It was noon on August 13, 2019. I was texting with Mona, my adopted daughter. The upcoming weekend was my first wedding anniversary.
Me: “I’m guessing you won’t be in town this weekend?”
Mona: “Sorry, that’s what I called to let you know, and never returned your last call. Sorry I won’t make it.” Frowny face emoji.
Me: “I figured, but just thought I would check. We will miss you!”
Mona: “Miss you guys, too! Wish I could be there!!”
That was the last communication I had with her. At 2 a.m., she took her own life.
Her best friend, Quinn, had been trying to reach me all night. For whatever reason, I’d left my phone in the living room and gone to bed. My husband, an early riser, brought it in and left in on my nightstand. When I woke up and saw Quinn’s missed calls and urgent texts, my heart dropped. I knew Mona was the only reason he would be frantically calling me from Atlanta all night. I dialed his number, trying to mentally prepare myself for whatever he might say.
“Samona has passed away.” I could hear the heartbreak in his voice.
“I don’t understand,” I whispered. “Are you sure?”
He told me the naked truth of what happened, and we sat in that truth for a few moments, both forever changed. My husband came home, grabbed my hand, and didn’t let go for several hours as I made official phone calls.
I called my sons. The “baby bros,” she called them. I will never forget the sounds their voices made, followed by the silence of slow comprehension. Their first words to me were, “It’s not your fault.” I broke. Because of course, I thought it was.
When I first met Mona in 1989, she was three years old. She’d been left at a McDonalds by her biological mother. My (now) ex-husband was a cousin, and got a call from protective services. At that young age, Mona already had a file. We took Mona home until Sugar, my mother-in-law, could come get her. I remember how enchanting Mona was, even then: like a beautiful princess locked in a tower. Her gorgeous, big brown eyes looked up at me with suspicion – at three years old, she was already wary.
Soon after, she went to live with Sugar full-time. We moved back to my California home and started a family. Several years later, Sugar and nine-year-old Mona came west to live with us. My sons Kyle and Gage became her “baby bros.”
After our divorce, Mona eventually came to live with me and the boys full-time. I was ready for her to call me ‘Mom’ but she came up with ‘Momtie’– part Mom, part Auntie. I loved the name, and the goofy way she would half-sing to me - “Hiiii Mom-teee.”
It was then that I caught the first glimpses of Mona’s mental health challenges. I knew her tumultuous childhood had left scars. It was hard for her to trust: of COURSE. It was hard for her to feel safe: of COURSE. She had siblings she had never met, scattered across the map. It was a lot for her to deal with.
Mona’s depression bubbled over in high school. We did outpatient counseling until it became clear that more was needed. Inpatient care. Clinical depression, they said. She didn’t buy this diagnosis for herself. The mental health dance began.
Mona was brilliant: wicked smart, utterly gorgeous, charming beyond words. She learned to say what others needed to hear. She was genuinely happy most of the time. Except when she wasn’t. And as an adult, in those times, she would ghost us. That got easier to do once she moved to Atlanta.
Her years in Atlanta seemed happy. She was blessed with good people around her, and made family wherever she went. But depression doesn’t simply go away.
In the year leading up to her death, Mona struggled. Multiple jobs, cross-country moves. Infidelity. Heartbreak. A public broken engagement. Harsh words about her very mixed-race family. We hurt for her. We wanted to fix it for her. The baby bros and I were fiercely protective of her, and she was fiercely protective of us. Maybe this is why she didn’t fully share what she was going through. One very rough, depressed night, all she could see was her failure. And like that, she was gone. What’s so crazy is how glorious she was to us. She couldn’t see herself through our eyes. That’s the tragedy of depression.
Here are some things we have learned since her death:
- The stigma around mental health issues needs to STOP. Those who struggle need to be able to ask for help without fear of judgement.
- Families need resources and referrals to best help our loved ones who struggle.
- Be relentless in reaching out. I wish I had picked up the phone that day instead of texting.
- I walked away from a career I loved because I was heartbroken, deeply grieving and needed time to heal. I could afford to do so. Most people cannot. That needs to change. More survivors of suicide loss need to know about the resources that are available to them.
- Find community that understands. We need one another.
Three months after my Mona died, I went to an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Walk. I learned about it from Chrissy, a woman I respected but had barely known in high school. We hadn’t seen each other since 1982. Through social media, she contacted me after hearing of Samona’s death, and shared her son’s story of death by suicide.
37 years after our graduation day, Chrissy and I met up again in a beautiful park on the day of the walk, hugged each other, and cried for our lost children. Then, we wiped away our tears and grabbed each other’s hands. That is the power of community.
Slowly, gently, we began to walk, joined by a thousand other people dedicated to helping those we love Out of the Darkness.