It was a long time before I could speak the words, “My precious mother committed suicide.” She had suffered from depression periodically and we tried to be a support system for her. We made ourselves available and she promised us she would never go out like that. Even though the evidence was all around her body, I was in denial until the toxicology report was complete. When it finally came back and I held the piece of paper in my hands, “…fatal overdose of the narcotic Oxycontin…” I crumbled to the floor and bawled (This was the second time I hit the floor. The first time was a few months before when dad called and said, “Joni, I think your mother is dead.”) It has been ten years and when I typed, “My precious mother….” in the above first sentence I started to weep uncontrollably. Yeah, it still surprises me how raw it can suddenly feel all over again. It’s very difficult to explain how suicide affects the loved ones who survive. The family and friends that never expected their beloved to go out that way. But mostly, the intense guilt you feel because you somehow missed that it had gotten that bad, that they were that close and you didn’t know it. My beautiful mother was desperate and lonely and saw no other way out… and I didn’t know it. I didn’t pick up on that. And you play it over and over in your head. And you replay every recent visit, phone call, facial expression… you grasp for a clue, any clue that could have red flagged the situation. You even begin to make some up, which heaps more guilt onto your already weighted down heart.
Six weeks after mom died, my dad breathed his last breath on this earth and I was sitting right beside him, holding his hand. In the ensuing days I could talk about dad… his bravery, his nobility, his gentleness- clear up until the end. I did the eulogy at dad’s funeral. I couldn’t even get up and say one word at mom’s funeral. With all of dad’s courage, I found myself unable talk about mom. My dad waged war with cancer and battled it with great integrity. I felt mom just gave up and checked out. I had no idea the toll anger and unforgiveness would take on my body, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
It was a dear friend in my life who picked up on my unresolved inability to accept mom’s death or forgive her for it. I will be forever indebted to Peggy Mindrebo for being willing to step into my hurting world and walk beside me through this issue. And let me mention here that she was dealing with her own grief at the time. It was through her love, phenomenal counseling, and encouragement that I came out the other side, not only well, healed, and resolved but actually a better person. A person with a new understanding of suicide and its effects on a soul and the ability to identify and feel compassion for others going through the same ordeal. I was a textbook case of the five stages of grief without even realizing it. The first being denial. I absolutely refused to believe that my mother would commit suicide until I held that report in my hands. The second stage- anger- would have destroyed me had it not been for Peggy. She was the angel that God sent my way… for such a time as this (Bible, Esther 4:14). Peggy and I decided that I needed to write mom a letter. This may sound like an odd thing to do but I cannot begin to express how healing this was for me. But the recovery certainly didn’t come easy or quick. I put off writing that letter several times and when I did start, I must have started over a dozen times. This is where the third and fourth stage of grief came in. Bargaining and depression! I bargained and excused a million reasons for why I wouldn’t, couldn’t, or just didn’t want to talk to mom. Then- when I finally started to talk, I couldn’t stop crying and then the depression set in. I started playing the “what if” game all over again. I have to interject here and say- in all of this- three things held me together. The love and support of an amazing husband, the intimacy I shared in my prayer life with Christ and finally but most important, the Word of God. If I have gained any kind of wisdom in this life at all, it is a direct result of the plethora of truth in the Holy Scriptures. In that Book are beautiful plain, clear truths for the taking and hidden ones for the treasure hunters. And it was these very truths that walked me through to the last stage… acceptance. But for me, that meant apologies and forgiveness. And this is basically how I was able to finally write that letter. Four pieces of tear-stained paper that pretty much said, “I forgive you. Do you forgive me? I love you and I know you loved me.”
On a beautiful sunny afternoon, Peggy and I traveled to the Carmel Cemetery and up to the headstone at my mother’s grave. I knelt down, lifted the sod with a small shovel and placed my sealed letter there. Peggy prayed with me. I cried. And then we left. Within hours I felt the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. All the anger, all the unanswered questions, all the confusion faded into a beautiful memory of my precious mother. I still don’t know what caused her to sink that low. I do know of several contributing factors but some questions will never be answered. But this is what I hold onto. My mom was a beautiful woman who overcame many struggles in her life. When the going would get tough she stepped up to the plate. When our biological father left her for another woman, she picked up the pieces and taught the four of us kids how to keep that stiff upper lip and even find joy. When the debt collectors came and took everything (they could do that in the 60’s), she told us we were going to have a Chinese party and eat on the floor that night. When our uninsured home burnt to the ground in 1970, she grabbed us up into her arms and said, “We have all we need right here.” The greatest thing that she ever taught me and my three siblings was compassion. And the greatest thing she gave us was Jesus. When I think of her now- there is no shame, there is no guilt, there is only love. I have faith in all that she taught me. I have hope that I will one day see her again. I have all the memories of her undying love… and the greatest of these… is love!