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Rethinking my Better

Opinion | October 26, 2015

In the foggy pre-dawn hours of July 24, 2012, my mom jumped off a beachside cliff and ended her life. It was the summer before my senior year of high school, and I was 17 years old. My mother’s death did not come as a surprise; it was the culmination of a long battle with intense physical and mental pain. Like many others who have lost a loved one to suicide, I have experienced the shame, confusion, and guilt that accompany this overwhelming grief. I have faced the stigma surrounding suicide and I have felt the isolation that often results from society’s inability to talk about it. There are only a handful of people at Tufts who know this (somewhat) defining fact about me, but my hesitancy to share my story does not stem from a decision I made willingly. It comes from a vulnerability that is shared by many survivors of suicide loss. In writing this article, I’m effectively busting open the box within which I have filed away this integral part of who I am, and it is such a fucking relief.

There is an undeniable stigma around both suicide and mental illness. While this stigma has been progressively stripped away in recent years, it still exists. Suicide is a taboo subject that is only reluctantly discussed—if discussed at all. The fear of talking about suicide is not illogical, however. We don’t like to think about suicide because suicide just doesn’t make sense, or at least we don’t want it to. In my mom’s case it was a rational decision made in an irrational state of mind, and it is hard, if not impossible, to understand the pain that ultimately leads someone to end their own life. My fear of discussing my mom’s death comes from the hyperawareness I have of other peoples’ needs. In a world dominated by trigger warnings and censorship, I’m afraid to upset someone else with my own loss. I am also afraid of the social awkwardness that could result from talking about my mother’s death. In an effort to avoid discomfort, I pepper my life with little white lies that snowball into a broader invalidation of my own feelings. The problem is that the more I bury my grief, the stronger and more powerful it becomes. There is a wall between my internal need to speak out about my loss and the external reasons that keep me silent, and it is a barrier that society as a whole struggles to break through. No one wants to talk about death—let alone suicide—but not acknowledging that it exists only perpetuates and exacerbates the pain we try so hard to ignore.

To be perfectly clear, I believe that grief is grief. Regardless of whether you’ve lost a parent, a sibling, an aunt, an uncle, or a friend, experiencing the death of someone close to you sucks. Period. One type of grief doesn’t trump another, but there are intricacies and nuances that are specific to certain types of loss. By writing about my experience I in no way want to invalidate other types of loss. That being said, loss to suicide is complex, and the uncertainty surrounding this type of death only adds other emotional layers to the grieving process. I still feel guilty about my mother’s death, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever truly be able to forgive myself for all the “shoulda, woulda, couldas” that play over and over in my head. I can rationally say that I don’t blame myself, but irrationally I can’t help but feel at fault. Mourning someone who killed themself is an intensely introspective process, and one that is too often suffered alone. Unlike people who have lost someone to a terminal illness, survivors of suicide are often not given the closure of acknowledging the struggle their loved one went through, and often the cause of death is not discussed.

My mother’s obituary does not include how she died, nor was it mentioned at her memorial service. This immediate censorship was done to protect both her and her loved ones, but it haunts me now. I am extraordinarily protective of my mom because I am keenly aware of the judgment and pity that follows a suicide—a reaction that might stem from the misconception that it is an inherently selfish act. Well-intentioned but forced condolences lead to awkward silences, which in turn may lead to a complete avoidance of the subject in general. Others might not know what to say or how to offer support, but if we keep evading the discomfort of this topic, we will only perpetuate the stigma surrounding it.

After years of attempting to privately and silently cope, I decided to attend a Survivors of Suicide support group at the beginning of this semester. The group meets every other Thursday in a preschool classroom on the second floor of the Grace Episcopal Church in Medford. During my first meeting I spoke only a few times, but the tremendous reprieve I felt after saying out loud to the group, “my mom killed herself” rivaled what I’ve gained from the copious amounts of individual therapy I have received since high school. The external reasons for why I don’t speak aloud about my loss were not relevant in this group, and my internal need to speak out was realized. The other week someone in the group shared her overwhelming feelings of hopelessness when faced with the prospect of having to “rethink her better” after her husband’s death. His suicide had sapped all her energy, and she was unsure of what her new normal would look like. Her words resonated deeply with me. My mom’s suicide reshaped my entire psyche in a way that made it impossible to go back to the person I was before that foggy summer morning in 2012. This is a fact that I refused to believe until very recently. In the aftermath of my mom’s death, the very thought of tackling the questions I was left with was so daunting that I chose to avoid them entirely. I ignored the violence of my mom’s death in the same way that society tries to avoid discomfort. I attempted to circumvent instability by denying the trauma of my loss, but cheating my way to my “better” only kept me from achieving a true sense of normalcy and stability. Telling people that my mom died is not the same thing as telling people that she killed herself. My mom’s death was not passive, nor was it peaceful; it was active and violent and full of complex emotions. By not giving myself credit for experiencing this type of loss, I was denying myself the chance to overcome it.

It’s been three years since my mother died, and I am still figuring out how to live. I have struggled with my own depression; I have wrestled with unhealthy and self-destructive behaviors; I have hated myself, and I have worked to love myself. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my mother, and some days I miss her so much I never make it out of bed. But I have managed to get to a place where the good days outnumber the bad, and this gives me hope that I am on an upward slope. It is clear to me that being quiet about my grief only compounds the pain and confusion that I am feeling, and I know there are others that are facing or have faced similar experiences to my own. When I first began writing this, I did so with the intention of making it an anonymous article. I soon realized that anonymity would defeat the purpose of what I am trying to achieve. The goal of this article is not to change how people think about suicide or mental illness—though to be clear, a change is necessary. I want to bring to light the experience of someone who has faced the ambiguity of losing a loved one to suicide, and I hope that through reading this piece, you gain a better understanding of why creating an open dialogue around suicide is so important for those who have been touched by it. I am making the choice to publicly grieve a death that is silenced by society’s inability to confront it, and it is a decision that I hope will not only have a positive effect on me but on others as well.

In the past I have been hesitant to share my experience because I feared it would come to define me. I worried that giving others this extremely personal piece of myself would only propel me further into isolation by way of embarrassment or awkwardness. The truth is, I am doing both myself, and the people close to me an injustice by keeping this part of myself secret. If I do not acknowledge that this happened to me I will never fully be present. My mother’s death has shaped me, but it has not changed who I am. I may not know what my “better” looks like right now, but I do know that I won’t be able to find it if I don’t validate the exhausting process behind it. So I’m making a change, and I’m talking.