I’ve wondered what I would write this anniversary week for months. At first a post with only pictures of my mom with her typical, bright smile on her face seemed best. I figured I’d let the photos do all the talking and emoting to express all that words and tears cannot. A post about how much I miss her? A post about how hard and simultaneously beautiful this year has been? I could do any of this and it would be right and appropriate. I hope that many of these themes have been subtly woven in the blog from entry to entry.
Instead, I’m writing about a topic I knew very little about a year ago and even still feel like so much of it is a mystery. A topic I never thought would personally intersect with my story, redirecting my trajectory forever. I’m talking about suicide, a topic that has not been addressed here outright but all along existed as an ever-present undertone. It’s The Elephant in the room that’s due for an introduction only because once it’s acknowledged, it’s no longer a stranger quietly demanding our time and thought. My instinct is to avoid exchanging pleasantries with this Elephant, scruff him up by the collar and toss him out on the concrete. But that would be avoiding him and overlooking a very significant part of this story.
If this is a topic, you would rather not discuss or might be a trigger for you, by all means, skip this one and join us next time or join us tomorrow for Whistling Day!
I’ve learned lessons upon lessons upon lessons in this last year.
I’ve learned the difficulty and importance of telling the truth even when the truth is painful to relay. Through plenty of stumbles, I’ve learned that for me, no matter what, when I decide to speak about my mom’s story, I speak honestly. My mom took her own life. She battled clinical depression and ended her life on August 18, 2015. It took me a long time to be able to say the word “suicide.” It’s a loaded, scary word but when paired with “commit,” to me, it’s associated with committing a crime, committing adultery, committing fraud. All things that reflect a person’s character, dignity and morality. Depression is no more a reflection of a person’s character or love of others than a box of Cheerios might be. I had to find my own words. As a matter of personal preference, I usually say my mom took her own life. It feels a little more tender and gentle.
I’ve learned that if the stigma of mental health is going to meet it’s own demise, I have to be verbal about my story. Once I learned the words I was comfortable using, I strung them together and mumbled them. I practiced and said it slowly. “My mom took her own life.” It’s a life I never would have dreamed of and while I know is not inherently my responsibility, it is a story I am not ashamed to share. I quickly realized that many would be learning along with us as we were asked just days after my mom passed away, “How did you manage to have Mary’s funeral in a church, a Catholic church no less?” Implying that lives taken by suicide were no longer worthy to be celebrated in a church. It is a story that I am willing to share, especially if my sharing creates a space where others feel safe sharing and learning with us. I think the more familiar we are to hearing these words and speaking up, the less power stigma has and the more power those living with mental illness have.
I’ve learned we all experience struggle. We’ve all got our own Elephants that we just can’t kick out of the room. In this year I’ve felt like a magnet to heart-breaking stories. I’ve talked to long-time friends who’ve shared stories of their own depression or loss. I’ve heard stories of babies lost, jobs that abruptly end, bankruptcy, cancer diagnosis, loved ones gone too soon. I feel like these are my people. We all know about struggle and sadness.
I’ve learned there is no preferred way to lose a loved one. Watching a loved one slowly pass before your eyes, or getting the never-in-a-million-years expected phone call that forever changes your world, is devastating. One is not preferred over the other, rather as I heard one author describe it, are “variations of the same degree of hell.”
I’ve learned that there is no shame in suicide, only sadness. I think this goes for any life struggle. For example, folks who are diagnosed with a clinical mental illness are no less deserving of care, attention and medical help. We wouldn’t tell someone with a terminal illness, “you just need to perk up!” or “stop being so sick.” Both things, I’m sure I hinted to my mom if I didn’t say them outright. I talk about my mom’s illness as if it were any other horrible disease. Not because any other disease would be easier, but because all diseases and illnesses are serious and implore professional help. There is only sorrow in her death and any death at the hands of any disease, accident or cause. There is no shame in suicide.
I’ve learned that my mom’s actions that Tuesday morning are only a reflection of her disease. Not her character, her heart, her bravery, or her love of so many family members and friends. Rather than cowardice, the act of suicide is harrowing and often done to be less of a perceived burden on those left behind. (I’d venture to guess that many of us left behind would argue that going through something tough with someone is much more of a privilege than a burden.) Those succumbing to suicide, in the way a tumor could rupture in the brain as a natural progression of a serious disease, do it because the certainty of death sounds more peaceful than their horrific discomfort in life. I cannot imagine the circumstances and thoughts that might make death seem like a haven, a respite or a refuge. Death is the escape from a pain that is darker, heavier, and more disparaging than the prospect of living. At times, it may feel like heroic strength is required to live one day more.
I knew very little about depression and suicide as my mom struggled and fought. Even now, I feel so inadequate in my understanding.
But I do know my mom.
Like the rest of us, she was not perfect but I know the very real, clear ways she deeply cared for so many. She tossed sincere love and acceptance around like she was tossing candy from a parade float, available to anyone. I know how she so valued life. I know all of these things like I know my eyes are blue and that my heart is beating and that my parents named me Emily. I know these elements of my being with absolute certainty, as fact and not theory.
A dear family friend passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack just five weeks before my mom took her own life. My mom began mailing his spouse a card each week after his death. A few days after my mom died we found a stack of pre-written cards for his spouse, ready to be mailed. We gave them to her and no words were spoken. Only tears could communicate the nearness of despair for my mom and this unrelenting love of hers that could not be suppressed by her disease. Even in her distress, she went to great lengths to love.
I will never get over the loss of my mom. In many ways, I feel like my life is a poorly produced sequel to an all-star movie. Many mornings, still, I think to myself How is this my life? In my disbelief I remind myself, she’s gone, she’s gone. Remember? She’s gone. But there is no lack of dignity, no lack of love.
And while she is not here, her love, her character could not — will not — be damaged by her illness. Her love gets me out of bed in the morning. Her love brings about friendships even still. Her lessons and advice endure.
Early on after my mom passed away, I spoke with a family member who felt bad for telling me they were struggling with my mom’s death. I thanked him for telling me. After he shared — and following his example — I felt the freedom and safety to share that life was hard for me too. I told him that if we all pretend that we are fine, that the world is not caving in on us then we haven’t learned anything from my mom. Her depression was her secret and greatest burden. It was so much for her that she thought even the littlest lean on another person might be too much. I say: Call for help. Sound the alarms. Blow your whistle. Grab a lantern, a few trusted friends and meet The Elephant. Tell a trusted few that you may need a little extra love and support.
Every life is worth facing our Elephants.
If you are in the fight of your life, struggling in any circumstance, know I am so pulling for you and want the world for you. If you have a story you think the world needs to hear, know this: It’s okay to speak your truth. Likely it’s a truth you never would want to have lived through but that is your story and it’s okay to share it. We need to hear it.
I pray for people and communities in our lives that we can mutually lean on and eventually support as well.* I hope even in some small way, Whistling & Company can be that for you.
I know little for certain but I whole-heartedly believe this:
Life is full of struggle.
There is no shame in struggle or your story.
We get through it together.
I am with you all the way.
It’s time to meet The Elephant.