“How did she die?”
Celebrating Mum, when she’s no longer here.
This was originally published on my personal blog in 2012. I’m re-publishing it here in a slightly altered form (it’s now been almost 14 years since her death), in honour of Mother’s Day, because I no longer use the term “committed suicide” and because it was better in its original intent.
This will be my eighth Mother’s Day without my Mum. It’s been nine years since she left us, and inevitably, every year as this day approaches, I’m pretty much consumed with thoughts of her. It’s Mother’s Day and my children’s birthdays that make me think of her most actually, namely because she always called me on my daughter’s birthday to wish me a happy birthday. “It’s our birthday too”, she would say. She never met her grandsons.
Today, I sit here, on the same back deck, with the same view, more or less, at nearly the same time off year, writing about my Mum again. Except, I’m not writing a missive about Mother’s Day. No, today I’ll be writing something different. The day today is as grey as it was the day I sat down to write my mother’s eulogy. It was much quieter day in my neighbourhood then though, as if everyone knew and they left me in peace to write. The low, heavy air made it a muted type of day. Eerily quiet, now that I look back.
Whenever the talk of mothers comes up, and I mention that my mum has died, it’s predictable that someone will ask me the “how did she die” question.
Since my Mum’s death I’ve watched everyone and anyone, myself included, ask after the cause of someone’s death. I don’t know if it’s just morbid curiosity because we’re all facing that inevitability, or if it’s because we’re all sadistically voyeuristic to some degree; we want to know, but we don’t really want to know. Like, when we watch scary movies. We sit in our chairs, rapt, not wanting to look, but not wanting to look away so we cover our eyes and peek through our fingers up until the moment of reveal. It’s like we’re all looking for a post-mortem club of sorts to belong to:
Oh, your parent died of cancer? MY parent died of cancer. Oh, your parent died in a tragic car crash? MY spouse/sibling died in a tragic car crash.
Except, no one wants to join my club. Not that I blame them.
This is how the conversation usually goes for me.
Other: “Oh, I’m sorry your Mum’s not here. How’d she die?”
Me: (taking a deep breath) “She died by suicide.”
Other: (grimacing, physically recoiling and then immediately looking at you with a great, overwhelming look of pity) “OH, I am SO sorry! That’s horrible!”
…and then they share a story with me about a friend’s spouse, or a distant uncle or “someone’s someone” that they knew or knew of that had also died by suicide, in an attempt to show that we’re part of that same club, that they share some sort of empathetic connection there, but very few actually do. And that slight, frowning grimace never really leaves their face, and honestly, I see the ghost of it every time I see them hence.
Suicide is a weird thing. People don’t know how to react to it. Eight days after my mother died, my husband and I attended a wedding of friends of his. Every person at that wedding knew that my mother had died by suicide, but instead of acknowledging it, everyone simply chose to ignore it. Not one person came up to me and offered me any condolences. Not one.
I had a friend, whose mother’s story was eerily, very similar to mine. She called me one day to ask me how I dealt with it when people asked me about my mother’s death. I told her that I had learned, much like I had when I was a young girl and I had accepted that my mother’s alcoholism was hers and not mine, that I had to do the same when it came to sharing her choice for her death. I would take that deep breath and let it be said, after all, it was her suicide and not mine; not to sound too Britney about it, but it is what it is.
She told me about making that choice with a new friend and neighbour that she had met while she was on maternity leave. After being invited to that woman’s daughter’s first birthday party, she called me in tears afterward sharing, “as soon as I walked into the room, I knew every person in there was looking at me as “that woman whose mother had committed suicide.”
I got it instantly.
Being the “survivors of suicide” (seriously, a term that I hate) gives you membership in an exclusive kind of club too. A new friend of mine and I were having coffee one day, just as we were really getting to know one another. As it naturally does, our chat turned to families and I shared with her that my mother had died by suicide. Then she had shared that her twin sister had. Anyone watching this conversation from afar would likely have been appalled as we both laughed, and pointed and said to one another, “oh, yours is worse…no, no yours is worse!”. It’s hard to describe what we share by experiencing this in our lives. There’s an unspoken knowing of the pain, the tragedy, the selfishness, the relief, all rolled up together.
What’s hard is for other people to see that I’m okay with my mother’s choice. For her, suicide was a release. My Mum was a tortured soul that had survived an horrific childhood and gave all that she had to my sister, myself, our daughters and my Dad for as long as she could. She looked at me quite serenely one Christmas when my daughter was three and said, “yah, I’m done” and I knew what she meant. “Well, we’re not done with you yet, Grandma”, I whispered to her. I consider us lucky that we got seven more years from her. Still, while I miss her daily and will readily say that 53 was far too young, it’s because I’m being selfish. It was too little for me, but it was years too long for her.
For my Mum, her suicide was a matter of when, not if. I had grown up catching her in various attempts throughout my whole life as she battled with her alcoholism and mental health. It has certainly left an imprint on me, but I’m positive it’s why crises never throw me. I get immediately calm and am able to move straight into action. I’ve been conditioned that way.
So, why am I writing about it now? Because I have to. It’s still with me, as it is every single day. And because Mother’s Day still makes me innately sad and melancholy. When my children are squishing me, and bouncing on me, and plying me with kisses, I am truly loving it and relishing it, but quietly, I am missing making my call to my Mum to let her know that I love her, and that I’m thinking of her.
So, to all of us that have lost our Mums, no matter how, no matter when, I wanted to reach out on this Mother’s Day and let you know that I won’t ask how, but I’ll listen in case you want to share.