On March 9, 1991, my 23-year-old son, Matthew, took his own life. At the moment his life ended, my new life as a suicide survivor began. The world of a survivor is a place no one wants to go. It is dark, cold, and lifeless. The speed of that fatal bullet turned my contentment, hope, joy, pride, and happiness into a nightmare of unimaginable pain, horror, denial, guilt, confusion, and anger.
My husband Jack and I had returned form Boston where our youngest daughter had been diagnosed with a tumor. We were exhausted and emotionally drained. When I left for Boston, Matt was at home eating his lunch, planning his usual eight mile a day run and a party with friends that night. My last words to him were, "I love you." We went to bed and were awakened early in the morning by a loud noise. I knew something had fallen. I ran upstairs calling Matt's name. His door was closed. I tired to open it and only managed a few inches. I could see his legs and blood covering the carpet. Jack got into the bedroom and then time stopped with his words. Matthew Is Dead. I ran outside barefoot and screaming from the depths of my soul. I was reduced to nothing more than a dying animal. I was baying at the moon, a death rattle in my throat. I had become the most elemental of life forms. I was only existence. I had lost my heart, my very being. I had lost my child.
Shock was a blessing after Matthew's suicide; I recognize that now. It enabled me to get through the funeral and ensuing days. I talked myself through the daily routines of getting out of bed, dressing, even walking and talking. When the numbness started to wear off, the depression came and I thought I was going mad. My tears had no beginning, nor end. They were there always. I would wake up in the morning with my pillow wet. I felt I could not live another minute. I began therapy without much hope, but the alternative was madness, so I had to try. I could not live with this pain. Some weeks when I could not even get into the car because of the awful paralysis or devastating panic attacks, Jack or my neighbor would put me in the car and take me to the therapist's office.
Losing a child is life's unimaginable horror. The suicide of your child is the perceived rejection of the life you created. Matt was a happy, loving little boy—a source of delight and laughter. He was bright, accomplished and well-rounded. He was a fine student, finishing college in three and a half years. He played three sports both in high school and college. He was outgoing and social. Our home was always filled with his friends.
When he graduated, the job market was difficult. Always a hard worker, he focused on getting the right job. In the meantime, he worked three part-time jobs. Did discouragement set in? I'm sure it must have. Finally, after nine months of searching and interviews, the job he dreamed and worked for, happened. He was chosen from 100 applicants. He bought a new car, a new wardrobe. He was ready for life!
An accident with the new car happened three days before the job was to begin. I can only imagine what this said to him—this perfectionist son—so bright and working so hard through a trying year. I'm sure it said "failure." He came home quietly, went to his room and shot himself.
I don't know when the darkness of depression set in for Matt. Whenever it was, he covered it well. When we look back and play detective we can pick out behaviors and habits, but they are the same behaviors and habits of many people who never contemplate suicide.
On March 9, 1991, my 23-year-old son, Matthew, took his own life. At the moment his life ended, my new life as a suicide survivor began."
Fourteen months after Matt died, I began a survivor support group. It was born of my own need to be with other survivors. They were the only ones who could know this aching loss. The group has grown, and moved from our family room once a month, to larger facilities where we now meet twice a month. So many survivors are alone with their pain. Support groups offer them a place to talk without judgement or stigma. Only the people who are surviving with them can offer this special comfort and understanding. There is shared pain and also shared hope.
Our family has been supported over the past six and a half years with compassion and caring. I give thanks to and for all those friends who have dealt with us so gently and lovingly.
Grief after a suicide is slow and painful work for each person and the family as a whole. We have learned to respect each other and the ways in which we grieve. We are truly individuals, and know there is no "right or wrong" way to feel. Some days Jack and I thought our marriage would never survive because no matter how close you are as a couple, this kind of grief is as individual and lonely as it gets. There is really nothing left to give your spouse or partner. I can only give thanks to this quiet man, Jack, who walked with me in this nightmare. He endured, I endured, and somehow we are doing it together. I give thanks for my three wonderful daughters who each in their own way supported us and each other while dealing with their own grief. It is with pride and wonder that I see them for the beautiful women they are today.
We continue to celebrate Matt's life—not have his life defined by his death. We talk about him, laugh at the funny things he did, mention his name to others and ask them to share their stories of him with us. His pictures are displayed in all our homes and his name is a household word. We want there to be no blemishes on his memory. He is Uncle Matt to our grandchildren, Jack, Kate, Abigail, Rachel, and Charlotte, who were all born after he died. And our grandson, Benjamin, who is the only one who knew Matt, has become the keeper of the "first hand uncle Matt stories." We continue to light a candle and toast his presence at our holiday tables and family gatherings. There is always a cake on his birthday, and we sing "Happy Birthday." I bring flowers from my garden to the cemetery. I leave a small stone on his headstone from each city we visit, each beach we walk on. My journey with grief is not over, nor will it ever be. But by reaching out to others in this same desperate pain, by speaking out to erase the stigma and silence surrounding suicide, and trying in a small way to educate people about depression and the need to seek help, is where I have found healing and a measure of acceptance.
I give thanks for Matt's life. It was too brief. He was for us a source of joy and happiness. I can accept the pain of his death only because I had the wondrous joy of carrying him under my heart, holding him, sharing his joys and pain and accomplishments, watching him grow. The pain is always there, under the surface. It ripples with regrets and might-have-beens, but it is more gentle.
Matt's smile could light up a room. It now lights up my heart. He will always be my very precious son.