I am so proud to feature my first guest post on the blog today. This is a beautiful and poignant essay written by Ms. Deena Baxter, the author of a book entitled, “Surviving Suicide: Searching for Normal with Heartache and Humor.” In her book, Deena shares the story of losing her son Kevin to suicide, and how her family coped with such sudden loss in the following months. Today, she shares with us how humor, mindfulness, and compassion guide her in navigating the holidays without her son.
Thank you, Dr. Vasa, for inviting me to share my journey-in-progress with your blog community.
Most everyone who has survived puberty has experienced loss on some level, even if it is limited to the loss of childhood innocence: loss of a beloved toy, a friend, or a pet. As we mature, our losses become more personal and profound – grandparents and parents reach end-of-life, close family or friends succumb to illness or accident, a job loss brings fears of financial insecurity. How we cope with loss has a lot to do with its timing, our current state of health, our sense of security and well-being, and our resilience. Some of these are beyond our control.
I’ve survived many losses in life and developed strong survival tools: some more constructive than others. What came close to breaking me was sudden loss; loss without “Goodbye.”
My sudden loss happened on July 5, 2012 at 6:15pm. The defining event was a phone call from the landlord in Brazil informing me that our youngest adult son, Kevin, was dead. That’s just how he delivered the news – cold, detached and impersonal. Kevin gave back the gift of life two weeks shy of his 36th birthday: the cause of death was suicide – death by bipolar mental illness.
Since that day, I have moved forward, anchored on a foundation of three building blocks: the arts, community and meditation. This is where my world intersects with Dr. Vasa’s world – the art of writing and community brought her into my life, and meditation is a practice we both embrace. However, my path to spiritual healing was far different from hers.
I flunked Meditation 101 three times. My introduction to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle changed that – four months after losing Kevin. Embracing the present moment has been a life-changing survival tool. It has taught me how to work through loss anchored in the present, coupled with heartache and humor – the kind of poignant humor that comes from the human condition and recognition that we are all perfectly imperfect human beings. It has helped me acknowledge and make peace with my grief and my guilt. Sometimes they come a-calling: I find them sitting on my shoulder. I acknowledge them, I give them a hug but I don’t feed them. Presence has helped me recognize that I spent so much time wresting with Kevin’s demons, they became mine. Sometimes I wrestle with my demons, sometimes we just snuggle. Meditation and presence are works-in-progress — the goal is practice, not perfection.
The holidays can be a particularly tough time to navigate through sudden loss. Poet/scholar Elizabeth Alexander wrote a moving tribute to the love of her life, her husband who died from a massive heart attack 4 days after his 50th birthday. Being present while reading it touched me to my core and inspired this line of thinking: I say, “I lost my son” but saying he is ‘lost’ implies I am looking for something that might be found. Where do I find Kevin? I often wonder. If only memories remain, will I lose those, too? What am I meant to remember? What am I meant to forget? What is my responsibility?
There are no easy answers, but meditation and presence allow me quiet time to discover what honors our son and works best for me: I call this “Mental Mending.” It has helped me be more comfortable with ambiguity: I don’t need to know all the answers right now. Some members of my family have adjusted to Kevin’s death and some have withdrawn, refusing to adapt, stuck in anger. I must give them their space and they must give me mine. I am comfortable with the responsibility of being “Keeper of Kevin’s Memories.” I do not want him to be forgotten – written out of our family history, present or future. We are getting older and he is frozen in time, but not frozen out of our lives. This is important to me. I wanted to find a way to make his presence known without causing pain: it is a fine line because of the stigma that surrounds mental illness and keeps it shrouded in darkness. I will not remain silent, but I also need to respect family sensitivities.
Our youth-crazed culture makes it difficult to talk about death in general. This wasn’t always the case: before the Industrial Revolution, families mourned at home laying their dearly departed out in the front parlor for visitations. Today, we outsource dying, death and burial to institutions. We’ve replaced front parlors with…living rooms.
Recently, here’s how I chose to honor Kevin. We had three generations of our family gathered around the dinner table on Thanksgiving. Here’s the blessing I delivered: “Before we begin our Thanksgiving dinner, I just wanted to wish everybody a Happy Thanksgiving, Happy ThanksLiving and Happy ThanksLoving. I am particularly happy today for my beloved mother-in-law, who is surrounded by the people who mean the most to her. It wasn’t easy for everybody to get here but thanks for making the effort. Kevin may not be here in body but he is here in our hearts. So without further a-due: Blessings to all – Great food, Great meat, Great God, Let’s eat!”
“I don’t know what they are called, the spaces between seconds, but I think of you always in those intervals.” – Anonymous
About the author: In September 2014, Deena Baxter launched The Surviving Suicide & Sudden Loss Project in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Collier County, FL. The project includes a book and creative arts website, www.WriteOnMyMind.com, with a mission to promote life-affirming mental wellness. The book is titled, SURVIVING SUICIDE – Searching for “Normal” with Heartache and Humor: All profit from book sales flows to NAMI of Collier County, FL. Baxter incorporates creative art and humor in her writing and her presentations with NAMI-Collier. The book was awarded a Mascot Books 2014 Outstanding Author Award for Non-Fiction. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) endorsed the book and has listed it on their website as a resource. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Inc. (TAPS) has also endorsed her book and will be including it in their Survivors Packets for military families and posting it on their website Book List. Baxter co-founded and runs a spiritual meditation program in SW Florida. She can be reached at DeenaBaxter2@gmail.com.