Fifty-nine years ago, when I was nine months old, my mother, six months pregnant with my brother, contracted a rare mystery illness. Characterized by severe headaches and frequent vomiting, it was finally diagnosed as "Valley Fever," a type of dust-borne meningitis. Though not fatal, it was terribly debilitating. When my brother was born, my mother was draped in sterile dressing and not allowed to touch him. Nearly three years later, worn down by her illness, two young children, and a husband who did not know how to support her, she gave up. Or at least that is what I have surmised these many years later. She also very likely suffered from depression. In 1951, the year she died, not much was known about treating clinical depression, but I remember she was often in bed, wan and dispirited.
Her name was Dolores. She lived in the corner bedroom, a pale yellow room with white shades, which were often drawn. The room always felt infused with sunlight, a kind of golden hue that was comforting to me, not dark or fearful. I remember her sitting up in bed, dark hair softly curling at her shoulders, cheeks flushed, her long, gentle fingers resting on the quilted comforter. She wore an ivory-colored nightgown, ruffled at the neck with long sleeves. To me she looked beautiful, but somehow fragile, engulfed in the bedcovers, propped up against the antique mahogany headboard. Sometimes I would climb in bed with her to snuggle.
On July 24, 1951—two months before I turned four—she shot herself. On the morning she died she told my grandma that she was going to fight the depression she felt. She wasn't going to let her illness get the best of her. By the afternoon she must have changed her mind.
She drove her car to her good friend's home. The neighbors later recalled a pretty, dark-haired woman pacing on the front steps, knocking on the door, apparently agitated that no one was home. They said she sat on the porch, smoked several cigarettes and seemed to be having a serious conversation with herself. Supposedly, my mother didn't smoke, but maybe in those moments before taking her life she reverted to an old habit, or maybe she was a closet smoker. Whatever the case, several stubbed-out cigarettes were found in the flowerbed below that porch.
She then went to a motel owned by friends. She knew a gun was kept in the cash register drawer. When she arrived her friends were tending to some errands in the back office. She removed the gun and shot herself in the head, right there in the motel lobby.
I later learned that during the two weeks my mother survived before succumbing to her injuries, she asked incessantly for those around her to turn on the lights, not knowing she had blinded herself. She didn't know who she was or why the world was so dark. My father, lost soul that he was, told her angrily that there was light all around and that all of the rest of those in the room could see. She was bewildered until she died.
No one knew how to explain to a four-year-old that her mommy had chosen to leave her, so I was told that she had gone on vacation. All of her personal belongings, all pictures of her, were put away. She just disappeared.
I remember some months later hearing my dad on the phone talking about taking my younger brother and me on a vacation to Lake Tahoe. I was terrified, thinking of vacation as a place you went to and never came back.
The months following her death are a blur, but I remember that my brother and I were angry and confused. I recall taking scissors to the plastic shower curtain and trying to make paper dolls. We drew with crayons on the white walls of our bedroom. My brother cried at night, bouncing his head on his pillow, calling "Mama" over and over. This routine became a source of self-comfort as he put himself to sleep in the years following her death.
I have been told that after she died I would often imitate my mother's illness, which was characterized by sudden waves of nausea and quick trips to the bathroom. Apparently, I would announce I had to "bop," my word for vomit, and run to the bathroom, bend over the toilet and try to be sick. Years later when I was pregnant with my first child and incessantly nauseous, I saw a surgeon trained in hypnosis to try and control the morning sickness that plagued me all times of the day. During my one session with him I remembered those childhood attempts to throw up, and realized that for many years I had carried with me a sense of being somehow responsible for her death. If only I had been a better little girl, if only I didn't fight with my brother, if only I hadn't played that game where if you "step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back" that summer day on the sidewalk. Responsibility for our loved one's suicide runs deep, often below the surface of our logic, in a place we cannot reach. It is a place we must eventually visit to forgive ourselves for somehow not being enough to make our loved ones want to stay with us, to make them want to continue living.
No one knew how to explain to a four-year-old that her mommy had chosen to leave her, so I was told that she had gone on vacation. All of her personal belongings, all pictures of her, were put away. She just disappeared."
Growing up, I had so many questions. I remember the green closet in my father's and stepmother's bedroom. High above the closet were cabinets, containing my mother's things that I was told I was too young to see. Much later I learned that her china and silverware were stored there, but I would often sneak in that room as a young child and gaze up at those cupboards, wondering if she was behind those cabinet doors.
Because of the stigma of suicide and the needs of the adults in my circle to protect me (and ultimately, themselves) from the trauma of her death, no one ever talked about my mother. That is the part of her death, other than the fact that she killed herself, which has impacted me the most. I never really knew who she was. I tried at various points in my life to piece together bits of information about her, but I never got to ask her the questions many of us have as we are growing up. I wanted to know her perspective about girl stuff—periods and babies and falling in love. As I grew older and began to look inward, I wondered how she felt about God and what her belief systems were. And, always: What did she think and feel about me? Finally, the key question: Why? Why did she leave me?
A child who loses a parent grieves over time. For me, there have been milestones and significant life events—birthdays, graduations, marriage, motherhood and coping with the death of someone else dear to me—when I have found myself longing for my mother. My task has become learning over time to dig deep and find my own inner resources. This has been no simple task, but a lifelong journey, complete with moments of profound anguish as well as great self-discovery.
Like many suicide survivors, there were times when I defined myself by my loss, feeling incomplete and disconnected. In my 20s I entered individual psychotherapy and began to acknowledge the deep hole I felt inside. I found myself confronting obstacles like doubt and the inability to trust others and myself. I was often cautious, armoring myself against feeling so vulnerable again. While I didn't take excessive risks like some survivors, I struggled with self-esteem issues as I tried to come to terms with my loss. As I explored who I was, I found myself drawn towards psychology as a career path, and I eventually became a psychotherapist myself.
I have learned that losing a loved one to suicide is a life-changing event that necessitates grief work over the long haul. Although initially it is hard to imagine ever feeling joy or purpose again, we find ways, over time, to pick up the pieces and move forward, developing increased compassion and an awareness of how precious life is. Because of my own experience I have become a group facilitator for adults coping with suicide loss, and last year Ipublished a book, After a Parent's Suicide: Helping Children Heal. And I participated in my fourth AFSP community walk in San Francisco, joining hundreds of others honoring their loves ones and working towards finding ways to help those suffering from depression and other illnesses that can contribute to suicide.
In some ways it seems I have come full circle. As the director of a children's bereavement program, I have had the honor of listening to many stories of love and loss from children and teens who speak simply and often with great clarity. When words are inadequate or do not come easily, many express themselves through drawing or writing poetry. Although their stories often make me sad, I have learned that these are not children to be pitied. Instead, they are children who, with love, information and the support of caring adults, may be able to transform their experiences and become remarkable human beings.
Margo, a licensed family therapist and member of the AFSP-Northern California board, served as a panelist on last year's National Survivors of Suicide Day broadcast. She can be contacted through her website, www.healingheartspress.com.