Checking In: A Tribute To My Sister, Maya Anna Warren
July is Minority Mental Health Month. I just learned that. So I guess it’s fitting that I talk about this. Today. Tomorrow. Next month. Next year. Until I don’t have anything else to say.
My sister, Maya Warren, died by suicide at some point in the couple of days leading up to Friday, June 17, 2022. That is the date on her death certificate, because that is the day that I discovered her in her home, and the day the authorities were able to pronounce her death; the simple truth that I don’t know exactly when she died haunts me.
As I write this, it has been nearly four weeks since my sister died. It is a time warp to me. It feels like it was seconds ago. I am constantly replaying the scene – that scene – in my head. My wife is traumatized, too. She was with me as we discovered my sister, and when I was immediately shocked, I asked her to go back inside her apartment to make sure I actually saw what I thought I had seen. And of course, it was real. It was true. Maya was gone.
My wife and I, our kids, our whole family and my sister’s dear friends and colleagues are processing this sudden loss, the depth of our grief as best as we can. We are talking. Leaning on one another. I know we need counseling because there is so much to unpack, and I promise you, I will get it. The grief is profound every time we lose our loved ones, and I’ve lost several now. And, this one feels different.
With the death of my sister, I am the only one that remains from my immediate family growing up. My father, my mother, and my sister, all gone. I feel like I’ve lost the nucleus of what held us together. I feel like an orphan. A friend told me that her husband, who similarly is the last of his family, describes it as being the sole survivor. Accurate. I am surprised and somewhat ashamed that I am the one who has survived all the mess, all the trauma – externally and self-inflicted – that our family has endured. Why me? Good God, why me?
My sister was brilliant, loving and loved. And I have so many questions, many of which I know I’ll never have all the answers to. I do know this. Her journey was so, so difficult and she suffered from depression. We experienced significant and long-term traumas during our childhood and adolescence. Her grief over our mother’s death only intensified as the years went by. And Covid took a much greater toll on her than I realized. That said, she fought long as she could and as hard as she could. She was so compassionate: she didn’t want any of us to know the full extent of what she was dealing with, so she shared only a sliver of her pain with each of us. I am forever grateful to Maya for her life and her presence. At some point, we all die. We all leave this earth. And regardless of how we go, what seems far more important to me in this moment is to examine how she lived, not how she died; to examine how WE live, not how we die.
I delivered the eulogy at Maya’s funeral. There was never going to be anyone else to do this. I gave my mother’s eulogy. I was going to give Maya’s as well, no matter what. I share it with you here today, because it is part of how I am coping. It is part of how I am grieving. And Maya’s life AND death have lessons for us. Lessons in taking care of one another. In checking in on one another. In loving one another and loving ourselves.
As I said when I shared the devastating news of my sister’s death by suicide: CHECK IN. Make the call. Mental health matters. We need to support and help those who experience these medical conditions by helping remove the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses, and not only in the most extreme cases that result in death by suicide. For me, that starts with honoring Maya’s life and rejecting any notion that her death must be whispered about in hushed tones.
So please join in celebrating Maya’s life and honoring her death, by reaching out to someone you know who is struggling with their mental health. Do it now, even if you’re not sure. Let your loved ones – and yourself! – know there is no shame in needing or getting help with depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses. Make the call today. (I’ve included some resources at the end.)
I love you to life, Maya. I love you to life.
Eulogy for Maya A. Warren
Unity of Bon Air, Richmond, Virginia
July 7, 2022
Good morning. My name is James Walter Warren, Jr., son of Gwendolin Sims Warren and James Walter Warren, Sr., husband of Darcy Rae Warren, father of Christian Tyler Warren, Jordan Cole Warren, Evan Michael Warren, and Alexis Rae Warren, and brother of Maya Anna Warren.
To all of you who are here, who are watching online, and who couldn’t make it today but are here through your intention, thank you. Yes, it is possible to feel love and support from hundreds, possibly thousands of people. I know, because we feel it today.
To everyone who helped us get to today, to make Maya’s homegoing possible, under really difficult circumstances, thank you. Your compassion and service to our family is deeply, deeply appreciated.
I want to begin with a poem:
Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep
By Author Unknown
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.
I chose this poem because it speaks to me about the eternal, omnipresent nature of love, the eternal, omnipresent nature of spirit. We are spiritual beings after all, here in this world, in this life, and for my Marvel fans, in this universe, but for a moment.
And eternity comforts me. Because it means I remain connected to Maya for all time. Through love.
Because LOVE… IS… ETERNAL
I think of Maya, and I think of two things… her smile, and her love.
I mean, look at that smile! Whether she was grinning, laughing, or giving you a quiet, peaceful look, she always smiled right AT you. She smiled with her WHOLE face!
And I think the reason Maya’s smile was so big, was because she had so much love.
I view Maya’s love through three frames:
Faith in God
Her faith in God, and her love FOR God was special. Maya faced an extraordinary amount of challenges in her life, from the earliest days; she kept most of these challenges private, but you know who she took them to? To God.
If Maya confided in you, even a fraction of what she had been through, you often came away astounded at how she had overcome so much; yes, I was there for many of the same trials, but Maya’s road was uniquely hard.
And still, she continued to find her way back to God… she often wrote about her pain, and based on what she shared with me, her writing was an outpouring to God; I don’t know that she pleaded or begged God to make her life easier, but I know how much she cried to God. And yet, she loved God. How amazing is that?
I remember when Maya first brought Darcy, me and the kids here, to Unity. She said, there are angels everywhere here. Mom loves angels! I thought she was speaking, you know, metaphorically. Then we walked through the gardens. And I realized, Oh, she’s talking LITERALLY. All the angels. If you haven’t taken a walk around the gardens here, do that. Yes, Maya and Mom loved their angels, which I take to mean they are in good company now.
So, the question is: what might we take away from Maya’s life and her love for God? We’ll come back to this.
Maya’s love for family was expressed so clearly through her devotion to our mother while she was alive, and her devotion to me, my wife and the kids. I remember a time during Darcy’s and my rehearsal dinner, when Maya came over to me and she said, “I’m so impressed with you.” I asked her why. She said, “Because you just do it. If you believe in something, you go for it. I don’t know where you got that from.” Well of course, I got that from her and Mom! Who else would I have learned it from?
Her love for our extended family was, well, extensive! Our Mom was an only child, and we didn’t have much of a relationship with my father’s family; but my mother’s cousins, her aunts and uncles on both sides of her family… Maya and I came to see them as if they were OUR first cousins.
I want to speak directly now to Christian, Jordan, Evan and Alexis – your TiTi Maya loved you with an uncommon love; she would do anything for you and for our family; she was a surrogate mother for each of you and she took that role seriously, from Brooklyn to Princeton to Richmond, she was on hand as each of you were born; she has cuddled each and every one of you as if you were her own. She watched over you from up close and afar and she marveled at you; she never judged, only supported; all she has ever wanted was the best for you; God’s best and your best, for you.
KNOW that your TiTi Maya loved you – she LOVES you – with a never-ending love; and you are surrounded by love.
Once again, the question is, what should we take from this, from Maya’s love for her family? And again, I say, hold that thought. 🙂
Maya was a loyal, trustworthy friend; she valued quality over quantity. When we were kids, I wanted to be surrounded by lots of friends. Maya was comfortable with a smaller, much closer group. I remember one year at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, I was probably five and she was six. I invited practically the whole neighborhood and my whole kindergarten class to my birthday party. Maya had six friends over for her birthday. That’s how she was. And she taught me the value of quality friendship.
Often, Maya would call me, text me or email me to say she was going to see so-and-so. I would say, “Oh great, when are you leaving?” She would say, “I’m on my way now!” That’s how it was for her and her friends.
She was so thoughtful. Always casually remarking on what so and so was up to, or how so and so was doing. She kept many of your birthdays in her datebook. She celebrated YOU and YOUR lives. If you had a friend in Maya, more often than not, you had a friend for life. And as you reflect, yes, even as you question, know this: Maya loved you deeply; her smiles with all of you across the decades of her life are a testament to this fact.
And yet, once more, the question is, what should we take from this, from Maya’s love for her friends, in light of her death?
Well! I’m glad I’ve asked these pressing, rhetorical questions, on behalf of everyone here. Because I believe I have an answer… at least one that works for me.
Matthew 22: 37-39: And he said to him,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the great and first commandment.
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am not trying to convince you… I am seeking answers for myself. What is the meaning of this? What lessons might I learn from how Maya loved her God, her family and her friends? How do I celebrate Maya’s life, honor her death, and find deeper meaning in it all?
The answer, I believe, is first for me to love God, my Higher Power, with everything I have, to surrender completely to the will of God; to seek the truth of the universe in its vast, celestial, incomprehensible glory; to realize that the answers we seek, they aren’t in here (my head) – they are in here (my heart) and out there (all of you), and way out there (outside, the world around us, the universe).
Then, it is for me to love my neighbor as myself – which speaks to two things: those around me (family, friends, community), and me, myself.
So, what is it to love my neighbor? What is it to love myself? What is it for those to be in balance? That is the journey for each of us to take. Individually, together.
This is A Call to Action
Maya’s life holds a richness for us to dwell on; hers was a life of love – for God, for her family and for her friends; SHE LOVED US; and she knew she was LOVED BY US.
And as much as her life holds a richness for us, her death offers us an opportunity to reflect: to love our neighbors AS we love ourselves; we can’t forget the OURSELVES part.
So let’s talk about it: loving ourselves, and loving others who need help loving themselves.
Maya suffered from a deep depression for a very, very long time; there is no shame in that, no guilt in that; depression is a disease, and hers was severe; her pain was unbearable; she fought it until she could fight it no more.
And, before one gets to the end stage of that disease, there is a long journey with many, many battles, and also, sometimes, opportunities for treatment – IF we can get to it early, or before it gets too severe, before it metastasizes, like a cancer.
Did you know, accordinging to the American Psychiatric Association, that one in six people will experience depression at some point in their life? That it can occur at any time, but on average, first appears during the late teens to mid-20s? That women are more likely than men to experience depression? That as many as ONE-THIRD of women will experience a major depressive episode in their lifetime?
But we don’t talk about it, not nearly enough. We’re afraid to talk about it in families, at work, in church and other faith communities, in the Black community… We make light of it. We say toughen up. We say, just pray about it. We say, it’ll be ok. We pretend that WE are OK.
Well, for it to BE ok, we must work together to MAKE it ok.
Ok to talk about it.
Ok to seek treatment.
Ok to say I’m not ok.
Ok to ask others how they’re doing.
Ok to get in someone’s business, to get a little nosy.
Ok to say, I’m not leaving until we get you help. Because if you saw a person you knew, you loved, having a stroke in front of you, or in cardiac arrest, would you only say, “Well, it’ll be ok?” Would you say, “Well, call me if you need me.” Because that’s what I’ve said. I meant it, but I haven’t always put my love into sufficient action.
I haven’t always loved my neighbor AS myself.
Love my neighbor.
That’s what we need to do.
And that is Maya’s message to you, because it is the message of God, however you understand God. It is the universal calling. To love God. to love your neighbor. To love yourself.
To love, as Maya loved.
I close with this, an excerpt from a poem I am writing about Maya, It is called “Aqua Celestial.”
Excerpt from “Aqua Celestial”
by James Warren
I think about the sands, the waves, and the stars
I see you, I hear you, the aqua celestial
I am your brother
You are my sister
I love you forever, death is powerless
You are sun setting, waves crashing, moon shining on a new night
You have gone to them
I will stay here
God helps me
You are Maya. You are Aqua Celestial
Thank you very much. And please don’t forget: CHECK IN ON ONE ANOTHER.
That’s how we honor Maya. We love our neighbor as ourselves.
I love you all.
What’s your story?
If you have a story you want or need to share about your or your loved one’s journey and experiences with mental health in general, depression or suicide, you can always share it here. No matter where you share it, please do it; talking and sharing are important for you and those around you, so we can empathize with one another and learn from our shared experiences.
There are so many resources and organizations out there. These are a few I’ve come across that really resonated with me:
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Minority Mental Health Awareness Month
- The Loveland Foundation Therapy Fund
- Mental Health America’s B4Stage4 Philosophy