On Christmas Eve day, 2012, I got the dreaded call from my mother’s in-home caregiver. She helped Mom twelve hours a day, and knowing Mom had been having difficulty sleeping lately, was letting her sleep in. When it got pretty late, she became concerned and went upstairs. Much to her horror, she discovered my mother in bed, and was pretty sure she was dead. The call to me was second only to a call to 911.
While I was on the phone with Mom’s caregiver, Mom was pronounced dead. But then the shock came: there was a note. It was a suicide. Another victim of mental illness: bipolar, in Mom’s case. The caregiver was an instant mess. She must have been thinking, where did she go wrong? What did she miss? She thought she should have seen the signs and should have been able to prevent it.
Mom had seemed so happy over the past few days; a change from the depression that had been swallowing her up for the past six months. People thought that her meds were finally helping. Looking back, it was because she had made the decision to end her pain, and was at peace with it, happy even.
She had been depressed before, but had never talked about suicide. She had never even hinted around about ending it all. At least not to anyone in her family, or to her therapist or her psychopharmacologist. As far as we, her family, were concerned, the biggest threat to our mother was when she became manic. She could ramp up quickly, and enter the land of no turning back, reaching psychosis, before medication could bring her back down.
After the initial shock and pain of my mother’s death by suicide, the next thing that settled in was relief for her. That she was finally out of pain.
Before this, I had always believed that suicide was never ok. I looked at it as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. And many times, it is.
According to several religious views, suicide guarantees you a trip to Hades to be punished for all eternity.
From the spiritual point of view, suicide is looked at as breaking your contract with God. As such, the lessons you had signed up to learn during this lifetime, have to be addressed again in another life. You don’t get out of them. But the parameters in the subsequent lifetime can be changed. You are not damned for all eternity or judged harshly by anyone other than you.
The reality for my mother at the time of her death, was that her mental status had been suddenly compromised about 16 months prior, and was slowly deteriorating with no chance of improvement. For the past several years, Mom had been the caretaker for my father, who had lived with cancer for more than two decades. Dad’s physical health slowly declined, requiring regular blood transfusions, assorted doctor’s visits, and dealing with bones breaking, as cancer ate away at them. My parents were married just over fifty years when Dad died.
Mom’s reaction to Dad’s death was that her persistent depression, that hadn’t been responding to any of the antidepressants her doctor tried, immediately lifted. In fact, she flipped literally over night and skyrocketed into mania. She spent her 82nd spring birthday in a mental hospital. After a month stay, she was sent home, still delusional and paranoid. We arranged in-home care for her around the clock, so she could be home.
Eventually, Mom came back down to earth, visited “normal” for a little while, and then dove back into depression. By August, she was so depressed that she would only get out of bed to eat a little bit, and go back to bed. When we got together as a family at our summer cottage for about 10 days, Mom refused to shower. She refused to go on a walk (and she had been a walker for years). I could barely get her out on the front porch to take in the ocean view. That fall, her psychopharmacologist finally decided to hospitalize Mom again.
After Dad died, Mom’s will to live died, too. The only other thing she lived for, was playing her violin. Mom had played since she was seven years old. And played professionally for several decades. During the past sixteen months, due to problems with her hands and some fingers, she couldn’t play.
For the last 16 months of her life, her house was invaded by in-home caregivers. As wonderful as they all were, they came into my mother’s house. Her kitchen. Her bedroom and bathroom. Her territory. Mom was fiercely independent, and it took a while for her to adjust to having help in her home.
She also lost her ability to drive; and she was particularly not ok with that one. Even with a driver available at her beck and call, she had a very hard time giving up driving.
When Mom decided to leave this world, she was mentally compromised, not only from dementia, but from crippling depression that was not getting any better, despite trying several different medications. Her biggest reason for living (Dad) was gone. And the things that had brought her joy, pleasure and independence (playing music, going on walks, driving) were not available for her anymore.
As a person, I didn’t see her evolve much throughout her life. She was not particularly flexible and didn’t relish change. I am not surprised she felt completely boxed in and out of options. In the case of my mother, taking her life at age 81, as painful and surprising as it was to me, made sense. I understand it, and I’m actually ok with it.