For two days no one knew she was gone. And yet, hadn't she already been gone for years? When was the last time she had smiled her beautifully contagious smile? Laughed her laugh so full and loud you wanted to cover your ears and join in all at once? How long had it been since a conversation wasn't bloated with manic monologues of conspiracy, mafia tormentors, government schemes? When exactly did that sparkle of light leave her eyes?
Departure of personality is an insidious thing, slowly creeping in day by day, year after year. You begin to mourn without even realizing exactly what it is you've lost, the changes occur so slowly. But at some point you know that a gaunt hollow shell has taken over, invaded the life force of the one you love and you are powerless to stop it, though you try and you try. You cling to faded hope that somehow, someway the tunnel of madness will end in light. Tired and weary you pray on your knees that the carousel of hospitalizations, medications, depression and paranoia will cease spinning round and round. Dizzying centrifuge of eroding hope, of "solutions" that never work.
But still, I never thought it would come to this.
Six days ago the phone call came. The burning words of my sister, brand of fury and shock,
" She's dead. She killed herself. She's gone."
The words ring in my ears. Like a wild animal I want to claw at something. Scratch and tear my way free from the gaping wound in the pit of my stomach. Inexplicable feeling of nausea, light-headedness, heart pounding. Shock numbing my brain, rendering me incapable of forming thoughts or words. Like a stranger outside of myself I slam shut the torrent of pain.
I can't fall apart.
Not in front of the kids. I must shield them from this. I will shield my children from this pain. From the lingering haunt of my broken childhood that follows me here, to this place of unspeakable grief. She killed herself. She's gone.
Moments later my husband rushes through the door. He already knows what has happened, sparing me from having to say the words. The words that play on loop in my head, "She's dead. She killed herself. She's gone." My husband takes care of things. Makes the necessary phone calls, whisks kids away so I can be alone.
Alone to grapple with the thoughts of death and of ropes.
I can't cry. It feels so wrong to not cry. Why can't I feel anything? Like a grief-stricken zombie I wander into the backyard. It is dusk. I stare into the darkening woods with the realization that mom is no longer in this world. Gone from this night fall. Gone from this moonrise. How can everything look so normal when nothing is normal anymore? How does the sun still set as if nothing has happened? Birds chirp and merrily search for worms in happy oblivion while I am here in this yard, in these woods while policemen with blue gloves conduct investigations take down mom's body.
My sister and I zombie-walk through the necessary arrangements. There are decisions that need to be made: Casket, flowers, prayer cards, scripture verses. These decisions feel oddly easy. Casket: light wood, cheerful. (Cheerful? Why should anything about this appear cheerful?!) Flower arrangements: Peonies, Mom loved those. (Why should flowers even matter when Mom hadn't thought of gardening for years?!) Prayer cards: Prayer of Saint Francis. (Prayer cards? Where was mom's faith when she decided to give up on life?!) We make decisions to create the illusion of natural, peaceful death while the reality of the situation is anything but peaceful or natural. Mom hung herself. This is the reality. What are we even celebrating here? These questions run through my head, but no answers come. With suicide, the answers never come.
The funeral director discusses obituary and calling hours and I am blunt when I ask about an open casket,
"What about her neck?"
"It depends on what was used: electrical cord, rope, chain-"
"There will be marks, you'll have to cover those. A scarf should do. With this type of death, sometimes the jaw breaks, and there's swelling. But we'll do our best. I haven't seen the body yet."
Mom is a body.
And the thoughts come. Dark thoughts. Thoughts you can't stop yourself from wondering.
Did she struggle?
Did she change her mind when it was too late?
What were her final thoughts?
More questions without answers.
We go to mom's house to select an outfit, an outfit with a scarf. The house looks like she's still living in it-- as if she had just stepped out for a walk. Bills on the table. Leftovers in the fridge. Laundry hanging to dry.
But there are other things. Strange things. Boobie traps. Scraps of paper with paranoid scrawl. Binoculars by the window.
Why couldn't we save you? Why wouldn't you move out when we pleaded with you? Why couldn't you realize the paranoia wasn't real? Why? Why? Why?
We go to the basement, to the spot. There's the lawn chair she used-the one we had sat in at countless family gatherings and picnics. There's a hole in the beam where the hook had been. And there's a shoe. All that is left from this suicidal scene is a lawn chair, a hole and a shoe. Somehow these ordinary household things seem strange to me, as if some foreign items belong in this scene of dark questions without answers. Because you just don't expect something so extraordinary to occur with ordinary household items of lawn chairs and ladder hooks.
We look for clues, for notes, for anything that might give us some answers. We come up mostly short, but we do find a message written on the envelope containing her will. She writes that she wants us to be happy. To live and enjoy our lives. She tells us she will look down on us from above. And she writes something else. A verse from scripture, just two lines,
"O death where is thy victory. O death where is thy sting."
Despite everything my mom endured-the pain, the suffering, the paranoia, the depression, the dissent into madness, she longed for immortality with God. And although I'll never have the answers as to what went through her mind on that fateful day when she took her life, I know she ended it with the full belief that she would see God's face.
And then the tears come. The tidal wave of pain. The gut-wrenching grief over a life wrecked by mental illness, ending in a lawn chair, a hole and a shoe. I cry over the boobie traps and I cry over binoculars. I cry over the loss of hope and the lack of goodbye.
My mother, so beautiful, so loving, so tormented by her own demons. She tried to protect us from her madness our entire lives, but could never quite conceal it fully.
My sister and I cry and we hug and we hold on tight to the memories of who mom was beneath the madness. We hold on tight to the memories of chinese checkers, of county fairs with cowboy hats, of trips to the mall for orange juliuses and greasy pizza. Because that's who mom really was. She was a woman who adored her daughters and adored the happy simple aspects of life. And so we cling to these things and cement them in our minds to keep her alive in our hearts. We cherish these things because that's what mom would've wanted. She'd have wanted us to remember the happy times. And we comfort ourselves with the knowledge of mom's faith. The faith she carried her entire life--the faith she passed along to me. My most cherished gift of all is from my mom.
Though I cling to the happy times, the days of grief are tough. Nights are especially hard. Dark thoughts plague me in the night and I sob into my pillow.
Will mom truly meet God?
Isn't suicide an unforgivable sin?
Will God show her mercy because she was mentally ill?
These thoughts plague me night and day and I cannot escape the worry that Mom is not with God. I need to know in order to make peace with this horrible death. I need to know that she is ok. I need to know so I can be there for my boys who need me. I beg God each night to help me. I pray fervently for Mom's soul. I pray for her soul and I pray for sleep and for peace and for the healing of this gaping wound in my heart.
God hears my prayers. And He answers them.
One week later I dream. I dream the most beautiful dream:
There's Mom and she's in heaven and there's flowering trees and green mountains and she's wearing white and laughing and eating coconut cake at a picnic. She's glowing with joy and she tells me there's no pain. She tells me there's only joy and assures me that life never ended for her. She shows me there was light and peace and she is happier than words can express. She tells me I don't need to miss her because she is always there with me. She wants me to be happy. She looks so amazingly beautiful--the pain of mental illness completely gone from her face. She walks so gayly, so free! My heart sings with gladness and my soul rejoices.
She is with Him!
I awake in such a state of glee. My heart is so light, still basking in her joy. And I know then and there that everything will be ok. Better than ok.
Everything will be amazing.
Only God can take a nightmare and transform it into day. Only God can heal the heart of a broken-hearted daughter. He gives us exactly what we need. He knew I needed that dream, and He gave me that amazing gift. The grace and the love of the Lord knows no bounds. He made the world in 6 days and healed my shattered world in just as many. Nightmare ended, peace restored.
O death where is Thy Victory, O death where is Thy sting?
**********************Today is the 3 year anniversary of my mother's suicide. I share my story in the hope that it might find someone out there who is mourning, that they, too, might know the peace that the Lord can bring. In the face of unspeakable tragedy there's a wellspring of amazing grace that we can dip into whenever we need it. The Lord gives us that and more. I am eternally grateful for the gift of faith my mother passed to me, the gift that helped me through the tragedy of losing her. I could not have gotten through those darkest hours without His grace and love. Pour your heart out to Him and trust in Him. He will meet you there.