Chapter OneWhy? Why? Why?
What do you mean, she's dead?
The words echoed through the chasms of my quickly numbing mind, but
I (Sue) couldn't make them come out of my mouth as I struggled to make sense
of what the woman on the phone was saying.
How can you know she's dead when you aren't even here?
We had called 911 because we couldn't get nineteen-year-old Shannon to
wake up. Steve, her brother, was trying to do CPR. It was all very strange. She
had a smile on her face. Her body was warm. But her color was wrong, very
She's my daughter. She can't be dead. She can't be dead.
"Hello," the voice said. "Are you still there?"
"Yes," I mumbled.
"A team is on the way, ma'am. But let me ask again. Can you find a pulse?"
I looked at Steve. He shook his head, with tears in his eyes. "No. We can't."
"Then the girl is dead," the voice said again. "There's nothing you can do."
How can you pronounce her dead as calmly and callously as you might
announce the time or the weather? I wondered. My voice said, "Thank you," my
hand hung up the phone, and part of me disconnected from the rest of myself.
By the time the medical personnel arrived, I felt like I was hovering somewhere
near the ceiling, a spectator at some kind of macabre dramatic performance
in which my intuition said I had a lead part, only I didn't know the
script. What are all these people doing here? I wondered. Why does the phone
keep ringing? Why is everyone so sad . especially Steve?
And Shannon, my dear, beautiful Shannon.
I watched as they wrapped her up and whisked her away, without even giving
me a chance to say goodbye. Didn't they know that I needed to touch her,
to look at her, to remember her, to say goodbye?
And my mind cried out: Who could have done such a horrible thing to her-five
days before Christmas? Why, we haven't finished decorating the tree. And the
shopping isn't done. I haven't bought Shannon her special ornament yet. This is
just a bad dream, and I'm going to wake up soon.
"Ma'am, excuse me," a policeman's voice interrupted my nightmare. "We
found these by her bed."
He showed me all the empty bottles-Shannon had taken all the prescription
medication in the house, plus a half bottle of aspirin-and that was
when it finally dawned on me that Shannon had done this horrible thing . to
Many Questions, Few Answers
But why? What could have been so painful for her that death seemed better
My last words to Shannon the night before had been harsh and unkind. She
had come in late from a date with her boyfriend and was making a lot of noise,
which woke me up. "Can you please keep the noise down?" I had yelled. "I'm
trying to sleep."
And her last words to me were, "It's okay, Mom. It will be all right now."
Of course, I hadn't known what she was thinking. But for months afterward,
I imagined myself responsible, somehow, for her death.
Steve and I both wondered for a long time, since we were both in the house
when she took the pills, Why didn't we hear her? Why didn't we know? Why didn't
God alert us in some way to what was about to happen?
The last question was perhaps harder than the others, even though none
of the questions had answers. After all, we were believers-all three of us.
Surely a good God wouldn't allow such a thing to happen. How could he? Children
don't die before their parents; it's not right. Didn't he know that Shannon
was to graduate from college, get married, give me grandchildren, and bury me
at a ripe old age? This was senseless. You knew, God, before time began that this
was going to happen. Why her? Why us? Why me? Why did you give me this child,
only to take her away?
All day and into the night, people came in and went. My boss drove all the
way from Palm Springs straight to my house (near San Diego) when he heard
the news. He had loved Shannon like a daughter and was devastated. I felt loved
and cared for by so many people who came and tried to make sense out of
something so senseless. I was numb, in shock, and just let people take care of
me. I needed to talk and appreciated those who just listened. I ignored the ones
who didn't know what to say or who tried to comfort me with comments like,
"She's with the Lord; it must have been God's will," "Thank God you still have
Steve because he will really need you now," and, "God works all things together
I wanted to scream back, "This is not God's will, and there is nothing good
about this." The words lay formless in my mouth.
At one point my pastor said, as gently as he could, that we needed to think
about funeral arrangements. Oh no. No funeral arrangements, because if I make
funeral arrangements, it must mean she is really dead, and, God, if I go to sleep
and wake up, you will make everything all right, won't you? I mean, if I'm really
good, you will make this story end the way I want it to, right?
I wanted to die. I couldn't imagine feeling any more pain than I was already
feeling. "All of you leave and just let me go to sleep and not wake up" was what
I wanted to say. Others must have known this, because I was not left alone.
Someone was with me around the clock for the next four days, taking care of
my every need-except for my most desperate need: to have my broken world
put back together again.
And the biggest heartbreak of all was to see the agony on my son's face and
not be able to fix it. I was a mother, a lousy, horrible mother, with one child who
had taken her own life and another in so much pain that I feared he might follow
his sister, and there was nothing I could do about any of it. What kind of
mother would let these things happen to her children?
I hoped that if I could just go to sleep that night, the demons would leave
me alone, and just maybe, a merciful God would put everything back together
the way it was. I was wrong. There was no peace with sleep. The demons
haunted my dreams.
I awoke the next morning feeling like I had been hit with a wrecking ball, convinced
that I could not survive this. Someone had said the day before that time
would heal this. Time? Didn't they know that nothing could heal this? I couldn't
imagine surviving the next second, much less the next hour or the next day.
My pastor called to say that my ex-husband had started making arrangements
for the funeral and that I needed to go to the funeral home to go over
the details. How was he, the father of my children, able to do this? I wondered.What special ability enabled him to do this again in the wake of the loss of his
stepdaughter only months before?
So I gathered up Shannon's favorite ring, her favorite outfit, and a few
items that would be placed in her casket with her. I was so grateful that I didn't
have to make any other decisions and that others had made the important
ones for me.
The funeral would be on Monday afternoon, December 23, for family and
a few close friends. My task was to plan a memorial service for that evening,
which would be open to all those who knew her and us. Oh, this was something
I could do all right, because I'm a planner. I just knew that if I kicked into high
gear I could cover the agony I was feeling by planning a memorial service that
would be remembered by all.
On Sunday morning, a dear friend took me out for breakfast at a lovely seaside
restaurant in La Jolla. There was no way I could attend church and hear
the announcement of her death. I couldn't cope with that or deal with the
people afterward. I don't remember anything about that breakfast except that
I couldn't bear to eat the food that was placed in front of me. For two days, I
had walked and talked in a zombie-like trance, and day three was no different.
Monday threatened rain-weather to match the storm raging in my heart.
My parents arrived, and once again, I went over all the details. Would the telling
never end? We talked about Shannon, remembering things about her life, some
long forgotten. Strangely, I found talking about her and hearing others share
their memories of her very comforting. It kept her alive, if only in our hearts.
Before the funeral, I spent a couple of hours with my pastor and his wife,
planning the memorial service. Some of Shannon's friends from church that
she had grown up with planned to sing Michael W. Smith's song "Friends," from
the musical they had performed when they were all in high school. Shannon
had had a lead part in the musical. I planned to talk about Shannon and asked
some of her closest friends to do that also. Others planned to share their memories
during an open time of sharing. I had selected music that I knew she and
others liked. Various families in the church were providing food for out-of-town
guests. It was a well-thought-out service, but one I really didn't want to attend.
More than three hundred people attended the memorial service that
evening. Some had traveled great distances to be there. I so appreciated their
thoughtfulness. I remember thinking: How did they all know about this? How
did they find out?
I survived the funeral and the memorial service as if in a trance. Except for
the grace of God and the support of some very dear friends, I could not have
My family stayed to be with Steve and me through Christmas. We somehow
managed to open the gifts under the tree, though each gift from Shannon
brought more tears.
Friends came by, bringing what comfort and help they could. But nothing
eased the horrible ache in my heart for a long, long time.
A survivor of suicide is anyone who has been affected by the loss of someone
to suicide-parent, spouse, child, sibling, or friend. "It's an exclusive club I
joined without wanting to," one survivor told us. "But I passed the initiation,
so I guess I'm a member."
Following a loved one's suicide, many questions haunt the survivors, the
most common of which start with why, such as: Why did my loved one choose
death over life? Why didn't I see it coming? Similar questions are common to
other losses, as expressed by Dave's poem "A Thousand Whys," written after his
three-year-old son died from an undiagnosed illness. When a loved one's death
was self-inflicted, however, some of the questions that linger the longest relate
to the one who has died.
I (Sue) asked the why question over and over in the days, weeks, and
months following Shannon's death: Why would a beautiful, intelligent, well-liked
young woman take her own life? Those of us who were closest to her discussed
this endlessly, trying to come up with answers. While there didn't appear
to be one specific predisposing factor, except that she had been severely
depressed, which led to hopelessness and despair, just talking about it helped
each of us to deal with her death, and ultimately to heal. As her brother, Steve,
told me after her death, she had lost all hope and her will to live.
While some survivors can answer the why questions with some certainty,
many cannot. For who really knows what goes on in the minds of those who
end their pain in this way? For some of them, it may be family issues, financial
problems, difficulties in school or work, relationship issues, gender-identity
issues, addictive behaviors, or physical disabilities, all of which may be intensified
by depression and/or other mental or emotional disorders. As many survivors
have told us, they needed to talk through the why questions with trusted
others in the early stages after the loss.
Many survivors eventually come to a point in their healing when the why
questions become less important and "Where do we go from here?" becomes
the focus. Linda Flatt, who lost her twenty-five-year-old son to suicide, wrote,
"The only person (except for God) with the answers to my questions is unavailable
to hear them. And it occurs to me that he might not know the answers
himself." She added that after so many years, perhaps it was time to stop asking
the questions, realizing that she really didn't want answers as much as she
wanted a chance to challenge the answers and to change the outcome.
Over time, the questions change from inquiries that begin with "why" to
questions that begin with "what," "who," and "how." Ultimately your questions
may begin to focus on how your experience may be able to help others: "What
do you want me to do with what I've learned, God?" or "Who needs a word of
hope today?" or "How can I best walk alongside that hurting person I met the
other day?" This change takes awhile. It may take a long while. Though you
may feel your progress is slow, it's best to remember that healing from a loss
like yours is an inside-out process, overseen by the ultimate heart-mender,
Finding Your Way
What to Expect during the First Few Days
Note: If you've already survived this period, we trust it will
encourage you to know that your emotions and reactions were
You will experience shock. Emotional numbness is a normal
reaction to trauma, the mind and body's way of protecting you
from the full force of the trauma. People in shock feel like they
are in a fog, disconnected from themselves and the world
around them-as if they're in a trance or having a bad dream.
People in shock should delay making decisions that will
have lifelong consequences, such as liquidating or giving away
assets, as these matters will look different in time.
You will experience severe emotional and/or physical reactions.
You may experience anxiety, anger, confusion, flashbacks,
fear, chest pains, breathing problems, sleep disturbances, and
other disturbances in your normal day-to-day functioning. Such
reactions are common after a loved one's suicide but may be
intensified depending on the circumstances surrounding the
death, such as witnessing the suicide or finding the body.
Tell a close friend or counselor about your symptoms. Seek
qualified medical assistance, as there are good medications that
can help you without causing long-term dependence.
You will have to deal with the police, medical professionals,
the coroner, and others who must be involved after a suicide.
Some of these professionals have had training in dealing with suicide
and its survivors; many have not. Some may seem insensitive
and less than helpful, but it is good to remember that their
first responsibility is to deal with the suicide on a factual basis.
The police will sometimes be accompanied by a crisis counselor,
whose job is to help you deal with the immediate trauma and to
give you resources that will help you as you grieve.