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Second Attempt for Mom

Updated: Jan 13

Last October I tried to write about my mom's decision to end her life.

I couldn't manage it.

Shortly after that, several people mentioned how their loved ones had died from suicide. One man shared that his son had died this way many years ago. I ached to hold his hand and tell him about Mom but we were surrounded by others and the moment wasn't right.

I encountered this sort of connection to suicide survivors again and again after I set aside my last attempt at writing this post.

Each person's story felt like a nudge from the universe to take the next step. A reminder that I was not alone in this kind of loss any more than Mom was alone in her own struggles with depression.

So here I am. Writing the impossible because I long to tell our story for myself, for my sister, and for my mom. I also long to tell it because it might help one of my readers.

(Warning. I'm going to talk about my experience in detail. Not in graphic detail, but it may still be hard on your heart.)

It's hard for me to know where to begin in part because the story is so long. I think Mom was depressed to one degree or another my entire life, and she started taking medications when I was in my teens. I have a clear memory of telling her once that I knew I was in trouble myself when I could see that something was beautiful but I could not feel its beauty in my heart.

She looked at me for a long time and nodded. Around that same time, she told me that if she ever chose to leave, it would not be my fault.

I know she meant those words but they are hard for me to believe. I'll say more about that soon.

Looking back, I can see that she was wrestling with her depression full force from the time my father died in 2011. I began calling her on my way to work each morning around then. I needed a way to connect on a regular basis and knew she needed it too. Sometimes when I would hang up as I got to work, she would say how important that connection was. She would say that I didn't know how much it meant.

I always told her I did know.

In 2017, I noticed that she began to get even lower. She had an artist friend who needed to be in a rehab center after a stroke. I know Mom was appalled at the conditions of that place and that she was thinking about what it would be like for her as she grew older. Mom's home was becoming too much for her to manage alone but she could not bring herself to leave the last place she had lived with Dad. To leave her garden. Her many art supplies. Her beloved pets.

One day I ran into her at the grocery store. She had only one item at the checkout line: a one liter bottle of Pendleton Whiskey. It was finally apparent to me that alcohol was a problem for her in a way I had never clearly seen before. And I had no idea what to do about it. Any conversation with her went in circles that led nowhere.

On top of all this, Mom had undergone gastric bypass surgery over a decade before that awkward day in the grocery store. This surgery had helped her lose the weight she needed for her physical comfort and for the diabetes she was beginning to wrestle with. And this surgery caused her considerable physical and mental distress. She was still hungry but could not eat. She suffered with pain in her stomach ever after that surgery. At times, she could not leave the house because of her gastric distress—causing her to become more isolated. Of course, the alcohol was complicating everything.

In February of 2018, my sister called. She had also noticed Mom's decline and was worried. Mary and I hadn't been talking much at that point. We had been struggling in the way that many sisters do—in the way that those without sisters may not be able to understand. But I was instantly grateful that Mary had reached out. We met for coffee and talked through our concerns. We knew Mom wanted to stay in the house but also recognized that it was getting to be too much. We decided to go together to talk to Mom right then, knowing that it would not get any easier to do this later.

Mom actually looked pretty good that day. She'd showered and had been able to pick up the house a bit. We talked to her and gave her our ideas about the best way to help with the upkeep. Maybe a housekeeper. Someone to help with the lawn.

She stared at us as we talked and I could feel her pull back from us. She crossed her arms and nodded. Said something about how she could see we were getting along better.

We'd said what we hoped would help. It didn't.

Things got worse. She was not eating as far as we could tell, she was not letting her dachshund Barli out, and she rarely left the couch. I added daily trips to see her along with the phone calls, still unable to get her to do anything different. Each time we hung up, we said we loved each other.

I called her doctor repeatedly to see if I could get her help. The nurses and office assistants said that the doctor attempted to make a house call but sadly could not find her house. I met with the counselor she'd stopped seeing a while ago who gave me some suggestions for how to talk to her. Those did not help either.

We staged a family intervention, sitting with her in the living room. We told her of our concerns and pressed her hard to get help. She folded her arms and shook her head. Said she was fine. That it was just the same trouble she'd always had. When we pressed her to take care of herself so she could attend my older son's high school graduation in June, she just smiled a little and said she'd be there.

We called 911 then, hoping they'd come out and convince her to get help. They had us put her on the phone. She then declined their help and that was that. They would not come.

The only thing that shook her stony calm was our threat to take the dog. She begged us not to and we could not.

She promised us she had an appointment to go see her doctor. Showed us the date written in her shaky hand on the calendar. It was two weeks away. We knew it was not enough but could not see anything more to do.

I started calling the Employee Assistance Program through my workplace. A wonderful woman on the call line held me up as I cried on the phone, not knowing what we could do. We found a crisis line and I called that. They had a checklist that included many things that might have fit other people contemplating suicide but did not fit my mom. She was not doing anything drastic or speaking of ending her life.There was nothing they could do.

I thought perhaps if she passed out, I could then call 911 for help. It was really my only hope by then. The doctor's appointment day came and I tried to drive her there. She refused to go.

Once after I'd cleaned her bathroom, she called me over to her and said, "Thank you. For everything."

I told her I didn't know what to say. I really didn't. I desperately wanted to help her but she was not willing to take what I ached to offer her.

Time went on and she sunk more into her couch. I continued to work and take care of my kids, checking constantly on Mom with Mary's help. We cleaned the house, walked the dog, scooped the cat box, and begged her to get help when we could bring ourselves to keep doing such a futile thing. Each time I called her in the morning, I wondered if she would answer and she almost always did with her sleepy crackling voice.

A few times she would not answer and I would rush down to check on her. She was still on the couch each time.

In May, I was the faculty graduation speaker for the college where I worked. I had been preparing for months and was a little nervous as I walked on the stage at the Tacoma Dome and sat with the other speakers and dignitaries. But really speaking to the biggest crowd I'd ever stood in front of was a welcome distraction. For a few minutes I could think of something other than my worry about my mom and my helplessness as I watched her go downhill by inches.

The last time I saw her alive was a few days later on Memorial Day. I stopped by the house with my younger son to clean and care for the pets. Again. I made sure the mail was picked up and set it out on the kitchen table. At some point while I was running around she apparently got up to sit at the table. When I came back, my son told me that she had fallen. She had made it back to her couch by then and just snapped when I asked if she was okay.

My sister checked on her later in the day and had nothing new to report. Mom was on the couch.

The next day I called Mom on my way to work again. She didn't answer.

I texted my colleague to say I needed to check on her and turned my car towards Mom's house.

When I got there, I found her dead. There was no hope of help from 911. She must have died in the night. I called the medics to help me instead of to help her this time, barely able to remember the number for 911, wailing with a grief that felt like it might kill me too. Waiting ten minutes for them felt like an eternity alone in the house as her dachshund barked shrilly and I paced the floor, trying to breathe. I called my husband and then my friend who lived nearby. Both also came as quickly as they could.

The call to my sister was much harder. I could swear her wail was an exact echo of my own.

Mom's death certificate listed three causes of death:

A: Cardiac Arrest

Interval: Hours

B. Malnourishment

Interval: Months

C. Severe Major Depression

Interval: Years

I have often thought of what my mother said long ago. That this was not my fault. Sometimes I believe it. I know I tried everything I could short of dragging her to a hospital where they might have force fed her in interventions that would have harmed her in other ways. I know she was suffering mentally and physically and that she didn't do it to hurt me.

But it does hurt. Her decision to leave hurts. The loss of her presence hurts. Far beyond my ability to express it here on this electronic page.

I also know that those who talk about suicide prevention don't mean to make me feel guilty with their careful guidance designed stop our loved ones from making such decisions. I know they are trying to prevent more of us from hurting like this and to help those who reach that point like my mom did. But I often feel as if they think I could have said or done something more that would have changed her mind.

I avoid those posts and advice-givers.

Not long ago I heard a beautiful piece about a family and their small close-knit community. They had lost a young man named Finn to suicide. His death was sudden. Nothing like my mom's. But the pain of the teen's mother and her courage in opening up combined with the loving care of the entire community soothed my broken heart. That story was another soft voice from the universe that encouraged me to share here.

When Erica Heilman produced Finn and the Bell, she didn't try to explain the young man's choice. She didn't talk about how others might have stopped him. His choice had been made and nothing anyone could do would change that by the time they made the episode. What the family and shattered community needed most was to remember him and comfort one another as they stumbled forward. They did that in such a loving way that I'm still stunned by the story.

It could be that suicide survivors—those of us who live on after our loved ones died in this way—need this sort of tender care. It could be that we are uniquely able to offer it to one another. I know that the final words of the mother in that episode were a gift to me.

I don't have her memory of those snowflakes falling after she found her own son or her otherworldly connection to her child after her loss, but I can say that I feel closer to my mom in writing this than I have in a long time. Tara Reese's moment of infinite compassion for her son softened my pain.

I can say that my own loved ones and community have healed me in remarkable ways just like Finn's people have healed each other. I am forever grateful.

And I can say that if you lost someone to suicide, you are not at all alone. There is a whole community of us out here, holding you in our hearts even as I type these last few words.

May you know comfort and peace. May you know infinite compassion.

" was like infinite compassion for, like, every single person that had ever lived, like including me and including Finn for doing this. I remember saying out loud, "Oh!" Like, I understood for—for just a second there, like, why we were alive. And it felt like it was for each other."

- Tara Reese, Finn's mom

red-haired woman looking at hydrangeas with her young blonde daughter


I've been overwhelmed and also felt very healed by the outpouring of response to this post. Many have asked if the writing has healed me and I've not quite had the answer to that.

I think...the writing was healing but not as healing as sharing my story and receiving all the messages from so many of you—the public responses and even more the private messages or spoken words and hugs. When people told me that I had helped them too, I felt an emotion that I can't easily name. It was like compassion and gratitude and an ineffable connection. It was like somehow being able to heal Mom in a way I could not before.

In short, you have healed me and even Mom more than the writing has. Thank you.

I'm convinced once more that we need each other. Here is my follow up post filled with more offerings for solace as we live this human life side by side. For living fully even as we grieve.

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