From Our 2015 Archives
When a Parent Dies by Suicide
By Katherine Kam
Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH
Feb. 19, 2015-- Leslie Zeitler was 15 when her mother, a 43-year-old Chinese-American, took her own life.
"I was so angry and deeply pained about it," Zeitler says. "It wasn't just my heart that ached for her, but also my arms and my cheeks, my face. It felt like even my skin missed her."
An only child, she spent years lost in that pain until she could finally forgive her mom.
But to procure such peace, she had to breach a wall of silence -- one that surrounds suicide for many Asian-American families.
As young as age 4 or 5, Zeitler says she knew something was wrong with her mother. For long periods, her mom would sleep all day, unable to work.
Her mother's relatives didn't understand why she couldn't get out of bed, Zeitler says. "I recall hearing one of my family members saying, 'You're just crazy. You're being lazy. ...Life is hard, you need to just deal.'"
When Zeitler was 7, her mother and her father, a German immigrant, divorced. "When the judge decided that I should live with my dad most of the time, I think that was devastating to her," she says.
Family members became increasingly worried. Her mother's father offered to pay for psychiatric care. Despite treatment with multiple drugs for depression and two psychiatric hospitalizations, Zeitler's mother ended her own life.
Fearing Loss of Face
The untimely loss plunged Zeitler into grief. She craved reassurance that she could survive her mother's death.
Her mother's relatives, who had emigrated from China, forbade mention of her suicide or her longstanding, severe depression.
"'Why would you feel the need to bring that up? It's in the past.' That was a frequent phrase I heard," says Zeitler, now a 43-year-old social worker in Berkeley, CA.
Her mother's family feared being shamed, she recalls.
"They were very focused on... 'We have to put on a good face,'" she says. "...You're supposed to put the family over your individual needs."
At age 23, Zeitler found a good therapist. "She certainly helped me to consider my mother's perspective as someone who was probably deeply suffering, and having compassion for my mom."
Zeitler also drew strength from a loss and grief support group for women whose mothers had died from traumatic events.
In time, she married and had a daughter of her own, now 8. Zeitler chose social work as a career in part because of her own loss.
But in the early years of her working life, her mother's suicide still resounded.
One day, a 7-year-old boy from a troubled family told her he wanted to die. "It deeply affected me to hear (that from) someone that young," she says. "It tore at my heart."
Zeitler had counseled many suicidal teens and adults to take steps back toward life. But with such a young child, "I felt powerless."
She sank into mild depression and pursued more counseling. In the sessions, she unearthed a similar sense of helplessness as a teen, powerless to prevent her mother's death.
Guilt often haunts those who lose loved ones to suicide, Zeitler says.
"There's also the magical thinking of childhood and adolescence, which is: 'I can do something to affect my parent's behavior,'" she says.
"I was not aware that I was carrying it until much later, because I think it runs very deeply. Some things get buried so deeply in order for you to survive."
An Aunt's Regrets
One family member who did discuss her mother's suicide was her aunt, her mom's older sister, Zeitler says. After her mother's death, her aunt apologized for not understanding and offering more support. Zeitler says her aunt also struggled with depression.
She suspects the two sisters might have been vulnerable from childhood. They were young girls in China when their mother died of tuberculosis. For several years, they were separated from their father while he studied in the U.S. Until they could reunite with him, they were left in the care of relatives.
Then, at age 67, Zeitler's aunt took her own life, 18 years after her sister's suicide. Zeitler was stunned.
She joined about 200 other mourners, most of them of Asian descent, at her aunt's funeral. She listened as friends and family stood up to share memories.
After more than a dozen people had spoken about how wonderful and happy her aunt was, Zeitler sat in disbelief. "Nobody's saying a word that she died by suicide and what a tragedy that was. I started to shake inside because I was so mad. This is unconscionable."
Zeitler decided she had to speak up.
"I just said, 'I love my aunt, I miss my aunt... but there's something that I'm not hearing right now: that we're acknowledging how she died.'"
"'My auntie died by suicide, and by the way, this is not the first suicide to happen in our family. My auntie's little sister, my mom, died by suicide several years ago. Why aren't we talking about this? Because we are losing people, left and right, and our silence is what keeps this happening.'"
In the dark about both women's suicides, the crowd gasped, she says. A few mourners offered her words of support afterward, but most seemed shocked and uncomfortable. Some angry family members eventually broke ties with her.
Zeitler says she has no regrets. Although she says she's not a naturally outspoken person, she started a blog based on her family's experience with suicide.
"Yes, it's a hard subject to talk about, and the grieving is just this intense experience," she says. "But you know what? I'm going to be open about this, because I think other people are suffering, too. I don't think it's just me. Other people ought to have the resources to have a way through this grief."
Since going public with her family's tragedies, she has decided to work on preventing suicide, including putting her story into words as part of an Asian-American art exhibit in San Francisco.
Her mother's suicide forced her to "recreate a different life," she says. "I just feel extraordinarily lucky that I feel I still have my soul intact. I have fought for mental health for myself so that I am not carrying the suffering further. I don't want to bring suffering to my daughter's generation."
SOURCE: Leslie Zeitler, social worker, Berkeley, CA.