Write from the wound to survive trauma

Lorraine Ash, author, journalist, essayist and writing teacher is my WOW! Women on Writing blog tour guest today. Her second memoir, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life, is a spiritual memoir about taking stock of the traumas, losses, and disappointments we all experience by midlife. In Lorraine Ash's case, the major one was the stillbirth of her daughter, her only child. "After a time," Lorraine says, "what happens to us can feel like meaningless assaults to the self. But the book shows us meaning can be made of our life events, however disparate, if we bring them down to the soul level. In the end, it's the quality of our inner life that determines what forces thrive in our psyches and so our lives." I can certainly resonate with Lorraine's story. After the suicide death of my 27-year old son, Paul, I was able to find new meaning in my life and actual gifts that resulted from his death. Writing my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, was a huge help in my … [Read more...]

My Gutsy Story Anthology

I've been so proud to be a part of the group of sixty-four writers who participated in the 2013 edition of  the My Gutsy Story Anthology: True Stories of Love, Courage and Adventure from Around the World, conceived and edited by Sonia Marsh. The anthology has won three awards so far: 2014 ELIT Gold Award for Anthologies 2014 International Book Awards Finalist 2013 Benjamin Franklin Award Silver Honoree Winner at the Paris Book Festival Sonia is now taking submissions for the all-new 2015 anthology. I encourage you to submit your story now. Click here to find out how. Here's the piece I wrote for the 2013 edition. And if you like my piece, I promise you, you won't be disappointed in the sixty-three other stories in this wonderfully inspiring book. You can buy it here. My Gutsy Story When my older son Paul died by suicide in 1999 after a seven-year battle with bipolar disorder, I knew I had to find ways to keep myself busy and productive or else I would wallow away in my grief. At … [Read more...]

How writing a memoir helped me heal

In mid April Eleanor Vincent, author of Swimming with Maya, and I will lead a workshop titled Telling Healing Stories: Writing A Compelling Memoir at the Story Circle Network's Writers Conference in Austin TX. I have written and spoken much about writing to heal.  In the next couple of weeks I'll again share some of these thoughts. How Writing A Memoir Helped Me Heal Writing has been part of my life since I was in grade school. However, when my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and after his suicide I needed to write down my feelings daily. Writing in my journal became an obsession and a balm. It gave me a way to organize my fears, pain, and thoughts. I had used journaling during an earlier stressful period of my life to rant. So I felt that writing would help me again during what turned out to be the most stressful time of my life. Early on during my son's illness I read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992), and her suggestion to write … [Read more...]

Keeping Paul’s music alive

After Paul died on the morning of September 23, 1999 we found a rectangular-shaped  black canvas bag that contained cassette tapes of all his recorded music. We picked out a few and played them during his memorial service four days later. One of his long time friends, Martin Borsanyi, who used to compose and play jazz music with Paul during their high school days, came over to our house many times in the next year or so. He made an inventory of Paul's musical instruments (except his piano, which we still have) and other electronic sound and recording equipment that we gave away to the Crossroads High School jazz ensemble where he and Martin played. Martin also transferred the music from cassette onto CDs, working in our home because I was afraid to let the tapes out of my sight for fear of losing them. Once I got into the age of iTunes, I also transferred all of Paul's music there as well. I also created a memorial page on my blog here at Choices where people can stop by to … [Read more...]

Introducing Chanel Brenner, poet extraordinaire

I met Chanel last May at a poetry workshop led by Richard Jones. I was immediately taken by the poem she wrote during the workshop and that we have something in common - we each have lost a son. Chanel's grief for six and a half-year-old Riley who died from the rare disease Arteriovenous malformations (AVM)* is still new. And her beautiful poetry shares that grief with her readers. Here is Chanel's story, reminiscent of friends of mine who left after my son died. My Friend From Another Life She sits across from me, wearing a purple sundress, her dark hair relaxed around her face.           You look really great, she says, her voice thick with surprise, her eyes approving as they scan me from head to coral painted toenails. It's not what she's said, but what she's left out, compared to a year ago, the last time we had lunch together at this restaurant, shortly after Riley died.           She scooted away after that, one email at a time. First, If you ever need to … [Read more...]

Happy rebirthing [via Eleanor Vincent]

[This is a reblog of Eleanor Vincent's post today - by permission] I'm throwing a party for the rebirth of Swimming with Maya. Thanks to the power of networking, it has a new life as a paperback and eBook. But in 2010, the future of my book did not look bright. Capital Books, the independent publisher that issued the hardback in 2004, was closing its doors. My beautiful book about raising daughters and rebounding after loss would be pulped. I tried everything I could think of to sell the remaining hardback copies and had some success. But even if I sold them all, the book would still slowly fade and die. I considered the Author's Guild program Back in Print that creates print-on-demand books for authors in situations like mine. But I'd have to live with a generic book cover and format, and no marketing support for the book. Sadly, this story is not uncommon. Small publishers close their doors with alarming frequency. And big publishers those consolidated megaliths can … [Read more...]

Diversions still help

I don't think I've mentioned that I've agreed to take on a consulting job for a few weeks. Actually I signed on because I was told the assignment would be over before Christmas. Yet as soon as I arrived, I found out it goes into January as well. So, I offered a compromise. I'll work in the last week of December (two weeks beyond my initial commitment) tomorrow and Friday and during the first week of January, and then I'll be finished just in time to get ready for my husband Bob's hip replacement surgery the following week. It's not that I don't like the job. I'm working as a technical writer and advisor to young engineers, helping them write and produce a proposal something I've done in the aerospace business for years. The work is always interesting especially when the engineers are receptive and smart. However, it takes me over an hour each way to get back and forth. In my old work life I never spent more than ten minutes commuting each way because early on, my husband and I … [Read more...]

Related in grief

In just ten days my son Paul would have been forty-one years old. Since the Newtown CT massacre I've thought of him more and more. I've been through thirteen Decembers since his death. This one is the hardest. So I thought I'd share a poem I wrote about our last time together. Though my experience is totally different from the bereaved in Newtown, we are related by our grief of the loss of a child. No parent is ever prepared for that. The Last Night How could I have known it would be the last night? A night like all the others: the low creaking groan of the garage door, tires screeching to maneuver into the narrow place, the roar of the engine before silence. Then slamming the door, my son, sweeps down the long hall, calling out hello in his deep friendly voice. I startle as I hear his heavy strides pass my door, I call out to him. Returning, he enters my room standing, staring, looking more calm than I've ever seen him. His blue eyes like sapphires fringed … [Read more...]

Latest suicide statistics

My son, Paul, died by suicide thirteen years ago. Here are the suicide statistics for the year 2009 (ten years since he died). It's the latest available data though I hear the numbers are even worse now - especially with the rate of one suicide a day in the military. Seems to me we have a lot of work to do to prevent suicide. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention 2009 data: Facts and Figures National Statistics General Over 36,000 people in the United States die by suicide every year. In 2009 (latest available data), there were 36,909 reported suicide deaths. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 65 years in the United States. Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. A person dies by suicide about every 15 minutes in the United States. Every day, approximately 101 Americans take their own life. Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric … [Read more...]

Remembering Paul on Rosh Hashanah

Poster courtesy of Mike Purcell, founder of the Facebook page, Putting a Face on Suicide So the Jewish High Holiday, Rosh Hashanah, is over. It begins a ten-day period of reflection ending with our Day of Atonement (a fast day) when we go to synagogue to pray to be sealed in the book of life for another year. Even though I'm not religious and I question the existence of God, and it is hard for me to pray or even say the pray word, going to high holiday services always makes me cry. Especially the reading on Rosh Hashanah that spells out who shall live and who shall die. (listen to Leonard Cohen's rendition.) On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by … [Read more...]

The edge is off

Paul's birthday is tomorrow. Usually I'm beside myself as I approach this time in December. I'm nervous, I can't concentrate, and I just want the visit to the cemetary on Paul's birthday to be over. This year I'm much more calm. He is still a huge part of my life. But my thoughts about him don't run my life anymore. We plan to go the cemetery tomorrow as always. But this year it feels like we're just fitting the visit in between the rest of the events of the day. I'll go to the gym as usual, do my normal morning stuff afterward, go to the cemetery, get a manicure and pedicure, take care of Oscar (maybe), and then go to the movies and dinner with Ben and Marissa. In years past all I could do was think about and dread going to the cemetery. I could hardly do anything else. So definitely the edge is off. I can honestly say I'm moving on. His death doesn't impede the rest of it. On a cool, sunny day in Normandy the breeze does not disturb the graves at the American Cemetery. No … [Read more...]

The Compassionate Friends revisited

I've written about The Compassionate Friends before but not about its wonderful services for parents and siblings. Here is some information for those out there who need help - especially during the holidays. The Compassionate Friends Supporting Family After a Child Dies. Through a network of more than 625 chapters with locations in all 50 states, and Washington DC and Puerto Rico, The Compassionate Friends has been supporting bereaved families after the death of a child for four decades. Each chapter, along with the supporting National Office, is committed to helping every bereaved parent, sibling, or grandparent during the natural grieving process after a child has died. Its mission is to assist families toward the positive resolution of grief following the death of a child of any age and to provide information to help others be supportive. The National Office and its staff also provide many levels of support to our chapters, as well as individual responses to those who … [Read more...]

Reach out – help is really out there

A friend of mine recently asked me to contact her friend who had lost a son to suicide. She thought I could tell her friend about my experience as a way of helping her. Although I called with trepidation -- I worried about being intrusive -- I felt our conversation went well. And hopefully we can continue not just for her benefit but for mine as well. I reconnected with an old school-days friend after our son died because he had had a similar experience six years before. And from the minute he walked through my door I felt relief. Here was someone who really understood what I was going through. He wasn't there to give me therapy. He was just there -- anytime I needed him to be there. So my point is - reach out to anyone you know who can be there for you in your time of need. We also went to the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services Survivors After Suicide eight-week workshop after Paul died. I know I've written about Didi Hirsch, before but I feel it's appropriate to mention this … [Read more...]

Thanksgiving thankfulness

The day before Thanksgiving. Time to think of things to be thankful for. I wrote on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's wall that I am thankful that I chose to live and survive after Paul died. Otherwise I could never have had the joy of seeing Ben get married last August. Of course that was my reasoning for staying alive. I couldn't leave Ben and Bob. I didn't want to miss out on what was going to happen in Ben's life. And as it turned out, I have a lot to be thankful in how my own life turned out. In learning how to live again, I discovered that I had the gift of leadership, the gift of love from family and friends, the gift of strength that only surviving the death of a child can bring, and the gift of a creative life. About fifteen years ago I finally said now or never, and I started taking classes and workshops to hone my writing skills that had laid dormant since my high school and college days. Although at first I didn't think I could transfer my technical … [Read more...]

The Dreaded Question

This morning The Compassionate Friends, the wonderful organization that supports parents of children who have died, posed the question about what we say when asked how many children we have. That question is a tough one. Right after our son died I would get so emotional when that question came up that I almost couldn't respond. I would do anything to avoid the question so I wouldn't have to answer it. Saying I had a son who died just made it more real. Now, it's easier. I just tell it like it is. Here is the poem I wrote about that dreaded question about two years after he died. It happens again like so many times before. I'm at my sister's house, talking to her neighbor someone I've just met and she asks me the dreaded question one that I'm avoiding by talking about what a great day this has been in Portland and isn't my sister's garden just beautiful and what do you do for a living and where are you from. And there it is, after I've tossed the salad greens put … [Read more...]

Ten birthdays

This was the 10th time we've gone to the cemetery to celebrate Paul's birthday, and how I've managed to live through all these years is a miracle. Well, I attribute my survival to how I've chosen to live my life since my son died: working, working out, and openly receiving and using the gift of writing that Paul's death afforded me. And, of course I must also attribute my survival to family and friends who are always here for me. That the grief doesn't go away in evident just by the way I feel today -- gray and wallowing in self pity like the color of the day -- yet I'm living proof that one can live through the most horrific tragedy of all. So we're moving on we had a nice lunch at the Farmstand, we're writing the last of the charity donation checks, and later we'll go to a movie and dinner with Ben and Marissa to ring in the new year. But, before I go, here's a recent poem I wrote for Paul. One I've been saving for today. What I Miss Nine years didn't erase him. He … [Read more...]

September 23, 2008 — nine years!

So, you might ask, what did I do today? The answer is: I went to the gym as usual, but while I was there, I listened to some of Paul's favorite music -- Cat Stevens, the guy he loved when he was little, and John Lennon, the guy he wanted to emulate. I went to work, wearing a purple t-shirt, Paul's favorite color -- really it's better to go to work than be sad alone at home. And, then Bob and I went to the cemetery at noontime and each of us left a smooth stone on his grave marker -- now dim and old and it's hard to see all the lettering, and one of these days I'm going to have it replaced. Then we went to lunch and ironically the music playing in the restaurant was jazz -- John Coltrane playing sweet jazz on the piano -- somethig I usually avoid if I can because hearing jazz after Paul died was just too painful. And, then back to work, able to concentrate on nothing, and I'm home now. And, I'm sitting at my computer wondering what all this means and whatever I do to remember Paul, … [Read more...]

Back to Paul’s country

Paul was thrilled to be accepted at the New School's jazz music program as a college freshman. He had always loved New York -- even as a little boy. He never minded the fast pace, the smells, the sounds. He thrived on them -- until he had his first manic break. After that he was certain people were lurking in doorways out to get him and his girlfriend. But, he couldn't stay away. We'd bring him back to California for hospital treatment and a short spell of quiet and rest, but as soon as he could he'd go back. Back and forth, back and forth, so many times I didn't keep count -- until he came home for good two and a half years before he died. We go back to New York often -- it still attracts us. Maybe because Paul is still there everywhere Another View of New York New York City Union Square, the lower East side Paul's country. He blossomed there He became a musician there While he learned about the real world Of cold fourth floor walkups, Dealers hustling on street … [Read more...]

Picking up the pieces

So, instead of moving, instead of getting that "fresh" house, we began to renovate. I got rid of the scene of the crime first, then I took his bedroom and closet and turned them into a beautiful office where I'm sitting right now writing this, and we moved boxes and boxes of things we cannot part with into the garage. All the boxes are meticulously labeled and arranged in deference to him. Demolition Bathroom We don't have to look into that room anymore and wonder if spots of blood still remain on the floors and walls. We've demolished the scene of the crime. We will no longer step into that tub and see Paul in his white long sleeved work shirt and khaki pants sitting against the shower door in a bloody puddle. They've taken it all away. The old aqua blue tub the toilet, and sinks. the faux marble counter with burn stains from the tiny firecrackers he set off as a teenager. The god-awful blue and yellow vinyl flooring is gone. Sterile white tiles and … [Read more...]

A bi-yearly ritual

We go to the cemetery every year on Paul's deathday and his birthday. I always dread it -- probably because it punches me with that jolt of reality right into my gut -- and yet, afterward, I always say to myself that I should go more often. Of course I don't. Twice a year is all I can take. The rest of the year I still let my mind think magically and imaginatively about the boy I miss so much. Three Cemeteries On a cool, sunny day in Normandy the breeze does not disturb the graves at the American Cemetery. No matter where you stand, looking diagonally, horizontally, or straight back and forth, each alabaster white grave marker each chiseled engraving is in perfect precision and symmetry as far as the eye can see. The grass covering the graves mowed just the right height a shade of green from a Technicolor garden. The surroundings a rectangular reflection pool the curved wall inscribed with the names of 1,557 Americans missing in action, the center bronze … [Read more...]