No Matter What Happens, There Will Always be Joy if You Keep a Grateful Heart
The last few days have been incredibly productive and inspiring. I’m seeing some changes I’ve made causing improvements to completely unrelated areas of my life. It makes me see how far the ripples of our small changes can go.
I’m intentionally starting this post on a positive note because I’m both honoring a promise a made a few days ago and a request by someone in my writer’s group to post the second chapter of Life After Suicide:Healing and Forgiving. Though I do attempt to lighten the mood from time to time, this isn’t exactly a topic to be shared around the holiday table.
But if comments I’ve received since I started this blog are any indication, there are people out there who really need to know that they are not alone and a family member’s choice to take their own life is nobody’s fault, especially not anyone still living.
I am so incredibly blessed that what I asked for when I started this blog has come true to a much greater degree than I ever imagined. At the time I said to myself: If I touch even a single life with my words and help even one person find a way to heal from such a devastating loss, I’ve fulfilled my purpose in sharing my experiences. To everyone who has gained even a small amount of peace from my words, thank you so much for allowing me to be but a flickering candle on your own path to healing and forgiveness. I know from experience that the hardest part of the whole process is to forgive yourself, despite the fact that you did nothing wrong. Nobody heaps the guilt on us better than ourselves!
Without further ado, here is the second chapter of Life After Suicide: Healtng and Forgiving entitled simply “Why?”.
Chapter 2: Why?
The obvious questions all begin with “why”. Why did they do this? Why didn’t I notice something was wrong? Why wasn’t I there for them more? But the harsh reality is that it’s not about you. None of it. So the first thing children of parents who suicide learn as we embark on the road to healing is you have to get over yourself. Get past the sense of ownership, the misplaced sense of responsibility. We especially have to abandon the idea there was ever anything we could have said or done differently which would have changed the path our parent ultimately chose.
This is not always an easy thing to do. I, for one, was raised by the Queen of Jewish Guilt. I know she was the Queen because my father professed her sovereignty quite frequently, especially on those occasions when I would relate someone’s failed attempt to guilt me into something. I know that over the years, I was less than kind to my mother, and I am learning to forgive myself because I reacted instead of trying to understand.
So as I was saying, my mother was the Queen of Jewish Guilt, and I, being her first born, was the first person, truly her own, she was able to practice on. As a result, I spent my formative years with a self-esteem the size and strength of a shriveled pea and the belief that no matter what happened, it had to be my fault. But also as a result, I grew into adulthood, weathered my share of tough times, made my share of less-than-stellar choices, and built my own strength and character, because I learned too well what it was to be a follower and a doormat. I knew that no matter what it took, a clone of my mother wasn’t what I wanted to be. I also learned first-hand, what unhappiness looked like, and though there have been times the face in the mirror looked eerily like my mother, I have learned to work through my spells of unhappiness as quickly and efficiently as possible, at times, taking an almost surgical approach to its removal. Admittedly, it’s also made me insensitive to people who do choose to be doormats, whiners or victims. Recognizing that in myself, I’m trying to learn to accept the choices other people make, even the ones I might, from my own experiences, deem rather stupid. I’m beginning to realize, as I smooth out the rough edges, that choices are neither smart nor stupid, good nor bad, but simply the choices we make.
At times I wonder if, as those who did choose suicide made the decision to leave, they decided they had left us with enough tools to carry on, enough inspiration and enough desire to continue what they started? Or was their judgment clouded by the overwhelming need to just stop the pain?
In what seems like a completely backwards way, I appreciate what my mother did for me. It brings to mind the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue”. The father knew he wouldn’t be around to teach his son to stand up for himself, so he named him “Sue”, knowing full well he’d have to get tough to keep people from walking all over him.
My mother showed me weak so I could learn to be strong. For all of her hard exterior, Mom was a marshmallow inside, and, as I got older, I learned all I had to do was stand up to her for her to back down. By then, I had, unfortunately, become so hard that her tears (the tactic she used to get her way when aggression failed) annoyed me rather than moving me. As a result, I failed to see how broken she really was and how desperately she wanted to be loved.
My own insensitivity isn’t completely to blame for missing what I see in hindsight should have been obvious. Mom had cultivated a remarkable talent for masking what she wanted to keep hidden. The toxic combination of her talent and my self-involvement was further compounded because I’d learned to accept her mood swings as her version of “normal” and would have, in fact, been more likely to find wrongness in more rational behavior.
She also gave me a sense of responsibility which, all too often over the years has been seriously misplaced. It’s an “uber” responsibility which causes me to believe I am responsible for everything which happens around me. It was years before I realized I really wasn’t responsible for her suicide and I was not at fault for failing to see the warning signs and act upon them. Nor was it necessary for me to carry around a load of guilt that Atlas, himself would have been unable to bear. To make matters worse, I’ve passed the sense on to at least one of my daughters.
In my father’s case, only a small amount of digging turned up the likely answer to why. But more difficult to accept was how he knew what we’d all gone through after my mother’s death. How could he justify putting us through the whole emotional maelstrom again? How could he be so selfish, so uncaring? Even worse, why would he choose a day which was already painful to almost everyone in the country?
The truth is, as we can’t exactly talk to the person now unless we find someone who has a strong connection to the spirit world. We can’t really get the answers to what motivated them to take the action they did.
With dad, family history gave me some insight with which to at least speculate on his motivation. That insight is what eventually made me realize he wasn’t being selfish in his own mind, but was giving my sister and me one final gift. His mother had died of lung cancer when I was about ten or eleven. We visited her regularly until almost the end when she told my dad not to come any more as she didn’t want him to remember her in her severely weakened state. For the same reason, my sister and I were not allowed into her room during those last months. I believe those memories scarred my dad and scared him, quite literally, to death. He truly believed his actions were selfless and caring. As for the date, I believe now it was just a horrible coincidence, nothing more. But I’ve had several years to do a thorough self-psychoanalysis and have finally realized his death, too, was never about me except to protect me from having to watch him die a painful death.
My mom was an entirely different story, and despite the fact that she’s been gone two decades, I’m no closer to understanding than I was the day she died. My sister and I used to joke privately about Mom’s many faces. She showed her “social face” to anyone she considered outside her immediate family circle, but even the face she showed us hid more than it revealed. We’d catch occasional glimpses of what made her the person she was, but I don’t think anyone, even the cousins with whom she grew up, ever had a complete picture.
Mom was born in the Bronx, New York to my grandmother Mildred and my grandfather Sol. The story we were told as children said that while Sol was off fighting in the Korean War, Mildred wrote him a “Dear John” letter and moved with my mother to California to follow Chaim, or Hymen as he was renamed upon arriving at Ellis Island, an extremely handsome Jewish actor. However, recent information obtained from Ancestry.com regarding Sol’s deployment partially contradicts this story. According to his military records, Sol was already separated when he enlisted in the military. Regardless of how the story actually played out, Mildred ultimately married Chaim and gave birth to my aunt Tammy when Mom was thirteen.
Mom always insisted Tammy replaced her but until very recently, I assumed it was merely her perception coupled with her love of the dramatic. But when Tammy confirmed my mother’s belief I realized that from my grandmother’s point of view, it was the truth. As a young teenager with a new step-father and a baby sister who occupied all of her mother’s time, I can understand how she might have learned to keep everything to herself, perhaps even in the extreme. Even more so given the stories I overheard. She spent a lot of time living with one or another of my grandmother’s sisters. I can’t even imagine living as a guest in someone else’s house for most of my teenage years. The sheer volume of teenage angst most young girls build up would drive a normal male right over the edge in a matter of weeks if there was no outlet for it. Adding maternal abandonment, both physical and emotional, to the mix just doesn’t make for a tasty soup, much less a healthy psyche. Such is the stuff that eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia are made of. Small wonder my mother was almost painfully thin throughout her teenage years, prompting my grandmother to feed her half and half instead of regular milk to try to fatten her up. (I can even hear her saying “Ess! Ess, mein kint! Vhat man vould vant you, all skin and bones like that?”)
Some of the stories mom shared with my sister and I seemed too horrible to be true, yet other relatives corroborated the worst of them. I remember her telling us Grandma had once chased her with a pair of scissors (and as she was a tailor, they had to be big suckers!). While explaining the curse of the female to us, she related how she thought she was dying when she got her first period because Grandma didn’t see fit to warn her of an affliction visited upon the female of the species. I know in some cases, she overcompensated with my sister and I as a result. I remember her discussing the facts of life for girls at a very young age, and proudly presenting me with my own little set of Kotex pads and the elastic belt we used to have to wear to keep the things on (in an emergency, two safety pins could be used until you could get to your little belt.) I couldn’t have been more than nine and had several years to go before those items became necessary, but when I did “start”, I was proud of becoming a woman instead of terrified. I didn’t know how little real joy this lovely event would bring me over the years after Mom presented it as such a marvelous rite of passage.
Then she married my dad who came from a family who was not big on expressing their feelings, and, I believe, the damage was set in stone. Although Mom had lots of women friends over the years, I don’t think she really shared her inner self with any of them. Even the cousins she was closest to, and who knew where she came from didn’t, from what I could see, truly know her. Or if they did, they didn’t see fit to enlighten my dad, though they were the first to ask him why he didn’t notice her mental scale wasn’t quite in balance, not even waiting until the shock of finding her lifeless body had become less overwhelming. Small wonder people always amaze me, given the bizarre collection of genes I come from.
Mom seemed to spend a lot of time trying to prove to herself and those around her she was as good or better than the cousins she was raised with, and her daughters were better and more accomplished than her cousin’s children. Though I was close with some of those cousins for a few years, after Mom died, the relationships petered out. Perhaps because we all got busy with our own lives, but even more, as I see it now, because they no longer had to pretend they cared about her. Her suicide gave them the perfect excuse to distance themselves just in case what she had might have been contagious.
Instead of seeing that desperately needed her cousins’ acceptance and love, they saw her as someone who went overboard trying to be something better than they were. They never saw what she truly wanted was something they had and she never would; a mother who loved and accepted them and didn’t toss them aside when something better came along. I almost think, in hindsight, that Mom would have been better off with her father. I know, to the day he died he loved his daughter deeply. He was saddened because my grandmother poisoned Mom’s mind and heart towards her own father. Sadly, I grew up with the same sense of duty, and not a lot of love for the man who was my real grandfather. Looking back, he, too just wanted our love and showed us in many ways we just ignored because we followed the example Mom set.
There was always a running joke about a crazy streak running through the women in my mom’s family. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, I find myself wondering how funny the joke really is. My grandmother chased her daughter around the house with a pair of scissors, mom’s cousin had a nervous breakdown when I was young, forcing my cousin to assume the mother role over her two younger sisters when she was ten, and mom committed suicide. Where is the humor in that? The joke was perpetuated by the husbands of the Koslowski women. Did they know something they weren’t telling us? Could there really be an insanity gene? If so, is it passed on to all of the children or just the daughters, and can it be diluted by the father’s genetics? Oy vey! I could be a carrier!
If all this is true, what of the men who knowingly married these women and procreated? Wouldn’t that make them a little crazy too? Or was the crazy, unpredictability of the women part of their charm, at least when they were younger? Oy veis meir. I could be a carry the insanity gene on both sides. I wonder what a biologist would have to say about a double recessive gene and its impact on sanity? In all my studies of Mendel and his peas, I don’t recall the mention of genetics impacting mental stability, or maybe I just tuned out that day because, given my family history, I didn’t really want to know.
I find it very interesting to discover how differently people react to what they perceive as a lack of love and attention. Part of it, I’m sure, has to do with the era in which they were raised. For example, women raised in the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties were practically brainwashed into believing a woman’s path to fulfillment lay in being a perfect wife and mother. Even the pursuit of a college education was considered to be for the sole purpose of finding a mate, and graduation was neither expected nor required. Some fit this mold quite well and went on to become perfectly satisfied at least as far as anyone could tell. But as with any career choice, for many this role had to be about as comfortable as trying to squeeze into a pair of jeans two sizes too small after a big Italian meal. Something has to give. It’s disconcerting to consider, nothing stronger than the slender threads which hold our clothes together contains our sanity.
As I look back on the social lives of my parents and those of my friends, alcohol was a major component of every social gathering, evening meal and end of the work day. I wonder if this was their way of coping with the unhappiness and lack of fulfillment found in their daily lives. In seeking this solace in a bottle, many ended up drinking themselves to death, either slowly so as to go unrecognized as suicide, or more quickly, leaving no doubt. The only difference here is the families of those who did it slowly didn’t have to add the suicide stigma to their grieving process. I don’t mean to minimize the slow death by alcohol, here, nor the very real emotional challenges of living with an alcoholic, but despite the issues associated with an alcohol related death, it is still far more accepted in polite society than an out and out suicide, especially when cause of death is something else, like a heart attack or diabetes. The cause may still be alcohol induced suicide, but the death certificate will reflect something which friends and family are more comfortable with, can discuss without whispering in shame, and for which they can offer sincere condolences without qualification. Yet the immediate family knows the truth because they had no choice but to watch as someone they loved simply gave up and drank away their pain, both real and imagined.
Yet the question remains unanswered and in the meantime, adds even more “whys” to the list. Why was this family member so weak as to choose to end their life rather than find a way to fix what was wrong? Why did their own history make them weak? Why couldn’t they see how devastating their choice would be for those they left behind? But the most important whys are still: Why do we who are left behind take it so personally? Why is it so hard to accept the fact that, just as we are entitled to make our own choices in life, and for some of us, fought long and hard with our parents to do so, it truly is each person’s choice to end their own life if they believe it is necessary. That’s it. It’s simply a choice, no right, no wrong.
We make choices every day, every hour, maybe even every minute. Do I want to get up now or hit the snooze one more time? Do I want oatmeal for breakfast or a cookie? As we make those choices, we rethink them and don’t always follow through on the first choice, or even the hundred and first choice we make. If I eat the cookie will I regret it later? Maybe I’ll go with the oatmeal after all. Wouldn’t a suicide victim do the same thing? If they are like my mom and it was clearly premeditated, how many times did they choose and re-choose, agonizing over the benefits and consequences before actually committing the act? For those who choose a method which takes a little while to yield the desired results, is it possible they are still going back and forth between choices as the life seeps out of them?
Choice makes us individual. Loss of choice, over the years has been cataclysmic when taken on a large scale. There are endless books dedicated to stories of men who took the right to make choices away from large groups of people only to suffer the consequences of their actions at some point in time. From the Romans and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews to our own persecution of blacks, people get tired of being held back, and eventually they join together and take action, often blindly and violently as a reflection of their soul-deep anger and frustration over blatantly inequitable treatment.If a person feels they are tired of the human form they are in and wants to move on, how can we, who are not living their life, judge their choice as right or wrong? I am not an advocate for suicide, but simply an advocate for choice, understanding and healing. As such, I believe part of that healing has to include removing not only the self-recriminations for not being able to stop the act, but the anger and blame heaped upon the loved one who saw suicide as their only viable option.
To take it a step further, I believe that as Spiritual Beings, we choose when and where we will return to the mortal plane, who our next set of parents will be, and even, in part, the lessons we will need to learn in a given lifetime. Just as we choose when to come back, we also choose when to leave and return to the sea of spiritual beings. At the point when we choose to leave, we have to believe we’ve accomplished what we set out to learn in this turn of the wheel. Although it may seem that a life was cut short too soon; we left the stage of life in the middle of our song; we truly have done what we came here to do, otherwise, we’d have found a way to stay until the job was done and all of the necessary lessons were learned. Why some of us leave slowly and painfully while others go out in a blaze of glory is just another aspect of the lessons we came here to learn. In accepting this, I am learning to find peace with my parents’ deaths, despite the fact that those deaths seemed to me so wrong for so long.
If you made it to the end of a rather long chapter, thank you. If you have anything to add or share, I encourage you to do so. If you prefer to keep your comments private, you can send them to me a firstname.lastname@example.org. One thing I do ask, if your comments come from anger, please honor the rule of posting which says “attack the post, not the poster”.
As always, I close this post with my gratitudes:
1. I am grateful for my readers who have helped my writing more than you’ll ever know.
2. I am grateful for insight and the foresight to put this manuscript away for a few years until I had put some more work into my healing and could write words which aren’t so heavily laced with bitterness and self-recrimination.
3. I am grateful for a forum in which to post something which is not socially acceptable or politically correct. Those who disagree or find my words offensive have the right and privilege to go read someone else’s words.
4. I am grateful for the productivity of the last few days. I know that cleaning my desk and smudging the house had a lot to do with clearing out some of my personal cobwebs and road blocks.
5. I am grateful for abundance: joy, love, manifestation, inspiration, exercise, humor, energy, success, expansion, opportunities, support groups, health, peace, harmony, philanthropy and prosperity.
I invite you to visit my Facebook pages, Sheri Levenstein-Conaway Author and HLWT Accounting. Please also drop by my website, www.shericonaway.com and check out my Hire Me Page. I’ve created these pages as a means of positive affirmation and would be very grateful if you’d “like” them or leave a comment! Thank you!