Notes on Suicide and Mental Illness

Life Lessons, Reflections, Suicide
My parents on their wedding day

My parents on their wedding day

On this day, January 20th, in 1959, my mother, at age 30, killed herself. She waited until her 13 year old daughter left for school and then took her 3 year old daughter to a neighbor. The neighbor readily agreed to watch little Kathy while her friend got some rest. No one would see Tina Kelly alive again.

My parents had divorced. Originally, Mom had taken me with her to one of her sister’s homes in Alabama. I was 2 but I can still recall the long train ride with its novel excitement and my mom’s distant look as she fed me a tuna ( or was it egg?) sandwich. A few months later she inexplicably brought me back to Florida and left me at the home of another one of her sisters. After a time my dad came and got me. As we drove to Lakeland where I would spend the rest of my childhood and most of my adult life, he explained to me that I would be living with him from now on.

I did see my mother again while she was still alive a couple of times. She had married again and was still distant but not unkind to me. I recall the sound of her voice, the cigarettes she chained smoked and the sight of the fire engine red lipstick that she wore as it rubbed off onto the cigarette filters. I can remember seeing her cry for no apparent reason and my on sadness that I couldn’t begin to understand.

That January morning she took time to write a note saying good-bye and apologizing. Towels were placed under doors and at the windows of the small bungalow on St. Petersburg, Florida’s Delmar Terrace. She put two pillows on the floor next to the gas range, turned on all the burners, put her head on the pillows and went to sleep. Her then husband was on a ship and she was not found until her daughter returned from school to find her mother dead on the floor.

Years later I begged my sister to tell me about that day. I thought I needed to know and that my sister needed to get it out. My sister, as it turns out, had developed a hatred for Mom and, for that matter, everyone else. She told me without emotion that, at the time, she had a pet bird. She came home, finding the place filled with gas and looked in one direction, seeing that her bird was dead and looking in the other direction, seeing her mom dead on the floor. My sister then looked down with distain at her mother and said, “You bitch, you killed my bird.”

In my 8 year old mind, it was some sort of holiday when I was allowed to miss school to go with my dad to my mother’s funeral. On the ride from Lakeland, he tried to prepare me: “Now you understand that your mom is going to look like she’s asleep. She’s not. She will not wake up so don’t try to wake her. Someday you’ll understand all this better.”

I was a small child, even for 8. As I walked up to the gray casket, I had to grab its edge and stand on my toes to see her. My dad tried to pick me up but I protested. It would be many years before I learned why her casket was completely open, exposing her entire body dressed in a pink or pale blue lacy nightgown that covered her all the way to her ankles. Her hair was meticulous, as was her makeup…complete with that fire engine red lipstick. Her toes were exposed showing carefully painted toenails to match the lipstick.

Why was her casket open that way instead of the usual “waist up” view? Many years later, as I recounted this event in my life to my then wife who is an RN, CEN who worked for many years as an ER nurse and pretty much saw and heard it all, she explained the likely reason for the scene to me.

She explained that when women commit suicide, it is common for them to take the time to make themselves up as if they were going to some social event. They want to be found in a state of beauty. This was probably truer in 1959 than today, but I don’t know.

So it is that someone had decided she should be exactly as she had wanted…everyone should see her as she was found on that hard kitchen floor, ready for her graceful exit.

My mother had a long history of mental problems: depression and probably bipolar, based on my dad’s description of her as often appearing as though she were two different people: cheerful and joking to rock bottom depression in a heartbeat. She was a devout Christian and had reached out to the minister of the Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, FL. that she often attended. The minister, according to Dad, in all his righteous glory, had instructed her to pray and seek forgiveness for her sins. That is all.

I don’t blame that misguided minister for my mom’s death. I just blame him for being a dumbass. Even then, as backwards as so many things were, there was professional help that could have helped her, if that person she reached out to had known how to respond to such a sick person. If someone needs help and you want to pray, go ahead and pray. In the meantime, get them some professional human help in this life right here, right now. The God you profess to believe in wants the professionals to provide the help they have been given the true God given ability to provide.

Her son was left behind with some of the same challenges she had. I have fought my own battles with depression and suicidal thoughts. But I have also sought and received some help along the way. One of the greatest ongoing problems in our society is mental illness and our collective failure to deal with it in a proactive way without stigma. Hopefully, that will be a next great frontier for us, as a society, to confront and conquer. It takes a village.

R.I.P. Ernestine Kelly. I know you did the best you could to make it through.