I became a survivor of suicide after having lost my only child, Mark Alan Smith, to suicide at the age of 27 on Oct. 4, 1992.
After five years of marriage to a minister, Mark Smith was the answer to my prayers, born April 27, 1965. A native Atlantan, Mark had attended its public schools, graduating with honors and as president of his class at Benjamin E. Mays High School. He was an achiever, a leader, a Boy Scout, an acolyte and choir member in church, and a Sunday School attendee. He had participated in varsity football, softball, track and golf.
Mark had won talent shows and received the "Award of Merit" from the Military Order of World Wars. He was elected president of his freshman class in college. He was an arranger, composer, singer, songwriter (11 copyrighted) and percussionist, who used his God-given talents to perform in weddings, churches, funerals, for fraternities and sororities, in clubs and on stage with the S.O.S. Band in London, Germany, Belgium, Japan and all across the United States and Canada.
Mark was the sensitive one, a little shy and a little quiet. He was a loving child who lived the privileged life. But Mark became ill. Although I did not know it at the time, I now believe and know that Mark suffered from undiagnosed and untreated depression, a brain disease and an illness just like hypertension, diabetes and other conditions. He may have suffered from other brain diseases.
Mark was at home training for the ministry, when on September 30, my birthday, he attempted to end his life and shot himself through the head and brain with a gun purchased that day. After the shooting, Mark remained conscious and active. He answered the phone when I called. After I found him at home with his head wound and saw the gun, I left the home to call the police. Mark was the one who came to the door. He gave the police a full report, pointed out his note to me, and signed for his surgery at the hospital and responded to all requests of medical personnel, family, friends and me.
Over the next few days, Mark remained remarkably alert. I never once saw my child unconscious. It wasn't until the doctors called three-and-a-half days later to tell me that Mark's brain had become swollen, that he had stopped breathing and had been placed on a ventilator to live, that I knew his time had come. Attempting to live up to my promise when I prayed for Mark, and his tribute to me in his farewell letter, when he said:
"Dear Mom, I regret that this had to occur on your birthday, and that it had to occur during a time in our lives when we weren't at our best. I am saddened to not have more to say to you in this letter than that I love you very very much, and that you are without a doubt the best mother that anyone could have ever had. Please tell my father that I love him also. Love, Mark."
I donated his organs (heart, eyes, kidneys, liver, pancreas) so that others could use the gift of his body to live. That marked the beginning of my mission—to tell my story and my son's story so that others can live and be helped. I tell Mark's story to clearly point out that suicide does not discriminate because of age, economic status, education, good or bad, achievement, beliefs, color or race.
His life should be an example to us all. He exhibited all of the warning signs. When things happened in his life, in spite of all his achievements, depression set in on Mark.
In my community, there was the stigma, the fear and the misconceptions about suicide and depression. As a mother, I did not know that depression is a disease that can be treated. I did not know that you could get counseling and treatment. I did not know that you could find hope by seeking help. And I did not know to be ashamed or not to mention suicide.
After his death, as I began my journey of discovery about this disease, I was confronted with the stigma and shame. I was told, 'Blacks do not commit suicide.'"
After his death, as I began my journey of discovery about this disease, I was confronted with the stigma and shame. I was told, "Blacks do not commit suicide." "We don't go to support groups and tell all of our business." "If you complete (and I don't use the term commit) suicide, you will go to hell." I was shunned. Mark's name was not mentioned, and is not mentioned too much even after all these years. Friends were lost, but new ones were found. Support came from unexpected sources. For the first time, I sought counseling and attended three support groups, all outside my community. I cried, I read and I talked and talked and began to take care of myself in the healing process. I didn't know it at the time, but I was doing all the right things.
My faith in God sustained me. While Mark's death left me without any children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, it left me with a personal call to action. As I have struggled to find meaning and a "gift" in Mark's death, I have found peace in Mark's life. He left me with so much, including his singing "The Lord's Prayer," on video, and I have used this and the video of his life, which I developed, to support my story.
My journey has been one of varied activities. I could have sat in a corner and cried "poor me," and perhaps rightfully so, but instead have tried to make a difference. These activities have included, but are not limited to:
- Began the first bereavement/suicide support group in Atlanta's African American community.
- Co-founder of a Compassionate Friends chapter in the same community.
- Established the Mark Alan Smith Endowed Scholarship Fund at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta. The Fund gives scholarships to worthy students, and I am very proud of this memorial in Mark's name.
- Co-founder, vice president and treasurer of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide, founded by three African Americans who lost sons to suicide.
- Immediate past president of SPAN, now the Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN USA), and a member of its board.
- Founding project director of Project HOPE (hope, opportunity, prevention, education), sponsored by the National Mental Health Association of Georgia, a year-long campaign against clinical depression in the African American community, 1999–2000.
- Served on the southeastern division of AFSP. Traveled to New York City for AFSP's 2002 Survivors Day Teleconference.
- Had an opportunity to tell my story when then U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher and Tipper Gore recognized suicide as a national problem with a "Call to Action."
There have been radio, television, newspaper and magazine appearances, workshops, conferences, health fairs in malls, schools, churches and anywhere the message can be told, sharing feelings and methods of coping and conveying a message of hope; receiving awards and recognitions. The list is long.
I feel blessed to be Mark's mother and thankful that I had him for 27 years. After my divorce, he was reared with a single parent. I was the proud mother who had a friend in her son. A great talent and personality was lost. This mother just did not know and because I did not know, I want others to know.
Two lessons have been learned from my experiences, and I always like to share them: "God does not put any more on you than you can bear; and all things (the good and bad) do work together for good." There is a song we sing in my church that poses the challenge, "If I Can Help Somebody," and I would like to close by saying that Mark's life and his death by suicide have given me my theme, "If I can help somebody along the way, then my life, Mark's life, and death, will not be in vain."
And finally, it brings me great joy to know that the man who has Mark's heart is still alive. While I have not met him (at that time there was anonymity), we have corresponded with first names only, and may now meet. Letters of thanks have been received from the heart recipient, his wife, his daughter, his pastor and a member of his church. All speak to how much Mark's heart has been a blessing to them. The recipient works in sound ministry, music ministry, college ministry, finance—all of Mark's interests.
Doris Smith lives in Atlanta, Ga.