The Gift of Surviving
Suicide is a topic I take personally. Not only did both of my parents die by suicide, but also one of my daughter's boyfriends did as well. Other family members made attempts but sought and received help from their loved ones. As you can understand, this subject touches my heart. I have strong sympathy for others who are dealing with loved ones who have died by suicide or who are expressing (or hiding) their intentions to end their lives.
As I reflect back, at one point in their lives, it seemed both of my parents were happy, thriving, and enjoying life. But when I reached high school age, I witnessed both of them experiencing deep depression. Watching them cope with alcoholism while trying to function in everyday life truly saddened me. Seeing their pain and hopelessness, I realized they were doing the best they could at that time. My mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but I often wonder whether this was truly her diagnosis. So little was understood about the condition back then—more than forty years ago—and despite modern medications to stabilize the patient, there’s still no cure in sight. And after my mother’s death, I remember asking my father if he was thinking about suicide. His answer was, "No." I later learned he’d been planning it for months. My mother died in 1977, my father in 1988. She died by prescription medication overdose combined with alcohol, and my father shot himself.
Watching my parents’ lives plummeting, I realized intuitively I needed and wanted to help them. When I was just 15, a voice within me said, “What is happening is for a reason.” But I had no clue what that meant until much later in my life, after both parents were gone.
I now have one lesson learned from this cryptic message years ago: I believe what I experienced with my parents has given me a deep understanding of survivors’ needs. I had the experience to help my daughter deal with her boyfriend’s suicide. She was in high school at the time. Now at the age of 34, she is thriving and has found the man she will spend the rest of her life with. But dealing with her own experience of suicide has opened up her awareness. Like me, she now has more compassion and would know what to do if someone close to her needed help.
When my brother Call was alive, I asked him why he never attempted suicide. Like my mother, he’d wrestled with his own schizophrenia all his life. He said he had too much pride. I found this comment remarkable and inspiring, after all he’d been through.
When life threw me major curveballs and emotional distress, I had a choice to curl up or get back into life and live it with gusto. Was it difficult? Hell, yes! But I realized my suffering had its lessons. It was a gift to help others cope with their own suffering. I chose the more positive outlook, and I can testify that life can get better after grief.
Despite my experience, I still have questions that remain unanswered:
-- Sometimes you can offer your help out of love and compassion. But if someone has made up their mind, as my father had, there is nothing you can do. Do we have the right to intervene when this happens? It’s a difficult question, and I don’t think there’s an answer that always applies. In my father’s case, I came to realize that ending his life by his own hand is what he wanted to do.
- Why did my brother Call decide to not take his life? Why did my daughter choose to live? She was at a vulnerable age in high school at a time when suicide rates rise rapidly and she was shocked by sudden grief. It has been very difficult for her over the years because she felt tremendous guilt about not being able to stop the suicide. Could it be both my brother and my daughter knew inside their souls that their lives would be filled with meaning and purpose later?
My hope—my passion—is to speak out about my experience. If you’re coping now with this painful and sometimes debilitating situation, I want you to know you are not alone. Hold fast to the belief that your own life has purpose and that you will have the strength to see it through.
Note: To learn more about mental illness and to help support research and advocacy, please visit www.nami.org