[Trigger warning: This post addresses forms of trauma, loss, grief, mental health and suicide]
Let me tell you about my two Bubbes (grandmas, just in case you weren’t sure). One was Grandma Babe, the other Grandma Flo. Although they grew up at the same time, roughly the same place, in basically the same environment, the two lived very different tales, each living in this world and leaving this world in stark contrast; their lives attesting to radically different legacies – legacies which we all must take seriously, understand and ultimately choose for ourselves.
A Lineage of Shadows
Let me begin first with my Grandma Babe.
Although I grew up less than ten miles away from her, I have very few memories of her. The memories I do have are, at best, sad. Even when she was there, I remember looking into her eyes and feeling as if she wasn’t all there. I remember the chain-smoking, the frailty and fragility of her skin and her touch, and in some way her spirit too. These were some of the better memories. The tragic one – it only took one – was when she killed herself.
My Grandma Babe struggled with depression for much of her life, endured shock treatment, cocktails of medications, and zero therapeutic support. There was always a dark, ominous silence around these topics and I imagine she didn’t receive much of an invitation to explore them or express herself as a means to heal them. She was clearly a tragic victim of her era, her illness, and her demons. And yet, I would be lying if I said I had only compassion and forgiveness for her all these years.
I didn’t. For the better part of this time, I was angry and resentful for what she did. Although she was certainly unaware of the unintended consequences of her actions, my grandmother would end up setting something dark and destructive in motion for her children, grandchildren, and progeny.
Twenty years later, at roughly the same age his mother was when she left this world, my dad followed in my grandma Babe’s footsteps. My dad killed himself.
I know he was a grown man, made his own choices, and if he were here would take responsibility for his actions. Nonetheless, you can not overstate the mental, emotional, and spiritual impact of an inheritance of suicide. This dark legacy stains the soul of a child and a family. When you are in its shadow, no matter how strong you are, you can not fully escape the dark and dreadful shadow it casts. This is why statistically children of those who die by suicide are more likely to also take their life. I know for certain that my dad is no longer here, in no small measure, due to that shadow he inherited. It’s not the only reason, but I know firsthand it is a significant reason.
I say this having stood and sometimes find myself still standing, in the shadow of a shadow, of suicide.
As the third generation, you can’t help but wonder what this means for you, for your siblings and most concerning, for the fourth generation, your kids.
After all, in geometry one point on a grid means nothing; you are free to move in any direction. However, two points form a line, an entirely different story, one in which you know the direction that line points. And a line, after all, is the root of the word lineage. This darkened lineage of suicide(s) leaves you wondering where does your line point?
A Lineage of Light
And yet, there were two bubbe’s, with two radically different lines, pointing in radically different directions. Let me tell you about line, lineage and life of Grandma Flo.
Grandma Flo lived 1500 miles away, however, I could swear she lived with us I saw her so much. Beyond the sheer quantity of memories are the quality of memories. Grandma Flo wasn’t simply there, she was “there,” all in and all yours, and all the time – or at least that is how she made you feel. When Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” she was talking about my Grandma Flo. She made you feel seen, loved, and like you were living not in a shadow, but in the presence of pure, joyous, divine light.
Don’t get me wrong, Grandma Flo knew her share of sorrow: losing her sister in a plane crash, watching most of her siblings die, suffering a debilitating stroke, and many other trials and tribulations of living for as long as she did. I’m sure her heart ached. I’m sure she felt victimized and helpless and hopeless at times. However, I don’t know because that was not what she conveyed. That is not what she chose to focus on or act upon or wanted to leave her family as an inheritance.
Grandma Flo left this world with little materially, and yet she was the wealthiest person I have ever known. She would wash the dishes and sing. She would clean the house and dance. Even when she couldn’t articulate the words to that song, due to the stroke, she would belt out la, la, la so joyfully that your heart would melt. Even when she would call you by the wrong name, or refer to your child as “the girl,” it was radiant, exuberant love (except when it was actually not a girl, but a boy, and that eight-year-old boy was in the room – for him it wasn’t so much fun!).
My last memory of my grandmother was on what some might see as a deathbed, but not Grandma Flo. She treated this as her lifebed, bestowing blessings to everyone who was in her midst. When my turn came she simply held my face between her hands and all she could get out was, “dolly, dolly, dolly.” Those broken, parting fragments were part of a once much longer song and dance routine she was known for, “Hello Dolly.” At the end, however, she didn’t need to perform it. She lived it. She shared it. She left it as a legacy to her family. She bequeathed it as her legacy to me. Those words were the most whole and holy blessing this rabbi has ever witnessed or received.
If two points make a line, then I want to be a part of that line. I want to point the way for my children and children’s children to follow in that direction – that girl’s direction – the line and lineage of Grandma Flo.
What Grandma Flo taught me was that no matter the challenges life presents to us, we can choose our response. We can choose to live in the shadows and succumb to the darkness, or we can choose to move out into the light and sing and dance our way through life. And regardless of the lineage, we have inherited, we get to decide the lineage we carry forward, choosing to heal and pass down the inheritance we want to leave to our loved ones.
We always have a choice. We only have the power of choice. On your deathbed will you leave a legacy of painful shadows? Or on your lifebed will you inspire a legacy of joyous songs?
Will your line point the way to destruction, darkness, or death? Or will you, like Grandma Flo, create a lineage of life, love and light?
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” — George Bernard Shaw
Resources for Suicide Prevention and Grief after Loss
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are committed to improving crisis services and advancing suicide prevention by empowering individuals, advancing professional best practices, and building awareness. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
American Counseling Association offers resources for counselors and the public to aid in the processing of grief and loss. https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/grief-and-loss-resources
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) was one of the nation’s first organizations dedicated to the prevention of suicide. Their work is based on the foundation and belief that suicide is preventable and everyone has a role to play in preventing suicide. https://save.org/what-we-do/grief-support/grief-resources/