How gratitude, a change of scenery and sharing stories have helped me face the Thanksgiving holiday after my son's suicide.
My son Gabriel was a Thanksgiving baby. His birthday didn't fall on the actual holiday until his second birthday, but it does every four years, including the year he died by suicide, 2008. The association between his birthday and our most heartwarming holiday presents both challenges and opportunities for getting through what has become, for me, an emotionally-fraught month.
When the leaves begin to change color and the air begins to bite, I start wrestling with memories of baking Turkey-shaped shortbread cookies for his school celebrations and his favorite apple pie for our family one. The pain of creating new memories that don't include my son is one I don't think will ever subside entirely.
Giving Thanks and Finding Distractions
But, in my family, Thanksgiving isn't about football, movies or family fights, though the day may include all of those. It's about gathering around an over-stuffed table to give thanks to God for his sustenance and his faithfulness, no matter what the circumstances of our lives have been.
In 2008, I gave thanks for 23 years with my son and for friends and family who upheld me after he died. In 2009, because I work from home and my husband is retired, we decided to escape the seasonal triggers and spent the month on Sanibel Island, in Florida, where we were earlier this month for the same reason. The change of scenery and distraction help a tough 30 days pass more quickly. Here's what I wrote in November 2009:
"What constitutes 'the good life' for me and my family is completely different from what it was before all this tragedy befell us. I wish people would understand and accept this. I am exceedingly grateful when they do."
Last year, I didn't write anything at all -- in part, I think, because the therapeutic value of writing about Gabriel's death had begun to diminish and in part because I've learned to keep it mostly to myself. Unless a person has been through this kind of horror, he or she really can't comprehend it's ongoing ripples and waves, and they tire of hearing about them.
Connecting With Fellow Travelers
This is why I'm so grateful every year that International Survivors of Suicide Day is held in November. The day offers a safe place to gather physically or virtually with others who have lived through the death of a loved one by suicide.
In 2008, I watched a webcast of the event. That was a good, detached choice when my emotions were still too raw to share with strangers. In 2009, I attended a symposium on suicide prevention at the United Nations. Last year, thinking I was going to another symposium, I attended the New York City local American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's event. This year, on Nov. 19, I plan to attend my local AFSP chapter's International Survivors of Suicide Day event.
I find these gatherings exhausting, and no one in my family has yet chosen to attend one with me, but I keep meeting fellow travelers at them whose stories assure me that I'm not alone -- travelers like author Eric Marcus, who will be representing the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) at a congressional briefing on suicide as a public health problem. We sat next to each other and shared our stories at the UN in 2009.
Sharing Stories Responsibly
Sometimes it's easier to read other people's stories than it is to encounter them in the flesh. This is why I so appreciated a recent Asbury Park Press series on a suicide cluster in the Manasquan, New Jersey, area. It helped me to learn how other parents are processing their childrens' deaths. Because stories like these ease my burden, I keep telling mine, even though doing so presents its own set of challenges.
Not only does talking about Gabriel's suicide expose my greatest pain and vulnerability, but suicide prevention organizations warn that talking about suicide irresponsibly can actually endanger lives. For example, I learned about the Asbury Park Press series when AFSP referred the paper to its media reporting guidelines on Twitter when the series ran, though I'm not sure why.
I try to follow those guidelines, but I sometimes find the organization's scolding troublesome, because no single person or organization is the sole arbiter of how to correctly discuss this disturbing public health issue. The Press explained its rationale for the series pretty convincingly, in my opinion.
I'm much more concerned about suicide as a recurrent plot line in crime shows on TV than I am about careful, imperfect reporting by news outlets. If I were to watch these shows regularly, I could be exposed to graphic images of my son's method of death many times each week. I know this because I used to watch some of these shows and no longer can. That's part of the reason why I've become a reality TV junkie, but that's a column for another day.
If you're a suicide survivor, I'd love to hear what helps you get through holidays and other significant dates.
*Author's Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared at Jersey Shore Patch sites, where Christine A. Scheller is the Faith & Family columnist.