September 25 is an emotionally loaded day for me. First, it’s my wonderful husband’s birthday. Three years ago that day, 7 weeks pregnant, we sat in the clinic in our home city of Tokyo, shedding tears of joy at the wondrous sound of our baby’s heartbeat.
It was a day of celebration, when we shared furtive smiles while secretly swapping full for empty beers at his party that night, not quite ready to share the good news with friends. I hadn’t told anyone about the pregnancy, wary of jinxing things before the 12-week milestone. But the magic sound of my baby’s healthy heart changed my mind: I would call home tomorrow and tell the family.
Around 4 a.m. that morning, I received a call that forever changed my life. My mother had died, found on the bedroom floor by my grandfather, in the home she shared with him at the time. On the way to the airport, I learned she died by gunfire, a shot through her heart. Crumpling to the floor of the airport shuttle, my heart also fractured that day. Later, after the 13-hour flight home, another call came informing me the police had found a note by her bed. Suicide was ruled the cause of death.
If she had known a grandbaby was on the way, would that have stopped her from pulling the trigger? If I had answered her Skype calls the night of the birthday party, would I have been able to talk her down? Our final call the previous night was not a positive one, with me rushing off the phone to finish the cake.
My mother had suffered from bouts of depression throughout her life and displayed manic behavior at times that left me questioning whether she suffered from bipolar disorder. She was a force to be reckoned with, incredibly powerful in her convictions. Family and God were her core beliefs, and she never did anything half-hearted. She had a flair for drama, dressed and spoke like the charming Southern belle she was, excelled in her work and leisure pursuits, and was a man magnet. She used to tell me and my girlfriends, over a round of her famous cosmopolitan martinis, how every woman needed exactly three men in her life: one to invigorate her intellect, one to satisfy her soul, and one to please her physically.
In 2006, she suffered a fall at work that triggered a brain stem injury, which slowly eroded her physical capacity. Always plucky and courageous, she obstinately pursued a lawsuit against her Goliath corporate employer, a battle that consumed the final eight years of her life, as well as her spirit and finances.
In the weeks and months that followed her death, I tried to put baby and my health first. I had five weeks left of the first trimester, and was hyperaware of studies linking stress to miscarriage. Yet I knew I needed to deal with my grief properly and immediately, also mindful of how this tragedy might heighten postpartum depression, especially in people with family histories of mental illness. Other members of my extended family had also attempted suicide, so I officially qualified.
I didn’t tell many people back in Tokyo how my mom died. They knew she had been sick a while, and most assumed her illness claimed her life. In a way, it did.
Birthing a child abroad brings a host of challenges, not least the cultural and linguistic ones, but most of all the lack of a rooted support network. Most of my new mom friends were then discussing how long their moms would be staying after the birth. I just wanted to disappear during those chats.
I couldn’t bring myself to share the ugly truth, in part out of fear that speaking about it would also drive me over the edge and endanger my baby, in part because I felt such intense guilt and shame that I wasn’t there to prevent her death.
The year after her injury I moved abroad to follow my now-husband, then-boyfriend. My mother always encouraged me to travel, follow my dreams, and follow my heart. I only saw her for annual visits, though we spoke on the phone often. I am an only child, and I was not there to see her physical and mental downfall, which she often concealed in our chats to protect me.
Now, as a mom, I see things in a different light. I was so selfish, caught up in my career ambitions, marriage and family aspirations, the roller coaster of life as an expatriate. It is only by becoming a parent that we truly understand what it means to be selfless, and I am so sad she is not here to benefit from the change in me. I’m sad I’ll never get to care for her the way she cared for me and share the journey of motherhood from the other side. This would have been a whole new chapter together, and I’m mad she didn’t stick around for it.
Strangely, in one of our last conversations, she was stressed about finances, and I advised her to use some of the money my grandparents had recently distributed from their estate. She refused, insisting that money was “for the baby,” though she had no idea I was pregnant then. My mother felt she was becoming a heavy burden for those around her and thought ending her life would make things easier for us. This is the message of mental illness, but the truth is, her suicide was a selfish act that forever scars and burdens those left behind.
I miss her every day. I’ve now had a second baby, a girl, who is named after both my mom and my grandma, who died just after I had my son — less than a year after my mom. At least she got to see her first great-grandchild on Skype before going to God. I also realize how my grandma must have experienced her own dark depths of grief that year. Losing a mother was agonizing, but losing your firstborn daughter to suicide in your own home seems unbearable.
Those first months with my son were especially trying, as I had so many questions and no one to answer: How did breastfeeding go for my mom with me? Was I a good sleeper, and how did she get me down? When did I start crawling, walking, talking? When did teething begin, and did I suffer from reflux? Sadly, my dad couldn’t give me answers either. I’ve learned that’s how it goes with daddies, try as they might. My husband still proudly tells people (and genuinely believes) our son walked at 8 months though it was really 10 1/2.
As my mind “circled the drain” in the ensuing months, I tried desperately to find the straw that broke the camel’s back. What tipped her over the edge? Not surprisingly, after talking to her doctors, friends, and family, rifling through mountains of paperwork and medical records, hacking into her email and phone, I never found a singular reason why. And I never will.
She was masterful in her denial of the magnitude of her pain and wore a mask for the outside world. Shame made her despondent, and pride made her reluctant to recognize her crisis and seek help.
Looking back, I realize that I did suffer some degree of postpartum depression, which is so perfectly normal. But I went out, met with friends, went to church, attended groups. Isolation leads to hopelessness, which is ultimately the end of life.
Many new moms feel isolated, and my heart aches to hear stories of postpartum suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and this needs to change. Talk often with new moms about their feelings, never take depression lightly, and seek help for yourself or loved ones sooner rather than later. As for me, I will speak openly about my mother’s choice and educate my children about our family history of mental illness. I am not ashamed.
I still have her chat profile open in my Gmail, and her status quote, though ironic, is a daily reminder to me: “Living and loving life to the fullest.”
If you, or someone you know, is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
To support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, please visit this page.