Archive for November, 2012

A year before my daughter died by suicide in 1995, an aquaintance named Anthony told me that after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, a friend of his had driven out west and shot himself on a desert highway. In his anguish, Anthony received little comfort, I’m sure, from my ill-considered response: “Well, you know, it’s all about free will.”

(When I began to grieve for Mary the next year, Anthony generously sent me a Mass card with an inscription from Lamentations [1:12] that I treasure to this day: “O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow.”)

Talking to Anthony the year before, however, I was just saying “stupid things.” Jill Bialosky describes “stupid” this way: “Friends, meaning to help and offer sympathy [about her sister’s suicide], said stupid things. One of the most common was that suicide was her choice. How would it have been her choice, when she was only twenty-one years old? She hadn’t yet developed the maturity to understand how to cope with her challenges and believe she could get through them or have the foresight to understand the repercussions of what she did.” (History of a Suicide: my sister’s unfinished life. New York: Washington Square Press, 2011, pp. 11-12.)

I appreciate Bialosky’s insight regarding the lack of choice surrounding her sister’s suicide. What she writes applies to my daughter, as well. Mary was not using free will when she chose death; her will was not free. Like most suicide victims, my daughter’s reasoning ability was clouded by the “psychache” of despair which drug therapy and psychotherapy had not yet alleviated.

But she also lacked a depth of knowledge–a heart knowledge–that is essential to the task of profound and human decision-making. One of my first reactions upon finding Mary after her overdose was, “She can’t possibly have known what she was doing. She can’t possibly have known what her death is going to mean.” She was seventeen and not, I insist, freely choosing suicide.

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Today is the thirty-fifth birthday of my daughter Mary who died in 1995 by suicide at the age of seventeen. So I drove out through the Manassas National Battlefield Park which surrounds the Stonewall Memory Gardens containing my daughter’s grave. On this morning of sleet and sunshine, I thought it mattered that I be with Mary on her birthday; and I thought somehow she might know I was praying over her grave.

The Mary of 1977 was mostly on my mind this morning–her pinched red countenance bringing forth not only relief for a normal delivery but also gratitude for the unrepeatable gift I knew her to be. Poet William Blake describes the transcendence of the newborn this way, “Sweet babe, in thy face / Holy image I can trace” (William Blake, “A Cradle Song,” Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Franklin Center, Pennslyvania: The Franklin Library, 1980).

Losing Mary is also on my mind today. But to try to understand the eventual suicide of a newborn, my newborn, is to “try to comprehend the ungraspable phantom of life,” writes Jill Bialosky: “the power of darkness, fear, and weakness within the human mind, a force as mysterious, turbulent, complex, and uncontrollable as the sea, a force so powerful it may not be capable of withstanding its own destructive power” (History of a Suicide: my sister’s unfinished life. New York: Washington Square Press, 2011).

The holy image in Mary’s face has not faded. I regard her as an innocent overcome by mysterious darkness and fear, defeated by inner turbulence and psychological complexities. I celebrate the day she was born just as I honor innocent victims of suicide who bear holy image. And they all do.

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Yes, I saw some but not all the warning signs for suicide before my daughter Mary committed suicide in 1995. Had I been aware of the significance of the behavior patterns I was picking up in my daughter, perhaps I would have understood the urgency of her medical condition and acted protectively on her behalf.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) lists the following behaviors as suicide warning signs:

1) Talking about death or suicide
2) Talking about specific plans someone has made to attempt suicide
3) Severe depression, hopelessness, or guilt
4) Reckless, violent, or self-destructive behavior
5) Alcohol or drug abuse
6) Expressing a sense of worthlessness
7) Suddenly appearing much better, or happier, for no apparent reason; and
8) Loss of interest in usual sources of pleasure

Mary never talked about death or suicide; certainly there was no mention of a “plan.” I saw no sign of alcohol or drug abuse. She was suffering from and being treated by a psychiatrist for depression. I thought a sense of worthlessness and loss of interest in the usual sources of pleasure were to be expected and would be alleviated by the drug therapy and psychotherapy she was receiving.

What I didn’t do that NAMI says I should have done was ask Mary if she ever thought about suicide. If she’d said “Yes,” I then should have asked if she’d thought about suicide recently and whether she had a plan. If she’d said “Yes” to that question, I should have considered her condition a medical emergency and not left her side until she got the medical help she needed.

But there was terror, denial, and general human messiness working against that logical strategy: I was terrified on some level for my daughter and denying all along that she was truly sick and in desperate need of a hospital. I think she might have been terrified and swimming against denial, too, incapable of admitting her self-destructive thoughts either to herself or to me. Had I been better educated about the warning signs for suicide, however, I believe it would have made a crucial difference (“Do You Care for Someone Who’s At Risk of Suicide?” http://www.nami.org).

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