We Are Only Human

On the path to self discovery

Loss and Holidays

How do we enjoy the holidays after a loss?

Holidays are a time when many children who have lost their mothers may feel forlorn. I was only four years old when I lost my mother to suicide and we rarely talked about her through the years. Growing up in a large, blended family, with the anticipation of the perfect Christmas, the rituals of caroling, stringing blue lights and tinsel on the tree, did little to transform the melancholy I felt at having lost my mother. Even now, celebrating the holidays with my own family, I still ache for the mother I lost too soon.

It was only when I started to locate her friends when I was a young mother, and discovered a novel that my mother was writing at the time of her death, that I saw how she embraced the festivities of a family tradition. One of her friends told me how my mother prepared a feast of roasted pork and wrapped piles of presents. My mother wrote in her semiautobiographical novel how, for the two weeks surrounding Christmas, she became "the eternal mother, a mother happy in her fulfillment, content." I learned that she made each of her six children homemade knitted stockings. I loved mine because there was a snowman holding a miniature broom with real straw. If only she had not succumbed to her depression.

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Holidays are a time meant for spending with family and friends, but the seasons also possess a dark undercurrent for those who have experienced a tragic loss. For some, holidays highlight the absence of a family member even more. For me, the holidays spur bittersweet reflection, as I contemplate my mother's life with my family.

While writing my book, my sister Martha sent me some home movies recorded during the early period of my parents' marriage; in them I discern my mother, father, my grandmothers Edith and Cora, and the old patriarch Arthur with his piercing blue eyes. There is no sound, only grainy images, unfocused. Sometimes you can only see a kaleidoscope of movement. The movies are like any family film, with fleeting views of one birthday party after another. We crowd around the dining room table, children parading paper hats and blowing streamers, smiling into the camera. My mother carries in the birthday cake piled with flower decorations. A pony trudges around with a sled of kids in front of our house; then, more cake and candles. My father in blue shorts and brown loafers deposits hundreds of Easter eggs on the lawn. The camera lingers on him. My sisters are splashing each other in the pool. Dad holds my brother Jim tightly in the water as he kicks hard to learn to stay afloat on his own.

I recognize myself. I'm being passed around from one lap to another. My older sister proudly feeds me a bottle of milk. Now my other sister gives me a kiss. My mother in a purple bathrobe leans close with a gently exhausted smile. I am in the high chair, and the sun is breaking through the curtains. More Christmas trees with presents, blue lights and silver tinsel.

My father and mother produced a family grown from an intoxicating promise of love. Each of us carries the patterns of our family, malleable in some ways. But there is also a constellation of forces, of unwritten rules and rituals,that makes it distinct. A scaffolding that may create unbearable pain or offer a retreat to comfort. A family is not only what you say it is. This family is caught for a moment in the ordinary magic of ephemeral living.

My son Cory asked me as a practical five-year-old whether only my mother's bones were buried or if her head was buried as well. My daughter Lila, a first-grader then, wanted to know whether my mother was still wearing clothes. I told them somewhat irreverently that she was dirt in a box. I was uncomfortable saying that my mother had gone to heaven and mumbled something about love lasting longer than death. I was not sure how to explain her death to myself, let alone to them.

When Lila was 13, she asked me, clearly scared of what my answer might be: "Would you ever kill yourself?" I assured her that I would never commit suicide and besides, I told her, giving her a hug, I wanted to stick around to see who she would become. I didn't want her to hesitate to rely on me whenever she needed to. I didn't want her to fear that I would leave her. Yet her intuitive worry was not unfounded; the child of a parent who has committed suicide is five times more likely to kill herself than a child who is not exposed to this loss.

Psychiatrists have studied what can seem like the Russian roulette of familial suicide, an ominous pattern of suicide occurring from one generation to the next called "intergenerational transmission." So far, researchers have demonstrated that children who have lost a parent to suicide are at greater risk of killing themselves if they have a mood disorder, engage in substance abuse, are "impulsively aggressive," or are exposed to intense conflicts in the family. Still unclear is the mechanism by which a parent's suicide increases the risk for these children. But losing a parent this way is also not a prophetic death sentence; it takes a lot of damage to lose the will to live.

When I met people as I was growing up, all the way to medical school interviews, if I told them that my mother died when I was four, they were curious about how she died-the question was irresistible. Most people seemed relieved when I said barbiturates, as if death and sleep are siblings. People wanted to know why and what was the cause. Such questions are usually edged with the fear that premature death, especially a self-inflicted death, might somehow be contagious. Why would she kill herself? becomes What does this mean about you? Somehow, confessing that my mother committed suicide felt incriminating: proof that my mother's life was out of control. I worried that they would mistakenly assume I somehow played a part in that.

Rather than burdening my children with my bereavement, I want to let them see how I deal with the painful longing for lost family without depriving them of my presence. I don't want to be overly nostalgic about my mother. I don't want the upheaval from my loss to undermine how I connect with my children; rather, I want to find strength in understanding.

My children have watched me as I have tried to understand who my mother was, knowing that I write "letters to Mama" that are my way of telling my mother who I am and who my children are becoming. I try to penetrate the incomprehensible mystery of her death and to somehow show them our enduring connection to those we love. Cory, ever the concrete thinker, once asked me where I was sending the letters. Lila said that maybe in my dreams my mother would write back.

Sometimes, I peer into an apparent void, a one-way dialogue with too much room for projection. My family history gives me a fragmented and sanitized view of my mother. I often feel as if I am figuratively tugging on her apron strings pleading for something more, starved for a tasty morsel that will satiate my desire to know her in a way that is intimate and familiar.

In our bedroom, we have a picture of my husband Colin as a child, about 4½, staring at the photographer and brimming with affection. He is an adorable boy with a puckish, mischievous, contagious smile, a turned-up nose, and eyebrows with a distinctive thick, wavy quality expressing permanent astonishment. He is at ease and cooperating with the pose because the picture was taken by his mother. About a year after the photo was taken, she died unexpectedly - a brain hemorrhage cutting off her life at age 32. She left behind Colin, his older brother, and their father.

The disquieting truth is that we both have the same absence in our lives, the experience of growing up without our mothers. We were both encouraged to pick up and move on, and so we did. When we met each other and learned what we shared, we recognized our mutual sadness, even if we have chosen to deal with it in different ways. Once Cory looked at me and astutely observed, "Mama, just because you talk about losing your mother doesn't mean that Papa doesn't miss his."

When the nights grow darker and longer in the weeks before Christmas, Colin can become moody. This is the time of year when his mother died. His irritability is epitomized by the yearly struggle to fit the Christmas tree into that always-too-small Christmas tree stand. We have resolved this now by bringing the stand with us when we go looking for the perfect tree. If only we could remember that the inevitable sense of loss each of us feels around the holidays has its source in memories we cannot reconcile and cannot fix. Yet the mind has an interesting way of migrating back, a shadow that is not so easy to define but is unsettling.

Now as a child psychiatrist, I see as the holidays approach that families can have a foreboding sense that things aren't right and they are unsure how to forge ahead. This anxiety can come after a divorce or loss of a parent but is amplified with the child's sense of abandonment and being left after a parent's suicide. Some kids may feel anxious or angry about the holidays and want to retreat, privately mourning. And they may complain that it feels "fake" to celebrate a time that was special in the past but now leaves them forlorn. Families may find comfort in continuing rituals, hanging favorite Christmas ornaments, lighting candles in remembrance of those who have died, or preparing a special meal.

There is no sound preparation for children who lose a parent to suicide. Yet the holidays can remind us that out of the darkness there is light. I have immense gratitude for my family and the gift of celebrating being together. In the midst of sorrow there is affirmation of invincible endurable hope: missing who we want to be there, but realizing within the small remembrances that love lasts longer than death.

Excerpted with permission from In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide (Basic Books, 2009). The author is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of school-based programs in child psychiatry at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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