Because I remember.
March 08, 2011

Awhile back, a woman I knew took her child’s life and then her own.

Even now this is a very difficult set of circumstances for me to process.  I understand why.  I think that any woman who has ever given birth, has ever had her entire life turned upside down, has ever looked into the eyes of an infant and felt profoundly bewildered and alone, understands why.

What I do not understand, what I cannot understand, is how.

After the deaths, people talked about her with contempt in their eyes.  They called her a monster.  They said she was evil.  They shunned her spouse, convinced that this was somehow his fault.  He should have recognized the warning signs, they said, he should have cared.

It is hard to reconcile the memories I have of the woman I knew with the villain she became post mortem.  When I remember the woman I knew, I think of light.  When people talk about her now, they cast their eyes down and shake their head.  There is always silence.  Such a shame for that little baby, someone will say.  Such a shame for that FAMILY, I will think.

Sometimes when it is late and the house is quiet, I think about her.  I think about the disdain in peoples’ voices when they speak of her, about how I think they should be ashamed of themselves.  I think about the day we gathered and planted flowers in memory, about the way I fill with grief watching those blooms bend in the wind.  I think about us, her community.

I wonder if we let her down.  I wonder if she felt alone.  I wonder if she paused between ending her child’s life and ending her own.  I wonder if there was silence between the two and I wonder what she thought then.  I wonder which death she decided upon first - hers or her child’s - and I wonder if that makes a difference.  I wonder if she was angry or sad, if she was remorseful or if she felt relieved.  I wonder: did she think about reaching out to us?  Did we not hear her asking for help?  Could this story have had a different ending?  If she were alive, what would she be doing today?  What would her child look like?  Would she have other children?

Would she be happy?

Most of all, I wonder how.  I wonder how she went from understanding that dark place to traveling there herself.  I wonder how she decided that there were no other options.  I wonder how she kept steady until her child was dead.

This is the sort of puzzle there are no answers to and it is the sort of puzzle that I try really, really hard not to dwell on.  But then a few days ago I received an e-mail.  The note is filled with harrowing words, stop and darkness and empty and sadness and alone and help.  She says that she wants to stop going.

It took me back.  Took me back to the pit in my stomach when I first heard the news, to the nights of staring at the ceiling wondering, to the anger I feel when communities tear people down instead of lifting them up.

So this one is for you.  For the mother I should have reached out to.  For the mother who reached out to me.  For every single one of you reading these words, thinking that you cannot see past the haze you’re in.  This is for you when you feel alone, for you when you are walking in darkness, for you when you want your life and your body back.  This is for you when you think you cannot go on.

This is what I want you to know, because this is what I wish the woman I knew had known.

I want you to know that I believe in you.  I want you to know that this will get better.  I want you to know that you are not alone.  I want you to know that someone loves you and wants nothing more than to help you.  I want you to know that you can do this.  Reach out to your community.  Call a friend, a doctor, a hotline, a neighbor, even 9-1-1.  Ask for help.  Tell them you need them.  Do it for your child and do it for you.

My challenge to the rest of you is this: call a friend today.  Check in on someone, just because.  Ask how they’re feeling.  Mean it when you tell them they can call you anytime.  Make sure they know that you are there.  Strengthen your community.

Because sometimes?  Sometimes it really is too late.

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  1. By on March 08, 2011

    Thank you for not shying away from the hard topics Sarah.

  2. By on March 08, 2011

    How terribly terribly tragic. I shed a tear for that poor family ... The mother the child and the father left behind. Words are pointless because I don’t think there is language to describe the pain that woman must have been in.

    I hope beyond hope the person who mails you finds support x

  3. By Erin @ WholesomeRD on March 08, 2011

    So. Powerful.

    Thank you.

  4. By Cynthia Krajcarski on March 08, 2011

    I can somewhat understand the disdain for the woman. More often than not, they are painted as a monster. I don’t agree with it, because no one ever knows the whole story… But that’s what happens.

    However, I can’t understand the lack of love for the husband/father. He lost his everything and then the community turned on him too? How pitiful and heartwrenchingly sad.

  5. By kbreints on March 08, 2011

    Such a perfectly powerful post.

  6. By Dana on March 08, 2011

    I have always felt as you do.  While the act is certainly horrible… How helpless they must have felt to have come to such a decision!  How alone!  It doesn’t bear thinking…

  7. By Sarah Christensen on March 08, 2011

    Cynthia - It is very hard to explain, but I think it’s a natural part of this grief cycle to desire to place blame, however unfair.  I also think it’s much easier to point a finger at the people close to her who did not see warning signs than it is to point that same finger at ourselves.  We were a part of her community and whether we like it or not, this is what communities are for and when things like this happened it feels very much like the community failed.  I also think that nobody likes to be reminded of what happened, and whether or not it’s fair her husband is a constant reminder.  The fact is that none of us will ever know what happened that day, but we will always wonder if we should have known and if we failed her.  When we planted flowers, I told Donald that it seemed like the wrong thing to do.  Everyone talking about how they wanted to remember the baby, nobody standing up to say HEY, look at us, WE COULD HAVE BEEN THERE AND WE WEREN’T.  It might not be our fault, it might not be his fault, it might be nobody’s fault, but maybe instead of sticking roots in the ground we should brainstorm about what we can do to prevent this from happening again.

    Dana - Before I knew that woman, I thought that a woman in such pain would be obvious.  I thought, I don’t know, she’d dress in black all the time and talk morosely about death or hating her baby or soemthing like that.  Now I know that I was wrong.  We can never know the whole story.

    I use a bird analogy to talk about it.  When a mama bird kicks her hatchling out of the nest, we don’t call her a monster.  We don’t prevent her from providing care to the rest of her babies and we don’t kill her to stop her from laying more eggs.  We say that there was something wrong with the baby bird.  A woman who kills her child and then herself could make that decision for thousands of reasons.  Maybe there is something wrong with her.  Maybe there is something wrong with the child.  Maybe there is something wrong with the connection between the two.  Maybe there is something wrong with the community.  Who knows?  What I do know is that I no longer say there was something wrong with the baby bird because I don’t know - and I no longer say there was something wrong with the mother because I don’t know about that either.  It isn’t black and white and it isn’t always obvious.

  8. By Sarah S on March 08, 2011

    That is so desperately sad. Mothering can feel very dark and overwhelming and alone sometimes. I clearly remember the days when I had a infant and a one year old, crying when my husband would call and have to work another day. Calling my mom and begging her to come over to help me because I felt there was no way I could manage the two babies on no sleep. And I didn’t have any (diagnosed) depression issues on top of it.

    It does get better. Sleep comes. It gets so much easier and I think the most important thing for new moms to remember is to give yourself a break. If you can’t handle it, it’s OK for the kid to cry in the crib for bit with the door shut. If you are starting to feel anxious and stressed, put them down (in a safe place) and take a shower. I never did any of those things but looking back I wish I had. I think the kids would be less traumatized with 5 or 10 minutes of crying by themselves than having a frazzled and overwhelmed mommy all day long.

    And yes, reach out to new mama’s and know that they will almost always put a smile on their face because it’s somehow socially unacceptable to admit that is can be hard sometimes. Reach past that.

  9. By on March 08, 2011

    Thank you for sharing.  This is heart breaking, but it is reality.  Beautifully written.

  10. By Cynthia Krajcarski on March 08, 2011

    Sarah, I think that is beautiful and I think that YOU can be the catalyst for such a movement in your community.

    Right after Isla was born, if I noticed a pregnant woman in our neighbourhood, I’d buy a little set of PJs, and write a handwritten note with a congratulations and all of my contact information… along with a few resourceful websites for nursing. I’d always get a phone call of gratitude and I’d always tell them if they ever needed anything, to let me know.

    It’s hard for a stranger to reach out to another stranger for help, so I never heard from those women again.

    However, if your community is as close as you write it is, I don’t think you’re going to have a problem being a one woman Angel Committee.

    Not to pile even more on your plate. <3

  11. By on March 08, 2011

    A guy my husband works with lost his family as a result of his wife severe depression and loneliness as well. While I can’t imagine the desperation the woman was in, I can’t even begin to comprehend on any level how HE can bounce back from that.

    I’m sure on some level he’ll always be shattered. He’ll always think about what his son would be doing at this age, the relationship he’d have with his wife and what he could have done to stop it… but on another level he’s moved on. It’s been a few years. He’s dating someone. He laughs. He’s social. He’s living.

    In this guy’s case, he lost his wife, child, house and pet all in one day. How do you keep going when your WHOLE WORLD is taken from you in an instant? I can’t imagine…

  12. By Melissa Laibacher on March 08, 2011

    Reading stories like this, is tough.
    Especially when you are a mom yourself. I feel I can’t breathe when thinking that she took her own child’s life.
    Having said that, I don’t feel any hateful emotions for her though. I am just incredible sad and my heart goes out to her, because all I can think is that we will never be able to imagine in how much emotional pain she must have been to come to this decision. I just want to cry for her and mourn that she didn’t get the help she needed. And also for her husband who is dealing with incredible loss right now that must have shattered his world into pieces…

  13. By Sarah Christensen on March 08, 2011

    Cynthia - For clarification, I have a very close community of people I have known my entire life: local family, decades-old friends, and neighbors who remember me as a tot.  Other communities that Donald and I are a part of - be it from high school, university, the Marines, living abroad, previous jobs, previous living arrangements, interest groups, mom groups, etc - are not as close knit.  Although I knew this woman, I did not know her well.  It’s hard to make an enormous difference in a community when you are not as close-knit.

    Alicia K - I don’t know how it happens either.  A few years ago, someone I worked with had a child who died.  My co-worker was completely devastated, but kept moving forward.  He said that sometimes the only thing that got him up in the morning was knowing that he had a wife and a family who still needed him.  I cannot even begin to imagine how he could have recovered without the children he still had.

  14. By on March 08, 2011

    I never comment, but I just had to say what a touching post this is.

  15. By The Wordsmith on March 08, 2011

    Thank you for this post. The part about walking in the dark… made me a little weepy. I don’t have children, but this topic hit me all the same.

  16. By tracey on March 08, 2011

    Depression and nervous breaks like that aren’t something most of us can really comprehend. I can imagine it all I want. I read stories and look at paintings and poems and it feels real to me and I feel sympathy for them and then? Then I realize that I don’t KNOW. I don’t.

    You can’t understand snow till you’ve walked through it and felt it on your skin.

    You can’t understand what it feels like to give birth till you’ve sweated and pushed and brought forth that life yourself.

    You can’t understand depression until you’ve had that blackness all around you, sucking the light from the beautiful baby in front of you.

    My heart goes to every person who’s ever experienced it. If you have a child in front of you and you are beyond the point of knowing what to do, here is what you do: you call 911 and state that you need them. You need them NOW because you cannot safely care for yourself or your child anymore. And then you lie that baby down and wait for the help that WILL COME. You CAN come back from that darkness. No matter how heavy the weight, it CAN be lifted. Everyone around you wants to help; you just have to let them know.

  17. By on March 08, 2011

    Thank you for this powerful post!

  18. By Sarah Christensen on March 08, 2011

    Tracey - Thank you for pointing out that a person in need should call 9-1-1.  I am amending my post to include that.

    I also would like to clarify that I do not mean that everyone can understand depression or can understand a complete break.  I mean that I believe that most mothers at one time or another have an experience that gives them a glimpse into why these things happen.  Not having lived with postpartum depression, I cannot understand what the woman I knew felt like or how the woman I knew made her choices.  I can remember when my daughter was only a couple weeks old having a moment when I felt overwhelmed and alone, when I looked in her eyes as she screamed without end, when I could not comfort her…and I understood that that feeling could drive a woman to commit unspeakable horrors.  That is what I meant - not that we all understand, not even that I entirely understand what she did, but that I do understand why.  Or at least that I understand some fraction of why.  I cannot believe that the woman I knew was a monster when I understand even a fraction of why.

  19. By Alicia S. on March 09, 2011

    My sister in law and two of her sisters grew up in a number of different homes through the foster care system after being given up by their parents, and I know that my sister in law was abused in at least one of them - so they had a tough childhood. One of her sisters went on to get pregnant and wound up living in a community home for homeless pregnant teenagers. While living there with her three week old baby, she threw her against a wall and for a while we didn’t know if she was going to be tried for murder or attempted murder - it all depended on whether the daughter lived or not. That was years ago now, and she’s gone on to have three more children since then. All of which were taken away in the hospital.

    I have to be honest, we all treat her like family and it‘s not difficult to sympathize with her situation at least a little, but my husband still has a hard time letting her hold our children. I always thought about it in terms of her upbringing—not pretending to know the cause of her actions or anything, it was always just my (probably somewhat ignorant) assumption—but since having two children of my own and reading what I have about post partum depression, the frightening reality is that it could happen to anyone. It just as easily could have effected my relationship with my own children.

  20. By Sylvie K Williams on March 09, 2011

    Thank you for posting this and reminding me that I needed to reach out to somebody today. I made the decision yesterday and forgot all about it in my busy morning of feeding the baby and getting ready for work and checking emails ... She’s having a hard time going through a divorce and raising 2 kids by herself. I was reminded by your post to email her before I forget again.

  21. By on March 09, 2011

    I never understood how people could abuse their children until I had a child.  Those hours spent alone when nothing you do will comfort the screaming child. When you think you would do anything ANYTHING just for a moment of silence. Luckily, I was able to put him in his crib and walk outside, around and around the house. There if a fire broke out but out of the sound of the screaming until I was able to be calm.  But I do see there was an element of luck. I could have so easily snapped and hurt him. Thanks for the reminder to reach out.

  22. By Cynthia Krajcarski on March 09, 2011

    Sarah, I completely agree that it’s hard to make a difference in a community that isn’t so tight. Heck, our neighbours just moved away without even saying goodbye… And they were one of the familes I tried to reach out to.

  23. By Heidi on March 10, 2011

    I’m catching up on my blog reading at a local coffee shop while I’m supposed to be grading papers.  A man just approached me to make sure I was ok, because I am sitting her at my computer, papers spread out on the table, crying.  I don’t know why this post affected me so, but I DO know how important it is to reach out to someone every day just to let them know you care.  You never know when your phone call or email will turn someone’s day - or even life, in some cases - around.

  24. By Monica @ Mom in Training on March 11, 2011

    O.M.G. you totally have me crying at my desk. Such tragedy.  My dad committed suicide when I was 25. This post really gets to me.  Not a day goes by that I do not think about all of these same things, except of course it was just him, he didn’t take anyone else along. Suicide, murder, shake you to your core and you, the ones left behind, are never the same.  So sad for that family and your community.

  25. By on March 23, 2011

    Sarah, thank you for writing these words about something that is so incredibly difficult to fathom; to puzzle out; to even ponder for a minute.  It is painful, so painful to know someone was in this place and felt there was no other viable option…When I had my son I was not like a lot of the mother’s out there I read about and hear talk about how ecstatic they were to become mothers.  I was totally fucked up.  I wanted to send my baby right back to the ‘chicken factory’.  I thought ‘this is it, I just made a huge mistake, am I mad? How the hell am I going to manage this?‘  I spent the first 4 months of my baby’s life feeling horribly depressed, and then subsequently guilty and shame-drenched for not being in that place I thought all new mother’s had to be in:  utter and complete bliss.  Now and then, when it slips into my current consciousness, I remember how much time I had with my new baby, time that I spent petrified, frustrated, miserable, and distraught instead of silently marvelling at his beauty every moment I had the chance and it makes me sad. And that’s when I really understand how dark a place I was in.  It happens to so many women.  And there is no shame in it.  Knowing there are people out there willing to help is absolutely key. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I need help’. Thanks so much Sarah.  My heart is with all mothers, all women.





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