by Jennifer E. White
On July 19th, 2011 my world changed forever. My mom, Joanie, had taken her own life. I was 23 years old and although my mom had battled with mental illness and addiction for many years, her suicide shocked me to my core.
Suicide felt like an explosion. I looked around and pieces of my life were scattered all over the place, some friends were gone, some memories altered and some of my life’s passions seemed meaningless. Slowly, I began to pick up some of the pieces that remained intact, but there were gaping holes. In the beginning, I didn’t know how I could possibly live with the pain of emptiness forever.
Almost immediately after losing my mom to suicide, I knew I wanted to help others who were struggling or people who had lost a loved one, but I didn’t know how. My first step was to connect with others who had lost their moms to suicide. My brother, Andrew, and I started an organization called Mom Squad to help those who had been affected by a mother’s suicide. I found that connecting with others helped me feel more hopeful about my future, but I wanted to do more.
On my mom’s second birthday after her death, I was in a negative place. I had found a lot of support through things like support groups and individual therapy, but I felt disconnected from my mom. I was planning my wedding by myself and had just bought my first home with my fiancé. The reality that I was going to be without a mother for the rest of my life felt too heavy a burden to bear. I needed to connect with something positive about my mom, I needed to find a way to continue my relationship with her in her new form. I thought about my mom and tried to remember the positive things about her instead of focusing on her suicide. I thought about her love of helping other people, how she was so deeply generous, and I signed up to volunteer at an elementary school for the day.
I felt nervous when I showed up to volunteer that day. I was afraid I would start crying or that I would feel resentful towards people who had more energy and happiness than me. I was placed on paint crew and I remembered a story my dad had told me once about my mom painting Sesame Street characters on the walls of the children’s hospital where she worked when she was a young nurse. I felt connected to my mom. I felt like she could have been next to me, painting and laughing. I was able to focus on the entirety of her life.
Unfortunately, part of my mother’s story is suicide, but it is not everything. She was generous, compassionate, silly and sweet. She was also complicated, very sick, depressed and addicted. When I spent the day helping others and connecting to a positive memory of my mom, I was able to put her suicide in perspective. By helping someone else and remembering how my mom loved to help people, my feelings of heavy grief lifted for a few hours and I was able to see clearly.