A place where I can share my thoughts on my life journey in serving others through my practice and still going on after losing my son to suicide.
I am a pediatrician practicing in the Midwest for the last 26 years. My life forever changed when my son took his life at age 19. I am learning to walk now as a grieving mother. I trust in God and continue on in my life. I still laugh and love with the help of my family and friends.
They used to be young and vibrant. My husband Scott even wrote a poem about my blue eyes before we were engaged.
And now? Well – my eyes show my age and the work, trauma and grief I have endured.
My eyes can’t hide my truth.
These last weeks I can’t hide the sadness in my eyes. Crying make my eyelids so puffy. The mask hides my bags partially but you don’t have to be close up to me to see how bad I look. It is convenient to not have to wear makeup with a mask covering up most of your face. Why bother putting eyeliner on- it can’t fix these fifty something year old eyes.
I wish my patients could see my full face. See my smile. I would be happier if the smile that I DO get when I see my patients was apparent to them and their parents. I now have to rely on my voice to be the way to share my emotion.
I know it will be a long time before I can be at work without a mask. How long? Who knows.
My mask won’t show if I am smiling or frowning. But my eyes….
I wrote this blog entry in honor of National Doctors’ day, today, March 30.
“I always knew I was going to be a doctor”
Some people can say this – but not me.
I didn’t always know what I wanted to do. In fact, in high school I liked photography, flower arranging and since I really loved staying at hotels as a kid, I thought being a hotel manager would be fun. Yes – the girl voted “most intelligent” in school had great aspirations didn’t she? I excelled in the sciences and math was easy (but I didn’t like calculus – still don’t} and my GPA and ACT scores were stellar.
So off to Loyola I went and with my parents and teachers suggesting the medical field I thought a biology major would be good. My freshman year I volunteered at a small Chicago hospital spending time in the ER and I liked it. Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Philosophy, Logic, Religious studies – I was educated in the Jesuit tradition. My love of science, of the complexity and care of the human body and mind were fueled and shaped.
Yes – I want to be a physician. I will do this.
When you commit to becoming a physician you know you are giving up some things. You have very delayed gratification. You see the completion of your goal is many years away. When I used to talk to junior high students interested in medicine the two questions I was asked consistently were #1- how much does a doctor make? and #2 how many years does it take to become a doctor? When I told them it was 11 years minimum to become a practicing primary care physician and as many as 15 years to become a neurosurgeon, many of the students dwelled on that timeline.
If you went straight through from high school to medical school and completing your residency with no break, you started your practice – really your career – at age 29 or 30. You spent your 20’s studying and learning. Yes – many physicians in training get married and start their families during these years, but the truth is the study of medicine is really first and most important. Your profession is your life.
Can I say I am thankful I know my life’s purpose? God gave me these gifts of knowledge, of love of medicine, the drive, devotion and stamina to succeed and continue to practice caring for the most important population I believe I am honored to serve – our children.
Yes – Yes I am so very thankful. Grateful. I state my gratitude in my morning prayer and intentions.
I know many people go through their life feeling they have not found their purpose. We have this pressure put upon us by our society and our educational system. Starting around age 14 our kids are asked “what do you want to be?” They are asked to pick a career- no commitment- but still the pressure. They are put on career paths and told college is the goal. Both of my sons took career aptitude tests during high school yet after given their result it still was not clear to them what they wanted to study or pursue as a career.
I pray our children feel they can do whatever they desire. I pray that they continue to dream. I hope they also understand they might wait half or most of their lifetime to understand why they are here. Dreams can be big or be small but they are of equal importance.
You may not know your purpose in life until you spend most of your life searching, only to discover the search is the purpose – and that is ok.
The sun is coming up. I need to stop writing and go to work. I have patients to see.
The Class of 2020. Well they sure will have a lot to tell their kids when they are older. We can think of many ways to describe the year 2020. For me, it was the year of anticipation with Sam graduating and going off to college. But the pandemic changed everyones plans and I remember it felt like we were (and still are) working on a two week timeline. Lockdown in March and time passed by in two week increments. When will school open? Update in two weeks. You are in quarantine? Two weeks.
Yet it still was a shock last August when two weeks and two days before Sam was to leave for Chicago the school announced the dorms would not be open. He understood but the disappointment was so difficult for him and for us. Friends left for college. He stayed. Time marched in weeks and months.
And here we are- today he leaves.
Sam wanted zuppa toscana last night.
I love this soup too – lots of bacon and a rich cream base. As I am prepping the ingredients I have my thoughts wander…
Finally he gets to experience college, although rather modified. All but one class online. He has to screen twice a week for COVID. Mandatory two week quarantine for all students living on campus. No roommate. Social distance, masks and all organizations meet virtually.
Mixing in the chicken stock I feel a chaos of emotions. I am happy, scared, anxious. I am sad. Nolan should be here enjoying this soup with us, having our family dinner.
I know he is ready. Am I? Am I going to be able to have him gone and not worry about him all the time? I am fine with an empty nest. He will be back.
Nolan left for Valparaiso University and he never finished the semester. One month later he was gone.
He never came back.
I try to not have my mind go there but I can’t help it.
It is in a mother’s nature to worry. College should be a time of independence. Meeting new people. Exploring the campus and for Sam, the city. The will be so different for him.
But then again – he never experienced what college should be like.
Nolan should be here but he is not.
In my heart I know he will be with Sam, a big brother watching over his little brother.
Will I still worry? Hell yes. But work keeps me occupied. I have my patients to care for and worry about. I guess that is what makes me a good doctor.
Remember when you were a kid and your birthday was THE best day of the year? Right next to Christmas?
I am not feeling that way today. And the prior days were not great either.
Yes – the present really sucks!!!!
I’m not upset that I am a year older. It doesn’t suck at all. It means I am getting a year closer to joining Nolan.
Five years ago the night of my birthday was when Nolan attempted suicide when he was at Purdue. Thankfully he did not succeed. Two days later he texted me what he had done, asking for help. That was how he told us he was depressed.
Prior to today I have been thinking a lot about what I assume we all have –
When are we going to get back to “normal”? When will we be done with physical distancing, where we can travel and see people without worrying about getting the virus? When will kids be able to attend school? Concerts and plays and movie theaters open?
When can Sam experience college the traditional way? – not only by his computer alone at home.
When you live everyday thinking about the future, a day with a big questionmark as to when “normal” will return, it is exhauting. When will we wake up and not have coronavirus and the pandemic be the headline day after day? What new record are we going to break today?
Living a life waiting for the future makes you anxious. And I have been having anxiety lately. Anxiety is not contagious but we sure live in a world where more people are experiencing it. My little patients and my big ones. Parents too. I can help as best as I can. But I can’t change how bad things are.
When a normal life in the future is too many months away and the present is not a great time, you think about the past. I try and think mainly about the good memories. But my mind is not kind and I think about the hard times with Nolan. I start to blame myself. Again.
Sorry this post is not giving you great words of encouragement.
I am like everyone else – somedays I have a heck of a time keeping my spirits up. I am not asking you to feel sorry or bad for me.
I wanted to put out there that sometimes birthdays are hard. And for some people Christmas time is hard too.
This cartoon is me. Is it you too? Probably. With election day this week, cases of corona virus surging, work pressures, financial strain and the holidays just weeks away you can’t tell me you aren’t feeling some amount of stress. It reminds me of how I felt when Nolan left for school a second time, […]
With election day this week, cases of corona virus surging, work pressures, financial strain and the holidays just weeks away you can’t tell me you aren’t feeling some amount of stress.
It reminds me of how I felt when Nolan left for school a second time, when he appeared to be at his best and chose to attend and live at Valpo University.
I was overwhemed with anxiety.
Initially I couldn’t sleep. I texted him daily. How are you? Did you go to class? Did you take your medication?
I had done all I could before he left for school. I had my responsibilities as his parent and I did the best I could. I had to trust him.
I had to let go.
I called and told him I could not keep checking on him daily . I trusted that he would call me if he needed something. He told me thank you. He understood and I know he was relieved I wasn’t stressing about him.
One month later he was gone.
But you know what? I am still here. Four years later I am still breathing, living, working, loving and smiling.
How did I deal with my worry about Nolan? How do I handle my anxiety now?
Take 4 minutes and listen…
So when you wake up at 3am and your brain starts thinking about all the bad things in the world, all the what ifs, the future we all want to know but cannot predict, and the things you can’t control – try and repeat the phrase.
Four years. It is how long we take to get through high school. Through college (that is the plan for most parents!)
Medical school is four years.
I should know how four years should feel. I have done four year tasks many times.
These four years have been painful and slow with my grieving.
The first year is all fresh with firsts – first Christmas, first Thanksgiving, first birthday. The Angelversary. You struggle to focus, you are exhausted.
The second year is horrible. It stings and all the milestone days come again and you are reminded he is not coming home. You are still exhausted. Wake, rinse, repeat.
For me the third year was the year of figuring out balance. How to still function as a full time pediatrician, mom and wife yet still honor my need to grieve.
Fourth year? My grief is still here but the need to stay current with the daily changes in a pandemic world keep me more as a doctor and less as a grieving mom. This world is getting harder for those struggling with loss, addiction, depression and anxiety. I have seen so much anxiety in my pediatric population.
I honor Nolan today, his fourth Angelversary.
I really don’t want to cry all day. I don’t have time for that. Life goes on. This day will come again and again. How many more I will have to live through I do not know. I would rather put my energy and grief today into my purpose – why I am supposed to be here.
But when a person loses a loved one to suicide this saying can sting. It can be read as “You could have prevented him/her from suicide. You missed the signs. You failed.”
The act of taking your life to end your pain, to be under the trance that suicide is the answer to your problems- that is what COULD be prevented. But not all suicides can be prevented.
The first year of life without Nolan I had no interest in advocating for suicide awareness and prevention.
How could I say it is preventable if I didn’t stop Nolan from ending his life? I FAILED. He was taking his medication and seeing his therapist. We supported his decision to go back to college. He appeared the healthiest he had been the months before.
The good Dr. Gold, a pediatrician with years of experience, she must of known Nolan was that bad, that low.
HOW DID SHE NOT SEE THE SIGNS??
The months after Nolan died I was a busy detective. What did I miss?
He was doing so much better. He had goals and he had plans. I went through his phone and read his texts. College was going well (at least that is what his professors told me) but he was seeking a relationship. With someone. With anyone. It appears he would have great anxiety (depression and anxiety love to hang together) in social situations. So when rejection happened he wasn’t able to bounce back. It pushed him farther to feeling like he didn’t fit in. Was this the final straw? Was it school and it’s stress? Was it because he couldn’t lose weight? Was his medication dose increase the push to give plan to taking his life?
I still do not know where Nolan was the night before his suicide, nor where he went for most of the day. I imagine he went to the dunes and hung out at the beach. All alone. It was a beautiful September day. What was he thinking? Was he at peace with his decision and enjoying his last day on earth? I understand from my research that people do usual everyday things up to the minutes before they take their life.
I will never know.
The detective mom did see what Nolan did the minutes before he got out of his car with a shotgun, walked a dozen yards to a large rock mound in a construction site in view of his home and ended his life.
He watched a mundane YouTube video on his phone of his favorite gamers. No goodbyes to anyone. No note. No hidden meaning in any texts to anyone. He just ended his pain.
Tell me where the signs are with that?
It will be four years since Nolan died by suicide. The guilt can still try and take over my thoughts.
When the guilt pushes me to think I failed, I remember the following:
You cannot control another human being
You can make home safe and give tools to find help but you can’t make a person heal
Suicide is not the survivor’s fault
The act of suicide is not to hurt others, it is to end pain
I see the phrase suicide: 100% preventable in a different light. It reminds me of my role in helping others and bringing awareness to pain that leads to suicide. I cannot prevent every loss from suicide. I can be the person who listens and offers the tools to help and redirect to a path of recovery.
I have done at least 3 drafts of a post in this last week. I just can’t find the right thoughts to put down.
Sometimes you just have to walk away from it and do something else.
My something else was spin class at the Y.
I love spin. I can push myself as hard as I want and I love the loud music. I come out of class dripping in sweat. I wear a heart rate monitor so I can see the intensity of my workout.
So while spinning today I thought about my blog. I thought about how strong I feel doing this class.
At the start of class you set up your bike- you know your seat height and positioning- you adjust your settings and you get your legs moving. I thought about how spin class is like my life – I don’t have to do spin but I love a challenge and if I’m going to live I want to push myself, build my strength and listen to loud music 🙂
Class starts – warm up please.
No problem – been here and done this before – Strong legs, strong mind, water bottle right in front of me – I got this. First song in and I feel good. But I forgot this is an instructor that goes out of the gate fast and hard. What ? Already my heart rate is in a high zone?
Ok – I can still do this. How long is this next song?!? Damn! My legs are burning. Our instructor keeps telling us to keep spinning – 90-100 RPM, yellow and red zone intervals. Sit, stand, hover, repeat. My heart rate is in the red zone. Top level
Final intense song – OMG, a hard, slow steady climb up a large steep hill.
This is when I want to give up. This is going to be so hard! Can’t I get off the bike? Fast forward somehow? I think I am going to die! I don’t know if I can do this…..
So what does this spin class have to do with my blog?
I have the months of spring and summer to live in a basically low level of grief. Our pandemic made it different, but I don’t have any bad memories or anniversaries to remember. I will never be the same person I was before Nolan’s suicide, but I don’t have the weight of grief on me as much in these months. (So I set up and warm up – life is ok )
Lately work is getting busy- many well checks scheduled making up for the time we slowed down with the lock down. I continue internet searching on COVID-19 infection info in children, research on suicide risk and child and adolescent population, do medical consulting for the diocese schools in our area, zoom meeting all summer in my “spare time”, help Sam prep for college, anticipate for him to move out and then suddenly have it all change and all online and he is home now, the hardship of two more loved ones passing … (my legs are burning)
But I keep going and before I know it, I notice — the weather is changing and I can tell with the cooler nights, the smell in the air- summer is ending and September is here.
It is my hard month. The month I have Nolan’s Angelversary. It is my large steep hill.
This is going to be so hard! I don’t know if I can do this.
Yet I do. This will be the fourth anniversary of my life changing forever. It doesn’t get easier. The waves of grief are less often but some can be horribly intense. Our world is not getting any better. I try not to focus on that. I hug my family and friends, tell them I love them often, and keep taking care of my patients.