Last year when I did the Out of the Darkness Community Walk, my daughter expressed an interest in walking with me. I would have been happy to have her along, except I would then have to explain to her how my sister, her Aunt Lisa, died, and how do you explain suicide to a nine year old?
My daughter has asked in the past how her Aunt Lisa died and I told her we would talk about it when she was a little older. I was hoping to wait till she was twelve or thirteen, but it was my own cowardice keeping me from telling her, not her age.
A week and a half ago, I asked her if she wanted to do the Out of the Darkness walk with me—it is a Community walk, not an Overnight, so it is considerably shorter, but equally important. She excitedly exclaimed, “Yes! Yes! Yes I want to walk in the Out of the Darkness Walk with you!”
I took me several more days to find the right time to talk with her about her Aunt Lisa and to work up the courage while clamping down on my emotions. Finally, I felt that the right time had come.
I asked my daughter, “Do you know why I participate in the Out of the Darkness Walks?”
“In honor of Aunt Lisa,” she replied, looking at me with her soft blue eyes.
“Do you know how your Aunt Lisa died?”
“No…. A car accident? Wait, was she hit by a car? I don’ t know.”
“Well, yes, she was hit by a car, but that’s not what killed her.” Not right away, anyway, I think.
“Your Aunt Lisa was hit by a car when she was about nineteen. It did almost kill her. One of the things that happened when the car hit her was that she had a really bad concussion, that’s when you get a head injury and it hurts your brain. Anyway, she healed, mostly, but ten years after that she developed a seizure disorder, probably because of the head injury. The seizure disorder meant she couldn’t drive, couldn’t do her job, it caused her to feel sick. Also, she had been depressed on and off for years. So she was sick and she was sad and she decided she was done.”
I paused briefly and look at my daughter, “She killed herself. Another word is suicide.” Another pause, “Are you okay? Come here.” I pull her toward me in a hug. “It’s a hard thing to discuss. It’s a hard thing for a child to understand. But she was depressed, not like when you or I get sad, but a profound, all consuming hopelessness. And she was sick from the seizure disorder.” I pet her hair and think about how my sister used to pet my hair. “Do you want to ask me anything? Tell me anything?”
My daughter snuggles closer to me and asks the last thing I expected: “How did she do it?”
Oh, shit, I think, How can I tell her that? Jesus, she’s nine. Damn it, Lisa!
“Umm…” I say, not wanting to present that gruesome bit of information.
My daughter stands up and looks at me; she looks a little horrified, “Was it bad?”
Crap. “No! Ah, well….” I can’t make this a big thing and I need to tell her before her imagination runs away with her….
“She cut open her arms.” Great. That was soothing. This child is going to be scarred for life. Fuck.
“Are you okay? Did you want to know anything else?”
“Did you know she was going to do that? Do you think you or Nana or someone could have helped?” She asks.
“Oh, baby,” I reply, “it haunts me every day. If we had known, we would have done everything in our power to help her.” I think back over the years of all-consuming guilt, the anger, the loneliness, every tortured month of May since Lisa died when my mind flowed with a continuous undercurrent of thought that would grow in intensity and loudness as the anniversary of her death approached, This is when I could have saved her. This is when I could have saved her. This is when I could have saved her. This is when I could have saved her. This is when I failed her.
“Baby, you can talk to me about anything; you can ask me anything.”
“Mommy? Can I tell Jane?”
“Ah, no, baby, I would need to talk to her mom first. You see, suicide is a tricky topic. It’s not like when someone dies of cancer or in a car accident. It’s different. Not everyone understands.”
We sat there a while, in the sun, me holding my daughter, second guessing myself, a little mad at my sister. I gave my daughter a few suggestions of how to handle it if the subject came up, told her she never had to talk about it if she didn’t want to.
“You can always ask me questions,” I said, “Or Daddy. Or Nana. But not Baba. He won’t talk about it. You could ask him stuff like what he did with Lisa when she was a little girl like you, like did he take her fishing like he does you, stuff like that.”
I didn’t ever want to have that conversation with my daughter, but I couldn’t avoid it. Well, I suppose I could have avoided it, but that would have been wrong. Avoiding such conversations is what keeps depression and suicide in the dark, keeps them mysterious, misunderstood, judged, keeps people from reaching out.
It is incredibly difficult to share with someone that you have lost a loved one to suicide. People jump to conclusions. Because Lisa was a nurse they often think it was a drug overdose. I hate to think they are judging her because they really have no idea, most of the time.
Lisa was depressed. Simple as that. She was depressed and she was sick and she was tired. And she had lost all hope.
Simple, yet complex. So incredibly complex.