The S Word

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Whenever I’m getting to know someone new, the subject of my mom’s death inevitably comes up. Soon after the conversation begins I know that I’m going to be asked the question “how did your mom 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 died by suicide”.

My mom 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 mom’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 partner, 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 mom’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 mom that I loved her before I went to bed. I know that my mom 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 mom’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”. 

Perhaps your day was ruined or inconvenienced, 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 mom 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 mom, 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.


tomfromhr said...

Thank you for sharing this Ashley, and I'm sorry for your loss. I have friends whose lives have been impacted by suicide and it always bothers me to hear people joke about it. I think all you can do is share your story, when you can, and try and raise some awareness.

Suzie Q said...

Thanks for sharing. I can relate in some ways. Definitely made me think xo

Gillian said...

Thank you for writing this Ashley. Being able to write about these types of tragedies means so much to those reading and is so healthy to let out. I am so sorry to hear about your mother. I have suffered with depression all of my life and it's a difficult topic to breach with many people.

Lots of love,

Kim said...

Thank you so much for this. It's so important to be open and honest about depression so that some day, maybe we can remove that stigma that says it's something shameful. My community has seen a real increase in suicides in recent years, I'm desperate to do something about it but don't even know where to start. I think getting the conversation started is a good place to begin.

Liz said...

Brave and generous of you to post this. People need to read this, not just for this scenario but for all situations that they label without having a deeper understanding. Great work :)

Christine Estima said...

you = bravest woman i know.

Major Gal said...

thank you for this

Mary said...

You have taught me so much, Ashley This post is another important lesson for me - for us all.
Hugs. Mary

Crystal said...

Thank You for speaking out!! Myself, my dad, and my sister all suffer from depression and people need to talk about this more! People should not feel ashamed of their illness and should be able to speak up and seek help from loved ones if need be!

Sylvia said...

I work a farmer's market on Saturdays and today was the slowest we have ever had. The girl I have stood next to for 6 months, laughed, joked and worked with, opened up today and told me of her depression when I told her of my son's.
He is 15 and has had 2 major episodes, both happening in early October and his doctor thinks the lowering of the light levels has much to do with his cycles. My fear opened my mouth and her response, loving, kind, with tender words made all the difference in the world.
In my immediate family, they think my son is having 'bad behavior' or is 'lazy' or 'not willing to be social'. They suggest whippings and forced church youth group retreats. They want to change his diet, make him join sports teams, take this or that vitamin or supplement.
And some of that is good. But what has really been helpful, really worked wonders was finding a great psychiatrist and an educated mother and father who are willing to go the distance.
It may not be enough. We still may lose him to the darkness. I pray a lot and have a lot of people praying for him.
As my next door neighbor at the Farmer's Market said today, there is no magic pill for this. It is like arthritis. It never goes away. You just have to live with and learn what to do when you start to slide.
You never know, Ashley, someone who asks about your mother's death may be thinking those thoughts her/his self. Just knowing that they are NOT ALONE or the first one to feel that way may be enough to save them for another day.

Thais said...

tears came to my eyes as i read your post. thank you so much for opening to us and i am so sorry for your loss. you are a strong soul my friend. keep that heart open bc you have no idea how many lives you've touched. <3

Sarah Carere said...

Hi Ashley,
How brave of you to share your story. I agree that this is a disease that needs to be taken seriously, but more importantly i think that everyone should take the time in this hectic world to show other people compassion, gratitude, caring and love. Your last line is a good reminder for us all.


Emily said...

thanks for this post, ashley.
suicide is something that has been a part of life for those i love recently, and in both cases depression was involved.

i love your call to love deeply and open your eyes to those around you who are hurting...

Nicole said...

Such a touching post, Ashley. Thank you for sharing your story.

Kaitlyn S. C Hatch said...

This is an incredible blog. I have experience a lot of death in my life compared to most people my age (27) and I'm baffled at how many people get to their fifties, sixties and seventies without learning the importance and necessity of grieving.

I have lost a friend to suicide and that experience in itself was difficult - I cannot even fathom losing a parent to it.

As someone who has battled mental illness I totally appreciate this post and what you are sharing.

Thank you!

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