Jesus wept” – the shortest statement in the Bible. Lamentations – the only emotion for which a book in the Bible is named. What is being said here? Perhaps that we are destined to grieve.
And grieve, I have.
My mother died by suicide one year ago. Earlier this month, I walked through my first birthday without her, a rite of passage everyone experiences with the death of their parents. At the shop where Mom and I always selected our cards, I read the “To Daughter” birthday cards and imagined which one Mom would have given me: she always chose the gooiest and most expressive, underlined the parts she thought most meaningful, and of course, wrote by hand her own message addressed to “Sweetpea.” I felt her love as I read the card I imagined she would have picked. A beautiful ouch. And I remembered how every year on my special day, Mama would recount giving birth to me, sharing with the sweetest smile how she felt when she held me for the first time, what I smelled like, and what an easy baby I was.
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I have this week started to sit in sacred presence with her precious things, to look at her strands of red hair in her brush, to hold a pretty dress she left half-zipped, to chuckle at the folded tissues she kept in every single pocket. I am studying the careful, lovely handwriting in which she recorded both the important and the trivial events of her life on Day-Timer calendars that date back to the early 1990s – when she was cured of hepatitis C, her first meeting with a new boyfriend of mine, her many hair appointments and interviews.
These intimate exchanges with the private fortify me. They remind me of the interior landscape of my mother’s soul, the innocent God-scape that somehow remained untouched by the mental illness that marred her life. And they summon the welcoming sound of my mother’s voice pealing like bells whenever she saw me stride barefoot onto her back porch.
They also make me grieve for the voice she lost when my Great Uncle Charlie sexually assaulted her when she was 4 years old, for the repeated harassment she endured in workplaces during her adulthood as she raised two girls as a single mom on low-wage jobs, the intimate partner violence she experienced, and a rape about which she wrote and spoke boldly. These assaults and violations, from which she never did heal, remained a source of unresolved agony and fed her mental illness. Yet she did her utmost to fight back with the skills she had. In conversation she declared #MeToo; in her journals she wrote it; and in collages she made in therapy she expressed her trauma in Technicolor.
Mom and I spoke often of male violence, of how it is normalized, of the outrage we felt at knowing that the average age of entry into being sexually trafficked (erroneously called “child prostitution”) may be as low as 12 to 14 in this country. On her behalf, I will continue to be “audacious,” as she called me, in my full-hearted, full-throated fight for freedom from the male entitlement to female bodies. With April being not only the anniversary of her passing but also Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I will therefore accept in her honor the Lifetime Igniting Impact Award from the World Without Exploitation, which works to create a world where no one is bought, sold, or exploited. I will continue to agitate for the Equality Model, which advocates holding sex buyers, pimps, and brothel keepers accountable for their demand for vulnerable human bodies. People who support the full decriminalization of sex buying, brothel keeping, and pimping – which has been proposed around the country – flummoxed Mom. That is part of my commitment to her legacy and one way in which to honor the depth of our relationship, both as her child and a fellow survivor.
I will also channel my mother’s hallmark grit into my advocacy for laws that protect the privacy of families ravaged by death by suicide, and for more responsible reporting about the mental illness that drives people to such a drastic measure. It is neither ethical nor decent to publish the kind of invasive details about death by suicide that appeared in print and on the internet after her death. All reporting on suicide needs to be medically accurate, evidence-based, cautious about contagions that activate and increase further self-harm ideation in readers and viewers, and informed by the guidelines established by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I will continue to fight for this, just as my mom fought against her unjust foe, which is why I will be addressing the National Press Club in May, and why my sister and I will be accepting the Lifesaver Award from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for our commitment to destigmatizing mental illness and more. This is an award I would never have wanted to be given, yet one I will accept on my knees, bloody as they are from a year of falling, crawling, and getting back up again.
Finally, on the anniversary of Mom’s being breathed into the infinite mercy of God, I am so grateful to learn that Mercy Community Healthcare of Franklin, Tenn., is naming their new mental-health facility in her memory. Mercy focuses on underserved folks and offers sliding-scale payments where necessary. It hurt Mom that people hurt and that they could not access the care she could. This would be a balm for her distressed mind and sweet soul.
During this past year I have learned how I can make the irreplaceable loss of my mom serve her legacy. “Grief may be the most honest form of prayer,” Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr muses. There is lament, and there is also meaning. Everything is put to use in God’s economy as the painful past can be transmuted into service for others.
The Bible also says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” And indeed I have been comforted, by the work I’ve done to commemorate my mother, and by the many who also walk in and with grief and have shared theirs with me. Though no one can do our grief for us, it is also true that none of us need do it alone.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental-health provider.
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