Author: Stephanie Abraham

Today is #SurvivorDay. I wrote this for survivors and allies.

My Brother Took His Own Life. Don’t Ask If He Left A Note. Here’s what I’ve found to be helpful — and not — when speaking to suicide survivors like myself.

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Before this summer, I understood, intellectually, that suicide was on the rise. I didn’t realize, however, that it’s a worldwide epidemic that claims the lives of 800,000 people annually, including one every 12 minutes in the United States. I had no clue that every one of these deaths leaves behind an estimated six “suicide survivors,” loved ones of the deceased who have to figure out how to live with the tragic loss. And I certainly didn’t consider what people should — and should not — say after someone takes their own life.

That all changed, however, after August 21, when my older brother and only sibling Peter died by his own hand.

Since then, I’ve personally experienced what Harvard researchers foundabout suicide survivors — that during bereavement, we need more support than those grieving other types of death, but often receive less. The grief that comes with suicide is especially complex and traumatic because it’s typically sudden, sometimes violent, and we’re left reeling with questions about what happened and what we could have done differently. We’re also more likely to face stigma, shame, and isolation. It’s not surprising, really.

According to philosopher Simon Critchley, “Death and suicide are still things surrounded in silence, or just a kind of fake seriousness. It’s a profound social problem.”

One of the ways my parents and I have experienced the stigma, shame, and isolation is through callous communication — or a lack of communication altogether. In general, most people have trouble talking about death. Some even seem to believe it’s contagious — as if merely mentioning death will beckon it — so they completely ignore it. Suicide jars people to the core, which makes them even more awkward and scared about talking about it. People feel preoccupied about making mistakes or saying the wrong thing. I understand. Still, although there are no magic words to make the pain go away, words do matter, especially in times of great distress. The way we speak to the bereaved can comfort or sting.

When speaking to suicide survivors, here’s what I’ve found helpful—and not:

Don’t ask details about the death.

How did he do it? Who found him? Did he leave a note?

Upon hearing that someone has taken their own life, people experience a sense of disbelief and shock. I’ve come to understand this intimately as numerous loved ones have asked me unfathomable questions. A friend, who has a PhD and is a college professor, texted me and asked if my brother had left a note. When I told her that was an inappropriate question, she responded, “Sorry, I don’t know the etiquette.” That someone so smart could temporarily become so clueless shows the extent to which people struggle to think about suicide and survivors, and what shock can lead people to say.

It’s a smart instinct to ask questions because typically if we have more facts about a situation, we can better understand it. But that’s not the case with suicide. No amount of information makes it digestible. In fact, knowing details can cause more trauma. One of the challenges survivors face is that we repeatedly replay the death scene in our minds in an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Several acquaintances who didn’t know my brother have questioned me about his personal life, asking me where he lived and if he had a spouse or children. Perhaps their minds start racing and all they can figure out to do is take inventory of who the survivors are and where we’re located. Sometimes I wonder why they don’t start by asking his name.

My husband has advised me several times since Peter’s death not to be distracted by the how but to face the what. “Rather than focusing on how he died, try to face the fact that he’s gone. That’s what matters here,” he reminds me. Although difficult, this perspective has helped me find my footing.

Console the survivor.

I’m so sorry for your loss. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.

When I told a friend, who lost her father about five years ago, some of the invasive questions and comments my parents and I have heard, she was flabbergasted.

“Really people?” she asserted. “All you need to say is ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ And if you can manage it — and mean it — add, ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do.’

Those two statements — however trite they may seem — get the job done.” Her no-uncertain-terms tone and statement summarizes what survivors need so well.

Depending on the relationship with the survivor, you can get more personal. For example, my brother-in-law left out the “y” in “your,” acknowledging Peter’s death as “our” loss, and assured me that although he could never fill Petey’s shoes, I could count on him as a brother. His generous words made me cry.

Don’t ask about the mental health of the deceased.

How long had he been depressed? Did you see any signs? Did you try to get him help?

When someone takes their own life, people want to know why it happened and incorrectly assume that they’ll find the answer by asking about the mental health of the deceased. Also, often without realizing it, folks want someone to blame and often point the finger at loved ones. Asking survivors how much they knew — and what, if anything, they did to try to prevent the tragedy — adds to the shame, stigma, and isolation they face.

Focus on the well-being of the survivor.

Have you eaten today? Have you slept? Can I bring you dinner? Can I come over to keep you company?

Grief experts Brook Noel and Patricia Blair wrote that losing someone in this way is “one of the most traumatic experiences a person can endure.” They recommend treating survivors as if they’re in the Intensive Care Unit for at least two weeks after the death. Simple tasks become very difficult — and because survivors are often in shock, they don’t ask for help. Offer the basics: bring food, babysit kids and pets, give a backrub. If you’re far away, call or send care packages.

Thanks to friends and family, numerous homemade dishes landed in my parents’ fridge. Out-of-state relatives sent a fruit basket. An acquaintance from church asked my mom, “Can I come over to sit next to you on the couch and hold your hand while you cry?” My friend who lives across the country assured me that when I call she’ll answer the phone, no matter the hour.

Even when we didn’t accept the offer, we cherished the kindness.

Don’t project your guilt, share your regrets or make it about you.

You must feel so guilty. I should have reached out to him. I could have done more.

In the wake of suicide, most people feel overrun by guilt and think of things they should have done. In part, this is the mind’s attempt to control a situation that was uncontrollable. Survivors work hard to move beyond guilt, so assuming we’re stuck there is unfair, inaccurate, and alienating. Share your regrets with your friends, therapist, or journal — not with survivors.

Offer to listen to the survivor.

If you’d like to talk, I’d love to listen.

What I’m going through is often too much for others to bear, so it’s an amazing gift when folks offer to listen to me and let me cry about the loss. Afterwards, I’m often better able to remember sweet moments and I appreciate the opportunity to share those too.

Don’t pretend everything is normal or that nothing happened.

Some people have chosen not to acknowledge my brother’s death at all. When I returned to work after a month off for bereavement, a few people greeted me as if I had not been gone. When people ignore Peter’s death, my family sometimes assumes it’s because they’re uncomfortable with how he died. It may be an unfair assumption, but we can’t helping making it after the stigma we’ve experienced.

Share positive memories of the deceased.

When I think of your brother, I always see his big smile. I remember this one time…

People have shared memories about Peter in person and in writing — some that go as far back as preschool. Hearing about the impact that he had on others’ lives is unbelievably comforting.

When someone dies by way of suicide, their death often overshadows their life. The responsibility to remember them for the light they brought to the world, rather than for how they left it, shouldn’t just rest on survivors’ shoulders. We should all keep the deceased alive through sharing stories about them.

 

This essay was originally published by Bright Magazine.

My Beloved Brother, Petey A.

 

Although unfathomable, my sweet brother has passed. The book I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One is helping me process this difficult new reality and I highly recommend it. Peter was a loved man and hundreds of people came out to his vigil and funeral. Below you’ll find the obituary and eulogy that I wrote in his honor. Please share your memories and stories of Petey with my family and me–it helps us smile through the tears. (You can leave comments below.)

Obituary

Peter Howard Abraham, beloved son, brother, nephew, cousin and friend, died on August 21, 2017. He fought a long battle against alcoholism and depression, and in the end, took his own life. Rather than focusing on how he left this world, the family asks that he be remembered for the light he brought to it. Peter was a sensitive and gentle soul who was cherished for his kindness and sense of humor. People who knew him say that his laugh, smile and heart will never be forgotten. Services are as follows: Vigil, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 7PM, Cabot & Sons, Pasadena; Mass, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 9 AM, St. Luke Catholic Church, Temple City; Burial, immediately following the mass, Resurrection Cemetery, Rosemead. 

Eulogy

Thank you for coming to celebrate the life of my brother, Peter Abraham. I knew him as Petey; most of you called him Pete, or Petey A., or maybe even Joe – as in, Joe Mama. Peter was the king of nicknames; he came up with one for almost everyone he knew. When we were in our twenties, and the Jack Stephan TV commercials played all the time, he used to call me “Stephanski” or “Stephanavich.” But in the last decade or so, he settled on referring to me as “kid.” No matter where we encountered each other, he’d greet me by saying, “Hey kid! How goes it?”

If he were to ask me today, I’d answer, “I’m a bit heartbroken, Petey.” While he may understand this now, when Peter was alive he never could understand why we loved him. He’d lose track of his own goodness, his own “loveableness.” But who doesn’t? It’s impossible not to internalize the harshness of this world and we all have moments when we forget that we’re connected, that there’s hope. We use different numbing agents to help us mask how bad we feel. I tend to overwork. Maybe you turn to food or social media. Petey relied on alcohol. He always wore his feelings on his sleeve; he wore his struggles there too. It’s not that the rest of us don’t struggle, it’s just that we hide it better.

Prior to 2015, my parents and I would never have mentioned this, but now we see it as a responsibility to be open and honest about Peter’s battle, because it was ours too. We hope that other families in similar situations may avoid this tragic loss, or at least know they’re not alone.

Two years ago, the doctors told us that Peter had six months to live. He had cirrhosis of the liver brought on by alcoholism. I stepped in as his medical advocate and what a gift it was to be close to him during that time. Once, after another late night in the ER, I got to tell him that if I had it to do over again, I’d choose him as my brother. He choked back tears by complaining about how dry the hospital sandwich was that he had been eating. “But at least it doesn’t smell as bad as the tuna you made yesterday,” he said, making us both laugh.

All Pete ever wanted to do was play baseball in the Major Leagues. But his first job in high school was making pizza at Little Caesars and he went on to become a professional chef, cooking in the best restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, Hawaii and throughout California. The man made RiceARoni and leftovers taste like a five-star meal. He’d spruce up any dish by running out to the backyard garden to get some fresh basil or chives. His food danced on the palate. I, on the other hand, am what we lovingly call, “domestically challenged.” (My husband says I’m a “re-heater.”) Petey loved to use every opportunity to remind me of this. As my older brother, he saw it as his personal responsibility to tease me whenever possible. Not even news about his impending death changed that.

At that six-month point the doctors had warned us about, Peter’s liver miraculously bounced back and he proved them wrong. He found his way to sober living and my parents and I found Al-Anon, a 12-step program for family and friends of alcoholics. My parents go to a meeting every week, no matter how badly they don’t want to. Thanks to that discipline and work, we’ve learned that alcoholism is a disease, that no one is to blame. When people die of other diseases, we say things like, “they lost the battle against cancer.” That simple truth applies here as well. Peter lost his life to a disease: he lost the battle against alcoholism.

At this point, if my brother were here, he’d hold his palm up like a stop sign, roll his eyes to the ceiling and say, “Please.” Then he’d do the whole motion again, without words, for emphasis. That was his way of saying, “Enough talking, let’s have some fun.” For those of you who didn’t know him personally, I can assure you that you would have loved him. He laughed as easily and often as my dad and was as kind and thoughtful as my mom. My wit and ability to bust out with the goofiest of dance moves gives you only a glimpse of his charisma. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t been his little sister. I’m a better person through and through because of him. I know many people feel the same.

Being “Peter’s little sister” was one of my first and favorite identities. At four years old, when he found out I was on the way, he ecstatically announced that he’d like a little sister even more than a puppy. When my parents were deciding what to name me, they chose Stephanie based on his suggestion. Whether growing up or visiting him at one of the restaurants he worked at, people would point at me and say, “That’s Peter’s sister.” It happened today actually, I heard someone whisper it as I walked by and it brought back so many memories. It seems terribly unfair that I only got four decades with him, and it looks like a long road ahead without him. Still, I’m so proud to have been, to be, his sister. I stand by that statement I made two years ago: if I had it to do over, I’d choose Peter as my brother.

In the last week, I’ve been reminded of the fact that I grew up in a very small town. So many folks from Temple City have reached out to share their memories of Pete with us, which always include a laugh. This one, written by an old friend, was my favorite: “The last time I saw Peter, I was training for a triathlon and he was riding to work on a beach cruiser that had a horn on it. We rode together for about seven miles and talked about a bunch of things. After he’d make a point, he’d honk his horn to add emphasis! It was hilarious and I almost crashed a few times from the laughter.”

Can’t you just imagine Peter honking his bike horn after he said something clever? He also loved busting out in what he called a “snap attack.” You never knew when one would hit. He’d snap as loudly and quickly as possible for as long as he could and would often incorporate a kick-snap-pose combination at the end. When he and my dad would have snapping contests, Pete always won. Sometimes after saying something funny, he’d do “a little shakey shakey,” moving his shoulders back-and-forth, to commend himself and get you laughing.

My brother celebrated the simple things in life. He wanted a burger and fries and a spot on the couch to watch the game. He’d go outside to see the moon, ask you if you had seen it and text you a picture of it when it was full. When he had to stay overnight in the hospital, he would use the phone by his bed to call the kitchen and thank the cooks for their “deliciousness.”

Peter was a devout Catholic and he emanated Jesus’ generosity in his everyday life without looking for brownie points. One year when he worked at a restaurant in Hollywood, he would take a bus home to Temple City after midnight that stopped by the downtown LA jail. That winter, men who had just been released and were wearing summer clothing would often get on the bus. Peter gave away nearly every sweatshirt in his closet because he couldn’t stand to see them shivering in the cold night air. The same thing happened in Hawaii. My dad and he were on a bus when Pete pointed out the window and said, “Look, Pops, that guy’s wearing my T-shirt!” My brother was a man who literally gave the shirt off his back to strangers.

This week, I’ve wished that he had given me a piece of jewelry to wear, as I have a ring from my late Auntie Sophie that has brought me great comfort and strength. But he called material items “trinkets” and had no interest in accumulating wealth. The only gem I have from him in my jewelry box is a note about the size of a quarter that he hid in it decades ago that reads, “Pick it!” I can’t remember how we started saying that to each other, but one of us always said it at every goodbye. It was our way of saying, “I love you.”

There are two exceptions to his trinket rule, however. One is the rosary. He had a devotion to our Blessed Mother and often carried a rosary in his pocket and always had one in his backpack and car. The other was a certain 1967 Volkswagen Bug that he inherited at the age of 15 from our maternal grandfather, Loker, or “Hokey,” who Peter was close to growing up. Petey completely restored the bug with a two-tone paint job in mint green and white, mud flaps, white walls, and even chrome curb feelers. At 20, he moved to San Francisco for chef school and I turned 16, which I thought was impeccable timing because guess who got to drive his car? My friend and I named it “Sugar” and we’d cruise around town singing “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies. One day after Petey had graduated and moved back home, he went into a store and the person behind the cash register asked, “Hey, why are you driving your sister’s car?” He came home both fuming and beaming with pride.

A year and a half ago, Peter moved in to a sober-living house aptly called Welcome to Life. Living with men who shared his struggle was such a gift. He returned to doing so much of what he loved most. He got a job at a pizza place and resumed riding his bike. He taught the sons of a new friend how to throw a baseball and spent hours playing pool with another new friend he nicknamed “Hot Sauce.” The owner of the house tells me that Petey is the only resident he’s ever had to reprimand on more than one occasion for sunbathing in the front yard.

The last time I saw my brother was about two months ago and a sheer coincidence. He pulled up next to me at a stoplight. I happened to look to the right and there he was, smiling at me. “Hey kid! How goes it?” he asked.

“Petey A.! What are you doing here?”

“I just picked up some friends from work.” We held each other’s gaze for a second. Then the light turned green and he said, “I’ll see you soon.”

As we started to accelerate, I waved at him and yelled, “Don’t forget to pick it!”

I’m so blessed to have that memory. That’s how I carry him in my heart.

We hope you’ll share your memories of Pete with each other and with us in person or on Cabot & Sons’ website (until the end of September you can find his name under “Obituaries”). The microphone is open for anyone who would like to do so now. Please join us afterwards for dessert. Our cousin has baked baklava with our family’s recipe. There’s an Arabic saying that goes something like, “In times of great distress, sweetness on the tongue soothes the heart and soul.” Tomorrow, after the burial, we’ll toast Peter with a slice of pizza. You’re welcome to come. Thank you.

SLAVERY NEVER ENDED: PRISON AS PUNISHMENT IN “13TH”

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The Netflix original documentary 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma), looks at the legacy of racism and slavery in the United States and how it led to mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. The film opens with a voiceover of President Obama saying, “So, let’s look at the statistics: The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.” The movie’s jolting statistics, compelling graphics, and rich interviews with nearly 50 scholars, activists, and politicians—including Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and Shaka Senghor—ensure that viewers will not only think about systemic oppression and but want to find ways to end it.