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The Language of Grief – A Book

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Stacy Parker and Ruth showing off their living quarters at Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat, Israel. 1986. No idea who or what is happening on the lawn – or with our hair.

In January 1986, a year after my mother died, I enrolled in a semester abroad program in Israel on the pretense of sparking my interest in returning to college but in reality to escape home when my father remarried.  One of the people I became close to on the trip was Stacy Parker but we did not stay in touch for long after as she lived in California and I was getting ready to move to NYC both in the midst of launching our “real” lives.

She knew my mom had died, but, as she has now told me, I did not speak about it at all and she didn’t feel able to ask because of her own aversion to  the subject at that age.  I knew through the grapevine that she had lost her first-born daughter, Alyssa, in 1997 at age 2, but only when we became Facebook friends years later did I learn how involved she was with organizations dealing with palliative care and hospice for children because of her experience. I also realized how close she lived to me and when I was ready to face my own grief and get involved with suicide related groups, I reached out to her to better understand the nature of volunteering in the grief world.

Our friendship resumed over lunch as if no time had passed as we shared our stories of loss, the need to talk about it, and the desire to use our pain to help others suffering. Even though suicide wasn’t a common factor in our losses, the traumatic nature of them was. While our discussions often focus on grief and death, it is never in a morbid way.  It’s been normal for Stacy for years and her comfort talking about it helped mine grow.

Spending time at her home and with her husband and teenage son and daughter impressed on me how someone who has passed can be kept ‘alive’ in a way, as there are pictures of Alyssa around and they honor her during special occasions.  She is not some memory too sad and upsetting to be discussed nor does her presence overshadow their present life.

Stacy has known about my idea for The Silent Goldens documentary since it’s very early days and has been supportive and helpful in multiple ways and I was happy to return the favor when she asked for some input on her latest project, a new book called Grief As a Second Language, which is now on Amazon.  She even uses my story as an example in one of the chapters – but you’ll have to read it to find out which one!

One goal for my website and this blog is to promote other people’s projects that are in line with my mission to get people talking and sharing.  So let this post serve as a  plug for her book.  Here is the review I posted on Amazon about it :

 Having experienced traumatic grief after my mother’s suicide, I found this book covered the wide range of feelings and experiences I faced in the aftermath.  With the author so openly sharing her story of losing her daughter and how she got through the worst of it, the book reads like a letter from a friend who understands, not an expert listing generic advice about dealing with the “stages” of grief.   The details of everyone’s story are different but loss brings on many common emotions and situations that only others who have experienced can truly understand.  Stacy simply shares what she learned and did to give others the space to come up with a way to start healing that works for them.  I’d recommend this book for anyone with a recent loss or anyone who wants to prepare for the inevitable sadness we all must face.

I’m excited to go to her book party on Jan 8 and get my signed copy!!!

Check it out on Amazon!

My Terrible Horrible No Good Thanksgiving

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My first trip home from college was for Thanksgiving 1983.  My flight from Minneapolis to Houston on the very busy day before was cancelled due to snow, so my arrival was delayed until the holiday itself. I was greeted by my father at the airport and we chit chatted about my trip while we waited for my luggage.  There was no clue that life as I knew it was about to change forever.

In the car my father announced that my mother had cancer.  The diagnosis was Hodgkins disease and she would be going through radiation treatment.  Cancer wasn’t talked about much at that time and even though I was assured this was a treatable kind, the “c” word brought very dark thoughts to my mind.

The ride home took about 50 minutes and I was only beginning to absorb this information when we arrived home.  Mom was sitting in the living room in a chair wearing a long, loose dress and holding a pillow to her stomach.  Right before my finals at school my parents did tell me she was having her spleen removed due to an infection or something.  Their explanation didn’t seem completely right from my limited knowledge of diseases but I went with it. Now it made sense.

I really don’t remember anything my mom and I said to each other.  I don’t remember taking the picture (above) of us ready to go to turkey dinner.  What I do remember is soon after arriving being told by my mother to take a shower and get dressed to leave for the Finklesteins in an hour.

The whole dinner was a blur.  I couldn’t understand how they could throw this news at me and then expect me to have a fun Thanksgiving dinner with 20 people.  I couldn’t understand why my mom, with this scary diagnosis and still in pain from surgery, would want to go to Thanksgiving dinner.  When I am distressed I shut down.  I isolate.  I wanted to be in my room.

Her goal, I would learn more than 30 years later when I finally asked my father about it, was to keep things as normal as possible – for her and for us.  I understand appreciate that was her intention but my coping mechanisms at the time were not that mature.  Even now I’m still working on honing them.

My interpretation of the messages I got were:

  • School is top priority and mom’s illness will distract you so we won’t talk about it.
  • Act like everything is ok and keep moving forward no matter what.

I was incapable of not being distracted but didn’t have the courage to break through my parent’s unspoken ban about speaking of the cancer beyond the basic medical factual updates. I don’t know how good I was at acting like everything was ok then, but over the years any skills I had have deteriorated significantly.

That day set the stage for the handling of the events to come when just over a year later my mother killed herself and the family went silent about it – and her – for the next 30 years.  The day after her funeral my father dropped me back at my dorm room with instructions to get back to normal and move forward.   That was impossible for me and I soon dropped out of school.

While I was able to forge a career in tv production, live independently and support myself, I still feel 19 emotionally and have not grown into a “normal” adult life. I am not married.  I have no children.  I do not own anything of significance except my 18-year-old Toyota Rav 4.  I am currently dog and housesitting for a living while working on The Silent Goldensdocumentary about the damage silence after suicide does to the people left behind and what is said when that silence is broken. I love it, but it’s not a life-long career for me.

My life has improved leaps and bounds since I started talking about my mom’s death and I hope the doc encourages others to speak.  It truly is a part of healing. Filming starts in January and I feel like I’m ready to get moving and start growing.  For me the doc is the first of many projects I have in mind to bring awareness to the silent suffering of suicide loss survivors and the mission to normalize conversations about suicide in our culture.

This Thanksgiving I am grateful to my family for agreeing to talk to me about my mom – especially for doing it on camera.  I am grateful to all those who have supported this project financially and emotionally since I began it.  I am grateful to all the loss survivors I’ve met for sharing their stories, offering me comfort and showing me how my story helps them. I am grateful to my mom for the 19 years I had with her and for leaving me a story to tell.  I wish it was a better, happier story covering a much longer span of time, but it’s a story that has given me a clear purpose and path for my life that honors my mother’s passion for helping others.

Fundraising for The Silent Goldenscontinues!  We’re just $25,000 from our end of year goal for our filming budget. Please help us with a tax-deductible donation, add your voice to a good cause. Memorial donations honoring those lost to suicide are encouraged!

Staying The Course in Troubled Times

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My initial intention for this blog was to talk about how overwhelming the negativity, hate and violence that’s transpired recently – especially during this past election season – can be.  I started to write after the Pittsburgh synagogue slaughter.  Then came the Borderline massacre in Thousand Oaks. Then came the fires.

I am grateful to say that so far, the people I know that live in Thousand Oaks and in other fire zones and their property are all ok.  Personally I am fine, just dealing with a bit of smoky haze like so many others. It is still horrifying and overwhelming to process, especially when there is so much help needed but you feel helpless to do anything.

Friends – online and off – have been working to help coordinate animal rescues, donations, and housing for those in need in disaster areas around the country while others have spent months campaigning tirelessly for issues and candidates they cared about.   Whenever there is a crisis, I feel compelled do something, but am quickly overwhelmed with trying to decide what, how, and when I would do it and, probably most significantly, would my participation even make a difference.

I found out some answers four years ago when I began volunteering with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Los Angeles.  Dealing with my own deep depression, I finally started talking about my mother’s suicide 30 years before, something my family never spoke about.  For me, hearing others’ experiences validated so many of mine and allowed me to see my family not as detached strangers, but as human beings who were also in pain.  Others have told me how hearing my story has helped them.  Strangers and friends now open up to me about suicides in their lives.

Discovering the power conversation has to shift long-held (often made-up) beliefs with truth and understanding for me is leading to compassion and forgiveness. While public discussion around suicide has come a long way in the last couple of years and I fear the cause and the resources going to it will get lost in the shuffle of the numerous crises that keep pulling the nation’s attention.  Sadly, suicide isn’t going away anytime soon and new loss survivors are created daily.

Right now I  need to keep my focus and my inner resources on shining a light on the suffering of those left behind.  The Silent Goldens documentary I am producing is my way to forward the movement to normalize the conversation about suicide.  I can be effective in this mission.  I am devoting my time to it. I have seen my participation so far in the suicide world make a difference. I have a lot more to bring to it.

Please help me share my story with a donation to the production at thesilentgoldens.com.

 

Why I Walk

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Throughout the fall the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds over 400 Out of the Darkness Walks across the country.  The money raised supports the foundation’s work in research, education, and survivor support.  Thousands of people write #whyiwalk essays, sharing their connections to the cause over social media.  Here is mine.

Full disclosure – I haven’t actually walked the walk, but on Saturday, will be my 4thyear working as a volunteer.  I’ll be at Central Park in Pasadena, CA.  I first helped in 2015 at the Santa Monica Walk.  It was a time in my life when I was just starting to really deal with my mother’s suicide – 30 years after it happened and my family stopped talking about it.

When I met my fellow volunteers, they introduced themselves and stated their loss.  I did the same.  Suddenly I was having open, uninhibited conversations with people who “got it.”  The dark clouds that hung over this part of my life started to part a bit.  Those conversations led me to seek out a support group, which inspired getting my family to open up for the first time for The Silent Goldens documentary.  Just having conversations about the project opened the door for people to share their stories with me.  Their pain always feels familiar.

The sense of community at these walks is what keeps me coming back.  The healing I’ve felt, and knowing I’ve comforted others keeps me coming back.  Being able to openly honor those we’ve lost keeps me coming back.  The overall feeling of hope and love keeps me coming back.

I found purpose through volunteering at the walks and became active with the AFSP Greater LA. It’s important to me to stay involved to give back to other survivors what they have given to me, and prevent who will, unfortunately, face suicide loss in the future never feel they have to be silent about it.

Find a walk in your area or get all the info for Nov 3rd in Pasadena!

The Kindness of Strangers

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I left my wallet with debit and credit card at a friend’s house and found myself with no cash this morning and no access to get any for a few hours.  Desperate for a Diet Coke, I scrounged up $1.26 in dimes and nickels and found a winning scratch off lottery ticket that I could redeem for $1.  My plan was to trade the ticket for the dollar can of soda and look for a snack I could afford.

When I asked how much the Hostess Donettes cost the cashier said $2 so I put them back and said “nevermind.”  He asked how much I had in the way that I understood I could buy them for the $1.26.  I said “it’s ok” and grabbed my can of Diet Coke.

At the register I asked to trade the can for the ticket then realized this gas station didn’t sell tickets so they wouldn’t redeem them.  He offered to take it anyway.  I told him there was no need as I had a dollar.  I nodded to the guy now waiting behind me to go ahead and began to count my change out.  Suddenly the guy who went ahead held out a $5 bill for me to take.  My eyes got watery at the unconditional generosity and compassion I was being shown by these men. I did refuse but thanked him and explained that I did have money, just not at that second.

I can now say for certain random acts of kindness do their job.  The one aimed at me, though not needed, made my day a whole lot better and gave me some hope for us all.  I will pay this one forward big time!

 

 

FUNdraising with Passion

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Never did I ever think I would be fundraising to do a passion project documentary. Throughout my career in TV production I had a few show ideas I took a stab at selling, but mostly I was hired to develop and execute a certain idea within a given budget. When I discovered I had a story, however, the passion was undeniable. Contrary to the way I am used to working, I now have the idea developed and am ready for production, I just need to raise the money.  It’s opposite world and I am not a natural fundraiser.

Asking for money for anything has always been difficult for me – even negotiating fair pay for myself, I am embarrassed to admit.  I found through doing fundraising for the Out of the Darkness Walks with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention I was able to ask because the money was not for me, but for a cause.  When I did it though, I was so touched by those who did donate.  Not just by the family and friends I contacted that generously supported me beyond my original goal, but those contributions from other people they reached out to who had been affected by suicide.  Some of them I knew.  All of them shared their connection with me.

That experience inspired me to create the page on The Silent Goldens website to memorialize donors’ loved ones lost to suicide and create a (hopefully) long list of people willing to be a part of the conversation on the subject. From the start I’ve been overwhelmed and, once again, extremely touched by each and every contribution.  It’s heartwarming on a personal level since this is a personal story, but it’s gratifying to have so many responding to the mission to normalize conversations around suicide.  Each donation gives me more confidence to ask for the next.

Support has come from all segments of my life – people from childhood, high school and college, bosses and co-workers from days gone by, friends and friends of friends and many other loss survivors. Many joined in on my birthday Facebook fundraiser and I truly got a rush of happiness each time I saw a name and now those I wasn’t in regular contact with are now popping up in my newsfeed again!  So bonus for me and thanks again to you all!

I was also humbled to have Carla Fine memorialize her husband with a donation.  Carla wrote a book No Time To Say Goodbye about her experience after his suicide and travels the world speaking about surviving this loss.  She led a writing seminar I  participated in at a survivor’s conference I attended.   She was the one that suggested I write a blog post about it for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s national website where it was published and went a long way to validating my documentary project!

This entire experience is helping me grow in many ways and I’m so curious to see where it leads and how the film and I can help suicide awareness spread!

A Spotlight on Suicide

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Most of my 25+ year career has been spent in a creative field – television production.  I only relatively recently discovered, however, the healing and help that creative endeavors can bring through developing my current documentary project,The Silent Goldens, opening the conversations about my family’s 30-year silence following my mother’s suicide.

Through my work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, I’ve been lucky to meet many others who are using their creative talents to help themselves heal while spreading awareness, de-stigmatizing the subject, and starting discussions.  One such person is Kelly O’Malley, a fellow loss survivor and producer of A Light In Dark Places: Plays for Hope – five one-act plays chosen through an open competition with stories focusing on different aspects of suicidal struggle and loss.

Being a lifelong fan of the theater, I jumped at the chance to meet Kelly in the spring of 2017 when she was gearing up for the second season of performances with proceeds to be donated to the AFSP’s Greater LA chapter.   We connected instantly and I was thrilled to work with her again this year to talk to the directors about the basics of suicide prevention and safe messaging, bring educational information to the shows, and be part of some Q&A sessions.

Side note:  The plays are staged at the world famous Stella Adler Studio of Acting on Hollywood Blvd where Kelly studied.  The real deal school where she, Brando, DeNiro, and now I have graced the stage!  Even with all my years in the TV industry, hanging out backstage with the actors in that building before a show was the most “Hollywood” I’ve ever felt!    (Photo above – Kelly to the right of moderator, me far right.)

As a theatergoer, seeing the show back-to-back a few times allowed me to notice some nuanced changes in the performances as the days went on, and being a part of the whole experience allowed me to ask those involved about their artistic choices, creating a very interesting learning experience.

The play series and alightindarkplaces.org, the non-profit Kelly has started, are meant to raise awareness, open discussions, build community, and bring hope to those struggling – and she is absolutely doing it as evidenced by the very thoughtful questions brought up in the Q&As.  This was a remarkable event with powerful stories and a cast and crew who were all extremely dedicated to the material and passionate about the overall message of hope.  I saw many familiar faces from the first year I was involved and a number of people I spoke to had a direct connection to the cause, so were also using their creative talents to add their voices to the conversation.

Kelly’s hard work has impressively doubled the play submissions each of the 3 years to over 150 this year. I applaud and thank her and all involved in A Light In Dark Places: Plays for Hope, not just on behalf of my AFSP chapter, but as a survivor. These plays do a great service in allowing people to witness the deep pain so many others live with and how human connection – achieved through conversation –  can help. I am excited to see how her mission and the submissions grow in 2019 and am motivated and inspired  by what she’s done to keep pushing forward with my own project!

Ready to Fly

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In Burbank there is a dry cleaning store called Milt and Edie’s that is very noticeable because of its pink exterior and is known for the witty and clever sayings they put up on their main sign.  A few weeks ago one read:

Your time as a caterpillar has expired.  Your wings are ready.

Those words resonated with me on a profound level as doing this documentary ending the 30 year silence in my family about my mother’s suicide is the start of the next phase of my life.  My mission is to share my story to spread awareness about suicide and the need for loss survivor support.  My goal is to find creative ways to do that.

Since my mom died I have felt stuck in many ways at 19, my age when it happened.  I certainly haven’t lived a traditional adult life with marriage, kids, home ownership, steady employment, etc.  Not knowing what I wanted, I’ve been afraid to commit to anything and over the years and slowly built a cocoon-like zone of comfort around me. Now I am feeling claustrophobic.

Luckily my work for 20+ years in television activated my passion for storytelling along time ago and has given me the tools and experience to do it well, allowing for a convergence of my skills, my story, and my emotional growth that has let me poke holes in my cocoon to develop this documentary idea.

Today I am picking up my wings, putting them on, and beginning the edit forThe Silent Goldens official fundraising teaser tape. When finished, it will mark the end of our development period and we will begin fundraising in earnest to raise the $150,000 needed to complete primary filming then the rest of the $500,000 total budget*.

Today I feel like I am starting a new job.  The timing of this happening now only reinforces the feel of change in the air for me as back-to-school  is around the corner and both the Jewish New Year and my birthday are coming in September, events which always fill me with a sense of renewal and opportunity.

The project is ready to film once we raise enough funds to begin.  I am ready to dig in.   I don’t know where or how far this project will take me, but I’m excited to start walking this new path to discover where it leads.

Donations for The Silent Goldens documentary are gratefully accepted through the International Documentary Association under our fiscal sponsorship agreement.   https://www.documentary.org/project/silent-goldens

 

     

Things That Make Me Happy Part 1

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I’ve decided to take note of the small things that make me ridiculously happy.   It could be an object, an animal, or something someone says –  anything that evokes that flutter of joy in the heart and gives the brain a little lift.  It is a great way to feel gratitude and to remind myself that it is the things that have meaning that matter – big or small.

A few weeks ago I purchased the pair of socks pictured above (worn but washed) and here is why they fill me with delight:

Not All Who Wander Are Lost is a saying I recently saw on a piece of art at one of the homes where I dog sit. It resonated with me deeply as I am currently in a wandering phase of life.

That saying being on socks was perfection to me – a mantra for moving forward on an item that helps you do so!

I love bright colors – especially pink.  Always have, always will.  As you can see, the socks are very colorful and anchored by a bold and beautiful shade of it.

Socks were something on my “I need” list, not just my “I want” list.  I would have bought them anyway but it was nice not to have to justify it to myself.

I’d said my life with these socks is off on the right foot and I can’t wait to see where they take me!

Thoughts After Kate Spade’s Suicide

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When suicides are in the news, they always draw my attention as both a survivor of suicide loss and someone that is working to spread awareness and prevention information about this issue.

Like many others, especially of my age and gender, I felt Kate Spade’s death deeply.  First it was a reaction to her age as she was just three years older than I am. There was also her brand’s aspirational yet attainable place in my world as I was forging a career in NY in the 90s.  I have owned and loved 2 Kate Spade bags and one makeup case over the years.  I still have the make up case – even though I don’t generally wear makeup.

Reading she left behind a 13-year-old daughter, however, changed my entire relation to the story. I was 19 when my mother died by suicide and suddenly I was looking at everything through a child’s eyes. The film that plays in my head of the immediate aftermath rolled and I substituted the characters in my story for the ones I was reading about in Kate Spade’s family. I pictured her daughter being pulled out of class the way I was called to the Dean’s office as a college sophomore and told her mother killed herself. Just like that.

I then thought about her being around a swarm of adults who just had the floor drop out from under them and wonder if anyone is truly focused on her pain and loss.  I think about everything she will miss sharing with her mom going forward and find myself so grateful for the six “extra” years I had with mine.  I mourn the loss of her security and innocence.  I feel for the struggles she will face, the confusion and anger she will feel, and the lifetime of “what ifs” that will likely haunt her. I hope the family knows there is help out there and reaches out for it – for all their sakes.

I also wonder how all the information (true and false) that is now public will color her view of her mom’s life and death. I’ve found much of the coverage of this story appalling. My work as a volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has educated me about the importance of how suicide is discussed, especially in the mass media – and things are bad out there.

Even without training and experiencing a loss, as a human being I just know that reporting on the contents of a final note is inexcusable. Could there be a more personal document?  She did this in the privacy of her home, not in public, so outside of feeding morbid human curiosity what right does the public have to know? None. Her daughter likely hadn’t even digested that her mom was dead, made sense of the concept that she killed herself, or seen the note by the time it was in the news.  It should be her right alone to share that information if she ever wants to.  Couldn’t the police just simply say a note was left?

Not disclosing the contents of suicide notes is one of the standards in place that were agreed to between numerous mental health and media organizations based on over 50 studies showing certain types of coverage can be triggering for vulnerable individuals.  Good reporting, often just a shift in phrasing, can change misperceptions, help reduce the stigma, and encourage help-seeking behavior. The full guidelines and statistics can be found on AFSP’s website.  https://afsp.org/about-suicide/for-journalists/

Not revealing the method is a very important component to safe reporting.  The first article I read  –Page Six of the New York Post – calling you out!– was barely a paragraph or two long but gave a detailed description of Kate Spade’s manner of death.  Even worse, headlines on various sites seem to be not-so-subtly implying there could be a connection between her and other designers who died the same way. I didn’t even have to read the articles to get their gist.

Then, of course, there are the  “why” articles?  What was the one thing that caused her to snap?  There is no answer.  Something dramatic like a relationship breakup, job loss, death of a loved one, may have triggered a suicidal episode, but the complex layers of issues that allow a person to get to that state come into play and overtake the mind. Many people go through incredibly painful changes, losses, and traumas and don’t die by suicide. As everyone is saying, on the outside she had it all, but on the inside she obviously did not.

It’s human nature to want to understand things that are incomprehensible and make sense of tragedies.  I admit I would be fascinated to learn more details of their stories, but research shows 90% of people who die by suicide suffered from a mental disorder and/or substance abuse at the time of death – so what can we ever really know about their state of mind? Often these conditions, temporary or chronic, go undiagnosed and untreated so the mysteries deepen.

Kate Spade’s sister wrote that she was obsessed with watching coverage of Robin William’s suicide. There was an abundance of reporting on his death and much of it not safe. If true, that, along with her husband’s statement confirming she’d been struggling with mental health issues for a few years, is a good example of how triggers along the way can build up until the whole dam breaks. And it’s just damn sad.

Take care of yourselves out there!

This link for the AFSP will direct you to resources if you are worried for another or yourself, if you are a loss survivor, of if you or a loved one has attempted.

https://afsp.org/find-support/

If you or someone you know is suicidal
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7

If someone is actively suicidal and has access to lethal means call 911.