Surviving the Pain of Suicide
From horror and hurt to healing and hope.
by Judy Bruns
When my mother took her life, she took a part of mine, too. It felt as though she had rejected me, along with her faith in a God who sees us through. Didn’t she love me? Didn’t she love God? Didn’t she care enough to drop the mask, to confide, to be sincere? Who would have ever thought my sweet mother, with no enemy in the world, could have done such a thing?
I thought the flashbacks of Mom’s suicide had run their course. I had gone through the stages of grieving and dealt with the pain. Then recently, as I neared an intersection during my evening walk, the image jumped out at me once more. Shadows distorted a stop sign so that the silhouette of my mother’s lifeless body seemed suspended from the rope again. You’d think after 28 years the memory would go away.
Smiling on the outside
“Happy-go-lucky” — that’s how people described my mother, Helen. She wore a smile for everyone and moved with bounding energy. I still picture her working at my father’s restaurant, racing back and forth from kitchen to customer, always alert for the next person who walked in the door. Mom seemed happy when she was busy — especially when working alongside my dad.
Her world revolved around him. During his last weeks of life, when he lay dying of cancer at age 48, she refused to accept the specialist’s terminal diagnosis. She stayed busy to avoid contemplating a life without her spouse of 27 years. Mom kept the business going, the bills paid, the house clean. She had no real interests of her own outside of Dad, work, church, and me, their only child.
I don’t remember Mother crying much when Dad died. People thought she was strong. She had maintained her composure through tough times much of her life. Her youngest sister died from diphtheria at age eight. A fire destroyed the family home when Mom was young, too. Later, doctors institutionalized my grandmother for mental illness, and my mother, the oldest daughter at home, dropped out of school after eighth grade to help parent her siblings.
Years later, war in Burma took her youngest brother’s life — one she had raised like a son. Then when she married my father, his parents disapproved because Mom was ten years older. She never got over that feeling of rejection, even after Grandma and Grandpa grew to love her as their own.
Reasons to cry
In subsequent years, Mom had several miscarriages before I was born. When I was in elementary school, her oldest brother committed suicide. All this time she had also been dealing with my father’s nightmares of battlefield experiences in World War II and his binge drinking that continued until I was 13. (Our prayers were answered, and Dad developed into a model spouse and parent.)
I added to Mom’s heartaches, too, when less than a year after Dad’s death, I became pregnant my senior year of college. During her life, Mother had plenty of reasons to cry. Yet she always donned that “happy-go-lucky” smile.
If only Mom could have put into words what she felt deep down inside. I don’t remember her ever saying, “I feel . . .” about anything.
If only I had understood her loneliness before it was too late. I visited with Mom every couple weeks — not as much as I wish I would have. We phoned in between visits. Mother had made a couple friends, also widows, and they seemed to have a good time together. But things weren’t the same. She was in a house without Dad, alone.
Five years had gone by since my father died. Mom’s friend, Mary, drove her over to visit me one afternoon. I was surprised to learn that my mother had been seeing a man whose wife had died the year before. Mary thought that Mr. “H” planned to pop the question soon.
I watched for Mom’s reaction as she sat upright in the corner living room chair. She seemed complimented by her suitor’s interest, yet uneasy and reserved. Months later I would learn that before my father died, he had asked her not to remarry. Loneliness, companionship, commitment, promise — all must have tangled up in the woman who couldn’t confide.
Genetics probably contributed to Mom’s suicide, too. She had experienced, her doctor said, a chemical imbalance. He had hospitalized her for several days about a week before she took her life. She had been low in potassium, which, I learned too late, can contribute to depression.
Mother agreed to stay with my husband and me and our three-year-old daughter to convalesce after her hospitalization. “But only for a few days,” she said.
When Paul’s parents came to visit, Mom declined to come out of the bedroom, saying she was tired. Later that evening, I washed her hair at the kitchen sink and then stood behind her chair to set her hair with curlers. As I spoke to her, she responded with few words, sometimes incoherently. Then she said in a deep, unfamiliar voice, “I’m just a burden.”
When I turned her around to disagree, to tell her that I loved her, I was not looking into my mother’s eyes but into the eyes of a stranger who frightened me. She said she needed to be taken to her own house, where she could be herself and be comfortable. I agreed to take her home the next day.
The last time I saw my mother was when she walked down the sidewalk that stretched from my car to her house. I remember sitting there in the parked car and asking, “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”
She assured me that everything would be fine, that she just needed to be in her own home again. I regret now that I didn’t go into the house with her, but I didn’t understand what was happening inside my mother. I had a three-year-old daughter, and I was eight months pregnant with our second child. I just wanted to go home and relax. At the time I thought that was how my mother must be feeling, too.
The next evening I phoned to see that everything was okay, and Mom said she was fine. She said visitors had come earlier: a lady from down the block and the lady’s mentally handicapped sister. Mother excused herself for not talking longer, saying she was tired. That was the night she took her life.
Two of Mom’s friends and I went to her house the next day. According to a neighbor, Mom hadn’t opened her blinds, and the neighbor suspected something was wrong. When I saw my mother’s bifocals laying on the TV and considered her recent behavior, I feared she had wandered off or that she had gone into a diabetic coma.
It was on the first stair step that I could sense it: Mother was dead. I pictured her going upstairs, melancholy, to look at old photos in the trunk, then suffering a heart attack or a stroke. But I was wrong. Standing at the top of the steps, I could see the light shining inside the attic door, slightly ajar. Mom’s neighbor pushed the door open.
Death had no integrity here. Had I somehow been transported back to the Holocaust or to the lynching of a slave? A white straight-back chair lay toppled on the wooden floor. My gaze fixed; my legs locked at the top of the stairway.
Then I hallucinated. I thought I saw Mom’s finger move. “Somebody, cut her down!” I yelled. When the priest walked in, he told me my mother was dead, but I wouldn’t believe him. I begged him to take my mother down and check for sure. He did. Then he held me in his arms, and I cried.
At the funeral home, I stood with my husband next to the casket. I don’t remember what Mom wore or how she looked. I don’t remember who came through the line as we stood there, and the proceedings at the cemetery draw a blank.
What I recall clearly is the song playing on the radio as my husband drove the car to the funeral. It spoke about loving another dearly — more dearly than words can express. The lyrics seemed from another dimension, like an unspoken, heartfelt exchange between my mother and me.
After Mom’s death, I was afraid to walk upstairs, afraid to open doors because of what might be waiting on the other side. Our baby boy was born healthy, but one year later, I doubled over in pain and was hospitalized for nerves. There I resolved that Mom’s suicide would not take its toll on my or my family’s well-being again. But it still took time.
In my crushed condition, I eventually changed from a weekly church-goer to a daily believer, entrusting God with the questions, the “if onlys,” and the hurt.
Today I can say I am a survivor. But it has taken time, and the healing continues through my nightly Bible reading. Passages like this one bring me comfort:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?. . . When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me. . . . Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord! (Psalm 27:1, 10, 14, NKJV).
I’ve learned to set my sights on others who are hurting, too — in Haiti, Appalachia — and on people with mental illness or disabilities. Most of my efforts have been devoted to Right to Life, joining others in speaking out for the sanctity of human life.
My mother’s eternal life is in God’s hands. I know that in His infinite love, He sees into her soul and will judge with perfect wisdom. In the meantime, I will continue to survive, trusting and hoping in the One who holds and heals.