Today has been a good day – a tough day, but a good day. Since March 2016 there have been floods of bad days. More bad days than I would care to remember. Suicide stormed into our lives, made it personal and never left. It was oppressive, blinding and made me question whether or not I would be able to survive each day.
Today I am grateful to the bereavement and primary mental health professionals who have worked with my family to get us back on mostly solid ground. I understand that there will be flare ups and that we will never be “back to normal.” That’s ok. It’s understood and we are learning to live with it.
Today on World Mental Health Day it is important to me that I share that mental health issues have impacted my family in devastating ways. My wish is that we would have done things differently from the start. The challenge is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If we had known, we might have made some changes, but each and every one of us was out here living life to the best of our ability, including my nephew Coby and my aunt Elsie.
It’s important to me that I say their names and that I send them love because I miss them, every single day. There is no shame, stigma or stereotype so important that it takes priority over getting mental health support. The support is for you, not for the world and how they see you. In the big scheme of things, when your mental health is compromised, nothing else matters except your well being.
Today I wish that you feel comfortable with wherever you are in your process and that you are willing to reach out for help if you need it. My hope is that we get better at making mental health treatment available to those who need it and that we stop judging and punishing those people living with mental illnesses.
Today on World Mental Health Day, I am thankful for therapy, medication and all other forms of treatment that help human beings live productive lives and manage the stress and demons of their worlds.
Today I am sending love to those who struggle in public and even more to those who are struggling in private. You are not alone. Please come into the light.
In 2011 I wrote an email to master painter Ulrick Jean-Pierre, but it came back undeliverable. In all of the conversations I was having related to filmmaking and the lack of positive representation of people of color in the media, here was a beautiful story yet to be told. I was brand spanking new to filmmaking and I had no idea what I envisioned, but I felt there was something there. It would take my mom and I years to find and reconnect with Ulrick (as he had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.)
In 2016 my co-producer Stephanie Malson and I got the green light to take a trip to New Orleans to see if what I felt was really something. It was more than something. It was everything. Ulrick Jean-Pierre is an amazing artist and human being. I feel humbled and blessed that his story has become mine to tell. Every step of this journey has come at a cost, but for every sacrifice there has been an even greater reward. That something has turned into a feature length documentary in progress about Ulrick and his incredible body of work (ulrickdoc.com – website for the film.)
As I wind down on my last day in Kansas, I’m reflecting on what we’ve accomplished on this shoot, and the inconceivable knowledge that we really interviewed Edwidge Danticat! That we are about a month away from the end of principal photography. That we have added an incredible new team member, who we have yet to share with you, but will soon. That I get to be the one to tell this story. That I have an enormous responsibility of representing for my culture and offering a counter narrative to the simplistic and often bigoted rhetoric that is passed around about Haiti and her people. That we have a team of collaborators who are passionate about this film and that are committed to seeing it completed in excellence.
I am blessed. Simply blessed. This reflection is as much for me as it is for whomever takes the time to read my lengthy goings-on. It is for the days when I feel like an imposter, for the days when I need to pay my rent, for the days another door slams in my face. This reflection is to remind me that I come from an incredible people who will never be stopped, who continue to rise from the ashes…time and time again. This is my battlefield…or my playground, whichever way you want to see. On the journey of independent filmmaking some days it’s a battlefield and some days you get to play. This week we got to do a little bit of both.
My original email from 2011…
I hope this email finds you blessed and thriving. I’m not sure if you remember me, but I’m Gladys Bruno’s (formerly St. Phard) daughter.
Congratulations on your beautiful and powerful work. It was really phenomenal rediscovering you through your work. My mom has updated me from time to time about your work and accomplishments. I also appreciate that you
have kept in touch with her over the decades. I know you two haven’t spoken in a while.
I wanted to reach out to you as I am making my way into new artistic endeavors. I’m an actress and producer living in suburban Philadelphia. I was hoping to connect with you to learn more about your journey. I hear so much talk about the absence of positive stories about people of color in the
media. I am looking for opportunities to introduce a larger audience to some inspiring people.
I don’t have any plans at this point, but you keep coming to mind. I would like an opportunity to connect, and if you are open to it, see if there might be something there. In case you want to check out my company, the website it is…(My old company.)
I’m so happy to hear that you have had a profound and positive impact on the artistic community and the world.
Tax-deductible contributions to the film can be made by check to our fiscal sponsor, Allied Arts Foundation with notation “Ulrick Documentary”, and sent to: Allied Arts Foundation, 4111 E. Madison Street, Suite #52, Seattle, WA 98112.
I am a deadline beast. Give me a deadline, ratchet up the pressure and watch my work! It has been described as impressive…if not a unique blend of chaos. Deadlines keep the pressure and the focus on the work. They leave just enough time to manage the the life side of the work/life balance equation. They don’t leave time for idle thoughts or pondering about the direction life is taking you (when unconciously pondering, it’s almost always life taking me somewhere as opposed to me being the navigator of my own road.)
It’s been just over two years since we lost my nephew Coby and almost two years since my Aunt Elise’s death, both by suicide. The searing pain is gone, but at times what is left is a hazy shade of blur. It’s almost like life doesn’t make sense, even though you are doing what you are supposed to – and some things are working, while others aren’t. I’ll never be able to adequately describe the underlying energy that is like the phantom floaties I sometimes see in my peripheral vision. You can’t shake it, you can’t really see it but you know something is there…or at least was there a moment ago.
How do I know this current is still running underneath it all? In the moments between deadline sprints, life relaxes and things that normally don’t phase me start to creep up on me – emails I know I should have answered a long time ago, friend’s birthdays I’ve missed and shrinking away from grieving friends. It’s almost as if I can’t get my “should” in order. I know I should do these things and that I want to be there for my friends in their time of need. I also know that if I don’t manage things there could be personal and professional consequences, but that doesn’t move me towards action. Honestly it just adds to the sensation of stress pebbles dropping from overhead.
I am so grateful that I can feel any of this. Two years ago I was numb. My heart broken so severely that I didn’t think I would find my way back. Happily my kid has been doing bereavement and general therapeutic work with counselors that has worked wonders. I still maintain parenting a grieving child is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. It is also not something I thought I would have to deal with until one of her grandparents passed (and thankfully they are all still here and kicking!!)
I have faith that this hazy blur will pass in time. How much time? I don’t know. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that social media, along with being a critical tool for my work, had become my release. Sharing thought provoking articles, resources, funny stories and inspiring videos became an escape. The challenge I’ve begun to recognize is that people equate time on social media with free time or time you could be using to communicate with them. I can’t say that I can argue that point. I now also see it has been a way to escape the blur and engage in a way that I can control. The thing I guess I would like people to know is that I am not intentionally trying to hurt them or withdrawal. It really is a coping mechanism. Perhaps not a great one, but the one that has gotten me through.
I think being able to pull back and see the blur, to know that it is symptomatic of the underlying grief felt from losing two beloved souls and to understand that I need to continue to forage my new path is progress. To date I feel like a high functioning imposter. I know there is a storm ahead, but for now the party on the deck needs to be managed. That’s a bit what life feels like two years into this new branch of my life. I miss Coby and Aunt Elsie. Every holiday is a reminder. Every smile of a family member, every belly laugh reminds me of something they did and the little blips here and there challenge my awareness that they are really, truly gone from this physical world.
If there is a blessing in all of this, it’s that they both were such big personalities that it will be virtually impossible to forget them. As I work towards healing the internal wounds I will remind myself to go gently, that work is work – not life, and that most people will be fine without me, while I take the time for myself.
If you’ve felt my absence or if you’ve felt hurt by my time away, please understand that although I may look like it is business as usual, it’s not. It’s a new day. One I’m working to embrace and thrive within, but it takes time, effort and self-care.
For those of you also struggling with functioning during your new day, I encourage you to prioritize your health and wellness. ❤
In the midst of a disagreement with my tween yesterday it all came crashing back. The reminder of another year celebrating holidays with painful gaps. What I wouldn’t give for a holiday dinner circa five years ago…before it all started to go wrong, one little memory at a time. Back when we were all gathered around a huge table, piled high with everyone’s favorites, cracking jokes at each other and marveling at how big the kids were.
I held back the tears because I was driving and she was angsting. I still haven’t learned to let go. I know I need to. I know it’s eating me up inside. I know that life will never be the same as it was even two years ago. I’m wondering if the cosmic trick is finding the peace, beauty and celebration in the gaps. I’ve been skipping over them, jumping around them and just plain ignoring them…but they won’t go away.
My aunt Elsie and nephew Coby were absolute characters. They were full of jokes and mischief. My aunt was also an incredible cook. The majority of my Thanksgivings were spent with one or both of them. The blessing in not having lived with them prior to their passing, is that during the day-to-day it’s easy to think they are just going about their business. It’s the times when families gather that I can’t get away from how loud their absence is.
As I type this today I have friends experiencing life-changing illnesses, friends who will be going through their first holiday without a loved one and our own stew of grieving and trying to cope with the unrelenting pressures of the life I’ve crafted for us. I have been restless and unfocused the last few days. Once again I am reminded that I can’t fix any of it. I can’t turn back time and I can’t put the lost puzzle pieces back in the puzzle.
I don’t love this new reality and that’s a huge problem. This is the one I have. It’s infinitely better than the one millions of people are facing at this very moment. Intellectually I know that but emotionally I need to recalibrate some things. Maybe making a list of the things I’m grateful for will help. Maybe diving into the work I’ve been circling around will distract me and help me realign with my purpose. Maybe finally getting a therapy appointment will be the permission I need to just let it go. No matter what, I know it’s a process.
These feelings won’t suddenly evaporate. I loved my aunt my entire life and Coby for all of his 18 years. Life heaps so much pain and trauma on you, but I guess there is a blessing in the midst of all that dumping. I guess the fact that I’m still here, presumably to see more days, is the gift. The pain will ebb and flow and in the midst there will be joy, love, elation and hopefully moments that feel like heaven on Earth. I’m a betting kinda woman, so I’ll hang on for those beautiful moments and I’ll work to let go so I can process the dark ones.
Holidays can be a terrible time of year for some. I don’t doubt that I will end up in a corner crying before the weekend is out. My tear ducts are primed and warning me that my reservoirs are about to overflow. My hope is that the happiness outweighs the darkness, but either way my prayer is that I’ll still be standing on the other side and that I remember the work to be done. Not just the work to advance my career, but the work to unburden my soul and lift my heart back to the light.
May you find moments of peace and joy this holiday season <3.
Poised on the ice, listening and watching for the tell tale sound or sight of the first spiderwebbing of fractures on the surface. I feel steady yet I anticipate hearing an epic crack before I lay my head on my pillow tonight. My current balance is eighty percent intellectual, twenty percent emotional. Had my beautiful nephew Coby not died by suicide a year ago, it would just be another Monday morning and simply significant in that it is around the time we celebrate another one of my beautiful family members.
In some ways it seems shocking that a year has passed since our lives fell apart. The human spirit continues to amaze me. It is stunning that a human being can endure unimaginable pain and still return to the light of day, forever changed but back in the light. Contact with some family members still seems to hurt. Not hurt in that they do something painful, but in that seeing them brings elements of the tragedy back. Most people forget what today is in our lives so there is no reckoning, no shadowing of the eyes, no slumping of the shoulders or the urge to reach out to check on them – not knowing if it will cause more pain.
To be honest, this is the most frustrating part for me. I am steady, but I wonder if I should be checking on someone or extending sympathies or acting as if it is just another day. I don’t think on it too much as I am a much more heart-led soul. I will reach out to my family today to let them know that I love them, that I am sorry Coby is no longer with us and that I will be thinking of them.
On my end, I have to keep an eye on my small person. While I am steady, I sense the ice is not so steady under her young legs. True helplessness comes from feeling like you don’t know how to reach or help your child in times of need. I definitely don’t have the answers here, but I know that my work day will end the minute she gets home. Tonight will be a full court press, hands on, eyes up, heart open night together.
I will do my best to remember that this is new to both of us and to remember the wisdom of an aviation disaster survivor speaking about how she managed her grief after losing a child in a plane crash. When asked what she attributed the survival of her marriage to she responded, “He doesn’t mess with my grief and I don’t mess with his.” I need to learn how to be supportive to her while not messing with her grief.
My grief is what it is. I still haven’t listened to the voicemail messages that flooded into my phone the days following Coby’s death (as I am constantly reminded by notifications that my voicemail is always almost 90% full.) I am still trying to figure out if I can bear hearing them or if I should just delete them all unheard. I am truly appreciative of the outpouring of love that came in those days and every day since. As I type this I remind myself that life is for the living. I will delete the messages unheard, but I appreciate each person who reached out to me in my darkest hour. This is what my grief looks like. Even the simplest decisions related to the aftermath of Coby’s passing are so difficult to make.
I am in the light now, face up to the sun and I am going to do my best to stay there. I know the clouds will come and when they do I will reach into my tool chest to get the resources needed to survive the resulting darkness. Some days that’s coffee with a girlfriend, others it will be a therapy session and some days it’s a good old-fashioned cry. Today I will look for a way to honor Coby’s memory in a way that celebrates his life and not his final moments. I will send him light and love.
Right after Coby’s death I questioned myself about what I could have done, what I could have said, did he know how much I loved him and more fruitless thoughts about how I could have stopped it all. In January of 2016 I was asked to write Coby a letter that would be given to him at a school retreat. I am eternally grateful that I did because it gave me some peace that he knew exactly how much I loved him.
In re-reading the letter now I realize that there was little more I could have said or done, not knowing what was going on in his head and heart. I wish we were celebrating Coby’s collegiate accomplishments today, but instead we are reminded that life is fragile, that our young people are at war with demons we may not see and that the most precious elements of our lives are not guaranteed to be here tomorrow.
Below is my letter to Coby. It makes me sad to read it (as the tears finally come,) but it is also the most honest, authentic expression of who Coby was to me.
Love. Fascination. Pride. Joy. Those are the things that come to mind when I think of you my handsome, loving, hilarious and incredible nephew! I am in awe of the things you have accomplished and the way you carry yourself through this turbulent world. I am so proud of the young man you have become. I trust you with my most precious gift in the world (and that’s saying everything!) and my heart is full when I see how you care for your little cousin. It speaks volumes about the man that you are when you take time to be with and care for Lani or grandma. Those are the moments that show the beauty of your character. No, it’s not cool to hang with them…or me, but you do it anyway. Yes, because we can be fun and feed you great stuff and because you love us, but often you’re being kind and supportive of the things that we need. You can’t teach that kind of compassion, support and love. It’s either a part of your character or it’s not. I am grateful to God that at the end of the day, after the jokes and the selfies, you are a solid young man of beautiful character.
Life is going to offer up a world of challenges. It just does. No one gets to the end without having their back side handed to them once in awhile. Some get it more than others. Whichever side of the fence you land on please remember that we are all praying for you. You are covered by the prayers and blessings of some of the most ardent prayer warriors I know. So remember to breathe, seek help when you need it and know that most storms will pass in time. Keep your eye on your passion and your purpose, not everyone else’s. Find out what feeds your soul and gives you a reason to get out of bed swinging each morning. Tilt at windmills, slay dragons and most of all work on being a good person. Money will come and go, but you can’t take it with you. Cherish relationships above all else, especially your relationship with God.
I will leave you with a few of my favorite quotes that have sustained me through the tough times and have been my compass in life:
● Promise yourself to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. Look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true. Think only of the best, work only for the best and expect only the best. Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future. Give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others. Live in the faith that the whole world is on your side as long as you are true to the best that is in you. (Christian D. Larson)
● Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. (unknown)
You’ll always be my Cob. I will always be here if you need me no matter what, and if I know one thing, it is that the world is ready for you to step up in all of your magnificence and make a huge impact.
Wisps of glimmer, shards of luminescence, chaos and silence – my mind is a mashup of weird and unsettling elements. The emotion fatigue and dread brought on by the incessant “breaking news” media notifications leaves me with a sense of shuttered vision, not to mention a weary soul.
Much of my art, and my essence, is derived from inspiration, love and a longing for equity, justice and peace. In the last two weeks it feels as if the world has tipped on a new axis. I am no stranger to hate or bigotry, but current events have thrown lighter fuel on the world I thought I knew. Silly me.
I have no idea how to fix the world in this particular moment and time. The violence, hate, fear, pain and despair are palpable. I don’t know how to fix that. With each new act of violence or hatred our human potential is compromised and the realization is staggering. The thread of my artistic inspiration is dampened under layers of grief, anger, concern, heartbreak and this painful process of consciousness expansion.
I can’t unsee the callous disregard for vulnerable human beings who have done nothing to be caught in harm’s crossfire. I’ve exhausted my current capacity to explain why we should care about refugees, women’s rights, Black Lives, LGBTQ communities, those whose faith is different than mine and our ability to protect the Earth (just to name a few.) The explaining doesn’t do it. It doesn’t touch the mark or soften hearts.
My consciousness bucket list includes seeing the end of war, hunger, violence (especially towards women and children,) homelessness, achieving equality, justice for all, mainstream acceptance and treatment of mental health issues and love, love, LOVE! Yes, I am Pollyanna, The Kumbaya Kid and any other snarky retort that comes to mind. I want to live to see peace on Earth. I do and I’m unashamed to admit that my heart weeps each time we take steps further away from that paradise.
How do I take the emotional turmoil and infuse it into a piece of work that “says something?” Hell, how do I use the skills I’ve developed to drain this emotional morass so I can connect with my creative source? I can’t seem to get away from Nina Simone’s words about an artist’s duty…”An artist’s duty is to reflect the times…How can you be an artist and NOT reflect the times?”
Those are haunting words, an artistic call to action. At it’s core it comes down to the fact that the inspiration behind the art can not be beckoned with a checklist. Inspiration seeps into my heart, soul, brain, dreams through mysterious and elusive means. When my vision is shuttered the wisps of thought, light and creativity struggle to find the pathway. In such turbulent times I struggle with finding the head and heart space to nurture the creative being inside.
With acting they tell you take whatever you are feeling and use it. Intellecutally I believe it’s the same principal, yet my vast ocean of feelings are solely generating more feelings – loss, grief, exhaustion and at times hopelessness. The “work” for me is to manually turn the corner. Since I can not seem to shake this space, I have been sure to make it to the gym, to more eat fruits and vegetables, hydrate and get more than my traditional 5-6 hours of sleep.
My hope is that by consciously invoking self-care I will be able to manually reboot my creative ignition and begin to see possibilities, new worlds and magic once again. We have a long road ahead and it is expressions of art that will help guide and sustain us. Make no mistake, art is everywhere. It is part of the fabric of our lives and so I send the artists of the world, wherever your are, love, light and strength to continue on through the darkness.
This morning I got up determined to hit my desk the minute I got my kid off to school. I was showered, dressed, computer on, coffee warmed up and nearly four hours later I have done virtually nothing of substance. That’s the truth of dealing with the consequences of mental illness and losing a loved one to suicide.
The conversations that happen in the recesses of the light aren’t shared publicly, get pushed aside and forgotten in the attempt to re-enter the hustle and bustle of daily life, yet leave a lingering filthy residue on your soul. The pain uncovered, the searing confusion about which way to turn, fear and uncertainty about making the next right decision and putting one foot in front of the other zap the clarity, energy and drive that is otherwise present on a Monday morning.
The process of caring for our grieving children can suction the life and soul from you if you’re not careful. I initial started to write that I compartmentalize my needs so I can support my daughter in her grieving, but that wouldn’t be true. The truth is that I keep my rawness in check in case I can’t put it away in time to support her every need. It’s as if I’m afraid that connecting to the pain will leave me in a formless puddle of anguish and either she’d either come across me like that or need me and I won’t be able to shape myself back into ready to go mom.
Last night we celebrated what would have been my nephew’s 19th birthday. A friend asked how it was. I told her the truth, it was beautiful, sad and ugly. That’s the truth.
No, I’m not going to tell you how hard it was to hold my sobbing child’s hand while in the other room a somber Happy Birthday chorus was being sung in Coby’s honor. No, I can’t articulately express the lengths of my emotional fatigue and desire to get to a day when thinking of Coby or my Aunt, who took her own life just four month’s after Coby’s suicide, results in happy memories. No, I have no recipe for dealing with the complexities of the ravages of mental illness and suicide.
Today I do my best not to beat myself up for my lack of focus. Maybe my brain is pacing itself until my soul is ready to digest the latest round of conversations, observations and realizations. I am not living through a normal situation and I am reminding myself that my responses are normal. I think one of the greatest tragedies that comes from these acts are the pain coming together unleashes. Yes, it is part of the healing process but it is awful.
One of my saddest memories will be my daughter telling me that she didn’t want Thanksgiving this year. She didn’t want to have any holidays without Coby. It took my breath away. I could have never been prepared for her to articulate that. In hindsight it made sense, but I was so unprepared. Thankfully we made it through Thanksgiving and had a beautiful holiday in spite of the pain. Hopefully one that she’ll put in her happy memory chest.
I don’t expect December 10th will come again anytime soon without some version of a sledgehammer of pain, but I do look forward to the day when it’s more of a tug. Each day moving forward is another step out onto the broken sheet of ice – some steps land solidly and bear the weight while others leave you plunging into the freezing water. Today I am sending strength to my family, and all of the families, who can’t see the light of day, can’t see the next step and struggle to even take the next breath. I can’t imagine what you are feeling. I am so sorry and I love you.
Today I will be gentle with myself. I will prepare to receive my young person home and do my best to be present, loving and open to sitting in her grief with her if need be. And once I put her to bed, I’ll do my best to sit in my grief, assemble my broken pieces, put them back into some semblance of new normalcy and do it all over again. Maybe, just maybe, if I keep walking through it with my eyes and heart open I will eventually get to the other side.
More than anything in the world, I wish Coby knew he could have talked to me -that I would have been here and that suicide wasn’t his only answer, but in matters of life and death like this there are rarely second chances. If you are reading these words and are struggling, please seek help. Life gets a little bit dimmer each time we lose a soul.
If you are in need of help please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1 (800) 273-8255