When she was three, my daughter Lucy was interested in many things: fairies, swimming, “Call Me Maybe,” ice cream, the alphabet, families, death. The last two interests led her to asking questions about my mother, who died when Lucy was a baby.
“Mama,” she said, “Who is your mama?” She asked this fairly often, since learning that Grandpa is my father but his wife is not my mother. My mother was missing.
“My mama was Maga,” I said, using the name Lucy’s older sister Nora invented when she couldn’t pronounce Grandma. “You’ve seen pictures.”
“Your mama is dead?”
“Why is she dead?”
I sighed. “She was sick and her body couldn’t keep working and she died,” I answered, leaving out the fact that my mother’s death was a suicide, by an overdose of antidepressants and blood-pressure medication.
“Because she needed more air in her body?”
“Yes, kind of.”
“Because she drowned in the deep ocean?”
“No, Maga didn’t drown.”
“Because she was eaten by sharks?”
“No, she wasn’t eaten by sharks.”
I think about an alternate reality in which my mother was eaten by sharks. Let’s just say it would not have been very likely to happen. My mother wasn’t the adventure-sports type; she did aerobics. She got seasick easily and didn’t like getting her hair wet in the pool, so it’s hard to picture a shark-infested venue that would have appealed to her. But, for a moment, I imagine my quiet, stay-at-home mother skimming the waves on a catamaran or yacht with wind-filled sails, scuba diving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, surfing off of Santa Cruz, or diving in a shark cage and attracting the attention of a rogue Great White.
It’s not a very pleasant scenario. The shark’s muscled gleam thrashing in the water, its gaping prehistoric maws, those many layers of razor-sharp teeth clamping down. That shit must hurt. The last five or ten or twenty minutes of a life that ends in getting eaten by a shark must really, truly be terrible. But the time leading up to it? That sounds pretty awesome, actually, full of the freedom of the waves and the smell of salt air and brilliant sunshine on tanned skin and the lithe loose feeling of a body moving in the water. If my mom had been living a salty oceanic life, surfing a sunny blue wave or sailing the high seas, surely she would not have suffered the kind of gray dark depression that led her to wish to die peacefully, in her bed, after a hopeless muddy season of misery.
My mother was never one to surf a wave, to glide easily over a crash and break of current and foam. She lived in the wave, wiped out hard; her moods crested and crashed and she was pounded into the sand and finally it got to be enough. She didn’t need a shark to eat her alive; her moods did that for her.
I couldn’t give Lucy that answer, not then. I couldn’t, at first, bring myself to tell her that her grandma had taken medicine that killed her. Someday, I thought, I would tell both my girls about that, but I couldn’t find the words that day.
Nora, who was four when my mother died, had also asked how it had happened when I told her of her beloved grandmother’s death. I was in shock then, the morning after the police found my mother’s body, and I simply said that Maga’s body was sick and stopped working.
Since then, I’ve known I would wait to tell my girls the whole truth. But the time had come, after Lucy’s questions started, I began to wonder if my feeling that a small child can’t handle this information wasn’t merely a product of my own preconceptions about suicide; kids don’t know there’s a stigma attached to it, after all.
I thought that death, the bare fact of it, was hard enough for a kid to understand; further explaining that someone might want to die, and discussing mental illness, felt like too much. But I believe in telling the truth to my kids, hard as it might be. Time, and therapy, had helped me to face up to the facts of my mother’s death and come to a fuller, less guilty understanding of it. I worried that as my kids grew—Nora was seven by then—they were apt to overhear, and possibly misconstrue, adult conversations. I didn’t want them to overhear whispers and conclude either that their grandmother had done something to be ashamed of rather than to grieve, or that we don’t talk about mental illness or acknowledge its reality.
Explaining, however, is easier said than done. As Lucy’s line of questioning shows, death makes sense to children only in the most extreme terms: If a person is eaten by sharks, ripped to shreds by a toothy prehistoric fish, even a three-year-old can understand that that person is not going to come back ready to play some more. Regular, ordinary death, the kind that happens every day, doesn’t make sense: how could a person lie down in their bed one night and then just not be the next morning? The body hasn’t disappeared, but something has ineffably changed. Plenty of grown-ups struggle with that notion too, so explaining it to a kid is extra difficult. Layer on the idea that a person would choose to make that happen, and the explanation borders on unbelievable.
Especially if it’s your grandma. My mother loved Nora so much that her adoration sometimes seemed excessive. Every time she saw her, she wanted to be baking cookies or trick-or-treating or doing something extra-special. As a result, we have lots and lots of pictures of my mother doing grandmotherly things with Nora. There are only two pictures of her with Lucy, though: by the time Lucy was born, my mother was deep in her final illness, manic and difficult, and we weren’t spending a lot of time together.
The warm, cuddly cultural space occupied by the notion of a cookie-baking grandmother is about as far from the idea of suicide as one could imagine. Grandmas are supposed to stick around being sweet throughout one’s childhood, right? Sometimes, on top of all the other feelings I have about my mom’s death, I feel angry that my kids have been cheated out of something special, the chance to have a close relationship with a local grandmother. I never expected to live in the same city as my mother; my husband happened to get a tenure-track job in the city my mother moved to after I left my hometown. It felt like a bit of strange serendipity, when we might have moved anywhere. In reality, though, our relationship was not easy or smooth, so my idyllic vision of three generations peacefully baking together is really a wistful one, but still, I wish my children could have had that.
Now, however, she isn’t here, and my children deserved to know why. My mother’s suicide is part of their medical history, much as it’s part of my own. Suicides often run in families. The thought of my girls, my happy, sunny, beautiful daughters, ending their lives terrifies me so much I can hardly bear to write the words. Fear of that possibility kept me from being more honest with them.
Lucy is now five. Several months ago, she asked again how her grandmother died, and I took a deep breath. “She took too much of her medicine,” I said. “And even though medicine can help you, too much medicine can make your body sick and can make you die.”
Lucy looked at me, unfazed, and came back with a five-year-old’s most frequent question: “Why?”
“She took too much medicine on purpose,” I answered. “She had a sickness in her mind that made her very sad and she couldn’t get better.”
Lucy just nodded; I asked if she had any more questions, and she said no. A few follow-ups have popped up, but for the most part she has taken the information in stride. (I’ve also given a similar, though slightly more in-depth, explanation to her older sister.) Occasionally, if a discussion of medicine or doctors comes up, she will matter-of-factly mention that Maga died from taking too much of her medicine. Overall, I have found that telling my girls the truth has been a relief.
I don’t think answering their questions—which will inevitably get thornier as they grow older and gain more understanding—will ever be easy. But by having a fully honest conversation, I hope I’m taking the terror out of the facts of my mother’s death. The fact of her suicide and its roots in her depression won’t be shameful secrets but just the truth. And both my daughters and I can, I hope, come to a fuller understanding that the sharks that ate my mother were all in her mind.
Kate Washington is a writer based in Sacramento, California. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Yoga Journal, Sunset, and the Bellingham Review, and she is a contributing writer at Sactown Magazine. She is a co-founder of Roan Press, a small nonprofit literary press.