To the Child Who Believes You Were Not Enough to Stop Your Parent's Suicide
On July 12, 1991, as a 10-year-old little girl, I walked into my home to find my mom’s lifeless body on the floor. The note she wrote me before taking her own life read, “goodbye and good luck.” On that hot summer day in Phoenix, I lost much more than my mom. I lost my sense of value and worth. It wasn’t until recently I regained what was taken from me 25 years ago.
Most people affected by a suicide express intense feelings of guilt for not preventing their loved one’s death. “I should have known” and “I should have saved them” haunt survivors of suicide loss for years, even decades. I never experienced any feelings of guilt over my mom’s suicide. It was quite clear that day she was determined to end her life, and I recognized I could not have done anything to prevent it, as I was only a child. Instead, the pendulum swung to the other side of the guilt continuum and grabbed hold of me from day one. Shame snatched me with its tentacles vowing to never let go. If guilt says I didn’t do enough to save her, shame says I wasn’t enough for her to stay. And there I was, at 10 years old, fully believing I wasn’t enough for my own mom to choose life.
There were these tapes that continued to play in my head, on repeat, with messages I could not refute. “I have no value or my mom would not have chosen death” and “I am not worthy of being protected if my own mom intentionally planned for me to find her dead body.” These were just a couple of the messages I believed as truth. I also owned I am worthless, I am not lovable and I am a freak. Edwin S. Schneidman said, “I believe the person who commits suicide puts his psychological skeleton in the survivor’s emotional closet.” For all my mother was trying to escape mentally and physically, it was like she wrapped it all up in a little box and handed it to me to open and sort through for decades to come.
These messages I heard were not just audio clips played here and there in my mind. They were much bigger than that. They were my truth. I believed them, I accepted them, I repeated them and I lived them. I responded to relationships from a place of self-hate and doubt. I went through life feeling less-than, insecure and second-class. They became my mirror for which I saw myself. I was shame.
Last summer, 24 years after my mom’s suicide, I had a conversation with a woman that changed the trajectory of my life. Her husband had taken his life several years earlier and her adult son had articulated, “I must have no value if my own dad killed himself and didn’t want to stick around for me.” Something clicked in my head right then and there when I heard his familiar message of shame and self-hate. I knew the lie he was believing was not true and in that instant I said to myself, My mother’s suicide speaks nothing to my value or worth, it only speaks to her own mental state. Like a gift dropped down from heaven, my mirror was shattered and I saw her suicide for what it was: her decision to end her own life, not a litmus test to determine the value of mine.
I walked a little lighter in the days that followed that life-changing epiphany. I believed I could take on the world with my newfound courage and strength. But then, two weeks later, I found shame sneaking into my being once again. This time the tape was a bit different but the message was the same. I am not enough. I then began to notice I was shaming myself for shaming myself. It was this pattern I had set up for decades, and I had been unaware of it until that fateful conversation with a fellow suicide loss survivor.
Shame, I have learned, is cunning and deceitful. We experience shame from the depths of our being, and we accept it as truth. The problem is that those lies are neither true nor healthy. Instead, they are destructive and have the ability to wreck lives. I have to wonder if my mom carried some shame as well, telling her she had no value or worth and we would all be better off without her.
I have vowed to catch myself when I notice shame trying to enter my head and heart. I want to kick those messages to the curb with the other worthless garbage I don’t need. I learned something valuable last summer: my mom took her own life, but she didn’t take mine. I have to choose daily to dismiss those lies of shame and replace them with truth. I am lovable. I know this because I am a wife and a mother and a good friend to others. I am valuable because I now walk beside others affected by suicide and help dismiss those lies of guilt and shame they also carry.
Today, I am not always shame-free, but I am determined to work toward it for myself and vow to speak truth into my kids’ hearts and minds. They will not grow up hating themselves if I have anything to say about it. They will know they are valuable and worthy and loved, a message I wish I believed 25 years ago.
Follow this journey on The Gift of Second.
If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.