A Conversation on Suicide and the Left Behind: Twitterscript of Jennifer Michael Hecht

Friday, March 14, 2014 - 3:16pm
A Conversation on Suicide and the Left Behind: Twitterscript of Jennifer Michael Hecht

Author and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht on suicide, resilience, and community. She says, "We have secret web-like connections to each other. Sometimes when you can't see what's important about you other people can." Join the conversation here.

Post by:
Trent Gilliss (@TrentGilliss),  Executive Editor / Chief Content Officer for On Being
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Credit: Spencer Platt License: Getty Images.
“None of us can truly know what we mean to other people and none of us can now what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings — the endless possibilities that living offers — and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay.

Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay.”

~Jennifer Michael Hecht, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

We are receiving an outpouring of stories from people sharing their stories of grief and resilience. We're hoping this Twitterscript of Krista's conversation with Ms. Hecht prompts you to join our ongoing conversation about suicide. Share your experiences here and let's build a better dialogue about this issue in our society.

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Trent Gilliss is the driving editorial and creative force behind On Being. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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Tomorrow marks 5 years since my teenage son died by hanging in his father's garage. Two years before that, I found him unconscious in his bathroom after swallowing 60 pills - whatever he could find - allergy medicine, dramamine, my prescription 'mood stabilizers.' Those two years were pure hell for me: constantly on the watch, fighting to get him intensive therapy, worrying, never sleeping...with the mantra "don't do it" playing in my head, over and over. I suspected and knew in my heart that he was being emotionally and likely sexually abused by his father - but nobody would listen. The doctors, the court appointed psychologist, all of them fooled by this man who drove ME to the brink of suicide so many years ago...they all were too pc and insisted I was just the vindictive ex wife.

My son was hilarious, the life of the party, beautiful in every way...gifted athlete and friend to hundreds of kids at many schools. Most had no idea of the torment that he kept hidden away - until the binge drinking started, and the rage surfaced from time to time.

He attended a private Christian k-12 school, and the horrific shame and stigma imposed on us was beyond belief. His football coach assured me that the seniors would plan a way to honor him that next fall, but in reality the school leadership determined that because of the 'mortal sin' committed, and the risk of "promoting suicide in others," the coach and his wife came to my home and presented me with his jersey in my living room.

My own reality is that I have experienced the depths of grief - a pain that words don't touch - but I also have experienced incredible joy and relief. Through a series of uncanny synchronicities and undeniable expressions of his energetic presence around me (and in me) I have connected with him through meditation and especially with the aid of gifted mediums who can see and hear him. When I am quiet and clear, sitting on my cushion or hiking alone in the woods, I get "downloads" of love and thoughts that are unmistakably from my son. The gift of this horrible story is my infinitely expanding awareness of the survival of consciousness and our souls beyond the physical death of our bodies. My understanding of our interconnectedness with each other and all beings has led me to connect with so many other mothers who are experiencing the same - the bond of love does not die. The constant message from the other side is that of forgiveness and unconditional love.

18 months after he passed, I was at a poetry workshop with Ellen Bass at Esalen, and I very clearly 'heard' my son say that he had not lost all hope when he "gave up" but rather he could see the light beyond this darkness and suffering, and that he knew we would remain connected forever. In that moment, I grasped that my grief was a small price to pay for my exquisite child's release from his torment and secret prison of abuse. I connect with him constantly now. His personality and sense of humor is very much intact. During readings he relates very specific details about our (mine and his brothers') current lives, and this gives me great comfort. He says he is guiding me and helping me network with other likeminded people so that we can change the attitudes and embedded fear of death in our culture...so that we can live more fully.

Anniversaries are still very hard. I spent most of yesterday crying in my bed. I wish he were still here in the physical, but I am also very grateful to have such an advocate on the other side. My son's suicide has expanded my life immeasurably.

Downloads of love...that is so beautiful. Peace to you mama.

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Your story is the most moving to me because like you, I feel what is at stake is a redefinition of death in our society. I have had so many suicides around me, but the ones that touched me most where when I lost my brother in law to hanging and my mother was in so much pain two years ago that she contemplated suicide. He was clinically depressed and was the sixth one among his friends to decide that the Colombian reality was too much lilke hell to continue living, and decided to end it all, leaving pain, confusion, and heartbreak behind, especially in my sister, who felt she had abandoned him and prompted his hanging. Ten years later, she has managed to walk out of the shadow of grief and regret, but his memory has become a part of who she is forever. My mother, on the other hand, called me one day to tell me she'd rather die than deal with the endless succession of tormented painful, meaningless days. She had lived through three near-death experiences as a child and was not afraid of death in any way, and we were brought up understanding death as the other side of life. Citing her grandchildren as her motive, she finally decided to undergo a very dangerous spinal cord operation and has been dealing with the struggles of recovery, and we do a long-distance phone meditation daily. We have incorporated Macrina Wiederckers's work, Mark Nepo's, and other spiritual texts to our conversations and I think that there is more light in her days now, but I respect now, and respected even then, when she had the impulse to end it all, her right to choose when to die. I sense that same respect and evolution of the understanding of death in your experience after your son's death, and I share your desire for this conversation and our weaving of communal stories and experiences to prompt a differetn view of death, a revised look at suicide, as to how we respond to it as a family, as a community, as an individual, and as to how much these individuals can teach us through their choices. with love, Lina.

As a mother, I totally understand and share every emotion and feeling you have discussed. It has been four years since my son's suicide. But today I feel him in the sunsets, sunrises, full moons and when I score that great parking spot. He shared a love and devotion to Dave Matthews Band, and whenever I hear that music I know John is winking at me. xoxo Take care of yourself.

My mama committed suicide when I was 10 and my brother 9. There's a lot I can say about all that, but I will limit myself to two things. Long ago, my feelings of grief, anger, and abandonment were overwhelmed by compassion for her, and relief that she was no longer suffering. And when I've been low -- which has been often -- suicide was off the table, not an option, because I didn't want to inflict that same pain on my family, especially my dad. In that sense, Mama did her grandchildren, my wife, and my dad a great service, even in death.

I resonate with this. You said in fewer words than I said in my entry below yours. Thank you.

My younger sister committed suicide when she was 20. I was 23. The day she shot herself, I was in labor, giving birth to my first baby. I marveled in the sublime joy of a new baby, perfectly formed, radiant and innocent. Joy was coupled with catastrophic grief. In one direction was golden light. In the other, black shock and terror.

The newly arrived baby brought with him of hope and optimism. I loved him with a tenacious ferocity I'd never known before.

I knew that this was an opportunity for me to learn. I dug my feet in and consciously chose to see it that way.

I felt naked and unprepared for the intensity and the polarity of light and dark. I was pulled to live and pulled to die. I wanted to be with my sister, to protect her as I'd always done. I didn't want to let her go.

I saw that, in order for me to survive, my life had to mean more to me than it ever had before. Suicide runs in my family. Ever since childhood I had considered it an option. It was my secret plan for a way out, if "things got worse."

My sister taught me how important it is to LIVE. I began to take my life seriously, to refuse to live a mediocre life. I began to become responsible for the inner quality of my life.. I began to live authentically. I began to reorganize my life around a higher purpose. It was the beginning of a reverence for life I hadn't had before.

Reverence and gratitude are a daily practice. On the anniversary of my sister's birthdays, 36 years later, I take the day off to contemplate. Last year I walked the Labyrinth. This year I may do that, or a house blessing, or a candlelight meditation. I will praise the miracle that life is. I acknowledge that her action put an end to my madness.

I wrote the following in 2010, reflecting on my father's suicide in 1972:

An online friend of mine is a passionate and intelligent man who reached out to me at a moment of deep grief. He lost his best friend who took his own life in a moment of surrender to despair. "Jim" called me to talk because he knew of my own experience with my father's suicide many years ago.

I was eighteen and Dad was fifty-five. He had moved out of the house when I was nine. I saw him one weekend a month, but many of those days were filled with words unsaid. We didn't have much time for those spontaneous conversations that fill in the jigsaw gaps of who we have become, but it was a gentle silence of mutual love. I knew without a doubt how much my father loved me. All of us kids knew.

When I learned of his suicide, the first thoughts of my young mind were of guilty ownership. Somehow I had contributed to his death. What could I have done to prevent it? My thoughts raced with all the "what ifs." What if I hadn't asked for help with college tuition? His death gave me the benefits that allowed me to stay in school. What if I had told him more how much I loved him? I wasn't alone in that kind of thinking; I learned from his friends that my older brother was convinced that our father couldn't live with the thought of a gay son, which was nonsense. I'm willing to bet my two sisters had similar thoughts of responsibility.

Over time I have come to understand the folly of "what if." We simply don't have that kind of control over what other people do. Control of anything but our own actions is an illusion.

While I can accept now that I could not change the outcome of this event, I still mourn briefly at special moments I have not been able to share with my dad. And a few years ago when my husband and my daughter reached the same ages as in that tragic year, I looked at my daughter's complete devotion to her father and imagined how she would be irrevocably damaged in similar circumstances. Perhaps for the first time I truly allowed my anguish full expression. How could you do that to me? I was so young. I loved you so much. I needed you here.

The devastation of that act has repercussions even today, as I struggle every day to give the ones I love access to my heart. Having been burned to the ground by someone whose love was certain, it has been a long and difficult journey for me to give anyone the power to do so again; and in recent years I have succeeded in keeping the walls down. My husband wields his power gently, and it is a gift without measure.

Jim's best friend left behind similarly devastated loved ones, people who cannot fathom the depth of his despair. We who choose life will never fully understand. There comes a time when we must acknowledge that "I don't know" is a sufficient answer. It is the first step to forgiveness.

Jim and I talked for over an hour. I don't know how much help anyone can provide for such grief, except to say "I'm so sorry." We connect over terrible pain and memories. It is what we must do, for ourselves and for each other.

We come together in our vulnerability. It is our humanity that binds us. Our most difficult moments become our finest as we seek our commonalities, accept our differences, and forgive ourselves and each other. Can we seek those moments of reconciliation with purpose? Can we prevent the pain that leads to thoughts of suicide? Let us try. Let us all move toward life.

One of my best friends took her own life a year ago, leaving behind 3 elementary children. She was an amazingly authentic, curious, joyful until bipolar and schizophrenia started taking over her life about 5 years ago, as if had her mother. She left her husband with kids in tow, lived in a shelter til she was settled, her husband followed her but divorced her, was in and out of treatment, medicated to the point of numbness (not even herself), experienced strange and beautiful visions and relationships but also held down a part time job, and finally, due in part to medication and in whole to her diseases, she decided that she did not want that life for herself or her children, so she emptied her bank account, wrote letters, drove to Wal Mart, bought a gun, and shot herself in her car. IT was a horrible shocking tragedy that we are still coming to terms with a year later.
What has helped me understand and process was explaining this tragedy to my children. First I was shocked. "Mommy is very sad. A friend of mine has died." (They ask "Who? How?" to which I decline to answer) Then a few days later, "You know her, it was ___" (silence) "We are all sad, she was so confused and her brain wasn't working right, and she felt hopeless, thought things would be easier if she wasn't in the world, so she killed herself." ("How did she do it?" (I don't want to talk about that, and still haven't) "She will be missed so much. I'm sure she had no idea how much she meant to us, all of us, her family, her friends, the whole world. Feel how bad it feels in your stomach? How empty? Remember that. Because if YOU start getting to feel really bad, hopeless, you need to know how important, special and loved you are to SO many people. And if you can't remember that, PLEASE PLEASE talk to someone about it and get help" That has been the lesson" for me. We all feel hopeless sometimes. Remembering that the feelings change, and how painful and tragic ilife will be for those we leave behind, has been the positive lesson for me. Also this tragedy has spurred me to fight for tighter gun control and broader mental health support. Preventable tragedies like this happen every day. On the other hand, I do believe in one's right to die.


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