My mother died in 1985 at age 47. Since she was young, most people asked how. If she had died from the cancer she was being treated for, it would have been easy to answer the question, but she didn’t. Her death was suicide – and that is something I never thought I could or should talk about. I told people it was “cancer related” but stayed silent about the reality that it was suicidal depression for 30 years, because even though suicide is a problem in all cultures, religions, races, economic strata, professions and sexual orientations throughout the world, it is universally stigmatized and typically taboo even to discuss.
I was 19 when she died. She’d been ill for a year and the note she left revealed that she felt she was being a financial and emotional burden on our family – distracting my sister and I from our college educations, holding my father back in his new job.
No one in my family ever explicitly told me to keep my mom’s suicide quiet, but all discussion of her death, and even her life, seemed to get buried with her at her funeral. I created my own narrative about what happened and turned away from the possibility that her death – and our silence – had any impact on my numerous emotional struggles as an adult.
I was wrong, about all of it. By staying silent as I did, the focus remained on how my mom died, robbing me the ability to grieve my actual loss. Nearly three decades later, my dog’s cancer diagnosis triggered a massive panic attack and a months-long debilitating depression. Therapy helped me see how the severity of my reaction was directly related to the trauma and grief over my mother’s suicide, left unresolved and compounded by our family silence.
Suicide puts specific heavy emotional burdens on those left behind – with unanswerable questions, what-ifs, guilt and shame. Silence also creates significant emotional barriers with the living because you, in a sense, start living a lie. Not acknowledging my mom became the very large elephant in the room for me at family get-togethers. Conversations, even with my dad and sister, always felt superficial.
Wanting to understand more about suicide and loss led me to join a support group and volunteer with a suicide prevention non-profit. What I discovered through both was life-changing. Opening up about my mom to other suicide loss survivors and hearing their stories gave me comfort and validation. So many of the things I felt were “wrong” with me were mirrored in the issues of so many others, particularly feeling emotionally stuck at the age we were when we suffered our losses.
I’d felt and witnessed the power of sharing stories with strangers and wondered if I could feel that connection with my family. As it hit me that I’d never even thought of my own sister as a suicide loss survivor, I knew I needed to break our silence and get those in my mom’s inner circle to talk. Suddenly I really wanted to have support-group level conversations with them and understand how they were impacted by her death. As a television producer with 25+ years of experience, I was also inspired to film these talks and produce The Silent Goldens, a documentary about the aftermath of suicide.
My courage to ask them to speak to me, unfortunately, did not magically materialize when the idea did. In 30 years, I never had intimate conversations with any of them and picturing it made me physically tense up. I didn’t want to hurt anyone or open up some kind of Pandora’s box of emotions after all this time. I was also afraid of what I might hear and what I might not, but with a strong sense of purpose, I met with a grief counselor for a few months to work through those fears and develop a plan. Finally, I hit “send” on the email to family members I’d spent about three weeks crafting explaining my need to talk and desire to document it.
To my great surprise, no one needed convincing. Everyone readily agreed to both speak and be filmed. One person said, “I’ve been waiting 30 years for this.” Each of the conversations felt very natural and open once they started. I filmed with my father, sister, uncles and aunts in January this year, and their stories vividly reflect the range of perspectives on suicide and grieving strategies my research has shown are found throughout the general population.
Hearing others’ stories added crucial detail and context to my understanding of my mom’s story, challenging previous assumptions and judgments about her and other family members. I cleared up their misconceptions about me and my choices. We talked about the silence. For me the biggest shift has been that all our conversations now feel authentic, even about the most trivial of matters.
The details of our story are uniquely ours, but our grief and handling of a loss to suicide represent so many. On a YouTube series called “Talking About Suicide Loss With…” I started, I speak with other survivors who have inspired me in going public with their stories. My two questions to them are simple: Why did you open up about your loss? How did doing so change your relationship to your grief? I always find myself nodding along in full understanding with people’s answers.
Singer/actress Dana Fuchs, for instance, felt compelled to speak up after performing a song she’d written about her sister’s suicide (“Songbird Fly Me To Sleep”) on stage explaining, “it invites people into my world to share their experiences and takes away a lot of the loneliness. You realize, wow, so many people have gone through this, are going through this, and we can really lean on each other if we talk about this and share this.”
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Along with the healing I have experienced so far by opening up about my own suicide loss, sharing my story has allowed others to open up to me, something I find incredibly meaningful. I hope my story and film encourage others suffering in silence to talk, acts as a cautionary tale to those who might one day face suicide loss, and teaches all that the silence is not golden. Survivors generally want and need to talk about it, we just don’t always know how to start.