Ben & Debbie
My Healing Journey
By Debbie Flanagan (Schererville Indiana)
It is difficult to articulate my healing journey as I still have such a long distance to go. I have come to realize that it will take the rest of my life to continue to figure out how to heal from my only son's suicide. How can you call it healing when you open your eyes each morning and feel the same ache that was permeating your final thoughts the night before? I miss my son. I want my son back. I wish I could have saved him from himself. Not a day goes by without that anxious feeling creeping up on me: the yearning to change the story, rewrite the events, go back in time and change it, change any one moment of that despicable day so that the end result would not be me, here writing about my "healing journey".
I would love to be able to fill this page full of hope and tell the tale of how I overcame a mother's worst nightmare. The truth is that you don't. You can't. There is no way to
" get over " the suicide of your 19 year old son. There is no way to "get past" it or to even really "deal with it". What you are forced to do, if you choose to live your life again, is to go straight through it. I am not sure at what point that I decided to do just that: continue to LIVE my life and just find my way through the grief. But I am a mother. And with that comes the responsibility of being strong for your children. And I still have a daughter. A beautiful teen- aged daughter who just lost her only brother. Her pain and mental well being was my primary focus. I am a single mom. I HAD to cope. There was no way I was going to lose her too. Once you lose a child so tragically and you are living your worst nightmare the fear of danger and harm to your other child is that much more heightened. You are acutely aware of just how fragile life is. I delved into the topic of suicide. As much as I could possibly read and learn. Knowing that Ben had bipolar depression I sought counseling and the psychiatric evaluation of both mine and my daughter's depression.
Even though I was assured that our grief was situational, the visual of finding my son returned at will. Initially, without any warnings I could be thrown back in time to October 15, 2007. And all of the anxiety , fear, and gut wrenching emotion came with the flash backs of seeing what I was never supposed to witness: My beautiful, vibrant, talented 19 year old baby boy hanging by a belt in our home. These lovely episodes were attributed to PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. With this comes the acute awareness of the possibility that I could lose another child to suicide. And so I had to cope with THAT anxiety and fear. It was like reliving the days prior to and following Ben's death all over again.
I went into survival mode. I feverishly sought out ways to try to overcome the flashbacks, the grief, the anxiety and the guilt. How can I do all of this and continue to work productively and care for my grieving daughter? I refused medication as I was convinced that Ben's suicide was in part due to anti-depressants and his mismanagement of those drugs. I threw myself into my work. The busier I was, the less I dwelled on my sad thoughts. Although there were, and still are, triggers that bring back the flashbacks and the emotions that accompany the return to that day. Only now, I know what they are and I avoid the triggers: violent movies, driving down the Dan Ryan, Halloween ( hanging scarecrows, skeletons, ghosts, etc.. actually even Pinatas set me back !) And alcohol. First of all, there isn't enough to dull the pain, and second of all, it is a depressant and makes you even more sad and tired. You need all the energy you can spare to handle grief. I walk, ride bikes, use the elliptical trainer. Exercise triggers endorphins, natural pain relievers and mood elevators. I try to fit it in each day or every other.
I found a reputable therapist to treat my PTSD. He had experience with war veterans and knew how to help me alter my reactions to the flashbacks as there really isn't a way to prevent them. You just learn how to fit them into your life. With suicide comes a new normal.
I guess that is really all anyone who has lost someone to suicide can do. You learn how to deal with the pain, the loss and the emotions that come with it. It's like carrying a bag of bricks. You can't ever really put them down, you just get stronger and learn how to adjust to the weight. I did this by joining a Suicide Support group. Safety in numbers and I certainly needed help to lighten my load. The burden was just too heavy on my own.
The first group I attended, I left on the first day. It was too soon. I just could not bring myself to talk about Ben's loss or the events that led up to it. But eventually, out of shear desperation to do something to help me get through the painful days and sleepless nights, I found a wonderful support group in Illinois. There wasn't one in Indiana when I was finally ready to commit to weekly discussions. LOSS: Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide is run by Catholic Family Charities. ( 312 - 655-7283) This group saved me and comforted me in ways I can't even put into words. I am still dear friends with them and we reach out and touch each other on a routine basis. Survivors "get it", we can share without judgements because we are all still mourning the loss of our sons. Yes, there were seven mothers and a few fathers, all of whom lost our son's to suicide. It was the best group of people that I never wanted to meet. This group pointed me towards the AFSP. In my efforts to join a local walk to raise funds for suicide awareness and prevention, I met other women who lost their sons, brothers, nephews ( all boys- I learned that boys succeed suicide attempts 4:1 compared to girls due to the tragic means that they choose to end their pain .) And together, we put together the first ever Northwest Indiana Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide Prevention.
This was another wonderful group of women, all mourning the loss of their beloved children and all with the same conviction to help others who are faced with the same tragedy and to do whatever it takes to prevent other senseless losses to suicide. So here we are, now planning the third annual Out of the Darkness Walk in Northwest Indiana.
I am still in therapy. I call my counselor about once a month. I am not on medication but I wouldn't say that others shouldn't seek a reputable psychiatrist to use drug therapy if it is right for them on their healing journey.
I walked 18 miles last year in Ben's honor at the National AFSP Out of the Darkness Overnite. I won't do that again real soon. It was emotionally draining and didn't help my pain. In fact, it threw me backwards into depression for quite some time afterwards. But hey, you live and learn. And that's what my healing journey has been. A learning experiment of trying to do whatever I can do to get through each day. I know that I cannot deny my compulsion to be an activist for Suicide Prevention. That came immediately after Ben's death. I did not want another mother to go through this, ever. No more stigmas. If we can't talk about it openly, we cannot as a nation treat this health initiative our government has recognized and must be treated.
I know that I need my friends and family. They picked up the late night calls, walked with me, listened to me tell my woeful story over and over. They knew that I needed to let it out and repeat it over and over again to make myself believe it was real. I tried moving away but discovered that grief follows you. I learned along my journey who to keep in my life and who to let go. I am fortunate to have a wonderful man by my side who stepped up and has helped me through this horrible nightmare in ways that I didn't think possible. He has been a true lifesaver that has wiped away more tears and has even taken my angry blows. A brave, compassionate, real man. Sometimes it takes real ugliness to see the beauty inside others.
I want to be able plug back into life and truly enjoy living again. I can't say that I am quite there yet, but I put on a good front. Some days I feel as though I am just going through the motions, but one thing I know for certain. Ben would not have wanted me to simply exist or survive his death. He would have wanted us to live life to its fullest and do all that we can do to help others struggling with depression.
So that is where I am. I have a long way to go on my healing journey. But I have learned how to balance the bag of bricks, and more importantly, who I can reach out to to keep me steady, pick me up when I fall, and who is willing to lighten my load. I realize that I am only human. The emotions will come, the tears will flow you just go through it. It's the only way to the other side. And you need to be good and do the right things. So I try to make good choices and do for others so that one day, I will get there and be with my beautiful boy for eternity. I am certain he is singing with the angels. And I want to be in that audience! Include "How-to" articles or hints and tips on related subjects. Try a reader's poll. People love to give their opinion, and you can publish the results in your next newsletter. Drive traffic to your website by entering teaser text for the article with a link to your website for readers to view the full text.
AFSP Indiana- Debbie has planned the first annual "Benny-fit" for June 5th (Ben's birthday), 2010 in Schererville Indiana. Proceeds for this event will be donated to AFSP- Indiana and the District One Prevention Counsel. This event will take place at Northwoods in St. John Indiana. 3 bands are scheduled to play at the Bean Bag Tournament and Music Fest. If you are interested in more information or would like to attend please see one of the 2 links provided below:
by Ed Schwartzman (Bloomington Indiana)
Nothing can prepare a parent for losing a child by suicide. My journey towards healing began on October 15th, 2007 - the day my beloved 19 year old son Benjamin lost his battle with depression.
The best analogy I ever heard to help explain the healing process after a parent loses a child to suicide goes something like this:
Imagine that you are walking alongside the ocean and a gigantic wave suddenly roars on top of you, throwing and tossing you...you are doing everything you can to simply get to the top - you are just trying to breathe...that is what the early stages of grief are like after losing a child to suicide - the grief comes on so strong, so suddenly - you have no control of anything. All you are trying to do is breathe.
Somehow you manage to get to the top, to breathe again, and somehow you regain your footing and begin walking once again alongside the ocean. Of course another wave of overwhelming grief comes and sends you gasping for air - and once again you struggle to survive - but somehow you manage to get to the top and breathe once again.
As you continue your walk alongside the ocean the waves of grief begin to get smaller - nothing you notice at first - but they do begin to get smaller. Occasionally, one unexpected gigantic wave will come and catch you off guard - and remind you of how powerful and helpless you are to battle the waves of grief.
Eventually, you get to a place where you are able to walk alongside the ocean and there is ALWAYS the slight ripple of current at your ankles - tugging at you - reminding you of the grief - but you are no longer threatened by the overpowering waves that once overpowered you.
That is what the grieving process felt like for me. I still get hit with an occasional large wave - but nothing like the waves that dominated my life in the months immediately after Ben died by suicide.
A key component in my healing process was acceptance. Nothing I can do can change the fact that my son died by suicide - no matter how much grieving, scape-goating, complaining I do. Instead of focusing on all of the negative surrounding Ben's death - I began to focus on all of the positives of his life - and the incredible love we shared.
Ben and I were as close as a father and son could be - we shared a love for music, movies, being goofy, sports and just hanging out together. Ben's sense of humor, his contagious smile and his gentle spirit will live on in my mind - and in the minds of so many of his friends and family.
Another key step towards healing is when you begin helping others who are also going through the same rough journey that you are going through. There is something extremely therapeutic about focusing on helping others and their challenges rather than focusing on your own.
Ben was an extremely talented singer/songwriter. Before his death, he had recorded 11 songs - with most of his songs focusing on the challenges he dealt with on a daily basis.
One way that I have been able to help others is that we have built a stage at the restaurant where I work (BuffaLouie's in Bloomington) and we have dedicated the stage to Ben. This stage is open to artists of all abilities and genres. I fondly recall how excited Ben was whenever he would have a "gig" in front of a live audience. I know that Ben would be honored to see that we are giving young musicians a place to play on a stage dedicated in his honor.
Another way I am trying to help others is through a dream I have for Ben's music. For the past 18 months I have been trying to use Ben's music (And his sister Hayley's definitive anti-suicide song "Your Choice") to help reduce teen suicide and to raise money and awareness to battle mental illness.
Here is a summary of my dream...if anyone reading this has any ideas on how we can make this dream a reality - PLEASE give me a call....
Many other teens commit suicide - but there is something significant about Ben's life that could make his death the turning point in battling both addictions, mental illness and teen suicide.
Ben had a gift. He left a legacy of music that is so powerful, so emotional, so open and honest - that if his story and his music were shared with the world - maybe, just maybe - we could raise awareness about the crippling effects of mental illness and teen suicide - and maybe, just maybe - save a few lives in the process.
We all recall how Elton John embraced young Ryan White, and helped raise world-wide awareness in the battle against AIDS. I believe Ben's music is powerful enough that if current recording artists would embrace his story and this noble cause - this will raise awareness in the battle against mental illness and suicide - and help relieve pain and suffering.
Although Ben had the incredible support of friends, family and the medical community - the only thing that sustained him was his incredible love and passion for music.
But in the end, his internal demons were just too strong - and he elected to end his suffering the only way he knew how - by taking his life.
The words and music he left behind are an insight into what he was feeling - and exposed the pain he was going through. (The same pain so many others are experiencing.) In addition, Ben's younger sister Hayley has now recorded a song "Your Choice" which has the potential of becoming a worldwide anti-suicide anthem.
My dream is to produce a two-CD box set: The first CD would be the CD Ben left us along with Hayley's beautiful "Your Choice", The second CD would be well-known recording artist(s) doing their own versions of Ben & Hayley's music. We want all the proceeds of this project to raise money and awareness to help reduce the crippling effects of depression and bi-polar disorder. (Other ideas? Let us know.)
IN HIS SHORT LIFE, BEN SCHWARTZMAN TOUCHED HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE...IF GIVEN THE CHANCE HE CAN TOUCH THE WORLD.
Here is a link to all of Ben's 11 songs PLUS Hayley's 2 songs dedicated to Ben - including the definitive anti-suicide song "Your Choice"
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Maybe I am healing - but there will always be a scar...
Ben & Ed