He was not my son, but I see Sol Samuel in many people that I love. Born in Jimma, Ethiopia, in 1994, Fisseha was adopted 10 years ago by the writer Melissa Fay Greene and her husband Don Samuel. Fisseha became Sol Samuel, one of 9 children in a loving, active family. He was an amazing athlete, gifted at soccer, a handsome young man with a warm smile and loads of friends.
He ended his life on October 9.
He was not my son, but I see the spirit of the vibrant, living Sol Samuel in many Ethiopian and other adoptees that I know and love. Survivors, resilient, charismatic. Great smiles. Most succeed mightily in light of day, overcoming hard pasts, interweaving two distinct realities of Life Then and Life Now. A few who struggle in the night, with painful memories, gnawing fears, and desperate desires to please others, to fill gaps, to know truths, and to trust that life won’t again fall apart.
Most, of course, carry on and do well. They occasionally stumble, but most adoptees, like the rest of us, live out their lives without despair.
Here is a cynical but factual comment I read recently: Adoption and suicide are both permanent solutions to temporary situations.There is sobering research that says that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. It’s here in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Not lightweight stuff, and even more startling in that the mean age of the 1000 participants was about 14. Out of the total group, which included adoptees and biological children, 56 had attempted suicide; 47 of those were adoptees.
Sol was Melissa Fay Greene’s son. I met Melissa via phone in 1999 or maybe 2000, when she interviewed me for an article she was writing about Dr. Jane Aronson. Melissa and her husband had 4 children at that time, and were in the midst of adopting a son from Bulgaria. They went on to adopt a total of 5 children, 4 of whom were from Ethiopia. Melissa has written several powerful books, including “There is No Me Without You,” about an Ethiopian woman who took in AIDS-orphaned children. More recently Melissa wrote “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.” I may have had one conversation with Melissa since that first one some 15 years ago. My impression of her when we first talked and since then is that she is a smart, talented, warm person with a fierce devotion to her family.
She wrote a number of times about Sol, including in 2004 about his amazing athletic abilities evinced just one day after his arrival at 10 years old in the United States. In “The Flying Son,” she wrote of him, “When Fisseha ran, ambition fell away. When he ran, he was a ballet dancer alone in a studio, whirling. He was a painter dipping a brush into oil paints. He was a greyhound, flashing over the ground out of its deepest nature and joy. When Fisseha ran, he was Peter Pan, who knew how to fly.”
He was not my son, this beautiful boy will now remain forever 20 years old. So young, so terribly young. The funeral service yesterday was recorded; it is filled with prayers, with the sound of rain, and with steady, wrenching crying. Among the speakers are two of Sol’s siblings and Melissa. Besides deep grief and deeper love, in their voices there is a sense of puzzlement: How could this be, that they are eulogizing their brother, their son? How could he leave? How can he be gone?
Some adoptee suicides get a great deal of press, as in the case of L’Wren Scott, written about powerfully here. Some get very little attention. Much more research is needed in the area of adoptee mental health. Native American adoptees are said to have a high rate of suicide; certainly many struggles have been documented. Deanna Doss Shrodes of the insightful blog Adoptee Restoration has a challenging post titled “When Adoptees Want to Die.” Tough title to see in print, isn’t it? Tough post to read, speaking as an adoptive parent. Incredibly important to read, and think about, and talk about.
We are not very good as a society at talking about mental illness, or depression, or suicide. We need to learn how to talk about it better. Suicide is not often listed as a cause of death: that someone “died unexpectedly” is the phrase used in some obituaries. Unexpectedly, indeed. The shock, the heartache, the questions left behind for loved ones to handle after the beloved has ended his life are unexpected, and enormous.
I have no insights into Sol’s mind or heart, no knowledge of whether he struggled with depression or anything else. I wept as I listened to the eulogy. I feel completely confident that his was a family that would have provided (and may well have) every possible resource to help any of their children, including Sol.
My impression is that Sol’s death was nothing short of a cosmically confusing event. No warning, no overt signs. Was it something about sports, something about adoption, something about relationships? My heart aches for him, his family, his teammates, and his friends, who will now not only grieve but revisit conversations and events for clues, for explanations of the unexplainable. As a parent, as an adoptive parent, I am mindful of the fragility and the strength of our children–how much we know, and don’t know. How much we love, how little we control, how we need to keep trying and reaching out to those we love. Tomorrow is not promised to us.
It may mean nothing that Sol’s suicide occurred in October. Whatever his demons were, they did not operate on any timetable other than some tortured sense of urgency all their own. Another Ethiopian adoptee, the British poet Lemn Sissay, wrote this on his Facebook page October 9, coincidentally the day Sol died: “When October arrives part of me leaves. I want what leaves to come back. Now.” I can imagine each member of Sol’s grieving family is saying, “I want Sol back. Now.”
Sol was Melissa and Don’s son, and his Ethiopian parents’ son, and the brother to many. Sol and every one of his siblings have a tattoo “1/9th,” said his brother Lee in the eulogy. Each child in the family is 1/9th of the child pie. Lee also said the name “Fisseha” means happiness. Melissa called Sol “irreplaceably marvelous,” “a genius of the heart,” “a natural-born athlete of joy.” May Sol-Fisseha rest in peace. May his family find strength and healing. Lemn SIssay wrote in June last year, “I’m not defined by my scars but by the incredible ability to heal.” May all of us draw strength from that.
Baruch dayan ha’emet: Blessed be the True Judge. This is a Jewish blessing (the Greene-Samuels are Jewish) said at time of death or other difficult time. Rabbi Louis Rieser says the blessing has this meaning: “In the presence of death, filled with a range of emotions (including anger), I cannot understand anything more than my loss at the hand of some power beyond my control. I can, if I must, acknowledge the power, even if I cannot endorse it at that moment. Even in my grief, I can note God’s Presence. …at this dark hour when we feel the loss deep within our being, this blessing asserts God’s Presence alongside the mourner. We are not abandoned, though we feel very much alone. We are not without consolation, though it is hard to hear any words. God stands with us as we face the mystery of death.”
Baruch dayan ha’emet.
Sol’s obituary is available here.
Update: Yesterday (October 15), Melissa Fay Greene posted this lovely message on her Facebook page. Warm wishes for continued healing.
“Thank you all for the messages of condolence. I can’t write much here yet, but will say that, although Sol took his own life, he was joyful, generous, ebullient, kind, and funny every day of the ten years we knew him, basically until last Thursday. Suddenly, inexplicably depressed over soccer, he made the worst mistake of his life. In our son Lee’s eulogy, he described Sol as the most “down for any adventure” person he’d ever met. There is no way Sol actually meant to miss out on every bit of fun he had planned for the coming year (Thanksgiving with family in Florida, his 21st birthday in January, a return to Ethiopia next summer, intermixed with the endless playfulness and fun of his everyday life), much less miss out on the infinite joys awaiting him across his lifetime. We are grateful for everyone’s loving visits, messages, and bagels. We assure you: he was the gleeful, glorious boy you knew, and the 600 or 700 or 800 people sobbing in the pouring rain at his funeral knew that, too.”