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.