A woman I know recently wrote me an email that read:
“Little children, I remember, I wonder, was it really me and was it really them?”
This little comment struck me because I’ve mused in this very way about my mother who took her own life in October 1987. I’ve thought to myself: Did my mother really take her own life? Is this really my life? My experience? Those musings are part of a little game I used to play with myself: if I question it, if I wonder about it, perhaps I can imagine that it didn’t really happen to me: that my mother didn’t really do it.
I could dream that she’s alive somewhere in this world, but 23 years later, I know that the only place my mother lives is inside me, inside my sister, inside her five grandchildren, and inside the rest of her family and friends that loved her. She is alive in our memories and in the stories we share about her. She lives through the impact her life, and her death, had on all of us. She lives in my JOY and in my LOVE for MY children.
During the first 10 years after my mother’s death, I carried the heavy load of her suicide every waking moment. Anniversaries and holidays were particularly hard: Mother’s Day, Christmas, Easter, her birthday, the day she died — all of these days brought up new layers of grief every year. But in the 10th year after her death, something changed. I took the first step of what would become the single most healing journey I have ever made.
In October 1997 I started making DAUGHTER OF SUICIDE, a documentary film (that was to eventually aired on HBO) about my mother’s life and death and about how we (her family and friends) survived it. My initial thought was to make a documentary about the grassroots suicide prevention movement that was growing out of the survivor community. I thought I was doing just fine: I had survived a suicide and I might be able to help others.
Looking back, I see how naive I was–I was not “fine” ten years after my mother killed herself, I was a mess! But in that moment, I thought I was a pillar of strength; as a result, I started videotaping family members and friends while talking to them about my mom. A good friend volunteered to interview me for the project and suddenly I was making a film.
I interviewed my father and sister, my aunts and uncle, my grandmother, a cousin and my mom’s best friend. I talked and talked about my mom and I asked questions: Who was she? What was she like as a child? As a wife? As a young mother? As a friend? My father told me about her post-partum depression, my grandmother talked about her as a happy and precocious child, and her best friend told me how supportive and open she was as a friend. I heard over and over what a GOOD friend she was, what a GOOD wife she was, what a GOOD child she was–despite the darkness that she struggled with.
I began to understand what a wonderful woman my mother was and started comparing the stories I was hearing with my own more recent memories of her depression and anger and eventual suicide. That last year of her life, and her eventual suicide, blotted out much of the happiness I felt as a child, but while making the film I was learning something new. I was asking questions and actually getting answers about all of her ups and downs. Good memories were coming back and it felt like she was speaking to me through friends and family. I was finally in conversation with my mother!
It was exciting and devastating–the loss of her hit me all over again and the load of her suicide grew heavier as I moved forward documenting her life.
When DAUGHTER OF SUICIDE was released in early 2000, I was invited to be a guest on a few TV shows, I traveled to film festivals and it eventually premiered on HBO Signature. My pain, and my family’s pain, was out there for everyone to see and it felt surprisingly good! It was as if the making of the film released all of my demons. My load was suddenly lighter despite the fact that my mom was still dead, still a suicide.
I’d stepped into her darkness and came out the other side brighter, happier and freer. I could GIGGLE again! I could laugh and smile and actually ENJOY living!
It has now been ten years since DAUGHTER OF SUICIDE was released into the world and I can see the impact it had on my life. It allowed me to take time and really examine every part of my mother’s life: the good and the bad. I was able to put everything under the microscope and focus on her: I saw the flecks of dirt and the pretty, shiny stuff and I was able to integrate her suicide into my life. I am no longer carrying the weight of it. Her suicide is just another part of me: a part like everything else. All of those interviews, all of that talking and all of that learning allowed me to let go of my bitterness and anger.
My mom has missed so many landmarks: college graduations, masters degrees, marriages and commitment ceremonies, five grandchildren (two of them mine) and even more small moments: hugs, kisses, smiles, and the daily ups and downs that make up our lives. I still think about her on a daily basis and I wonder what life would have been like if she were still alive and if she knew my kids. I feel the loss of her, but I don’t linger there; instead, I celebrate who she was and her impact on all of our lives.
Mother’s Day is a day of joy and laughter when I remember my mother, celebrate my own motherhood and bask in the joy of my children.Tags: grief, hope