On a cold day in the autumn of 1998, eight years after my sister died, I went back to Cleveland to visit her grave with my hus- band, David. It was a bleak, overcast afternoon in November when we drove to the cemetery. My sister Kim is buried in that city of steel skies and flat lands in a place called Mount Olive Cemetery. I like the tone of authority in the name of her burial place. It feels as though she’s been anointed, lifted to a place of holiness. The cemetery is on the outskirts of the suburbs. We drove first through the orderly suburban streets, then under a stark bridge that appeared to lead nowhere, and then through the black gates. I thought after all these years that seeing again the sight of her gray headstone and the small plot of land designated to her on this earth would devastate me. Instead a long calm washed through me. I did not cry when I saw Kim’s grave. I read the inscription composed by my family: Kim Elizabeth, July 19, 1968–April 16, 1990, Our Beloved. Kim’s suicide has forever altered the way in which I re- spond to the world around me. It has transformed the way I think and feel about intimacy, motherhood, friendship, and our responsibilities to others. Her early death changed every pre- conceived idea I had of suicide, depression, suffering, parenthood, and our debt to another person. Before Kim ended her life, I thought, like most people, that someone who would take his or her own life was somehow different from the rest of us.
I was wrong.
At her gravesite, beneath which lay the box that contained the flesh and bone that had comprised her physical self—the box that eight years earlier I had watched being lowered into the ground and had thrown dirt on top of, a Jewish ritual to signify the family’s responsibility to bury their loved ones—I was overcome with a familiar feeling of disbelief. I wanted, like Demeter, goddess of the spring who lost her daughter to the underworld, to plead with the gods to bargain back her life.
As the gray afternoon light moved through a stand of trees I wondered, as I had so many times, if Kim had really wanted to die or whether her act had been a cry for help.
I cannot go back to Cleveland without feeling the shadow of Kim over the city. It is in the color of the sky, in the shapes of the familiar houses on our suburban block, in the shade of the bushes along our front walk. Her loss is wrapped inside the tree that shades our yard. When I go into her bedroom—now turned into a kind of den, with a new desk and chair forced awkwardly into the room—I can only see it the way it used to be: Kim’s unmade bed, her clothes piled in a corner, her teddy bear thrown on the floor.
I still on occasion wake up in the morning and forget that she is gone, that she’ll never be able to have the baby she once wanted, that she’ll never know my son. I sometimes catch a quick flash of her face in my mind and it is as if she’s looking at me, trying to tell me something. I try very hard to listen.
Kim was the youngest of four girls, the only child of my mother and her second husband, the baby of our family—my baby, I sometimes thought, my Kim. My mother and we three remaining sisters reconstructed the weeks before she died. We read and reread the short suicide note she left. We recounted the last conversations, moods, phone calls; we talked to her friends and boyfriend, hoping that these conversations would explain why she’d left us. Her life and death have shaped each of us in profound ways. We talked and talked, among ourselves, with everyone who knew her, and didn’t get far. Then we stopped talking and mourned privately, each in our own way, trying to move on. But I could not really move on. It wasn’t until just a few years ago, when my own son—at the cusp of adolescence, soon to be a young man—reached the age at which Kim’s life began to falter, that I knew I had to try to understand what happened to my sister. My responsibility as a mother made it imperative. I knew that in order to go on, to live my life, the life I have built with my husband and my son, my life as a writer and an editor, I had to go back and excavate her history. I had to understand why she would take her own life and whether I could have stopped her.
Kim was a decade younger than us, her three older sisters. All of us shared the same biological mother, but Laura, Cindy, and I were born from a different father. Our father came from a family of Jewish immigrants. He died when I was two years old, Laura three, and Cindy nine months. My mother, also Jewish, remarried an Irish Catholic man when I was eight years old; two years later she gave birth to Kim. My mother hoped Kim would bridge our not-yet-sturdy, second, Jewish- Catholic family and restore a home that had been shaped by grief and loss. But three years after Kim was born my mother and stepfather divorced, and our family went back to being a family of women.
When Kim died, I was living in New York City, newly married and three and a half months pregnant with my first child. My older sister, Laura, was also living in New York City, working in an art gallery. Cindy was married and training to be a psychologist in Los Angeles. Kim took her life in my mother’s garage, my mother asleep in her upstairs bedroom in the house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where we had all grown up.
The dialogue we have with the dead is never ending. That day at her grave I told myself that I would write about her for two reasons: to redeem her death, and in so doing honor her, and because I needed to understand what she had done and why in order to move forward with my own life. There were days, weeks, sometimes months when I was engaged with life—with my family, friends, and work—but it was as though Kim’s suicide hung over me, at the back of my thoughts, and it would creep up at times and I would feel frightened by it.
If I could recognize the forces that weakened Kim’s strength and attempt to re-create her inner world through my writing, perhaps I’d begin to understand what caused her to take her life. And maybe in doing so, I could forgive myself.
In her death I was closer to her than I had been the few years before she died when she had kept a wedge between us so I would not catch sight of the troubled person she had become.
How had I let her disappear from view? How had we let her go? These are some of the questions I sought to answer.
Her grave that day seemed lonely amid the graves of strangers. That she was buried alone, not in a family plot (her death was so unexpected that no such arrangements had been made), represented to me the estrangement she had come to feel in life.
I took David’s arm and listened to the branches creaking overhead. I looked at the gravestones, some covered with fresh-laid flowers, others less attended. On the most fundamental level it did not seem real.
When I was a child, birds in close proximity had frightened me. Their skittish nature reminded me of my own reactions to a world made precarious by the sudden death of my father.
But when I saw a school of birds clamber over the sky at Kim’s gravesite, making a perfect V in the air, and saw one bird land on one of the monuments near her grave, I was filled with a strange happiness, as if Kim’s spirit were alive and present in the opaque November sky. I thought of T. S. Eliot’s lines in Four Quartets: “Go, go, go, said the bird: / Human kind can- not bear very much reality.”
I have twenty-one years of Kim’s essence stored up in my memory bank. The fallacy about death is its finality. Kim is as alive for me as if I were still at the foot of her bed, in her childhood room that was once my room, listening to her talk about the pair of jeans she had just bought at the Gap, or the day she had spent at one of the Lake Erie beaches, Mentor-on-the-Lake, with her girlfriends. Or sitting with her around our dining room table, her dirty blond hair fallen over her face as she worked on a thousand-piece puzzle of Mona Lisa or Monet’s Yellow Irises with Pink Cloud.
The gray November sky that afternoon carried within it the truth of something foretold. I regretted again, as I had at her funeral, that we had never given her a proper eulogy—that, too distraught, I had not been able to speak about her and the significance of her young life. Her funeral was shrouded in sorrow, shame, and incredulity. We were struggling to accept that she was gone, no longer able to shake her out of the long drift of delirium that compromised the last years of her life, never to see into her mercurial half-gray, half-blue eyes, never to touch her again. The rabbi spoke for us, said the prayers of mourning into the cold April air as we listened, hoping that the world on the other side of life was a better place. Two daysbefore she killed herself had been my birthday and she had called to wish me a happy day. Happiness no longer seemed part of the equation. The world felt tenuous and unsafe. Then I did not know how to grapple with or incorporate the violence of her act of resignation. I did not know how to grasp that she had wanted, at least that night, to die. Or perhaps had wished in those moments to be unlocked from her pain.
It seemed impossible, and I floated in the sea of my disbelief, still thinking that there had been a mistake. Though she was clearly dead—she had to be, my husband picked out her coffin—I could not accept it. I was still worried about her, convinced I could do something to change the course of what had happened. More, I was left with the belief that she had inherited the grief, loneliness, and pain of our family, and that her suicide was partially a result of this burden. I wondered whether Kim’s suicide had been inevitable.
Before it happened to Kim, the horror of suicide—that a person could take her life because of searing emotional pain—had seemed, while devastating and tragic, more of an abstract concept. Though I had known a few people who had committed suicide, one a childhood friend, over time I had pushed those losses into my unconscious. For years, even after Kim died, my defenses were formidable. If I were truly to have understood her state of mind then, I would have had to feel her pain unen- cumbered by the layers of protection I shielded myself with like thick sweaters against the cold. Every time I tried to grasp it I was overcome. It was as if I lived behind a blackened door.
In Moby-Dick, Melville’s masterpiece, Ishmael tells of his de- sire to meet the unknown when he undertakes the voyage of the sea in his quest for the whale:
Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and make him the own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, wild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
To understand suicide is to try to comprehend the ungraspable phantom of life: the power of the darkness, fear, and weakness within the human mind, a force as mysterious, turbulent, complex, and uncontrollable as the sea, a force so powerful it may not be capable of withstanding its own destructive power.
After reading Moby-Dick, a treatise on the abyss and the inchoate and terrible power of inner demons, it does not surprise me to learn that Melville’s own son Malcolm died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of eighteen. Perhaps in writing the prophetic, meticulous novel of Ahab’s obsessive, diabolical quest for the white whale, Melville had hoped to crack open something of the mystery of his son’s or his own despair. Of the need to undertake the voyage, he wrote, “Somehow dreadfully, we are all cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”
The page has been my container, my ship; my words my compass; my memory my harpoon in my desire to wrest coherence from the unwieldy material of personal truth. Whenever I come close to understanding the terrible mystery of suicide, it eludes me again, darting away like the mercurial whale beneath the surface of the ocean, plunging further into the depths of the un- known. When I think I’ve made my peace with the white beast, it rears its head, continuing to shadow the present. There is a desire to still the chaos, but it catches me when I least expect it.
When a young person ends his or her life, the grief of those left behind is complicated by despair, disbelief, fury, guilt, and shame. But my dismay has never been directed at Kim. It is directed at the world she was born into, the past that shaped what she would have to bear, and the failure of those closest to her and the community around her to offer the support and confidence that might have sustained her. Even in our darkest moments most of us have hope that life will turn for the better.
“Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “And sore must be the storm / That could abash the little bird / That kept so many warm.”
At Kim’s gravesite I told myself that I would try to tell her story. In the years that followed I periodically researched and made notes, but I always put them away again, thwarted by complicated emotions and the moral dilemma of exposing my family’s private world, as well as my own.
A few years ago I flew to Los Angeles to spend a few days with Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a leading figure in the study of suicidology. That visit changed the way I thought about suicide, but it wasn’t until I began attending a monthly suicide bereavement group and listened to other survivors of suicide tell their stories that I was able, bolstered by the courage of others living with suicide, to write my story, free of disgrace. These pages narrate the story of what happened to Kim and my voyage to come to grips with her suicide. Since I cannot bring her back, I have struggled to make her lapse into darkness and the devastation of suicide understandable. Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know. That is the reason I am writing this book.