[Originally published in The Sun Chronicle]
“Love u 2.”
That was the last text message I sent to my mom.
One week later, on Nov. 17, 2010, I found out she had died by suicide.
I held the phone to my ear and heard my uncle saying ridiculous things like “your mother is dead” and “she left bags and notes on the kitchen counter.” I wanted to scream. Instead, I sobbed and pictured myself shattering into pieces.
The weeks and months that followed were a blur, a surreal and exhausting whirlwind of activity that kept me focused on resolving the tangible aspects of my mother’s death: selling her house, her car, her furniture and all of her possessions, meeting with lawyers and bank representatives, filling out forms, canceling credit cards and magazine subscriptions until I had uttered the words “my mother has died” so many times they started to lose their meaning.
And then, when there was nothing left to do but “move on” with my life, reality set in. And it was a reality I couldn’t accept. I stopped answering texts and phone calls and spent weeks sitting on the couch and staring through the TV. I replayed our final conversations over and over in my mind, thinking that maybe if I had said or done something different she’d still be alive. I found the ‘Thinking of You’ card I had bought for her but never got around to sending and kept it on my desk, always in plain sight, a reminder of all the ways I had failed.
Years passed, and the initial shock subsided, but I found that time wasn’t healing all wounds and my grief didn’t progress in five neat stages. It was messy and complex, compounded by guilt, regret and shame, blackened by anger. It receded and then unexpectedly reappeared. It lingered long after I thought it should have resolved itself. It was like the moon during the daytime: hidden, invisible, but always there.
So I played the part of someone moving on, but really I was stuck, left with a void that nothing could seem to fill. It was a void I rarely talked about, never wrote about and never allowed myself to publicly acknowledge. I didn’t know how to express what I felt, how to allow myself to be broken all these years later, how to talk about suicide in a society that desperately wants to pretend suicide doesn’t exist. So I tried to forget and sometimes succeeded. My mom’s suicide felt like a secret that needed to be kept, even from myself.
Then, earlier this year, I heard about a new support group in Attleboro for suicide loss survivors called Kitchen Table Conversations. Everything in my body wanted to stay as far away from this group as possible. So I forced myself to go. I sat down in front of a bunch of strangers and shared the story of my mom’s suicide and all I’d been through since she died. I let go of the need to be “strong” and have it all together. I cried. I explained how far from perfect our relationship was and yet how much I still missed and loved her after all these years, how much grief and shame and regret I still carried with me.
And the response I got wasn’t judgement, or blank stares, or pity that made me wish I hadn’t said anything. It was understanding. For the first time, I was surrounded by people outside of my family who understood exactly what I had been through, because they had been through it, too. And that was the night that everything changed for me. Because suddenly I didn’t have to keep my mom’s suicide hidden in some dark, dusty corner of my existence. I could bring it out of the shadows and into the light. Without fear of being judged or stigmatized, I could simply say yes, this is what happened, and this is how it affected me, and this is how I feel.
It was then that I realized how much speaking up alleviates pain, and how much silence feeds it.
So I kept attending that support group, sometimes sharing my story, sometimes just listening to other loss survivors share theirs. I’d usually end up crying at some point, no matter how “fine” I felt when I walked in, but the crying was good. It was important for me to have a place where I could drop my defenses and allow the feelings I normally suppressed to rise up and be acknowledged. Over time, I started taking part in suicide prevention efforts and shifting my focus to helping others. It started to feel like maybe I could turn my pain into purpose.
So just as I forced myself to attend that first support group meeting, I forced myself to sit down and write this column. Not because I feel comfortable publicly sharing my story, but precisely because I don’t. Because I’ve learned that the things we least want to talk about are often the things that most need to be said. Because today isn’t just the eight-year anniversary of my mom’s suicide; it’s also International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, a reminder that my experience is one thread in a much larger tapestry of shared pain that so many others feel. Because suicide thrives in silence, and I don’t want to be silent anymore.
I still have dreams about my mom. Usually, we are doing ordinary things — talking, hugging, laughing. Last week I dreamed that she was doing my hair. Sometimes the dreams feel more like nightmares, because some part of me knows she’s gone and it’s all just an illusion, but still I’m grateful for them. They are the closest to her that I can get.
My mom’s gone now, and there’s nothing I can do to bring her back. I didn’t know how much she was hurting until it was too late, and I have to live with that regret for the rest of my life. All I can do now is try to reach someone who’s still here, someone who may be suffering in silence, and let them know there’s another way. I know how hard it can be to open up and reveal your pain. But I also know how freeing it is. So what I ask today is this: Speak up. Reach out. Make a connection. Share your truth. Choose healing and support over shame and silence. Take a step out of the shadows and into the light. Even if it’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. I promise, it will also be the most important thing you ever do.