The Long-Term Impact of My Mother’s Suicide, Part III

This the last part of a three part essay where I explore a few of the issues in my adulthood that stem from my mother’s suicide when I was 17 years old. Read Part I and Part II.

Becoming a mother myself—something I put off until my early 30s—held an enormous amount of risk for me. I instinctively knew the stability I had tried so hard to create would be at risk by starting my own family and being responsible for another small life. Yet the birth of my son was the most profound moment of my life. Parenthood has let me discover more about my mother, nearly 20 years later, because my children have brought me a new level of understanding about her life and her death. I know now a mother’s love for her child can be etched on her very soul, yet love doesn’t always prevent her from making decisions that are resolutely against her child’s best interests. In only three years, I’ve come to know my mother on a different level. I’ve heard her words come out of my mouth. Seen her temper in my flashes of anger. And in the most despondent moments of post-partum depression, I glimpsed the void that must have made her tie the rope and jump.

Even today it is hard for me to accept my mother’s last decision. Having children of my own, it’s impossible for me to see how she could have made that choice. It is unthinkable to me to simply walk out of their lives, leaving me with one of two very undesirable possibilities. My mother was so sick that her instincts were completely skewed and she thought we would be better off without her. Or she never loved me like I love my own kids.

The second is the reaction of the wounded child, and its large flaw is the changing nature of the parent-child relationship. It’s far more complex than I ever imagined, or could ever have felt, at age 17. I suspect this complexity will simply increase with time as my children age and our relationship becomes even more multifaceted. Years of analysis, of therapy, of pharmaceutical assistance and of late-night philosophizing with my sister have not dispelled one truth: I know my mother loved me, even if her death felt like a choice to leave me.

Then I’m left with the first, and still undesirable, reason. Suicide is excruciating for the people left behind. It is the ultimate act of abandonment for a child. Sometimes there is no happy ending. Sometimes parents are sick. Sometimes mothers leave by their own choice. Sometimes parents die. It is a painful truth, and I face it every day.

I’ve had to deal with a lot of painful truths in my life since my mother died. My children have four grandparents, although one is not biologically related to them. My father remarried four years after my mother died. I won’t pretend his choice was an easy one or his decision didn’t tear apart the fragile bonds we rewove after my mother died. Yet, after years of strife, I now see my stepmother as a valuable asset, filling her role in a way that I’m not sure my own mother would have managed. She is an excellent grandmother. And my children adore her. When Grandma comes to visit, I’m happy to put them in her care, knowing they will be adored and loved. I am grateful for her presence in my life and in theirs.

Also, being happy with myself also creates a bit of a conundrum for me. My life is the result of my mother’s death and the choices I made since that day. If I like who I am now, I cannot wish away the pain and tragedy of her death. I cannot deny its influence in making me a stronger, more resilient person. It has brought me much closer to my sister, who has become my dearest friend. It propelled us to better ourselves, working through college and graduate school, taking on challenging careers, and attempting to make the world a better place. It brought me to the man I married and the two adorable children we created. I look at the good in my life, and I see how it sprung from the pain. The paradox does not escape me.

I hope my experience provides some comfort for others who have experienced tragedy. When I watch my children sleeping safety in their beds, I think about everything I want for them. First and foremost, I want them to have a safe and happy home with healthy parents. What’s more, I wish all children around the world could have the exact same thing. I don’t want any family to go through what we did. Since that wish is unobtainable, I have to settle for telling this story in order to help others know that even in painful times, there is still a chance for good. Recovery can and will happen if you work toward it. Life does not necessarily give you what you want or what you deserve, but you can find good in life again. I survived. I am living proof.

The Long-Term Impact of My Mother’s Suicide, Part II

This the second part of a three part essay where I explore a few of the issues in my adulthood that stem from my mother’s suicide when I was 17 years old. Read part one here.

I’ve lived more than half my life without my mother now. How I got from the 17-year-old girl to the 35-year-old mother of two is a story that would encompass more than book or two. I can confidently say not everything in my life is a reflection of my mother’s death. However, after becoming a parent, I’ve realized my actions do reflect her life.

My sister and I jokingly refer to these situations with our catch-all comment: “Does EVERYTHING have to relate back to HER?” We’ve been through enough therapy to recognize the glint in a therapist’s eye when we get around to the inevitable conversation about the bipolar mother who takes her own life. It is the fact about us most people use to define who we are. And for a long time, my mother’s death was how I defined myself. That changed with the birth of my son. I am now a mother first, and being a motherless daughter has shifted backstage.

Yet being a mother without a mother does affect the way I parent my own children. I don’t think this is unusual. In fact I highly suspect I’d be revisiting issues from my childhood even if my mother was living today. It’s a journey all children must embark upon—learning to not repeat the mistakes of our parents when we become parents ourselves. (And in turn, make our own mistakes.) But I suspect because my mother was mentally ill, I pay more attention than some other people would. The biggest “mistake” I don’t want to make as a parent is dying too early. My inability to control accidental deaths or catastrophic illness leaves me with a constant feeling of unease. Because I know, from experience, you can wake up one morning and your world is upside down.

I do take comfort in the many loving people in my children’s lives, and I know the seeds are already sown for them grow into happy, confident adults even without me. I also know, from experience, tragedy doesn’t always result in more tragedy. Many people thought losing our mother to suicide would undo both my sister and me. But it didn’t. Today both our lives are as average as they can be. They are full of bedtime stories and client meetings. Making dinner and watching mindless television. Husbands who are as steady as rocks. Children who alternatively charm and frustrate, usually in the same minute. The normalcy of our lives is a testament to my mother’s work before her illness and death. One year of tragedy did not undo the 16 years of reliability that came before.

This stability in our lives today is not accidental. After the chaos of my mother’s last year and the turmoil after her death, my sister and I purposely designed our lives to honor calm and commitment and dependability. We want to feel safe. We’ve done our best to insulate ourselves from potential storms. We know we can’t prevent it. We do our best to prepare for it, a common reaction for people who have experienced tragedy young.

To be continued…

The Long-Term Impact of My Mother’s Suicide, Part I

This the first part of a three part essay where I explore a few of the issues in my adulthood that stem from my mother’s suicide when I was 17 years old.

My 3-year-old son is sitting beside me on the bed holding Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat. We are in the midst of the bedtime ritual—stories and talking before it’s time for lights out. I decided the moment is right to explain his mother and father are leaving on a short trip, and Grandma and Grandpa will stay with him and his baby sister for a few days.

He listened carefully, then said, “You left me.”

This statement made no sense to me, but after three years of parenting, I’m used to it. “When did Mommy leave you?” I asked.

“You left and Daddy put me to bed and read me the elephant book,” he said.

I realized he is talking about last night, when I went to the gym and Daddy was responsible for bedtime. “Yes. I did. But I came back.”

“Yeah,” he grinned at me, his whole face crinkled with glee.

I looked straight into his hazel eyes and said without hesitation, “Mommy will always come back.”

As I heard my own voice say the words, my stomach turned over. The lie violated a pact I had made to myself on the day he was born: to be honest with my children. And it is so huge, I am shocked by my own words and the conviction with which I said them. Who knows better than I that Mommy doesn’t always come back?

Even months later, I continued to dissect this evening in my mind for clues to why it resonated with me. I shared the exchange with my friends who have children; and they were quick to appease me—I’m a parent of a small child and I wanted to reassure him. It was a simple statement his three-year-old brain could process; because in spite of my ever constant worries that I will meet an untimely end and my children will be left without their mother, the odds are against that happening.

While I left these conversations temporarily feeling better, later I realized these friends all still had their natural parents. Of course they could easily dismiss my concern. For me, the answer would never be simple.

This scene, which occurs in nearly every household with a preschooler, triggered a different response from me because of my mother’s suicide. Two factors were at play for me in this simple scenario. I know my ideal of being honest with my own children stems from those chaotic last months with my mother when I was never sure what was true. Was she sick? Was she fine, as she insisted regularly? Was it a hormone imbalance or a chemical imbalance in her brain? Was it both? The answers to these questions will never come. I’ve accepted that now. The best I can do is accept the full truth of the situation. Something was wrong with my mother. And she chose her own death as the solution. It is brutal. It is the truth. And I’ve learned to value the truth in spite of the pain it brings. In turn, I try to be truthful with my children to save them from the painful realization I had at 17—that I could not trust my own parent.

The second element in this scenario relates to my greatest fear—that I will die before my children are grown. I would never wish on them what I have endured—not only the life-changing events missed by my mother, but the thousands of small moments: the care packages that never arrived at my dorm room, the birthday cakes selected alone because no one else thought to do it, and the midnight phone calls to commiserate about colicky babies. These little things hurt more than the empty seat at the wedding and the pitying looks in my friends’ eyes when I explain no one is coming to help after the birth of my first child because my mother is not alive and no one else will do.

To be continued…

Susan Klebold Speaks, Part III

There is one sentence in the O Magazine article by Susan Klebold that resonants with me like no other. When discussing her feelings as she learned more about her son’s terrible actions on that fateful day at Columbine, she writes: “I concluded that he must not have loved me, because love would have prevented him from doing what he did.”

This reaction is natural after experiencing a tragedy that was caused by a loved one’s own hands. It doesn’t require a event as devastating as Columbine to feel the shock and horror associated with suicide or murder-suicide. I also felt the same way after my mother committed suicide in my childhood home — she must not have loved me, or she never would have done that. This feeling was reinforced by the careless words of a therapist in later years, in which she expressed her shock that my mother would kill herself in our home — unusual, she said, because women are usually careful to commit suicide in an area where a family member is unlikely to be the first to find the body.

I, of course, had always wondered what it would have been like if I or my younger sister had opened the door to the garage that morning. Instead my father is the one who has to live with the image of my mother hanging from the rafters of our garage. We escaped that pain, but not the clear message that our love was not enough to keep my mother alive.

Yet more than 20 years have passed since that day, and new levels of understanding have emerged. Don’t get me wrong — like Susan Klebold, “I will never know why.” But I understand the destruction caused by mental illness a little better now than I did at 17, and my mother’s actions now prove to me how ill she really was. I also understand, as Susan writes in her article, that “we should also remember that even if someone is exhibiting signs of suicide risk, it may not always be possible to prevent tragedy.” Each person’s capacity for free will overrules good intentions from others. You should try to help (and I hope you do), but you may not succeed.

I suspect if Susan could talk to Dylan, he would tell her that he did love her, and that he always loved her. I think love has very little to do with his final actions. His illness was so far advanced at that point, love could not have saved him. That concept is difficult for other people to grasp. Instead they search for simple reasons to explain the unexplainable. Mental illness is not easily rationalized because, by its nature, it is irrational.

Those of us who are left behind are not given answers that will satisfy us. There is not just one event, nor is there just one action that caused the Columbine tragedy; and there is no simple solution to preventing suicide or murder-suicide. That’s a very uncomfortable thought for most people. We much prefer the illusion that we have some control.

It is much better, I think, to give up this notion of simple explanations and work towards finding the underlying causes that lie much deeper than our “fix-it-quick” society allows. Investing in finding the root causes of mental illness is something we’ve waited far too long to do. If we want to learn something from Columbine and the other, much smaller, tragedies that occur on a daily basis, let it be that maybe our health care system is missing chances to help people in complicated situations by prescribing simple solutions (i.e., a bottle of pills).

Like Susan, I don’t have the answer. I wish, after 20 years, that I did. I’d like to say that I appreciate Susan Klebold’s courage in publishing part of her story. I believe she speaks the truth, and I empathize with her pain, as well as the pain of all of those who suffered from the actions of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. There are no simple lessons that we can take from these events, but by sharing her story, Susan has done what we all should to help others in similar situations. Silence is the enemy. Talk about it. You are not alone.

Susan Klebold Speaks, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I heard about an interview with Susan Klebold in the November 2009 issue of O Magazine. If you read my earlier post on this subject, you’ll know that I had an opinion on this article before I read it. I pointed out that Dylan Klebold is the one who killed the people at Columbine as well as himself. Susan Klebold is not a murderer. She is, however, the family member of someone who had a mental illness. Because it is clear to me that her son was mentally ill. I think we can safely assume that anyone who commits such terrible acts is mentally ill. Depressed for sure, and perhaps other illnesses as well.

I was initially apalled by some of the reactions to this interview. People commenting on the initial AP story showed no mercy, and oftentimes just downright cruelty. And this was before the article was printed!

I’ve read it for myself now. I initially was under the impression that the article was an interview with Susan Klebold, but she actually wrote it herself. I commend her for the courage to do such a thing, given that the comments I saw probably only scratched the surface of what she’s been through. Indeed, in the first part of this article, she talks about this very subject: “I was widely viewed as a perpetrator or at least an accomplice since I was the person who had raised a ‘monster.'”

This comment struck me as a central issue facing families of the mentally ill. It is, perhaps, elevated by the fact that Susan was Dylan’s mother, and parents are viewed as being responsible for their children’s behavior in our society. It is also central to the guilt so common in families of the mentally ill — we often mistakenly believe that we have some sort of control over our loved one’s thoughts or behavior.

Let me make this point clear. We can influence other people. But no one can CONTROL someone else’s THOUGHTS or BEHAVIOR. Anyone hanging around with a toddler can testify that they wish they could. But it is impossible. We are born with free will.

Yet we often hear the same question after any tragedy associated with the mentally ill: “Why didn’t someone DO something about it?”

Let’s stop for a moment and consider what it must be like to be Susan Klebold. How many times must she have been asked this question? How many times must she have asked herself this question? Really, does anyone think that if she KNEW what her son was going to do, that she WOULD NOT have done everything in her power to stop it? That she wouldn’t have disabled his car, searched his room, called the police or followed him to school that day, hanging on his pants legs?

I think any survivor of suicide would agree that they would have done anything to stop the tragedy IF ONLY THEY HAD KNOWN. But they didn’t. Suicidal people don’t send out memos with their planned time and method. The fact that she didn’t know, that she didn’t see the signs is completely believable to me. The fact that a teenage boy did not share his most desperate internal pain with his parents is also completely believable to me.

Yet Susan Klebold does not let herself off that easily. She admits that “I mistrusted everything — especially my own judgment.” Not to mention, “It was impossible to believe that someone I had raised could cause so much suffering.”

Wow. I understand that. How difficult was it for me to believe that my mother could commit suicide with her two teenage children in the same house. Did she not understand the pain she would be bringing into our lives?

No. She did not. It doesn’t take a Columbine-sized tragedy to feel the pain of loving someone who is mentally ill. Susan Klebold, unfortunately, has to deal with it on a national level, given the media attention focused on the tragedy surrounding her son, his friend and their actions. I see many parallels between her experiences and the families of the 33,000 other Americans who commit suicide every year.

More on this subject to come…