One Mother Shares After Her Own Son's Suicide
I met Madeline Sharples online, through Facebook. Madeline is a gifted writer and is dedicating her life to bringing suicide out of the closet and into the light. I invited Madeline to share some of her experience, knowledge and wisdom with us. She graciously said, "yes."
I asked Madeline to reflect on three questions. Her generous responses give us so much more:
What would you say to a mother, father, spouse, sibling who has just learned that their loved one committed suicide?
First of all I want to tell you how sorry I am for your loss. My heart is with you. And even though I’ve been through the suicide death of my son, there is no way that I can know how you feel. Everyone is different. Everyone has different stories. But we can share our stories and maybe derive some solace from that. And please know I am here for you. You can call on me anytime – day or night – just to talk, just to listen, just so you know someone is here for you.
And even though this is still so new and raw for you, I encourage you to take care of yourself – and let others take care of you. Go for a walk, go to the gym, eat healthy. Eat a bowl of chicken soup. Get a massage or haircut. Buy something new to wear. Try to do anything to make yourself look better because if you look better you’ll begin to feel better. It’s all a façade in the beginning. It’s like playacting. But pretty soon the acting becomes real.
And feel free to reject any or all of these suggestions because grief and how we grieve is so personal.
It’s always okay to cry and it’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to wallow in bed under the covers when your grief overtakes you, and it’s okay to go to a funny movie and laugh your head off. I didn’t allow myself any kind of happiness for so long afterward on purpose – because I didn’t want to stop feeling the pain. I didn’t want to betray my son. I felt if I stopped feeling the pain it meant I didn’t love him and miss him enough. Then I realized I wasn’t betraying my dead son by laughing and enjoying myself. It didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling the pain, it didn’t mean I was through grieving, even though some people thought after only a month or two I should have been through grieving already.
Don’t let anyone tell you how long you should grieve.
I can also tell you some other things that worked for me:
- I didn’t make any big changes in my life. People encouraged us to sell our house and move right away. I thought about it, but I just couldn’t. Going through and making decisions about all the things – especially his things – would have been much too daunting and stressful. And now I’m so glad we stayed. We had more happy experiences in our house than sad ones. There was no reason to run away.
- I indulged in magical thinking. My memoir is called Leaving the Hall Light On. I left the hall light on while he was alive. I kept it on after his death so he’d know how to find his way back if he needed to.
- I discovered diversions: entertainment, work, reading, traveling, a creative project
- Or just do nothing. Do whatever works for you. I also quit some of my regular activities because they just didn’t interest me or seem relevant anymore.
- Some of my friends left. But I made new ones – people who have been in my shoes or people who are sensitive enough to just be with whom I am now – not how I was before. I found out that I live in a new normal now since my son’s death.
- I took on many activities to keep my mind busy with other thoughts: meditation, writing, going on a retreat, walking on the beach, working out, going back to the job I had retired from some years earlier.
- I also found a cause – we set up an endowment, now I volunteer. I want to help erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide. And while I do this work I never hesitate to use the suicide word. It needs to be out there. It needs to be spoken. That’s the only way we will ever be able to help prevent it.
- I also found how important it is to write down my memories of my son. I didn’t want to forget anything about him. I kept some of his things as mementoes: his candlesticks, his records and tapes, his books, his Olympic pin collection, his piano. I also started a collection of Buddha statues because I thought he was a Buddha kind of guy.
So do things that make you feel comfortable. What I did seemed to work for me. But I know none of these things will bring my son back. I still feel a pain in my gut every time I remind myself he is really gone. And I still feel guilt and regret.
Be prepared for ups and downs. Sometimes you’ll be taken totally by surprise. And you’ll always have those feelings of guilt. The “what if?” thoughts will never go away. Just try to be here now. Accept those as just thoughts and live now.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known then?
My son was bipolar. I didn’t know enough about this disease while he was still alive. I didn’t know how dangerous this disease is. I didn’t realize that he couldn’t admit and talk about his disease because of the stigma of mental illness. And I didn’t know that bipolar disorder if not treated early and properly can be a killer disease. My son was a huge suicide risk and I didn’t know it.
What can you offer to help folks "hold on?"
At the very outset I thought about my own suicide. But ultimately, I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring that hurt on my family again. What also kept me holding on was the realization that if I didn’t work to keep my son’s memory alive, I didn’t know anyone else who would. And while I kept busy with my writing and telling my son’s story, I recognized the many wonderful gifts that came my way as a result of my son’s death:
- My son’s death has made me a stronger person, physically and emotionally. It was as if I accomplished getting stronger through brute force. I also reinvented myself into poet and creative writer.
- I also created a book with the goal of helping others who have experienced a loss like mine. Now I have a new writing career as a web journalist, and I’m writing a novel. Keeping my fingers moving on the keys helps keep me sane.
- My husband and I have a stronger marriage probably by a combination of my drive to deal with the pain, suffering, and loss, and Bob’s willingness to wait until I got better. We realized early on that our grieving processes were different, so we were patient, we gave each other a lot of space, and we respected each other. We gave each other the space to grieve in our own way.
- I have a terrific bond with my surviving son Ben and his new wife. Yes, I’m proud to say I’m a new mother-in-law. My son and his wife live close by and we spend quite a bit of time with them.
- And I’ve also embarked on a new mission in life – to erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide, in hopes of saving lives through my writing and volunteer work. My next project is to offer the wonderful jazz music our son composed and performed as a CD to raise money for charities that share my mission. In this way, I’ll be able to perpetuate his memory and hopefully save the lives of people who suffer as Paul did.
I know you will find your own way to peace. Perhaps looking at what I did will help guide you on your healing journey.
Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother's Memoir of Living with Her Son's Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide charts the near-destruction of one middle-class family whose son committed suicide after a seven-year struggle with bipolar disorder. Madeline Sharples, author, poet and web journalist, goes deep into her own well of grief to describe her anger, frustration and guilt. She describes many attempts -- some successful, some not -- to have her son committed to a hospital and to keep him on his medication. The book also charts her and her family's redemption, how she considered suicide herself, and ultimately, her decision to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother and writer.
To purchase Madeline's book click:
Leaving the Hall Light On
Three additional articles about suicide: