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Losing a Parent to Suicide: Reflections of a Brown University Alum

A Daughter's Grief

She learned to cope with her mother’s suicide.
Then everything fell apart.

By Dara Huang '99, '04 MD

My mother hanged herself in the basement of my house. I was 15. This is the most significant event in my life.

From that day on, I learned never to accept 20/20 vision only in hindsight. My acuity for social dynamics became sharper, my appreciation for my family and friends became richer, and my appetite for learning life’s meaning in all of its complexity grew stronger. I was determined to train myself to have perfect vision in the present day.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I lived under the consequences of the stigma surrounding my mother’s death. The survival of my family and myself was my only priority. My two older sisters were away at school then, leaving only my father, my younger sister, and me to fend off feelings of grief-stricken emptiness. Every night, dinnertime would come, and the three of us would eat in silence. We managed as best we could. I learned to marinate chicken before starting my homework, and on weekends I cooked in bulk, so as to have leftovers for the rest of the week.

Still, though, fear carried the day, and I’m not sure whom I was more afraid for: my little sister or my father. My sister was still in elementary school, and the smallest one in her sixth-grade class. She had once used my mother as a shield in our sibling rivalries, but now she relied on her “enemy” for support. My father’s age quickly accelerated. He swiftly lost forty pounds, his hair grew white, and he often wondered aloud if he could survive long enough to pay our college tuitions.

My life had crumbled at home, but I survived by holding on to what I did have. I depended on my family for motivation and strength amid the tears, and held on to my academics steadfastly, to provide myself a world of “normalcy.” I was accepted by the Program of Liberal Medical Education at Brown. By May 1999, I had received a dual degree in East Asian studies and biology. It would seem that my confidence in academic achievement was relatively secure at this point; however, no one knew of my depression. I was unaware of it myself. And when I entered medical school, things started to fall apart.

There the integration of my academic and personal lives hit closer to home. I was privileged to learn everything about the human body, from memorizing its most basic genetic components to looking at cells under the microscope and dissecting its gross anatomy. I studied the mind and body in their healthy state, and learned what happens when an imbalance or trauma is inflicted on that living system. I learned a great amount from reading textbooks.

I was faced, however, with the unforeseen challenge of trying to dissociate the human aspect from the objectivity of science. I quietly mourned for my mother while I dissected cranial nerves in my cadaver’s skull, held back tears when I learned about psychiatric disorders, and trained myself to quickly gain composure when patients told me of losses they had endured. I expressed sympathy but could not reveal that I personally knew their pain.

By the middle of my third year, I realized I was not ready to become a doctor. I had not yet fully grasped the effect of my mother’s death on my life. My unresolved bereavement may have influenced my personal development and accounted for potentials yet unfulfilled. Self-perception of my experiences was my oppression. I did not feel safe expressing my personal losses; I was afraid of the judgment that would be passed on my family and me. I still feared the stigma attached to my mother’s death.

I began bereavement therapy, devoting my energies to reclaiming my own general welfare. And by working on my own mental health, I eventually became strong enough to work with the Samaritans of Rhode Island, helping others understand suicide. I realize that my loss had only been exacerbated by my silence. I had been raised to accept the adage “Time heals all wounds,” and been told to continue to lead a “normal life,” despite a hidden past. Yet nearly twelve years after my mother’s death, I realized that I could not find closure to it without first accepting that this was a traumatic experience, which had inevitably altered the course of my life. Only by confronting the anger and guilt that envelop the stigma of suicide could I inch closer to finding “normalcy.”

Suicide is a dirty virus, whose secret aftermath is tormenting and relentless. It does not discriminate by age, race, or educational or socioeconomic status. Yet depression and its most serious consequence, suicide, can be prevented by promoting awareness and by reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness. Ironically, the road to prevention and healing is simply bringing attention to mental illness. It is suicide’s shame that promotes its wrath.

Dara Huang graduated from Brown Medical School in May of 2004. This essay is from the July/August 2004 Brown Alumni Magazine. An earlier version of this essay was published in the Providence Journal.