Monday, July 23, 2012

Noble Undertaking

I first wrote this article in February 2010, prior to the Winter Olympics that year.  We are now approaching the Summer Olympics of 2012, so I am adding on to this original post.  My thoughts haven't shifted to any large degree and I think this article still stands strong enough to be shared again.

The Summer Olympics begin this year the weekend of July 27th.  Those who know me well are quite aware of the fact that I'm not the most athletically gifted person in the world.   I was never one to join team sports or be a fan of getting sweaty and dirty while pushing my physical limits to extremes in the pursuit of athletic excellence.  It may seem contradictory, in light of these facts, that I am a fervent fan of the Olympics.  I admit it's a bit unusual for someone who is not all that athletic to be so dedicated to watching the penultimate two week period of all things athletically related.

Why am I such a fan?  What is it about the Olympic Winter and Summer Games that captures the attention, imagination and hearts of the whole world?  One reason is simply that very is a moment in time where the whole world is focused on one brief window, one narrow, specific place on the planet, where a small retinue of talented young people gather from every country, in peace, to compete in a variety of individual and group sports.

The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius", a Latin expression meaning "Faster, Higher, Stronger".

The Olympic Creed is...

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well." (Olympic Motto & Creed, Wikipedia)
During every Olympics, there are remarkable stories of incredible feats of athletic strength, courage and endurance that, any other time, would be considered unreachable, impossible to achieve. Yet, they do happen, and the blooming of the human spirit, the digging deep within that these young people do is what speaks to each of us in a way that is so touching. We collectively witness athleticism at its highest, most pure level....drama, unparalelled pressure and demands on the human body, excitement and patriotic fever run rampant. Indeed, many of the most memorable moments during the Olympic Games aren't of gold medal winning performances - they are of the enduring human stubborn refusal to give up that burns in the hearts of these athletes who push themselves to finish their race, their sport, their individual competition, because they are at the Olympics.

In ancient times, warriors would compete in the Greek Games in peace, setting aside their weapons and coming together in the spirit of the Games.  This most vital component exists today in our modern Olympic Games and, I feel, is another reason the Olympics are such a unifying moment for the entire world.  Thousands of hopeful young people gather together for this same noble concept.  Most of them will not win a medal.  For the majority of the athletes, simply winning a spot on their country's Olympic Team and making it to the Olympics is a dream beyond compare and a once in a lifetime experience that few are blessed to live. 

For me, it is a two week period that is full of hope, and a purity of energy that lifts the whole world up.  I watch everything during the Olympics and it is extremely important to me, when a U.S. athlete wins a medal, that we are able to witness the medal ceremony and hear our National Anthem being played.  I get choked up every single time I hear the U.S. National Anthem played, and my emotions are racked higher during the Olympics.  It is a "feel good" moment that lasts for two weeks and creates some of the most enduring memories.

If any of the people reading this post watched the last Summer Olympics with me, who among us will ever forget watching Michael Phelps break the swimming records and medal victories set by Mark Spitz in the 1970's?  I watched, absolutely spellbound, wishing with all my heart for that young man to achieve the goals that so many doubted, scoffed and outright declared were impossible.  And, he did achieve them...every single one.  I watched every single event he competed in and I witnessed every single gold medal performance, as well as each medal ceremony that was televised.  I experienced that euphoria that all sports fans feel when their team wins, but for me, it goes so much deeper than that simple desire.  This year, Michael Phelps will be closing out his Olympic career at these Summer Games.  I hope to watch him increase his medal winnings, and I look forward to seeing the upcoming new, young athletes who follow in his footsteps.

During those moments of watching Michael Phelps achieve his mutiple gold medal wins, and so many other Olympic performances, my heart and spirit were transported in a manner that I sometimes experience when I hear an especially beautiful piece of music, or witness a uniquely beautiful moment in nature....feel an especially bright moment of love for another.  It is difficult to put into words, the emotions that I feel during the Olympic Games, but I am positive that the energy that is created during those two brief weeks every two years is very important to the overall energy of our planet Earth.  I feel that it is a healing energy that takes place and I also believe the young people who compete in the Olympic Games are forever changed by their individual experiences.  They then go forth to live their lives, it is to be hoped, and do more wonderful, positive things.

I believe that each country cares about the Olympic Games for more reasons than just winning.  Yes, of course every athlete attending the Olympic Games dreams of winning that gold medal, standing on that podium and hearing their own National Anthem played.  Beyond that ultimate moment, the Olympics themselves present an ideal - a wish and a dream of everything being possible and within the grasp of each athlete.  The Olympic Games hold elation, promise...and possibly most importantly, the Games represent Hope.  In these modern times, I cannot think of any single human emotion that is more important than to feel hopeful. 

So, in these next two weeks, everyone who knows me well will sigh, shake their heads in slight amusement, and agree to not ask me to come to dinner, agree to not call me after 7 pm and then greet me again at the end of the Olympic Games.  They know they will hear me wax rhapsodic about the highlights of the Olympic Games for the next couple of weeks, and they'll kid me about my borderline unreasonable devotion to not missing a single, exciting moment of televised coverage. 

It's okay - they're used to me, and I'm used to them, and I am not offended when they find me amusing.  I know that I'm a bit outside the norm in this regard.  It makes me happy to watch the Olympic Games, plain and simple.  In the coming two weeks, I am confident that I will witness some truly inspirational, amazing moments.  I am equally confident that for two short weeks, this beautiful planet that I love so deeply will also bask in the higher vibration that is generated by the Olympic Games.  For a short period of time, magnificent competition, experiences, emotions and memories will blaze brightly and proudly.  And I will have been there to see it.  My memories will be richer, my heart will be stronger, and my Soul will be gladdened. 

Perhaps, for those of us not so athletically gifted, the Olympic Games are also a moment to simply appreciate what those who are truly athletically gifted can accomplish.  At the end of the day, the Games are an exercise in pursuing excellence, pursuing dreams and being up at the top of a mountain, poised to jump out bravely into the unknown and grab victory in both hands.  When you think about it, that's a noble undertaking for two otherwise ordinary weeks out of the year. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sad Weathering - Suicide and Practising Compassion


Suicide.  It's a harsh, ragged, ugly word.  It conjures equally dark, despairing mental images, and finally, it inflicts a quality of pain on those left living that is difficult to quantify.

My family is weathering such an event. It is very fresh, having happened this past weekend.  One of my cousins took her own life.  I will not go into further detail, as I want to respect my family and her beloved memory.  What I want to talk about today is all of the emotion that swirls around this verboten word, verboten act.

Judgment is almost instantaneous when you hear the word "suicide".

  • "Oh, they must've been very weak."  
  • "Suicide is the coward's way out."  
  • "Why didn't they ask for help?"
  • "They're in a better place."  
  • "I'll pray for them, because they're going to burn in hell eternally."
I think most of these are understandable thoughts, human ones. And they are very common to hear after a suicide death, I am learning.  But I will tell you, from my own very raw emotional state, they are unnecessary and they're cruel to speak to anyone who is weathering the fallout out of suicide.  We who are left behind to pick up the pieces do not need to defend the actions of our loved one We do not need to come up with logical answers as to why that loved one made that final decision. No one but that person can answer what thoughts went through their mind that tipped their hand in those final moments.  We need for you to be there for us in support, love and care.  Sadly, this is rarely what people think to offer, or they feel that any of the above comments are somehow going to offer solace.  They do not do that. What gives solace to each of us will differ, but just know that words of judgment are not appropriate or helpful when a family is coping with a suicide death.

In my opinion, anyone who commits suicide is far from weak.  Nor are they cowardly.  Consider the amount of bravery it takes to make that final motion that ends your life - could anyone honestly imagine that a weak person is capable of such a thing?  I think it takes a huge amount of bravery, but I'm sure many will strongly disagree with me.  Weakness is certainly evident when anyone is in such a distressed and despairing state of mind that death appears to be their only viable option, but that is not a weakness of character.  It is a state of mental illness that should engender compassion and understanding, rather than strident jumps to condemnation and judgement.

Why didn't they ask for help?  Good question.  It is one that will torment those left behind for many years, perhaps for the rest of their natural lives.  Perhaps that person DID ask for help, and no one listened, or the plea wasn't recognized as such....those being asked simply didn't realize the enormity of the request.  We all get busy with our daily existence and we brush aside seemingly surface level conversations that later, after a death has occurred, suddenly clarify and show us the depth of pain that loved one was in.  So, we turn that judgment and condemnation inward and the pain is compounded daily, like the interest rate on a bank loan.

Depression is not one dimensional, and it is simplistic to suggest that it can be doctored up and resolved if the person suffering a depression episode just talks to someone. It is different for every person who experiences clinical depression as to how it manifests, but there are some commonalities. 

I can say with a fair degree of confidence that most people suffering a depression cycle who have taken that final step to commit suicide have gone through multiple rounds of therapy, have talked and talked with friends, family and pastors, preachers and spiritual advisors, have put in earnest work on themselves, have taken prescription medications and tried holistic therapies. They've reached out during those initial scary first, second, third and more attempts to take their lives, and if they were lucky to reach out to the right person and they were willing to be talked down off the proverbial suicide ledge, they're still living today. With depression, the reality is that it is usually a repetitive cycle these people experience and it is a grueling, grinding experience that eventually wears them down.  
A mindset that has nothing to do with clear, mentally healthy logic sets in where they convince themselves that the world will be fine, and their loved ones will be better off without them.  
Yes, they know that people will grieve, but they are convinced that this final act of taking their life is truly for the best, and they're doing the world and their loved ones a favor.  The skewed mindset that takes over makes this train of thought sound just convincing enough to that worn down, tired spirit that that terrible final decision is enacted. 

The reality is that if someone you love is set in their mind on taking their life, not much any of us can say or do will have much of an effect other than to delay the inevitable. 
  • Most likely, that loved one has attempted suicide more than once in the past, or they've given a lot of thought to it, or they're dropping hints in conversation that they're contemplating it, and the hints are so minute and purposely veiled that people don't recognize the warning flag. 
  • Most likely, they've cried wolf repeatedly to the point that those close to them become inured to that one final time that they're really serious.  OR, another truth is that they've exhausted those close to them with repeated suicide attempts and those people have run out of ideas to help, support to offer, energy to pour into that bottomless pit of despair that no one but that individual can heal. 
  • There isn't any blueprint for how someone approaches suicide or makes that final choice, but if there is any truth to accept, it is that most likely, nothing any of us might have said or done could have stopped that person from their actions. And because of this, no one should EVER be made to feel guilty because their loved one took their own life!!  

They're in a better place.  Perhaps they are, given that anyone who contemplates suicide is in an obviously dark, despairing emotional and mental space.  I will tell you that hearing "they're in a better place" is not what I want(ed) to hear in those first few hours.  I was blessed to be able to call someone close to me and equally blessed that that person came to my side immediately and stayed with me through the majority of that first awful day.  He didn't offer platitudes, judgments or any of the above comments I've listed.  He was simply there for me.  Allowing me to cry, allowing me to process through the wildly swinging pendulum of emotions, and simply being there for and with me.  That was what I needed.  A familiar face, simple companionship, sincere care and friendship, and the space to process the rawness of grief.  Other people might find comfort in platitudes and surface level statements; I do not mean to throw out my own harsh judgments when I know that every person who utters such platitudes is truly doing and saying the only things they know.  I am sharing here what worked best for me.

I'm not going to dignify the "they're going to burn in hell eternally" comment beyond simply saying shame on anyone who is thoughtless enough to utter such a statement to someone who has just lost a loved one to suicide.  Yes, I heard this statement this week, more than once, and I found it to be the most incredibly ugly,  unnecessary, rude thing I've ever heard in my life.  Please, exercise common sense, people. No one deserves to have to hear such a thing about someone they loved. Prayers are most certainly appreciated, but comments about eternal damnation?  Absolutely not.

Most of us have heard of the five stages of grief:  

1.     Denial
2.     Anger
3.     Bargaining
4.     Depression
5.     Acceptance

Several years ago, I wrote about this whole thing, the grief process, and how it tends to manifest around High Holy Days, how suicides and deaths increase around Christmas and Easter and other Holy Days. (Holiday Stages, 12/21/2009 Healing Morning)  In that article, I discussed the fact that those five stages of grief don't necessarily neatly process for us one single time and get tied up in a pretty bow to be tucked away and never felt again.  In fact, grief is never neat and pretty.  It is jagged and raw and ugly, and has no semblance of logic to it.  Nor do those stages of grief hit us only once.  They revisit in varying degrees over the coming years.  I am well aware of this fact, so I know I will be dealing with ebbs and flows of my own grief process for a while....probably for years.  Right now, I cannot imagine ever reaching a stage of acceptance where I will not miss my cousin with a sense of urgency and bewilderment.

Suicide creates its own well of pain, simply because it is a conscious act, a choice, that most view with the aforementioned condemnation and judgment.  I am certainly not going to suggest it is a good choice, or a rational one.  But I will say that for those left behind to pick up the pieces, understanding and compassion towards the whole situation is the kindest thing anyone can offer.  That means understanding and compassion for the ones left behind AND for the person who committed suicide. 

Suicide also engenders a lot of silence.  People are uncertain what to say when death by suicide occurs.  So, they quite often fall back on awkward silences or those harsh judgments mentioned above. If you can't bring yourself to understand why that person made that choice, and really, none of us can truly understand such a thing, then I would hope you can be capable of extending your heart in a compassionate manner.  Do your level best to keep your judgments to yourself, because they do not belong in the midst of those who are grieving.

My personal thoughts are not of anger towards my family member who took her own life.  Yes, I feel anger, but more towards the whole mess.  I feel anger that she will no longer be here to experience the beauty of our family and the beauty of life.  But more importantly, I am saddened beyond words to express that she's gone.  She's gone forever from our family, that familiar presence that I have always known to be there.  A beautiful, vibrant, talented life was cut short.  She's not here any longer, and I miss her already.  I will miss her for the rest of my life, and I'll have to put conscious effort into learning to live without her.  We are tasked with that chore when any loved one passes, but suicide makes the loss sharper, simply because it wasn't Destiny at work.  It was choice at work.  And it didn't have to happen.  It did happen, though, and my family is left with learning to live without her.  What I feel towards my cousin is love, and what I will always feel for her is love. Compassion. Sadness. A true wish that she had made a different choice. An obvious desire that she hadn't done this and I still had her here with me.  But abiding love is the mainstay.

I am experiencing a flood of memories of this cousin.  Childhood memories, all of us growing up together, and she being our role model.  Bright, happy, beautiful. In the coming weeks, we will have a memorial service during our yearly family reunion. I will be delivering the eulogy for my cousin.  And my own conscious choice is to celebrate her life, rather than dwell on the final dark moments that led to how her life ended.  There is much to put into words, this process of celebrating a life.  Right now, I am not certain how I will accomplish it.  Eventually, the words will flow as they always do, and I will have pages of words to speak in her memory.  The speaking part....that is where I am still unsure how I will do it.  How I will get through it.  Will I choke up?  Break down in tears and be unable to continue?  I hope not, as I staunchly insist that although suicide ended her life, that word does not define the beautiful person she was.

In the wee hours of the night after she left us, I finally calmed enough to check my Facebook page.  The following quote from the Persian poet-philosopher, Rumi, is what resonated strongly for me:

Although I may try to describe Love,
When I experience it, I am speechless.

No words can ever truly capture the essence of that person we each loved, nor can they give voice to the depth of love we feel for them, nor can they express the acute pain we feel when they leave us in an untimely manner.  Perhaps now, words aren't necessary any longer.  Simply remembering her loving Soul, her smile, her laughter, her simple enjoyment of life, her talent, the sound of her voice, the way it felt to hug her, the way she brightened the room, these are enough.

To any who read this who have experienced personal loss of a loved one to suicide, my thoughts, love, and prayers for healing and compassion go out to you.