Surviving Suicide

Last Saturday, I attended the memorial service for my youngest sister, Colette, She was 36 years old and has two beautiful daughters. After battling depression and borderline personality disorder for decades, she finally succumbed to her illness and committed suicide. It is tragic that she was in so much pain. My intention with this blog is to help ease the suffering of anyone who has experienced the devastation of suicide.

My husband, Mark, spoke at Colette’s service and I am sharing his remarks with his permission.

“I did not know Colette well. I met her only once on the occasion of her father’s death. Yet, I feel called to speak today because Colette’s daughters and I now share a common experience: loss of a parent to suicide. My father committed suicide when I was eleven years old.

To her daughters, I say: Your mother’s death is NOT your fault. And to everyone here I say: Colette’s death is not your fault. Guilt troubles all survivors of suicide. We all ask: “What could I have done differently?” We all tell ourselves: “I should have done more,” We think: I should have been a better friend, or sister or brother or daughter.

You did not kill Colette. Colette was mentally ill, and her illness killed her. Sadly, she is not alone. More the 40,000 people take their own lives each year in the United States. For perspective, that’s more people than die in auto accidents. In fact, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US.

I tell you all what I know firsthand: it is very difficult to be with someone who is mentally ill. And still more difficult for a child. My father’s behavior was erratic: he would fly into a rage for reasons I was too young to understand. He wanted to be with me at times and would seem interested in what I was doing, but then was suddenly critical and/or dismissive. While I wanted what all children and really what all of us want: to be cherished and loved and nurtured, I learned my father’s ability to love and nurture were limited by his illness as I understand Colette’s were as well.

As a child, for me that meant not wanting to be around my father and wishing that my father would die in a car accident. When he killed himself, I felt relief that he was gone and guilt because I wished it. The thinking of child is magical, but wishing something whatever it might be does NOT make it so.

I say to you, her daughters, that if you wished not to be with your mother or whatever you may have wished or thought about your mother: You did not kill her. Wishes and thoughts do not kill: Your mother death is not your fault.

I am deeply sad for you and for Colette: Colette will not be there to help you into your wedding dress or to see your joy as you take your vows. She will not be there when you have your first child to reassure and help you. While I trust others will be there for you at those times, and that you will have loving and productive lives, I am deeply sad that Colette will not share in your lives. We will miss her in ways we cannot yet understand.

Suicide differs from other deaths because of the feelings and questions it engenders in us. Along with guilt you may feel anger: “How could Colette have done this, how could she leave me, and why did she do this”. Or relief: “At least now it’s over and I will not have to deal with Colette any more”. Or the big one for me: why would God let something like this happen? Harder still, you may feel shame and a sense you should not talk about what happened because of the stigma that attaches to suicide.

Why did Colette kill herself? Why does anyone kill themselves? My answer is to end the pain. People with mental illness often suffer overwhelming despair that the rest of find difficult to fathom. Mental illness is different than other diseases because it affects a person’s feelings and abilities to think and process information. It interferes with relationships and makes them hard to sustain. As a result those who suffer mental illness that does not respond to treatment feel pain, worthlessness, and isolation that grows with time like snow building on the mountain in winter that in one unstable moment collapses in an avalanche.

Mental illness is a hard disease to understand and really we still know very little about it. There was no way, for example, to see inside Colette’s mind to see what was wrong. If she had died of cancer we’d know whether it was breast cancer or liver cancer for example via an MRI or CAT scan we could have actually seen the tumors in her body.

Yet even if we know something about mental illness, we may find ourselves very angry with Colette. I was angry with my father for committing suicide. For me and perhaps for you, suicide violates a sense of what is right. While we fight to live and thrive, we may see our loved one’s suicide as giving up or giving-in or even as murder by their own hand. We feel angry and we want justice as we might for any murderer. But justice in the usual sense cannot be found: the murderer is dead. We are left alone as if standing by the side of the road and watching the cars go by with anger and hurt with no one to direct it towards.

God may likely be the next target of this anger: How can a good God who loves us let this happen? Colette needed you, my father needed you and where were you? For Colette, my father, for all suicides and really for all tragic deaths that occur where is God?

As a child I had no answer. As an adult I still do not understand God’s purposes in Colette’s suicide or my father’s or many other things that occur. But I say today to everyone here: I believe that God was with Colette and is with her now. If you are angry towards God, be angry. God can handle your anger. Share the anger, share yourself with God, seek God’s love and to know God’s will, endeavor in all that is happened to heal, to remain open, to wonder, to love, and to be loved. God wants that for you and God wanted that for Colette.

I will end my talk with this: Accept and allow your feelings and questions. Understand that what you feel about Colette’s death will not be the same as your sisters’ or your brothers’ feelings. Support each other, talk with each other about, and work to find answers to your questions. Give yourselves the time to grieve and to walk a path to recovery and forgiveness of yourselves and Colette: let today be one step along that path.”

My challenge for you this week is to talk with someone who has been affected by suicide. There is still a stigma around suicide that elicits shame and one way to stop the shame is to share our experiences and understand that we are not alone.

Joyful Interviewing

Before I went through the interview process at Temple University, I would not have thought that interviewing could be joyful. However, that is how I would describe my experience as I went through the many months of interviewing at Temple.

A recruiter reached out to me about the job at Temple last November. I didn’t know much about Temple. My niece had attended there for a couple of years so I knew where it was, that it was a public university, and that they had a good basketball program. The job description, written with the emphasis on the mission of accessibility, affordability, service and excellence, caught my attention. I was intrigued and my conversations with the recruiter and head of the search committee deepened my interest.

At the time I felt that it didn’t make sense to pursue the opportunity because our youngest daughter has two more years of high school and we are tied to Ann Arbor until she graduates. Before I officially applied for the position, my husband, Mark, and I talked about whether we could make it work if I got the position. For me, it was a matter of integrity that I would not pursue the position unless I would be willing to accept the job. Mark was supportive and encouraged me to throw my hat into the ring. We decided together that we would figure out how to make it work if I got the offer and that I needed to pursue the opportunity.

My first interview was a videoconference with the search committee. A couple of the committee members had U-M connections and they were genuinely enthusiastic about my experience and leadership. I met the committee in person when I was invited back to campus a couple of months later for two marathon days of back-to-back interviews.

When I saw the interview schedule for my visit, I knew they were serious. I met with the President, Provost, Deans, Vice Presidents and key faculty and staff members. In preparation for the interview, I talked with my executive coach and wrote my intention to leave everyone that I met with feeling peaceful and energized and that I would get enough information to determine whether this was a place where I could be the positive leader and help in the development of a virtuous organization.

My two days on campus were amazing. My affection for Temple started with my first interaction with a charming student who offered to help as I examined the campus map the night I arrived on campus. It continued to grow during the two days of interviews as I asked each person I met why they chose to work at Temple. Their passion around the mission and the possibilities at the university was inspiring and infectious.

I came home energized and excited but Mark was worried. His concern increased when I was notified that I was one of two finalists and Mark and I were invited for the final day of interviews and a tour of Philadelphia in April. This is when we started serious discussions of how we really could make this work while preserving our marriage and family life.

The final day of interviews had the same energy as my first visit to campus. My favorite interaction of the day was a town hall meeting where all of computing services were invited to attend and ask me questions. That town hall was so much fun with a lots of laughter and great questions. I surprised the group by asking them a couple of questions. The first question I asked was “What are you most proud of that you have accomplished at your time at Temple?” The second question was “What do you want the incoming CIO at Temple to know? For the first question, I asked people to share their responses openly. For the second, I asked them to just write down their response and turn it in so that I could know what was important to them. Those responses gave me valuable information that was crucial to my eventually accepting the job.

While I was interviewing, Mark was investigating. He took the subway to the Temple campus, walked around, struck up conversations with students and parents, tried to attend a class (it was the day of the final exam so he decided not to stay), and went to the bookstore to buy Temple gear. Mark summed up the visit by saying that Temple had fallen in love with me and I had fallen in love with Temple. This was definitely true.

Trying to figure out how this could work with our family was the hardest part of the entire process. Reality dashed my fantasy of having all of us relocate to Philadelphia immediately. Mark can work from anywhere, which is helpful, but children and pets are not easily transportable between locations. We explored many different scenarios through various bouts of stubbornness and hard conversations. The option that we could both live with was to have me work Monday-Thursday at Temple and work remotely on Fridays from Ann Arbor until our youngest graduates in a couple of years.

I was thrilled when I got the call that Temple had selected me as their next CIO. The final barrier to me accepting the job came down to whether it would be feasible for me to telecommute one day a week for two years. While I had been transparent during the entire interview process about our youngest needing to stay in Ann Arbor, the possibility of regular telecommuting had not been discussed as a way for me to balance my work and family obligations. The initial answer was a partial yes with time restrictions that wouldn’t work for my family.

For me, it was a practical and well as a philosophical question. Telecommuting is expected for high tech professionals and I have had flexibility in my work schedule for decades. Also, I had data from the computing services staff that telecommuting was important to them from the question that I asked at the town hall meeting. More broadly, it raised concerns for me about how much autonomy I would have to lead and make changes. Even after talking with the head of the search committee and the provost, the reluctance for me to telecommute remained.

So I turned down the offer.

I did this in complete freedom and peace. As much as I loved Temple and wanted the opportunity, I knew that I couldn’t be the positive leader that I aspire to be if it wasn’t possible to make this change. A friend, who is a positive business consultant, encouraged me to give Temple the opportunity to fire me before they hired me to see if they were really capable of and interested in creating to a more positive work culture and whether they would be open to other changes that I would want to promote.

Happily, Temple demonstrated that they were interested in changing and offered to have me work with HR on a telecommuting policy for all of computing services. This satisfied my practical need to telecommute while advancing my ability to create a more positive and trusted work environment. And it gave me a very positive signal about what a good fit we would be for each other.

I start at Temple in August.

My challenge for you this week is to approach your current job and your next job with integrity and freedom. You should always be looking for a good fit. Remain curious and approach interviews as conversations where both sides are learning about each other.