I gasp and shake my shoulders trying to dislodge the feeling that I’m drowning.
I place one hand on my chest to steady my heart beat. The knuckles on my other hand are white from gripping the steering wheel. It hits me like I’m hearing it for the first time even though it’s been three months.
Oh my God. She’s dead.
No. It can't be.
I still forget all the time. No one tells you that part of grief. No one told me that even though my heart would ache all the time I'd still have to remind myself my mom was dead. No one told me it would take my breath away every single time.
I squint my eyes to stop the tears and try to focus on the highway in front of me. I have to get the image of her out of my head. All I can see is her dead body. My brain is giving me an error code, my body is rejecting the facts. It doesn’t add up. She sounded fine on the phone the last time I talked to her. I pound my first into the steering wheel and wish it hurt more. Why didn’t I call her back after her last voicemail? I replay it in my head.
“Hi honey, it’s me. I guess I’m just a mom. I’m just a mom worried about her daughter. So just call me back if you get this. I’ll be up for a few more hours. I love you.”
Why didn’t I hear it in her voice? How could I have missed it? I should have known that it was unusual for her to be up so late. I see an image of me sitting in a restaurant with my friends laughing and drinking while my mother takes her own life. Both of us living the last few minutes of our life together.
I exit the highway and park my car in the hospital parking lot. I’m a few minutes early so I sit in my car, trying to push the tears down. My body aches as I get out of the car and walk through the front doors of the hospital. I smile politely at the receptionist who is always there on Monday nights and I see the familiar look of pity as I take a left, away from the general admittance area and down the hallway toward the piece of neon green paper that says “Survivors of Suicide Support Group Meeting.”
I don’t dislike hospitals. Having a nurse as a mom and a surgeon as a father required me to spend a lot of time in hospitals. But, I do hate the hallway to the support group room. Walking down it is like being dragged to face reality. There’s no escaping my grief once I get to the room at the end. Every nurse that walks by seems to know where I’m going. In the bathroom, along the way to the room, the x ray technicians and medical assistants avoid eye contact when they see my swollen eyes. No one wants to look at my type of grief.
The world calls us survivors because you have to survive this loss. Losing someone to suicide is traumatic no matter how it happens and it brings on complicated grief. Every loss is challenging, but suicide is like an explosion. It only leaves behind survivors.
Every Monday my fellow survivors and I gather in a small conference room in the back of a hospital. On the wall there are inspirational quotes. A candle is lit and boxes of tissues are scattered around. Ever since my mom died these are the only people who “get it.” I write my name on the sign in sheet and look up to see Liz. She’s a small, round woman in her 50’s with a short bob haircut. She’s always wearing sweatshirts with cartoon characters on them.
“Hi Jen,” she says softly, smiling. “Good to see you.”
She opens her arms and gives me a hug. Liz’s only child took hung herself when she was 14 years old. It’s been ten years since Liz’s daughter died and she amazes me because she is always smiling.
Every week the group changes, but five or six of us attend regularly. A woman in the group named Laura decides to share first. Six months ago her fiance took his own life. Laura talks about how she struggled with suicidal thoughts after her fiance died, but how she’s going to fight to overcome this because of her young daughter. It’s the first time I’ve seen a spark in her grief ridden eyes. I see her love for her daughter pulling her out of the darkest depths of grief and I begin to cry uncontrollably. Gently, Liz asks what I’m feeling.
“I…just...I,” the words are trapped in my throat.
“It’s okay,” she says, “take your time.”
“I see Laura fighting so hard to get better for her daughter and I don’t know why my mom couldn’t do that for me. I feel like a failure. I should have been a better daughter. I wasn’t worth staying alive for. I was responsible for her. I know I shouldn’t have been, I should have never been responsible for her, but I was...that’s how it was. She put me in charge of her life. I saved her. I rescued her so many times. It was my job. And I let her down. I let her down. I let her down. People keep asking me if I feel guilty. I don’t feel guilty. I am guilty. I could have stopped her. I should have stopped her.”
I hug my shoulders and curl my knees into my chest. Laura places her hand on my back. I’ve only known these people for a few weeks, but I have confessed my deepest darkest secret to them. I feel like I killed my mother. I take a deep breath and blow my nose.
“Jen,” Liz says, speaking softly, “You may think you should have known what your mom intended to do the night she took her life. But the truth is, you did not know." She paused, "You did not know. If you had known you would have done anything in your power to stop her.”
Liz is still smiling, but tears are in her eyes as she says, “If you had known you would have moved a mountain to stop her,” she pauses, “But you did not know. You did not know.”
We sit in silence for a long time. A few more people share and then the hour is over. Liz hugs me again and walks with me out into the long hospital hallway.
She puts her arm around my shoulders and says again, “You would have moved a mountain to get to her if you'd known. You didn’t know.”