My mother, who is in her 90’s, lost a friend to suicide this week. Mrs. G. was 86, and as far as we know was in fine health. Her obituary describes her as active and involved; she enjoyed hiking and travelling and socializing. I remember her from my childhood as one of the “nice moms” in my parents’ extended group. She was a cheerful and loving mother, who had four sons in rapid succession, one of whom treated me and my sister to our first-ever sighting of a penis. We girls were 4 and 6 respectively, and he was about 3, and was lying sprawled on a cot at his cottage, displaying his wares. We were amazed at first, then embarrassed, as our mother scolded us for staring. But Mrs. G. thought it was funny. She laughed, and went about her business of supervising lake swims and handing out cookies, making it all no big deal. And that’s all I really remember of Mrs. G.: a vague miasmic sense of happiness. I have long since forgotten her face.
Mrs. G and her husband and family moved to Montreal when I was still little. But she and my mother stayed friends. Over the years, Mum would mention visits and phone calls; she told me of a divorce and remarriage. Mrs. G. became Mrs. P., and moved to British Columbia. After her second husband died, Mrs. G. took in her elderly parents. In time, the father died and the mother became so infirm that she had to be sent to a nursing home, where she died at the age of 100. Meanwhile, Mrs. G., who was past 70, continued to…well, date. She eventually started another romance (“She always has a bloke around, that one!” Mum said), and the “bloke” moved in.
Two of Mrs. G’s adult sons lived overseas, and a third in Ontario. The fourth lived in the same city and was in regular contact, but their relationship grew strained. At some point in the past decade or so, Mum reported to me that Mrs. G. had told her that the son was no longer speaking to her. They’d been having some sort of difficult conversation, and Mrs. G commented that if they couldn’t get along, then maybe they shouldn’t speak at all. “Suits me,” said the son, and hung up. All future contact was tightly-limited and very, very distanced. It was one of Mrs. G.’s great heartbreaks.
I felt terrible about Mrs. G. and her sons, partly no doubt because of projection (my sons have the same names as two of her sons, and we’ve certainly had our share of difficult conversations). But Mum assured me that Mrs. G. was just fine. It’s true she seemed like a game creature: when the live-in beau turned out to be some sort of con artist, Mrs. G. managed to get out of the relationship (which involved evicting him: Mum said it “wasn’t pleasant”). Then there was another romance – “another man,” sighed Mum – and a move to a beautiful retirement townhouse complex overlooking the sea, where the new couple set up housekeeping. That went well until the gentleman developed Alzheimer’s. Mrs. G. called in his out-of-province children for help, but when they arrived, they packed up their father and took him back east. So that was it for Mrs. G.’s latest romance.
Over this past decade, as Mum’s mental state has declined, Mrs. G. and Mum hadn’t been talking as much. Mum has never been very social, and as her mind has changed, she’s sometimes been difficult to chat with. Perhaps Mrs. G. stopped calling, or perhaps Mum did, but there were no more reports of how Mrs. G. was doing. I wondered, from time to time, about Mrs. G. I chose to picture a merry elderly woman, coping stalwartly with the hurts of life: the sons lost to disagreement and distance, the husbands lost to death and divorce, the late-life loves that didn’t work out. I hoped for the best for her: perhaps another gentleman friend; maybe reconciliation with the angry son. I wanted the happy young woman I remembered to be a happy old woman.
But yesterday, Mum received a call from that son, telling her that Mrs. G. had killed herself more than two weeks ago. Whatever problems he’d had with his mother were not evident in the conversation with my Mum. He was very kind and thoughtful, she said. She made notes of the call (she knows she forgets things) and along with “very kind & thoughtful” she wrote “she took some pills.” There had been a funeral, and we looked up the online obit. It described Mrs. G.’s “active and independent” life. It was laudatory but distanced, as if the person who wrote it was talking about someone they’d heard good things about, but whom they never really knew.
Mum doesn’t seem that upset about Mrs. G. She gets this way sometimes, when there’s been a terrible shock. She turns into a sort of wizened female Mr. Spock, feigning a faux-logical, no-point-in-being-upset philosophy. But I’m upset, which bothers Mum. “Why would you be upset?” she said. “You haven’t seen her in fifty years. Why should it bother you?”
It’s a good question. I didn’t really know Mrs. G. anymore, and her story is no less (or more) sad than that of any other suicide. What’s more, I’m aware how much I’m projecting my own fears onto her. One of my biggest worries as I get older is the dread of outliving everyone I love and everything I love to do. I worry that that was what happened to Mrs. G. But she was only 86, and she was active, and she still had her mind. I hate to think she might have felt so forgotten and hopeless and sad that she decided to die. That’s much worse than thinking she killed herself because she’d received some sort of dreadful fatal diagnosis – an alternative that to me, makes sense. It is easier to think of her circumventing a painful death, than to think back on that happy young mother, chortling over her naked little boy, and know that sixty years later, she killed herself from unhappiness.
It would be pat to wax on about the necessity of geriatric mental health services and the frequency of severe depression in the elderly. If Mrs. G. was facing a terminal diagnosis, then she made a pro-active decision. But if she was lonely and depressed, then she didn’t need a twice-monthly forty-minute chat with a therapist, or a prescription for Prozac. Maybe she needed her family; a society; a loved one to look at and to look back at her. But maybe she had that, and she still chose to die. Like all suicides, she takes her reasons with her.
Still, there is no prescription – no cure – for unhappiness in old age. And if it was that bad for Mrs. G., well, then she did a brave thing. I hope she went to sleep believing that she would wake in a world where her children played around her at a lakeside in Muskoka, while a man who loved her called to her from the cabin, telling her lunch was ready and the guests were arriving. I hope that in her last moments, Mrs. G. was – once again – a happy woman.