‘The awful thing about suicide is, the person who commits suicide, their problems are over, and yet yours, and everybody left behind – his family, his parents, everybody else, in every occasion – theirs is just beginning. And they last all your life’. Peter Hook, Joy Division.
Saturday, April 13, 2002, 13:00.
It is the 20 year anniversary of my mom’s suicide. 20 years feels like an important milestone, one that should come with some perspective.
I don’t usually talk about her death. I don’t mind talking about it if someone asks. I just worry about bringing other people down. It’s not always easy to move on to other topics once you start talking about suicide.
In the early days, when I did mind talking about it because it was still too raw, some people were relentless in their probing. ‘She died so young. Cancer?’. No, not cancer. ‘Was she sick with something else?’ No. It was unexpected. ‘Oh, a car accident?’. No, not a car accident. ‘Then what happened?’. She killed herself. ‘Oh. (Stunned silence). I’m sorry’. Yup, I bet you are.
For those left behind, there is so much guilt. Guilt, emptiness, and sadness. And, sometimes, waves of anger. But it is not the kind of anger people like to project at those who took their own lives. Not the anger that manifests as ‘what a selfish thing to do’ and ‘how could she’ and ‘what was she thinking’ and, my favorite, ‘how weak’. For the record, there is nothing weak about choosing to conquer your fear of heights as you take the last steps towards your death. My mom hated heights and yet she chose to jump off the 9th floor of a parking garage. Weak? I don’t think so. Desperate? Yes. Left with no other choice? For sure.
I do feel angry sometimes. Angry at everything she is missing out on. Angry that she never met her grandkids. Angry I don’t have her as my anchor in this world. But mostly I feel sad.
Why did she do it? I don’t know. She was depressed. She made a series of choices that felt overwhelming. She thought those choices were terrible mistakes that let everyone down. She lost her sense of identity that was way too tied to the job she recently left. She must have felt so alone even though she had family that loved her. Even though she had loving friends. Even though we spoke for hours every day. Even though she went to therapy.
No. She wasn’t always ‘like that’. She was a ray of sunshine. She was so beautiful. She had the most radiant smile. She had baggage, like everyone. But she was full of life. She smiled easily. She was incredibly accomplished. She was so loving. Sometimes when I lose my cool with Puah and feel a wave of guilt move through my body I think about my mom. I swear that I can only remember her getting mad at me during my teenage years when I could have won an award for being the world’s most difficult teenager. How did she do it? I wish she was here so I could ask her how she made sure the memories of her love overshadowed memories of lost tempers or exasperation.
She had regrets that piled up on top of each other all within one year. Regrets, regrets, regrets. When my dad and my brother knocked on my door in the middle of the night and told me mom was gone, my first thought was, now she really did something she could not undo.
I will always be grateful for my dad’s decision to fly out to Connecticut where I was living during my first year of grad school. He could have told me over the phone but he didn’t. He flew up from Atlanta with my brother to tell me in person and we flew back together the next day. I remember the knock on my door in the middle of the night. There was a party in my complex. I thought a drunk grad student was knocking on my door and I ignored it while my dog, Dean, was barking his head off. Eventually I had to get up and see who was knocking so persistently. I was so confused when I saw my dad and brother standing there. ‘Mom is gone.’
She didn’t leave a note. I wish she had. Selfishly. To alleviate my pain and my guilt and my ‘why’s?’ and ‘how’s?’. She didn’t owe us a note. We owed her a safety net, literally and figuratively, and we failed. There is nothing worse than that guilt. Nothing worse than learning, way too late, that one of the warning signs to look out for in people who are deeply depressed is a sudden turn for the better. It’s such a cruel trick and we all fell for it. In the week or so before her death, it seemed my mom was back. She was full of life and seemed so much lighter. I didn’t know that it meant she had made up her mind. She felt so happy and light because she decided to end her suffering. Even a bad decision feels good when you are hopeless. It feels like you’re taking control of your life. At least that’s how I imagine it. I cannot believe I was so ignorant.
She jumped. It’s so violent. The horror and gruesomeness of it make my body shudder.
Sometimes it hits me while I am falling asleep. The realization. She fucking jumped. It’s hard to imagine. Her wedding ring was completely bent from the force of the fall. I don’t want to imagine what her body looked like. The burial team told us we didn’t want to see her body.
When someone dies, you tend to look back at their whole life through the lens of their death. I used to think about her life, our life, culminating in this horrible death and think, how can it be that it all led to this?
I don’t know how to prevent someone else from killing themselves. And that kills me. During suicide awareness month and every time there is a news story about someone who committed suicide, the national suicide prevention lifeline number is widely shared. Does that really help anyone? I suppose some people may have been talked off a ledge. I would hope so. I couldn’t pick up those calls. After all these years, what would I say to someone who wants to end it all? Don’t do it? You are loved by so many? This hopeless feeling isn’t permanent, trust me! Think of all the things that could be waiting for you; moments of happiness and love you can’t even
fathom right now. Please don’t do it. Why would they listen to me? Who am I to tell them everything will be ok? Maybe they just want someone to listen to them. But I listened to my mom every single night. We talked all the time. At some point our conversations became circular.
Both of us repeating the same thing over and over and getting nowhere. That must have made her feel even more isolated. If I couldn’t help my mom, how could I possibly help anyone else?
She was in therapy. Ah therapy. So amazing when you have the right therapist. So destructive when you don’t. She also took antidepressants. They constantly tweaked her dose. They never got it right. It was so bad they told her they may need to experiment with electroshock therapy. If anything makes me rage, it’s that. Do mental health providers not understand how that would make someone, who is already hopeless, feel?
More evidence of our ignorance came during her Shivah, no less, when we came across an article about a newly discovered side effect of antidepressants. Turns out they can cause obsessive thoughts about suicide. There were countless cases of people on antidepressants who got fixated on how they were going to kill themselves. Could she have been one of them? My brother and I didn’t know that she had talked about killing herself with her therapist. In fact, she told him exactly how she would do it. We also didn’t know that she had attempted to do it once before. We also didn’t know that she drove to the site of her suicide a week before – was she planning her steps or did she mean to die that day but changed her mind? I wish we weren’t kept in the dark for ‘our protection’. Her therapist came to the funeral. Kind of audacious, no?
Days, weeks, or months later, I can’t remember, I went to the parking garage and traced her steps. I was shown where her car was parked, the elevator she rode to the roof. I can’t remember anymore if I stood where she jumped. Those memories are blurry but I think I did. I have a memory of the grassy corner her body landed in.
When I dream about her it’s almost always the same dream. She is alive again but there is a cloud of fear and anxiety hanging over me. The threat of her leaving, dying, committing suicide again. It is an awful feeling. This must be how people whose loved ones survived a suicide attempt feel. Always wondering how much time you have with that person before they try to leave you again.
My mom was more than her suicide. We are also more than her suicide. Maybe that’s what I should have written about. All the things she was. All the things we are because of her. All the things we became despite her leaving. Some kind of uplifting survival story for my own daughter about how life goes on.
But on the 20th anniversary, all that boiled up to the surface were fragmented memories and an everlasting sense of loss.
And that is the awful thing about suicide. The person who commits suicide, their problems are over, and yet for those left behind, theirs are just beginning. And they indeed last all your life.
Ariela was born and raised in Israel and moved to the US in her early twenties. She lives in Miami with her family. Ariela has published professional articles in public health journals as well as a book chapter in an anthology – AIDS, Culture and Africa. This is her first published personal story.