The lasting impact of suicide
Sam was 11 years old when his mother took her own life in the late 1960s. He didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, and his memories of her grew sketchy over time. As a result, Sam — now a 50-something professional photographer — is creating a “huge volume of memories” for his wife and two children, ages 12 and 15. He described his experience to me this way:
“My mom was very creative. She threw really good birthday parties, like one where she got boards, switches, wires, batteries and lights, and we made little light contraptions. We lived in a large Victorian house, and she took care of me, my two older sisters, and our animals; we had a dog, several cats, a horse and pony, and a pet monkey. I used to drive our tractor and loved mucking around outside. I had a pretty serious stutter as a kid, and school was always terrifying for me. She was very helpful with that.
Every year, my mom would go away for one or two weeks to a psychiatric center called the Institute of Living in Connecticut. I just figured every mom did that. My grandmother would help take care of us, and there were presents for us every day; that was my mom’s doing. At the institute, she made us things. I still have a little clay man with his arms around a tray that I love. But most of those things are gone. After my father remarried, his wife led a campaign to exorcise the house of my mother’s stuff. There was a significant yard sale when I was 14 or 15 when everything went out. As an adult, I was visiting a friend and saw a steamer trunk with my mother’s initials in red letters on the front. And I said, ‘That’s my mother’s,’ and he said, ‘It’s yours, you can have it.’
The suicide was kind of out of the blue; there was no particular incident that seemed to spark it. My parents were having friends over for cocktails or dinner, but my father didn’t know where my mother was. So he called the police. We were home, and I actually heard the gunshot, but I thought it was firecrackers. They found my mother alive and took her to the hospital, and she lived for a day. I really wanted to go see her, but they told me she was all bandaged up and wouldn’t recognize me. They said, ‘She’s probably going to die, and if she lived, she’d have to learn how to read again.’ And I thought, ‘I’ll teach her how to read again, I’ll take care of her.’
I still don’t know if it would have been the right thing, if the image of her bandaged up would have lingered in my memory forever. But I wish I’d had at least a moment to see my mom. As an 11-year-old kid, you don’t appreciate your parents until they’re gone, and then it’s too late. My wife is Catholic, and after we married we went to some wakes with open caskets, and I thought, ‘This is really good. You can look at the person and say goodbye and have a moment to process it.’
We had a memorial service for my mother and then a party at our house. No one explained how this was a time to get together and pay your respects. I didn’t understand why they would have a party after my mother died, and I went and sat in my room. I resented it for years.
One thing I never understood was this: My dad bought a cemetery plot and had a stone placed under a tree, but he didn’t tell us about it. I know he was furious at my mother for leaving him alone with us, and he wanted us to move on with our lives. It wasn’t until high school that a friend of mine saw the stone and told me. Once I found out, I would go visit it all the time.
There was a suicide note, but I didn’t see it until I was 38 — about the same age my mom was when she died. For years I thought that one of the reasons she killed herself was because she couldn’t get us to brush our teeth or other things we were supposed to do. Then my sister went to the police station and got a copy of the letter. It basically said, ‘I can’t stand the thought of you having to put up with me. I don’t think I should be around; I’m doing this for you. You’re wonderful kids, and I love you so much.’ It took me a long time to realize that she was sick, that she wasn’t perfect.
As a result of my experience growing up, and also the changing times, I try to be a significant part of my kids’ lives. I make them breakfast every day (I used to be a short-order cook), and we’ll eat together. I have hundreds of thousands of photos, and I have been making picture books of our adventures. We also take 15-second movies of ourselves and edit them together to make longer ones. I continue to learn new things and instill in our kids that you’re never too old to try something new. About 10 years ago I took up guitar, and about two years ago I began playing ice hockey. Life is about learning new things.”
Consider this . . .
Create opportunities for your family to remember each other and good times.
Explain funeral rituals to children and include them in those rituals.