A Complicated Death Begot Complicated Grief

By Abigail SaloisJanuary 31, 2023

My children were four and two when my older sister, Liza, died by suicide. After plastering on a pleasant smile at work all day, my children’s 7:30 bedtime was the only barrier between a functioning mother and my raw grief. I needed solitude and my own bed—no sound, no light, no touch.

I wasn’t always this way. We biked for miles around Martha’s Vineyard, me towing our daughter in the bike trailer. We painted stones and left them along our favorite trails and built elaborate leprechaun traps and put them in the yard. Now, the endless energy felt impossible to manage.

“OK guys, get your hair wet,” I said during bath time.

My daughter’s plump little body standing in the tub was reminiscent of Liza’s baby photos. How could this have happened? I thought as hot tears leaked from my eyes the way they often did. I stepped into the adjoining bedroom to dodge questions about why I was crying. I returned to find two dry heads and scooped bathwater over each. When the kids were clean, I told them to get out. Nobody moved, so I bent over and pulled my daughter out.

“Hey! I wanted to get out first!” My son shouted. I constantly reminded him that it didn’t matter who was first, but I let it go. I reminded them to quickly put on pajamas if they wanted to watch a show before bed. After loading the dishwasher, I returned to find my son jumping on our bed, naked. When I told him to get dressed again, I lost it.

“For once in your life, can you listen the first time? GET DRESSED!”

The most mundane parenting tasks overwhelmed me. I was a pathetic role model for emotional regulation but felt powerless to fix it. I never had my mother’s bottomless patience. I tried not to scream, but my brain was exhausted from staving off intrusive thoughts and from trying to piece together what happened to Liza; I had no energy left for much else. I gave up and my son eventually got dressed.

Later, my daughter’s damp hair pressed against my chest as I read to her, while tears continued to leak. As she listened to Curious George, I prayed that bedtime stories might help to protect her. The responsibility of guarding our kids against the burdens of mental illness and addiction that became too heavy for Liza seemed impossible.

It didn’t surprise me that the children hadn’t asked about Liza. She lived over three hours from us and the pandemic kept us further away. Still, I needed to talk to them about her; I didn’t want them to imagine another scary reason behind my sadness that I was sure they saw.

I pointed to a photo and asked them, “Do you know who this is?” They didn’t. “That’s my sister, your Auntie Liza. She had to go to heaven and Mommy misses her very much. So, sometimes I feel sad,” I said.

My daughter held up her bunny and said, “this is Sprinkles.” A lot of her stuffed animals were named Sprinkles.

My son lingered. “But her hair looks like a boy!” he said. “Why did she have to go to heaven? She’s not old.” I told him she had a sickness and that it was in her mind; he seemed satisfied.

On the way to the market one morning, we passed a cemetery. “Mama, is that heaven?” My daughter asked.

“No sweetheart,” I said. That is a cemetery. Sometimes, people go there to rest after they die.”

My son said, “So Mommy, is Grandpa Arnie in a stone? Is Auntie Liza?”

I laughed a little. “No one is in a stone. Grandpa Arnie and Auntie Liza became dust. Sometimes when people die, their family decides to put their body into a special machine that turns them to dust.”

“How?” He asked me.

I told him I wasn’t sure and said, “Magic, I think.” I felt a little relieved that I’d at least cracked the door to the conversation.

I didn’t want to leave Liza behind, but I desperately wanted to be happy again. The old me was gone, though. In the weeks after Liza’s death, I began going to Samaritans’ virtual support group for suicide loss survivors. With others like me, I felt more normal and less shattered.

Several months went by before I began seeing a counselor who specializes in traumatic loss. Unlike most people, she didn’t expect me to get over it. She saw everything that weighed me down and validated my feelings as normal when it came to suicide loss. “A complicated death begot complicated grief,” she explained. For nine months, her bi-weekly validation helped me realize I wasn’t broken. I wanted to be the hiking, biking, leprechaun-trap-building mom again. Free from the pressure to move on, I settled into a less visceral grief that I could carry.

Winter thawed and Liza had been gone for 18 months when my son and I went to our local rail trail where I ran and he rode his bike. He carried a few stones inside a drawstring backpack: one painted with a storm scene and the words Storms Get Tired Too; one with a yellow smiley face and the word SMILE in his six-year-old handwriting. Both stones were marked with Liza’s initials, LAF. We left them along the trail and hoped someone needing a smile would find them.

Abby Salois lost her older sister, Liza Friedlander, to suicide in October of 2020. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two children, and a rescue hound named Steve. You can find Abby on Instagram where she contributes to a dialogue about suicide loss through running and writing.

People need other people. Samaritans SafePlace offers support groups for suicide loss survivors. Learn more here

You are not weak for wanting or needing support. If you’re seeking professional help, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].

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