LAUGHTER AFTER SUICIDE
Reprinted from: EXIT LAUGHING (North Atlantic Books)
A decade or so ago, I was invited to write an essay about finding humor in death. The idea being even in the worst moments, there must be levity. It was several years after my parent's suicide and it was still hard for me to find the humor in it. But writing about the deeply personal subject was cathartic. The experience also made me aware of how uncomfortable I am with telling my own personal stories. I haven't done it since!
Today is the anniversary of my mother's death. It's what motivated me to share my story.
Benita (Bonnie) Garvin
In 1980, I wrote my second stage play. My first was under submission to the Eugene O’Neill Festival, and I was not yet aware that it would become a finalist. My new play was about the death grip of a mother-daughter relationship. In my story, the daughter couldn’t become her own person until she broke away from her controlling and competitive mother. The daughter, resentfully, works in the mother’s chic clothing boutique, and their relationship unravels even further when the daughter moves away and starts a new life. Years later, on the eve of winning an award for her first novel, she receives a call that her mother, who cannot cope with her daughter’s independence, has attempted suicide and has called her to her bedside. In 2002, I was nominated for an Edgar Award for a film I wrote and produced. Days before, when I was to fly from Los Angeles, where I lived, to New York to attend the black-tie event, I was awakened at the crack of dawn by a telephone call from a nurse in Florida with the news that my mother AND my father had attempted suicide. In fact, they had made three attempts, all in the space of several hours, and failed, which is why they were in the hospital, rather than the morgue.
My mother was the de facto ringleader in the folie aux deux that was my parents’ marriage. When my eldest niece was ten years old, she asked the question that had long been on my mind. What would happen to the remaining grandparent, when the other one died? She felt certain one couldn’t exist without the other. I wasn't amazed that a child of ten could articulate my deepest fear, but that someone so young, a child who saw my parents as infrequently as she did—perhaps twice a year— could sense the depth of their symbiosis. My mother was a drama queen. From my earliest memories, her death, or the threat of it, was on the table. I remember her talking about putting her head in the oven,
or chiding me for digging her an early grave. As we both got older, the frequency of intimidations and threats of suicide increased, with my father joining her in the refrain.
My father was fun loving and easy going when I was growing up, but with age he became increasingly depressed and angry. The differences in my parents' personalities grew less distinguishable, until they seemed to disappear and merge into one. Like my mother, my father felt wronged and unappreciated. Together they struck back at the people and institutions they felt failed them by writing poison pen letters, filing lawsuits, or picketing a business.
The nurse on the phone informed me that the first of their three attempts occurred when they swallowed all the prescription medications in the house. At age eighty-seven and eight-four respectively, my father and mother were in relatively good health. They had their share of ailments, and my father had come through a recent bout of colon cancer. He didn't have to endure chemotherapy or radiation, and was given a 100% clean bill of health. Their maladies—high blood pressure, cholesterol, glaucoma, etc.—were those common to people of their age. And although the required medications were expensive, they weren't lethal. When the meds failed to achieve the desired effect, my parents moved into the closed garage, where they got into the car, turned on the ignition, and waited. Nothing happened. Finally, they returned to the house and, after a brief discussion, decided to slit their wrists. My mother couldn’t bring herself to do it and pleaded with my father to do it for her. He refused. They found the sharpest kitchen knife—which most likely had been purchased at the ninety-nine-cent store years earlier and could barely cut paper—and attempted to slit their wrists. My mother cut vertically rather than horizontally, and neither of them cut deeply enough to sever a vein. What they succeeded in doing was to make a bloody mess on the kitchen floor. They bled, waited, bled, but didn't die. That’s when my father called 911.
As I spoke to the nurse, I inquired with apprehension about their conditions, expecting the nurse to say they were in comas or straightjackets. Instead, I was put through to my father, who sounded exactly as he might have sounded had I called in the middle of dinner. The timbre of his voice lent credibility to his claim that the entire incident was a mistake. As we spoke, we were interrupted by my mother’s voice on the extension. They were in the hospital, but sharing a room as if it were a hotel and they were on vacation.
With the three of us on the phone, they began to argue, each disputing the facts surrounding their misguided suicide attempts. Here they were, literally in lockdown and under twenty-four hour surveillance for having committed what the State of Florida deemed a crime, and they were fighting over whether it was his idea or hers. Had it been up to either of them, they would’ve simply checked out of what they seemed to think was an overpriced hotel with bad interior design and crappy food. And just try and get a night sleep! Fortunately, they couldn’t simply get up and walk: they were confined to the psychiatric wing.
It was surreal.
When people ask me why my parents attempted suicide, I usually say that it was depression. The truth is, it was a temper tantrum gone awry. Their bags were packed. They were on their way from Florida to Detroit, our home town, with the intention of moving back for the third time. It was the middle of the night and they were facing a ninety-minute drive to the Tampa airport and another hour waiting to pass through security. This would've been the sixteenth or seventeenth move for my parents since retiring. They had spent two decades moving back and forth between Detroit, Florida, and Los Angeles. And once they settled in those cities, they proceeded to move within them. My mother was an interior designer, so it was assumed that she did it for business. The truth was that, despite their suggestion that they were going about these moves a quest to find the meaning of life, they were actually running from it.
On this particular night, with exhausting travel before them, my father was loading the suitcases into the car when my mother said she was too tired to face what was ahead. Rather than go back to bed, they opted for the Big Sleep. Out came the pills, and the madness began. It was that impetuosity, that spontaneous reckless behavior and actions predicated on a whim, that were at the root of the countless bad decisions my parents made over their lifetime; decisions which led them to be running frantically around a house at four in the morning, a house they had just built and moved into, on their way to finding a new house in another part of the country.
Fatigue, age, another geographical change, and a history of bad decisions caused them to suddenly change course and decide, "Let’s end it all." How better to punish the people they deemed responsible for their circumstances? They had just lost another lawsuit, one in which they invested what little remained in their savings, they were angry at the judge, the neighbors whom they had sued, they were angry at my brother for not agreeing to co-sign on a new mortgage for them in Detroit, and they were angry at me because they were always angry at me.
They wanted to get our attention. And no amount of love from their children, grandchildren, or many friends satiated that need. My parents were determined to self- destruct. My father used to tease my mother and say she was Japanese, because of her preoccupation with appearances and saving face. What will (fill in the blank with a name) think? was a mantra I heard as frequently as Look before crossing the street. Growing up in those years before air conditioning meant opening a window. My mother would scurry around the kitchen during dinner, a stifling heat outside, and close the windows, to prevent their neighbors from hearing what might be construed as a small conflict or bad manners.
But there was no closing a window on this. Not only did their neighbors in Florida know, but their former neighbors in Michigan and Los Angeles found out through the snowbird hotline. There’s nothing like a crisis or gossip to unite the flock. And, to my utter disbelief, neither parent felt the slightest bit of shame. To the contrary, my father had even taken a moment between the pills and the failed asphyxiation to compose a short note to my brother and me, saying we were great disappointments. It was as though they had been liberated from social conventions and now felt free to brazenly display their pain and vengeance.
Like the character in my play, I chose to attend the awards ceremony rather than rush to my parents' bedside. I asked my brother, who lived with his family in San Francisco, to go in my place. (Whereas I was enmeshed with my parents and I spent many years and thousands of dollars in therapy in the pursuit of having a relationship with my parents, as well as my brother, he remained physically and emotionally estranged. During college, he distanced himself from our parents as far as geography would permit. . Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I was convinced that one day we would close the seemingly insurmountable gap and have a close, healthy relationship.) My brother wasn’t thrilled, but he agreed to go.
Gender determined the balance of relationships in our family. Because I was a girl, I was a known entity to my mother. She could take me shopping, show me how to dress, how to wear my hair and makeup, and the rest of the time anguish about the kind of man I would marry. But my brother was a mystery to her. She once recounted the first time she saw him, or rather this foreign object called a penis. She was terrified. She didn’t know what to say or what to do with the creature who bore this appendage. (without this addition, you're saying that she didn't know what to say to the penis!) The only memory I have of my mother relating to my brother was when she’d drag him to the boy’s store in our neighborhood and outfit him with new clothes.
The day after the awards ceremony, I flew to Florida and relieved my brother of duty. By then, my parents had been separated and had rooms on different floors. My mother saw him for the first—and as it turns out, the last—time only hours after they were separated. He had been unconscious for several days. She was taken to his room and when she leaned over and kissed him, he responded. Later that night, she awoke from her drug induced sleep with a start and let out a cry. It was just after midnight, the exact time her husband, two floors above, died. My mother’s worst fantasy, and mine, had finally happened.
If you’re going to commit suicide, it’s best to stick to the method that is most likely to produce the desired result. A bullet to the head or through the mouth, for example, is probably the best choice. Pills are definitely the worst option. Not that I knew that before this incident. To the contrary, it was my assumption that if you ingested a bottle of sleeping pills, you were a goner. Not so. Chances are quite good you’ll end up a
vegetable rather than a corpse. In the weeks after my father's death, I would become an expert on the subject of suicide.
I brought my mother back to California , with instructions from her physician that I was to take her directly to a facility for psychiatric evaluation. She had committed a crime and was also considered a high suicide risk. The Florida hospital had made arrangements to transfer her to the Cedar Sinai psychiatric unit in Los Angeles. My husband picked us up at the Los Angeles airport. (I may come from a screwed up family, but I have an unbelievable husband, and I often relate this story to substantiate my claim. The first ten years we were married, I believed he was in love with his first wife. Why? Because he never said a negative word about her. It took me that long to realize that he never said a negative word about anybody, let alone someone who had once been close to him. That's when I realized how lucky I was to be married to such a kind man. Also, many things my parents did angered him, but he always treated them with unconditional love and respect.)
On the day we arrived in L.A., I hoped that my mother would not realize that it was her wedding anniversary. However, she discovered it when she signed the hospital forms and had to ask the date. Up until then, the woman who was usually outspoken and animated had been docile and depressed. With knowledge of the special date, however, she snapped out of her lethargy and begged us not to leave her there. My husband, who always had a calming influence on her, explained that remaining there was a condition of her release, that we’d return in the morning, and that her stay was temporary. Nothing any of us said calmed her; she was inconsolable. She promised to be good or sleep on the floor or do anything we asked, as long as we didn’t leave her here. In my eyes, she had become a child who blames herself when her parents abandon the family.
Later that day, when my husband and I returned home from the hospital, we held each other and sobbed, until we ran out of tears. My brother and I knew that once my mother was released from the hospital she would try again to kill herself, and she would keep trying until she succeeded. The question was what to do about it. He saw two choices: We could institutionalize her,
where she could be monitored, or we could police her ourselves around the clock. My brother opted for the former. He didn’t want her to be his responsibility, and didn’t understand why I’d want her to be mine. “You'll walk in some morning and find her dead," he told me. "You know that, don’t you?” He felt that my mother should live with the consequences of her behavior, and saw his position as some kind of retribution. “She brought this all this on herself.” I couldn’t argue with that. I'm sure that’s why she couldn’t bear going on another day, and that locking her in some psych ward would strike her as an unbearably cruel and far more painful death.
Understanding this, I believed her fate was a foregone conclusion: she was going to find a way to end her life. Nevertheless, I had to let her determine this for herself. My mother was an adult. It was her life. If she didn’t want to live, what right did I have or the State of California to force her to live? Despite everything, I loved my mother, and I wanted to keep her alive. I told myself that I’d give her as much love and support as possible and hope she might choose to live out her “natural” life. Anything was possible. It’s the same eternal optimism and magical thinking that has kept me in the movie business all these years.
Another thing I learned about suicide is that, unlike illness, it’s not neutral: suicide is accompanied by stigma and judgment. Tell someone that so-and-so died of cancer and they’ll be sympathetic; tell them that death came from jumping off a ledge and you’ll get wide-eyed stares and macabre curiosity.
I was riddled with pain and guilt and was desperate to talk about it, yet I didn’t want to talk to my husband or friends. It had nothing to do with how close I felt to them; it was that I needed people who went through exactly what I was going through. Although, theoretically, my brother and I were having the same experience, it was strictly theoretical: our family dynamic didn’t foster intimacy and closeness between siblings. The damage that was done in childhood, at least for my brother, was irreversible. He wanted little to do with me, and even less to do with my parents.
The only other family was my father’s two sisters, but they had a long, contentious, on-again/off-again relationship with my parents. And, despite having been in “on" mode prior to their brother's suicide, they went MIA and never sent so much as a condolence card to my mother.
I remembered that a young friend’s girlfriend had asphyxiated herself after he broke up with her. He attended a suicide support group and found it invaluable to his healing. I decided to do the same. I’d spent a good deal of my adult life in and out of therapy, and I'm comfortable in a therapeutic environment.
The suicide grief support group was time-limited, ten weeks, and part of a long- established mental health organization, which was highly regarded in the Los Angeles area. Although my group was not racially diverse, it was diverse in other respects, such as age, income, and geography, with an equal ratio of men and women. What bound us was a specific shame and guilt that are the hallmarks of suicide survivors. At our first meeting we went around the room to introduce ourselves and reveal the nature of the loved one’s suicide. I admit that I possessed a large dose of the macabre curiosity I ridicule in others. In these sessions, I listened intently to each member recount their tale. I listened as an outsider, as an insider, as a writer, a voyeur, a shrink, and survivor. A heavy-set guy in his mid-thirties, with dancing eyes and warm smile, told us how he got a call that his father, whom he hadn’t seen or spoken to in months, had slit his wrists and was found in a tubful of blood. He blamed himself for not being a better son.
A petite, impeccably dressed and soft-spoken woman in her forties, who lived a cultured, enviable life of financial comfort, told of coming home from work and finding her husband hanging in their bedroom. Hoping he might still be alive, she cut down his six-foot body, only to have it fall on top of her, pinning her to the ground. Despite the fact that, the day before, they had enjoyed a night out on the town to celebrate their anniversary, she blamed herself for not being a better wife.
A sixty-year-old mother and widower had been coming to these groups for seven years. Her only son overdosed from heroin. They had always been extremely close and, unlike my father, who had left behind a sentence or two blaming my brother and me for
their actions, her son had left her a beautiful, loving letter “gifting” her the only thing that meant anything to him: his dog. She blamed herself for not seeing the signs. A young mother in her late twenties lived with her husband and newborn baby in a high-rise apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Her sister was going through a nasty divorce and had moved in, planning to stay until she got herself sorted out. It was great for the new mom because her sister adored the baby and was very helpful with the chores. One night, this sister went out on an errand and didn’t come back. She had taken the elevator to the top of the building and jumped. The distraught young mother was in this group so she could figure out what she had done to make her sister do this.
As I ranked the stories, the worst was the pregnant twenty-six-year-old whose husband asphyxiated himself. It made me wonder if there was a pattern emerging: asphyxiation seemed to be the method du jour for the thirty-and-under set. So why didn’t work for my parents? Were they too old?
It was all too complicated.
As I sat there ranking these personal tragedies, based on their level of drama and tragedy—always the filmmaker—I began to wonder what kind of person I was. From as far back as I can remember, my mother compared me to my friends or her friends’ children. It began with my beloved friend and neighbor, Barbara King. My mother never understood why I didn't keep myself as neat as Barbara. It started there, but it never ended. As I grew up, I picked up where my mother had left off, always holding myself up to others and coming up short. Now I had real evidence of my worthlessness: I measured people’s grief! I weighed their suffering or guilt against mine, and it made me feel better. It also filled me with shame, so I kept the “game” I was playing to myself.
My mother made another failed suicide attempt. I took her to more doctors and they adjusted her anti-depression meds—as if she didn’t have ample reason to be depressed. I even convinced her to attend a senior grief counseling group. True to the maxim Let no good deed go unpunished, my mother returned from that grief group further regressed, because a widower ten years her junior had hit on her. She was an extremely vain and beautiful woman who, with her square jaw, high cheeks and creamy skin looked gorgeous at every age. A man, let alone a younger man, finding her attractive would normally delight her, but she viewed this romantic advance with horror. She would never be comfortable with another man. She didn’t want another man. She wanted my father. She never returned to the group.
My mother and I had a symbiosis of our own. What scared me most was that she would do it again, incorrectly, and leave herself in a vegetative or equally horrific condition. She didn’t announce the date or the time. She didn’t have to. I urged my brother to fly down, even for the day, to see her one last time and say goodbye. But he didn’t have the need or, apparently, the inclination. We both knew that it wasn’t a matter of if my mother would kill herself, only when.
I was entering the sixth week of my suicide group when my brother’s premonition came true and my mother got her wish. And yes, I did find her body I cut the plastic bag from her face, in case she was still alive. She wasn’t. I left the apartment as I found it, in case the police wanted to check the glass where she had mixed sleeping pills and alcohol, and called 911. I had already come to peace with my mother and her decision. Which didn’t mean I liked it. Or that I judged it. I wish my mother and father had been happy, and that they had relied on the myriad options open to them, but this was like wishing that my mother was Donna Reed or Goldie King, Barbara’s mother.
To understand what comes next, you must understand my grief yardstick. I’m crap in math, so I couldn’t quantify it, but I put my situation as worse than a heroin-over- dosed son, but not nearly as bad as the pregnant wife. In any case, it was time to return to my suicide grief group and I was going to walk in and trump everyone. Even young pregnant wife. Despite how it sounds, I was not happy about this. I even considered avoiding the subject, or casually referencing it in the course of a story, something like “...with both parents gone...” But it seemed counter-productive to be in a suicide group and not mention the fact that your mother had just joined your father in heaven or hell or, in the case of my parents, in an urn on my piano. I considered saving my mother's suicide for the next group that was being formed, but I didn't want to spend another ten weeks measuring a fresh batch of guilty grievers. I had no choice.
It was customary for the leader, herself a survivor, to ask if anybody had anything they would like to say. We had recently passed a milestone: when the leader asked that question the last several weeks, somebody always spoke up. Not so this time. Everybody shifted in their seats, looked at their hands or feet. It was as though the silence screamed out to me to speak, telling me the longer I waited to make the announcement, the more difficult it would be. “I’d like to say something.” I then proceeded to do what my husband always accuses me of, qualifying what comes next. “I realize this isn’t a competition. I mean, I’m not trying to upstage anybody.” I took a deep breath and continued, “My mother killed herself the night before last.”
It was a hot summer night in a building that had no air conditioning. The fluorescent overhead lighting buzzed, emitting heat and radiation, making the already stifling environment even more so. Forget the bullshit about dry heat is better. Extreme heat sans humidity is just as miserable. It was claustrophobic. The room was so quiet I could hear people sweating. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the man whose father did it in the tub said, “Well, that’s a show-stopper.”
The room erupted into laughter. Even the group leader couldn’t restrain herself from joining in. It was as if somebody had pricked a balloon, releasing all the air. Tears rolled down the faces of people whom I had yet to see manage the slightest of smiles. It marked a turning point for the group. Because despite all the intimacy that such a group implies, we had not yet allowed ourselves to laugh in our time of unimaginable grief, for fear we’d been seen as callous or cruel. But breaking that unspoken taboo liberated us. Before this moment, we were connected by grief. Now, we were connected by something equally as powerful: laughter.
Having crossed that boundary, the remaining walls tumbled down and we became a cohesive group. On the last meeting, we sat together and candidly looked back on our journeys. Each of us confessed measuring our grief against the others!
It was suggested that we take a vote to determine which of us had the saddest tale. We embraced the idea. Ballots were cast and the votes tallied. We shared our last group belly laugh when the winner was announced: single pregnant mom was a clean sweep. I left the group struck by the banality of death, even when it’s a more salacious death like suicide. The truth is, however we leave this world, we’ve left it. Death, in all its forms, was finally demystified for me. And I learned that some of grief’s moments can be as funny as life. It turned that out my reactions—from what made me cry to what me laugh—were not unique, they were universal. It was a humbling experience.
Whether coming into the world or going out, the experience of life and death is essentially shared. I wasn’t special after all. My fears, my guilt, my grief were very much like those emotions experienced by everyone in my group. And even my shameful secret, which was my proclivity to secretly quantify death, was also shared by them. It was the final revelation of our common experience and our commonality as human beings. I went in thinking I was different, that I was shamed, and I came out seeing that I’m was very much like the others, ordinary in the most extraordinary way. And it was the ordinariness that made it extraordinary. I was human.