Few moments of my life have brought so much pain to me that I struggle to breathe. Gasping for air takes too much effort when you receive the news that a member of your family has taken their own life.
It was in April of 2012 when I received the news that my Mother had passed away. It puzzled me when I heard the news. Not MY mother. I knew she was suffering. I knew she felt lonely though she was surrounded by people that loved her, that supported her. In fact, just a few months earlier we had gotten her help. We had sent her to an in-patient treatment facility for a month (after her first attempt) to get her the help she needed to get her feet back on the ground. She lived with me when she returned from the facility and seemed to be doing well…only a few weeks later to relapse into a heartbroken, angry and sad woman that I no longer recognized. To see someone who has raised you to turn into a stranger is a heartbreaking and life-altering moment. You struggle with what to say, what to do. You see this person who is physically the same person but mentally changed. The light in her eyes was long gone and all that was left was sadness.
I remember laying in bed with her and holding her closely, strange how our roles were reversed as I began caring for her after she had cared for me when I was young. I told her how much I loved her, how much I wanted her to stay with me, and how much her grandchildren needed her around. She promised me then and there that she wouldn’t try to take her own life again. She had trouble looking me in the eyes when she made the promise and shifted uncomfortably, almost laughing at the notion.
Before her depression took over (something that she suffered from her whole life) my Mother dedicated her life to helping those less fortunate. She loved doing “Secret Santa” for families that were struggling to make ends meet. Somehow my Mother would find each of the families favorite treats, movies, clothing sizes and what they really needed. She would package everything up beautifully and then we would all jump in the car. We would drive to the homes and place everything on the porch, ring the doorbell and then run off. My Mom loved to laugh and she had the best belly laugh in the world. She loved watching Saturday Night Live and quoting Gilda Radner. My Mom would laugh so hard that she would often wet her pants–that’s when you knew she was truly happy–when she wet her pants. My Mom was funny and smart and so kind. I remember being at a restaurant with her when she noticed a bald lady walk in. My Mother got up, walked over and started a conversation with this total stranger telling her that she too was a cancer survivor and that she would “beat it!” My Mom loved to cook and cook she did. She often made WAY too much food, in fact, if you told her five people were coming for dinner she would make enough for twenty…and I am not exaggerating. Before her death, she was able to open “The Community Table” — a restaurant without a cash register in Lexington, VA. She wanted those that were less fortunate to be able to come to a safe place where they could enjoy a three-course meal complete with cloth napkins and white tablecloths. “Just because they are poor doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to experience the finer things in life.”
When she passed away she did so in a manner that left little chance of survival. It was sudden, tragic, public and still makes my stomach and heart hurt when I think about her all alone and just wanting the pain to stop. In April of 2012, I became a survivor of suicide. When I first heard that term “Survivor” I started to laugh — I didn’t survive a suicide attempt, how am I a survivor? Two years have past and I believe that I am just now understanding what the term “Survivor” means. It means for TWO years I have survived after being left with no understanding of why my Mother took her own life. It means for TWO years I have survived the pain of losing her. Two years of going over the steps I took that day and what I could have done differently to stop her from leaving me. Two years of feeling guilt. It means for TWO years I have had to become a Survivor just to live my life every day. Sometimes just knowing that I am a Survivor has helped me get out of bed and raise my two children and smile. Sometimes being a Survivor has helped me laugh at jokes even though I don’t feel ready to laugh again.
When I heard the tragic and sad news of Robin Williams’ passing I was sitting in my car in a parking space waiting for my husband to return from grocery shopping. I was shocked at Mr. Williams’ passing but when I found out that he had taken his own life my tears started flowing. My tears started flowing for his children and his wife. For the pain, they are feeling now and for the pain, they will feel the rest of their lives. Because Robin Williams was such a well-known and well-loved public figure we all loved him. Many of us grew up watching his movies; Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Hook…and in that round-about way we are now all survivors of suicide. We will all grapple with the loss of a man we barely knew but loved deeply. Our hearts will ache, our smiles won’t reach our eyes….but as time goes on it gets a tiny bit easier. The pain will never truly go away…but we will survive because that is what survivors do.
750,000 people attempt suicide and more than 30,000 people commit suicide in the United States each year. I walk every fall in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to raise awareness for Depression and Suicide (and to honor my Mother). Let us increase empathy for those that lose their fight with depression and leave the judging up to God.