by Jennifer White
On July 19th, 2011 my brother, Andrew, called me. I was getting ready for a meeting, so I didn’t pick up his call. He texted and told me to call him as soon as possible. I leaned against the wall of the bathroom in my apartment, part of me knowing my world was about to shatter. My mom, Joanie, had taken her own life after a long battle with mental illness and alcoholism. Suicide burst into my life, like an intruder, breaking things I thought I’d have forever, stealing my sense of security and knocking me to the ground.
In the beginning my mom’s suicide was a shadow cast over the memory of her life and the future of mine. It felt like the only way to define her life and the only thing that had ever happened in mine. As time passed, the shadow began to recede and I realized suicide was the ending, but it wasn’t my mom’s whole story, and it certainly wasn’t going to be my entire story. I decided I would put suicide into it’s proper place in both of our lives.
When I think of my mom’s life now I think of her laugh. I imagine her, head tilted back, eyes closed. Her laugh was never loud. It was gentle and contagious. I think of how she always seemed to know if one of her friends was going to be alone on a holiday. How she’d send food if she couldn’t be with them herself. I think of all the lives she touched, through her work as a nurse and through her friendships. Suicide is what happened in the darkest moment of her life. I wouldn’t want my life to be judged by the things I’ve done in my most despair-filled moments, so I won’t judge my mom’s existence by her suicide either. My mom’s death is now an event that happened. It is the most horrifying, terrible thing that I’ve experienced, but it is not the only thing. I have also graduated from college, changed careers, gotten married, adopted a dog and bought a home. I’ve experienced heartbreak and rejection, turmoil and other stresses. My mother was mentally ill and an addict, but she also loved children. She was always the first adult on the ground to play with a toddler and the first friend to buy a onesie for a baby on the way. She was often difficult to be around because her depression was so dark and masterful, but anyone who ever had one of her chocolate chip cookies knows they will never taste a cookie that good again in all their life. And that’s who she was. And that’s the greatest lesson she could give me and the one I apply to my grief most often. We are all multi-faceted, dynamic creatures. We all contain darkness and light. I hope my life won’t be defined by my darkest, private moments or the most visible, generous ones. I hope it will be defined by my journey in between and through those moments.
The most painful part of my grief is the knowledge that I will never see my mom again. I will never hear that laugh, or receive another gift from her. I don’t have any more opportunities to fight with her or to work through our differences. She will never meet my children or know me as an adult. That’s the pain that takes my breath away, that knocks me down in the middle of a song or the smell of a stranger on the street.
Two years after my mom’s death I started volunteering in memory of her. She taught me the importance of giving back to others and I thought volunteering might help me connect to some of the positive memories that were hidden beneath the tragedy of her suicide. One day I volunteered through the city of Los Angeles to clean up an elementary school. I was assigned to paint crew. I spent all day painting a huge wall blue and I remembered a story my dad had told me about my mom, a story from when they were young in their careers as a surgeon and a nurse, my mom had volunteered to paint Sesame Street characters on the wall’s of the children’s ward. Remembering that story made me feel deeply connected to my mom. To the woman she was and the mother she was to me, not to the way in which she died. As I drove home from volunteering that day I realized I could capture the experience I’d had that day and give a version of it to other people. I created Hope After Project, a program where I build memorial community service projects inspired by people who have died. These acts of community service help those who are grieving honor their loved ones in a positive, productive way. Every Hope After Project is custom built based on the needs of those who are grieving and the life of the person we’re remembering. We’ve planted flowers in memory of a husband, socialized shelter cats in memory of a brother, cared for trees in memory of a father, served meals to cancer patients in memory of a mother and spent time with homeless youth in memory of a son. Hope After Project gives me the opportunity to walk beside other grievers and to make the world a better place in memory of some incredible people who I never got to me in life, but who I feel so connected to.
At Hope After Projects I’ve seen grievers turn corners and connect with people who will become friends. I’ve seen families change in front of my eyes as they plant flower bulbs that will bloom, or thrust rakes into the ground, or chat with cancer patients who share the same diagnosis as their deceased loved ones. I build community service events in memory of peoples’ loved ones and then I watch as they lift rocks, or paint walls or feed animals, all while feeling the freedom to say their loved one’s name whenever they want, or take pictures with new friends, cry without explanation or close their eyes against the rays of the sun.
Sometimes people ask me if Hope After Project helps me see the “good” in my mother’s death. The answer is simple and it is no. What Hope After Project does for me is put my grief, the pain of my mother being gone and the fact of her suicide in it’s rightful place. I call it the grey space. It’s a place where the memory of my mom’s laugh doesn’t negate her alcohol induced rage. It’s a place where she was infinitely generous and made a decision to take her own life. It’s a place in my soul where I can watch healing occur and feel tremendous gratitude to be exactly where I am without feeling happy that my mother is dead. It’s the place where I heal.
Visit Jennifer’s website, www.hopeafterproject.com, to learn more about memorial community service projects that help the grieving find hope.