Learning to Talk About It

How a Suicide Forever Changed my Life

This is an anonymous story, as told by Suzette Sherman. Our “Opening Our Hearts” stories are based on people’s real-life experiences with loss. By sharing these experiences publicly, we hope to help our readers feel less alone in their experience of grief and, ultimately, to aid them in their healing processes. In this post, we tell the story of a man who lost his girlfriend, Denise, to a freak accident.

In retrospect it was an odd part of my life. I was growing up and I didn’t know it at the time. I was in my mid twenties and had been in two relationships living with women. I was working at a law office and partying a lot. It was the early 80’s. It was like that back then.

Denise and I had barely dated 3 months. It was casual dating. She was from a different world and I didn’t fully realize it back then. She had been married to two millionaires, so she had never worked before. She belonged to the Junior League. I didn’t even know what that was. She had spent her time with her last husband sailing around in a yacht and scuba diving. She had told me one day he had rigged her tank to run out of air, but she made it back up for air in time. She told me he was trying to kill her, so she divorced him. That was an early sign of her emotional instability.

“She jumped out of the car. She hit the ground wrong and tumbled. She died immediately on impact.”

One day at my apartment, Denise swallowed almost a bottle of pills from my medicine cabinet. I took her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. Later I picked her up and drove her home. While driving I told her “I don’t think we should date anymore.” I was nearing the end of a street to turn right and the car was in first gear going slowly when she suddenly kicked the door handle of my Alfa Romeo open with her foot and said, “Have a nice life.” She jumped out of the car. She hit the ground wrong and tumbled. She died immediately on impact. I ran and gave her mouth-to-mouth and then ran to a house knocking on the door to call for the authorities. It all seemed surreal. It was crazy.

The next day her roommate Donald called me to let me know “you probably feel guilty about it”. He wanted me to know it was not my fault. He explained he did not think she meant to kill herself. He had known her a very long time. I was surprised he called, as he was a rich Southerner and had always been a condescending smartass to me. I was simply a pawn in her game. It gave me a need to talk about it.

san diego, death in san diego, dying, suicide in san diego

San Diego following her death

My best friend Paul in San Diego called me right after and sent me a ticket to fly down and spend 2 weeks with him. “I don’t think you should be alone right now,” he said. I was lucky I just happened to be working for a law office that represented the police and they helped me out. There was no mention of her suicide in the media. After all, I was black and she was white and it could have been front-page news given it was the 80′s.

“I felt guilty for a long time.”

I didn’t know her, so how was I to know the reactions she was having were out of the ordinary? Afterwards there was all these “how comes?” How come she did it? How come she did it to me? How come I did not see it coming? I felt guilty for a long time. In hindsight she was frustrated with her life and was having to work for the first time after a lifetime of privilege. She was selfish. When you do something like that you’re selfish. She hurt her mother, sister and family. They are here to suffer. When your life gets hard, you should reach out to the people you care about, not slap them in the face like this.

“A lot of people I know have died, and because of that I’m able to talk to people about death now.”

Life is like some movie I saw years ago. I think it was an Indiana Jones movie where the father said “In life the older you get the more life takes from you and the less it gives you.” A lot of people I know have died, and because of that I’m able to talk to people about death now.

You may want to read more Opening Our Hearts Stories from the past.

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Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates the most beautiful hearts in an ongoing celebration of love

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Lovely memories of Labor Day

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of love in the midst of death.

The project’s origins take us to 2005: the moment Page Hodel encountered Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” The couple’s first meeting was electric, and Page felt inspired to do something unique for the woman who captured her heart. So, she began leaving handmade hearts – made from flowers, leaves, and other materials – on Madalene’s doorstep.  The hearts became a ritual, and they were there to greet Madalene as she left for work every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.” – Page Hodel

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away on June 20th, 2006. But Page’s love for her hasn’t ceased, and she continues to make a heart for her every Monday in celebration of her life.

If you would like, you can also receive Page’s “Monday Hearts for Madalene” by emailing her at page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” written as the subject. Images of the hearts can also be purchased on individual cards and in her beautifully compiled book, Monday Hearts for Madelene. Please also visit her website and Facebook  page. A portion of all sales will go to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, California (www.wcrc.org).

See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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The Grief Beneath: Reflections Andrew Wyeth

The truth behind Andrew Wyeth's paintings speaks far more to death and loss than Americana
Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World,

“Christina’s World” (1948) by Andrew Wyeth
(credit: thefineartdiner.blogspot)

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was the perfect target for both the dismissive, incensed judgment of art critics as well as the adoration of the larger public. His meticulous landscapes of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and Cushing, Maine captured the pristine, rural nature of the East Coast with great commercial success. At the age of twenty, he was, much like Rockwell, on his way to becoming the poster-child of Americana. Yet, many art critics wrote him off as a tired sentimentalist who put too much stock in cliché depictions of sprawling hayfields. Everyone else in the mid-century was gearing up for the abstract movement.

Andrew Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth pic

Andrew Wyeth.
(credit: TIME)

There is something inherently sentimental about Wyeth’s work. But what that sentimentality is intended to represent has been misunderstood by both those who loved and hated him for such rose-tinted patriotism. “Christina’s World” (1948), for example, is inextricably bound to a sense of American identity. But when you scrape the icing off the cake, in the case of “Christina’s World” and others, you’re left with much more universal themes of grief and loss.

Winter, Winter Andrew Wyeth

“Winter” (1946)
(credit: meeg-toomuchinformation.blogspot.fr)

The woman in the foreground of “Christina’s World” was actually Wyeth’s neighbor, who could barely walk due to polio. The entire scene is made somber by her position in it: her body twists languidly, but uncomfortably. We’ve no way of seeing her expression. We only know that she’s far from the only other sign of vitality: a rather austere looking country house.

If one were to describe the painting as, “a still field with a farm house, with a girl in a light pink dress reclining in the distance,” the whole thing would seem peachy. Kitsch. But it’s Wyeth’s use of sepia tones that casts an unsettling mood. His use of egg tempera creates what I can only call the fuzzy-sweater effect: a painting of warm but subdued subjects. We feel the coming of fall or the end of a dry summer. Either way, we can’t miss the sense that some heartbreaking displacement or transition is quietly taking place.

Andrew Wyethm Andrew Wyeth family, Andrew Wyeth house

Andrew Wyeth with his son Nicholas and granddaughter Victoria at home in Maine in 1998.
(credit: boston.com)

“I get letters from people about my work. The thing that pleases me most is that my work touches their feelings. In fact, they don’t talk about the paintings. They end up telling me the story of their life or how their father died.”

—Andrew Wyeth

The most literal expression of grief in Wyeth’s work is his 1946 painting “Winter,” which depicts a lone boy running by the road of a barren hillside – the same road where Wyeth’s father died in a car crash. There’s a simultaneous sense of movement and paralyzation in the boy’s movement – exactly the sensation we feel when a loved one dies. The landscape shares the same color palette, the same grief, as its inhabitant. “I prefer winter and fall,” said Wyeth, “[it’s] when you feel the bone structure of the landscape—the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it. The whole story doesn’t show.”

That’s why Wyeth’s work can’t be reduced to quaint dabbles in realist landscapes. There’s something profound beneath every brushstroke. We can’t see the whole story – but we can feel it.

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Weekly Tip – Grief Healing: A Message in a Bottle

Why throwing a message in a bottle can be the perfect activity for someone in the stages of grief

 Weekly Craft Idea: A Message in a Bottle

message in a bottle, wedding idea, grief, men in tuxedo, men by the sea, throwing into the sea, throwing bottle

Credit: katemcelweephotography.com

What is it that makes the idea of a message in a bottle so alluring? I remember sitting down at eight years old to write a list of fantastic hopes and questions for the perfect stranger who, naturally, would be awaiting my letter on a balmy Pacific island. Today, I think I understand that urge: it’s a need for expression with no tangible judgment. All of my thoughts – positive or negative – were thrown to something so enormous, so enigmatic, that the only other equivalent of such self-expression would’ve been akin to a good hollering. It’s a conscious act of finding peace in submission to nature – and for that reason, it makes the perfect activity for someone in the stages of grief.

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Credit: s-p-r-i-n-g.tumblr.com

It’s a conscious act of finding peace in submission to nature – and for that reason, it makes the perfect activity for someone in the stages of grief.

Explore more of SevenPonds’ tips through the Practical Tips page, in which you can discover everything from memorial craft ideas to help with end-of-life planning.

When a loved one dies, consider writing down your thoughts: your regrets, your grief, your anger, your memories, etc., and throwing them out to sea. It’s great for a communal memorial activity, but also something that benefits from the sort of solitude and calm that the sea gives us.

Check out our recommendations in “The Healing Process” within our After Death Planning Guide.

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What is the Threshold Choir? An Interview with Kate Munger

We discuss the Threshold Choir's mission to provide lovely, comforting songs to the ill and dying

Today SevenPonds speaks with Kate Munger who founded the Threshold Choir in 2000 with the idea of creating a chorus of women’s voices that could provide soothing song at people’s bedsides. She now administers a large network of of choirs nationwide, from the Northeast to the Southwest. SevenPonds spoke to Kate about the Threshold Choir’s work and the healing power of the human voice.

Threshold Choir, healing, bedsides, women's choirLiz: Tell us a little about the Threshold Choir. How did you come up with the idea?

Kate: The Threshold Choir is a network of women, primarily, who sing at the bedsides of people who are dying, people who are in a coma, newborns, children in hospitals, the grieving and incarcerated women. I started it 12 years ago, in the hills of Berkeley. I had had an experience 22 years ago singing at the bedside of a friend who was dying. It was such a profound experience that I really hoped that, and suspected that, others would like to do the same thing: to offer comfort, serenity and wisdom through simple song at bedsides.

I have been leading community singing as a sideline to all my other work for 30 years. I’ve been a massage therapist, a psychotherapist. Between 1990 and 2000, I became a public school elementary classroom music teacher, which really gave me an amazing number of skills that I’m using now every day, every minute. When I sang at my first bedside in 1990, I didn’t imagine a way to communicate with so many people spread out all over. Being introduced to the computer and the Internet supplied me the extra piece of technology to bring service to the community.

Liz: What in particular about the human voice—and specifically, the blending of women’s voices—is healing and comforting to the people you sing for?

Kate: We are welcomed with lullabies when we are first born. We’re hoping that this same kind of soft, quiet sound is comforting at the end of life. It’s also our experience that while one voice is lovely and important and a great place to start, somehow the blend of multiple voices is synergistic. That vibration is tremendously profound in our experience. It looks like it really has a strong effect on people.

Liz: Tell us about the name “Threshold Choir.” What does it signify?

Kate: The threshold of a building is the place that separates out from in. Also, the act of threshing separates the edible part of wheat or grain from the covering. So to me, this word “threshold” gives special significance to transformation. It seemed like a word that didn’t have any baggage, wasn’t pejorative nor was it way too positive. I knew when I heard it that it was the right word.

Liz: Is there great variety in the experiences you have singing at bedsides?

Kate: Sure, there are plenty of experiences. However, there is no change in the satisfaction we get from delivering this. If people want to be sung to, it is tremendously satisfying to sing to them, and it’s special to know that someone was sung to very close to the end of their life. Apparently in Judaism, it’s a very special blessing that someone should hear song or prayer, especially the shema, just before they die. I’m thinking that any song that is considered sacred—and I consider sacred any song that comes out of a human’s mouth and heart—is a big blessing to offer to the people who ask for it.


Credit: Photo courtesy of Christophe Genty Photography

Liz: What kind of music do you sing at bedsides? Does it vary according to the person you sing for?

Kate: Over the last 12 years, Threshold Choir members who previously had never written songs before have been writing amazing songs that come out of their experiences of sitting in vigil at bedsides. We tend to sing mostly those songs at this point. Songs that are written specifically for these purposes; lyrics are very simple and clear. They’re often short, so we find ourselves singing them over and over in a hypnotic kind of way. We are available to sing whatever the client or family might like to hear, in terms of hymns, spirituals, soft pop songs from bygone eras, the occasional Beatles song. We are women for whom singing has been a profound gift, so it’s our joy to give back in that format, where our singing is our gratitude for that gift.

Liz: You have said that in a way, you are also singing for the families of the person who is dying.

Kate: I feel that goes back to our tribal nature. A thousand years ago, if a tribal member was in trouble or hurting, we would gather as a tribe and sing for them. If a tribal member was dying, we would gather in circle and sing in their honor and memory, and sing our prayers to their safe passage. I feel it’s a very old-fashioned idea, but for us in the 21st century it can also have a strong impact on people’s expression of grief. It can accompany the normal grief combined with awe that happens when we’re at the bedside of someone who has lived a long and productive life, and is lucky enough to die at home with loved ones around them. We think that’s a very special occurrence.

Liz: What words of advice do you have for people dealing with end-of-life issues?

Kate: I would urge people for whom impending death is a reality, either for them or for a loved one, to focus on being with that person, not necessarily doing with that person. There’s lots of other ways besides singing to actually be with someone who is struggling with end-of-life issues. I would say spend the time, rather than cook the casseroles or do other things. Stop bustling around, and sit by the person’s bedside and tell them you love them.

And I would also urge people to sing. This is not the exclusive realm of people who call themselves singers. I believe that all of us can sing, and all of us should use this very special human skill even if we’re not the best singers in the world. We call our work “kindness made audible,” and that it has grown to this extent in such a short time, to me is really good news in the face of so much of the bad news we live amongst in the 21st century. To me, it’s heartening, it’s positive; and I’m very proud of the Threshold Choir. The gals that go to bedsides are my heroes.

Liz: Thank you, Kate, for taking the time to speak with us!

If you are interested in getting involved with a Threshold Choir chapter near you, visit the website or email Kate at kate@thresholdchoir.org.

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McGuinness Flint

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An Epitaph in a Pennsylvania Cemetery Recalls A Car Accident

Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake who stepped on the gas instead of the brake.
Washington, D.C., 1926. Auto accident

Credit: mred-old-cars.blogspot.com

Read more funny posts from “Laughter is Medicine” here.

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