Friday, July 27, 2012

Maternal Suicide - Part II

Part I is here.

Now I am moving toward territory of which I know little.  I know what it is like to lose a mother when one is a child, and I know what it is like to lose someone to suicide.  But put the two together?  What can we do for a bereaved child in such a situation?

Let's start with a few points about mother-loss, exclusive of suicide.

First, children do grieve, and they grieve intensely.  But it looks different than in does in adults. When I reflect upon my childhood, I recollect it as having been awash in sadness.  But I also see images of children running and playing in fields and woods, children jumping on and off the school bus, children playing their games and building their treehouses and meeting in their clubs.  We looked like ordinary children, and in many ways we were ~ which may have fooled the adults into thinking that we were in all ways just like our friends. We weren't.

Today there is excellent therapeutic support for children of loss, support that simply did not exist fifty years ago.  But a lot of adults are reluctant to access it -- too busy, too inconvenient, too distant, the kids are fine.  I would simply say: Think again.  Actually, I would say: Make it your highest priority.

Here are some things I do know from experience and training, as both a child and as an educator and a family lawyer:

Children don't articulate things in the ways that adults do.  They don't have the vocabulary.  But kids draw and color, and kids play with dolls and stuffed animals and toy figures, and kids act out stories.  A child may never come to an adult and say, "I miss my mommy."  But a child may develop an elaborate and extended drama with her stuffed animals that would tell us far more than that simple sentence would, if we but knew how to look.

Children try to protect the adults they love.  You may not feel protected when the police car pulls up at 2:00 a.m. with your teenager, slightly drunk and recently busted for shoplifting, in the back seat.  But for reasons perhaps known to adolescent psychiatrists, but not to the rest of us, our children are far more likely to try to protect our feelings by engaging in unacceptable behavior than by "using their words" and saying, "I need my dad.  I don't need a step-dad I didn't choose." 

Children need support.  We have become very fond, as a society, of saying that "children are resilient."  And they are.  But how much resilience do you want to force?  If you've experienced a marital break-up, or lost a job, or sustained a serious injury, or survived a serious illness, didn't you need help?  One of the signs of adult maturity is that we know how to ask for help, and how to accept it ~ but children are not adults.  They don't know how to ask, and if help doesn't come their way, they conclude that matters are up to them.  Think about Jem and Scout and Dill.  Even they ~ self-reliant as they were, and every one of them missing a parent ~ even they needed Boo Radley.

A second major point: Mother-loss is for a lifetime and it's largely invisible.  Many of my adult friends have lost their mothers in the last decade or so, and those friends have been devastated.  The women who were in many ways their best friends and who shared in most of the critical junctures of their lives are gone.  But for a child, there is no one to fill that place at those times:

Dates, jobs, graduations, relationships, college and grad schools, weddings, jobs and careers, pregnancies and adoptions and babies, adult crises.  

Every once in awhile, like about once a decade, someone will tell me something about my mother and how she might have felt about something in my life.  "How do you know?" I wonder.  "What was she like?  What did she care about?"  No one wants to say.

I have probably missed my mother more in the last four years than I did in the preceding forty-eight.  I remember ~ unbelievably, I do remember this ~ that after both she and my baby brother were killed in the accident, a couple of people said that she would have found it unbearable to go on without her baby.  Well, I have to do that, and I would like it if she were here to help me.  My surviving children and I talk all the time, but I haven't talked to my own mother since October 5, 1960.

On the upside:

Really?  There's an upside?  

There sort of is.

Another thing Hope Edelman discusses in Motherless Daughters is the fact that girls who lose their mothers tend either to be crushed into lives of sadness and dissatisfaction or to become remarkably strong and self-sufficent.  Some are done in  by the lack of a cookie-baking caregiver and role-model.  Others in the same situation break free of traditional female roles and become ~ hmmm . . .  lawyers and pastors, for instance.  Doctors.  Artists.  Engineers.  Corporate executives.

Support comes in many different forms.  I missed out on a lot after my mother died, but I was still given an incredible education, courtesy of  my school-obsessed father, and many opportunities to see the world, thanks to my grandmother's frustration with my grandfather's refusal to hop into a boat or onto a plane.  In fact, my six years in boarding school and my many summers spent at some distance away are probably a direct consequence of my mother's absence.  She would have insisted upon schools and summers closer to home; my stepmother couldn't wait to say sayonara to all children in her vicinity.  

That means that one could conceivably argue that my passionate commitment to a life of faith, my fascination with interfaith dialogue, my determination to forge a legal career that would provide me with independence, and my life today as a pastor and spiritual director crossing two major religious traditions, all started in the midst of a deadly collision on a country road.

One could argue that. I'm not sure that I would.

(And my brother, who has also turned our childhood catastrophe into an adulthood of meaningful work and contribution to the world, might argue the same.  But he's a Republican, so I'm definitely not sure about that.  ;)  )

But what I would argue, with conviction and experience both behind me, is that a child who loses his or her mother is not doomed to a lifetime of failure and hopelessness. Quite the contrary.

The more help, the better, though.

Next, I'll finally get to the point.  Suicide loss.


  1. In my family, my daughters (all three of them) have experiences with friends whose mothers committed suicide. One daughter is in a 3 year committed relationship with a young man whose father committed suicide when he (the boyfriend) was 10 years old.

    Additionally, because of the 12 Step program they all belong to, they have lost friends who couldn't get sober but instead took their lives... many of them leaving behind children.

    There is a feeling of overwhelming helplessness in all of it. The word that comes back over and over as we have all attempted to work with it, and process it is drowning. There is a huge, huge, huge element that simply seems to be missing at the crossroads of other loss.

    And, I don't say that to diminish the pain of any loss. It's just that it's so different.

    (preaching to the choir here, I know)

    I guess from my point it is much like anyone else in a support role. There is no working "through" it. It is more like, working with it. Forever. How do we support others to work with this reality.

    To walk in this particular world, such different terrain.

  2. Thank you so much for is excellent, practical, and personal. If you are okay, I will link to your blog from mine. It couldn't be more applicable to our community right now.

  3. One of the things I have gleaned from your blogs over the years, Robin, is the encouragement to let go of the pressure I put on myself to "fix" or change the grief and feelings that someone is going through. As I have read your story, and witnessed your life, I have come to see that companionship - true presence - is what I can offer.

    And, I have attempted to teach my daughters this as well. That to be able to stand with someone going through such huge life events takes courage and strength. They will need to take care of themselves emotionally, spiritually and physically if they truly want to be of service to another.

    And, we must wrestle with our innate tendencies to 'make it about me' as we mumble through missteps such as "I can't imagine" and all the other platitudes that seem to spill unbidden from our mouths.

    Learning to hold silence is key. Nowadays when I hear admonitions in church to turn from the world, and turn to God I no longer think of things like riches and fame and seductive pleasures of the flesh in contrast with gifts of the spirit. I also think of yakking and fixing as opposed to silence and presence.

    1. And one of the things that I am slowly learning is that people do what they can. Presence is so difficult, but what I would prefer -- a cup of something shared with one person over a table -- is often offered in other forms, which I am trying to grasp is what they can do when presence is just not in their skill set.