An endless loop of images, sounds, and events play in the theatre of my horrified mind. Specific details brand themselves red hot into memory. The hour, the day, the week, the month, the year, the decade before it happened replay backward and forward as my mind searches for clues to the mystery of my lover’s suicide two years ago.
As a reader, I rode a wave of grief memoirs that began with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and continues today with Joyce Carol Oates’ new book, A Widow’s Story. Other fine examples include Megan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Heather Lende’s Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, and Kate Braestrup’s Here if You Need Me. Local Ithaca author, Diane Ackerman has recently published, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing; a memoir of anticipatory grief.
The deaths of husbands, mothers, fathers, children, friends, even pets, have been the subject of touching, recent, bestselling memoirs that affirm readers who suffer similar kinds of losses and create compassion in those who can’t even imagine. But none of these recent books tells a story about losing a loved one to suicide.
Jill Bialosky has written a new memoir, History of a Suicide (2011 Atria Books). When I picked up her new book, I thought: finally, someone who might understand, someone who might have answers. Suicide makes for a different kind of grief. An incomprehensible one: your mind can’t find its logic. Even though our losses and circumstances are quite different, her story resonated with my own journey toward acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Jill Bialosky tries to understand why her sister, Kim, took her own life at the age of 21 in 1990. During the past 20 years, Bialosky has been an editor at W.W. Norton as well as an acclaimed poet and novelist, nursing along her own brilliant memoir of grief.
History of a Suicide begins with the simple facts surrounding her sister’s suicide in 1990 and opens up a narrative on the impact suicide has on those who remain behind. The book starts out like a good mystery or detective story. Jill Bialosky wrote this page-turner in plain language. She weaves together her sister’s diaries and the words of Melville, Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath across the weft of words from doctors and psychologists. The author speaks straight into the reader’s heart with unflinching bravery. A voice filled with emotional honesty, Jill Bialosky offers reader both solace and clarity.
Jill Bialosky will be the keynote speaker for the annual meeting of Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services on November 12 at 3 p.m. in the Borg-Warner Room of the Tompkins County Public Library, 101 E. Green Street. The public is invited to attend and hear the author of History of a Suicide speak on a subject in which everyone in the Ithaca community is implicated.
In 1897, Durkheim, the father of sociology, published Suicide. He studied the death statistics of France over time and discovered patterns in the aggregated cases. Downturns in the economic market, health epidemics, prospects of war and other social factors correlated to rates of suicides. What predisposing conditions, what circumstantial events, what triggers in social relations lead to self-annihilation? After more than a century we seem to know less, not more about why.
Jill Bialosky doesn’t find the answers in social demographic factors or family dysfunction. The abandonment of Kim’s father at an early age and their mother’s depression are tragic elements, but not explanations. Bialosky offers a profoundly personal and poetic investigation of her sister’s death. Part psychological autopsy, part love letter to Kim’s unfinished life, Bialosky’s memoir mirrors the minds of those loved ones left in the wake of suicide. While the details of her story are unique, the relentless search for meaning is not.
The unanswered questions left in the wake of such an unexpected end haunt survivors. Bialosky writes beautifully and sensitively about this quiet quest. She will never really know what it was like for Kim in those final moments, or, if anyone had done anything differently, would it have changed the trajectory of her sister’s short life. For all the forensic analysis applied to one young woman’s decision to end her life before it had really begun, at the end there is only the mystery. The reader is left with a sense that this feeling of no end to the “what ifs” is central to grieving in a way distinct from all other kinds of grief.
Twenty years of mourning Kim makes her an expert on what happened and how, not why. Bialosky helps the reader understand Kim and the inevitability of her death. Without judgment and filled with compassion, she lets Kim tell her own story and she shares her own with these opening words: “Kim’s suicide has forever altered the way in which I respond to the world around me.”
Mourners need specialized support after loss by suicide. Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services (SPCS) offers individual and group support for anyone dealing with such loss. Most people in Ithaca think SPCS works to prevent suicides but we also need to think also about the important work they provide to those like me and Jill Bialosky and others whose lives are changed irrevocably by a loved one’s suicide.
Please come hear Jill Bialosky on November 12 and support Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services. Suggested donation of $15 and refreshments served. Sponsored in part by the William Henry Miller Inn and Buffalo Street Books.
(This appeared in the Ithaca Journal as a Guest Viewpoint on November 9, 2011)