Four days before Christmas, when I was seven, my mother suffered a devastating brain injury in an automobile collision. For the next six years, her recovery was an inspiration to everyone around her. She never regained her pre-accident self, but in many ways she became something better. I believed she was the toughest person in the world. Then, three days after my 13th birthday, she ended her life.
There is a lot of information out there about suicide. You can research the causes, the aftermath, prevention and coping techniques. But one thing you don’t understand until you experience it up close is the way that type of death affects the way you feel about the life lost, and about yourself.
I thought suicide was something that only happened to people who were mentally weak or selfish. When the toughest, most selfless person I knew took her life, it created a series of questions that only one person could answer, and she was gone.
Every birthday I’ve had for the last 21 years has been accompanied by the lingering cloud of the anniversary of my mother’s suicide. For most of those years, that meant focusing on my perceived shortcomings as a son.
Last year, I started volunteering for the local chapter of the AFSP. At the first meeting I was asked about my mother. I started to describe the circumstances of her death until I was stopped by the woman who leads the chapter.
“No, don’t tell me how she died. Tell me how she lived.”
That was such a turning point in my loss journey. Last week, I was able to celebrate my birthday with my wife and two young sons without the lingering cloud, because for the first time in two decades, I don’t see the anniversary as a time to focus on her death; I saw it as an opportunity to focus on her life. I don’t try to figure out what her death says about her or me. I think about her toughness and resilience, and the way she loved me while she was here. Because she, and all those we’ve lost, should be remembered for how they lived. That celebration makes it easier to attack the way they died, and try to prevent others from having to fight this battle.