by Madeline Sharples
In the last month, I was asked to meet with two women who had recently lost their adult sons to suicide. In the first case, the woman contacted me. She had read my book, Leaving the Hall Light On, and after several lengthy emails asked if she could take me for lunch. Since she was willing to drive quite a long distance to meet in my hometown, I readily agreed. However, I realized almost as soon as we sat down that this meeting was a mistake. She talked and talked about her son and his suicide and her problems with the hospitals that cared for him, until I finally had to stop her. Her words brought up so much about my own experience and the death of my son that they were painful. I then asked her why she asked for the meeting and what she expected from me.
So she stopped relating her story briefly and said she wanted to know where I was now after almost fifteen years since my son’s suicide death. And although I made it very clear to her that I still grieve for my son, I have made my life very full with my work as a writer and consultant, travels with my husband, and socializing with our family and friends. I also shared some of the gifts that have come my way as a result of his death – my busy writing life, a stronger and fitter body, an ever-strengthening bond with our surviving son and his wife, and my goal to help erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide.
She listened to me briefly and while I ate my lunch she kept talking more about the hell her life has become. She didn’t respond to my suggestion that she share her research about the dangers of cannabis, which she thinks was the cause of her son’s death, with young people in the schools – to try to turn the tragedy that happened in her life into something good she could do for others. When we parted I felt tearful and sad. I haven’t heard from her since.
A couple of weeks later, I met with another woman. This time a mutual friend arranged and facilitated our back and forth discussion. She didn’t talk much about what happened to her son. Rather she was interested in what I did to move on and survive. Our conversation was more give and take and certainly not as painful for me as the previous meeting. However, as a result of both these meetings, I decided not to accept any more similar invitations to meet with anyone I don’t know. Since I’m fifteen years into this grief journey, people think I’m an expert and that I’ve moved on. That is definitely not the case. I find myself still fragile and vulnerable.
That vulnerability has been brought into more focus with the news of the recent deaths of adult children of dear friends. One died suddenly as a result of this year’s flu epidemic. The other struggled for many years with breast cancer. Either way, the impact on their parents is horrendous. As one of the parents said at his daughter’s memorial service, on the list of terrible things that happen in our lives, the death of a child is at the top.
Those words made me cry. Being at that memorial service made me cry. Though I have an easier time talking about my son’s life and death now, and I have been able to write about it in my book, on my blog, and as a guest on other websites, I still grieve for him. Even as I go on with my life and my life’s work, I know my grief will always be there. I also know that trying to act as a helper for strangers is not good for me. It hurts because it brings up too much of the pain I went through so many years ago.
About the Author: Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist late in life. In the meantime she worked most of her professional life as a technical writer and editor, grant writer, and proposal manager. She sold real estate for ten years while her boys were growing up, and instead of creative writing, she took creative detours into drawing and painting, sewing, quilting, and needlepoint.
Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released by Lucky Press LLC in 2011. It tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story will inspire others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences.
She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines. Madeline’s articles also appear regularly in the Huffington Post, Naturally Savvy, PsychAlive, and Open to Hope. She also posts at her blogs, Choices and at Red Room.
She is currently writing a historical fiction book, but her main mission is raising awareness, educating, and erasing the stigma of mental illness and suicide, through her writing and volunteer work, in the hopes of saving lives.
Read an article by her son, Ben Sharples: Not a Walk in the Park