Monday, July 30, 2012

Maternal Suicide - Part III

Parts I and II are here and here.  If you want to read a bit from someone with experience with this sad topic, take a look at Cindy's comment after Part II.


First-year law students generally spend a significant portion of time in their year-long course in criminal law on the subject of mens rea, the intent required to establish the commission of a crime.  The baffling matter of intent lies at the root of the horror with which we respond to an act of suicide.  Most of us grew up with believing that suicide is an intentional act, a belief reflected in the common phrase "commit suicide."  And that it is not only an intentional act, but a criminal act and a violation of the primary tenets of all spiritual traditions.

Thankfully, today we possess at least the rudiments of an understanding of and compassion for the consequences of mental illness.  We haven't progressed far in either, but most of us understand that depression and related illnesses are in fact, precisely that: illnesses.  Slowly, ever so slowly, we are coming to recognize, difficult as it is for us to grasp, that most people who die of suicide do not "commit" it anymore than others commit cancer or commit heart disease.

"Why did she do it?" we ask.  "How could she leave her husband, her children, her friends?"

The answer, I think, must be that she did not. Where suicide is concerned, "intent" does not mean what it usually means.

Of course, to know that is to deepen the anguish that follows.  It is no comfort to  know that someone was so completely altered by pain in the hours before her death that she was no longer capable of being herself.


I wonder, sometimes, whether there is anything more difficult in human experience than to survive a loved one's suicide.  Even in the concentration camps of World War II, human dignity and God's love triumphed in the form of the will to survive.

Last night, I was reading a short biographical sketch of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604).  During the latter years of his life, the plague was rampant in Rome, as it was in England during the life of Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416).  Such pervasive, dreadful, almost unfathomable suffering.  And yet people sought to live.

To live in the shadow of a suicide is to live with the knowledge that sometimes that desire to live is extinguished, even in the face of our own fierce and protective love.

If one is Christian, one can turn to Romans 8:38-39.  Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God.  Perhaps it is a wildly wonderful thing, in the midst of a life lived in what seems to be a smoldering ruin, that we are called to live that conviction with a depth that most people are not required to contemplate.


For a day or two after I began to write these posts, two titles were ironically juxtaposed in my sidebar.  My own, "Maternal Suicide" and, just beneath it, one from Ignatian Spirituality, "Finding Beauty Amid Suffering."  The latter is a short reflection on words of Etty Hillesum, one of those few writers whom one can trust on the topic of transformative suffering.

It seems to me that for those who care for children whose mothers have died of suicide, the profound gift to be found in that relationship and work is the call to find, to create, to communicate, to instill, a sense of beauty in the face of incomprehensible suffering.

We must remember that before the loss of her ability to comprehend and to intend with rationality, before her unwitting descent into a sadness and desolation so great that it swallowed up her instinct to survive, a woman was a mother whose love for her children would have consistently outshone any concern for herself.

And we must know that, since we cannot be separated from God's love, then we cannot be separated from the loves within that love.

It doesn't feel that way ~ not at all.  Not to those left behind.  Most especially not to the children. 

It is a monumental task, one requiring great reserves of strength and hope, to be the ones who stand in for a mother so broken that she could no longer care for her own children, and to extend her love to them when she is no longer here to do it herself.

But it is a gift, the call to be so completely poured out in love for children marked by such tragedy.

It is a gift, the call to be present to those who understand nothing and who behave badly, those who shut down and turn away, those for whom the unanswerable "Why?" will reverberate throughout long lives still ahead.

It is a call to which almost no one responds.


  1. A heart rending and beautiful post, Robin. Presence is a gift, but perhaps these reflections will stir the embers of such gifts up....

  2. Your words are so powerful. This is a strange land, and there is not enough information or conversation about the experience. So your words are necessary and valuable. I am linking today. Thanks so very much and God bless you, sweet friend, for doing this. (((hugs)))

  3. Quite the series of writing. Peace and hope

  4. When I read these beautiful and heartfelt words they ring so true in my heart. "We cannot be separated from God's love." This is, perhaps, a key as well. The suffering mother, who cannot see her attachment to, and envelopment by, God ends her life as we know it.

    But the truth of the statement stands beyond this moment in time. She cannot be separated from God's love either. It is a mystery beyond my own human understanding and that is okay with me. It is enough to have faith in the belief of God's compassion.

    I reflect on the omnipresence of God here. He is not absent from me or my life, even when I feel that is so. I can separate my feelings of his absence and the faith that tells me that is just a feeling, and it is not the truth.

    I am exceedingly lucky today that I can make that distinction. For the mother who takes her own life, I believe that in that moment, for whatever reason, she cannot make that distinction. But it does not change the fact of God's presence.

    And love.

    And perhaps therein lies the beauty that we seek. Not a sentimental, human beauty. But a more terrible and divine beauty. Much like the crucifixion.

    I'm rambling, but you have, once again, given me such a pearl to meditate on.

    Thank you.

  5. Beautiful series of posts. Particularly in light of the headline in this morning's paper and all over the television news yesterday of a double murder/suicide of a mother and her 2 young children yesterday. It got a ton of coverage because they were from the nice part of town. Sadly, had it happened in the inner-city housing projects, there would have been nary a mention.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. How sad and horrible. And as far as your final sentence, I think that we have made some progress in Cleveland, but the price has been high: the serial murders of several young black women whose absences were reported to police and ignored.

  6. Can I add-- I wish that children living under constant threat of maternal suicide were a part of this broader conversation, too. Surely the aftermath of suicide is incomparably painful, but the guilt and fear that exist when it's a threatening cloud on the horizon is its own kind of pain.

    1. Di, you add a whole other dimension to this discussion.

      As I've written before, my ggm was bipolar and attempted suicide at least once. My gm was her only child, and it's clear to me now that her mother's illness had a lifelong impact on my beloved gm.