It’s been a long time since you’ve asked me to comment on the book you wrote about your mom’s suicide. I think you are amazing to write about it and I’m glad that you did. I don’t enjoy bringing that chapter of life to mind, given the chaos of those years, but I’ve thought about it often. Especially when I think about what it means to be a mother and uncovering fresh layers of fucked up that we both learned from our mothers.
I know it’s not fair of me to judge them now — but it’s hard not to.
Talking about my relationship with your mom is hard for me because I admired her very much — I was flabbergasted by the way that she slipped back into drugs and addiction.
I was shocked that she abandoned you like that. I was just shocked.
I couldn’t believe your mom would die by suicide.
I still can’t.
I remember the first time I met your mom, I was playing in the front yard while she moved in across the street. She introduced herself from over the fence and told me that she had a daughter just my age, with my name: “I have a Sarah too.”
By the time you came to visit for the summer she had already arranged that we would be playmates. She even arranged a phone call between us before your visit.
When you showed up at my front door, I knew we would be lifelong friends.
My mom worked a lot and my dad was physically or mentally absent most of the time, so your home was like a second home to me.
During these years, your house felt like a Norman Rockwell to me, though now I see that it was far from it.
My mom remarried a man who was addicted to heroin, while at your house, your mom packed lunches, set up the tent in the backyard for us to “camp,” and made goody bags filled with candy. She took us to the zoo, the mall, and the flea market. She prescreened movies, took us for mint chocolate chip ice cream cones, and insisted that you wore a bike helmet. I remember going with her to an NA picnic in the park and how proud she was of her sober chips. We’d to admire the shiny metal coins she earned for racking up months and years of sobriety.
I envied the amount of time and attention that your mom spent with you when she was sober As a kid, I saw your mom as kind, fair, the type who would take the time to listen.
It was very late and your mom answered the phone and insisted that I tell her what was happening. My stepfather hadn’t started hitting my mom yet, but the yelling was really over the top. She gave me a speech about how adults sometimes argue and it can be scary for children to hear and explained that my mom and step dad would never want to do anything to scare me. She told me to go downstairs and tell them that they were scaring me and I couldn’t sleep. They told me to go back up to my room.
Many nights of fighting followed with growing intensity and I tried to call you but ended up talking to Beth.
Beth eventually called my mom and told her that she was concerned about me – I was in big trouble. I was forbidden to speak about “private family business.” It worked: I didn’t speak of the violence again until after his death.
The violence escalated and my stepfather began beating my mom and my brother when he was angry. We moved on several occasions to get away from him.
The emotional abuse from my stepfather became our new normal and we began spending school nights on random people’s sofas, hiding our car down the street.
I spent as much time as possible at friend’s houses and took up babysitting to get out of the house on weekends.
Beth was the only person who knew what was happening; I’d assumed that she would be the person to help me out of that situation. I’m no longer sure she understood how bad things had gotten. She provided me a safe place to go whenever I needed one and a reminder that there are kind people in the world. She told me that I should become one of them. She affirmed that there were a lot of fucked-up things in the world and they would probably never make sense.
Honestly, I don’t know how I would have turned out without Beth as a moral reference point during those years.
Beth became addicted to codeine cough syrup and her behavior changed: she didn’t take us on outings she slept all day everyday. One occasion when she woke up, I remember her running down the hallway singing “boo boop be boo.” This is when I learned that there was something wrong. I was pretty sure that people with bronchitis didn’t do that kind of thing normally.
I knew things were coming unhinged for you, but was too young to appreciate the full weight of what was happening.
I lived in Beth’s house twice, once for a short time when I ran away after my stepfather died and for the school term after that.
By the time I officially lived with Beth she was pretty far gone in her addiction. She slept or was gone most of the time.
It seemed that you were on your own, too.
I still cared what Beth thought of me. She seemed one of the few people who didn’t see me as a lost cause and so I didn’t see myself that way when I was around her.
On Fridays, Beth would take us to the grocery store. She taught us how to grocery shop and some very basic cooking skills.
Things went sour when my mom suspected Beth was using the money she gave her for things other than my upkeep. You and Beth were at odds more often than not. I decided it was best to move back home. Home was a sort of hell, but it was my own hell and I knew how to navigate it.
I didn’t see much of Beth after that.
I’d spend weekends at her apartment while she agreed to leave us totally unattended. The last time I saw her, she’d picked me up from my house to bring me back to your house for the weekend. I remember her being warm and chatting with me for the ride, though I can’t remember what about.
I remember her smiling and I remember that she mentioned that you were unhappy with her these days.
The next time I saw her she was in a coma.
Atrophied hands, hair cut short, dead to the world.
No warm smile, no more sun-kissed freckles, no more frizzy bun atop her head.
She was gone to the world and she couldn’t recover. That’s the last I saw her.
I couldn’t talk about her death with you. It didn’t seem like you wanted to and then you were gone I knew that she let you down and ultimately abandoned you with her suicide. You have every right to be angry with her; hell I was angry on your behalf.
I was just shocked and sad. I think I felt abandoned too.
The next few years were hard for us; the one person I saw as a safe adult had succumbed to drugs and took her own life. It didn’t add up.
Suicide was cruel and yet I remembered her as such a kind person.
There was nothing I could say that would lessen the pain for you so I said nothing.
You remind me of her because you look so much like her now. If you want to talk about what happened, I’d let you start.
What is there to say now, after all of these years?
That was fucked up. There is some fucked up bad shit in the world and it will never make sense, but there is some wonderful stuff too. I think that, despite it all, we both turned out to be people who contribute more to the good than to the uglyl.
I hold you close in my heart, my sister and my dear friend.
Having a beloved pet die can be as challenging as the loss of a person. We at The Band want to share your stories of your animals with us.
This is Riley’s Story:
I still remember the day we picked Riley out of what seemed like a million golden retriever puppies.
See, our border collie mix, Bozley had been put to sleep not long before, so my best friend’s husband worked it out so that we could get we could get a male unpapered goldie from his dad who bred them.
It was like something out of a movie. My mom and I walked into this tiny trailer with dozens of dogs. They opened the back door so we could pick our puppy and it was stampede.
You could literally feel the floor vibrating under the weight of the puppies’ paws.
Life with Riley couldn’t have been better. He did have his faults of course, he did chew a dent in the wall when he was teething, he got a hold of a loose piece of wallpaper and pulled a chunk of that off the wall. He never got crate trained. But, that dog could smile. He’d smile at everybody. A genuine puppy smile, lips lifted and everything.
He never met a baby, toddler, or child that he didn’t like or who didn’t like him.
The night my sister-in-law went in labor, Riley got really sick.
He just slumped over.
We rushed him to the emergency vet where they told us that he most likely had a tumor in his stomach. Surgery would be performed the next morning.
The next morning came and we were still waiting for Brayden Michael to be born when I got a call from the vet. Riley, sadly, didn’t make it through the night. He was only 9 years old. Telling my dad that our beloved dog Riley was dead is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Our grief over Riley’s death was tempered by the fact that not long after that devastating phone call, my nephew was born.
Sometimes, I still sit on my bed sobbing over that dog and his untimely death.
In fact, writing this at work, I have small tears rolling down my cheeks.
Recently someone came back into my life. This person was my whole entire world for about three years. They loved me. Completely. All my flaws.
This person made me feel whole. This person calmed every single negativity I had going in my life.
This person held me when I needed to cry. They listened when I needed to yell.
This person sat behind me and picked head lice out of my hair for eight hours when I cried because no one else in my life would help me.
This person was so beyond good for me. Then I started letting the negative creep back in, I let the people who were supposed to care talk me into believing them instead of this amazing person I had in my life. You see, I always knew I was a failure. I always knew I would never amount to anything. This person believed in me and my worth and well… I really don’t know. I have no excuses except I was young and dumb, and influenced easily by people who should have been supporting me, but weren’t. I longed for THEIR approval and love, and if I didn’t have that, why should I deserve anything else? I left this amazing person with a heavy heart but headed in a direction I was being basically shoved into for many years.
I married, had kids, was verbally and emotionally abused before I finally left. Even after I left I tried to make it work. After all, no one else would want me. During this time I searched out my person from before. They were far away in another land. They seemed happy and from what I could see across a computer screen, didn’t want me anymore. I did reach out, I called, I emailed, I basically stalked this person. But they had moved on. I was just a memory to them. And that was okay. After all, I didn’t deserve them.
Fast forward a few more years. I still watched my person from afar. I was friends with their family but still had not contact with my person. That was okay. I was happy knowing they were happy. I met someone, dated for a few years, got married again. And I am finally HAPPY! At least most of the time. My old thoughts are all still there but I try and push them away, and am mildly successful.
A couple weeks ago, my person showed up in my life again. Like a whirlwind. They have never been far from my thoughts. I still watched. But here they were in my inbox! We have been talking and it’s like the last 20 years disappeared. And I am right back where I was, where we were. My person and I. And I am so much in love. I always was.
And I am torn. How can I love two people this much? What do I do? I need this person in my life, it’s like a part of me has been missing for so long. Literally, it feels like I got my right hand back. I need them to know I love them. Because I do. But we can’t be together. I love where I am in my life. I love the person I have chosen to share my life with. I love my home and my job. There is a half a country between us, and 20 years and a life.
But I still need them in my life.
I find my mind wandering a lot lately. The what ifs. I find myself wanting to wake up in one of those stupid romcoms where everything is different, but it just seems right. I want to find a damn Delorean. I want to go back and not be a stupid kid.
I want to kick the dog. I want to scream at the baby. I want to pull out my hair and punch holes in the walls. I want to ram my car into something, anything. I want to choke the birds who are singing and tell the Universe to fuck off because how dare it be a sunny and beautiful day today. How dare the world keep spinning now that two little boys are to grow up without a mother. I have this untapped chasm of rage I didn’t know I could possibly feel.
First, people are afraid of what to say, and often say nothing. This is a mistake. Many people are afraid to bring up the deceased child, fearing it will open wounds and raw feelings. But in my opinion the hardest thing is when people don’t talk about Maddie. It feels like she was never here, and this is what is heartbreaking. It is nice when people say, “I thought of Maddie today,” of “I saw a kid in a dress like the one Maddie wore at whatever today.” Or “I miss Maddie.” These things help, not hurt. Make us feel she is not forgotten. Sending a keepsake with the child’s photo or name, things that help her be tangibly remembered are nice. We have received AMAZING things and we cherish everything.
Six years ago, one of my friends lost her father. I was living across the country from her, and I was terrified. I felt guilty that I had my dad and she didn’t. So I didn’t say anything, and I ruined our friendship for a while. I am very lucky she gave me another chance. She has been there for me since Maddie passed away. I have horrible regret about the whole thing – all I had to do was call her and say, “I’m so sorry.”
Religion is a potentially explosive way to comfort. Unless you absolutely know 100% percent the person will be comforted by mentions of faith, don’t go there. Religion is a very complicated thing in the wake of a child’s death, and they may be angry at God or confused as to how to incorporate the death of a child into the religion that they have known to have their best interests in mind. Even someone you know to be intensely religious may be having a crisis of faith in the wake of a child’s death, and could be angered/saddened by mention of religion. Especially stay away from, “God wanted her more than you,” or “God needed her more,” etc.
I don’t care if it is the all powerful creator of the universe, you don’t tell any Mama that anyone wants her baby more than she does.
So many people hate seeing their loved one in such pain and want to fix it. Consequentially, they start talking about how you have to move on, that you will see them again, the child is with God, it will get better in time, etc. All things they think will “fix it.” Don’t try to do this. Follow the lead of the parents. Discuss what they want…if they go to those places you can discuss those things, but don’t try to steer it there. Sometimes I want to talk about Maddie and the unfairness of it all, and other times I want to hear funny stories or talk about reality TV.
Don’t be afraid to show emotion. Many people feel they have to be strong for their friends, that they can’t cry or show emotion. I don’t think that is true. You can be strong AND be emotional. If tears come, don’t fight them. This shows your friends that you, too, are crushed and sad and lost.
Address the horror. People often worry about addressing how awful the situation is, but the parents want to hear that people get the hell they are in. The parents feel alone when they don’t think people understand how awful this is. Saying things like, “This is the worst thing. I am so sorry and sad that it had to happen to you and your child,” helps.
Food is very helpful. The last thing you want to do when mourning is worry about eating. There are always people around after a death, and the last thing you want to think about is feeding them. Mike and I never would have eaten if food hadn’t been sent to us. A gift of food also tells the parents they are loved.
Say or express something you never have before. If you have never told the person that you love them, come right out and tell them that you love them. If you’ve never held their hand, hold their hand. Give hugs. These expressions mean a lot.
Finally, my biggest advice is to not be afraid to take initiative. We often say, “let me know what I can do,” in a situation like this. Well, I can tell you that Mike and I had no idea what we needed. We were so lucky that we had friends and family rally together and just take care of things. A few came to town to help out. One friend organized food, another cleaned my house, two bought the clothes Mike and I wore to the funeral, one put together Maddie’s slide show, a few organized the reception after her service. I could go on and on. I didn’t have to worry about anything because I knew my friends and family would handle it.
Be there for your friends. Call, email, text. Tell them they don’t have to respond. Let them know you are thinking of them, and their child, all the time. Don’t drop away after the funeral – that’s when they’ll need you the most. Be the kind of friend that you would want to have.
Maybe you will read this and nod along thinking to yourself, “ugh, why do people say stupid stuff” or you have a friend or coworker that needs comforting and you don’t know what to say. Here are some tips on what to say and what NOT to say to bereaved parents.
WHAT NOT TO SAY:
“It’s so much better that it was so early or he was so young, or she didn’t have to suffer.”
No parents should bury their child. No matter HOW old or young they are. It’s just the wrong order of events.
“You’re young and have time to have other children.”
You don’t know how long we’ve been trying to have THIS child. You don’t know that I haven’t had a hysterectomy because of some terrible disease. You don’t know any details that would lead you to think this statement would be true.
“I know how you feel, my dog died last week.”
This was actually said to me at Charlie’s visitation. Kid you not. Enough said.
“Please call me if there’s anything we can do for you.”
This is a really sweet sentiment. But we don’t know what we need right now. I’m sure we need our grass cut, some meals, somebody to babysit our other children, or any number of other things-be creative. But we don’t have any clue what day it is or even how to put one foot in front of another. So we sure as heck don’t know what our to-do list looks like.
“Things happen for a reason.”
This is probably THE most insensitive thing anyone can say. Though this is true, that there is some “order of events” that our lives take and things happen in the order they are supposed to. BUT this is not a comforting statement and one that most people who are grieving a loss of a child, a diagnosis of a severe or chronic illness, a major accident or surgery that is life-changing, find offensive. If you take nothing else from this, DO NOT SAY THIS STATEMENT TO ANYONE. EVER. Thanks.
So, CharliesMom, what CAN I say to someone?
People get really funny around situations they are uncomfortable with. They panic when they don’t know what to say. They freeze and THAT is when stupid stuff is said.
Here are the basic rules:
1. Acknowledging the situation is better than saying nothing.
2. Saying nothing is better than saying something stupid.
3. Giving a hug and saying “I just don’t have the words to tell you how sorry I am” is better than saying nothing OR saying something stupid.
Other ways to offer comfort:
Send a card with a gift card to a local restaurant. It’s not flowers that die and it will get them out of the house which is normally needed.
Call and tell them you are going to be mowing their grass, shoveling their snow, pulling their weeds (or whatever fits) on Saturday.
Remember that food, flowers and help flows in for about two weeks. Then it’s like the rest of the world picks up and moves on quickly without the grieving people. The rest of the world doesn’t remember, or care that they lost their child or their child is sick. About a month later, or two months later, offer to help or to bring a meal or to take the mom out for a pedicure.
Acknowledge the child in the future. I cannot tell you how much I love this one lady. To this day, and it’s been seven years, when she sees my son Henry, she calls him Charlie. Every. Single. Time. She blushes and gets embarrassed until I tell her that it’s flattering to me that she remembers my baby that she actually never met. People like to hear their child’s name. And they like to know you remember and think of them.
Continue reaching out. If you are really close with the bereaved person, call regularly. I know I never returned calls, turned down lunch dates, didn’t want to go to parties but I had friends who were persistent and at a certain point, I was ready. And I said yes. Don’t give up on the person. They are hurting and are scared to have to leave their comfort zone.
JUST BE THERE. And don’t freak out when we start talking about our situation. If it freaks you out, you just need to listen and offer hugs and support. If you are a good friend, it shouldn’t make you uncomfortable, though.
Seven years down the road, the letters you sent, the meals you brought, the ear you lent, the shoulder you offered, the memories you helped us keep will be remembered.
And the insensitive stuff other people said will still sting when you think back on them