Weathering the Storm: Hurricane Florence and Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

My best friend Lindsay would have turned 37 this week. She also would have embraced every witty Hurricane Florence reference. This is because behind the scenes, Lin’s mother was known to us as the red-leather Thriller jacket-wearing “Sister Mary Florence.” Hence the  jokes would be flo-ing (see what I did there?). Even as NC faces destruction, Lin would have us smiling, reminding us that weathering the storm together is what matters most.

This summer, I organized a few high school memory boxes and found all the notes and cards Lin gave me. It was odd premonition that I kept them, but on the other hand, it was no surprise, as she’d been a consistent source of encouragement since I was a friendless middle schooler in 1992.  She and Kate were the first to embrace me, cracking open their partnership to make room for a renegade 3rd wheel. The three of us were inseparable.

For seven years I’ve been writing posts about her suicide. Each year, I approach it with more heartache, because it means one more year has passed without her. Lindsay’s death was driven further home with my own mother’s death last August. Mom’s life-long severe depression and suicide attempts caused me to review my own life, too, as each loss is a missing piece of identity: who are we without the people who gave witness to our lives from their beginnings?

I also imagine what society has missed without its Lindsay K. Apple. At 29, she already had the world by the tail. What heights would she have reached by now? How would her already tremendous impact have spread? Would she have had a daughter as funny and brilliant as she was? A life cut short by pain has its own perpetuity of “what ifs.”

But then I remember what Lindsay continues to accomplish—even after her death. She’s brought friends and family together through a narrative that champions a cause that not only affected her—but is real for every community, regardless of location, race, religion, or politics.

Lin’s suicide, too, was on the cusp of an era in which our very public social media profiles actually increase our risk of loneliness and isolation, an oxymoron we’ve yet to fully grasp. And yet, those same platforms can be life-saving—because they offer us an outlet to reach out at 24/7, because someone, somewhere, is watching and listening.

September is suicide prevention month; Monday was World Suicide Prevention Day. Every day, every week, every month, and every year, too many people—some we know well; others who occupied a public, celebrity status—die from a cause that is preventable. From our children, siblings, parents, other family members or friends—to our role models—we all know someone (directly or indirectly) who has committed suicide.

A bookmark made by Lindsay and gave me on my 18th birthday.

Lindsay’s sunshine lives on in us and in mystical ways in which we cannot fully understand. Though she is not physically here with us, neither is her light hidden from us. It helps us weather even the toughest of storms.

Do you know someone who needs an ear? Listen. Do you know someone who could benefit from suicide prevention resources? Help them call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

We can all make a difference—in honor of Lindsay and many others who felt they had no choice. Join me in supporting “Team Loving Lindsay” in their annual Triad American Foundation for Suicide Prevention “Out of Darkness” community walk on September 22, 2018. Donate today. 

 

The First Year After Mom’s Death: How These Rituals Helped Me Navigate Grief and Loss

My mother died one year ago today.

I still remember our first evening without her in the world. Fred, Ron, and I rode through downtown Raleigh with the windows down, and I thought: She’ll never hear the sounds of August again—the cicadas’ song that tell us summer is nearly gone. It was a feeling of deep, visceral absence.

I’ve spent a year entrenched in grief and all its stages, feelings, and waves. I’ve read books, written about them, kept notes on my experience, and attended hospice grief counseling every two weeks. My family, closest friends, and faith communities have kept in close contact the past twelve months, offering their love and hugs, lending their ears and Kleenex.

My privilege has afforded me these grief resources. But there are many whose loved ones are plucked away and they have no one to turn to. In the fog of loss, they may not even know what they need.

Everyone’s grief journey is unique; there is no right nor wrong way to mourn a loss. We are beginners at this and everything else in life.

Here’s are some of the rituals, exercises, workshops I did and intentions I held this year that helped me; maybe it will help you or someone you know?

  • First, I scheduled an appointment with my therapist as soon as the ink was dry on the funeral home paperwork. Three days later, I sat in her office and she walked me through crisis management coping integral to calming the chaotic deluge of “Is this really happening?” Her advice on facing the brain, body, and spirit’s trauma of a sudden loss incited a failed a meditation practice that ultimately resulted into creating my own 40-day meditation guide.
  • I began a “Grief Journal” in which I could “talk” to Mom anytime—day or night. This stemmed from an emotional evening in late August in which I told Fred I wish she’d call me. “What would you want her to say?” he asked. “You’re going to be OK, Dana” I answered. The journal became the place of those “reassurance phone calls.”
  • In September, family and friends gathered for her service of remembrance at Binkley Church. Rev. Dale and I used an outline of what she wanted at her memorial. We displayed photos and ate her favorite foods. Attendees wrote down their favorite memories or stories of her; our beloved church showered us with affection.
  • In those first first months, I practiced radical self-care.
  • I attended grief workshops at Transitions LifeCare Hospice, where Mom spent the last eight days of her life after her unexpected illness. I also accepted their gracious offer of bi-monthly grief counseling that continues until one month after your loved one’s death anniversary. It was the wisest choice I’ve made in a long time.
  • During my first hospice workshop, I made a misshapen clay “garden of the heart,” a brown lump whose insides were “tiled” (scraped with a fork). It was symbolic of my own heart, which felt like it’d been mowed with cheese grater.
  • At that same autumn workshop, the counselors asked us to write on a paper heart embedded with wildflowers with a message from our loved one. Mine said:  “Bloom Dana, bloom. It’s time.” I’ve kept both hearts.
  • Fred and I attended as many family and friends gatherings as possible in the fall and as the holidays approached. We adopted an animal shelter kitty. Our Hindu community’s “Friendsgiving” was extra special—and they never hesitated to ask how grief was going.
  • During Advent, I colored mandalas with Sharon Seyfarth Garner’s Prayers, Candles, and Prayers.  I purchased LED tea lights to placed in a terribly painted glass candle holder I made at another hospice workshop focused on grieving during the holidays.  It’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. When they asked me to explain it, I told them that my mother always said I liked to “tacky things up,” so I had to do that now, too.
  • In December, I took a social media sabbath and focused on family. I grieved the loss of Mom’s brother and turned inward toward spiritual practice. We relished moments with our tiny niece and nephew and all the children in our lives.
  • On Christmas Eve, at the Catholic Church, I lit a candle and prayed for her, as  Fred’s precious Catholic Aunt and Uncle had shortly after her death. On Christmas Day, we gathered with nearby family at my cousin’s home.
  • Most of all, I took all the holidays lightly—spontaneously. If I didn’t feel like doing something, I didn’t.
  • The winter offered sabbath opportunity–resting, worshiping, and being in community. I learned to lean on God for support during this journey. I wasn’t afraid to ask deep theological questions—ones that were often left unanswered.  I learned that that is part of faith—and holy mysteries.
  • All year, Mom’s sunset scatter cremation ashes box has remained in sight. It migrates from the living room to the dining room to my passenger seat for road trips. It’s big and heavy and when I need to, I hug and cradle it like a baby. It’s already been on three road trips to two states.
  • In March, my brother, sister-in-law,  Fred and I remembered Mom’s birthday with chocolate and laughter. We ate dessert first (classic Judy!) and spent time on her favorite beach.
  • Every morning, I’ve asked Mom to “show up” in some way. She usually “appears” as a vibrant rainbow reflection in the crystal sun-catcher my friend Barbara so lovingly gifted me with. Or, Truffy Jr. slams his paw against a bronze bell another friend gave us.
  • I attended Buddhist workshops on death, dying, and grieving.
  • I wrote a book about the theology of death, grief, and the afterlife. You need not do this—but a death-related project  forced me to stay present in grief all damn year.
  • At Passover, I bought a Yarzheit candle, a Jewish ritual to remember those who are no longer physically with us but whose memory remains. Though Passover has come and gone, the Yarzheit candle is still on our altar, right next to a very Jewish Jesus. I’m hoping he’d approve.
  • I kept the sympathy cards in a basket where I could read them whenever I needed to.
  • Fred set up a make-shift memorial shelf where he placed my favorite photos of her and Truffy Sr., who died just three months after Mom. I walk by them both everyday.
  • I texted with friends and family members and told them I needed them. I asked them for support and memories and check-ins.
  • I paid attention, too, to the ordinary and everyday occurrences-turned rituals—a sign of meaning-making in a time when I felt listless and uncertain that there was any meaning. It arrived in the strangest places:  pennies, numbers, songs, and people that reminded me of Mom.
  • In May, our Trent Family gathered for our first reunion in 20 years. She would have been so proud. We honored her and her siblings with stories and laughter.
  • My favorite photo of the two of us remained in my car until July. I replaced it with a rock from the Wild Goose Festival painted with “Be Brave.” That was her new message for me.

Most of all, I have trusted the process, something I’m not very good at doing. I want the end result, now—and I’ve had to learn to be patient with myself and this path.

Which, if any of these did you find useful? What grief rituals, traditions, or experiences have helped you? I love new ideas—please share below in the comments.

Please share this piece with someone who needs it. Grief (in any form) is isolating. Let someone know you care and you’re thinking of them.

Learning to Speak God from Scratch: How to Talk about Religion in the 21st Century

What’s always off limits at dinner parties and family gatherings? You know it: talking about religion and politics.

And yet, it’s difficult to catch a news cycle that doesn’t mention both. From the scriptural basis for immigration policies to supreme court decisions, belief and policy are intertwined and above the fold on every news outlet this year.

But in our daily lives, we still avoid “speaking God.” In his new book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch, Jonathan Merritt addresses this deficit with compelling evidence, including the overall decline of religious language. He writes that only 7 percent of Americans actively and purposefully talk about religion once per week (xxi). Certain words, in fact, plummeted in use in the 20th century, including “faith” (5). Sixty-three percent of us avoid religious dialogue altogether; the remainder of us plead ignorance (11). There are many reasons for this; but, Merritt, who lives in Brooklyn, lands on the most pertinent: we live in a pluralistic culture where sacred words can be perceived as divisive and insensitive.

Though I’m an ordained Southern Baptist clergywoman, I skipped Sunday School the day they handed out gifts of evangelism. I have never been what I call a “God-talker,” Christians who prattle on with Jesus jargon in a tone received as hell, fire, and brimstone preaching. I would have been a failed missionary, as I’m of the Saint Francis opinion Merritt quotes: “preach the Gospel at all times–if necessary use words” (37).

But Merritt and I hail from the same Southern Baptist roots, an evangelical tribe of God-talkers guilty of turning “holy phrases” into “tools of manipulation” that can marginalize, oppress, hurt, and outright hate (xix).

As a result, many “recovering” Southern Baptists (I count myself among them—Merritt may not), struggle with the path that emerges—one that Merritt began to see when he moved to New York City, which is “diverse enough that citizens can curate their own vision.” Amid such diversity, comes complexity—especially in matters of speaking faith.

“My problem,” Merritt writes, “was that I could no longer ‘speak God'” (xvii). While honoring the city’s pluralism, as well as his own experience having been on the receiving end of harmful words, Merritt could have tossed in the towel. No one would have blamed him. But, instead of giving up the Bible and its sacred words altogether, as many of us have done with a “language in peril” (58), Merritt invites his readers into his own critical thinking process of wrestling with troublesome terms. Then, he reframes them.

“Words are one of God’s holy gifts to humanity, and speaking them should be a sacred act.” –Jonathan Merritt

In lieu of declaring sacred words dead by fossilizing them or watering them down by substitution, Merritt opts for transformation (59). But how? He writes: “We begin with what we have accepted [the words/theology]. Then we break it down, challenging our preconceptions. Finally, we build it back up in a way that is more helpful, richer, and beautiful” (68).

Merritt insists this is not a static process. We don’t stay in stage one of acceptance; he suggests with move through all three—and on repeat. From order to disorder to reorder; from orientation to disorientation to reorientation; packing, unpacking, and repacking in a cyclical, rather than linear journey (68).

Learning to Speak God from Scratch is about this reclaiming and transforming words that have left a bad taste in our mouths. Merritt doesn’t shy away from the tough ones, either: “fall,” “sin,” “brokenness,” and “pride” “confession” and “lost” are among those he transforms.

“Having no beginning or end, the practice is perpetual and perennial.” –Jonathan Merritt

Through this process, Merritt says we engage the text and its meaning inherited from our ancestors and its meaning for our descendants, each new generation joining in accepting, challenging, and reorienting (190). It’s not easy, to be sure. “Speaking God from scratch, like moving to a new city, involves labor pains but results in the birth of new life” (191). Merritt doesn’t deny the work it takes to transform a language held hostage by those who intentionally or unintentionally use it to cause harm. But, he remains hopeful–and practical.

How can we talk religion in the 21st century without everyone running from the room? Merritt gives us plenty of tools. In this book, he walks us through a thorough process of awareness, wonder, exploration, and application (193-195). It’s the very same journey he embarked on as a Southern Christian transplant to the big city. This is what makes Learning to Speak God from Scratch so compelling—it’s a memoir and linguistic ethnography of a man and a language mid-transformation.

Don’t miss Merritt’s latest. Pre-order here so that you’ll have it by the official launch day, Tuesday, August 14th. Snap a photo and tag Jonathan and me using #SpeakGodBook.