honor, loyalty, and kindness.  You were a man of faith and a man of charity, and made the world a better place by the lives you touched.

You lived a good life and you were loved.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

West Virginia, Again

Five months after burying my brother, I am back in West Virginia for Dad's funeral.  It's been over three weeks since Dad died of a heart attack, or lung failure, or whatever it was that ultimately killed him.  During that time I was too ill from meningitis to travel.  Even now I don't have much strength.  But I am very happy to finally be here with Mom.  We're the survivors of a terrible year.

Today I looked through old photographs, some of which I'd never seen before.  Pictures of Dad when he was a kid, pictures of Dad and Mom when they were first married, pictures of Mike.  Mom kept saying she couldn't believe they were both gone, how it's just not fair.  Aunt Karen called from Denmark.  She and my great-uncle Phillip are in their 90s and still in fine health.  She said she didn't understand why they were still alive while Dad was gone, how it wasn't fair.  Fair doesn't have much to do with life and death, does it?

Losing Mike and Dad and getting a serious illness, all within a nine-month period, have made me extremely grateful to be alive, grateful for my beautiful life and my family, friends, and colleagues.  God willing, I'll be turning 40 in four weeks.  That used to stress me out.  Now I'll just feel blessed for the gift, you know?  Some people, like Mike, don't make it that far.  There's nothing like health problems or losing a loved one to make you appreciate your life.  So if you're reading this, be thankful for what you have and for those around you.  Go out and enjoy!  Life may be short, but it is also rich and abundant.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Back to the Hospital

I went back to the hospital for three days with a violent Clostridium Difficile infection following my earlier hospital stay for Varicella Zoster Meningitis.  Needless to say, I have not yet made it to West Virginia to see Mom.  She is waiting until I am healthier to have the memorial for Dad.  Right now all I can do is rest and try to get better.  I try not to think about anything beyond the next step, which for me will be my 10:00 p.m. infusion of Acyclovir.  Grief is just going to have to wait.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

More Loss

It's been three weeks since my last post.  Two Sundays ago I couldn't write because I was on vacation near Yosemite without Internet access.  Last Sunday I couldn't write because I was in the E.R. with severe head and neck pain.  That same day, my dad had a massive heart attack.  I spent the next six days in the hospital being treated for varicella zoster meningitis.  Dad spent the next five days in the ICU.  I am home now.  Dad didn't make it.  He died Thursday, July 22, 2010.  He was 68.

More than anything I want to be with my mom right now.  She has lost both her son and her husband of 43 years within less than eight months.  We're still heavily grieving Mike's death, and now we have to deal with this loss.  Unfortunately, I am still too weak from the meningitis to leave the house, and still in a lot of physical pain.  It will be at least a week before I can make the long trip across the country to see her.

I grew up in Iowa with Mom, Dad, and Mike.  Two of the four of us are now gone.  Mom and I will have to figure out together how to survive these losses.  Mom, Dolly, and I are all we have left.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day

It would be nice if time healed all wounds.  It would be nice if that healing happened in a linear progression.  The day you find out about the death would the worst, and then each day after that would be a little easier.  It would be nice if grief worked that way.

Seven months in, you feel self-conscious if you bring it up too often.  You think you should be back to normal.  You wonder why the thought of that morning still stops you in your tracks several times an hour, every hour, every day.  But still you say, "Fine, thank you, how are you?"  You feel self-conscious about not being more together than you think others think you should be.

Dolly and I watched the fireworks yesterday at the county fair.  With each ooooh and ahhhh, I remembered watching fireworks with my parents when Mike and I were kids.  He was the only witness to my childhood other than my parents.  So many memories will only live on through me now.

Firecrackers outside my window.  Loud bangs.  I think of the stranger who heard the gunshot that morning.  I think of the other stranger that found the body.

Oh, if only grief were linear.  If only time healed all wounds.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Candle

I missed last week's post because Mom, Dad, Dolly, and I were up in Calistoga, relaxing in the geothermal mineral pools.  With any luck, Sonoma County will be my parents' new home very soon.  It feels good to bring the family together.  If only I had been motivated to move everyone out to California when Mike was still alive.  I couldn't even convince him to visit me.  He'd only been on an airplane twice in his life.  If Mike hadn't died, my parents might have moved to Virginia Beach to be near him.  Now they have the house up for sale, and are moving west to be with us.

I thought about Mike a lot while they were here, more than usual.  I like thinking about him, but it is hard to think about his death.  On their last day in town we were in Golden Gate Park:  "There's the de Young . . . there's the Academy of Sciences . . . and there's the park bench where I was sitting when you called to tell me Mike was dead."

Sometimes I still can't believe he's gone.

We visited Mission Dolores one day, and lit a candle for Mike in the Basilica.  With all our love, our memories will live on, and we'll never forget.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Family

One of the blessings to come from this tragedy is that it has brought the rest of my family closer together.  I really can't imagine having to deal with Mike's death without my parents.  They've said that losing Mike has brought them closer together, and I need them more now, too.  We are the survivors.

Mom and Dad are coming to visit on Wednesday, and will spend most of the time they are here looking at condos.  Before Mike died, they never would have considered moving out here.  Now the plan is for them to move out as soon as they can sell their house.  It will be great for all of us to see one another more often.  They will be here to watch Dolly grow up instead of seeing her only twice a year.  I know they never would have moved so far away from Mike.  Part of me feels guilty for any positive outcome of the suicide.  Clearly I would rather have Mike alive than have my parents move to California.  These thoughts are irrational, of course.  We are allowed to make positive changes.  As my Mom said, just because Mike ended his life doesn't mean we stop living.

Another benefit is that when my parents get older, they will be close by for me to take care of them.  Mike would have been given power of attorney for medical and financial decisions if my parents ever became incapacitated.  Now it will be me--when that time comes, a long way down the road--to handle these matters alone.

I hope California will be a new chapter in my parents' lives that helps in their healing.  We will never recover from what happened.  But at least we will be together.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Six Months

Yesterday was the six-month anniversary of Mike's suicide.  I spent Saturday, June 5, 2010 remembering the horrible, haunting details of Saturday, December 5, 2009--the day everything changed.  I remembered getting the phone call from my parents.  This week I just wanted to call Mike.  It hits me over and over that he isn't here.  The hardest part is thinking about how much pain he was in without anyone realizing it.  Mom and Dad went through some of his things this week and found prescriptions for three kinds of antidepressants and an anti-anxiety medication.  They all had dates within the last few months.  But then he stopped taking them so that they had all left his system before he died.  By the time I knew something was wrong it was too late.  I think I felt it when he left.  I sensed something was not right that day.  When my parents called, I was shaking, like I knew they had some terrible news to tell me.  But then, maybe it was the sound of my Dad's voice.  Maybe it was the man yelling at me in the park to control the dog.  The detective said they didn't know how long Mike's body had been lying there, but probably not more than a few hours.  His body was lying by a trash can and a stranger found him there and called the police.  While this was happening, was I walking to the park with Dolly, who was about to run her first race?  Mike had a saved text message in his phone that he never sent.  Did he sit in his car for a long time contemplating his act, or did he just get out of the car and do it?  Was I still sleeping when he left us?  Were my parents eating breakfast or walking their dog?  They woke up and started putting up the Christmas tree.  They never finished.  Why can you just walk into a pawn shop in Virginia and buy a shot gun, no questions asked?  Maybe a waiting period is a good idea, people.  I want to talk to Mike about what he was thinking in those last few days, but I never will.  He is not anymore.  I don't believe he's sitting a cloud watching us, happy that his death made the rest of our family closer.  He is scattered into a million pieces.  Six months into grief, it still haunts me every day, nearly every hour.  Happiness has this dark undertone, this oh yeah, and then there's the dead brother.  Don't forget about him.  Mom and Dad hurt so much.  We all do.  Mom says she does not have guilt but she does have regret.  We all regret not seeing it.  I regret not being more present.  No matter how good I am now, it will never make up for what I didn't do when he was alive.  So there it is, six months into grief.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

To The Glory Of Life

It's a gorgeous Memorial Day weekend here in San Francisco.  I feel grateful to be alive, and sad for all of the things that Mike will not experience now.  I do not understand why someone would choose to leave.  I can think of 100 reasons off of the top of my head why this weekend alone is worth living.  The glory of life is infinite.

1.  A big hug from Dolly.  2.  Biting into a peach and tasting summer.  3.  A text message from a friend that makes you laugh out loud.  4.  Dancing.  5.  The first sip of coffee in the morning.  6.  Sleeping in.  7.  Jumping into a big pile of pillows.  8.  Dark chocolate.  9.  Reading The New Yorker cover to cover.  10.  Getting scared by a raccoon.  11.  A kitten asleep on my chest.  12.  Watching Dolly dance.  13.  Chopping vegetables.  14.  Wearing a new dress.  15.  Ikea shopping spree.  16.  Talking to Mom and Dad about their move out here.  17.  Grand opening of Joe's ice cream.  18.  Watching a cheesy romantic comedy with 9-year-old girls.  19.  Carnaval parade in the Mission.  20.  Being kissed by the sun.  21.  Organizing the house.  22.  Reading to Dolly.  23.  Painting my toes.  24.  Strawberries.  25.  Costumes.  26.  Meditation.  27.  Reading in bed.  28.  Backyard barbecue.  29.  Family.  30.  Friends.  31.  Riding my bike.  32.  Golden Gate Park.  33.  Singing in the car.  34.  Catching up on podcasts.  35.  Decorating Dolly's room.  36.  Finding a shortcut around the traffic.  37.  Farmer's market.  38.  Going to the beach.  39.  Staring out into the ocean.  40.  The view of San Francisco from Twin Peaks.  41.  Sand between your toes.  42.  Love.  43.  Fro-yo.  44.  Planning my diet.  45.  New iPhone apps.  46.  A good hair day.  47.  Donating to charity.  48.  Garage sales.  49.  The breeze blowing through my apartment.  50.  Tickle fights.  51.  Dolly laughing.  52.  Stretching.  53.  Strappy heels.  54.  Facebook status updates.  55.  Looking for new apartments on craigslist.  56.  Self-improvement plans.  57.  News that Dru will visit soon.  58.  Our Lady of Safeway.  59.  Empathy.  60.  Connection.  61.  Homemade tacos with fresh avocados.  62.  Chai tea with agave.  63.  Being comfortable in my skin.  64.  Loving my job.  65.  Not having to work this weekend.  66.  Watering the plants.  67.  Pizza Margherita from Gaspare's.  68.  Photographs.  69.  Making videos.  70.  Inside jokes.  71.  Downloading new music.  72.  Dancing in the kitchen while doing the dishes.  73.  Sore muscles.  74.  Blue skies.  75.  The smell of lavender.  76.  Listening to the conversations on the streets.  77.  Dolly's art projects.  78.  The gossip of 9-year-olds.  79.  The kindness of strangers.  80.  Reconnecting with a friend as if months had not gone by since we last spoke.  81.  Garlic breath.  82.  Shaving my legs in the sink.  83.  My kitten attacking my ankles.  84.  Russian Red lipstick.  85.  Caffeinated cleaning spree.  86.  Getting caught up on bills.  87.  Dolly's new disco lamp.  88.  Walking barefoot through grass.  89.  Running through the sprinkler.  90.  Getting a silly song stuck in my head.  91.  Strawberry-banana-coconut smoothie.  92.  Salsa music.  93.  Fuzzy leopard blanket.  94.  Music coming through the neighbors' windows.  95.   The cafe on the corner.  96.  Being productive.  97.  Murals on the sides of buildings.  98.  Exceeding my expectations.  99.  Being in awe of the endless wonder of life.  100.  Being alive to blog about it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Here is a picture of Mike's headstone that Mom and Dad e-mailed to me today.  The cross used to hang in his room when he was a little boy.  I had one just like it, with a little girl praying.  If I ever find mine, I will give it to Dolly.  They sent me the photo because even though I was there when the priest interred Mike's cremains, I never saw the headstone after it was put on the columbarium.

Let's just pause for a moment to reflect that words like "cremains" and "columbarium" have entered my vocabulary.  Dad keeps incorrectly referring to the columbarium as "Mike's Crypt," which makes me think of late-night zombie movies.

Some days I can go for longer stretches without thinking about him, though it's always there bubbling under the surface.  There are moments I pretend to have acceptance.  Then I see a photo like this one, and am shocked into stunned silence.  Acceptance is so far down the road, I'm not sure I even believe it is there.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day


Today is Mother’s Day—my Mom’s first Mother’s Day without Mike.

Losing Mike has been the worst thing that has happened in my life so far—the most difficult death, the most intense grief.  Losing a sibling, however, could not be anything like losing a child.  I think of what my Mom must be feeling—my grief times a thousand.  Not that one can quantify or compare these things. 

As a mother myself, the idea of losing my daughter is the most frightening thing I could imagine.  I’ve said that I would give anything to have my brother back, but of course that’s not completely accurate.  If anything happened to my daughter, it would completely destroy me.  And yet, here are my parents, walking through their worst nightmare.  Since I was adopted, Mike was their only biological child.  I wonder if that makes the loss even harder.  I think that would be hard for me.  You create this beautiful baby who is always a part of you, and then he’s gone.  You give him life, and then he takes that life away.

I don’t think Mike thought through what his death would do to our parents.  He loved Mom and Dad very much—“more than you will ever know,” as he put it in his suicide note.)  Occasionally I feel anger toward him about how selfish he was for doing this to our parents, but those thoughts never make it very far.  He could not see past his own pain, and I really don’t blame him for that.  If anything, I get angry at him for not taking his meds, but that was likely a symptom of the depression as well.  The whole situation was just tragic and sad.

Through this grief journey I have been meeting other survivors of suicide along the way.  Some have lost their children to suicide, while others have lost their siblings, their partners, their friends, or their parents.

Tonight I am sending love to all of the mothers who have lost their children, and to all of the children who have lost their mothers.