In The Wake Of Maternal Death, Are We Really Supporting Mothers?

Trigger warning: Not for the faint of heart.


Monday, July 22nd was a fairly normal day until we got the call that changed everything. A dear friend and concerned neighbor to my sister-in-law reached out letting me know about the SWAT team circling my SIL’s house. The ten-minute drive across town seemed like an eternity. What on Earth was going on?


I will never forget the police officer telling me she’s armed, so he cannot let us go try to talk to her. Was this one of those situations where you’re supposed to buck the system and tell them they’re not allowed to not allow you? I was a fish out of water.


At the moment, my concern quickly shifted from my SIL to her babies. My brother-in-law wasn’t local. Where were the children? And OMG, please don’t do this.


There was nothing we could do. Talk about feeling helpless. How do you help a family in a moment like this? Do you risk your own wellbeing to save another’s? Are you selfish if you don’t?


We left, and on the drive home my other half — likely trying to calm me down — remarked: “I really don’t think she’ll do it.” To which I replied, “I do.” He seemed surprised, but he didn’t know her like I did. When she made up her mind about something, that was it.


The Waiting Game


Back at our house, I was wearing a hole into the living room floor and hugging my babies. What is it about the thought of death that makes you cling to your littles? I called and left whatever voicemail and texts saying all the things I thought were best to say and watched them go through as delivered to her phone. Twenty minutes later, we got the call that she was gone.


That’s it. It cannot be undone. So many lives are now forever changed by this one decision. So many feelings left on the table and unresolved. So many things I can’t say to her now. You know those uncomfortable moments that arise in your day when you realize something funny happened or you learned something they would’ve found interesting? And you can’t tell them. It’s just over now. But I wouldn’t say it was without warning, and that’s where I think we’ve gone wrong in the way we help our sisters.


I didn’t have to ask myself why? Her life wasn’t going as planned. It was the disappearance of the life she thought she was building for herself and for her children.


Within a few hours, we were forced to follow procedure. The children had been in the care of a close friend who picked them up from daycare whenever mom didn’t arrive. Despite probably all of us being okay with it, the state wouldn’t allow them to stay with anyone but family. So off we went to the police station to meet with CPS.


What a blur those post-death hours always turn out to be. No one knows what to say. Everyone looks like they’re on the brink and ready to cry for the twentieth time. Does anyone wear grief well? Isn’t it something how it can drape itself over your shoulders like a heavy winter coat you can’t easily shake off. Unexpected death… it sort of cloaks you in uncertainty and a perpetual state of being half checked out, your mind is just off existing somewhere else. The last couple of months have definitely felt like that.


The Aftermath


The truth is, my SIL and I had our fair share of disputes while she was alive. But we had grown closer in recent years before our last argument. We were not in contact at the time of her death. I’m a reasonable person. I know there were extenuating circumstances and that my disconnect from her was the right choice for me and my family, but I can’t help but wonder if it was the wrong choice for her.


In combing over her belongings in the days that followed, I found one letter after another, all addressed to God. I found her Bible with her favorite verses circled. Her words cried out for help. She felt so alone. So hopeless.


In this day and age, we all seem to have an opinion about the behavior of others. There was no shortage regarding her’s. But it is because of her that I’m now judging my own.


Did I do all that I could to make sure she knew she mattered to me?


A couple of months ago, I would have told you I did everything possible to help. That’s not true. Granted, I couldn’t have known what she was going through; she wasn’t the type to show too much emotion, as she felt that was weakness and would bring forth more judgment.


One thing I could’ve done differently was to have used my words better. All of our past disputes had included dialogue. Generally, when I was able to verbalize to her how I really felt, instead of her piecing my behavior together and making assumptions, we worked things out. But I didn’t allow for that opportunity this last time. I was worried there was no way to speak my truth without offending her. I didn’t want to “deal with” the result of that. So I just cut the situation off at the knees.


I still know the boundary line had to be drawn. I don’t regret that. But I do regret not telling her I loved her and that it was coming from a place of caring. Instead, I’m sure it appeared our choice to distance ourselves was entirely self-serving, leaving her out in the cold. Sadly, that didn’t really enter my mind at the time. That is the lesson I am coming to learn from this loss.


Hey, we’re all busy. We have full plates. We don’t have time to give everyone a disclaimer or to make sure no one’s feelings are ever trampled on. Right? That’s what I thought. It sounds so petty now. Really? You were too busy to slow down and lend someone else in need a little bit of your time? Obviously not because I give my time away pretty routinely — especially to mothers. Hindsight is wicked you guys. It’s only now that I can really see how much I didn’t want to have a truthful conversation with her because it was uncomfortable for me. Learning this lesson alone has changed me. We are all spending our time being so PC and treading so carefully. The Internet has aided in creating this culture of anxiety. We don’t speak up when we have concerns about someone else because they may not be open to hearing it and we don’t want the backlash. Suddenly, all the grown-ups are battling each other on the playground again. It’s created this mess of trepidation — especially among mothers, who have gone from supporting each other to competing with one another to determine who’s doing it better. What a sad picture of motherhood in 2019.


As it turns out, this is why we need dialogue between mothers. That’s why we need mothers to communicate more. To break down those barriers and learn to separate judgment from concern. Sorry, but what business do I have calling myself your friend if I’m not willing to tell you when you might be making a life-altering mistake you can’t take back just so I don’t have to “deal with your attitude” in response? No, social media doesn’t count. There is no inflection in a text. Get off the phone and go meet her at the park. Every trip to the playground or mall or lunch out with my SIL brought us closer. The disconnect wasn’t easy on me either. I missed her. I will forever now.


These Feelings Though


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just a ball of regret here. I am angry with her. How could she have possibly thought this through and felt her children would be better off without her? We are so grateful to have such a large family to make sure the children are okay through all of this. But she couldn’t have known that. Is that what it’s like? Did she feel that low that she thought it wasn’t even in her kids’ best interest to know her, love her, and remember her? At five and three, it’s unlikely they’ll have many memories. It’s unfair that they can’t hear the sound of her laugh or her singing along to every Bruno Mars song that still echos in my mind.


I spent the weeks following her passing sorting through her things. There’s this constant thought in my mind ringing out how can it be that such a wild energy can leave us and all that is left of her can fit into a few boxes?


Nothing in these boxes will tell her children their mom was pushy, sometimes neurotic, could be a gossip, a little overbearing, often “too emotional,” judgmental but working on it, or any other negative personality trait we all come to eventually love and find endearing about our mothers because it all makes them who they are. It won’t emphasize to them just how big of a dreamer she was, or how much compassion she had for humanity. It won’t impress upon them how she not only had opinions but was pretty good at supporting them when she got out of her own way.


They might catch a glimpse of her entrepreneurial drive with multiple notebooks filled with business plans to go through, but they won’t know that she’s the one that knew how to bring those plans to life. They’ll someday read her letters to God that pleaded for a way out of this life. They won’t know it was balanced with a love of good comedies, ice cream and all things spiritual.


And let’s be honest, telling them isn’t the same. My grandmother was killed by a drunk driver when I was about 19 months old. I’ve heard countless stories my whole life. I still don’t know her. I’m not sure what her hugs would’ve felt like, what her favorite perfume was, how she handled stress, if she liked red wine or white, nor how she interacted with me. My relationship with her was lost the day she died. The same will be true for my niece and nephew. They will bear the burden of that lost relationship, only ever able to connect with their mother on the coattails of others’ relationships with her.


The Only Way Out Is Through It


Sure, it’s not fair. Yes, shit happens. But I can’t shake the feeling that this didn’t have to. We can all speculate. A lot of people have asked “Was it mental health related?” Well, she was lonely. She was scared. She wasn’t able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Wait… Isn’t that all mental health? The questions I’m asking myself now are: Was she supported? When she couldn’t see the way out, did she lose hope that anyone would come along and hand her a flashlight? Was her life actually harder than others’? On what scale can we measure that?


Someone’s life ends this way and those of us who pick up the pieces can’t even seem to agree on how anyone should feel about it. One person is angry because really they’re just so deeply hurt, another is angry because they think it’s selfish, another is overwhelmed with sadness, some just feel numb. It serves as proof that we are absolutely not all alike. In acknowledging this, can we really be certain that all of us, with all of our unique differences, process life’s hardships the same way?


Is it not safe to say some people are more emotional than others? This trait is often used as a weapon and thrown at weeping individuals as an insult. Maybe our survival instincts kick in and we can’t understand why someone else just melts into a puddle. Perhaps we are hard-wired to resist anyone that might get us killed in our fight for the survival of the “fittest.” I happen to believe the ability to feel such a broad range of emotions so deeply is a gift. Did anyone tell her that, or was she just shamed her entire life for not better harnessing how she felt? We see this so often among women and mothers, and it’s not okay.


She absolutely made my life difficult at times, but her life has taught me a very valuable lesson now, even if only in death. While I won’t stop preaching the importance of removing toxic relationships from your life, I am looking at my own life in a whole new light. If we all assume every “unstable” person that crosses our path did so only to challenge us to boot them from our lives, how are we helping each other to improve? There needs to be some kind of balance here, and I don’t pretend to know what it is. I see my female peers getting a little too happy these days about “toxic relationships” and giving them the boot. While I recognize the importance of this, let’s not kick it into overdrive all in the name of giving our life a good KonMari. Perhaps we could all benefit from really digging deeper into what “toxic” means. I’m not totally sure it applies to hurt people who are unintentionally hurting people, and I’m not sure we can call something a relationship if we weren’t genuinely participating in it.


I could probably keep droning on here but that’s only because I have no conclusion. Normally, I wrap things up and you know how I feel and what I’ve learned. This wound is still healing and I’m still learning. My advice in the meantime is to count your blessings, and make sure those who are a part of them know it.




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