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My Time by Abigail Trafford

A Son's Suicide Mission

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page HE01

She was the star in her family -- beloved wife for nearly four decades, a sports mom for her three sons, adored friend, successful businesswoman, role model for her younger sisters, president of the student body in high school, tennis champ. "My mom was an incredible, vivacious, inquisitive person," said her son, Geoffrey Evans Beard of San Francisco.

And then suddenly she changed, as though she had been hijacked from her true self. Over a period of a couple months, she grew listless, lost weight. This "was not the mother I knew," said Beard, 36. The family intervened and made sure she went to her internist and met with a psychiatrist. A few days later, on a Sunday morning in August, while her husband was at church, Susan Hall Beard hanged herself from the stairway banister.

She was 63.

Suicide is the public health killer that no one talks about. With more than 29,000 deaths a year, it is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. More people die from suicide than homicide, which ranks 15th. But our culture, so devoted to heroic homicide detective shows on TV, has built a wall of silence around suicide.

The pathology of self-destruction is murkier than the path of murder. There is no one cause, but a combination of factors, internal and external. Researchers know that most suicides occur in the context of untreated or mistreated mental illness, often depression. The stigma around mental illness makes it more difficult for people to overcome their disease, more difficult for society to care for the afflicted.

Susan Beard's death was shocking to all who knew her. A close friend of mine had gone to school with her in Boston. She put me in touch with the family. Soon Geoff Beard and I were talking about how in his "remembrances about Mom" at her service, he wanted to break down the wall of silence.

As he told the gathering of grieving family and friends in Charlottesville six weeks ago: "I am determined that my mom's death not be in vain." Many questions remain unanswerable. But in his sorrow, he offered these lessons to those left behind.

"Number One: To all those Florence Nightingales in their twilight years -- take the time to care for yourselves. Don't get lost in the needs of others. Keep living your life, challenging yourself, setting priorities and goals and, most importantly, honoring them first," he said.

His mother, with a stiff-upper-lip New England background, always put the needs of others first, he explained. But looking after yourself is a "vital life function," he said. Beard's parents had recently gone through a major transition. His father had retired, his mother gave up her business; they sold the house in Connecticut, where they had lived for 30 years and raised a family, and moved to Virginia.

There are two periods of high risk for suicide: the teenage years and late-life decades. Both are periods of change and stress. In fact, the highest suicide rates are in people over 65. White men over 85 are at greatest risk. Rates for women peak between the ages of 45 and 64.

Beard had more advice for those moving into later life: "Parents, be vulnerable to your kids," he continued. "I won't mince words: I'm angry. I'm angry that my mom couldn't expose the true depths of her despair. And I'm angry that I've been deprived of the privilege and opportunity to care for my mom with the same love, passion and intensity that she lavished on me all these years. . . . Parents, listen to me closely. Your grown kids have plenty of capacity. . . . Let us be there for you."

It's hard to give up the strong parental persona. Yet the challenge to parents and children is to redefine their relationship as adults. This means letting go of old roles and establishing a new zone of mutual dependence -- creating a more equitable balance between giving and receiving, between being needed and being needy.

"Number Three: Kids, reconcile with your parents," advised Beard. He had visited his mother in the summer. Alarmed by her radical transformation, he tried to help her. He told her how much he loved her, what a great mother she was. In the wake of her sudden death, he's so glad he did. I "will cherish that time dearly for the rest of my life," he said. "Kids -- mend the fences with your parents before, and in case, the opportunity passes you by."

"Number Four: Reframe how you think about mental illness," he said. "Mental illness is an illness, not a weakness. Stigmas fade very slowly, but this one's time is long overdue. Some may say that my mom simply 'threw in the towel.' I say otherwise. I say that a 'chemical catastrophe' of a disease ravaged my mom's body and ravaged her psyche."

He pointed out that one in five women suffers from depression over a lifetime. Sometimes depression recurs throughout life; sometimes it strikes for the first time in older adulthood. "It's high time for a fresh and frank reappraisal of how we define illness, hardship and suffering," said Beard. "No one should endure such profound suffering alone or in shame."

How tragic that his mother was able to spin-doctor the doctors and her family, hiding her pain, until the final moments of her life. "That's just not right," said Beard.

A few weeks after her death, Beard and his wife had a baby, the first grandchild in the family. One day, Beard will tell his daughter about his own childhood, how his mother raised three rowdy boys with laughter and a firm hand, how she "struck out on a career of her own," how she "fiercely guarded the sanctity of family."

Remembering his mother "for all the wonderful, joyous ways she touched my life," he said, he can see a larger purpose in her death.

Imagine a society "where it's okay not to be okay," where the wall of silence is replaced by bridges of "connection and candor," and the stigma of mental illness is gone. "I assure you that in a world of this making, truly lovely people such as my mom would have a much harder time slipping through the cracks," he said.

That's the hope in tearing down the wall of silence. •

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address below; mark the envelope "My Time."


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