My mom would be 72 today, if she had lived beyond middle age. She lived a full life, even if it was short, but she never got to watch her daughters get married or hold her grandchildren. She never became a photographer or a teacher later in life, and she never lived long enough to think about dying her hair or letting it go gray. She missed the many events that come with grown children and grandchildren and she missed the life she could have had.
She missed it. And for much of my life when I thought about my mom’s death, I’d think about the events in my life and I’d say that phrase, “she missed it” with a bit of an edge. I believed, in many ways, that she actively chose to miss all of my adulthood. I thought this because of how she died. She didn’t get hit by a car or suffer a massive heart attack. She was ill, yes, but she died by suicide.
And suicide is a difficult thing to come to terms with, especially as a young person. Especially when you’ve just been on the phone with you mom and she seemed sad, but okay. Especially when you really don’t see it coming, even when all the signs were there.
(Before I get too into this, I want to say this: I am worried just a bit that discussing suicide runs the risk of encouraging it, which is the opposite of what I want to do. If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please get immediate help from a trained professional. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.)
I harbored a lot of anger towards my mother in the early years. Why did she have to leave us? I had barely left for college and without her I wasn’t sure how I’d make it through. I broke up with the guy I was dating. I stopped talking to a lot of friends I’d hung out with before. I considered moving home. I had a really hard time getting through the year that followed her death.
One of the reasons I had such difficulty coping was because I didn’t want to admit to everyone how she died. Of course, all of my friends knew. I’d been at a party the night before she died, and I slept over with a bunch of people at a house of a friend. In the wee hours of the morning they had all been woken up by my father’s call and my subsequent screams when I learned of her death. I’m sure my friends had to process that morning for a long time afterwards, too.
But lots of people didn’t know, and when it would come up in one of my classes or at my job giving campus tours or at some other place, I often avoided the conversation. “It’s just my dad at home,” I’d say when people asked about my parents. Usually no one asked a follow-up to that, but if they did, I’d often say, “my mom died last year, and it’s still pretty hard for me to talk about.”
That was true. But it was also a defense mechanism. I didn’t want to hear any judgement about her death.
But really, what did it matter exactly how she died? What did matter was my grief and my loss – no matter how they came about. And yet I continued to evade the issue of how my mom died. Was it because I was embarrassed? Or because I felt guilty? Or because I thought that other people would judge her – or me?
Maybe it was a little bit of all of that. Or maybe it was some other reason. It wasn’t like I had a therapist who was helping me process everything afterwards. I was just trying to get through my grief in the best way that I could as a 19-year-old kid.
But now that I’m older and know a lot more people who’ve lost someone to suicide, I’ve started to realize something: we shouldn’t say that someone’s death was better or worse than another. They’re all terrible, even if they are terrible in different ways.
And whether you’re grieving someone who died from cancer or an accident or suicide, it’s grief nonetheless.
So why is suicide so shrouded in secrecy? Why do so many people want to shy away from the topic, and hide the reason for their loss? Why is it often seen as a death that’s better left unexamined or silenced somehow?
What we say when we shy away from talking about suicide loss is this: the grief of those left behind is somehow tainted. Less pure, or something stupid like that.
I’m not saying suicide isn’t complicated. It is. But my despair wasn’t any different than that of my friend who lost her dad at the same time to an accident. My grief, though maybe more complicated, wasn’t any lesser.
Furthermore, my mother’s life shouldn’t be defined by her death. No one’s should. But I think sometimes with suicide it can seem that way, at least partially because we are told (both explicitly and implicitly) that suicide is a topic that should be avoided at all costs. Because if we don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist – and if we pretend that those who died by suicide are somehow “lesser,” maybe we can also pretend that it’s a death that could never happen in our families or our communities.
So I’m here to say it clearly: my mom died by suicide. I am sad about this, because the world lost someone great when we lost her. But it’s not something I’m embarrassed about anymore. And her manner of death doesn’t define who she was.
I remember my mom not as a victim of suicide but rather as a woman who was always reaching out to the kids in my community who needed a little extra love. I remember my mom as the woman who taught me how to sew and who encouraged me to write. I remember my mom as loving, kind and thoughtful. Because that’s who she was.
So on her birthday, I’m going to remember who she really was. Yes, she was a woman who died by suicide, and the grief I felt was very deep. But she was also a dynamic and creative woman who inspired others. She was a woman who taught me so much and a member of our community who gave without reservation.
And above all, she was a damn good mom.
I wish we could be celebrating together today, with chocolate cake and grandkids and lots and lots of gray hair. I also wish we could celebrate together so that she could see how I’ve changed over the years. How much more I now understand loss and how much more nuance I see in the world. These days, my voice is soft when I reflect and say, “she missed it,” because that reflection isn’t about how she left this world. It’s about how much we all miss having her in it.