The following is an excerpt from Debbie Gisonni's book, Vita's Will: Real Life Lessons about Life Death and Moving On. In a four-year period, Debbie experienced a series of tragedies. First her mother, Vita, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Then her younger sister, Martha, took her own life at twenty three years old. A few months later, her father, Tommy, was diagnosed with bone cancer and then a favorite aunt got breast cancer. Within a four year period, all four of them died. By far, the most difficult death to cope with was Martha's:
One evening in April of 1990, I was home watching television in Foster City, California, where [my husband] Joe and I rented a condo. Feeling unusually restless and nervous, I kept telling Joe that I didn't feel right but I couldn't explain why. My skin felt like ants were crawling all over it. When the phone rang and it was Dad, I expected bad news, since he rarely called. I assumed something had happened to Vita. His voice was trembling as he cried, "Debbie—something terrible—something terrible has happened. Your sister Martha killed herself." I heard the words but I couldn't believe them. I thought it was a mistake. Martha would never do anything as foolish as that. "What happened!" I screamed. "She shot herself in her car."
My entire body started to quiver. I felt like I was shoved under water, as if water filled my lungs until the very core of my soul was being crushed by the incredible pressure.
As I hung up the phone, everything seemed to move in slow motion. When I broke the news to Joe, we were in such shock we couldn't even cry. We kept asking ourselves how she could possibly do this to herself. What had provoked her?
[While in New York for the funeral,] we tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together. We wanted answers. We wanted to know why she had done it. In her bedroom, we found a notebook from a college philosophy course she was taking. Tucked into the back of the book was a short essay...interpreting the meaning of Socrates' statement, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Her answer gave us a key to her state of mind.
What he is trying to say is that if you live with a mask on all your life, people do not know you for who you really are. They only see what you want them to see. Therefore, this isn't your real inner self. What people see (the mask) is not worth living because it is a dishonesty that you have with yourself. It is only other people's expectations of you. That mask you portray outside is unexamined, because it really isn't you, and therefore, it is not worth living because that fakeness will prevent you from being independent and honest with yourself...
Was Martha talking about herself in her essay? Did she wear a mask in life?...Had she examined herself only to decide her life was not worth living?
During the first couple of months after Martha's suicide, we talked about her incessantly. We reminisced about how she acted and looked. We had an insatiable desire to reconstruct the weeks before she died. We recounted the last conversations, moods, phone calls, photographs and meals, hoping that somehow our memories would explain the answer to why she'd killed herself. That question still gnawed at our guts, creating a big, black, empty hole.
We craved closure but were never satisfied. I wondered if that was because we never saw Martha's body. For months, I dreamt it was all a mistake and had never happened. Martha returned in my dreams to explain that she had simply taken a long trip. Overcome with the sight of her alive, I would wake up crying with joy, my pillow wet with tears. After a few minutes I'd realize it was only a dream.
On other nights, I was haunted by an image of Martha with a bloody face and distorted head, as if she'd come right out of a horror movie—back from the dead, to get her revenge on those who had failed her.
...we [survivors] get the feeling that suicide victims...are either elusive or transparent to society at large."
We went through all the textbook stages of grief from denial to anger to sorrow. Sooner or later, we all settled into the same place: the end of the road where the demons of guilt were waiting for us.
Dad and Ma didn't have to tell me. I knew how they were feeling. Dad asked me why Martha hadn't come to him when she was in trouble. Although I didn't want to pour salt on his wounds, I told him the truth. He was the last person we would go to if we were in trouble for fear of disappointing him, shaming ourselves or suffering the consequences of his anger...
Then I asked myself why Martha hadn't come to Angela or me. Were our standards so high that she couldn't bring herself to explain her feelings or her mistakes? In her letter she was clearly contemplating suicide but, at the same time, she wasn't one hundred percent convinced it was the answer to her problems. Was there something Angela and I could have noticed that would've enabled us to stop her?
When I went [home] to California, I could only operate on one of two extreme levels. Either I completely broke down at the mention of Martha's name or I detached myself from the entire incident—as if I were a broadcaster reporting a news story...I could have this conversation without emotion, just explaining the facts, with people who didn't know me well, but when it came to talking to someone close...my emotions would swing like a pendulum to the other extreme...
When I was alone, my emotions got the best of me. While driving my car to a business appointment, I would start crying uncontrollably. Several times I had to pull over onto the side of the road to clear my eyes and fix my face. It only took one single thought of Martha to set me off. I began to hate darkness. I left a night-light on because I was frightened of being greeted by Martha's gruesome, bloody face on one of my trips to the bathroom.
After about four months, the family stopped talking about Martha. Vita and Tommy seldom brought up her name, for fear of re-opening wounds that had bled so profusely for months. Since it was more painful to watch each other suffer than to suffer by ourselves, we made an unconscious decision to suffer alone. Martha's death had revealed depths of sadness that we had never displayed to each other as a family.
Laughter, at appropriate moments, had always been welcome in our house but crying never had its place.
On top of their grief, Ma and Dad seemed embarrassed by what Martha had done...They were embarrassed by the stigma they thought would fall upon them and our family. They were afraid people would think their daughter was crazy or, even worse, that they had made her crazy.
Soon after returning to California, I was back in a regular routine at work. I was offered a promotion from sales to management that I had worked hard to get. My new responsibilities of hiring, training and motivating my new team kept me busy. The nights, however, were still filled with demons that continued to haunt me...I began to worry I would be emotionally scarred by this event forever, that my even-tempered personality would take a hit. I knew my soul was still heavy with guilt and I decided to get help.
My general doctor recommended a therapist who specialized in family counseling...In the back of my rational mind, I had already decided that no one was to blame. I just needed a little help to bring that thought to the forefront of my emotions. Over a three-month period I met with the therapist once a week and we talked about everything from the family environment growing up, to my parents' and sisters' personalities, to my dreams.
It's amazing how the scenes in the dreams seemed to mirror what I was feeling. In many of them, I was trying to care for Martha (whether that meant giving her cookies to eat, dressing her or taking her places), but I was upset because she wasn't cooperating. This was the key. I always felt responsible for her and when she killed herself, I felt responsible for that too. As if I'd failed her.
Slowly, the therapist allowed me to shed my guilt and sorrow and move towards forgiveness...Only years later did I discover things that shed more light on Martha's state of mind. She had been pregnant more than once and was suffering from post-abortion syndrome, which affects some women. Symptoms include withdrawal, self-devaluation, guilt and depression. Martha also had an eating disorder and was bulimic the last two years of her life. Bulimia both stems from and induces self-destructive feelings and behavior. Both of these disorders, which put many young women's lives at risk, can easily go unnoticed. Tommy and Vita weren't around to benefit from these revelations.
Memories of Martha will always be in my heart but as time goes on, I have to struggle to keep their fading images alive inside of me. I look at photographs of her to remind myself of her face and I try to remember the sound of her voice. Somewhere along my journey, amid the hate I felt towards Martha for what she did and the hate I felt towards myself for not being there to help, I learned the lessons of forgiveness and love. I stopped judging and blaming myself, Martha, or anyone else, and I accepted the situation for what it was. I knew in my heart God forgives all and loves all and that I could, too.
Vita's Will: Real Life Lessons about Life Death and Moving On is available via order from most major booksellers. A portion of the proceeds will go to AFSP. You can contact Debbie Gisonni through her website, www.reallifelessons.com.