It's a stubbornly pervasive myth that suicide rates are highest during the holiday season -- actually, they peak during the spring (for reasons that we don't fully understand). But what is undeniably true is that the period that kicks off with a giant turkey and culminates with Auld Lang Syne can be utterly excruciating for those left behind after the suicide of someone close to them (particularly those who are white-knuckling it through that first year).
Thanksgiving had always been my very favorite holiday, and I adored our extended family's longstanding traditions. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins coming in from all across the country and the excitement we felt as each new group arrived. The annual rain-or-shine Turkey Bowl football game on the elementary school soccer field, which we'd videotape and then watch after dinner along with my mom's fabulous pecan pie -- complete with a hilarious pregame show from my brothers, and color commentary courtesy of my grandfather, a former sports editor for the Flint Journal, and my spirited grandmother, who'd spent gametime in the kitchen talking lovingly to the turkey to coax out the best flavor. The annual challenge of cramming as many marshmallows as humanly possible onto the top of the sweet potato casserole. And the secure knowledge that no matter what, we would all be together again next year.
Until the year that my brother Stephen -- an honors graduate of Yale with a J.D. from Harvard and married to his college sweetheart, who suddenly developed bipolar disorder at 26 -- took his own life. We'd tried to get him the right help, and he knew how much we loved him, but we ran out of time. He killed himself less than a year after being diagnosed.
He'd died in July, and by November I was just barely beginning to regain some nascent sense of equilibrium. Then came Thanksgiving, and no matter how many golden brown and delicious marshmallows there were, and no matter how much Grandma sweet-talked that bird, all I could think about was the huge gaping hole where Steve was supposed to be. I stayed inside and watched the Turkey Bowl from a distance.
We craved some way to acknowledge his absence (without inadvertently turning the entire evening into a memorial service). So we decided to try a ritual I'd read about in one of the massive armful of books I'd gotten when I went to Barnes & Noble, found the cheerfully named Death Aisle, and bought everything I could find with the word "suicide" in the title. We lit two candles, and then blew one out. The one that was now dark represented our grief, our sadness, and our thousands of unanswered questions, while the one that continued to glow represented our commitment to finding the inner resilience to heal. From time to time during dinner I'd look over at the glowing candle, reminding myself that somehow I was going to figure out a way to get through this.
It's now a sacred tradition at every family holiday to "do the candles" and take a moment to bring those we miss into the room with us (if it appeals to you, I hope you'll you'll try it -- and pass the idea along).
But that first year I wasn't thinking about creating a new tradition. I was just trying to figure out how to make it through without spending the entire night sobbing in the bathroom.
It can be really hard even for loving, well-meaning family members to truly be there for each other, especially when they're all grieving at the same time. Friends may have no idea what to say and unintentionally say something that's deeply hurtful. Or worse, say nothing. And since suicide still isn't something most people talk about very openly, those left behind often feel judged, misunderstood, marginalized, and alone, especially as they head into the holiday season. If you've lost one of the 40,000 people who kill themselves each year, you too may bracing yourself to enter the fray that begins next week. But even if you feel alone, you don't have to be alone.
Every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 22 this year), hundreds of cities across the country and around the world host International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day events, healing gatherings where family and friends who've been touched by suicide loss can come together to connect, share, and find comfort. Each location has its own mix of educational presentations, sharing sessions, and opportunities to meet your fellow survivors. Originally created by a resolution of the U.S. Senate sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who lost his own father to suicide, the day offers a unique opportunity for community, connection, and support. Even if you aren't able to attend in person, you can participate online free of charge or even watch past programs. All of the information is at www.survivorday.org. Pass it on.
Thanksgiving now? It's been over 20 years since that first one, and the Turkey Bowl has been bequeathed to our kids. Grandma's now 96 and still croons to the turkey (and incidentally, can still rock a pair of heels). I've perfected the marshmallowing of the sweet potatoes (turns out the key is that extra layer inside). We still "do the candles." And I still miss Steve terribly. Because he's still and always my brother, and there's still and always a gaping hole where he's supposed to be. But I've been able to integrate his loss into my life, and have found great meaning in a professional life working with individual, families, and communities to help them cope with suicide loss.
A treasured friend and colleague once shared something that has stayed with me as I've navigated my own path of healing: When something as tragic as suicide happens in your life, it's as if you now have a huge, heavy weight on your shoulders. Over time, the weight may not get lighter, but your shoulders get stronger.
Survivor Day is always the Saturday before Thanksgiving. All best wishes for a peaceful holiday season.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.