Continuing after Suicide Loss

Brother Peace reflects on losing both his parents to depression and suicide.

I was in a monastic retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York in the summer of 2019 when I became concerned about my parents. My mom had struggled with bouts of depression periodically throughout her life, often around perceived financial woes, and this most recent episode had started around the time she retired the previous autumn. Decades of antidepressant use had been often effective and often not.

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Brother Peace reflects on losing both his parents to depression and suicide.

I was in a monastic retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York in the summer of 2019 when I became concerned about my parents. My mom had struggled with bouts of depression periodically throughout her life, often around perceived financial woes, and this most recent episode had started around the time she retired the previous autumn. Decades of antidepressant use had been often effective and often not. Now she was becoming more tense, erratic, and despondent.

On the morning of September 9th, 2019, back at Deer Park Monastery in southern California, where I was living, I celebrated one year as a monk with my ordination family over tea and breakfast on the fire road. When I returned to my room there was a message from my sister Jennie. I called, and she explained that my mom had spoken of suicide to her doctor the previous evening and had checked into a psychiatric hospital. Brother Minh Lượng and I left for Los Angeles at once, where we spent a week visiting my mom at the hospital, cleaning the house, hanging out with my dad and sister, and, eventually, helping my mom resettle at home.

photo courtesy of Brother Peace

My dad was, by his own admission, also not well. For their entire relationship of over forty years, my mom had handled the finances. Now my dad had bought into her notion that they were in trouble, and felt he would have to be the one to navigate their way out. The prospect terrified him.

My parents sold some properties, giving my mom marginal solace. She also took part in an outpatient program at UCLA and was in regular consultation with a psychotherapist and psychiatrist, but results were limited. Moreover, my dad was worsening. After a difficult conversation with him wherein he confessed that he too had considered suicide, I convinced him to see a therapist.

Nothing appeared to be taking hold, and at no point during our weekly calls did my parents’ lives appear markedly better. However, they were being exposed to ideas and strategies that I believed could help. Though I had always strongly encouraged them to spend time with me at the monastery, my parents were apathetic about matters of spirit, and they were never comfortable visiting for more than a few hours at a time. Then the pandemic hit, and longer visits became more or less out of the question. They came periodically for an afternoon, and we would walk around or sit by the pond. When my dad told me he had stopped seeing the therapist, I put my energy into my mom and hoped that her healing would lead to his.

The last time I spoke to my dad on the phone was September 13th, 2020. He had been mostly silent. I asked, “Dad, how are you? Are you keeping on keeping on?”

“Yeah, I'm okay,” he said. “You know, I know that my problems aren't about money, because if they were we would have been homeless months ago... And, at some point I have to start exercising again.”

The next day, he was gone.

did you do it quickly,
the way you’d swat 
a fly
on your arm
before i could ask you to stop?
did you wake up and decide:
no, not one more more monday,
and in one swift motion 
of horrible courage
rise and fall?
and did you, 
while waiting for death,
think of me, your continuation,
or of your father, 
your continuation,
thinking what,
oh, what have i done?
or did you, finally, relax
through the exquisite agony
as you slipped, silently,

We used to joke that my dad could run for mayor of Pacific Palisades, the privileged suburb where my parents raised us and lived for over thirty years. It always seemed he had friends everywhere, in the coffee shop, at the barber shop, in the cafes, parking lots, and gas stations;  he talked to dogs and waved at children everywhere he went. He was social, gregarious, boisterous, and often brash. He loved backpacking, baseball, and the blues. He drove flashy sports cars, often toeing the line between recklessness and skillfulness—once, a highway patrolman pulled him over for speeding, but was so impressed by Dad's gall that he let him off with a warning. After working at the YMCA into his late twenties, my dad established a twenty-year career as a sales representative in the computer industry. Never mind that he almost never used a computer until after he retired. My dad didn’t need technical proficiency. He built a life based on the sheer force of his charisma.

For many who knew my dad, what happened to him was, and remains, unthinkable.

“It's a big moment for my mom,” I said to Brother Minh Lượng, as we made our dreamlike drive along Highway 73 toward Los Angeles. I hoped this could be bitter medicine for her. I hoped my father’s death could somehow shock her into life.

And shocked is how my mother appeared when I first saw her. It appeared to me that the adrenaline of discovering my father was still in her. We stayed at the house for three weeks, during which time I saw her cry only once, and I saw her angry only once. Neither expression seemed particularly cathartic, but in the face of the horror of losing her life partner to suicide, she was showing signs of strength.

We held a memorial via Zoom with over three hundred people in attendance. We compiled a slideshow. We listened to a dozen sharings from his closest friends and family. I shared about his friendliness, his softness, and his love for me. I also shared about his difficult childhood, his own father’s suicide, and his addiction. Finally, I shared my vow to recognize, embrace, and transform the seeds of hopelessness our ancestors had transmitted to me.

After the ceremony, the focus shifted back to Mom. We talked about the possibilities. She could travel to Africa, she could move to Oregon, she could get a puppy, she could learn to scuba dive. On the night before I returned to the monastery, I told her she seemed more alive, more real, than I had seen her in years. I told her I know she hadn’t asked for this, but that when she was through the worst of it, she would be able to help a lot of people, just through her example.

Only, within a couple of months, she was slipping away again. My sister had taken a leave of absence from her job at a successful startup and was spending more and more time with my mom, trying heroically to keep her motivated and connected, managing her schedule, and conversing with her doctors. She arranged for my mom to have ketamine treatments, but they were unsuccessful. By November, she was exhausted.

I felt somewhat helpless, but I was able to convince Mom to come and spend a few days with me at the monastery so that Jennie could get some time off. We went on walks, played board games, and I read to her. The monastics were extremely warm, friendly, and supportive. In spite of this, my mom didn’t enjoy her stay, and she was unable or unwilling to see Deer Park as a refuge. The night before she left, I said, “I'm discouraged, because it just seems like you aren’t comfortable here.”

“I’m not comfortable anywhere,” she said.

My decision to become a monastic was difficult largely because I knew I wouldn’t have my parents’ support. At thirty-two, I’d hardly done anything without it. I kept very few secrets from them. When I told them, in September of 2017, of my decision to move to the monastery and pursue monastic life, my dad frowned, asking, “How are you going to pay for this?”, while my mother folded forward and held her head in her hands. What followed was the most difficult year in our relationship.

The Chinese term for “monastic” translates roughly as “home-leaver.” What, as a monastic, is the appropriate amount of time to spend talking to your parents? There is no clear answer. In some traditions, monastics have little or no contact with their parents. Our tradition has no set rule, but certainly I was in more contact than many of my brothers. As I made my way through my aspirancy, I was always asking, “How can I stay on this path for a long time?” I didn't think I’d be able to if I didn’t heal my relationship with my parents. Furthermore, while I loved my parents, I also liked them, and felt a great deal of gratitude towards them. I wasn’t ready to cut ties with them, even if they were upset with me. By the time I was ordained as a novice, I had their acceptance, if not their support. They came to the ceremony and smiled. They knew I was happy. They knew I would never abandon them.

It was December and though we were in the middle of our three-month Rains Retreat, when we traditionally stay in the monastery as much as possible, I began to look for a time that made sense to go home to be with my mom and to give my sister more of a rest. Then two brothers contracted COVID-19 and the monastery implemented a strict quarantine. I planned to go home as soon as it ended.

A few days before I left, I spoke with my sister. “How are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m doing pretty well. It’s been beautiful here. I’ve been hiking on my own a lot, thinking of Dad.”

I heard her smile, or was it a grimace? “That’s good. I’m glad you had that.”

“How are you?”

“This morning I went to check in on Mom and she was curled up in a ball on the floor saying she wanted to die.” She went on to suggest that we were out of our depth, that we needed to consider inpatient care in a non-hospital setting. I wholeheartedly agreed and we went about researching treatment centers. Mom was reluctant, but she checked in a few days later.

The center was luxurious. They offered daily individual and group therapy sessions along with other cutting-edge treatments like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing. My hope was that my mom would spend six to eight weeks there, but after a few days she was threatening to leave. We begged her to stay two weeks, then we begged her to stay two more. I told her, in a family session via Zoom with her primary therapist, “Mom, to say ‘I’m okay with you leaving this place’, when you haven’t touched any joy or healing, would be saying that I don’t care about you, that I don’t care if you live or die. And that just isn’t true.”

“Are you concerned your mom will take her own life?” the therapist asked.

“Absolutely, I am,” I replied tearily.

When Mom was still desperate to leave after thirty days, we relented.

Why am I telling this horrible story?

In Zen, storytelling sometimes gets a bad rap. The convention goes that we should abandon narratives, particularly the ones that bind us in our suffering, so that we can touch what is real in the here and now. There’s value in that as a practice, but storytelling is central to our humanity. When we claim a narrative about our lives we are no longer beholden to pain and trauma. We can see how it provides the very foundation for our freedom.

I heal most easily when I put words to my feelings. I have spent much of my life in and out of psychotherapy as I waded through my own bouts of anxiety and depression. Mostly I found benefit not from the guidance I received, but from the space created to speak my experience. My time in psychotherapy empowered me to find my own solutions, to discover my own inner teacher. When I came to the monastery, Dharma Sharing was a revelation to me. To find a spiritual community that emphasized communication as an intrinsic meditation practice made me know I could become a monk. Sometimes I liken sharing our experience to open-heart surgery: no one ever promised us that healing would be pleasant.

Jennie had returned to her job part-time at the beginning of the year, while Mom was still in the treatment center. I wrote a letter to the Sangha requesting to go home for a month beginning the day of my mom’s discharge. They agreed. A few days prior, I called and told her. She was surprised, though not relieved, and tried to smile. “That's kind,” she said. I understood why my mom responded the way she did. I would be getting in the way.

Of course this was part of my aspiration. While I accepted that I would never be able to keep my mom from suicide if that’s what she really wanted, I believed that my presence would make it more difficult. While I knew that I couldn’t single-handedly heal my mom’s despair, I believed I could make her feel less alone.

So I just spent time with her. If I could convince her to do nothing else, I just made sure we took two walks a day, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. She was watching a lot of the news, and I tried to discourage her without much success. Jennie came over most evenings and we’d have dinner and watch something on television. We started talking about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and had a few good consultations. ECT has a very high rate of success and Jennie and I were optimistic. It scared my mom a lot, but she had the requisite physical. We also started to interview caregivers so that Jennie could fully return to work and I could consider a return to the monastery.

One morning after I had been home about three weeks, my mom awoke in terror. She put the pillow over her head. "I want it to be dark," she said. I convinced her to get dressed and get out of the bedroom. I rubbed her back. She moaned in agony. Eventually I calmed her down.

"Why is it so bad this morning?" I asked.

She paused. "I keep thinking about it," she said quietly.

"You mean, suicide?"

She nodded.

"There's no proof that that will help anything,” I said.

"Dad did it."

I paused. "It won't always be this way," I said.

"You keep saying that. What if it gets worse?"

"Even then, it won't last. The only thing we can be certain of is change."

I didn't really know what else to say. I considered asking if she had a plan, but I didn't want to upset her further. I made a mental note to ask later. I never did.

We walked. In the afternoon we walked again. In the evening my sister came over. We ate dinner and watched something on television.

The next morning, she was gone.

at the bottom
             of the bottom
             of this pit
                          in my heart,
                          there is, i'm
                                      told, a lotus.

My mom, like my dad, was a force. She took over her father’s business in the apparel industry and revolutionized it, working out of an enormous factory in downtown Los Angeles with a hundred employees, six days a week. She also became invested in real estate and handled the purchases and leasing of properties in Los Angeles, Mammoth Lakes, Palm Springs, and elsewhere. She was courageous, intelligent, determined, loving, and often stubborn. When business was good, she was good, but when business was slow, she often panicked. My mom apparently first experienced a depressive episode in college, long before I was born, but in my life I witnessed several. Though she had been on antidepressants since I was a child, she had very little experience with other treatments until the end of her life. Her father, my grandfather, was suicidal, and had been hospitalized for suicide attempts. She had two first cousins die by suicide. She knew that depression runs in our family, and she believed she was living life about as well as life could be lived. She understood her mental illness to be a biochemical result of her genetics, and extolled the virtues of better living through medication.

When people we knew heard she had died, just five months after my dad, shock was not the common response.

Years before my parents’ deaths, I came to the monastery in part because I needed space to grieve. All of us are experiencing so much loss now, at levels both collective and individual. In my life in Los Angeles, my profound sadness, especially about the state of our planet’s climate, coupled with guilt about my inability to live according to my ideals, was eating me alive. I wanted to live a more meaningful life, a more ethical life, a life of deeper service, but I also felt that I needed more time to sit quietly, to feel, and to heal. I came to accept that if we do not choose to ignore the world’s daily tragedies, we cannot in good conscience contribute to their continuation. Moreover, we cannot persistently make meaningful change if our hearts are not at peace.

Over the past few years, I have come to see grief as a judicious way to experience life;  as a beautiful path of awakening. By “grief,” I mean being fully present for the feelings associated with loss, honoring them, and allowing them to express themselves fully, so that we can act with a heart of earnestly cultivated compassion and bring healing to the world.

I have felt the feelings. I have shed countless tears with my parents. I have taken long, silent walks in nature with my parents. I have sat with my parents. I have touched the earth to my parents. I have talked to them and written letters to them. I have even allowed them to use my hand to write letters to me. I have felt their hands on my shoulders. I have heard them say that they are proud of me, and that they love me.

When I listen, I can hear them now.

I have been very open about my parents with the Sangha, both one on one and in larger sharings, and I will always be grateful for the support of my brothers and sisters. I have cried in their arms. I have spoken with them at length and in sometimes gruesome detail about my parents’ deaths. They have looked me in the eye and met me with solidity and love.

After my mother’s death, I also began joining online support groups for survivors of suicide loss. Meeting other survivors has been a powerful reminder of how very lucky I have been. My life as a spiritual practitioner living in community affords me significant advantages in my ability to heal. Many of the people I meet in these groups have no one else they can talk to. They blame themselves for their loved ones’ deaths and cling to their story as though it were their cross. It is a great relief to know I am not alone, that I am in touch with many who have the capacity to listen and hold my grief with me, and while of course I have wondered what I could have done to prevent my parents’ deaths, I am well aware, through my practice, that what happened to them is a manifestation of countless causes and conditions.

Most crucially, I have taken refuge in my remarkable younger sister, Jennie. Days before our dad’s death, inspired by months of watching our parents spiral downward in fear and despair, she confessed to me that she was considering changing careers, leaving behind the startup world to get a masters in social work. The day our mother died, she was accepted to the MSW program at the University of Southern California. As she has restarted her education, she has handled the vast majority of the difficult, arduous, and emotionally draining work associated with managing our parents’ finances and estate. She has already begun her career as a mental health advocate, raising money for suicide prevention programs and telling our story, in blogs, on podcasts, and all over. She is a bodhisattva.

It’s been a year and half now since my mother’s death, about two years since my father’s.  I’ve spent a fair share of it reading books and listening to talks about depression and suicide. For a class at the monastery, I created a research project entitled “Plum Village and the Noonday Demon: an Exploration of Depression, Suicide, and Mindfulness,” which was both illuminating and challenging. I wanted to look into the depth and breadth of the mental health crisis at large in the world today, and the role our practice plays as both a preventative measure and treatment. I also wanted to study our teacher’s story, and was inspired by the way Thầy redoubled his efforts in the practice as a way of transforming his despair. When he experienced serious depression in his thirties, he didn't have access to the multitude of treatments available to many of us today. The only tool he had at his disposal was spiritual practice, and when he discovered its miraculous capacity to transform sorrow, he spent the rest of his astonishing life sharing his insight with the world.

While the research process undoubtedly helped me to acknowledge the immense potential of mindfulness to facilitate resilience and healing, I simultaneously grappled with its shortcomings. Mindfulness, as it’s practiced in Plum Village in particular, offers a way to live happily, freely, and skillfully in the world, but it won’t be appropriate for everyone who experiences severe depression, and there are alternatives that deserve our consideration and respect.

Furthermore, I’ve had countless conversations with family and friends, as we all try to put together the pieces, to understand better what happened to my parents. Somehow this all feels very natural and necessary, but there are times when it doesn’t actually feel helpful. Healing, as I have learned and have had to relearn, does not come through intellectual understanding. Nothing I read in any book and no amount of detective work helps as much as remembering them happy, or visualizing them happy in the present moment, and sending them my love.

These days I don’t generally feel that the adverse effects of grief take up much of my energy. I had a consultation last year with Jo-ann Rosen, a psychotherapist and Dharma teacher in our tradition who specializes in trauma. I shared my story with her and how I had practiced. “Trauma isn’t what happens to you," she said. "It’s how what happens to you sits in your body." She went on to suggest that I had experienced trauma, but she didn't feel I was caught in its throes or that I had experienced PTSD. I found her insight affirming.

But when September rolls around, my body does respond to the way the hot orange sunlight hangs in the southern California air, a weight in my heart, warning me, reminding me that this is the time three years ago we bought a lockbox for my mom's medication; this is the time two years ago my dad took one last look at the newspaper, put his glasses on the coffee table, and walked out the door. 

just before dawn,
a great horned owl
on the awning
outside the top level
of the stupa.
i hooted to him playfully,
and he looked down
with enormous eyes,
anxious, perhaps displeased,
but tolerant.
he let me gaze at him
for some minutes
as he took a deep breath
and summoned up his call,
which he sent
like a ballad,
sadly and sweetly,
toward his echo
across the valley.

my father was impatient,
though when i think of him
i am reminded of the
virtue of patience.
funny, isn’t it, the way
we learn
from teachers who may not
have grasped the material,
the way he called,
however roughly,
to my fearful mother,
reminding her when it was
time to rest.

you’re beautiful,
i said to the owl
as i sat down for another
cup of tea.
i looked up,
but in unbelievable
and maddening secrecy,
he had disappeared,
as sunlight
slowly poured
over the town below,
and the morning began,
in sad,

Last year I became a bhikshu, a fully ordained monk. In monastic culture this is a significant moment. I saw it as a kind of marriage. I had been living in the community for nearly four years. We had been through enough at that point, from the very high to the almost unimaginably low, to know the legitimacy of our love, and it felt deeply meaningful to commit to spiritual life in a public way. My sister attended the ceremony along with a few cousins, aunts and uncles, and very dear friends.

A couple of months later, on a lazy afternoon, I walked up to Thầy Giác Thanh's stupa, which juts out of the mountain and overlooks the whole monastery. A stupa is a pagoda-like structure erected to honor the memory of a great practitioner. Thầy Giác Thanh, the first abbot of Deer Park, was known to be relaxed and social, and he loved to drink tea. Unlike in many stupas, Thầy Giác Thanh’s invites us to casually enjoy the interior, and the small room includes a photo of him on the wall, a few mats and cushions, a tea table, and a bell.

I sat down and practiced metta, a style of meditation where we open our hearts and radiate love to all beings throughout all time and space. When I opened my eyes, I listened to a recording of a discourse I had been studying, The Eight Realizations of Great Beings. “The eighth realization is the awareness that the fire of birth and death is raging, causing endless suffering everywhere. Take the Great Vow to help all beings, to suffer with all beings, and to lead all beings to the realm of great joy.”

“To help all beings, to suffer with all beings.” Suffering is the path, grief is the path. Joy is also the path. All at once, I saw the path, I saw its source, I saw where it leads, and I wept.

Edited by Miranda Perrone, Jess Skyleson, Hisae Matsuda and Brother Pháp Lưu.

Brother Peace (Brother Minh An) was ordained in 2018 at Deer Park Monastery, California, US, where he currently lives.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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