My Down and Dirty

I didn’t know it’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Week. Didn’t even know it existed. Seems like something I’d know, doesn’t it?

So sue me.

I’m aware of the Out of Darkness overnight walk. My son and I occasionally say, Next year we’ll do it, but we don’t. I don’t know why.

Yes, I do. It’s still too painful. Nearly 20 years later.

Here’s my down and dirty. Every day is suicide prevention day for me. Every single day. I have a suicide magnifying glass and when I gaze through it I search for the possibility, the signs. Use my personal suicide potential grading scale. I don’t even know the moment when I pull it out of my handbag. Then I become aware and struggle to set it down. To be sensitive where I need to be, and let others do the work they’re trained to do. The professionals. I go back to healing when I thought I was already.

Suicide has touched my life multiple times starting as a young adult with the death of a childhood friend, creeping closer to claim my grandmother, and finally my husband. Each time I was caught unaware. I had overlooked someone on the edge who blended in with the crowd; one step backward and over the edge they went.

Ironic how it happens. They take the leap and leave us in the abyss.

I was left to examine the clues they may have left that went unnoticed. Now I inadvertently seek answers in the faces of strangers even when I know there are none.

I have become a very meticulous observer. Because every day is a suicide prevention day for me. Whether I like it or not. Like a reflex. I search.

I have a once upon a time I was reminded of recently when writing to a friend. I told her about a boss of long ago. I called him Opus Grumpus. Brilliant man. Cranky. Shoot, cantankerous, more like it.

But not unlike a toasted campfire marshmallow. The too toasted kind, black and crunchy on the outside. Some people take a look and say, that’s burned, I don’t want that one and some of us know that inside a marshmallow like that is nothing but sweet, sweet goodness daring someone to take a bite. He had a way of scaring people off when he wanted and I always thought it was some kind of litmus test. Those who refused to be intimidated and took a bite earned his respect, kindness and loyalty.

I shared an office with Opus Grumpus. He hated returning calls and sorting through mail and messages. In order to transport himself elsewhere when dealing with the mundane, he’d whistle. And he could whistle. On the inhale and exhale without missing a note or changing strength or pitch. He did a fine Mozart’s 40th G Minor symphony. I told you. He could whistle.

When he would notice a sigh from me, a deep exhalation signaling that I was off in the wilderness massaging my regrets, guilt and grief, he would say, “Were you the worst wife ever? Well, for argument sake, let’s say you were. That’s why they invented divorce.”

What a gift. In his curmudgeonly manner, straight to the heart of the matter.

So today I write this note to me and all those like me who have lived the tragedy of suicide and live it still in ways small and large that have become part of our rituals.

We didn’t have control, we’re not that powerful. It’s a diseased choice. We walk on this side of Sanity Street. It may border the other neighborhood but we don’t live there. It’s not where our house is. Our road maps don’t work over there.

We can’t make order of their chaos or sense of their non-sense because though the streets may be close in geography, they’re completely different sections of town. We can’t understand unless we cross the border. And there’s no sense in that, is there? We know where it leads.

If you find yourself in an endless loop on a path to nowhere looking again for the answer you’re sure this time you’ll find hidden in the hedgerow, make a sharp turn to the healthiest people and places you know. Find a professional, or friend that knows one. Stake a claim for your life. Honor those lost by using every available tool to grow strong again.

We celebrate their lives by living ours extraordinarily. We add meaning to their lives by walking forward in grace and getting healthy.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Posted in Back to Life, Grief, Loss, Memoir, Suicide, Support | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments


I remember what I wore that day. What my boy was wearing. We never wore those clothes again. We gave them away. Down to my favorite red winter coat with black velvet trim.

I had looked at my watch. My grandfather’s Bulova curvex with a black leather mock croc band. It read 5:17.

Does everyone look at the time when they find a body? Perhaps it was years spent working at a hospital. Someone would ask me what time I found him.

Though it must have been hours earlier, when I saw the death certificate it documented the time of death as 5:17PM.

I still have the wristwatch. It hasn’t worked properly since.

And after the coroner removed my husband, I removed my wedding ring.

Maybe because it was a symbol of partnership dissolved. A spell broken. Would serve only as a reminder that I had been but a call away from someone who would come to my aid and defense. A lion in hiding that would sprint from the bush to strike down foe.

I looked at the ring, a lie I couldn’t afford. Couldn’t trick myself into believing a suggestion I had a loving mate. Wouldn’t allow myself the comfort that once I had.

The ring had to go in the face of incontrovertible evidence I was left to rely on myself, was now my son’s sole advocate and shield.

Months later I found a support group of other young widows and widowers struggling with new reality. I barely made the cut. 40. I was the oldest. They’d lost loves to accident or illness.

Tom’s death was neither unless one considers suicide the culmination of illness unknown until too late. It was certainly no accident.

On the day the therapist leader suggested it might be time to consider removing rings, I
listened to the group describe the hellish road they’d traveled. They spoke of dead beloveds. Widowed by young moms who clung to life for one more day in which to etch a lasting memory; complete a video, finish a quilt or stuffed toy to leave behind, chronicle a special bedtime ritual, end a story. Wives described husbands who wouldn’t let go of life, couldn’t lay down their role as family protector and provider and instead lingered, and suffered.

And while the dying had worried they’d be forgotten, the mourners anguished over the worst of memories they wished one day might fade. Pain they’d seen and saw each night when they closed eyes on difficult days hoping to collapse in sleep. Instead they glimpsed pictures of events they least wanted to see. Hospital beds, medications, bald heads void of beautiful locks and cascading curls only recently captured in wedding photos they planned to peruse in the years that did not come.

In the refuse of these lives bereft was the moment of good-bye. It came when, “I just left for a moment,” “…only went to the bathroom,” “needed a glass of water.” It seemed the dying could not face the agony they’d leave behind and chose to slip away when they hoped no one was looking.

And then there was me.

I’d gone to work. Come home. Found my husband’s body in the garage directed there by a note left for me on the cold, white tile of the kitchen counter.

He did it on purpose. He planned his escape. He kept it under wraps. He tied up his loose ends best he could. A salesman who sold like crazy to keep commissions coming after he had left. Even called Neptune Society about his disposition and left instructions for me. Reminders everywhere. Of how to carry on.

Not committed enough to stay; content to direct lives in ashes. His. Ours.

A handwritten will. Two suicide notes. One for me. And one for an eleven-year old boy.

Tears on his Dean Edell reading glasses.

Then he left. According to his plan.

While the others keened for loved ones who’d done everything to stay, mine had done everything to leave. They couldn’t go forward. They couldn’t betray the dead by removing wedding bands. I couldn’t betray myself by leaving mine on.

For me there was no knowing he’d rather have remained. No pretending he hadn’t chosen to go.  I could not say out loud, Don’t you see? He’d rather die than be married to me.

I couldn’t turn back, couldn’t un-ring the bell. But it was easy to un-ring me.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Posted in Back to Life, Grief, Loss, Memoir, Suicide, Support | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Freshly Pressed

The editors at WordPress chose “Insides and Outsides” to feature in Freshly Pressed on the WordPress home page. For you non-blogger types, this is a really nice distinction spotlighting noteworthy blogs that may otherwise go undiscovered. It also means certain benchmarks have been met.

I believe writers write because they must. I write because I breathe. I don’t much consider the alternative. I strive to do it well and to make a contribution. Having that pursuit recognized by those tasked with unearthing unique and worthwhile work is special to me.

In teaching corporate communication workshops I encounter participants who would have me quickly list what they call the tools. It’s challenging to build a case for a shift in focus from doing to being but that’s what I do. I’ve been known to say that the risk one takes to show up as genuine and vulnerable in conversation will in the end produce something more significant than finely honed skills and tools. That’s my opinion anyway. That’s the compass I follow.

So one WordPress editor’s comment to me, “…an intimate and honest piece,” was particularly meaningful as confirmation of my magnetic north.

To new visitors checking out One Bite At a Time as a result of Freshly Pressed exposure, welcome! Thank you for coming by and know I take your time seriously.

And to WordPress, thank you for the acknowledgement and encouragement.

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Insides and Outsides

I’d always been round. A chubby child. Pleasantly plump. Pink cheeks on fair skin. Dark, dark, wavy hair. A cherubic babe from a Renaissance painting born to a later era.

I felt like a near-miss.

Mine is the least reliable memory about this; I can only say I felt awkward, bigger, slower, clumsier. I don’t remember anyone trying to dissuade me from this when I looked for reassurance. And when my grandmother made my clothes she played with the paper patterns, adjusted darts and seams so garments would fit me better.

But I didn’t fit.

When I hit middle school and slightly older, boys who could drive barked from passing car windows and their howls crystallized my perception that I wasn’t pretty. Didn’t weigh what I should. Was not good enough. Not desirable.

In reality, my weight probably bounced around and though I was never skinny, nobody’s string bean, I was average and sometimes ten pounds more. Now when I peruse photos of myself from years ago they don’t match my memories. I see a pretty young woman. In the time before mega-models like Paulina, and Naomi, Gisele and Kate, there was sunny Cheryl Tiegs. Christie Brinkley. American girls. Blonde, golden, blue-eyed, and lanky.

Nothing like me.

But when Tom chose me a lot of old pain washed away. He loved most everything about me, of that I was certain. In time I became okay with me, too. When he suggested, I knew it was just that. I respected his aesthetic and his judgment. He cared for me, admired me, encouraged me, loved me and married me. I relaxed into being me.

After his sudden death, for the first time in my life, I could not eat. Did not think of food at all, a long-time preoccupation. I could not look at food or even smell it. Most of all, I couldn’t chew it or swallow it.

Food was for some far away place where people stirred among the living and needed sustenance. My soul bereft, my mind wrapped in fog, I hovered in a state where a sandwich couldn’t help.

But I was thirsty. Endlessly so and water, water needed little help to swallow. It cleansed and cooled. With a slight pour it trickled down my throat and no matter how many pints and quarts I drank, I wanted more.

Within days I’d lost ten pounds and could feel my clothing becoming looser. Bound by grief it was a nice feeling. The lack of attachment and confinement by the material that surrounded suited me.

When little more than a month had passed so had 20 pounds. Dressing was a problem. Now clothes weren’t only unrestrictive, they were hard to keep on. Hip bones hiding since college made a blatant appearance, coupled with cheekbones I’d never seen. I pinned and clipped, rolled and belted to make adjustments.

Then, 30 or 35 pounds of me was missing. Still I could barely eat.

Co-workers made everything as comfortable for me as possible and shielded me from taxing situations. But when I’d returned to work meetings were required with individuals in other organizations. Not everyone knew what had happened nor did I want them to. By now my clothes had left the realm of oversized and rolled right into odd. It was time to shop. Mom and I together determined to make me presentable again.

It had happened quickly and the sizes I needed were so much smaller than I’d ever worn that I was disoriented. I chose things still far too big, finding out when buried once again by another skirt or pair of pants only slightly smaller than what I had at home.

I was overwhelmed by racks, and people, and choices, and colors, and mostly by being in public. I didn’t know what size I was. I didn’t know who I was. Painful as my inside was, it was at least familiar, unlike the stranger I attempted to dress.

It was a brief and tiring shopping trip. We left with a few items and I had a vaguely improved outlook. Everyone assured me I looked fine. My mother nodded her approval and the sales team said the clothes in the bag were cute and appropriate, stylish and well fitted.

I wasn’t sure. The mirror I had loved and who had loved me was gone. In his absence I trusted few.

I surrendered the familiar and oversized garments from my closet and began to wear the new. As I continued to dwindle more purchases were necessary and the single thing I enjoyed was the ability to walk into the store and grab any article quickly with a high probability it would fit and look good. In the midst of so much pain this was a (no pun intended) small delight.

And then it happened. The world I’d been shrinking away from, one of colleagues, neighbors and those I thought friends who’d distanced themselves from me, the collective mute universe filled with those who peered around corners and peeked only when they thought I wouldn’t see, all those who had nothing to say to me but plenty to each other, came out of their homes, offices, yards, and cubicles to tell me how wonderful I looked.

How svelte and stylish. Fashionable and fit. I must be feeling ever so much better they prattled on, because — I looked so good.

Never had my outward appearance so disguised my inner world, my childhood inverted. First a happy child made miserable by external deficiencies as defined by other children, and now in this agonizing period after Tom’s suicide, the scale fairy waved a wand and I drew kudos for my looks.

I wondered why they didn’t see my entrails or the trail of blood behind me.

I seethed when confronted by those emboldened by appearance who simultaneously remained timid – no, cowardly – in addressing what mattered most to me. As they felt twinges of unease and awkwardness they took an easy path. I viewed it as a choice between their discomfort and mine, and as if similar in magnitude they chose to soothe their own. “You look great,” and they hid from the opportunity to say something I could feel.

As they did, I felt hidden to the world while at the same time drawing its attention. Upside down and inside out, I couldn’t get my bearings.

One evening after dinner my son and I meandered through a shopping mall. An excursion into life, a field trip of sorts. Months had passed. We tasted social interaction in small, sample-sized spoonfuls. A voice called my name from behind.

“Pam,” I turned to see her. A peer who sat near me in the evening philosophy class I’d dropped after my husband’s death. We’d spoken once since.

“You look wonderful. What have you been doing? Some kind of diet? Which one?”

My boy and I stood hand in hand. We looked at each other. A relative stranger barged into our world with her unsolicited, superficial observation. Maybe she deserved it and maybe she didn’t. I didn’t care about being fair.

I gave his hand a squeeze. “It’s the suicide diet. It works. Lose a life. Gain a new wardrobe.”

And for that moment my inside and my outside found compatibility.

Posted in Grief, Loss, Memoir, Suicide | Tagged , , , , , | 94 Comments

If You Hear Tears in the Night

I didn’t know my son, whose second floor bedroom was above mine, could easily hear me sob at night. Tears held back in daylight came to find me then. Sorrow already surfaced recycled in the dark.

Switching sides of the bed seemed to help a little. I could smell Tom’s scent on his pillow and felt comforted. He didn’t seem as far away.  Changing places meant I faced my empty space rather than his which was much easier. But in the hollow hours between midnight and dawn, grief and guilt, should’ve and wished I had, clamored to fill the stillness.

Following my son’s weekly appointment our therapist spent a few minutes with me. Bob filled me in on progress. General things. What to look for, how to help. State of the kiddo.

“It troubles him when he hears you crying at night. He doesn’t know what to do. So we talked about that. I gave him a little help.”

I trusted Bob. He was a constant, moderating, familiar figure, available for us whenever we needed. I asked no questions about confidences he kept. He would always tell me what I most needed to know to support my son.

Late one night not long after our conversation I lay with tears dampening my pillow.  It was then I found out what Bob had advised if my boy heard crying from the floor below.

His young voice called down from the staircase landing.

“Good for you, Mommy! You’re doing great. You just cry that pain out!”

After a laugh and a nose-blow it was just too hard to keep crying.

Posted in Back to Life, Death & Dying, Grief, Loss, Memoir, Suicide, Support | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Victim Is The Murderer

Journal Entry                                                                                                 March 18, 1993

Who is the man who murdered himself in our garage? Who’s the man who took such liberty with my life, and with my son’s? Who hated me so much that he destroyed our family with a single slash?

The day he came, you left. He’d been haunting us for a while, I see it now. He looked so much like you, had some of your mannerisms down pat. He even liked Butterfingers.

I mistook him for you. How betrayed you must have felt that I couldn’t tell the difference. I didn’t notice he was an imposter. I thought he was you, with something weighty on your mind. But when he died in my garage he took you, too.

I know not to open my door to strangers. But he came when I was at work. He went to the garage and murdered my children’s father. He left notes everywhere.

But I couldn’t find a note from you.


Loss evokes feelings of anger, abandonment and outrage no matter the cause. Suicide does so in spades. But how can we be angry with a victim? Especially one that has apparently already suffered so greatly that death seemed reasonable escape.

I asked our therapist, “Did he hurt this badly? Worse than we hurt?”

Without hesitation he answered, “Yes. Even more than this.”

So how is it that we who are left behind reconcile our sorrow, regret, grief, guilt, and anger? How do we allow ourselves justifiable outrage without eventually feeling even more guilty if we believe the victim was in that much pain?

Books, I read books, searching for answers about suicide and survivors. I found information about the psychological make-up of both, data about who they are, observations about grief and healing, statistics about which month and day of the week suicide is most likely to occur, even the physiology I could expect after a shocking loss. But I couldn’t find the answer I was looking for and didn’t know how to go on without it.

For me finding a solution to carrying competing and conflicting emotions, beyond “it’s what’s so”, was essential to helping my young son cope with his loss and finding a road map to our future. I hoped it would set us on a course to life.

Later as I watched those in the family who moved forward, and those who didn’t, I made my own observation. Without reconciliation and acceptance of the paradoxical emotional residue left by suicide one overriding behavior seemed to remain, blame.

I saw a ping-pong game of blame. First, I blamed me for not being astute enough to see the signs and read the future. When that was too painful to bear I blamed others for every oversight, slight, and perceived wrong doing to my husband. Rarely could I blame him for his choice. It seemed unthinkable to make a dead man culpable and so I left myself two possibilities: my fault, or the fault of others.

In the early years after our common loss, my husband’s family and I attempted to remain close. We traveled to them a couple of times each year, and they to us. I wished for my son an attachment to his father’s kin, especially his half-sister and grandparents. I wanted them to have access to the boy their son, brother, and dad had left behind. I thought they’d find something special and comforting in each other and perhaps their family could satisfy a need to contribute and participate since they couldn’t with my husband.

Within a few years contact dwindled and eventually stopped. One can only blame one’s self for so long before it becomes too much to live with and finger pointing turns outward. When the burden of guilt became too great to carry, they began to blame me. Sometimes subtly, other times overtly. I believe the inability to appropriately place responsibility was at the heart of the rupture of relationship.

In suicide, victim and murderer are one. That is the solemn, simple truth. That was the sentence I had to fully absorb in order to put the puzzle of emotions together. It was hard for me to let those words seep into my psyche but once they did I could inhale deeply again.

The victim and the murderer lived in one body. Though I can’t fully understand the reasoning behind the act because I didn’t walk in his shoes, the statement is no less valid. It’s therefore reasonable I would experience a landslide of grief and horror at having my husband murdered while also feeling anger, resentment, outrage and sometimes hatred toward the one who ripped my beloved away. It was a horrifying experience, and my own husband was the horrifi-er.

Victim and murderer. One person.

Not long after writing then reading what I had written in my journal I began to understand its implications. I didn’t have to choose among my fault, or his, or anyone else’s. I didn’t have to protect him from the whispers of others. I didn’t have to keep a flame glowing to remind people that he was a good man. And I didn’t have to squelch my feelings of anger.

He could find his rightful place as a decent, hardworking, loving man who made an irresponsible, dreadful and tragic decision the consequences of which derailed our lives by depriving him of us, and us of him. His decency did not mitigate his choice. His choice did not undo all the good he had done. His last day did not erase the 50 years that came before.

Victim and murderer. Good man. Life-ending, life-altering decision to abandon us in order to set himself free. His freedom was our pain. It was fact. Concomitant, seemingly competing emotions could coexist and I didn’t need to protect him from my indignation and outrage. It was well earned. As was my sorrow and longing to have him back.

I didn’t find it in a book. I never heard anyone say it. Yet it was a hard truth. And it did set me free. I could begin to move forward.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Posted in Grief, Loss, Memoir, Suicide | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Something Beautiful

Vicki carried the orchid to work one morning and set it on my desk. A white phalaenopsis nearly two feet tall in a beautiful cachepot nestled in a florist’s white gift box. Spanish moss covered the redwood planting bark. Three willowy bloom spikes were supported by thin, green bamboo stakes. Some widely opened snowy blossoms, more on the verge, and swelling buds emerged from the stems. Elegant. Exotic. Breathtaking.

I had never owned an orchid. I had ideas about them though. Difficult to grow. Requiring expertise. Finicky. Expensive.

Not for regular folks. Not for people like me.

Orchids were found in homes fit for magazines or television. Their owners were successful, well bred, graceful.  Maybe they even spoke French. And drank cocktails.

Orchids were made to show off in parlours, salons, and powder rooms. Grand hotel lobbies. Unaffordable spas

Orchids were special. Owners, like the plants themselves, required special breeding.

One would not find orchids in family rooms where televisions beamed “Oprah” and kids did homework. Homes in which Legos hid buried in carpets and art hung cockeyed on refrigerators, held there by magnets made in kindergarten.

Or in one where the owner worried she couldn’t pay her mortgage.

“This is for you,” she said softly as she placed it front of me. “I don’t know what else to do. I’m afraid there’s nothing.”

Few weeks had passed since my husband’s suicide. Enough time for me to know it was real. Not enough for healing. Sufficient to feel the pain. To wonder every ten minutes how my son and I might get through the next. Ten minutes.

Vicki stood. I sat at my desk. She looked away from me then back again.

“I do know this,” she continued. “This orchid is beautiful and you should see something every morning that greets you with beauty.

“Put this where you see it first thing when you open your eyes and know that I’m thinking of you. I’ll be hoping that morning is a tiny bit better than the one before it.”

I took the orchid home and set it next to the bed on the table with the clock radio, and the photo of my son. I awakened to it daily. I was immersed in sorrow and though I felt powerless to mitigate it, I could not argue that my orchid stood in stark contrast to the darkness of the pain. Its beauty immeasurable.

There it bloomed for six months, each morning wishing me a day to match its loveliness.

That was 19 years ago. Not since have I been without an orchid blooming in my home. As I write this morning a golden orchid is company on the nightstand next to me. A white phalaenopsis watches from an adjoining bathroom. Another across the hall. A dwarf purple-pink plant greets guests arriving at my home and one that reminds me of the first regal white orchid Vicki gave me shows off in my dining room.

In the time I’ve lived side by side with orchids I’ve learned something. They were designed by the heavens for people exactly like me.

I have perfect appreciation for their unique combination of fragility and strength, tenacity, adaptability and resiliency. Because I am special. An orchid on my own.

Find your version of an orchid, your translation of beauty. Soon after awakening. As the pain and heaviness of reality positions itself on and around you, reminding you of what you’ve lost, defy it by taking a moment to focus on something beautiful. Allow your senses to feel bewitched if only briefly.

Maybe you’ll find a minute’s bliss in the warmth of a hot morning shower as water washes over you. Or a fragrance you once loved and now barely remember. Perhaps as you walk down the driveway to retrieve the morning paper you’ll notice dew still beaded on the petals of a flower, shimmering on the grass, or clinging to the trees.

You might listen to a piece of music that is your undisputed evidence of God or hear the simple sound of coffee dripping into the pot. Note the unique smell of burnt java as an errant splash hits the warmer. Caress your sleeping child’s soft pink cheek tenderly as he lies on his pillow.

You may not want to do these things. Do they sound meaningless in the face of your pain? These are signs of life moving forward even when you don’t want it to. Let them pull you with them. Give yourself time and space to build new meaning as you’re swept along.

The agony of unrelenting grief can make one so raw that even magnificence hurts. Cleanse your wounds anyway with the healing of something beautiful.

Know when you do, you are really catching a glimpse of your future.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Posted in Back to Life, Grief, Loss, Memoir, Suicide | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments