Illustration by
Stefano Vitale

















Breaking the Silence
Alumnus who lost his mother to suicide urges survivors to open their hearts — and talk.

by August Swanenberg

My mother killed herself when I was 10 years old. In the early morning hours on the day after New Year's Day, she went into the basement of our house and drank from a bottle of hydrochloric acid.Four hours later she died.

For years Mom had suffered from clinical depression. No medicine or doctor could help. Her hopelessness, fatigue and sleepless nights became increasingly worse as time passed. After she made two suicide attempts, the doctors decided on treatment at a mental institution. It was in a nicely wooded area, about an hour's drive away from our home. When my family — Dad, my older brother Hugo and I — visited, Mom didn't say much and mostly stared straight ahead. We looked forward to her visits on holidays because she felt much better at home. Once she told me that she hated the institution. She called it "that place." She was supposed to go back to "that place" on the morning after New Year's Day.

When Dad returned from the hospital on that day, he didn't tell me that Mom had died. He looked grave and said only, "August, it's very serious, very serious." He started crying and I sensed that something really bad had happened, but I didn't want to ask him. I was afraid to hear the answer. No one phoned our house that first day. One person visited: an insurance agent who offered his condolences and comments about our insurance policy.

Dad was not the one who told me that Mom had died. I found out the next day from Mom's father. After he spoke, Grandpa put his hand on my shoulder. I rested my head on a table and closed my eyes. I felt alone without my mother. I refused to go to Mom's funeral. Instead, I stayed at my grandparents' house where I heard the church bells ringing. Then I was alone in the quiet house. One week later I returned to school. My teacher nodded a quick welcome, and the classroom became silent as I sat down at my desk. The bell rang 9 o'clock, and class started.

Silence descended on our house after Mom's death. Hardly a word was spoken at family meals. Afterwards we would hurry from the table to do our own things, Dad going upstairs to fiddle with his train set, Hugo to work on his high school assignments and I to play with my Dinky Toy cars. A boy in my class told me that some parents had forbidden their kids to visit us. I started battening down the hatches of memories: sitting on the back of Mom's bike to go to the swimming pool, remembering her light summer dress waving in the wind, and our visits to the zoo. I didn't want to drown in the emotions of missing so much. It would take decades before I was able to recall Mom in her days before she became depressed.

Through the years Dad refused to talk about Mom's illness and suicide. I sensed that he felt overwhelmed by guilt and shame for the rest of his life. Hugo and I didn't talk about it much either, going our separate ways into adulthood. The silence of the first weeks grew inexorably into the silence of years and decades.

Now I realize the importance of quickly breaking that silence after suicide. Survivor organizations can help relieve feelings of isolation. Survivors can talk to others who have been through the same thing or just sit in their company and know that they are not alone. The silence is cruel for adults but even more so for children. Because children are often neglected in the tragedy's aftermath, special efforts must be made to reach out to them.

Recently I met a woman through a Chicago-based survivor organization. She had lost her 33-year-old daughter to suicide.

"Nobody called me, not even my best friends. I felt hopelessly alone in those first days," she said. "Months later, when I felt better, I asked two close friends why they hadn't called. Both said that they didn't know what to tell me.

"I told them that if you are ever in a similar situation, please call," she continued. "Just say that you have heard the news, you are thinking about the family and that you are available if anything is needed.

"That's all," she said matter-of-factly.

August Swanenberg (KGSM86) was born in the Netherlands and lives in Northbrook, Ill., with his wife, Julie Browning (WCAS81, G81), and their daughters, Irene and Audrey. His book, She Is with Angels: My Mother's Suicide, a Child's Journey, was released by Cross Cultural Publications in May.