My name is Sally. I’m a suicide survivor-two times. I lost both my daughter Linda and my niece Stephanie to suicide. Linda killed herself by jumping from the seventh-floor balcony of her apartment. She was 45. Stephanie ingested a lethal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. She was 32.
My Daughter’s Story
When my daughters, Linda and Karen, were 15 and 11, we moved to Scotland. This was a difficult time for Linda because she didn’t make new friends easily. She had only one close friend and few acquaintances. When we moved back to the States, Linda stayed in Scotland to attend university in Edinburgh. After she graduated, she moved to London to work. Eventually, she immigrated to Australia.
Linda loved traveling and SCUBA diving. She was able to combine both of these loves with her jobs, which took her all around the world setting up computers for airline companies. When she was at home in Australia, she would raise tree frogs on her balcony and release them into the wild.
After her last family visit, Linda moved to a different apartment and we lost all contact with her. She would sporadically contact her sister Karen with a brief phone message saying that if she wanted to talk to us or see us, she would make the connection. I set out to find Linda in 2000. I contacted her Edinburgh University, but they had no information. I contacted the Social Security Administration in Australia. I wrote to her best friend. Still nothing. By the end of the year, I admitted failure. I could not find my daughter.
On the June 24, 2002, Karen received a phone call from a woman in Australia named Kate, who told her that Linda had committed suicide the previous week. Linda’s body had been cremated, a small private service was held, and the ashes were scattered where Linda had released the tree frogs she raised. Kate had spent days searching Linda’s apartment, looking for information on a relative to contact. She found it on a birthday card Karen had sent to Linda including her phone number and address. Finally, I had found Linda.
Linda’s suicide brought up so many feelings for me. Denial: How could I trust a phone call from a total stranger? This didn’t really happen. A letter would be coming any day from Linda saying this wasn’t true. The next phone call would be from Linda. Anger: How could she make me suffer this way? Didn’t she know how much this would hurt? How could someone so smart do such a stupid thing? Sadness: My first child; my lovely red-haired daughter; my smart, bright Linda. Guilt: Why didn’t I look just a little harder in 2000? What did I do that made her distance herself from all of her family? What didn’t I do?
Our whole family was shattered by Linda’s suicide, but her sister Karen was most terribly hurt. After the news, she ended an eight-year relationship, lost 70 pounds, sunk into a severe depression, and was on the brink of suicide herself. Through enormous self-motivation, Karen pulled back from the edge. During the next 18 months, she made new life decisions and started on a path in a completely new direction.
Karen visited Australia and met with Linda’s friends. She visited the lake area where Linda’s ashes had been scattered. She learned that Linda had become more reclusive during the years she lived in Australia, her lifestyle more bizarre. She would work almost 24/7, then quit working, stay in her apartment with the phone turned off, and drink for extended periods of time. She learned that Linda had been planning her death for many years and each time she moved, she would never take an apartment that was less than seven floors from the ground.
My Niece’s Story
Stephanie was a happy child and a carefree teenager. She was a university graduate. She loved children, animals, and gardening. A traumatic event in her late teens changed Stephanie dramatically. She and her best friend found the friend’s father hanging by his belt in his closet-a suicide. From that point on, Stephanie’s personality changed. She suffered bouts of depression, began heavy use of alcohol, would not participate in family gatherings, and attempted suicide.
Her family was very supportive; she was in therapy for several years, and spent a long time in a psychiatric hospital in the Los Angeles area where she was misdiagnosed-as bipolar, schizophrenic, and depressed. She was finally correctly diagnosed as borderline personality disorder at McLean Hospital in Boston where she spent a year as an inpatient. At the end of the year, Stephanie and another patient took an apartment “off campus” together. Even though Stephanie’s “recovery” seemed far from complete, she and the family were hopeful. Stephanie eventually found a small house to live in by herself. She began gardening and requested her beloved dog, Jake, be sent to her.
Then the horrible news came that her cousin Linda had died by suicide. Stephanie had many long phone conversations with my daughter Karen about how the suicide had impacted the family and how much suffering the survivors were going through.
On July 31, 2003, Stephanie took Jake to a kennel, went back home, and sat down at her kitchen table with a bottle of wine and bottles of prescription pills. Her body was found the next morning.
Is it possible Linda’s suicide gave Stephanie “permission” to take her own life? Should Linda’s death have been kept from Stephanie?
Can suicide be prevented? Is the “suicidal person” someone other than the person we know? Are there always warning signs? I have no answers to these questions. My life and my family’s lives go on, but we have been forever changed. There is a hole in my heart where Linda used to live. I finally “found” Linda, but she is eternally lost. I will never see either Linda or Stephanie again. I will always have questions with no answers. There is one thing I know very well-being a survivor is the hardest thing I’ll ever do in my life.
Join Sally Stewart at the 13th Annual Suicide Prevention Forum sponsored by the Glendon Association on Monday, September 17, at 6:30 p.m. at La Colina Junior High. This event is free and open to the public. For info, visit glendon.org or call 681-0415.