If a mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child, the unhappiest of mothers are those whose children have died, particularly when the death was intentional. For them, time seems doubly out of joint. It never feels right to survive a child, particularly one who has deliberately chosen to die.
How to live with the gaping hole? How to stop the self-blaming? How to understand this most mysterious of actions? How to get through the day?
I have asked Deena Baxter, author of Surviving Suicide: Searching for "Normal" With Heartache and Humor, to describe her experience of losing a child and share the wisdom she has gained from it.
"This is the landlord in Brazil. Your son is dead." That was the moment my unwanted journey to survival began, a search for 'normal', after losing our youngest adult son to suicide -- death by bipolar mental illness.
Survival is a destination with no map. Cyber Siri, my iPhone "knowledge navigator," couldn't provide destination coordinates. I was left to my own devices with my home team: me, myself and I. The priority was fulfilling our son's wish to be buried in the U.S.; easier said than done considering he left no will -- but did leave a grieving Brazilian wife and a maze of Brazil laws and customs.
When you lose a loved one to suicide, the family tree instantly splits -- hit by a bolt of lightening: one half dies, one half survives. You can cling to the dead branches as they become brittle and break, taking you down with them; or you can tenderly nurture the surviving branches with life-affirming love and care so the remaining family tree can thrive again, in spite of the precious missing limb.
I chose the second path. Top priority was finding ways to respectfully honor our son's mind, body and spirit while holding on to mine. Meditation helped me embrace the present moment; learning to let go of the past, stop worrying about the future, and to think before I act. This clarity enabled me to put together a Survival Kit. I have added helpful tools along the way: books, compassionate friends, a support group, and more. But there is so much suffering, verging on torture, that our mind can do to us: haunting, nightmarish thoughts of our beloved child's last moments of life and not being there to save them like a good mother should. Running to the mailbox for a month, awaiting a letter of full disclosure that never comes. There is relief shrouded in guilt and sadness. The ambivalence comes with thanks that our loved one is free from the demons and despair that haunted them coupled with the infinite emptiness and pain left behind. I call this The Empty Heart Compartment: It is an irreparably broken part of my heart. Some days it feels like a crater. It is not as blistered as it once was, but it gets rubbed raw every time a new member joins my support group -- surviving suicide and searching for their "new normal". It happens again on birthdays, holidays and other family milestones: The absence of our son in family photos is like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece permanently missing. Each family's journey is different but the underlying heartache is similar. We are card-carrying members of a club in which we never sought membership.
Each of us is left to build our own Survival Kit. For me, it continues to be a work-in-progress: Some tools work better than others, some get discarded, others still remain a vital part of my kit. Equally important, I carved out sacred time to talk with my husband and respect that his own journey is far different from mine. Priorities changed: I let go of tasks, some friendships a little past expired, and accepted, with sadness, that some friends turned out not to be.
My journey to survival is two-years young and counting, the toddler stage: The Terrible Two's complete with the "Whys?", the "No's!" and the occasional hissy-fit. Sometimes I have a complete melt-down as I did when hearing the news about Robin Williams' suicide; causing pain so deep it completely ripped the scab off my slowing healing wound.
I have experienced how mental illness can be present in an individual's DNA and play forward in the family's DNA. My journey also revealed how dysfunctional DNA plays forward in our society and it led me to question what is truly 'normal' and who gets to decide: The American Psychiatric Association? Big Pharma? the media? the FDA? Big Insurance? Lobbyists? your doctor? mother? ex-husband? or other perfectly imperfect humans? As I journeyed forward there were no "sacred cows": I started at the beginning, tracing our own family's journey through mental illness and the roadblocks encountered. By following the money trail, I discovered a broken system and uncovered a painful truth; how the stigma of mental illness keeps it cloaked in denial and how that can play out when the patient, the family and society collude to maintain the status quo.
And I found a purpose: In partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Collier County, FL, I launched The Surviving Suicide Project, a new book and companion website dedicated to bringing mental illness out of the darkness and giving it a life-affirming voice.
NAMI provides free mental health services to families so they are less isolated and more integrated into the community. Each affiliate customizes programs to best serve local needs: NAMI-CC provides Health Under Guided Systems (HUGS), the Sarah Ann Adult Drop-In Center, Support Groups, Crisis Referral, Advocacy, Mental Health First Aid and Crisis Intervention Training.
My book records my journey through heartache and discovery. It includes creative elements of irreverent, healing humor and colorful artwork by NAMI artists living with mental illness and impairment. The artwork was infused with life: It was so validating for the artists it inspired a website focused on living with mental illness (WriteOnMyMind.com) -- a virtual global community where folks impacted by mental illness (patient, caregiver, family member, friend, employer or colleague) can find helpful resources and be inspired by the different ways the mind can speak -- in words and in art. The global community is invited to submit artwork.
All profit from book sales benefits NAMI and other mental health organizations. My hope is that this project benefits you or someone in your world, who may be dealing with loss of a loved one or friend to suicide, and prompts change.
As my search for "normal" continues, here's my "Short List" for surviving suicide:
1) Stay tethered and anchored to reality: Meditation, prayer, a nature walk, yoga.
2) Beware of guilt: It is hopelessness looking for a home. Make it a brief visit.
3) Have a plan: Let your heart be your guide. Do what feel right for you and those you care about.
4) Support: Take time for solitude and grieving but don't isolate. Build a support system. Seek professional help if needed.
5) Pick and choose your battles: You don't have to engage in every battle you are invited to.
6) Give yourself and your loved ones permission to smile again: "There is not much laughter in medicine but there is much medicine in laughter."
Thanks, Deena, for sharing the heartache of your loss and the indomitable spirit that helps you face and deal with it. Grieving for a lost love one is exquisitely painful under any circumstances but seems impossibly cruel when you lose a young child and when that child was unhappy enough in life to prefer death. Many surviving parents feel that life has lost all meaning and become suicidal themselves.
To them I say that, however difficult it may be, life somehow must go on. You must be here for your friends and family, who need you and would be doubly bereft and horror-stricken were you to act on your wishes. You will eventually, after much struggle and suffering, come to terms with the the pain of the past and find new meaning in your future life and relationships. And you must live for your lost loved child, who would not want to condemn you to death on his account and would not want to be forgotten. And for many, life must go on for religious reasons and/or for practical reasons (e.g., "Who else would take care of the remaining family?").
I have known dozens of mothers who have lost children to suicide. None ever really got over it. All remained intermittently haunted and forever felt an empty space and a hollowness in life.
But none killed herself. And all eventually found new wisdom, purpose, and meaning. Deena is an excellent example of the peace of mind that can come from helping others.