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Surviving Suicide Loss    

Surviving Suicide Loss

Art by Andrew Wetmore

By Jennie Ostendorf

“Hi, my name is Jennie. My dad died by suicide in September of 2020, and my mom also died by suicide in February of 2021.” This is how I introduce myself at my survivors of suicide loss support group. I’ve introduced myself like this dozens of times, and in the past year and a half have come to accept “survivor of suicide loss” as a critical part of my new identity. But each time I say it, a part of me still feels a bit shocked that this is my reality. 

So, how did I get here? I often wonder the same thing. 

Both of my parents had terrible, excruciating fights with depression. My mom’s began decades ago. She was an incredibly hardworking, successful business owner who ran a 7-figure business and made it look easy. She was beautiful, fashionable, smart, and strong. As a working mom in the 90s, she was the epitome of “having it all”— both family and career. She was also managing waves of anxiety and depression almost exclusively with prescription medications that would work for a while, until they wouldn’t. When this happened, she’d often stay home from work, unable to get out of bed, and return to her psychiatrist for a new protocol. Once the new drugs started working, she returned to her badass boss self and our happy family life went on. 

My mom always understood her mental illness to be a biochemical result of her genetics. Her father was suicidal and had been hospitalized for suicide attempts. She had two first cousins die by suicide. She knew that depression ran in her family and believed vehemently in better living through chemistry (in her case, antidepressants). She had too much living to do to let depression get in her way. 

My dad’s battle with depression was different – it lasted just under a year. He had a big personality and was always having more fun than any other adult men I knew. He was charming, friendly, told the best stories, and drove the coolest cars. He was a loyal friend and caring father, husband, brother, and son. He also had his own family history of mental illness (specifically addiction) and his father died by suicide, too. 

In the summer of 2019, my mom’s latest depressive episode landed her in a psychiatric hospital with a certainty that the sky was falling, a feeling that spread like a virus throughout the home she shared with my dad. Having been married for over 40 years, the two of them were intertwined like tangled branches, and the same illness, like quicksand, brought them both down.

I tell this story to myself and others over and over again in an effort to make sense of their suicides (as if there is any sense to be made). You could say that death in general, and traumatic death especially, feels like a senseless mystery. But suicide in particular has a way of turning survivors into detectives. Unlike other illnesses, there is no test or scan that shows someone’s terminal depression. Instead, I’ve been left to pick up the scraps of my parents' lives (and their deaths), compare notes with family and friends, and try to tape the pieces together to resemble something of an explanation.

I have worked hard to see suicide as no different (not worse or better) than other kinds of death. I advocate for mental health the same way someone who lost someone to cancer may raise funds for cancer research. I use the language “died by suicide” instead of the dated phrase “commited suicide” because it feels better, gentler, and less judgemental. I choose to see my parents’ deaths as liberation from a crippling disease. 

But this doesn’t mean that I don’t also feel angry, hurt, and abandoned. Suicide is complex and messy and can make you feel that if only one single moment had been different, the people you lost would still be here. The detective work to figure out “what happened” and “what I could have done differently” is really a way to trick yourself into thinking you had any control in the first place.  

The persisting stigma against mental illness and suicide doesn’t help. While I’ve been in awe of how my community has shown up for me and my family in the midst of tragedy, I’ve been equally surprised by some of the crueler and more tonedeaf things I’ve been told, like: 

“Were you parents really just that selfish?” 

“Did your mom kill your dad?” 

“I thought your dad was the stable one.” 

“If your dad didn’t kill himself, your mom would probably still be alive.”

“I can’t believe they would do this to you and your brother.”

“You better check the gene pool of whomever you marry so your children don’t end up with this disease.” 

Then there are the less overtly offensive comments that still feel like little pinpricks: 

“You and your brother haven’t struggled with anxiety or depression, have you?” 

“You know it’s not your fault, right?” 

“I wish I had called them more, maybe I could have gotten them to snap out of it.” 

I genuinely believe that everyone who has made the aforementioned comments or some version of them had the best intentions—that they were only coming from a place of love, care, and concern. The scariest thing is that no one has said anything I haven’t thought to myself. It’s easy to get stuck in that way of thinking, and it doesn’t feel good. 

There’s another element of surviving suicide loss that feels the most vulnerable to talk about: relief. While I would trade anything for my parents to be alive, happy, and healthy, that wasn’t an option we were given. For the last year of their lives, I spent most days in a constant state of fear, waiting for something bad to happen. I miss my parents with every fiber of my being, but I don’t miss living like that. 

On a recent episode of “The Bachelorette,” one of the contestants recounts his mother’s suicide and the conditions that led to it. He recognizes that it’s easy for people to tell him “I’m sorry, I wish that didn’t happen,” but if he’s going to love the man that he is, he has to love every part of his story that got him here. While I don’t know if I can say truthfully that I’ve loved my parents' illness, their suicides, or grieving them, I have deep appreciation for the path I’m walking down and the tools I’m picking up along the way. This experience has expanded my identity, not in the way I saw coming, but with a new sense of purpose and drive. As I put one foot in front of the other, I walk into the future with a whole lot of optimism and curiosity about the road ahead.

If you or someone you know is in crisis please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 or text HELLO to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Support Hotline.

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414 and subscribing to our bi-monthly newsletter here.