by George Ochoa
On August 27, 2012, my eighteen-year-old daughter, Martha Corey-Ochoa, jumped to her death from her fourteenth-floor dorm room on her first night at Columbia University. Because of the dramatic circumstances of her death, it made international news, this story of the “brilliant and beautiful coed” destroying herself. Reporters camped out in front of my house and threw questions at me. But after the reporters were gone, my wife and I were left alone with the worst catastrophe we had ever faced. How do you survive the suicide of your only child?
I barely did. The first year after losing Martha, I considered suicide myself. How could I live without the center of my life? My wife and I are writers, and during most of Martha’s childhood we both worked at home as freelancers, churning out reference books and taking turns each day caring for Martha. Many fathers work full time away from home, and can’t see their children as much as they might like. But I spent countless hours with Martha, playing with her, feeding her, talking with her. The accompanying photograph shows me with her when she was eleven. By the time she died, she had become my reason for living. Without her, there seemed no reason to live.
Yet even while she was alive, I knew I could lose her any day. At fifteen, she was diagnosed with an unspecified mood disorder, which I believe was bipolar disorder. The symptoms included delusions about her marriage to a Russian prince, Aleksei, who lived three centuries ago, and wild mood swings from ecstasy to depression. At sixteen, she attempted suicide by drinking laundry detergent. We tried everything we knew to save her—psychiatrist, psychotherapists, medications, hospitalizations. I tried always to listen to her empathetically. My wife and I tried to strike a balance between giving her personal freedom and protecting her from herself. But on the night of her death, our efforts failed.
The first year after Martha’s death was the worst. The second was bad too. But somewhere in the third year, I began to heal. Time had passed, and I could look back on Martha’s existence as one episode in my life, a life that had begun without her and was continuing without her. My grief would never entirely go away, but I realized that I was the luckiest man on the face of the earth, because I had had Martha as my daughter. I accepted that blessing for what it was: a life that came with a time limit, the way every life does. Martha’s time limit was shorter than most, but that was no reason not to treasure the time we had had.
In our family office was a stack of Martha’s writings that had been untouched since her death. This year, for the first time since she died, I felt strong enough to read through the stack. Much of it I had never read. I was struck by the high quality of her work—poems, essays, fiction, journals. The voice in her writings was unmistakably Martha’s: sad, longing, insightful. It combined the freshness of youth with a command of her art that most writers of much greater age will never achieve. I felt sad for the literary career she did not live to have, but I was also impressed with what she had accomplished in such a short time.
I decided to publish Martha’s work myself, on a website I created, marthacorey-ochoa.com. Launched on July 2, 2016, it has already had hundreds of visitors. I created it for four reasons. First, as a writer, I know every writer wants to be famous, if not while she’s alive then afterward, and I thought Martha should be given that chance. Second, I wanted my friends to remember Martha, to allow them to speak about her again, instead of being silent in a misguided attempt to avoid disturbing me. Third, I thought the website would help people who have lost loved ones to suicide or know or are suicidal people. And fourth, building the website was a way of expressing my love for my favorite writer constructively.
I encourage anyone who has lost someone to suicide to visit marthacorey-ochoa.com. There you can see that you are not alone, that the suffering of grief can get better over time, and that you can take solace in the great gift of having known and loved your departed person for whatever length of time you had.
George Ochoa is the author or co-author of thirty-five nonfiction books and four short stories, and head writer at a nonprofit organization in Manhattan.