Monday, February 27, 2023

Voices of Experience: Navigating Grief in the Wake of A Husband's Suicide

After taking her sons on a hike with the family dog one beautiful fall afternoon, Charlotte Maya returned home to find a police woman, a policeman, and a priest in her driveway—there to deliver the news of her husband’s suicide. Charlotte knew her husband had been stressed about work, but she had no idea he was suicidal. She thought he had stayed home to take a nap. 

As a young widow, Charlotte cried, cursed, meditated, medicated, downward-dogged, and ran as a way to make sense of her husband’s suicide. As the mother of two bereft sons, she summoned her inner strength and clarity in order to provide steady guidance for them to navigate their own ways through the ensuing months and years. Her story offers intimate moments, powerful lessons, as well as practical ways through which not only suicide survivors but any of us experiencing loss can move forward to live lives of joy and purpose.

Here Charlotte shares an excerpt from her book Sushi Tuesdays ~ a stunningly honest and beautifully written memoir of love, loss and family resilience.

Grief time has a cadence all its own. Every day without Sam was interminable, imbued with a pungency like stale coffee. After seven lonely and miserable nights, it was Saturday morning again.

Rabbi Jonathan had given me a memorial candle, symbolizing the light of the soul, with the instructions to let it burn continuously for the next week. I never lit it. I was afraid that the flame would ignite the house and burn it to the ground. Irrational, perhaps, but crazier things had happened—my husband falling out of the clear blue sky, for one. We had lost so much that I could not bear the thought of losing anything more.

The rabbi had also pinned a black button with a cloth tail to my lapel, as well as to the lapels of Sam’s parents and his sister, and then he ripped each one. This tearing of cloth symbolizes the pain and anger of grief. We were supposed to wear those buttons for seven days. Mine didn’t last one.

At home, Danny pointed to it, shouting, “Mommy, take that off!”

I tried to reason with him, explaining that it was a tangible and public expression of anger and grief in the face of death. Then I realized my son wanted no more reminders that his father was gone, and respecting my son was more important to me than honoring thousands of years of tradition. I took off the button and tossed it into the garbage.

I did not host an official shiva. We had had our fill of grief rituals.

* * *

Life as a newly widowed single parent was overrated.

The phone calls were constant, in addition to the voicemails, condolence cards, and emails that accumulated in virtual and actual piles. All were expressions of love and community, and I was grateful. I wanted each caller and every writer to know how much I appreciated the support, yet somehow my lack of time to respond developed into a sense of obligation, which morphed into resentment. I felt pressure to answer all the notes and messages, but I didn’t have the energy to pick up the phone, and I certainly didn’t have the energy to write. Only when I couldn’t sleep did I find myself tapping out emails in the middle of the night. My friend Maris was going through chemo and also not sleeping, so we often found ourselves exchanging long emails in the dark. It was a quiet, sacred, vulnerable time. We were both scrambling for our lives. 

I found comfort in chatting with friends on the phone, laughing together and hearing their voices soften and break. Yet it was hard to carve out time for conversation between the demands of tending two boys solo and managing the post-death logistics.

The bills seemed to arrive at an alarming rate, along with a veritable army of dust bunnies. I had to figure out online bill pay, a relatively new feature of banking at the time, but my checking account was shut down almost immediately because Sam was the primary. I reverted to using the credit union account my parents had set up for me when I was in high school.

When I called Visa, I learned that I was only an “authorized user” on the credit card. They informed me that Sam himself would need to make any changes, and, in the event of his death, the entire account would be shut down, so I said thankyouverymuch and hung up. I continued to use the credit card and paid it off as though Sam were alive. Meanwhile, I called the credit union, but they wouldn’t raise the five-hundred-dollar limit on my credit card without a recent income history or my husband’s signature as a guarantor. I didn’t have either, so I said okaythanksIwillaskhimandcallyouback.

I called the utility companies to remove Sam’s name, but they all had listed Sam as the primary or the sole person on the account, even though I was the one who set up the services in the first place. One of the utilities—gas? electric? water?—made me shut off the service to the house and restart it a day later. And they required an extra deposit, which sucked.

Sam’s death came up at every turn.

I got a call from Penguin’s Frozen Yogurt to let Sam know that his favorite flavor—peanut butter fudge—was available that week. I didn’t have the heart to let the youthful voice know that he was dead. I just said, “I’ll tell him.” I canceled our subscription to the LA Times. I didn’t have the focus to read a headline, or a byline, or even look at the photos. I just threw the paper right in the recycling bin; that is, if I bothered picking it up at all. Every day, mail arrived with Sam’s name on it. There were companies to notify and forms to complete. There were questions to answer and questions I could not answer. The bill for the ambulance ride was something like $10,000. The emergency room was more. I didn’t know whether our health insurance would cover those costs. For that much money, it seemed like someone could have at least gotten an explanation out of him.

People asked me “How are you?” and I wanted to scream, How the hell do you think I am?

There was so much to do, and yet no fix.

Grief brain is real. I spent a lot of time staring vacantly. I used to be intelligent, efficient, and occasionally even funny, but I couldn’t hold an idea long enough to form a coherent thought. I was sluggish and unmotivated. I felt blank, like an erased white board; whatever had been noteworthy was reduced to inky flakes at my edges. I rested my chin in one hand, looking toward who knows what—the window? The hardwood floor? a teacup? a pressing task I’d already forgotten?—and felt the warmth of my hand. My eyelids drooped with the weight of exhaustion, and my body fell into its rhythmic inhale and exhale. If it had been intentional, I might have called it meditation, but it wasn’t. It was the lungs and heart doing what they do, and while I did not possess the awareness to be in awe of my body’s simplicity and power, still, each breath pulled me through to the next moment.

I easily could have been seduced by the inertia. Grief ’s pressure held me in place. But with two little kids and a dog, shit needed to get done.

© 2023 by Charlotte Maya

About the Author: Charlotte Maya writes about suicide loss, resilience, and hope on her blog, at thirty-nine, when her children were six and eight, Charlotte’s writing explores the intersections of grief, parenting, and self-care—particularly within the context of suicide. Her work has been highlighted in Hippocampus Magazine and on The Mighty, and she has been featured on the A2A Alliance and the Your Next Chapter podcast with Angela Raspass. Charlotte lives in Southern California with her family and enjoys hiking in the local foothills, as well as downward-dogging with her so-called hunting dog. She received her B.A. from Rice University and her J.D. from UCLA.

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