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The Dash

15 Dec 2020 — 5 min read

By Lisa Brattain, AFSP Senior Director, East Central Division

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Elects Its New National Board Members

As I weather the 14th anniversary of the loss of my son today (December 4, 2020), I am reminding myself of the importance of remembering all the life and love that took place in "The Dash." I certainly celebrate his birthday each year in February. I also cannot forget or hide from this December date each year. However, these dates are insignificant in comparison to all the experiences, moments and memories that live in that space in-between.  "The Dash" is that important placeholder for all the life between these two markers in time that grab my attention and pull so hard on my heartstrings each year.

I have learned a few things about myself over these past 14 years. I now know that I am much stronger and more resilient than I ever thought I was capable of. I had never given this much thought before, but I have now learned that I am a caregiver by nature to many: family, friends, animals, strangers, etc. I have learned that I give care to others much more easily than I care for myself. Self-care is a new concept for me, but I am a work in progress. When these days, like Christmas or the date of loss come around, and I am feeling particularly heavy about the absence of Kurt, I have learned that I need to get away from everyone I am a caregiver for, even if only for an hour or two.  What I have found often happens during these moments, if I try to be present with my feelings in the company of others, is that they join me in being heavy. The minute that heaviness is present in someone else, I compartmentalize my feelings and shift into my caregiver role, stuffing down the moments that I needed to process personally. This is also a work in progress, but awareness of our strengths and weaknesses is the first step to wellness, right?!?!  I will be going out for a drive by myself, shortly.

Special occasions and holidays can be exceptionally difficult for people who have experienced a suicide loss. I am no exception to that statement. Although I now spend my professional life dedicated to #StopSuicide, these occasions still get to me each year. I have learned to give myself space during these times to feel and experience whatever emotions bubble up in the process, as these moments seem to be a little different each year. No matter how much time passes, I will always be a Mother who is missing her son. There is never a time during the year that I am not aware of his absence, although I have absorbed the loss into my new normal so that special occasions or dates no longer flatten me. I feel that it is important for my wellbeing to honor each season along this journey of being "a survivor."

Traditions can be comforting for some, while others may find carrying on tradition to be very difficult following a loss. An example: my formal dining room table was not used for six years after Kurt passed.  Before the loss, my boys sat at the ends of the table: my husband at one end, and Kurt at the other. These seats were theirs. After we lost Kurt, I couldn’t have a meal at that table because I didn’t want someone else to sit in Kurt’s chair, nor could I sit at the table and face an empty seat at one end. Six years after losing Kurt, we attempted to regain some lost traditions by cooking a meal and gathering as a family for the holidays. I was really having a hard time about the seating arrangement. My daughters collectively decided that I should begin sitting in Kurt’s chair. I complied. That first year, I had a constant flow of tears all the way through dinner. I asked the girls and my husband to carry on like I wasn’t crying, so that I could work through all the “feels” that were happening. That “first” was a rough one, but we made it.

It has only taken 14 years for me to find a renewed joy in preparing for Christmas this year, with a four-year-old granddaughter who is "over the moon" excited about Christmas decorations, twinkling lights and the impending visit from Santa. I want to create a space of tradition and joy for the season that she will remember about her family as she goes through life.

As I decorated my home for the upcoming Christmas holiday, I made note of the changes in my decor that have been adapted over the last 14 years. There is a snowflake theme that now exists in my life and in my Christmas decorations. We now celebrate a family Grinchmas, in addition to Christmas, which is a new tradition that brings Kurt along with us in a different way, but doesn’t include memories that magnify his absence.

Snowflakes: Kurt loved the snow.  He had learned to snowboard a few years before his passing, and he looked forward to colder weather each year, so that he had the opportunity to use his snowboard again. Other snow-related antics involve Kurt and his dog. I have some pretty comical memories of Kurt dressed in his untied combat boots, boxer shorts and bathrobe, going out to take his dog for a walk in the snow. I would start to wonder where they were, since Kurt was dressed so inappropriately to be out galivanting in the neighborhood. I would look out the window to find Kurt and his black Lab, Jake, rolling around wrestling, with Jake covered in snow from head to toe, and Jake head to tail, Kurt laughing hysterically while Jake is charging him, barking and jumping on him. It was quite the spectacle.  ❄️

There are many memories of Kurt that involve snow. There are also many moments after losing Kurt, where snow became a significant marker in a life experience and an expression of peace that Kurt is still with us. We hold these moments dear as well, because they bring comfort that he is still with us in some way.

This year, I placed a snowflake ornament on my Christmas tree that holds a picture of Kurt. After I was done decorating the tree, my granddaughter admired its beauty. She noticed the ornament. She never had the opportunity to meet her Uncle Kurt, but she knows his significance in our family. She walked over to the ornament and said, "Mimi, I see Kurt in this snowflake." I said, "Yes, Love." Then my beautiful girl kissed her little index finger and placed it on the picture of Kurt.

Be still my heart. In these moments, and many others, my cup runneth over. ❤️

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