(CNN) — When Sam Maya, a beloved husband, father, friend, stockbroker and coach, died by suicide 16 years ago, he left a note. He apologized to his wife, Charlotte, for being a burden and telling her and their two sons, then 6 and 8, that he loved them.
In her recent heartbreaking memoir, “Sushi Tuesdays: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Family Resilience,” Charlotte Maya bears witness to Sam’s life, death and the aftermath with a singular purpose: to humanize the face of suicide and help readers develop a fluency in discussing mental health.
She spent nearly a decade writing “Sushi Tuesdays,” beginning with a blog by the same name, an homage to the weekly ritual she created after her husband’s death.
Every Tuesday while her kids were at school, Maya set aside her overwhelming to-do list as a lawyer and widowed single parent. Tuesdays began with a yoga class, then therapy, followed by whatever she needed most: perhaps going back to bed, going on a hike or heading to a solo sushi lunch.
I met Maya in a memoir workshop last year. I have a family history of mental illness and suicide, so I connected with her work and motivation for sharing her story.
A wake-up call about suicide
In 2021, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 34, the fifth for ages 35 to 54, and the 11th leading cause of death nationwide, claiming the lives of more than 48,000 people, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The suicide rate among men in 2021 was nearly four times higher than the rate of women, according to the CDC. Research supports the assumption that men typically choose more effective and lethal means, such as firearms, to complete suicide, according to Dr. Ashwini Nadkarni, a psychiatrist and researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Additionally, men are less likely to seek treatment for depression due to gendered expectations that equate masculinity with emotional stoicism, Nadkarni said.
Suicide is a national health crisis, Maya told me, but when we hear of such a loss, we often attribute each death to the unique problem the deceased faced, such as financial or legal troubles.
These stressors don’t explain suicide, she said. “Lots of people lose money, and they don’t take their own lives. They figure things out.”
When her husband died, Maya knew he had back pain and was stressed about work and money, but she didn’t think these things added up to being suicidal. In retrospect, she can now spot clues, such as his review of his will shortly before he died.
“I wanted to turn back the clock after Sam died,” she said. “I felt so strongly that if I could get back to that morning, I could have changed everything. It’s hard to reckon with what cannot be undone, to face straight into what I did or didn’t do, where I failed, where Sam failed.”
Talking about mental health matters
“Whenever I say that Sam made a mistake, the mistake I mean is that he didn’t ask for help,” Maya said. “It’s hard to say you’re suffering when you’re suffering, so let your loved ones know you are available to help.”
Asking people directly about suicidal thoughts may reduce, rather than increase, suicidal ideation, according to a 2014 review of scholarly literature in the journal Psychological Medicine.
That does require that people look for and notice signs that others may be struggling, such as changes in mood, behavior, appetite or sleep habits or that they are giving away cherished possessions.
Speaking directly about mental health became a trademark of Maya’s single parenting. She aimed for her boys “to live full and fruitful lives, not defined by their father’s suicide, not limited by their father’s suicide, but also not ignoring their father’s suicide.”
Her sons grieved their dad in their own ways, including denial (one pretended his father was on an extended business trip) and rageful episodes that ended with destroyed Lego sets and tears. Maya mourned with them about the “daddy-shaped space in their hearts” but promised that someday they’d be able to say, “I survived my father’s suicide, and I can do anything.”
‘Let people show up and help’
“It can be awkward to say yes when people ask to help,” Maya said. “Because I was so shocked and overwhelmed, I just said yes. I recommend that course of action to people. Let people show up and help you.”
The support from Maya’s village was so vast that she wrestled with which of her friends would be fully fledged characters in “Sushi Tuesdays” and which would have cameo appearances.
She dealt with this challenge — and the confusion caused by many friends with names starting with the letter J — by cleverly referring to her friends, collectively, as “The Janes.” Given her background as a lawyer, she thought of them as Jane Doe No. 1, Jane Doe No. 2 and so on.
In the book, readers meet District Attorney Jane who helped with the coroner’s office, Engineer Jane who gets the boys to school each day on time and Prayer Warrior Jane who prays for Maya while she’s “not exactly on speaking terms with God.”
One friend, identified not as a “Jane” but as “Bess” in the narrative, is Katherine Tasheff, a college friend from Rice University. When Sam Maya died, Tasheff was a single mother living on a budget in Brooklyn and couldn’t travel to California to visit. So, she did what she could: She wrote her friend an email. And then another. And another. Morning and night for 365 days following Sam’s death.
Finding humor, even in grief
The emails were always heartfelt and genuine but often mixed with dark humor. In one, Tasheff wrote, “We did an informal poll on whose husband was most likely to take his own life, and I want you to know that Sam came in last place.”
Almost immediately, Charlotte Maya replied, “Dead last?”
This kind of banter fueled Maya, who told her therapist to “call 911” if she ever lost her sense of humor. Finding moments of levity, she said, helped her hold onto her humanity. “Humor doesn’t cancel out what is devastating,” Maya told me. “Just like gratitude cannot cancel out what is horrifying. What’s important is having the capacity to hold both of those things.”
Carving out your own ‘Sushi Tuesday’ self-care ritual
Seven years after her husband died, in 2014, Maya felt ready to write about surviving his suicide. Tasheff acted with her signature hadn’t-been-asked swiftness, setting up a blog site for sushituesdays.com within an hour.
By then, Maya had met and married the most eligible widower in her town, now nicknamed Mr. Page 179 because that’s where he shows up in the book. They each brought two sons to the marriage. (Coincidentally, each has a child named Daniel, so they now have two Daniels.)
Maya continues to honor her Tuesdays with therapy and yoga, a hike with a friend, and sometimes a sushi lunch.
She urges everyone — especially single parents and anyone managing anxiety or depression — to carve out a similar weekly ritual, even if it’s just an hour to “treat yourself with the same compassion as you treat your dearest friends.”
These coping mechanisms may protect us
The coping mechanisms that Maya relied on in her grief may further explain the gender disparity in suicide rates, according to psychologist Lauren Kerwin.
Men may be less likely to have strong support networks or to engage with them when in stress or emotional pain and may be more likely to use maladaptive coping strategies, such as substance abuse or isolation, Kerwin said.
Seeking social connection and professional help is critical to preventing suicide.
“Now, more than ever, we have a better understanding of the neuroinflammatory basis for depression — the medical framework gives us a model in which to consider depression as a medical condition and one which can be treated,” said Nadkarni, the Boston psychiatrist.
How to help someone who may be at risk for suicide
If you see warning signs or are worried about someone who may be struggling, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends you assume you are the only one who will reach out. Find a time to speak privately and listen. Let people know their life matters to you and ask directly if they are thinking about suicide. Then encourage them to use the national suicide hotline by calling or texting the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, contact their doctor or therapist or seek treatment.
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