The Words No One Would Say After My Mom's Suicide
On the day my mother died, no one said what took her away.
Everyone surrounded me and my sisters, trying to tell us as gently as possible our mom died by suicide. My family wanted so badly to keep her cause of death as quiet as possible. This quiet, explained by those who loved me, was to keep the embarrassment from her children and family.
I was 16 years old in 1993, and this was the way small towns dealt with this type of thing. It seemed odd to me the very thing we wanted to run from was splattered all over the front page of the local newspaper. Not because it served as some lesson for the community, but because it was the biggest thing that had happened in years. There was no talk of warning signs or how to help someone who suffers from depression. Instead, every detail of our family’s life was splattered all over the front page.
No one told me my mom was sick. No one explained mental illness. Instead of talking about what really happened, my family tried to think of excuses. For a while, my mother’s family would say my mom’s death was some conspiracy, and that someone must have killed her. Then, once we put that ridiculous story to rest, my family tried again to find a reason. My family then decided my mom must have had a terminal illness like cancer, and this was surely the reason she ended her life.
All of these stories, I think, were my family’s way of answering the “why” to make us less angry with her. The thing was, I was not angry, embarrassed or ashamed. What I needed was the truth. What I wanted was my mom, but what had happened had no rewind button. There are no do-overs in life.
At the funeral, the paster tip-toed around the topic of suicide, and talked instead about forgiveness for her sins and how she was troubled. There was the dreaded awkward silence when people whispered about her poor children, as if we couldn’t possibly understand what was happening to us and what happened to her.
Then, after the funeral, our family talked to us about how we were going to put this behind us and pretend like it didn’t happen. Like we could somehow just pack her away in the neat little boxes of her things divided between me and my sisters.
For years, no one really talked about, and no one uttered a word about what really killed my mom. No one explained what we saw the weeks and months leading up to her death. No one put together what you can plainly see in the 15 letters she left behind.
No one explained my mother had a mental illness. My mother was severely depressed. My mom talked in great length in her letters about the deep pain she felt in her soul, and how tired she was of fighting it.
You see suicide is what ended her life, but mental illness is what caused my mom to die. In the months leading up to her death, my mom showed all the warning signs. But because no one talked about warning signs, and no one talked about mental illness, my mother’s cries for help went unheard. I do believe she had people who wanted to help her, but no one knew what to look for. No one was educated about suicide. So sadly, every one stood by and watched her die from her illness, because no one realized what it was.
What I can plainly see as warning signs today were so clouded as a 16-year-old girl. And what no one talked about after she died nearly killed me as well.
In the beginning, I didn’t know how to help myself with my own depression. I went down a dark path of struggling to live, but wanting to die. This dark place was the same place my mom had been. The only difference was I had people who knew how to help me. I had people who encouraged me to get help, even when it seemed easier to take the path my mom took. It took opening up and getting honest with myself to save my life.
In getting honest with myself, I had to come to terms with my mom’s death. I had to look hard into my mom’s death and realize mental illness is a real medical illness that deserves attention. I had to accept my depression was a medical illness as well and that I deserved treatment. I also had to be honest with my child, my beautiful little girl. When she was young, I had to tell her our family story. I had to make sure she knew it’s OK to reach out for help. I had to let her know our family faces our mental health conditions head on. I had to be the example for her. I had to show her the way. I had to show her depression is nothing to be ashamed of, and that while my mom’s death was tragic, it was not embarrassing. I would use my mom’s death to educate others. I would use my loss to stay alive.
I thankfully found the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which gave me a platform to be an advocate for mental health and suicide. Today, I say the words no one wanted to say about my mom and myself:
My mother died from her untreated and undiagnosed mental illness. I live mentally well most of the time with my depression. When I am not well, I seek treatment. I am not ashamed of my mother or embarrassed of my mother. Mental Illness is real, and in order to live you have to face it head on. I think we have come a long way in 23 years, but we have a long way to go. I hope people truly break down the walls when it comes to mental illness. I hope people start calling mental illness by its name, adding, “I love you. Let’s help you find help. We will get through this together.” I think if we do that, mental health will no longer be a topic we speak about in whispers. I believe in order for us to stop the stigma of mental health conditions, those of us who live with them have to refuse to believe we are broken. I am not broken. I am strong, and I will live with my depression.