Whenever I’m getting to know someone new, the subject of my mum’s death inevitably comes up. Soon after the conversation begins I know that I’m going to be asked the question “how did your mum die?” There’s always a split second where I hold my breath and wonder how they’re going to respond to my answer. People are curious and caring, but I think they expect me to respond with “cancer” or “car accident” and not “she committed suicide”.
My mum battled with mental illness for much of her life. Whether this was genetic predisposition or solely due to the events in her life, I’ll never know. I’ve mentioned before that she was the type of person to listen to everyone else’s problems for hours on end, yet bottled up her own feelings inside. It’s been one of my biggest takeaways from her death – I’ve always been an open person, but when I’m struggling I know to call on others to listen, to hold me when I cry or just give me a hug.
I learned about my mum’s previous suicide attempts the day before her death. There were events on that day which led her to take me aside and confide in me. Months prior I had been told that she had gone to the hospital due to a kidney infection, but as it turned out the “kidney infection” was an attempt to take her own life.
So begs the question, why would a beautiful woman, with 2 children, a man, family and friends who loved her deeply try to end it all? I chose not to ask her that question, but instead listened and held her while she was upset and gave her a hug. I wasn’t angry, just thankful that it had only been an ‘attempt’ and that my mother was there to tell me the story herself. That wouldn’t be the case the following day.
I’ve never been a religious person, but I remember sitting next to my mum’s body on the morning of February 24th, crying and begging for a force bigger than me to wake her up. The conversation of the previous day played over and over again and I couldn’t help but beat myself up for not telling my mum that I loved her before I went to bed. I know that my mum knew that I loved her, but there was something about the act of telling her that I felt horrible for missing out on that night.
I felt compelled to write this after quietly sobbing at my computer whilst reading Michael Landsberg’s piece on his own battle with depression and former Maple Leaf, Wade Belak’s suicide. Michael’s own experience with depression gave him unique perspective and empathy for Wade’s death and I was incredibly moved by his writing.
“I don't expect you to understand why Wade made the choice he made. It's tough for me to understand. But I do expect you to accept the seriousness of his disease. If you were saddened by Wade's death then here's what you owe him; you owe him the belief in his pain.
We can't see depression. We cant biopsy it. Blood tests don't show it. Neither do x-rays. Believing in depression takes faith, and surveys show that more than half of us are depressive atheists still believing somehow that depression is not a disease, but a sign of weakness. Wade wasn't weak. Neither was Churchill or Lincoln or Hemingway or your cousin or your neighbor or your son.
Depression is a disease. It's not an issue or a demon, although it may act like one. And if you want to honor Wade's memory, do it this way; never ever tell someone to snap out of it. And never ask anyone, what do you have to be depressed about? Start accepting depression as a serious and sometimes fatal illness.”
In the years since my mum’s death I’ve had few conversations with others who I felt really understood anything close to my own experience. Mental illness touches so many people’s lives, yet it can still be a taboo subject in our society. There are members of my own family who do not believe that we had a history of mental illness in our family.
I’ve had arguments with people throughout my life who felt those who committed suicide were “selfish” and thinking of nothing but themselves. It’s tough for me to listen to those who complain about their delay on the subway because there was a “jumper”. Well maybe your day was ruined, but think about how awful that person would have needed to feel to leave behind everything in this life; that for a moment in their life they had to choose between life and death and couldn’t see anything outside of that choice, including all the good in their life, or the fact that things could ultimately get better.That jumper was a person. A person who had family, friends and probably many people who cared for them who they were leaving behind because they couldn’t see outside the depths of their sadness, grief and despair. Let’s leave the negative stigma behind and work towards creating awareness and helping those who need it.
I was never angry at my mum for her actions, nor did I view her actions as selfish. I’ve wondered how my life would have been different if she had been around and I’ve missed her every day for the last 13 years. I’ve often felt sad that she couldn’t see the light in her life and all of the love that surrounded her but I know there are things that she was feeling that night that I’ll never understand. Mental illness and suicide affects so many people, and I’m hopeful that articles like Michael’s and this one can help people gain empathy and understanding for those people suffering and the people around them who care.
For my mum, Wade and all of the others out there, take that extra moment to tell someone you care. Or that you’re proud of them. Give hugs. Find joy in every moment. Listen to the words that people are saying and pay extra attention to the ones they aren’t saying. Live boldly. Cherish your time here. Love.