How to Prevent Suicide

Every day, every single day, I think about how to prevent suicide.  I think of this in two categories.  How to prevent suicide and how to prevent Mike’s suicide.  Yes, from a mile away you can clearly see my Bargaining, which is its very own stage in Kubler-Ross’s famed Stages of Grief model.  In my case, Bargaining involves every convoluted twist and turn in the already-finished plot that might have saved Mike, no matter how impossible or unreasonable.  It goes something like this:

 

1. Acquire a time machine.

2. Go way back. 

3. Teach all the bullies on the playground to leave Mike alone.  To leave everyone alone for that matter.

4. Teach each little kid’s parents to listen and love more.

5.  Teach each child and person that they count, they are seen, they are heard, they are loved, they are surrounded by love.  Show them by example. 

6. Get people help when they need it and don’t stop until they get the right help.

 

There is a new book that my friend Tim turned me onto, it’s written by Ned Halloway but it won’t be out till the summer.  It's about why he prevailed despite so many risk factors.  Here’s Ned talking about it:

 

www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/driven-distraction/201802/beating-the-odds

 

Man, this story makes me think of Mike, and he could have written a book like this if 1. He stayed alive to write it and 2. He could finish things like books (not his forte).   Luckily, Dr. Halloway has written tons of books, and I do look forward to reading this one.  I guess I would add to my Bargainers List: Ask Dr. Halloway to climb into the time machine with me and mentor Mike for months or years or, preferably, decades. 

 

Regarding how to prevent other people’s suicides, which is what still deeply matters, that list might work.  There would be some better, specific objectives like noticing when a person really does need help but isn’t getting it or stops asking.  Also, noticing a person’s depression and anxiety before it even gets to that point.  Finding better medications and better understanding the medications we already have.  Finding and implementing alternative treatments that reflect our growing understanding of neuropsychology and neurochemistry.  

 

Even loftier, finding better lifestyles, at least for us Westerners, that don’t constantly demand product (doing, doing, doing) over process (being…).  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have jobs or be productive (we should, and depressed people need basic productivity as much or more than the rest of us).  This is just a comment on a society-wide mis-prioritization of self-sufficiency and self-worth at all costs.  It leads to constant self-evaluation, self-evaluation relative to others, self-judgment, judgment of others.  Why do you think the bullies are on the playground in the first place?  Because someone (or even their own brains) made them feel bad about who they are.  Because in our society, we feel better when we climb up ladders, stepping on other people’s heads to get there.  It is a fundamentally faulty system and I spend a great deal of time every day trying to help people find better, more sustainable life philosophies.  

 

Meanwhile, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves but we are not great at self-care.  In better times, Mike touted the importance of self-care and he did things every day to protect and care for himself.  In the end, his depression still became insurmountable.  

 

The kindest, wisest people in the world can have depression.  Lifelong pain accumulates and takes a lot of forms.  Not all depression is treated by life philosophies, and Mike is proof of that.

 

Back to the bargaining table. 

 Life as a long (but not long enough), beautiful, complicated journey.

Life as a long (but not long enough), beautiful, complicated journey.

How to Spend Valuable Time with Your Kids in the Car

I have no idea.  I have heard this is a great way to bond.  I have changed my whole schedule just to be sure to drop off and pick my kids up from school.  And my kids seem to want me to, too.

 

But all the effort seems to amount to little.  They might go on their phones to check their Instagram (yes, they are only 12…).  We’ve all been told, don’t let your kids use their phones in the car (something about how you can’t see what they are doing, total transparency, yada yada).  But they actually don’t use their phones almost any other time throughout the day.  Checking your phone as a passenger of a car is a pretty natural thing to do.  They also use them to check in with their schedules, the weather.  Hard to say no.

 

Other times, I notice them just staring out the window.  This seems like a pretty great use of time, too.  We all need that time, just to wake up or slow down and decompress. 

 

Then, a funny thing might happen.  One of them gets excited and starts telling me a story.  Then the other one immediately interrupts them to try to tell their version of the story or something else entirely.  Suddenly airtime is sacred and scarce, even though I have been sitting there, ready to listen, for minutes. 

 

I guess this is the classic thing about just being around for your kids, when they need you.  Just be available and don’t structure it.  Feel honored when they come to you.  Feel graced by their love.  Feel grateful that they need you.  Feel patient when they don’t. 

 

Luckily, I love music, so rather than the radio or the news, we always have some soundtrack playing in the car.  If they don’t have something they want to play, I gladly fill the space with what I want and think is good for them.  Maybe it’s jazz, maybe its funk, maybe it’s something rowdy (as long as I turn it down before we roll into school; one of them is especially self-conscious).  Anyway, they almost always have something they want to play, and of course, as soon as one of them wants to play something, then the other immediately wants to play something else, so then they fight over that for a while.  Quality car time. 

 

Many of the families I help have different car time challenges.  It’s a great opportunity for kids to be mean to each other, cramped in with one another, no parent to witness the overt or covert abuse.  Everyone’s either tired because they haven’t woken up or because they already had a big day.  Probably late too.  Also, has anyone else been driving in Denver lately?!  Disasters abound.  In this climate, there has to be a No Fighting policy.  Seriously.  Like, when-you-start-fighting-I-pull-over-and-wait-cause-it’s-just-unsafe policy.  Even if you’re late.  I remember sitting in front of a strip mall with my kid in time-out on the grass.  That was a long time ago.  See, it worked!

 

Probably the funniest use/misuse of car time I have heard of is using it for conversations like the Sex Talk.  The idea being: captive audience, no eye contact, just have at it.  I wouldn’t recommend it.

 

Update: I drove my kids around so much recently that I actually got a repetitive motion injury in my foot!  I affectionately named this Soccer Mom Syndrome (SMS).  I then learned to drive with my left foot.  Not as hard as I thought.  I’m nothing if not intrepid.  

 One of the many cool murals we saw on a drive home.  Murals popping up everywhere these days.

One of the many cool murals we saw on a drive home.  Murals popping up everywhere these days.

Digging Out the Camera

This seemed impossible.  If it were not synonymous with a phone, I probably would have thrown the camera into a deep ocean by now.  But in fact, there’s a camera at all of our fingertips 24/7.  Still, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna use it.  What for?  What’s worth documenting now?  Family tragedy? There is no photograph there. 

I have the last photos that Mike ever took.  He loved photographs.  He is the only person I’ve ever heard of who actually took a photo in the courtroom when we got divorced.  He was pretty jovial and said he thought it was a moment worth documenting.  I am sure this sounds pretty strange.  He also meant it when he turned and thanked me for keeping our last name; the judge asked for the record. 

But Mike took the most pictures of his kids.  All the adventures.  Every performance.  I guess like most people and certainly many dads.  With the strange exception that, even on the day he died, he took pictures, knowing he was going to die very soon, probably even that same day. 

Who does that?  I thought people take pictures to share with their family.  I thought people take pictures to make an album.  I thought people take pictures so that much later, when we are very old, we can remember.  So we can stretch time out for as long as possible.  So that we can savor the precious moments forever. 

I don’t know why Mike took pictures at the end.  Probably because many people who might die of suicide might also live another day.  And if they can live that one more day, then they might live many more days.  They really don’t know.  For a truly suicidal person, just about every day or even every other moment in a day is a discussion with themselves about whether to die that day.  Whether to plan to live or to plan to die.  Well, the pictures he took that day were for the Planning to Live Mike.  The last ones he took were at his last birthday party, which was the last thing he celebrated. 

 

Then no more photos. 

At times, I would have preferred that all the memories went away, too. 

Because now, good memories are bad just because they were so good. 

Over the years, I remember taking pictures in pure awe that my life was so darn beautiful (to me).  My kids and Mike, my family, were in the so darn beautiful category.  Before the depression. 

 

So, what next?  When does one dig out the camera and start memorializing again?  I wondered this for a long time.  It felt like it would be forever.  I just couldn’t do it. 

Then, one day, it happened, out of habit.  I guess I realized things are still happening… important things, special things.  Life is so darn beautiful.  It is so good to be here.  It is so good that my kids are here, that we are healthy, that we are alive.  It is such an obvious gift and it insists on being documented. 

 A reflective moment at Faneuil Hall

A reflective moment at Faneuil Hall

 Friends cheer up like nothing else. 

Friends cheer up like nothing else. 

 Stretching into reality.

Stretching into reality.

How to Raise an Adult

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This is the title to my kids' school's sort of "assigned reading" for parents this year.  Last week, the author, Julie Lythcott-Haims, presented to the students and parents, at times mollifying our over-achiever skepticism of her obviously dubious advice.  Don't worry about where your kids go to college.  Let them drop a class after you caught them cheating in it.  Really?  

 

Yes, really.  So often, we allow these aspects of our kids' lives to define US just as much as them.  Maybe more.  In fact, with all of our over-parenting, how can we even know what's ours and what's theirs?  Who are our kids, when we have shaped them into who we want them to be?  And at what cost?

 

Well, young adults are more depressed, despondent, and dysfunctional than ever before.  Its all about the helicopter parenting, the over-homeworking, the resume-building, and the quest for the name-brand college, followed by the Best Possible Life.  The good news and the bad news are, it doesn't really work that way.  It turns out our children are actual human beings that we have to get to know, teach, and challenge in some counter-intuitive ways.  

 

Personally, I am not the "helicopter parent."  But I am definitely the "concierge parent," doing things to make my kids' lives more comfortable, delicious, special, etc.  Sometimes I feel like a tech crew for a big production; I do all the behind-the-scenes stuff, then my kids just roll on stage for their lead roles.  

 

This is all quickly tempered by the fact that, now, I am a single parent.  I am often trying to make things nice or easy for my kids so that they won't notice their missing parent, they won't see me over-stretched (also known as saying no) and either be mad at me or sad for me and mad at him or all of the above.  Basically, I feel they have suffered sufficiently and now we should roll out the red carpet for them.  But ultimately, that would mess things up even more.  They are just real, basic kids who need a real life.  Real life involves the future, and the future involves becoming adults.  

 

Actually, my kids are like mini-adults already.  I tribute Mike with so much of this, and I encourage you to read Love and Logic if you want to know his early childhood system (try to disregard the religious affiliation if this irks you).  Basically, it's about critical thinking and personal responsibility.  In fact, the Love and Logic guys coined the term helicopter parent back in 1990.  There are so many things my kids can do and problems they can solve, they kind of blow me away.  

 

So, why do I still do a bunch of stuff for them? (I feel guilty, etc.)  Why do I still cut them off when they are solving problems (I am tired, etc.)  I am working on it.  A couple of days ago (after the Lythcott-Haims talk), I actually rehearsed and then announced that I would like to teach them how to do the dishes.  They both quipped that they know how to do the dishes.  Then why aren't they doing them?!  Because I am doing them.  But I am working on it. 

 

In short.  Lythcott-Haims's advise to our high school students:  Be kind.  Try hard.  Think and do for yourself.  Widen your options (colleges, professions).  Study and become what you love.  

Her advise to us parents: See your kids, listen to them.  Let them struggle and solve their own problems.  Take your ego out of it.  Model being a kind and productive person.  Have your own purpose.  And remember, at the end of the day, all of it boils down to two things:  LOVE and CHORES.  

 

Ps. sometimes I summarize books so you don't have to read them.  I didn't bother with hers, because it's too packed full of great information, so get the book!  It combines everything I love and preach about grit, resilience, learning, parenting, and becoming a truly fullfilled person.  

Man, am I glad to be parenting post-millenials.  I am also grateful for many millenials I know that don't fit the stereotype.  

On Being a Psychologist

I love it.  Some people have asked how I do it now, or if it’s fair or right for me to listen to others and help them when I have suffered this deep, strange loss that I have to face daily.  I understand and respect that question, and it is very kind of others to try to feel what my family might be going through and not to want to burden me.  Or to wonder if I can help them.  Anyone who has been to therapy knows that, as one prepares for their therapy meetings, they think about how their therapist will react, what they will say, maybe even how they will feel about their client’s story.  This is called transference

Well, I see that my situation is a real transference dilemma for some people.  But people who know me and work with me know that I know how to focus on each person.  I know how to compartmentalize.  I don’t compare one person’s pain to another, including my own.  I never have. 

Ever since I began my job, I started a ritual where I envision my client and what their week might have been like, the space (like real, physical space) they might have come into the meeting from, the mental space, and the events that might have impacted them.  It’s a mini-meditation that allows me to get into their world.  Honestly, having hourly mini-meditations in the effort of becoming another person, understanding them, and helping them is a very good practice.  At least for me. 

More generally and even spiritually, sometimes I wonder what it means that the tragedy of suicide happened to a psychologist, to his wife, who is also a psychologist, and to his kids, whose parents are both psychologists.  I used to joke... everyone assumes that kids whose parents are psychologists are either totally perfect or destined to be totally pathological.  I have always known that my kids were neither of these extremes.  I wonder what it will mean to them that I am a psychologist, one who specializes in families, development and growth.  It all seems so ironic.  Or, maybe it’s destiny… like, I was going to have to care for these kids and I needed a lot of skills.  Sometimes I think I had twins for that reason, too.  So they can have each other through this terrible tragedy that no one else can understand.  Either that or to help finish each other's math problems.

Anyway, in the meantime, I really like my job.  For some reason, I was destined to be a psychologist, and I am here to reassure people that the work still can and will get done.  It’s sad but true that no one can relate completely to any other person.  What happened to Mike was unique, what happens to all of us is unique, and that’s how I enter every meeting. 

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Nurtureshock

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You know how you always plan to read books that you never get to?  Tell me about it.  So when I have the chance, I like to summarize books for friends and clients so you can feel smart without all the work!  I am getting through a few great ones, but for now, here's an oldie but goodie for the archives:

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children

By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

NurtureShock (2009) is really a social psychology book that takes a stab at several different parenting phenomena and upends assumptions we have about how to parent.  It references advancements in neuropsychology that change the way we understand child development.  if you really get into the science-y parts, you will want to read the whole book! 

Merryman and Bronson remind us that what is true for adults is not necessarily true for kids, and that “good” and “bad” are “not opposite ends of a single spectrum.”  Kids can often seem like “walking contradictions.”  It is in learning about these contradictions that we develop a deeper understanding of our kids and what they need from us.

Brief Chapter Summaries and Daily Applications

Chapter 1: The Inverse Power of Praise:

-       Large percentages of gifted kids underestimate their potential

-       Giving kids the label of “smart” actually causes underperformance: “I am smart… [therefore] I don’t need to put out effort”

-       Kids who cheat typically do so because they have not learned strategies for handling failure

-       Over-praised kids can become more competitive and compelled to tear others down

Practical applications:

Emphasize effort over aptitude (praise the “process” not the “person”).  Praise also has to be sincere, as kids recognize fake praise.  Find praise regarding moments in which kids are engaged, motivated and making strides relative to themselves (such as, “I notice that you really took initiative on…” or “I see that you are concentrating really hard”).  Teach kids that intelligence can be developed and that the “brain is a muscle.”  The harder you work it out, the smarter you become.  Also, don’t over-praise.  Let kids have space to develop their own self-conversations.

 

Chapter 2: The Lost Hour:

-       Kids are not getting enough sleep!  “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development” in one study of several cited.

-       Some of the many neurological implications of too little sleep include: a lesser ability to recall pleasant memories, a negative impact on hormones, and a powerful contributor to obesity

-       In one study, kids who slept more scored 156 points higher on the verbal section of the SAT

Practical applications:

Make sure your kids get enough sleep.  Notice when your kids are fatigued and prioritize rest.  Do not over-schedule your kids. Work with your community to encourage your middle and high schools to consider later start times. 

 

Chapter 3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race:

-       Kids are prone to categorizing race, and do so earlier than we might expect

-       There are “developmental windows” of opportunity within which to teach children essential lessons about race

-       Diverse schools typically lead to less cross-race friendships; the more diverse the school the more kids self-segregate by race

-       America encourages individuality, and as a result, kids see differences through which they can distinguish themselves, resulting in more “subgroupism,” or race-based exclusion

Practical applications:

By first grade, make sure you talk to your kids about race, for example, that doctors can be any race (just like you might have already reminded your kids that doctors can be any gender).  Don’t assume that exposing your kids to diverse races/ethnicities is enough.  Explicit conversations about race work best.  When developmentally appropriate, teachers and parents should teach about discrimination, such as lessons on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. 

 

Chapter 4: Why Kids Lie:

-       We have misconceptions about who lies.  In truth, girls and boys lie in equal doses, older kids lie more than younger ones, and extroverts (kids with strong social skills) lie more than introverts

-       In most kids, “four year olds lie once every two hours” and six year olds lie about once per hour

-       Kids learn that some types of deception are ok, even often learning this from their parents (“white lies” or lies that maintain social rules)

-       Lying is actually a developmental milestone (!) and is related to intelligence

-       Kids lie to avoid punishment, to support their friends/siblings, to increase power, and as a coping mechanism to vent frustration or get attention

-       Kids are taught not to tattle on others, which becomes a form of lying

-       Parents tend to “entrap their kids, putting them in positions to lie and testing their honesty unnecessarily” (such as, “Did you draw on the table?” when it is already clear that the child did)

Practical applications:

Kids care about making parents/teachers happy and remaining in their good graces.  They need to be rewarded and acknowledged for truthfulness, independent of the original infraction (such as, “I appreciate that you told truth about who broke the lamp” or “I will be really happy if you tell the truth”).  No matter how small, lies should not go unnoticed.  Do not entrap your kids in lies.  If it is clear that they broke a rule (drawing on the table), just remind them not to draw on the table, and work with them to clean it up. 

 

Chapter 5: The Search for Intelligent Life in Children:

-       Testing for “giftedness” in young children (ages four, five, and even six) is highly inaccurate.  By third grade, 73% of kids id’d as gifted in kindergarten would no longer qualify for giftedness

-       IQ tests become more accurate by third grade and are most accurate by middle school

-       Third grade is also when most curriculums leap in difficulty in that they require more reasoning and abstraction as opposed to rote learning

-       “Emotional intelligence” (EQ) has become an important concept and practice in psychology and is related to IQ in that IQ leads to a correspondingly higher EQ

-       Varying learning styles and temperaments correlate with IQ and school performance differently over time.  For example, extroversion is helpful in early elementary, but by middle school, introverts are the highest achieving.

Practical applications:

Work not to pigeonhole and label your kids.  Do not set up self-fulfilling prophecies regarding aptitude.  Allow your kids to develop at their pace and appreciate that neurodevelopment occurs differently over time.  Emphasize conscientiousness and reinforce intrinsic motivation by allowing kids to develop passions and to explore different ways of learning.

 

Chapter 6: The Sibling Effect:

-       Much research has addressed concerns about the possible negative impact of having only one child, but having siblings is not necessarily better.  In fact, siblings learn as many poor social skills from each other as those that are pro-social.

-       One of every eight sibling conflicts ends in compromise or reconciliation, while 7/8 end in withdrawal, usually by the less powerful child

-       Helpful sibling skills programs focus on prevention (such as coaching siblings to initiate play on terms they both enjoy) rather than resolution once fights have already begun

-       “Educational” books that “teach social skills” show as many negative as positive behaviors, and kids learn both

-       The most predictive factor of sibling relationships is the relationship the oldest child has with his/her best friend

Practical applications:

Focus on teaching pro-social skills to children, regardless of their ages and personalities.  Encourage shared fantasy play in which children “emotionally commit to one another and pay attention to what the other is doing.”  Help them to develop scripts in which both children’s fantasies can coexist and create shared storylines.  Recognize and allow for times when a child is busy or wants to play alone.  Identify scenarios in which all siblings find common enjoyment and encourage kids to see their siblings as friends that need to be treated with respect and reciprocity.

 

Chapter 7: The Science of Teen Rebellion:

-       Teenagers lie often and object to “emotional intrusiveness,” such as parents asking if their child is in love, etc.  They often omit relevant details about their lives or just avoid conversations with their parents about personal matters.

-       Teens cite that they lie because they do not want to disappoint their parents

-       Permissive parents do not learn more about their kids’ lives than those who are strict

-       Teens believe that asking for help from a parent is a sign of weakness or immaturity

-       Oppressive, overly strict parents tend to have obedient but depressed kids 

-       Controlling parents who fill their kids’ free times end up with teens that are quick to boredom

-       Neurologically, teenagers’ brains are prone to boredom, are relatively unable to gauge risk and foresee consequences, and are driven by their relatively under-stimulated “reward centers.”   Yet, teenagers are not prone to all kinds of risk.  They remain quick to embarrassment and often overly self-conscious.

Practical applications:

Parents should establish consistent, enforceable rules and limits.  Still, they should treat their teens as important and allow them to have a say when warranted.  Moderate conflict with teens is better than none or lots.  It is a sign of respect in the relationship and a wish for teens to appeal to their parents as people, rather than to just pretend to go along and then go behind their parents’ backs.  Respect what kids argue about and at least hear them out.  Allow concessions (such as a one-time later curfew) if earned.

 

Chapter 8: Can Self-Control Be Taught?

-       Programs that attempt to improve teenagers’ self-control often fail (such as driver’s education and D.A.R.E.)

-       Some programs do work; Tools of the Mind, a Vygotsky-inspired learning program is an example.  It targets self-regulation (a.k.a. executive function) and fosters complex, interactive, sustained play.  Kids master the “intellectual process of holding [and integrating] multiple thoughts.”  This results in improved attention and impulse control, which leads to improved goal setting.

-       Children need to learn how well they are doing and how accurate their completed work is in the moments that the work occurs (such as self-correcting tasks of the Montessori method)

-       When children are intrinsically motivated, dopamine is “spritzed” throughout the brain, which enhances the signaling of neurons and facilitates better overall brain function 

-       When it comes to successful outcomes, being mentally disciplined is more relevant than being smart (although, with both executive functioning and intelligence, students perform 300% better than students with high IQ alone!)

Practical applications:

Ask your child to find errors prior to pointing them out.  Have students repeat instructions aloud while they work.  Ask kids to find the best examples of their work (such as their most accurate/legible handwriting).  Write up plans with your child, even just about what you will do on a free day.  “Buddy read” with your child (read a book, then have them read it back to you, allowing creativity).  When engaging in pretend play, offer prompts to extend kids’ play.

 

Chapter 9: Plays Well with Others:

-       “Educational” media increases relational aggression.  Shows spend most of their time establishing social “conflicts” and very little time resolving them.  Especially young children don’t connect the overall lesson with the preceding behaviors.

-       Spouses express anger toward each other 2-3 times more than they express affection

-       Children often see their parents fight, but don’t see any resolution

-       Corporal punishment is actually less correlated with aggression when it is used as a regular discipline for everyday misbehavior than for when it is “saved” for the worst offenses, which results in strongly negative self-perceptions

-       Any child can show mean behavior reflecting lapses in judgment, which is typical for developing kids.  “Zero tolerance” approaches mis-target kids. 

-       Bullies are usually “popular, well-liked, and admired.”  Many of these kids are just socially busy on both ends of the good/bad spectrum.  These kids tend to be successful in life overall, and are therefore rarely studied. 

-       Girls are as likely to be bullies, using relational rather than physical aggression

-       Our children basically raise each other, knowing that it is “cool” to defy authority and even to bully, if bullying maintains social power 

-       One study on progressive dads, traditional dads, and disengaged dads showed that, while progressive dads are really involved in their children’s lives, they also have poorer marital quality and overall family functioning.  Greater involvement leads to potentially greater conflict over parenting practices.  Progressive dads also tend to utilize inconsistent discipline.

Practical applications:

Teach your children about healthy friendship patterns, starting very early.  Do not assume that just because your child is popular and has lots of friends, that they and their friends are immune to bullying behaviors.  Be consistent with rules and discipline.  It is ok to let your children see you fight with your partner, as long as the fighting is productive.  Let your children see that your fights resolve (or at least circle back around and tell them that you worked it out, reiterating your common goals and mutual respect), and remember to show affection toward your spouse.

 

Chapter 10: Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t:

-       Baby Einstein and other, similar TV programs do not stimulate language development

-       Babies learn language best from live, human interaction.  They are genetically, highly sensitive to interactive human speech.

-       It is not how much language a baby receives that matters (“receptive language”).  It is the verbal reactions that they receive to their own vocalizations (encouraged, “expressive language”). 

-       “Intermittent reinforcement” patterns are strongest.  Over-responsiveness is experienced as over-stimulation to babies. 

-       Grammar teaches vocabulary, not the other way around.  Grammar creates “frames” of reference within which new vocabulary can be established. 

-       Many kids with early language delays do catch up over time.  They might be shy or not have motor control over their voice, but they continue to benefit from language used around them. 

-       When kids do have strong early language skills, this correlates highly with long-term spoken language skills and other verbal tasks, not with some kinds of math or other non-verbal tasks.

Practical applications:

Notice what your baby is trying to communicate, through their mouth, eyes, and gestures.  Respond rapidly and accurately.  Associate objects with words (such as saying “fruit” slowly while holding a piece of fruit for the baby to eat) and label the objects they show interest in.  Even affectionate touch while kids vocalize increases vocalizations, and eventually, vocabulary.  Still, don’t do this all the time.  Don’t intrude with your agenda for your child; follow their lead, and attune to what they are trying to communicate.  Expose your child to many different people’s uses of language, including varying pronunciations, etc. 

(At least) one more tribute to Mike

I have received SO much feedback from people that truly knew and loved Mike, they say this blog has helped them as they grieve.  None of us really chooses to grieve; it’s not like we think, hey, I wonder what we should do tonight?  I know!  Let’s sit around and grieve some more!  In that vein, I realize that for me to linger on and on about Mike, about his life, about his death, all of it, it can only go on so long for the rest of you, although those of you who knew and loved Mike will surely grieve some more.  So, maybe just a couple more posts that do some justice to both his wonderful spirit and epic challenges. 

Mike’s memorial service happened on a bright, beautiful day, at one of his favorite places.  It strangely and certainly felt a little celebratory despite the undeniably tragic and untimely circumstances.  So many wonderful people loved Mike, so that energy was a shared gift to us all.  And so many of my daughters’ beautiful friends were there to support them.  I found this remarkable, as I imagine many parents might struggle with how and whether to have their children attend an event such as this.  Nonetheless, they were there, and they were absolutely adorable. 

Clearly, no one would think to take pictures at a memorial service, either, except that one of our favorite family friends is also a stunningly talented photographer.  She brought her camera that day and asked if I’d like for her to take pictures.  Of course, she lost Mike, too, and I said I hoped she would get through the service in whatever way felt best to her.  As are many photographers often most comfortable behind the lens, she captured photos that day that I have already realized I will treasure forever.  It’s almost impossible to get through a service like that, so the last thing I could do was remember it. 

I think the best way to communicate a sense of Mike’s memorial service is to share a few words that some of his amazing friends said about him.  He was remembered for being generous and universally compassionate.  His passion for learning was described as “tremendous curiosity crossed with a deep desire to help people.”  He influenced people with his kindness.

The fact that he was “not fully equipped for this life” was precisely what made him perfect for his life of helping other people.  He was always searching, always outside the box, asking hard questions.  He was always looking for new ways to understand things.  Wondering what could be possible. 

Mike was remembered for his seriousness about life, but equally for his “states of reverie.”  He spent most Halloweens dressed as a wizard, which personified his notions of transformation and magic.  One friend astutely pointed out that, because we have lost him, Mike’s search is now our search, and we carry him with us as we ask ourselves all the hard questions going forth. 

Here are a few excerpts from another friend’s eulogy; his words are better than mine, so:

How many times did you pull into a troop meeting as he was single-handedly wrangling some convoluted project with a dozen high-pitched girls buzzing from one corner of the room to the other? No one else paying attention to anything but this magic he'd unleashed, and Dr. Mike barely containing the madness, determined not to squelch any ounce of exuberance.  Him just sopping it up.  All the chaos.  He loved it.  He empowered all of us to be innocent and free and our best.  

Everyone in our wacky multicellular community depended on him in a million different ways -- not just because he was so easy to take advantage of if you needed a Girl Scout troop leader or a chaperone, but because he was so fundamentally good.  You'd talk to him and know that at his core he just wanted to help.  

Everyone.  And anyone.  It was his life's work, and you could talk to him and just feel it.  

Clearly, there were gaps in his life that he was trying to fill in.  He was adopted and sought out his biological parents, but he was too late.  He joined the navy after high school, because he didn't have a home.  Did you know that he coded military computers back in the day and could still have probably built a machine from scratch if he had to?

For all of his awh-shucks humility, he was brilliant.  And the danger of delivering a eulogy for Dr. Mike is that you could summarize all of his accomplishments, and that would be enough because his accomplishments were prodigious.  

Not just professionally where he was revered for his gifts as a psychologist.  Right, he went into psychology late in life to heal other people, because he deep-down understood their pain.  He was famous for jiu-jitsuing suffering and turning that pain into strength.  He could do this because he was so sensitive to it. 

But as a father and as a friend, he never failed to be there for everyone else.  Everyone else.

But that leaves me wondering why he couldn't be there for himself, and why it was so hard for him to understand how incredible he was and necessary and needed and loved.  

It honestly beats the hell out of me, but it makes me think of To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch's pronouncement that you can't judge a man ‘til you've walked a mile in his moccasins.  

Now that he's gone, though, there a million sparkling ideas he isn't gonna share with me anymore, so I'm going to try, and I am trying.  Because there's this Dr. Mike-sized hole in my life, that it's left to me to fill in with his grin that rippled from his belly and stretched across both cheeks and his eyes that listened deeply. 


Now it's on all of us and on each of us to be that much more for each other.  Our great and good friend Mike inspired us to be more, and we owe it to him.  And we owe it to ourselves to keep him with us.  

 What 10-year-olds wear to funerals.  Thank you, Katy Tartakoff.

What 10-year-olds wear to funerals.  Thank you, Katy Tartakoff.

 Flowers that we arranged from the garden that Mike loved.  Himalayan salt rocks, his literal and metaphorical favorite. 

Flowers that we arranged from the garden that Mike loved.  Himalayan salt rocks, his literal and metaphorical favorite. 

A Love Letter to My Daughters

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If you haven’t figured it out yet, this blog is really just a love letter to my daughters.  It’s the kind of letter that I can’t just leave on their pillow.  It’s the kind of letter that’s hard to read.  Plus, they are too young.  It would be wrong for me to crowd their brains with my own ideas and words about their terrible loss. 

But here’s why it belongs in a blog.  They can’t talk about it with almost anyone.  They know that other people don’t understand what they went through.  They hear the word suicide thrown around throughout the day, often incorrectly and insensitively.  They understand this.  They know better than to try to correct people or to explain. 

So, nothing happens.  In our family, we talk a little, we share memories.  But, sort of on purpose, not much more happens.*  They don’t want to carry it around every day.  They don’t understand it, and they don’t want to, yet.  So these words are for their archives, for when they are ready to look back.  So I can get the words out before they change or get lost.  Mike was a special soul and his life deserves to be remembered. 

These words are a statement about why we ALL need to talk about suicide.  Not just Mike’s.  These words are proof that we can talk about it and still hold our heads high, still walk with some grace through life, knowing that we don’t need to be ashamed of mental illness. 

You see, everyone associated with a suicide feels pretty awful about it.  First of all, we feel guilty.  We should have saved them.  Also, we feel hurt and angry.  Does it say something about us that they were willing to leave us, that they were absolutely compelled to leave? 

I can’t answer these questions for anyone else, and I am barely scratching the surface for myself.  But there is one thing I know, which is that my beautiful, perfect daughters didn’t deserve any of this (none of us did).  Their magical life was bombed into oblivion one humble summer’s day, and that’s that.  We have to address that, and these words are a start.

This story is about serious pain.  It's about realizing how hard it was to live in Mike's depressed, suicidal body and mind.  It is about the rest of us feeling lost and abandoned and betrayed and stigmatized.  It is about the trials of single parenting.  Which is hard enough for anyone.  Then add the goal of constantly distracting my kids from the biggest abandonment they also must experience.  Trying not to over-compensate but also trying to be totally there for them. 

The bottom line is, the bigger their community of support, the better.  Speaking of which, a special shout out to all of you who are there for us every day, you know exactly who you are.  And for those of you who have reached out to me because of this blog, I appreciate every one of you for listening and showing your love and maybe even sharing your own stories.

*Actually, one especially big thing did happen, and that’s Judi’s House.  So much gratitude for that awesome resource.  If you suffer a terrible loss but are lucky enough to live in Denver, you will know what that place is about.   

https://www.judishouse.org

The Metaphors.

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I use a ton of them.  Both at my job and in my own life.  Here are just a few, about the suicide. 

 

The Apocalypse:

How it felt when Mike died.  My daughters and I holed up in a bunker, knowing it was not safe to go outside, not knowing if and how life would go on. 

Some strange things happen in a bunker after the apocalypse.  First of all, everyone gets really close.  That’s a good thing.  Also, you pass the time with weird activities.  We watched mindless movies and read books to each other.  We couldn’t play any games, cause that was pure Mike.  We couldn’t handle the holidays, also Mike.  We couldn’t look at pictures or talk about the past or the future.  We just focused on whether we had enough rations for the day, and what episode of Star Wars we would choose (also Mike, but somehow exempt).  Better yet, Zoolander (definitely not Mike). 

 

College, the Metaphor:

This is one of my favorites, but also one of the hardest to implement.  Basically, college is (usually) awesome even though you know it’s going to end in 4 years.  So, why can’t our lives and our memories be awesome, even though whole thing had to end?  What if we could think of Mike as a super-cool college that we all got to attend, get filled up with, shape our minds around.  And then we just move on to the next phase, the next great thing?  Well, there are tons of reasons why, making this the hardest metaphor.  But sometimes I try it anyway.

Life of Pi is another example.  Having to say goodbye to everything you ever knew and loved, then surviving on a raft with a large predatory animal.  Trying to make the best of it.  Building meaning from it.  Becoming spiritual.  Something like that.   

 

The Iron Stake:

This one is harder to describe, it’s really more like a feeling I can’t shake.  I just picture Mike’s death as a giant, heavy, black, iron stake in the middle of my mental, emotional landscape.  I can’t get over it, I can’t pretend it’s not there, I can’t move it, and pretty much everything has to revolve around it.  I think people dealing with loss, maybe a lot of kinds of loss, might relate to this one. 

The Aftermath.

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I feel I should label this: The Aftermath, Part 1 of about 37,000.  Really it's more like... infinite.  And I can't even begin to do justice to what this has meant to our community, Mike's clients, his students, his friends. 

But back to our little family.  How do two young girls navigate the colossally enormous and complicated loss of their dad's suicide?  How do they understand that the most loving, empathic, giving, spirited soul on the planet chose to, or felt he had to, leave? 

They don’t.

They go on with their other life, the life where they are just kids with friends and goals and things to do and places to go.  Their life, like mine, irreparably split between two universes.  One where dads love their daughters and reassure them when they are scared, remind them that the world is ultimately benevolent, that everything is going to be ok.

And the other world, where everything is never going to be ok. 

Right now, it sort of reminds me of the Upside Down.  Thanks, Netflix.

 

When I was young, I was electrocuted on the third rail of a train track in Chamonix, France.  Really.  Anyway, I was told that it was a miracle I was alive, how unlikely it was that I survived.  The doctors sort of stared at me for days and ran a bunch of tests and fixed my dislocated elbow and then let me go home.  I looked out over the Alps and thought, there is some sort of god/purpose for me, and every day from here on out is extra, a bonus.  I have no idea if this was real but it is what I believed. 

I honestly have resonated with that truth since the day it happened.  I am genuinely grateful to be alive.  It’s not easy, life, but it feels amazing to be here.  Sometimes I wonder if it is superficial not to have questions about the universe or “God” or my purpose in life.  But I just know.  I feel like every day on Earth is a gift, maybe a totally random one, who knows.  But somehow we have been given this time in these bodies and these brains on this earth.  Not for long, either.  Let’s definitely make the best of it. 

Still, I spend my days trying to help other people figure out their truths, their gods, their purpose.  It seems like a very good way to spend the time.  Many people really struggle with being on earth.  It helps to feel heard, and to share the struggles with each other.  Compassion and connection: the currencies of humanity. 

 

Anyway, Mike sure struggled with this.  Suicidal people struggle with this, sometimes every day.  Sometimes their suicidality screams at them, interrupting their attempts to go about their day.  Sometimes it gets too loud or too real and it takes over.  I have tremendous respect for this struggle, and for people that fight this battle in their lives. 

If they could just be reassured.  If they could have enough good things to balance out the bad.  If they could calm the demons… like, literally calm their bodies and thoughts down when they get so flooded.  That’s what it’s all about.

But ultimately, we all decide how to make meaning in life.  It’s a lot of work.  Actually, Mike worked harder at this than anyone I know.  But he did that work because he had to.  He did it because it kept the demons at bay.  He got really good at it.  Eventually, it exhausted him. 

 

Mike “died” when he was 8.  He drowned and was saved and revived.  Just like in the movies, he saw his little eight-year-old life flash before his eyes.  AND, he had an overwhelming sense of calm and safety, of letting go, of God, of transcendent love.  Then, he was yanked back to earth and to life. 

 

I can’t help but wonder if this experience impacted his ultimate decision, if he remembered and deeply craved that sensation of connection with the universe, and if he thought he could get there through suicide. 

 

But in fact, most people who are suicidal are terrified of a lot of things, including dying.  Mike remembered what happened to him when he was a kid, but he also researched other perspectives.  He often referenced the research by  Dr. Sam Parnia; he wrote Erasing Death.  He reported that people who are resuscitated from a suicide attempt often report terrible, horrifying experiences whereas people who “die” of natural causes experience universal love and compassion (in the rare times you can interview any of these people).  He does not postulate why these trends occur, he simply reports the science of peoples’ experience (mostly with the hope of improving universal resuscitation methods, but also to study peoples’ near-death experiences).  This research is fascinating and amazing and scary, all at the same time.  

Of course, the classic notion of suicide is that it is the most selfish thing a person can do.  The person who dies escapes their wrath and everyone else is left without their loved one and to pick up the pieces of daily life.  Luckily, this strategy helps some people get through depression.  They personally wish to die, but they know the impact on their loved ones would be so tragic that they fight through it instead.  Other peoples’ depressions are worsened by this notion.  They are already wracked with guilt and stress and pressure, and they are terrified of hurting their loved ones, leading to more guilt and stress and pressure.  Some religions say suicide is a sin.  So there’s that, too. 

Ultimately, it’s not anyone’s place, not a therapist or a spouse or a parent’s place, to tell a person what to do with their own body and life.  This is so painful.  There was not a single thing I could do to stop Mike.  The more I did with him and for him, the worse he felt about himself and his future.  The more people reached out to him, the more he turned away from them.  It was a terrifying and perplexing time, and the worst experience of my life, and his too, of course.  This is where I run out of words, which could never describe this time in our lives.  

 

So what does a family do?  They live.  They look for love and joy and forgiveness and connection. The exact same thing they have always done.  Also, they are tasked with being kind and caring for the world.  They have a mission to be there for people in need, to recognize how hard it is to be human, and to honor their memories because they are special and real.  And, of course, to honor their Dad.  

 

And they get to be really pissed off about it, too. 

The List.

I used to think, if Mike really died by suicide, I would literally have to move out of town.  I could not do my job respectably and I could not raise my kids respectably, it would be too much.  This was so ridiculous.  I forgot that my kids live here, this is their home.  This is my home.  This is not something you get away from.  As unimaginable as it was at the time, it is exactly that unimaginable now.  It’s just that I live with the unimaginable.  I just show up and live.  What other people think about my/our reputation is so distant now, totally irrelevant.   

 

I often have this fantasy that I could design some sort of list of Reasons Why; I could just hand it out at the door, maybe at parties, even at work.  It would make everything so much easier.  In fact, when I have time to rattle off a few of the “reasons,” people seem to feel a little better.  They seem slightly relieved, actually.  First, the list makes some sense (to a suicidal person).  It also represents his values (in the most sadly ironic way).  But for all Mike’s uniqueness and specialness, he still died the way lots of suicidal people die.  Feeling lost, isolated from his loved ones, distanced from his long-term goals and dreams, with a history of mental illness. 

 

For some, there is an especially traumatic event that leads to suicide (still, usually with a history of other complicated stuff).  For others, it is just a culmination of many things.  For Mike, it was sort of like a perfect storm.

 

In the days immediately leading up to his death, Mike had several scares that seemed to him to be signs that he should not remain alive. 

 

First, he was going through a change in medications and he was groggy when taking the girls to camp one morning.  They got into a car accident.  Everyone was fine, but it was a bad accident and his car was totaled.  He was terrified that this had happened and felt afraid for the kids’ safety. 

 

Also, our beloved dog, Scout, was almost 15 years old and was dying.  In fact, we had to put her down the day after Mike died.  Mike and Scout were deeply connected, and she was one of his closest companions.  It appeared that he simply could not tolerate letting her go.

 

Probably most relevant to the days before he died, Mike was going through a somewhat aggressive medication change in an attempt to improve his depression.  Mike was always deeply suspicious of medications for depression since he had tried them years ago with no benefit.  He really hated having anything alter his mental state, and again felt that the medications were not helping him.*  He stayed loyal to the advice of his psychiatrist, whom I highly respect and who I believe did all the right things to help Mike.  So, he was going through a transition in medications and it was extremely destabilizing.  Mike felt and looked very sick all weekend, as if he had the flu.  He slept a great deal and had trouble communicating. 

 

Also to his obvious detriment, he was showing signs of psychosis.  This can happen in a serious depression, and relates to his deeper mental illness that was so hard to see from the outside.  I am hesitant to elaborate on all of the forms of this, as it seems too personal.  But it is an important component for people to understand.  When he made the decision to die, he was paranoid and destructively illogical. 

 

Mike deeply feared that his physical health was irreparably failing.  He had always had hearing loss since his time in the Navy working on computers in loud vessels.  He wore hearing aids that worked well for him.  But in the months leading up to his death, he felt his hearing and sight were failing significantly.  He was diagnosed with a mild heart condition that was in no way insurmountable but that scared him.  He literally believed that he was actually dying, even though he was one of the healthiest 54-year-olds I knew. 

 

He also feared that he was failing at his work.  Indeed, if you consider everything that was happening, his work had to be affected.  But in fact, I have heard from so many people who worked with Mike right up until the day he died, who say that he helped them enormously (of course there could be other people who experienced something different and didn’t communicate their observations).  This ties in with a larger theme in which Mike was so very talented that he set an extremely high bar for himself, and he underestimated the benefits of even moderate job performance.  This will have to be revisited later as is a key theme for many people who die by suicide.  Perceived failings in life that disavow the simpler, common ways that we all get through and feel competent.  Mike feared that he was losing his identity by not doing his best for his clients.

 

The single most important reason that you must try to understand that Mike was delusional, untethered from reality is this: he chose to die for his daughters.  He sincerely, emphatically believed that they would be better off this way.  He believed that he had spiraled back into a depressed state that he had inhabited for decades, and that he had no chance of recovering.  He believed this despite the fact that there was less than 9 months between when he got depressed and when he died.  He believed this because he was an “expert” who knew all the rules and tricks, and they didn’t work on him (yet).  He cited many examples of when adult children feel they need to care for a depressed parent, and how it wears on them.  He believed he had given his children everything he had to give, and that he was completely unequipped for their upcoming needs.  In part, he believed in me and knew that I would carry the ball, that I would stop at nothing to take care of our kids.  He saw this as permission to exit. 

 

This is the arresting crux that tends to stop us all in our tracks.  No one has ever known a father that loved his children more than Mike.  It was his passion to be a father and raise children.  He was great at it, truly exceptional. 

 

Did Mike get help?  Yes, he did.  He got as much help as he thought he needed.  I am not going to elaborate on this, as, again, these specifics are more private.  But he got help from the best people I can think of.  Still, Mike refused to be hospitalized and, like certain suicidal people, he craftily lied at the end to ensure that he could follow through with his plan.  We were watching him and caring for him all the time at the end, and he still figured out a way.  Perhaps not like most other people, Mike was misguided in thinking that, because he was such a talented psychologist, that he knew everything about programs and interventions and that none of those applied to him, his depression was bigger or more special than other peoples’.  

 

So, it happened.  In all his previous years of depression (before I knew him), Mike had never attempted suicide, not once.  He landed exactly in the category of people who don't want to attempt suicide, they want to complete it.  

 

Hard to pick an image for this post.  All that comes to mind is total darkness. I guess the total eclipse works, too. 

 

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*Medications help a LOT of people.  Sometimes it takes time to find out if they can help, and which ones, and which doses.  It can be a frustrating process, but many people get an immense amount of relief from medications.  

Readers: Suicide is preventable.  Knowing the warning signs and how to get help can save lives.  Check out this link, which includes hotlines and resources: 

https://www.cdc.gov/features/preventingsuicide/index.html

What we need.

Before more about Mike, I want to talk about what we need.  I don't think anyone knows what to do in situations like this, but I have figured a couple things out. 

I have been given the book by Sheryl Sandberg (and Adam Grant), Option B.  It's a good book and a great gift for me at this time, although her husband died unexpectedly of a heart condition, which is awfully different than our situation.  But it's also striking to see how differently we all respond to grief.  She describes feeling frustrated with people that ask, How are you?, finding it insensitive to her obvious grief; she prefers, How are you today?, which assumes the grief, but is still a way to check in, authentically.  

Personally, I don’t really care about details like that at all.  It’s actually really nice when someone just says a casual hello, asks how things are going, or starts talking about their own life.  It gives me a break and makes me feel like a normal person. 

What is a lot more unfortunate, although totally understandable, is that people don’t let me know about their own feelings of grief about Mike because they don’t want to burden me. 

When I am being selfish, I long for people to reach out to me more.  When Mike died, many people wrote letters about him, letters to my kids for later in life.  These letters are absolutely priceless to me.  It was sad when they stopped coming (although they would have to, someday).  I wish people knew that it is never too late to reach out.  I could talk about what I have learned about the people that reach out and the people that don’t, and it has hurt to realize some people drop off while others show up.  But the truth is, I don’t know anything about people, especially the ones I don’t hear from.  Maybe they have their own reasons, their own stories, their own sense of betrayal or confusion or anger, who knows?  But for the people that still wonder what to do, reaching out is what is best for me, and eventually my family (my kids know about the letters, and read most of them, then had enough for a while, and it will keep going like that).  It’s like what I teach in my practice: if you are wondering whether to communicate, always err on the side of communicating. 

I was so grateful after my kids’ recent continuation, a good friend came up to me, asked me how I was, and said how the ceremony was so sad for her because she kept thinking about how Mike was missing it, and how beautiful the girls are, and how proud he would have been. 

I actually was not having that experience that day.  I was missing Mike a ton, for sure, and I was sad to be saying goodbye to a very special school my kids have called home, and where Mike frolicked with them afternoon after afternoon, year after year.  There is a Little Free Library dedicated to him that he and his Girl Scout troop installed a couple years ago.  Anyway, I was feeling sad that this beautiful place would become a memory, that another chapter was closing, one in which everyone knew and loved Mike and where he was interwoven with the girls’ memories.  I knew that, when they go to their new school, it will never remind them of Mike at all, but of other people’s dads, their teachers, maybe me, their friends.  I was sad about that.  But I was super proud of my girls that day, indeed they were beautiful and poised and perfect, as all the kids were. 

Anyway, my friend came up to me and shared how she felt and it meant the world to me.  We cried for a moment over the potluck table.  Then we got on with the celebration. 

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Mike's Story

Has to be told.  And yes, he died by suicide. 

Now that that’s out of the way, I am going to figure out how to tell (enough of) the story. 

Some people won’t approve.  I didn’t ask anyone’s permission or guidance, as there are so many reasons the story should not and would not be told.  But it has to be.  I could try to describe the constant barrage of emails and phone calls and even worse, the people that don’t email or call.  They ask each other and they wait, dealing with their own confused grief.  But everyone wants to know. 

It’s instinctive to want to know, I guess.  Survival instinct. 

It’s love, too.  People are concerned, want to know if we are going to be ok. 

It’s learning.  Our psychology community deserves to learn and grow and grieve themselves.  Everyone he touched deserves to learn from this. 

It’s concern for everyone else.  Like, if you know someone with depression, how worried should you be?  What signs will there be?  What can you do to prevent it?  I can only attempt to answer.

It’s probably a little voyeurism, too.  I really don’t care.  I don’t care about that because I exist in a parallel universe in which things like privacy or “image” are just distant memories of a normal life.  But this will never be normal.

Before jumping in, here’s just a few reasons why NOT to tell the story:

Mike had a lot of patients, and I don’t know their stories.  Some were young, and some were dealing with their own depression and maybe even suicidality.  We all know that people are vulnerable to giving in when they see that others have done the same, especially people they really admire.  Still, the most important part of this is the education around it (for example, look up whether more people really did follow through with suicide after Kurt Cobain died, and how the community rallied to support and educate people and it worked).  I could also argue that Mike wanted people to know, even his clients.  This one doesn’t hold up, though, because he wasn’t making sense at that point.  Still, he was decidedly NOT wanting this to be kept private.  He insisted on being authentic, even at the end.

This will affect how some people see me professionally.  I also don’t worry about that.  I remain good at my job, or, sadly, better.  I certainly don’t need clients, and I am not looking for attention or sympathy, I get plenty of both.  To be honest, it would be a lot easier to try to sweep this under a rug, if only there were a rug that big.

Also, my kids... they deserve their own story.  They deserve to bury the story, too, if that would be more convenient for now.  They are finally starting new experiences (camp, school) where people don’t already know the story, and how refreshing is that?  Unfortunately, it’s also not true or fair.  People will know the story, and they will tell it to each other in hushed tones, and feel shocked and sad and maybe even scornful but without the right information.  Parents might need to decide whether and how to talk about it with their children, or even whether to let their kids hang out with my kids.  After Mike died last summer, we had a few weeks to figure out a strategy for school.  I sent an email to the classrooms my kids would enter.  After having grappled with the tragedy for weeks on their own, I heard from so many parents how grateful they felt that I had reached out to them in this way, to give them just a little information and language to prepare them.  This is what I said:

Fifth grade families,

I wanted to add a little to the email you received about Mike and our family.  I want you to know it obviously pains me greatly to lose Mike and to such tragic circumstances.  I know that each family will need to deal with this in their own way.  I don't have any script, so please do what is best for your family.  I have some families telling their kids about Mike's death but not offering any other specifics to their kids.  I have other families telling their kids it was an accident or a health issue.  I really don't judge anyone's decisions, and obviously some people will have different needs regarding their religions, their own kids and what each parent might know about their kids' own worries/life perspective, etc.  Believe me, it occurred to me it would be easier not to tell my kids the truth, but in the end, I knew I didn't have a choice with my kids.  But please handle this however you would like.  

I don't really think that [my kids] are going to advertise their situation.  But they are also getting accustomed to speaking about it directly when appropriate.  Mostly, they just want to have a normal life and normal interactions with their friends.  It has helped to see a friend here and there to acclimate.  I think they will like to just get back with their daily life as soon as is remotely possible.  We are inviting letters/cards just as a way for kids to feel they can do something tangible, if that is healing for them.  

In the last few weeks, [my kids] have come closer together than ever, and their love and friendship for each other is truly a gift to us at this time.  But at times, they are quick to moods and a little snappy with each other.  I mention this just because I would love for our already awesome community to help me parent at this time.  For any parents who really know me, I will never be defensive if you share observations with me about things they do or say.  So by all means, if something comes to your attention, feel free to shoot me an email.  

For those of you who are actually going to tell your kids what happened, I will just let you know that we are telling our kids that Mike was very sick, depression is a real disease, and in the end, it took his life the way that cancer might infect a person's cells or brain.  I also get a lot of questions because Mike seemed fine to other people, so some kids worry that if Mike could do this, could this happen to just any parent.  I think it is fine/fair to say that Mike was a lot sicker than he looked on the outside, and that it ran in his family, and that he struggled with depression for decades, not days or months or even years.  You are welcome to share any of this if it helps.  

Ok, I will turn off my child psychologist brain and just say, as a mom, love up your kids and take good care of yourselves.  See you soon, 

Mary

You would think a lot has happened in a year, but in fact, I could say almost the exact same thing about my kids right now.  Just get to know them as people and look over them with love and support, as we all do for each other. 

So, most people we know feel better with at least a little bit of the story, and maybe some words to share with their families and friends.   You could argue, in a situation like this, there really are no words.  And there are also no “answers.”  Even once I get this story out, you will feel dissatisfied, distracted by the fact that Mike should really just be here right now, no excuses, no explanations needed.  I agree and get stuck on this all the time.

At times in my life, I have been told I’m a pretty good writer.  You won’t see that here.  A person in my state loses words.  Everything is constricted, choked.  Even language.  I have nothing sophisticated or philosophical to say. 

The bottom line is, suicide isn’t shameful.  It’s something to be uncovered and understood.  If Mike died from cancer, we would just say so.  He got a disease, he got very sick, and he died before we could cure him.  

If you want to learn more, check in periodically for posts, whatever words I can muster (I wrote a little all year, but didn’t allow myself to consider sharing until at least a year of grief and stabilization).  

Ps.  Dear People I Lied To, there are two of you.  You asked how he died at the wrong place and time (aka, I wasn’t ready and couldn’t break it to you).  I said it was a heart attack.  Mike did not die of a heart attack.  This is the same lie I planned to tell my kids on the shocking evening of July 5, 2016.  I mean, telling your children that their father just died is... seemingly impossible, and something I hope you never have to do.  Telling them how he died, that was unthinkable.  Luckily my sister's wisdom ran the rest of that evening. 

 

Readers: Suicide is preventable.  Knowing the warning signs and how to get help can save lives.  Check out this link, which includes hotlines and resources: 

https://www.cdc.gov/features/preventingsuicide/index.html

 Quintessential Mike. 

Quintessential Mike. 

 

Mike's Story, continued.

Before going on, I want to elaborate on suicide prevention.  To learn how to respond in a situation involving potential suicide, you can follow the link at the bottom of every one of these posts.  But I will briefly comment here on just a little of what comes to mind regarding the ins and outs of depression and suicide.  First, for the suicidal person:

Don't isolate yourself.  This appears to be to be the #1 goal (of life, for all of us, depressed or not).  There are few 100% true tenants in psychology, but one of best is: we need people.  The more people we have around us (true friends, true connections), the healthier we are, the happier we are, the longer we live.  When you are depressed,  surrounding yourself with people sometimes seems like the last thing you want to do.  People are also skittish around depression.  They want to help, they care deeply, and they get frustrated when they can't solve it from the outside.  But find a way to stay connected.  And if you are only a little depressed, or have been depressed before, or fear you might become depressed one day, spend every day cultivating healthy, supportive connections with your family, friends, community, and even your pets.  It will pay off if you need them in the future.  

Don't believe yourself too much.  Challenge catastrophic thoughts.  Get therapy to help you get perspective and skills.  Regulate your states of fear, and notice where it sits in your body.  Exercise.  Eat well.  Read books.  Try medication.  Stay productive.  Buy time till you emerge from the dark cloud. 

For those taking care of depressed and suicidal people:

I know it's a cliche, but just listen.  Ask questions and don't try to fake a person out of their depressed thoughts and feelings.  Validate without endorsing their beliefs.  Make yourself available to them and check in with them sometimes, even when they don't reach out (especially then).  Get them help, and don't stop until you find the right providers and treatment options.  Tell them you love them.  Tell them you are going to help them get through this.  If you have your own stories of depression, you can share them; it's a misconception that this will make it worse... people don't like to feel alone in their pain.  Don't stop listening and paying attention when they seem to be getting a little better- sometimes this is the most likely time for them to act on suicidal thoughts (they are energized, but still have their depressed beliefs, which can be a dangerous combination).  

There is so much more that could be said, but I'll leave it at that for now.  

 

Unfortunately, Mike’s story is not a suicide prevention story.  I wish it was.  Every day.  I actually have a lot of suicide prevention stories.  Over the years, I have spent countless hours helping people with suicidality, hoping that I might come up with a magic intervention or comment or question that yanks someone out of their despair and gives them a reason for hope, a reason to shelve their suicidal thoughts and give life another chance, buy themselves time to get out of it.  That actually works, almost always. 

But no one was going to get Mike out of this.  Man, did we try.

Back to the beginning, for perspective:

Mike was one of the most amazing people any of us has ever met.  He and I fell in love, got married, had twins, and raised them in our lively, joyful home, in a beautiful neighborhood.  Our kids went to awesome schools.  We had (have) truly fantastic friends and we were surrounded by the most dynamic, supportive community you could imagine.  Mike had his dream job, which he was great at.  We took beautiful vacations to inspirational places.  Just about every day involved some sort of magic that we treasured deeply. 

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How does one draw a line from these pictures to, eventually, suicide?  They seem universes apart.  In fact, I had never seen Mike depressed, in all the time I knew him.  Prior to that, he had been clinically depressed for a great deal of his life, and had pursued and received excellent treatment that taught him a great deal and gave him good coping mechanisms for life.  In fact, this became his life's platform; hence his profession.  He believed (and he was right to believe) that he could help other people with the same kinds of problems.  Then, a couple of years ago, things changed.  

 

As much as privacy is still prudent, I will briefly describe what led up to the year of Mike’s fall. 

Without trying too hard, we had created a “brand” for ourselves.  Mike and I were truly living this awesome life, and other people, certainly some clients or students, saw us as mentors or advisors, and they saw us as good parents, too.  I cared about this image, and I probably had a bigger ego than I needed. 

I began working on letting go of this image.  This started with the divorce.  Yep, we got a divorce. To be honest, some people still don’t know this part.  People that did know were confused and devastated about it- side note- divorce is a hell of a thing to happen to a community, at least one like ours.  It stresses people out, it makes them wonder what is true and reliable in the world, it make them ask questions about their own marriages, and obviously, it makes kids anxious.  It makes people a little suspicious and defensive around you, it makes them wonder who you really are.  It is a topic for another kind of blog, perhaps.  But back to the story.

 

Divorce.  A private decision that mostly doesn’t belong in this narrative.  Two people are always responsible for a marriage and a divorce, and I own all my stuff.  But for now, the part that matters is: 

We could not have loved each other more and we worked hard on our marriage.  I began to perceive Mike becoming more and more like a monk, actually.  He had always searched for spiritual answers and was really finding them, and was becoming more connected to a particular leader/guru (Adyashanti- beautiful person, great man, along with his wife, Mukti, also an amazing woman and guide).  I was so happy for Mike to find this community.  But slowly, I was losing him to this world.  Eventually, it felt unfair to expect him to be a part of a more earthly existence.  He was satisfied being a dad and a therapist, and his wisdom and philosophy was informing so much of his daily work, it was something I really respected and admired.  I didn’t like being angry with him for not being more like his old self, and I wanted to embrace him for who he was becoming. 

One more piece: his daily life was becoming too insular for what I wanted for myself and my kids.  To be very fair, he spent his days talking to people all day as a clinician, then the rest of his energy was devoted to his kids and his dog, and he didn’t have room for much more.  I understood and respected that. I wanted an open door to our home, where my kids could have access to their neighbors and friends and endless playdates and sleepovers and the things growing girls love. Mike wanted all that too, it was just hard for him.  

So, we parted amicably, shared the decision to get a great house just a few blocks from the other one, and to be radically loving co-parents.  We continued to travel together and share a very fluid parenting schedule.  We focused on our kids and how to be good parents (I understand that some people think that good parents don't get divorces...).  We talked about writing a book on how to redefine divorce and co-parenting (boy, is that another blog entry, Mike and all the mostly-written books he did not publish).  We designed this consciously and with lots of advise, and we thought we knew what we were doing. 

Little did I know, with all my (and his) training and loving and trying, that Mike was beginning to suffer, to lose something in himself, and that change would eventually determine his demise.  

 

Ps. I know this seems like over-sharing, especially for a psychologist.  I know this crosses a traditional line of privacy.  I am writing this because too many people have deep questions about how someone as vibrant and wise as Mike could have made the ultimate choice to end his life.  It is important to clarify that he was himself, vibrant and dedicated and wise, and there was not a hidden Mike that people didn't get to see (with the exception of his deep roots in depression, genetically and from his childhood, that emerged at the end).  I was proud and grateful to have married Mike, and I still am. 

Readers: Suicide is preventable.  Knowing the warning signs and how to get help can save lives.  Check out this link, which includes hotlines and resources: 

https://www.cdc.gov/features/preventingsuicide/index.html