"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Loving Life

This was the scene in my bathroom last night as Gillian and her friends primped for their first high school dance. The dress code for the occasion was neon. They couldn't find any super bright neon clothes so they made it work with brightly colored outfits. This first dance was a casual, no date needed gathering. Back in my day we called them stomps. Back in my parent's day I think they called them sock hops. 

The primping took a couple of hours. When I opened the bathroom door and peaked in the fumes from nail polish, hair spray and perfume nearly knocked me off my feet! They put a lot of thought into their hairstyles and 'look' for the night. Gillian was the designated make-up artist for everyone. She's an expert primper and really does have a knack for doing hair and make-up. She's my go-to person when I need my hair styled in an up-do these days. 

Listening to their excited talk and speculation about what the night would be like made me smile. They're in such a prime part of their youth right now. Nearly everyday is a new adventure or experience. Gillian hasn't been this talkative about school for years. She excitedly jabbers on for hours about her day, her friends and her newfound freedom. She's not quite a month into her sophomore year of high school and is completely, 100% enjoying everything about it. 

After all the primping and prep was done, it was time for a final photo and then off to the dance. Aren't they cute? 
I chauffeured the girls to the dance, stopping to pick up one more friend on the way. As they all exited the car and walked into the building I was struck by the significance of the moment. None of them realize it now, but these are most likely some of the happiest, simplest, most carefree days of their lives. For just a few more precious months I get to shuttle them around in the car, listening to their backseat chatter. Right now, most of them are in driver's education. Next week they start driving on the training range. In less than two months, some of them will have full-fledged driver's licenses. Official dating hasn't started yet. There have been some junior high, teenage heartbreaks, but right now all of them are still untouched by the complicated, sometimes heartbreaking complexities of dating and relationships. 

Driving home in my empty, quiet car I thought about my own high school days and friends. The bonds we form during junior high and high school can be some of the strongest of our lives. So much of our live's critical learning and growing up experiences happen with our friends by our sides. I have a very similar picture of me with three friends before we headed off to a 9th grade junior high dance. We were about a year and a half younger than Gillian and her friends are now (but much less stylish and sophisticated!). The four of us did so much growing up together. Although we aren't close friends who talk often, we have stayed connected over the last 25+ years. 
Roni, me, Stacy, Gina  - Spring 1984
There's something so comforting about having friends from your youth in your life. They know me in ways friends I've made as an adult never can. They understand my back story. It isn't just a story I've told them about my life. They were by my side as I lived it. We all knew each other as carefree, innocent children and teens. As adults, we've all suffered from heartaches and loss. None of us has been left untouched by death, divorce or disappointment. Even though our contact is infrequent, and mostly made through social media, there's a deep comfort in knowing that the friends from my youth understand my life better than most. I know when it matters most they're the first people who will reach out to me. 

I love watching Gillian enjoy life right now. I want her life and the lives of her friends to remain carefree and easy for as long as possible. I hope they soak it all in and enjoy living in the moment like only teenagers can. Adulthood and its many responsibilities will come soon enough. Right now they're learning about life, and if they're lucky, also forming friendships and connections that will remain far into the future. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

World Suicide Prevention Week

This week is World Suicide Prevention Week. The theme for this year is Suicide Prevention: One World Connected. Being connected to others is important in so many aspects of life. It's especially important when it comes to suicide prevention, as many studies have shown that social isolation increases suicide risk. Having strong human bonds can help protect against it. As I reflect back on my journey through grief and healing the last 4+ years, I realize that my connections with others helped lift me out of my anger and despair. The connections I've made with so many of you through the blogosphere helped me on my journey and continue to be very important and treasured relationships to me. 

Much of what I've written on here has been about my personal experience as a survivor of suicide loss. I haven't used this as a platform for talking about suicide prevention education and awareness, which is a little odd since in the 'real' world that's a topic I'm very vocal about. One thing I've learned since I've started speaking out about suicide is that I never know who is listening--and my voice, my experiences--connect with more people than I realize. 

Last week the World Health Organization released the World Suicide Report. The statistics in it didn't surprise me, but are alarming nonetheless. Worldwide, over 800,000 people die by suicide each year. That's approximately one suicide death every 40 seconds. The number of deaths due to suicide each year is greater than the deaths caused by homicide and war combined. Suicide is a major public health problem. Recognizing this, the World Health Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020. All 194 member states who adopted the plan committed to reducing their suicide rates by 10% by the year 2020. Here in the U.S., the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a goal of reducing suicide in the U.S. by 20%  by the year 2025. I'm committed to doing my part to achieve these goals. I realize many others also share this desire but aren't sure where to start or how to help. One of the most important things we can all do to help prevent suicide is to stay  connected to others. Be aware of what's going on in the lives of your friends and family. If you think they may be struggling with depression or anxiety, talk to them. Below are some tips for how to start the conversation. I hope you'll read and share them. This week and beyond I challenge you to learn more about suicide and how to prevent it, start a conversation, and join the fight to end suicide.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Farewell to Phoenix

It seems to be a summer of goodbye's for me. Yesterday I received the news that my sister Julie's dog Phoenix was put down earlier this week. Julie got Phoenix around 14 years ago when he was a pup, and he was her constant, loyal companion until her death. Phoenix, or the The Fiend as he was also known, will always be remembered for his viciously wagging tail that could take down small children and bring grown men to their knees if he hit them in just the wrong spot! Like his owner, Phoenix was a little neurotic and high-strung, but also beautiful, strong, graceful and very lovable. He was an anxious car traveler and had to be sedated with Benadryl for long trips. He loved to hike, chase tennis balls and lick lotion off of just moisturized feet. More than anything, he loved Julie. He was her protector, friend, companion and security blanket all rolled into one, always by her side, including the moment she took her last breath.

I visited Phoenix in May while I was in Colorado. Seeing him was a priority for me that trip. I knew he was getting very old and I wanted a chance to say goodbye. I spent over an hour alone with him on May 29, the four year anniversary of Julie's death. That morning I laid on the couch in the house where my sister once lived, with my head on one of her old throw pillows and had a heartfelt, tear-filled talk with Phoenix. He came and sat next to me and put his head on the couch right next to mine. When it was time for me to leave he followed me to the door. I went back twice to kiss him and say goodbye. I knew it was our final farewell and I'm certain he knew it too. 

Phoenix was lovingly cared for after Julie's death by Jason, who made sure his final years were comfortable and full of TLC. In addition to Jason, he leaves behind a loving family who will always remember him and be grateful for the years we had him in our midst. I think my sister-in-law said it best. Phoenix had, and gave so much love in his life. Those of us who were lucky enough to be touched by that love will be forever grateful. 
Valentine's Day 2010
Hannah, Julie and Phoenix at Grandma Sally's
Jason and Phoenix 
Morning coffee at mom's house - Easter 2008
Julie and Phoenix - Easter 2010
Buster, Julie and Phoenix - Easter 2010
Walking with the kids - Easter 2010
Road Trip to Grandma Sally's
Saying Goodbye - May 29, 2014
Phoenix - May 2014

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gillian Goes to High School

Today was Gillian's first day of high school. That's right. My baby. My one and only child, is now a high school sophomore. It's the oldest cliche' in the the world, but I'm still going to say it. Where on earth did the time go? The other day after shopping for school supplies, she wondered aloud about being able to fit her new puppy in her book bag to take to school with her. I said it would be like the book she loved that I used to read to her, "If You Take a Mouse to School" except her puppy would be much harder to smuggle in. How many years has it been since I read her a bedtime story? Back then, it seemed like a part of life that would last indefinitely. 
I remember when she started Kindergarten, high school seemed forever away. Back then I couldn't even conjure a picture in my mind of what my cute little girl with glasses and hair barely long enough for pig tails then would look like in high school. That was probably a self-preservation thing on my mind's part. Can you imagine if I knew then what she would look like now at 15? Just to be clear. She's going to school now with 18-year old men! I'm trying to remain calm and not think too much about what I did in high school.

I've been telling Gills for the last year that I thought she'd finally really find her place in high school. She's old for her class, and has always been pretty mature for her age. I think the last year of Jr. High was especially boring for her in many ways. She was so ready for bigger and better things. Last night I could tell she was nervous. She even admitted to being a little apprehensive about things. The school she's going to is huge. I get lost every time I'm there. When I finally fell asleep around 11:30 last night she was still up primping and prepping. This morning she was up early getting ready. I warned her last night that I would be taking her picture so she could either pose and smile for me at home, or I would follow her to school and make her pose in the main rotunda. Either way, I was going to get my first day of school shot. She opted for the picture at home before leaving this morning option. 
1st Day of High School
Other than a little glitch over lunchtime planning, things went great today. So I paid for lunch three times before noon. Who's counting? She now has cash (or did, it seems to have been lost in the excitement this morning), money in her school lunch account, and money in her checking account for lunch. She better not come home in the next few weeks complaining of being hungry! Her first day report was glowing. It seems she already has high school totally under control. She loves the people. No more childish junior high kids in her midst! And, there's a gorgeous foreign exchange student from Finland in her Health class. We had an actual discussion about his long, flowing blond hair and amazing accent. Yep. My 15-year old daughter and I talked about a hot foreign exchange student together. I never saw that one coming. 

Last night I felt a little weepy at the thought of how quickly time was passing and Gillian was growing up and moving on. Tonight I'm no longer weepy. Hearing her happy and excited voice as she told me about her day made me happy. I really do think she's going to thrive in high school. She has a fairly challenging schedule full of honors and AP classes, but I know she's going to do well. She's going to experience so many new things over the next year. It's a great time of life. I still think back to my Sophomore year and remember it as my favorite year of high school. I hope it's the same for her. 

A friend of mine I've known since the 6th grade commented today on Facebook about our kids growing up and going off to school, saying we could get together and cry. She's sending her oldest off to college this week. Both of us worked very hard at having children. There were points when we both despaired that we may never have kids. We went through rounds of IVF around the same time, and back then shared our stories of the pain, heartache, hope and expense. I still remember a visit from her while I lay flat on my back for three days after an embryo transfer, fearful of moving or hardly breathing. Today, 16 1/2 years later, I watched my baby, the baby that I laid flat on my back for days for, immobile so I could give her a chance at life--nurtured, protected and loved from the very instant her life was inside mine--walk purposefully away from me and down the street to this new, exciting chapter in her life. It was a happy moment. No tears, only smiles. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Suicide, Celebrity and Stigma

I've debated adding my voice to the thousands who have already written about the tragic suicide of Robin Williams. What more can I say that hasn't been said? Plus, sometimes I feel like a broken record when it comes to the subject of suicide. I imagine people rolling their eyes when they see another blog post about it. But then I reminded myself that I write this blog for me. My readers and the friendships that have come from it are a bonus. Writing helps me process. It's my own private therapy, even if I do make it public for the world to read and judge. I've also learned that I should never silence or edit myself when it comes to the subject of suicide. It's too important and I never know who is listening, or in this case reading, and may be helped by hearing about my personal experiences.

Hearing the news of ANY suicide devastates me. They all feel personal. Every. Single. One. Yesterday was no different. I heard the news shortly before I left work and called my sister as soon as I got in the car. She was weepy and sad. We didn't need to explain to each other why. There was no talk of how silly it was to mourn the death of a stranger. We know. We know the horror of that moment when the bottom drops out of your world. We know the  mind-numbing grief, the shock, the despair, the anger, the sadness, the questions, the guilt, the confusion, and the horrible, long journey the survivors left behind are just now beginning. As my mom said today in a Facebook post, "It all hits just too heartbreakingly close to home." 

Here is what else I know. There is still enormous stigma, judgement and misinformation surrounding suicide and mental illness. Although most of the comments, stories, blogs and news reports I've seen have been good and filled with positive messages, education and expressions of deep love, sympathy and compassion, I've also read some very awful, judgmental comments. I've tried to avoid those as much as possible. A clip posted today caught my attention. It was about a Fox News reporter who called Robin Williams a coward for committing suicide. I didn't watch the link because I choose not fill my mind with hateful comments from uninformed people. However, I did post this comment about it. 

"A perfect example of the kind of remarks that continue to stigmatize suicide and contribute to the many myths surrounding it. The only way to counter such uninformed comments is to shout the truth from the roof tops and drown out the voices of those who judge and spread misinformation. 

Robin Williams and so many others fought valiantly for years to stay alive. My sister fought a battle for her life for almost twenty years--a very fierce battle. She was exhausted, right down to her very soul, and in a weak moment with an unclear mind clouded by mental illness took her own life. Nobody, not a single living person, knows the personal battles and the toll they take on those who die by suicide. Judgement of them for losing the fight is absolutely wrong and shows a lack of compassion, not to mention a lack of facts about suicide."

I guess this post is my way of shouting from the roof tops. There will always be those who judge, are misinformed, uneducated, or just plain lacking compassion, empathy and understanding. I want the voices of those of us who know better to be louder than those who continue to contribute to the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. We must speak up. It really is a matter of life and death. 

I'm no expert on suicide. I only have my personal experience of living through the aftermath of the suicide of someone I dearly loved and the knowledge I've gained since then. But there are experts, people who have devoted their lives to studying the causes of suicide, mental illness, and the many contributing factors that can lead a person to choose to take their own life. Please help me share their knowledge. 

Here is a link to some very common myths vs. facts about suicide from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Suicide: Myths vs. Facts. The media can also play an important role in educating the public about suicide. Unfortunately, in cases such as Robin Williams' and other celebrity deaths by suicide, the story is often reported in very irresponsible, destructive ways. Words matter, and often the words the media choose to use in reporting on suicide are dangerous triggers to individuals who may already be having suicidal ideations. If you want to learn more about this, here is a link to a statement released today by AFSP's Executive Director, Robert Gebbia. Unsafe Reporting on Suicide Can Cost Lives. If you see instances of irresponsible reporting about suicide by your local or even national media, I encourage you to contact the source of the story, and ask them to please be part of the solution to preventing suicides and use safe reporting practices. 

My sister's death changed my life forever. I miss her every day. I mourn the loss of her life, and I mourn the loss of all the hundreds of thousands of other lives lost to suicide. I grieve for her, for me, and for every other person coping with either their own struggle to stay alive, and those who are now learning to survive after losing someone to suicide. My sister is gone from my life forever. Sometimes I wonder how she would feel about me talking about her so much. Should I be using her death to help deliver a message I feel is so important? I don't know how she would feel about that. But it's what I have, so I share it. Her story is now my story. I'm going to use it in whatever way I can to hopefully save lives. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Class of '94

The Pueblo East High School Class of 1994 is reuniting this weekend for their 20-year high school reunion. They’ll laugh, reminisce, cry, celebrate and marvel at the fact that 20 years has flown by so quickly. They’ll tell stories of youthful adventures and indiscretions, parties, class pranks, young love and heartbreak, and wonder how they ever survived some of the stupid things they did. They’ll try to reconcile their still young-at-heart mental state with their 38-year bodies and the big 4-0 looming in their futures. They’ll share pictures of their children, talk about their careers and families, and take stock of where their lives are now compared to where they thought they would be back in 1994 as they looked forward to the future. They’ll also remember the classmates who aren’t there with them that left this life far too young. My sister Julie is among those who will be remembered. On Saturday morning at 8:08 a.m. many of her classmates will gather for the Pueblo East Class of ’94 808 run, a 5k run organized by some of Julie’s friends in her honor.

I’ve thought so much about Julie this week. Partly because her friends, as loyal to her in death as they were in life, have so generously included our family in their plans and shared their memories and thoughts of her with us. I know this is a hard time for them too. Julie was part of a tight-knit group of friends who have remained closely connected over the last 20 years. Her loss is felt very deeply by all of them. This milestone in their lives is a vivid reminder to all of us of how much life Julie had left to live. I’ve long since resolved my anger toward Julie for taking her life. I no longer feel mad and resentful about what she took from all of us. I do, however, still feel incredibly cheated sometimes—cheated out of a future with my sister in my life and the opportunity to celebrate her life’s milestones and achievements with her. When she took her life she also took the promise of her future with her. As I watch her friends raise families, have careers and enjoy their lives I’m reminded of so much that will never be.

For Julie’s fellow Eagles: Tomorrow morning when you run along the familiar streets of your youth I want every one of you to know how special you were in her life. During one of our last times together the two of us went for a run through Pueblo. We talked about her move there, her time in high school and her friends. I was struck then by how meaningful those relationships were to her. I didn’t understand how truly lucky she was to have such special friends in her life until after her death when so many of your showed such love and concern for my entire family. Now I understand why she felt so lucky to have all of you in her life.

I imagine that at some point this weekend Footloose will be played for Julie. I hope everyone dances with abandon just as Julie would have done if she were there. My hope is that more than anything this weekend is a celebration of life and friendship. Tomorrow when you run for Julie, run with a smile and the knowledge that she cherished her friendship and connections to each of you. Tragically, when it mattered most her illness didn’t allow her mind to remember how dearly she was loved by so many. All that love wasn’t enough to save her. But as true friends do, you have all remained loyal. That you continue to show your love for her in so many ways means so much to me. Her death left me the gift of your friendship, and that’s a gift I will always treasure.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Leaving the Nest

Spending time with my girl - July 2014
Last week I had a preview of what it must feel like to be an empty nester and I'm not sure I like it. Gillian left earlier this month for a 10-day vacation. Her dad and stepmom, brave souls that they are, took her and three of her friends on a road trip to California. Gillian wanted to spend some time on the beach near the ocean this summer. Living in a land-locked state, that's kind of a tall order. Being the determined, focused planner that she is (hmmm...I wonder where she gets that from?) she decided many months ago that her and her friends were going to California and hitting the beach this summer. The fact that they're all 15, unemployed and don't have driver's licenses didn't even give her pause. 

It didn't take much twisting of the finger her dad is wrapped around before the trip was a go. Itineraries were planned, reservations made and money saved. Each girl had to contribute $200 towards the cost of renting a house for the week. Gillian, a girl after my own heart, carefully planned and saved and came up with the $200 plus spending money for the trip. I was impressed with her single-minded determination and discipline over the next several months as she saved the money needed for her trip. 

The long-awaited departure day finally arrived. I said goodbye with a sigh of relief. Ten days of freedom! My workdays would be free from numerous text messages with urgent requests demanding immediate attention.  No more interruptions asking about rides to the mall, permission to have a sleepover, or go to a party or a friend's house. I was looking forward to a break from the demands of parenting a teenager during the summer while working full-time. Anyone who has done it before knows what I'm talking about. 

I'm used to being away from my daughter for extended periods of time. I've had a 50/50 joint custody arrangement with her dad since she was 4 years old. She lives away from me every other week. I've long since gotten over any anxiety and sadness about not having her with me every day. I've learned to go with the rhythm of one week on, one week off of parenting. Still, I always sleep better and feel much more settled and content on the nights she's asleep in the room next to mine. 

It was a long ten days. I missed our frequent interactions. Even when she isn't with me, we have a lot of back and forth communication and frequent contact. During her vacation I tried not to bug her and barrage her with constant messages. We texted back and forth every day or two while she was gone. She was sweet and sent me pictures and videos. This one especially touched my heart.
Her message was simple, "Look who it is." I love Olivia Newton-John and the two of us have spent many happy times dancing and singing our hearts out in the kitchen to songs from Grease. 

When she finally made it home I couldn't believe how much she had changed! She was tan and happy and beautiful. She seemed more mature. I loved hearing her tell me about her trip. As we sat at the dinner table, just the two of us, I realized how precious that moment was and how fleeting our time together over the next few years is going to be. My mind flashed to the future and I realized this was probably how I'll feel when she comes home from college for visits in the not so distant future. I saw myself waiting, hungrily, for her next visit, basking in the unique glow of her youthful energy, beauty, excitement and stories of discovery. I saw her as the adult person she is rapidly becoming, a person with a life that is becoming more separate from mine. It struck me that my nest would be empty much sooner than I realized. 

Sometimes as our babies grow, demanding and squawking for their needs to be met NOW, the nest can feel so crowded and suffocating. The day they spread their wings and fly away seems as if it will never come. And then, it does, and the void they leave is huge, much bigger than the actual physical space they took up. I realized I'm not quite ready for that empty nest. I'm good with some brief, experimental flights away and then back, but I'm not ready for that final flight away, not for a while. 
The girls on the beach.