I was full-term with my third child when my mother took her own life. Living in New Zealand, I got the news on a sunny, summer morning in February. As my husband gently told me, my entire body erupted in a violent shaking. But while the shock of the news caused severe physical distress, my heart and mind remained untouched. My midwife speculated that my baby would remain in situ, as a woman’s body, wondrous thing, would want to keep that baby cocooned in safety.
My body, however, contrary beast, decided to go into labour immediately. When we arrived at the hospital my midwife took my husband aside and told him to steel himself, that the trauma might express itself in a difficult birth. She was wrong. Again. It was calm, dreamlike. Deep in transition, possibly hallucinating, I self-indulgently imagined a dramatised reincarnation scene, as though I was in a film and about to give birth to a petite, dark-haired girl just like my mother, whom I would name after her, in some kind of cathartic circle of life narrative (I blame the laughing gas). But my almost 10lb, blond boy arrived, completely himself, without any such melodramatic nonsense. Afterwards, swaddled in that hormone of love, oxytocin, I felt elation and little else.
On a humid March night I rose at 1am to watch the funeral on my laptop. I sat, breastfeeding my son and watching my family mourn, while I, awash in a postpartum night sweat, could only marvel at their winter coats. Once my baby was a few weeks old I arranged a trip home. Prepare yourself, my sister warned, you’ll probably collapse on the floor of Dublin Airport, paralysed with grief. Instead, I walked dry-eyed out of the arrivals hall and felt nothing beyond the pleasure of the May sun on my skin.
[ The Last Days of Joy by Anne Tiernan: Solid debut novel of family drama and trauma ]
I visited my mother’s grave and steeled myself for the torrent I expected would overcome me. Nothing. As I stood there, I was more affected reading the headstone beside her that belonged to my old history teacher, a woman who taught a class of delighted first years about the origin of the word “f**k”. Or looked to the end of the row, at the large monument, shaped like a teddy bear, where, horribly unfairly, a young child was buried. My father gave me the book of condolences and sympathy cards to read. Warm, heartfelt messages from people she did not give birth to and yet, there I was, her daughter, stone cold and empty.
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I wondered if I was the dead one.
I returned to New Zealand, unscathed. With three children under five there was little time for reflection. But sometimes, just to punish myself for my detachment, I looked at my little boy and forced myself to contemplate the inverse juxtaposition of his body’s development and growth versus her body’s decay. It made no difference.
Joy’s narrative, although different from my mother’s, forced me to examine the unbearable pain the suicidal person feels
Maybe I should have gone to therapy. Maybe there I would have learned that my reaction was self-preservation, a maternal instinct to be able to nurture my child. Or a response to growing up with an emotionally distant mother. Perhaps I would have admitted that I was angry with her for choosing my baby’s due date to die. Maybe I would even have admitted that part of me felt relieved. Because deep down, I’d always known that it was never going to end well for her. At least with her death the uncertainty was gone. The worst had happened.
I didn’t go to therapy, though. Instead, in an attempt to gain understanding, I sought out books on suicide. David Vann’s brilliant Legend of a Suicide was unsettling, not just in its brutal, bleakly funny, fictionalised retelling of his father’s death but also, for me, the realisation that I couldn’t access the same raw pain he must have done to write it. Likewise, Kay Redfield Jamison’s exquisite Night Falls Fast brings the reader deep inside the turmoil of the suicidal mind, and reflects on the peculiar grief of those left behind, only reinforced my own disconnection to my mother’s death.
Later, I started to write. And therein, like many before me, found a kind of therapy. Writing forces you to remember, it forces you to reflect. Sometimes it forces you to bleed out on to the page. When I decided to attempt a novel, I didn’t intend to write about suicide but my character, Joy – difficult woman that she is – insisted on showing up on the first page, distressed by the optimism of the dawn chorus, with a gun pointed at her temple. My intention was that Joy be an unsympathetic character, whose neglectful alcoholism caused deep scars in her children. However, the more I wrote her, the more I loved her. And the more I wrote Joy, the more love and empathy I experienced for my own mother.
Joy’s narrative, although different from my mother’s, forced me to examine the unbearable pain the suicidal person feels. That treacherous belief that the world would be better off without you, that the people you love would be better off without you. It took me two years and as I wrote I experienced the same evolution from numbness through to acceptance as Joy’s children. The last few chapters were especially healing. I found myself slowing the pace, luxuriating in that sense of catharsis. Even now, despite having revisited those final chapters, ad nauseam, during the editing process, they can still make me cry. Not because I find my own writing moving but rather I re-experience the sadness I first felt as I wrote them.
Twelve years on from her death, I dream about my mother more than ever. Sometimes, in my siblings or my children, or even in a stranger, I’ll catch a glimpse of her and feel the loss of her. But I welcome that. It makes more sense to me than the ugly void of numbness.
And I have the fictional character of Joy and her children to thank.
The Last Days of Joy by Anne Tiernan is published by Hachette
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, please text HELLO to 50808, or contact the Samaritans at free phone 116123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org