Addressing the Suicidal Elephant in the Room

Father Callaghan takes the pulpit. The floor-to-ceiling picture windows behind him showcase the gray Pacific Northwest February day set amongst the farmlands at the base of the Cascade mountains.  “Suicide…” Father Callaghan’s voice booms powerfully through the room as the congregation simultaneously jumps in their seats. That solitary word resonates in the silence afterwards as he introduces my mom’s funeral. There was no question about where he was going with his eulogy as he immediately addresses the elephant in the room.

His poignancy is shocking for most of us and I believe we all thought, as an Irish Catholic priest, he’d do his best to pacify us by creatively avoiding the subject all together. He continues on, “Suicide is not something which we may understand. We may not know the suffering of others, but in these moments, it’s important to remember compassion” He doesn’t tell us to chin up, he doesn’t shower us with anecdotes and blessings, he doesn’t read bible passages. He’s there to be of counsel to those of us that had been left behind and I’m sure he took most of us by surprise with his candor. But we needed him right then and there. We needed his words. It was a heavy funeral to officiate, but he did it with the sage words of a compassionate soul. He was well beyond his time, this Catholic priest.

This was 2009. Suicide, of course, has been plaguing tormented minds since the beginning of humanity, leaving loved ones confused and broken in its wake. But at that point in my personal history, and from my callow view, suicide was left to the crazies. It was a seemingly taboo subject and a disturbing admittance if you had lost a loved one in this manner; someone who, from an outsider’s view, obviously didn’t have control of their lives. When my mom took her own life, I was left dealing with uneasy conversations and pity-filled eyes. Unasked questions lingered in uncomfortable silence. And I knew they were wondering…Why? How?

Does it really matter? She’s gone now.

I was 27 years old. Still a child really, and I still needed my mom. I was confused, but I was stoic. I maintained my strength. I had no other knowledge of what to do, so I stayed the course of being the rock. Until I wasn’t the rock, and I crumbled, and my life fell apart. It’s been ten years and although I’ve rebuilt my life again, I’m still processing. Perhaps I’ll always be processing. Do you ever get over something like this? Maybe you patch the wound, but the scar tissue will always remain. I’m not the same bubbly person I once was, before I lost my mom. I’m hardened, but I’ve softened in some ways too. There’s a yin and yang to it. 

I believe my mom was brought into this life to be a healer, and when she followed that calling it led her to western medicine.  She wasn’t from the shamanic tribal cultures of the Amazon or from the Ayurvedic lineages of India. She didn’t know any other way of healing, and so she became a product of the westernized health care system; she became a registered nurse. She delivered babies, she took care of premies, she nursed the new mothers and soothed their new-mom nerves. She was there for the birth of many of my friends and eventually the children of those friends. She was a gifted nurse and cared deeply about her role within the hospital and within her community.

She was a true matriarch, the oldest of 7 children, and it was ingrained within core of her being to make sure everyone was cared for – her own children, siblings, nieces, nephews, in-laws, out-laws. We always had enough to eat, our faces were always cleaned, our hair brushed, and our collars straightened. But perhaps in all her outgoing love, she forgot to take care of herself. That’s not a surprising concept for most of us, right? We have to be reminded to please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

My mom battled with deeply rooted emotional pain and, as many of us do, the only way she knew how to deal with it was to cover it up. Once we hit adulthood, alcohol becomes a socially acceptable tool to deal with pain, erasing it from existence. In our westernized health care system, throwing drugs at our problems is the norm. Don’t get me wrong, I’m eternally grateful for western medicine, but as a society we have an unproductive tendency to patch the symptom instead of getting to the root of the cause.

A natural and holistic approach of viewing the mind, the entire body and its energy field as one complete unit, evolved over centuries from witchcraft to woo woo, even though for thousands of years prior to that, this approach was the only form of medicine. Although yoga and meditation has exploded in recent years, guiding us towards cultivating a mind/body connection, still to this day anything outside of a hospital or a clinic is considered “alternative.” Western doctors specialize in the lungs, or the digestive system, or the brain, but never the sum of the parts. We are rarely asked about our diet or our emotional life in the same sentence as our stomach problems. How could they possibly be related?

I don’t blame my mom for leaving. I’ve never blamed her. What I do blame is our messed-up system. I blame our lack of ability to deal with mental illness in a compassionate and productive way. I blame our lack of addressing diet and gut health as sources of brain fog and depression. I blame our society for teaching us that we should hide our pain, instead uncovering it, releasing it, and healing it. But what does blame do? We can always point fingers, but that doesn’t solve anything, does it?

We watch helplessly as our compadres fall, one by one. Shot down by mental illness - Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, as examples fresh in our minds. I still remember vividly the mournful buzz going around school after losing Kurt Cobain. For the 1990’s grunge era in Seattle, it was a hard blow. We’re losing people we respect and admire. People who were so successful, who had gifts to share with the world. Why would they possibly want to bow out and leave the party early? We’re losing friends and family members – mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins. So many have been lost to this unspoken war, too many to count.

So, what happened? How did we let it come to this? Statistics say that the suicide rate in the US has gone up 24% from 1999 to 2014, but mental illness is still being handled so archaically. Firstly, we continue to treat it like it’s taboo. It’s been ten years since I lost my mom, and other than a few Facebook posts in remembrance of her, this is the first time I’m writing about suicide. Why? Partly because I don’t think I could have written about it without projecting so many of my own emotions into my words, which I don’t want to burden you with. But also, because it’s admitting there’s a problem, and we don’t like to deal with emotional problems in our society. We tend to bury them, sweep them away in some closet. Secondly, we aren’t getting to the root of the problems of mental health. And it’s not just as simple as saying “I’m here if you want to talk about it,” as I saw so many posts in the media after the close proximity of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s deaths. We need to heal deep-rooted societal and generational pain. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to look yet, but the first step is at least looking it square in the eyes and acknowledging its existence.  

We also don’t have the correct tools in our hands to deal with the baggage that stockpiles up over years and years. Think about someone who came from a childhood of alcoholic or abusive or disconnected parents, and then when they hit adulthood their wife runs off with another man, their business fails, or they lose a family member in a sudden and tragic manner. All of that compounds and by the time you hit 50, if you haven’t dealt with it already, you’re setting yourself up for a proper mid-life crisis. In the meantime, we have band aids that get us by, day by day; alcohol and antidepressants…or shopping, or gambling, or eating, or social media. All of these are completely socially acceptable and encouraged, by the way. But when shit really hits the fan we crack, and suddenly life’s challenges became unconquerable mountains. And when a catalyst arrives that pushes us to that tipping point, and the last remaining option seems to be to bow out.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish that my mom was still here, and that I could have thrown her into a yoga class, dragged her to a plant medicine ceremony, or practiced energy medicine with her. I wish I could have helped her heal her emotional voids that she was doing her best to hide with medication and fill up with alcohol so that she could maintain her strength to continue to care for the rest of us. I wish we could have gone on a journey of being healers together, healers of the new era. Instead, I go at it alone.

But with her departure, she gave me a gift. She showed me the path that I didn’t want to go down. She showed me where her pain ended, but mine didn’t have to end there too. For a long time, I was terrified that I’d inevitably go down her path, and I was going down that path. Until one day, out of desperation, I realized I had I choice. I could heal my pain. I could quit covering it with alcohol. I didn’t have to reach for antidepressants. I could fill my emotional cracks and crevices and become a vessel of love and compassion. I could use this experience so I could be a beacon of light for others.

She was a true healer, and so, she left me with the greatest gift a mom could have ever given her daughter; she taught me how to heal myself.   

I just wish I could thank her.


In remembrance of Kathi McCausland, 1952-2009