“Those who have suffered understand suffering and therefore extend their hand.” – Patti Smith
When I sleep I see them limping and crawling, frantic to get to where I stand. They are my sisters, my grandmother, aunts, friends, co-workers, neighbors. Their familiar faces are as weary as they are determined. I’m hurting and hunched over the edge of a well. I’m reaching and reaching and somehow it is not enough so I scream for them to hurry. Help me reach. Help. And they do. Sisters, grandmother, aunts, friends, co-workers, neighbors. Soon we are all casting hands into the darkness.
There is no sight more tragic or gorgeous than the hurt helping the hurting. Tragic because surely there are a stronger few who could swoop in. Surely it would be easier for them to lend their healthy hands. But gorgeous, gorgeous in its selflessness. In those days and weeks following Dad’s death, we were down on the ground still reaching out, not to beg or take but to make sure the others were still breathing. Can I tell you? This is what love is: feeling their pain more than your own, understanding you are badly broken but using your tape and glue and spare string to tie their pieces back together.
We stood with my mother in an impossible place. She tried to reconcile the evil on the news with the baby boy she loved. She tried to be strong in the face of her daughters’ hurting. She tried to accept that this would never really be over for her. She tried, and because we are hers, her girls tried, too. The best any of us could do was to show each other we were right there in the blackness. So we grabbed onto one another with a prayer we could help or at the very least remind a sister, a daughter, a mother, we weren’t in the dark alone. The only comfort was a basic belief: there was a hand to hold, even if you couldn’t see it. Just keep trying. I’m right here with you. Oh, how I hoped. I prayed let this trying be enough.
On September 10, 2014 my mother took her life.
We sat on her front lawn as official men occupied her home. And when they took her away, we entered the scene of her trying. Bible scriptures scrolled in her loopy handwriting were tucked in bedside drawers and purse pockets, proof of her trying to talk herself back into life. I looked around for her frizzy short hair. I searched a cabinet for her big laugh. I checked the front porch for her calming hands. Makeup set up near her usual spot, evidence of her waking and getting ready to go to work, trying to be a part of a normal world when hers was shattered. She’d fed her dogs and underlined encouraging passages in old books and jotted important dates on a calendar. There were dishes half-washed in the sink, a list of to-do’s on the kitchen counter. This was her reaching out for life. This was her trying to talk herself out of death. I thought it looked so brave. Then there were pictures of happier, gone days scattered about, snapshots of the horror & doubt she felt for a better tomorrow. I peeked out back to see if I could find her joy, her funny jokes, her pitchy singing voice, her cooking, her real , beautiful self before this grief chipped away at her. We sat there shocked & numb but strangely certain that she tried just as hard as one woman could try. She’d stopped believing there was any other way out of the darkness. Grief blinded her. She couldn’t see us hunched and hurting and reaching out for her. This is what haunts. It seems unbearable that the help you give might not help at all. It seems impossible that so many people can love a person and not a one of them can get to her in time.
The most tragic aspect of suicide: my mother made up her mind, but oh, it was a mind clouded black & rattled in sadness. She committed whole-heartedly to death, but, my God, hers was a broken, shattered heart. Her grief convinced her that our reaching out would only pull her back up to the place of her pain. Her fear erased the possibility of happiness, deceived her, and told her that things could only get worse. Depression led her to believe that in that darkness there was no real hand to hold.
One year later I’d tell her she was right. There were impossible, heavy days. There has been such sadness. Our eyes have seen the hardest things. Our hearts have hurt to a place beyond earthly pain. But I’d tell her she was wrong, too. The sun has risen every morning. Grandkids have grown. There has been beauty in a five-year-old learning taking off the training wheels, snowmen and cannonballs into a fresh, cold pool. There has been new happiness in good talks with good people, cooing babies, cute dogs, perfectly timed church sermons. There is even in the midst of hardship so much good left to see. I’d tell her that I wish I could’ve shown her the barely visible light at the far end of all that darkness. I wish she could’ve known how precious she was, how many people were reaching out for her. I wish she was still here for the bad, for the good, for all of it. More than anything, I’d like to tell her how hugely she is and was surrounded by love, that she was never as alone in that darkness as she believed. Pain tells lies. So I’d tell my mother the truth: there were always hands to hold, close, close, just within reach.
I see her at the bottom of a well. When I go to sleep, that’s where she is, just a sliver of light to show me her big, blue eyes, shining so far down. I am yelling with all my breath, “JUST COME BACK UP. WE ARE HERE. SEE US ALL REACHING. COME BACK UP.” But I do not think she hears me. I do not think she can see my fingertips straining for hers. And there are my sisters. I know from my own grief how bruised and beaten they are feeling. But they have crawled here to this well, to be with her, too. They are yelling out for her to hear. They are nudging elbows and throwing down tired arms for the chance to save her. I feel pushed, shoved and look up from the long tunnel of dark to see her brother, her mother, and her two sisters. There is her favorite cousin. There are her friends. There is a neighbor from across the way. There are the fragile elderly she went to work every day to help. Behind them still are those who did not know her but love her all the same. Waves and waves of people.They have come to help us help. They are all weeping, but they are reaching, too. And can I tell you? This is what love is, tragic and gorgeous, even if it doesn’t work the way you wanted, even if your heart is badly broken. This is what love is: a million hurting hands still reaching, reaching.
September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day.
According to the World Health Organization, over 800,000 people commit suicide every year. It is widely believed that the stigma surrounding mental illness and depression leads to most of these deaths while the stigma and shame of suicide prevents many families and friends from speaking out. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide please know that there are so many hands here reaching out to help you. Even in the darkest place, you are never alone.
RESOURCES FOR SUICIDE PREVENTION & DISCUSSION