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Episode 96 featuring Thomas Allbaugh: Suicide and Grief

by Larissa Russell
September 8th 2021

Trigger Warning - Suicide

Thomas and I spoke of the loss of his youngest son to suicide and how that has affected the way he now listens to people and how he navigates the world

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everyone. I'm Larissa Russell of creative you and I'm your host of the creative soul healing podcast. Here's where we talk about the connection between creativity and healing by interviewing amazing creative, spectacular healers and inspiring people who have used creativity inner healing. What does it mean to be creative? What is creativity? You don't have to write a best selling book, painting masterpiece or even play in a rock band, creativity is in everything that we do in the ways we think and the way we run a business in our everyday lives, we are creative all the time. Let's talk about how we are creative and how creativity helps us heal mentally physically and emotionally right now on the Creative soul healing podcast. Hi everyone Luis Russell of creative you healing and welcome to the creative soul healing podcast. Today I have with me Thomas. Abba Thomas is a writer and college writing teacher living in southern California a little over three years ago. His youngest son took his life at 17. This shattered the lives of his family and challenged any faith he had thomas has journeyed to discover how to live again.

So welcome thomas, thank you, Larissa, thank you. It's good to be here. Yes, I'm glad to have you know, we were speaking a little bit earlier and I think this is such an important thing to talk about because um the stigma around suicide is so huge. So can you tell us a little bit about your story and the path that brought you here now. Yeah, I sure can. I uh I was in the middle of uh publishing uh like my first novel and my son was struggling with depression, my youngest son was struggling with depression. And I had never I had always seen him as kind of a fun loving child child who was always full of practical jokes. And three weeks after I published my first novel, he took his life, he He hung himself in our garage. And um that was October the 6th. He took his life of 2017 on that day. It felt like my life ended.

I didn't want to go on. I, you know, um my wife found him and she's had all sorts of struggles and I had three remaining Children who are older than him who have tried to support. And it's just been uh just uh struggle. And I found support in a couple of places. I've found a couple of really good friends who remain good friends. I also encountered people who kind of kept their distance from me because I think they didn't know what to say. And they avoided me. Like one friend didn't talk to me for a year and then saw me where we teach laughing with someone and thought, oh, he's better now. And he walked up and said, how are you doing? It was very strange. You know, I've also found support in a group called survivors of suicide. Um they have a bi weekly uh support group that meets and there are no expectations, no conditions set on it.

The only expectation is that you will let people express how they honestly feel about things and I have I have found that to be my main, one of my main sources of support throughout the last three years. It's one of the reasons I think I'm talking with you now. I may not have been reasonable enough to do so I guess the final source of consolation has been just to continue writing, to continue writing even nonsense to write journals too, right? Poems and things of that sort. Yeah. And so uh 3.5 years later I find that I'm still grieving, I still grieve. I'm over trauma. I don't think I feel the trauma quite as I used to. But I still like, you know yesterday I found myself in a corner kind of weeping by myself about things. You know I'm remembering things. Um I don't know, I think that that's a summary of things. Larissa, there are more details I could kind of go into.

Um Yeah for example, on the day after we lost him, I remember just sort of insanely going around and taking pictures, taking pictures of his unmade bed of his clothes on the floor that he left. Uh you know I I made lunches for him. He was still in high school. I made lunches for him. So I went around taking pictures of the peanut butter and jelly. I used the bread. I used them. These are things I look at now and I think, you know, why did I do that? And I think I remember just wanting the whole world to stop them. And those photographs were a way of capturing that. Then I think the only way I can explain it, you know, and I also started writing in my journal, everything I could remember about the week that had just passed. Um, you know, I should have seen it coming and I didn't. And um, I guess one of the things that that the psychiatrist we met with after we lost Michael, his name was Michael. Uh, she she wanted to meet with my wife and and and and me and, and so she was saying this is one of the things that psychiatrists themselves, the whole field of psychiatry psychology is vexed by suicide and why it's happening so much.

And and they, you know, she she admitted herself that, you know, she there was a lot, she didn't know. And I I appreciated that honesty. And it seems to be true that, you know, I mean, for all we try to do to prevent it. It seems to continue with youth with LGBT Communities. I think you mentioned earlier. I think that I think that there's just, especially with the pandemic we've just been through, you know, I think that there's a lot of despair and I think there's a real need for us to be just more aware of what people are really going through and the thing that I wish I knew in the week before my son took his life that I didn't I don't think I understood. I wish a psychiatrist and holding aside and said, look for this and they simply didn't. And that is ideation, the idea that someone has gone to the length of making a plan of how they're going to do it if I had, I mean for some reason I saw I'm sitting here with, you know, I I I graduate school, advanced degrees and I didn't couldn't make the connection.

Oh, he's gone to the place where he's actually designed how he's going to take his life. I wish I had known that that meant I should really watch him carefully and I guess I guess I didn't or I was just too busy running or doing everything. Yes, of course I regret all that now. So, and I think, you know, those are really important things to acknowledge. And having been on the other side, um having been suicidal myself, there are so many things that we pretend, right, We pretend that things are okay and we pretend things are a certain way and all of this is going on internally. And so, you know, if interesting, but there was a friend of ours who did take his life the same week. I had planned to take my life and nobody wanted to talk about how they died, and I thought it was really important. So I ended up sharing my story, it was a few weeks later after I'd started to get better um about, you know, how it just you don't know what people are going through, they're not sharing those things with you because you get so stuck in those black thoughts yourself, that and you you think there's something wrong with you and you think you're not worthy and all of those things, and you can't share that.

So, as a as a person on the outside, because I've also dealt with family members who have committed suicide, you you don't see what they're going through and and so beating yourself up. I know as parents, we always think we should we should have seen, we should have known, right? Um whatever our kids are going through, we always think that um but I just want to offer to you as someone who's been on the other side of it, that there truly was nothing that you could have Mhm. Done in the moment, right? So, thank you, you know, that does help to hear that from your perspective, and I think it's really important that we have these conversations for that very reason, right? Yeah. So, yeah, it's the parents, you know, and I just I don't mean to interrupt, but the the S. O s group that I I I I'm a part of it's the parents, you know, the parents who have lost Children who are all need to hear what you just said.

I guess all of us are you know hindsight ear's and thinking oh I should have done this. Oh I should have known oh I should have known you know coming from from coming from your perspective in your experience that's not just simply not necessarily true is it? No no I know and as a parent myself you know what whatever my kids are going through I think I should I should have known that I should have seen that I should have you know and um but we don't we don't always know. Exactly. Yeah so I just want to send you some compassion on that. Thank you. What would you say that healing with creativity means to you? Um I could say um it's been just about um everything it's been uh um the day after when we lost my son I said I started writing early on I started writing a memoir of him and I had a dream right after I started in the dream heard the dream I was I was kind of with him as a nine year old and driven to a house where he was and I was holding him and I was rubbing his face and I was saying I don't want to lose you again and then I woke up and creativity.

I know that I know that our culture sees creativity is kind of a soft thing as kind of a non essential item, but I think it's really the way that we respond and deal with are one of the ways that we respond to our lives. We respond to what's going on. Um That dream told me a great deal about what I was feeling and thought about it off and on over the last two years since I had it, that my reason for writing had something to do with wanting to preserve his something of who he was, I think to me and wanting to, you know, the loss was so great at the time that it was just like an absence there and so being able to somehow have something there that would um represent her, remember him was really important and it seems to still be important to me. That's one part of it. Just the the idea that I'm you know, creativity is helping me too, kind of preserve something about him.

But there's there's there's there's more to it than than than that. I think I teach creative writing and I know that I run into a lot of people like I say, who think that creative writing is just writing whatever you want and expressing yourself. And I so I suppose that's the beginning of it. Um but um it's it's just getting ideas down and I do that in a journal, I do that all the time in a journal. But um um I think another level of that has come as I've I found myself reading a lot of grief memoirs written by parents who lost Children to suicide or to sudden sudden accidents or sudden diseases and they some of them, one writer who especially affected me an hood, lost her daughter to a sudden disease, just her daughter, five year old daughter was going to school one morning and she was fine and and then the next call she had was she had, her daughter had been rushed to emergency because she had collapsed and Some strange viral infection.

She had gotten within 24 hours, she was gone, she was dead and an hood was inconsolable and she writes her memoir is called comfort, a journey through grief. And she also was a writer, is a writer and um wrote a memoir, but she also found comfort through knitting of all things. And so there's what I found creativity for me has been a comfort. It's been a way to go on and to continue to process for me what I'm doing, if that makes sense. Um it's allowed me to, I've written a lot of what I call bad poems, I just write down the phrases that come to me and what I'm feeling what I'm thinking about and what I'm remembering, it allows me to just capture on paper or something of that, some of that then I go back to and I really rework it more. I have a bunch of papers here that show me we're working it and some of the bad poems have become not so bad poems, you know? And uh and a couple have been published, but that's not my goal really, necessarily my goal has been to sort of creatively.

It's one another way of reaching out to others, you know, And it's another way of just saying, well a lot of people I know won't listen to me now and won't talk to me now, but if I write these things down, then somehow it registers and it means it means something, it means something about what happened and what happened to me and my family. Um So yeah, um it's that that third level of comfort though that sometimes comes and Hood talked about knitting. She couldn't find comfort in writing. She couldn't write for several years after she lost her daughter. She found knitting helped her to return to writing and you're knitting. She was doing that. I can't I can't do that if I were to appear to give me a couple of knitting needles and some yarn. I probably in prison myself and be tied up and poking myself with the needles. I you know, my brother in its rather well, but I couldn't. So yeah, can I just say that another friend of mine who lost his only daughter to suicide, he's found woodworking to be a comfort and he's found that to be a creative outlet.

So I want to say that creativity has meant a number of different things as I've noticed. Um Yeah, again, I can't do woodworking, I can, you know, it's it's unfortunate. I wish I could, but it seems to me that there are many different creative outlets and it's it seems to me that it's people doing what they need to do, what comes to hand and what helps them. And I think n hoods word is comfort and I think that's important as well. Yeah. Yeah. Well and and each person has to find their own creative outlet, right? So that would be my next question is then what creative healing modality do you use for yourself? I'm assuming I know the answer, but I'll let you, I think, I think it's writing. So I think it's, I think that's what I do and like I said, it can be bad writing, it can be, you know, it can be um I've been keeping a journal. Uh this this is a journal.

Um it's this color, it's really ugly looking, but um my son wore this kind of t shirt for three years in high school and he refused to wear a shirt with logos on them and said I'm not an advertisement for companies, you know, I was kind of proud of him for saying that. So when we lost him, I just found this red shirt journal and you know, and it's somehow it's just I've been able to write and in that and uh that's been my comfort literacy. It has been yeah, I'm glad, I haven't found comfort in food, I guess. Yeah. Food, alcohol, drugs, a lot of those other self medicating things that take us down different paths, you know? Exactly, Exactly, yeah, so having that creative outlet I think really helps with that. Mhm. Absolutely, Yeah, Yeah. Two, wow, this is a difficult question to even ask, but you know, in hindsight, with this past 3.5 years, what have you learned from all of this that you are now sharing with the world that you feel is important.

That's a great question. I I've learned that when someone is talking suicide or when someone is depressed, we really need to pay attention um a big part of what I've learned has to do with the grief process though, it has to do with the grieving um that people do that. Um I've learned that the world around me and I don't know if this is so much the case in Canada, but in the United States, we I want to I don't I don't think this is an overstatement to say that the United States has been engulfed by a cult of positive thinking engulfed by a cult of um self esteem is um and and so um you know, there's little room for um people who are grieving for some reason, it's it's something that's set aside rather quickly, you know, the uh um I've had to learn that and I've had, I've had to learn that people are not selfish or people are not uh rejecting me in some way simply because they don't know how to help people who breathe, they don't know how to help this experience.

They don't know what to do for people. And I have learned how to listen to people in better ways than I did before. I like to think of myself as a kind of teacher who was a good listener. I wasn't as much as I am now, you know? And um um and so I think that has been a big lesson for me to kind of understand that when people grieve, they don't need to hear platitudes, they don't need to hear, you know, um um the things are going to get better, the world has ended for them and they're living, you know, I understand that I often find myself that I'm living near an abyss, you know, and that's just the way it is for me. I wouldn't, I don't wish that on anyone else when someone else is doing really well, I joined them, but when people are not, I joined them also, I just learned to hear the language of people who are grieving and I want to support that as much as I can and it's not that I want to have pity parties and I want to just sit around and be blue all day and be boring and depressing, you know, it's sort of in those places that some sort of spring can be found I guess eventually.

But it's not anything that can be manufactured. I hope I'm being clear about that. So I hope, I don't know I'm being clear about that. It's been a major change for me. And as I've been dealing with students, I found for example, this semester, every semester I meet new students and it's become harder because they're further away from when we lost Michael in time. And I'm meeting them three years down the river, so to speak. And many of them don't even know what I've been through. Um, at some point I may share a poem because it's a writing class. I can bring in a poem, bringing it something or I can talk about it. And I, um, and this semester I did that and one of my students lost her father three years ago, five years ago and she had been told in the situation she was in, she had been told in no uncertain terms, I don't know if this was clear, but when a person says, don't grieve. Your father is in a better place now. He's not suffering any longer.

Those are forms of abuse those to the grieving. Those are ways of saying you shouldn't grieve, You shouldn't feel what you feel and and for the first time she told me and my in our class, she was telling me that for the first time she was being allowed to feel what she felt, that was she really for the rest of the class, we really connected through that because we, we both had this experience of being told, you know, your son or your father is in heaven now or with the angels or whatever strange theology is going on at the time and um what that tells me is, oh then I should stop breathing, I should stop missing my son. And that's of course not the message to send the people who have lost someone. I've learned that much, you know, it took me a while to get there. Yeah. And I think, you know from every um negative comes a positive, Right? And so that that learning that lesson that you've learned and then how you take that forward, sharing the message, you know, trying to sort of turn the stigma on its head and then also um starting to listen to others more is so important.

Yes, it is the positive it is. I'm not going to shame anyone else for anything. It's a positive to turn around your absolute yeah. Um you know, I normally have a set of questions that we ask and I feel like they're just they don't fit really with what what we're talking about today, is there anything that you anything else we haven't talked about that you'd like to share about the situation about what you've gone through where you are at now or anything. Um, this is something that I didn't think I would share and I'm going to share it in a very general way after we lost my son. I I sort of collapsed into meaninglessness and I have found, I have found eventually spiritual resonance that has helped me in some ways to, to grieve and to, to come to, better, to come to some kind of understanding, not an understanding that, oh, I have all the answers now, but it's allowed me to continue to live and to, to walk and to be who I am, I guess, and I just want to put that out there in general terms.

So that, and I think it matters whatever a person believes beforehand. I felt like I briefly lost that belief and I feel like it's been restored a little bit, not restored in a way that it was before by any means. I, I find that I have more questions than answers. And, and I found that that's okay. I found that that's kind of existentially an okay place to live in. I don't need to have all of the answers to all the questions I have now. Um, and I want to say that that's that's, that's all right in terms of any spiritual answers we have. And I want to encourage, I would just encourage others that, um, to continue an understanding of, uh you know, how they can continue to, to believe and to, to move forward in some ways I'm talking very vaguely because I don't, I don't want to Endorse one idea or another over another and I don't want to alienate people with where they're at.

Um, but um, I think most of all my spiritual understanding now is that it's okay to dwell in this place of not knowing, I guess. Uh and Harris, I'm also interested in, um, you know what you've gone through and what your journey has been like as well. So yeah, and you know, it's, it's been, I mean I talked about it often with the people who follow me because it's why I do what I do, right. I have um I suffered from depression off and on through my whole life. I had a lot of traumas that happened, but depression is a chemical imbalance. Right? And so sometimes you don't even need those traumas to activate depression, you can have a perfectly fine life and still. Um and so when it got so bad, you know, this was about seven years ago now and I ended up being hospitalist and they kept me for about 12 hours and then they released me in the middle of the night, 1:30 AM, I walked home, it was about 45 minute walk to my home and quite honestly, if I hadn't been so exhausted and like I had letters to write, I have Children and you know, I had things that I had um it would have been would have been that that day and something happened that night and I just got so angry at the medical system and I realized that I could not find the help elsewhere.

I needed to go internally. And I mean it was not a I mean something clicked that night, but I was not fixed that night, right? It still took a lot of work. I still had to take medication, I still had to go through therapy, but I started to create and I started to write and I started the journaling process is what really did a lot. And then I started to paint. And as I started to express the emotions I was feeling, I was able to start moving through those emotions, right? Um and it was a combination of things, but that's one of the reasons I do what I do today is because I think it's so important for people to understand that they have control over what's happening in their life. And yes, we do have these chemical imbalances that happen. But the more we take control of our own life, the less those chemical imbalances take control and we can we can deal with what comes with that, right? We can change our thinking, we can change our minds that we can change our belief systems.

And I think that's so important and it's one of the reasons that I've taken up the cause of suicide awareness with my nonprofit um because the L. G. B. T. Plus community, the youth have as much as an eight times higher suicide rate than our hetero youth which already has a ridiculously high number. So you know I think it's just so important that we talk about suicide that we talk about the stigma around it that we talk about the reality of what's happening and and that people understand that the pain, it's not personal against another person, it is so deep inside of you that you cannot see any other way out and the world would just be a better place without you because you are suffering so much and so if we can help people before they get to that point, you know that's sort of my goal to help people before they get to that point because I think it's so important.

Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So starting the conversations and having you know you know we've talked about the creative aspect of this and how important it is. So you know I feel this is very much in alignment with what I do but um having these difficult conversations and and listening to what's really going on with people I think is so important and that's why I do what I do. Yes. Yeah I appreciate that so much. Yeah. Well I appreciate that you're willing, I I know it takes time but you're willing to talk about what has happened so that you know, other people can learn from that as well. Thank you. I I don't know that I've shed much light but I know that when many of us talk about things we can start to see a little bit better what we're what's going on. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You know listening to what you've said about about some little bit of your own journey.

I mean um one of the things that I've kind of found refuge in creativity with is that it is a process and it's an ongoing thing. You know I can I can start something and and I can live with not knowing everything and things can come together later. I say that that's sort of as mirroring my grief process a little bit. You know what I'm dealing with them and this is not meant to be a plug at all. But I have a chap book of poems. It's called The View from january. You know. And Um I remember that I started that idea of the year that my son took his life 27. I started it. I just wrote it on a Facebook page in in January of 2017. The view from January. And uh one of my former students said that sounds like a poetry book or something like that. So I just thought oh I'll keep it and then that year unfolded. And it wound up really literally being a collection of before and after homes.

And there's, there's one poem in there that I wrote, I found myself writing three days after we lost him in a very rough draft. But I it was kind of my first attempts to try to just verbalize what had happened. And I think, I think that I'm going to, trying to do is to trace back to what you've said, being able to verbalize, being able to talk about these things, it matters so much. And, and if people can, if we can begin to really talk with people and find the language for this, then then we have a chance of helping others and ourselves in some pretty important ways. And yeah, it helps to remove the stigma. But finding finding people's language and where there are, you know, my son simply said when, when, you know, we found out he skipped the first day of his senior year and we found out late that night when the school called and like he'd faked it, he faked it all day.

Um, uh, and then we asked him and confronted him and his words were simply, I am depressed, you know, And, and, and we talked with him for a little bit and he said, I've been depressed for four years. And then we tried to get him help, but it was like, we were catching up to a freight train was already almost you know, at its destination. That's and I didn't, I couldn't, I could not hear in I've been depressed for four years. I'm going to take my life. I couldn't hear that. I wasn't, I, I can hear that now, but I couldn't hear it then. Um yeah, the the language that he had was so understated. He had always been that way. He'd always been, he had always been a few lines. He was he was good at telling jokes and that's another part of the subject huge. I think that I was I was fooled by, you know, I was yeah, I think people want to want us to know what's going on, but after a while they need, they may give up.

I don't know. Yeah. Yeah. So anyway. Yeah. Well, I just want to thank you so much for being here today and sharing your story. I think it's so important that we have these conversations. Thank you for thank you for having me and thank you for talking about this. It's been it's been very hopeful to me too. Well, I'm glad. I'm glad. So to our listeners, we will see you again next week. And in the meantime, I wish for you amazingly creative days. Are you a daily journal or do you want more creativity in your day? We have two great creativity journals to start your day with. One for people who already have a journaling practice and one for people who are new to journaling. Both are an amazing way to start your day. Both make the perfect gift for a person in your life. Check out. Have an amazingly creative day, and how do I have an amazingly creative date? Both currently available on amazon, click the link below to purchase yours now.

Episode 96 featuring Thomas Allbaugh: Suicide and Grief
Episode 96 featuring Thomas Allbaugh: Suicide and Grief
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