Tragedy struck my life 30 years ago this month.
It was a beautiful fall day when my sister and I arrived home late from campus. I was a junior in college. My roommate told us we needed to call our dad ASAP. My father is not the dramatic type so his message, the urgent ASAP, was out of character for him and immediately raised a red flag. I will never forget his words. The words echo in my ears as clearly today as they did 30 years ago: “Girls, your mother has taken a turn for the worse. You need to come home. We need to go see her.”
My dad kept the phone call brief and to the point. Immediately, my heart sank because I knew she was dead. I knew she had taken her own life. I knew this is what she had done even though I was not aware of any previous suicide attempts. My gut instinct kicked in like nothing I had ever experienced before!
Since my mother lived in Texas, my visits were normally limited to the holiday breaks and summer. Even though it was November, it was not Thanksgiving break. Why would we be making a trip to Texas now?
As my sister and I drove to our father’s home that evening, we dissected his carefully chosen words and tried to dream up every possibility of what he could have meant. One thought was that since he had not instructed us to bring any particular clothing home, such as funeral attire, we tried to convince ourselves that our mother would be OK. However, when we arrived at his house, our worst fear was realized. She was indeed gone and by her own hand.
Through the strength of our dad, and by the grace of God, my sister and I returned to college within the week of her funeral and successfully completed the semester. It is what my mother would have wanted.
As I reflect over the past 30 years, tears still fill my eyes even though I am no longer bitter or feel the guilt that survivors often feel. It saddens me that her life was cut short. It saddens me that my children never knew their grandmother. It saddens me that she suffered from mental illness.
She was such a kind and gentle person. She was a school teacher for the severely developmentally disabled and/or handicapped. Her kids and parents loved her. I even recall a few times when a student would stay a weekend with us because my mother was the only person willing to care for the child while their parent needed a break. She was probably one of the few the parents trusted. She was loving and compassionate. I am sure the needs of these kids, and us, kept her going for as long as she did. I recall her suicide note stated she felt that my sister and I were now grown and able to take care of ourselves. I recall she did not wish to become a burden to us.
As with many mentally ill, my mother’s issues began in adolescence/young adulthood. Post-partum depression triggered full-blown depression from which she never really recovered. She was later also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Why am I sharing my personal story? Not because I dwell on the “survivor” title, but because it is important to speak out for those who no longer can and for those who are too ashamed. Attitudes toward mental health had an incredible stigma during her lifetime. Attitudes are improving but still have a long way to go. We all must do what we can to advocate for better mental health programs, facilities, and improved medications to help those who are suffering to get the help they need. We need to reach out and help prevent the unnecessary shortened lives of those suffering.
For those of you who are also survivors, or survivors of any type of tragedy, I will not presume to tell you how to cope. However, I will tell you it is imperative to master coping skills.
Learn how to persevere. These skills will serve you well throughout your life. As for me, my attitude about life is summed up as, “S–t happens! Keep moving forward.” There are no guarantees in life, but a positive attitude helps to keep you moving forward. I choose to take solace in the good times I shared with my mother!
To learn more, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: http://www.afsp.org.
Cheryl Dobson is the registrar at Missouri Southern State University.