Sunday, January 31, 2010

In A Better Place

At least he is no longer suffering. At least he is at peace now. These are the things we tell ourselves, desperately searching for a silver lining to the dark cloud of Mike’s death. We want to make some sense of it, and find some way to think about it that doesn’t feel like our hearts being ripped out of our chests. So, Mike is at peace now.

I believe that when you die, your spirit is set free. But where it goes, I do not know. As hard as I try, I can’t picture where Mike is now. I can’t picture what Mike is now, or if he is anything at all. It’s not that I’m agnostic, because I’m not. I believe in God with all my heart, and with every fiber of my being. But what happens after death, because I’m still alive, I couldn’t possibly know. And that’s why death terrifies me.

According to the laws of physics, Mike’s energy had to go somewhere. Did it go up into the heavens, or back into the earth? Is he now just a part of the wind, the ocean, the trees, and the dirt? This thought is comforting to some people—death as relief from the bondage of ego, and surrender to the cosmos. When the ego/self ends, what part remains, and where does it go?

I want to believe there is more. I want to believe that life on Earth has purpose, and life after Earth has…something, anything. It seems that Mike’s spirit, the part that was uniquely him, must be somewhere. Is he hanging around here? Is he in a new body? Is he with God? Or does he only live on through the people who knew and loved him?

A few times since he left I have felt his presence. Each time it felt like he was tickling my cheek. I told him I missed him. I told him I loved him. I told him that I would take care of Mom and Dad. I told him I hoped he was at peace.

I asked Dolly where she thought Uncle Mike was now. She answered: “Here.”

She said she sometimes feels him on top of her head. She said, “He tries to talk to me in whatever way he can.” When I asked her what she meant, she said he talks to her through other people. Someone else will be talking, but she’ll hear his voice in her head. “What does he say?” I asked. “He said, ‘I’m sorry I did this.’”

Yesterday my parents had a Mass said for Mike at their church in West Virginia. Because I couldn’t be there with them, I went to Mass with my family here—Dolly, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and her fiancĂ©, and my nephew—at as close to the same time as possible. At the church I prayed for God to watch over Mike, and truly felt that Mike was somewhere he could be watched.

As for Dolly, she believes that Mike is her guardian angel. She believes he is watching over her.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Twist In My Sobriety

Mike suffered from the disease of alcoholism, though it would be difficult to distinguish it from the disease of depression in his life. He drank to find relief from his depression, and his drinking made him more depressed. In his suicide note to my parents he said drinking was the only thing that brought him relief. I understand this idea. Just as Mike drank to seek refuge from his overwhelming and consuming depression, I used to self-medicate to find relief from OCD. The problem with this kind of thinking is where it ultimately leads. The same thinking that told him that he needed to drink to find relief from his pain also convinced him that it was a good idea to put a bullet through his head.

I got sober 11 years ago today. A few years later, Mike voluntarily admitted himself into an alcohol treatment program. In the weeks leading up to his decision to go to rehab, he and I talked every day. Our relationship was like that—we had sporadic episodes of closeness, followed by long stretches of distance and silence. When he was 19, he spent some time in a psychiatric hospital after a failed suicide attempt. He refused to talk to my parents. Suddenly I became the only person he would talk to. I was reminded of this period when we spent hours on the phone before he went to rehab, talking about recovery. We now had something in common. He spoke in a language I could understand.

I used to think Mike and I were polar opposites. While we tended to agree on music, films, and politics, we had nothing in common in the way we lived our lives. I left home at 16, and he lived with our parents till he was 31. Much of my young adult life I was reckless to a fault, whereas he was risk-averse to a fault. But alcoholic thinking I understood.

When I visited my parents in West Virginia last month, I stumbled across Mike’s journal from rehab. It was in his file cabinet, where he kept the files I needed to settle his financial affairs. I never would have opened it if he were still alive, but since he is gone I wanted to hold on to whatever piece of him that I could. He wrote about powerlessness, and about surrender. He described a universal journey, one that transcends our individual circumstances. We weren’t as different as I’d thought.

I don’t know how long Mike stayed sober. I thought we would continue to share this common bond, celebrate milestones with each other, and keep talking. It did not work out that way. Mike would only let me in when he wanted to, and then he would disappear. And I did the same thing, getting wrapped up with my busy life, too busy to check up on him. I suspect he relapsed a couple of times over the years, based on what my parents have told me. He and I rarely talked about it again. My family thinks he was sober when he went back to school and started his new career over the past few years. We know he relapsed again at some point last year. We suspect he was not sober when he died, although only the toxicology report will tell us for sure.

Tonight I say a prayer for all those who are still suffering. May they find relief without a bottle or a gun.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Only Solution Is To Move Forward

My eight-year-old daughter Dolly knows her uncle killed himself, but she doesn’t like to talk about it, at least not with me. She was with me when I got the phone call the morning that he died, so there was no time to break the news softly. How could I sugarcoat a suicide even if I’d wanted to? She understands that her uncle died of a disease of the mind, just as another could die of a disease of the body. In the days and weeks that followed, she talked to some of her friends about it, so she wasn’t in denial about what was happening. But whenever I try to talk to her about it, she says that the images it puts in her mind are too scary, so could we please talk about it later, like after Christmas, like after New Years, like in the spring?

Dolly writes songs for her rock band, The Silver Tigers, of which she is the lead singer. Here’s her latest song:

Dying isn’t a solution

The only solution is to move forward

Dying isn’t a solution

The only solution is to move forward

It’s my new earworm—a catchy tune with sage wisdom and after-school special simplicity.

But here’s the sticky part. For some period of time prior to the morning of December 5, 2009, Mike convinced himself, without anyone knowing, that dying was the only solution . Was there something I could have done that could have convinced him otherwise?

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are entering the era of guilt and regret.

Two nights before he died, Thursday, December 3, 2009, Mike called to talk to Dolly. He left two messages on my voicemail while Dolly was at her dance class. In the first message he said that he was having a hard time, and that talking to Dolly might help cheer him up. The second message said that he had hoped to talk to Dolly, but now he was going to bed, so we shouldn’t bother to call back. Virginia is three hours ahead of California. I remember thinking, “poor baby, he sounds so stressed. We’ll have to give him a call this weekend.”

The next day, Friday, December 4, 2009, I planned to send him a text message. As I headed into the office, I was composing something in my head (“hang in there, kid”), but work that day was an insane, adrenaline rush type of day with no break for lunch. I settled two of my cases that day, but never sent the text.

On Saturday, December 5, 2009, Dolly ran her first 5k in Golden Gate Park. As we walked to the park, I said to her, “We have to call your Uncle Mike when we get home because he called for you a couple of days ago.” She wanted to call and tell him about the race. Instead, we received the call from my parents. I was waiting at the finish line of the Lollipop Run (with some ass-hole yelling at me and threatening to sue me because Duncan’s dog was barking too loudly) when I learned that Mike was dead.

If we had called him back on Thursday, would it have made a difference? If I had sent that text or given him a call on Friday, would it have made a difference? I know he had already bought the gun when he called on Thursday. I had no way of knowing that he was calling to say good-bye. Even if I had talked to him, would I have known?

My regret goes beyond that phone call, of course. My brother was depressed and/or suicidal for at least 20 years. I wish I had been a better sister. I could have called him more often. I could have bought him a plane ticket to visit me. I could have invited him to come live with me. I thought there would be time.

Look, I realize these thoughts are self-indulgent. (Hello, it's a blog.) I do understand that his suicide was not about me at all. But I'm writing about suicide survival, and dealing with regret is part of it. I never said grief was rational.

Still, I won't wallow in regret for too long. The only solution is to move forward.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

West Virginia, Mountain Mama

I flew to West Virginia to stay with my parents for a while after it happened. I couldn’t wait to see Mom and Dad. There were many people here for me in California, but they weren’t experiencing the grief with me like my family is. In West Virginia, I could immerse myself in the memories and the mourning. I wanted to hold on and never let go.

The first night in West Virginia, I read the letter Mike had left for my parents, which was much longer than the one he left for Dolly and me. It didn’t help make any more sense of what happened. It just made me feel sad. He left notes for his neighbors in shaky handwriting, asking them to help my parents, but in those notes he got my parents’ cell phone number wrong. He was either very upset or very intoxicated. As much as I disagree with his decision to end his life, I hope he was at peace with it at the moment—if being at peace is something someone with suicidal depression could experience. I hope he wasn’t scared at the end.

I learned that Mike had planned his suicide for a while. He bought the gun two days before he died, and had gone to the shooting range several times in the prior two weeks to learn how to shoot a gun. He researched suicide and printed out information for my parents. He typed up several letters and a list of people who could help.

My family assigned me the task of settling Mike’s legal and financial affairs. I was grateful for this job because it gave me something to do for my family when I otherwise felt helpless. Each day I went through Mike’s files, made phone calls, sent off copies of his death certificate to creditors, and determined the next steps in winding up his estate. I found myself awake in the middle of the night studying Virginia probate law to determine whether Mike’s suicide note was a legally valid holographic will, how to get someone appointed as administrator if he died intestate, etc., while having flashbacks to my law school Wills and Trusts course.

Most of the time I was all right, explaining to anonymous voices on the other end of the phone why I was calling to close an account. Other times it would get to me. Before I shut off Mike’s cell phone, for example, I looked through his text messages. There was an unsent message in the drafts folder:

“I am so sorry. I love you all.”

I like to think that he knew better than to send it, and that he left it there for us to find.

My family decided to wait until spring to have a memorial for Mike. It was too overwhelming to pull it together before Christmas, and there was no rush since we had his body cremated. We met with a priest and arranged to have a mass said for Mike on January 30, but the funeral mass won’t be until March or April. We went to the funeral home and picked out an urn—a shiny black metal box with gold specks, which he would have liked. We had an obituary put in the local newspaper. We drove to the cemetery to see if there were spaces in the columbarium. All of these events were surreal. Intellectually I know that we did all of these things. But it doesn’t seem like we did, or that should have had to do these things for another 50 years.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

My Heart

Mike bought everyone Christmas presents, which arrived a few days after he died. My present was a silver heart on a black leather cord. I’ve been wearing the necklace each day to remind me of my love for him. It has become a symbol of my mourning. I miss him.

The first day I didn’t wear it was New Year’s Day, a day full of new possibilities, and a day I felt my heart start to open. These are the challenges of the new year: learning when to grieve and when to let go, learning how to honor Mike’s life and what it meant to me, and learning how to resist the impulse to be overprotective and allow myself to be vulnerable to the people around me.

I feel raw and exposed. But grieving openly is better than shutting down.

When I was leaving West Virginia to fly back home, I asked Mom if she and Dad were going to be OK. She said yes, because what choice do we have? “We can’t help him now. We need to keep living. We won’t help him by falling apart, or by drifting apart.”

There is more to say about the journey of these past weeks, but for now I need my strength to venture back into the world, and to continue to live my life.

I have decided to put the necklace in a special box, and to take it out when I want to feel close to Mike. The necklace is too intense to wear every day, but a piece of Mike will always be in my heart. My biggest fear is that he died without knowing how much I loved him. A friend told me that I should talk to him now and tell him all of the things I wish I could say, all of the things I wish I would have said. I hope he can hear me.