I sit on the swing of the school playground watching my children climb monkey bars and hang upside down. Almost winter light casts down upon the dirt at my shoes. I wait for a parent teacher conference with my eldest daughter’s 2ndgrade teacher. It’s been six months since my sister ended her life. In that time, we’ve moved back to the United States from Europe, my life a strange concoction of grief and commotion, blackness forging forward out of necessity.
As I wait, a woman and her two children join us. She is slender with perfectly bobbed blonde hair, dressed in a classy, simple sheath. As she moves toward me, her sensible flats barely kick up the dry autumn dust. Her clear blue eyes greet me with a smile. I want to run, but am stuck waiting in the eternity of the present. The woman introduces herself, asks what grades my children are in and who their teachers are. We begin the polite mom-banter, searching for a thread of connection outside the obvious ties of children and school.
After discovering that both of our husbands are active duty Air Force, she asks the quintessential military question, “where are you from?” I feel the tension as her probing questions inch closer and closer to my wounds. “Does your family still live in South Carolina?” she asks. I form oddly foreign yet truthful words, “My dad does. My mother and sister passed away.” The echo of the last sentence bounces between my brain and heart in shameful awareness that “passing away” was not exactly the most accurate description. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says, and then adds that strangely invasive, but apparently socially acceptable question, “what happened to them?”
Looking back, I’m unsure if what prompted my response was a sudden exhaustion from carrying the weight of denial or a self-destructive desire to end the conversation, but for the first time since my mother’s suicide eight years earlier I admitted, “they both died by suicide.” I braced myself for her response, fast-forwarding in my head to her polite and tidy exit from our encounter. I watched in my mind how she would gracefully summon her children and offer short and cordial good-byes. I imagined meeting her in the hallways of the school in the year to come, a quick glance up, a fake smile, and a rush to get to where she was going. My stigma could stain the perfection of her façade. But, my heart snapped back to reality when she responded, “that must be so painful.”
In the years since that day, this woman has become one of my closest friends. We have celebrated births and baptisms, First Holy Communions and pre-school graduations. We’ve sent our husbands off to war and stood shoulder to shoulder on the tarmac waiting for planes to bring them home. Our families have vacationed together, and our children consider one another a part of a large extended family. Even now, several moves since being stationed together, we remain in close contact. In short, she has become one of many sisters God has given me to fill the void of my loss.
Stigma associated with mental illness and suicide is a reality that I have experienced on countless occasions – from people within my own family to acquaintances who know nothing about me. The fear and pain of rejection can keep us locked in a prison of shame defined and controlled by people who may be well-meaning, but ignorant. I have learned that speaking truth unlocks this prison and sets me free. I have learned that there will be many people who distance themselves from me because of that truth. I have learned that I must find the courage to be a truth-teller nonetheless. I have learned that those who walk away aren’t interested in true friendship anyway, and I am grateful for their shallowness. Ultimately, I have learned that those who stand beside me in truth are the keepers, and that telling the truth is the best way to find them.