“Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here.” – Cheryl Strayed
My mother used to say that suicide was the most selfish thing a person could ever do.
I write “used to say” intentionally- she said it more than once. Yes, I realize that sounds strange… Why would someone talk about death that often, and how would you even segue into something like that? (Actually though).
Well, dear readers, in the ultimate bid of irony, my mom was well acquainted with death and dealt with it on a daily basis in her job as an Autopsy Technical Assistant for HSC- literally dissecting humans for a living. Day in, day out she found fascination with solving the question of “why” for families, caregivers and the Winnipeg Police alike; seeing some pretty gruesome shit in the process. Take a minute and think of every single major homocide in the last decade. Yes, she did that one. Yes, that one too.
She was the first woman in Manitoba to do this job and has paved the way for hundreds of female residents and assistants interested in Pathology since. She was a trailblazer, a maverick, a force.
You would think being around death all the time would be pretty depressing. For her- not in the slightest. Somehow, mom was able to separate the person that died from the body on the table, and was known for her infectious energy and humor she brought to work everyday. Not an easy task when faced with decomposing bodies, “floaters” and some of the horrifying ways in which we can die.
She loved her job and was known around HSC (where I also worked for a short time) as hyper intelligent and a bright light among a department that is (sorry) made up of some pretty odd personalities. She always said that Pathologists never excelled at “bedside manner” (har, har).
When my dad left her for another woman, she fell into the dark place and something shifted for her. She soon saw ending it as the only way out of the pain and grief that she was feeling in having her life, her entire world, ripped away from her in the inhumane way in which he left.
Her entire world was us.
She gave up going to university so my dad could go to college when we were born; she worked the night shift so that she could stay with us during the day and be the single parent chaperone on every one of our field trips (every, single, one). She worked extra shifts and got a part-time job working at the U of M so that she could be on call more often, working weekends, evenings and nights. She ran to work so that we (my dad, Fletch and I) could have the car to go to school and work. She drove me to horseback riding lessons and sat freezing in the stable 3 times a week, even though she hated the fact that I rode and often referenced Christopher Reeves’ accident as evidence as to why I should stop. She sewed every single one of my halloween costumes- and clothing, when I wanted. She made breakfast, lunch & dinner for us every day, hosted every family gathering (for both sides of our families) at our houses for every holiday… Two houses that were filled with nothing but happiness and joy.
The grief that I feel isn’t just for me, but for all of the people who lost my mom- and how she didn’t know how many people loved her. I wish she could have seen how full her celebration (funeral) was.
And yet- I am angry with her.
The first time I met with a therapist after she passed away, I told the story from the beginning and included her “unsuccessful” suicide attempts in the narrative. My new, unaware therapist jumped in and said “of course, and she realized she couldn’t do that to you.” I had to correct her, and say that she had “done it to me,” the one thing that she had always said she wouldn’t do, the thing that only the most selfish people did. She was momentarily thrown off-balance, much like I have been feeling since it happened.
She did it to me. To everyone, but to ME.
The first time I realized how angry I was, I was cleaning out the house on Kingston Row. I had taken a stress leave from work, given that I couldn’t face the place where we worked- HSC and the Faculty of Medicine- or stepping foot in the place where we met her every day for lunch (Brodie Centre Atrium) without having a panic attack. I saw her in every set of scrubs, every white jacket, every 5’8 blonde woman walking around me. I was told this was normal, and was left to take care of things while everyone else moved on.
The celebration. The urn. The distribution of her suicide letters. The interview (interrogation) that one needs to go through if you want to donate tissues or organs. The obituary. The real estate agent. The junk removal. The dogs. Her clothes, our things, our memories, our house. How could I not? I was her family, her daughter, her best friend, her (as she would call me) hero. I was the only one who should decide what would stay, what would go, what I would keep, and I was going on a letter she left that I had taken (stolen) after her first attempt. She never knew that I had it, and it became the only Will we had of hers.
So I cleaned. I became hyper-productive, pushing all feelings down into a locked place and refusing to “go there.” This stopped when I had to go through her closet. The minute her smell hit me, it was over. I wailed and rocked and wailed and rocked and shrieked at her things asking her how she could do this to me over and over and over. How could you leave me here. How could you leave me here to clean up everything. How dare you leave me here to deal with this. It was left to me- there was no one else who could do it, but it was not my choice to be thrust into all of this while missing her. I grew up in an instant and in some regard, stepped into the role she had always had in our family- the “doer.”
The anger I felt towards her filled the house. Who did she think she was hurting the most? My dad? She did, but not for long. He was hurt in the sprint, me in the marathon. I struggled with each decision: the type of funeral, a burial, giving away her clothing, who should adopt her dog, whether I should fight for what she wanted or just let it go. She left me no instructions and I felt like I was grasping for answers in the dark, anxiously going back and forth between “no, yes, maybe” as I moved through the plans. The angst and sorrow I felt after giving her things away on “free day”; watching lurkers shove her bright white dresser she painted in the summer into their truck teetering with junk left me bawling into my pillow that night, simultaneously saying “I’m sorry” and “how could you” to her until I fell asleep.
The backwardness of this will never be okay. It will never be okay that I don’t have a mother. It will never be okay that she’s dead. It will never be okay that she killed herself. It will never be okay that she did it without thinking about the repercussions; without writing a real Will; and in doing it, leaving everything open and complicated and vague. It will never be okay that I had to take care of everything; decide when to take her off life support; and going through her clothes… her everythings alone. It will never be okay that my dad cheated on her and broke her heart and left my brother and I to pick up the pieces. It will never be okay that he missed my last two birthdays, that I haven’t spoken to him without feeling seething anger in over a year. It will never be okay that he deviated from my mom’s suicide note and took things that weren’t meant for him. It will never be okay that he took my mom’s last piece of dignity and brought his girlfriend to her deathbed to meet her.
The best gift that anyone can give someone who is grieving is to accept the anger that person is feeling. I need everyone to be okay with my anger I have at the situation, the not-okay-ness that is my reality and the utterly fucked up family life that I have now, still.
I will never forgive my father for the things he has done, and trying to is akin to pouring sand on a smouldering volcano; Futile and exhausting. The most solid piece of advice that I can give to anyone who is grieving any death is that whatever you are feeling is normal. Don’t try to “unfeel” it by ignoring the anger or despair or brokenness. It is real. It is ever-present. I am allowed to be angry and to decide to sometimes sit in the anger and think every terrible thought that could cross my mind. Getting it out, getting it on paper or telling someone who you trust helps. I have a small but strong group of friends who are my trampolines. They take what I have to say and bounce it back with love and acceptance and validation that I am not a crazy, vile human being. That I am allowed to be angry with my parents. If you have these people, hold on to them steadfast- however far away they may be. My main person is Jimmy- my partner- and he understands implicitly. Losing his mom in 2011, he knows that things don’t get fine; okay; better. They get different. Losing your mom gets littler and bigger all the same; you miss them in the everyday moments less as you create your own habits and fill the spaces they used to take up. Your reflexes stop telling you to call her when something great or horrible happens. The big: she will miss every major event in my/your life. She won’t meet my kids or walk me down the aisle at my wedding. She won’t be a grandma in every way that she always dreamed about or see me as a parent or my family full. She missed us buying our first house together and me getting my dream job. These events loom over me like a curse and send me falling backward with excitement, dread and loneliness with her absence.
It is already changing, becoming different. I cried only once while framing photos of her and me and Fletch to hang on my walls yesterday. I laughed today while telling a story about her and I road tripping to Minneapolis and somehow getting lost (driving 60 km in the opposite direction) while trying to salvage melting groceries we bought at Target. I laughed at an old text message from her and smiled when I saw her best friend wearing the same trademark leg warmers she used to wear every winter.
It’s changing, but it will never be okay.
For further experiences:
Read Cheryl Strayed’s WILD (or anything else by her), After Daniel by Moira Farr, a Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson
Listen to Home Again by Michael Kiwanuka; By the Grace of God by Katy Perry, Not Ready to Make Nice by the Dixie Chicks, Over You by Blake Shelton, a Case of You by Joni Mitchell, Did You Ever Believe by Stevie Nicks.
Watch the Skeleton Twins