I lived for 20 years knowing my mother would kill herself: The chilling tale of a woman who burdened her daughter with a horrifying secret
When I was in my early 20s, my mother told me she wanted to kill herself when she reached the age of 70.
She was completely calm as she explained her decision. By contrast I sat on the floor of my flat, shaking.
Ignoring my distress, my mother continued to discuss her plan to commit suicide in 20 years’ time, before she reached ‘old age’. She explained she would eat wisely, exercise daily, and take her blood-pressure medication. She would do her best to maintain good health and good spirits until the final moment. Then she would take her life.
Treasured memories: Christine with her mother Irmgard as a young girl
‘Tina, don’t get upset,’ she said, hearing the agony in my voice. ‘You don’t have to worry about it now. Let’s just forget I even told you.’
Yet I couldn’t forget. I tried instead to talk her out of it, my heart tearing inside my chest. I pleaded. I argued. I cried. She had a response for everything.
‘Killing yourself would be unfair to Warner (my younger brother), and me.’
‘You only think that now,’ she replied. ‘When the time comes, you’ll be relieved you don’t need to care for an incontinent, senile old woman.’
‘You’re healthy and would live healthily much past 70,’ I replied.
‘That may be true,’ she continued, ‘but I don’t want to take any chances. It’s always better to leave a party early, when no one wants you to go, than to stay until you’re kicked out.’
‘Killing yourself is selfish.’
‘Yes. I’m doing this for myself. But I’m also doing it for both of you. You’re too young to understand, but someday you’ll be glad I did it this way.’
‘I love you. Please don’t do it.’
‘I love you too, Tina. But I’m going to do it anyway.’
Over the next 20 years we would have this conversation again and again. She insisted her action would be the best for everyone. It gave her peace. But it tore me apart.
Tearing her apart: Christine today
To understand how my mother thought, you have to understand her background. Raised in Germany, Irmgard grew up in an unhappy family — her own mother would say the only time she was content was when her domineering husband was away fighting in World War II.
My parents divorced when I was nine. My mother initiated the divorce and was the one who moved out. Warner and I chose to remain in the family home with our father, and my mother took a small flat nearby.
It was an unusual situation for the Seventies and yet my relationship with my mother was a strong one. If I looked pretty to myself, I looked ‘stunning’ to her. If I did well in school, I was a genius. If I painted a mediocre woodland scene, she had it professionally framed for her wall.
My father raised my brother and me, but I loved my mother just as much. I never doubted she was my strongest and most loyal fan.
As the years went by, I couldn’t get her proposed suicide out of my head. While both my father and brother felt Mum would never carry through her threat, I knew she was the sort of person who didn’t easily change her mind. Nor could I attempt to talk her out of her choice.
Not everyone understood my acceptance of her decision. My close friend Patsy was outraged and said: ‘I cannot understand how your mother can put her daughter through this. Telling you years in advance that she’s going to kill herself so you’d have this hanging over your head for decades. If she wants to, she should do it on the sly, like normal people, and just leave you a long note explaining everything. Why all this drama ahead of time?’
Remarkably, before having it pointed out to me, I had never considered my mother’s plans for death could have been made without her telling me so far in advance. Why did she do it? Was she attention-seeking? Making sure she would remain centre stage in our relationship? Trying to make me prove I truly loved her?
It may have been any of these reasons. Yet I never questioned her actions. Enemies of my mother could be completely cut out of her life for as little as a mis-spoken word. I was terrified that if I spoke against her, I might lose her. I felt I had no choice but to support her decision. Acceptance was not easy. I suffered years of anticipatory grief, mostly in isolation. I wanted more than anything to share my feelings, but I felt the situation was too bizarre to tell most people.
Almost as a way of forcing someone to share my mother’s final years with me, I rushed into a doomed marriage aged 35. We struggled for just over two years before divorcing. Again I faced my mother’s death alone.
Unhappy marriage: Irmgard on her wedding day. She divoreced her husband when Christine was nine years old
The time my mother and I had left together began to dwindle. Years became months and I wanted to cherish the moments we had left. Yet as she prepared herself for death, she pushed me further and further away.
My mother had picked her own mother’s birthday — February 2 and the year 2005 — as the day on which she planned to die and that date loomed ever nearer. With only ten days left I called her, telling her I needed to hear her voice.
She replied: ‘I can’t deal with this. I can’t have you clinging to me now.’ I hung up the phone and burst into tears. But friction between us, coming so near the end, disturbed her, too.
After we talked again, she agreed to an afternoon where she would give me hours of her time, but explained that afterwards she would need to withdraw, that she needed distance to go through with her plan.
We met in her home. She ushered me in, took my hand, and led me to the living room. A flute concerto played on the stereo and I saw a pile of pillows arranged on the floor. A few old photo albums lay next to these and, on a small table, my mother had carefully spread out some silk scarves.
‘I thought we could sit on the floor, Tina, and you could put your head in my lap. And I could stroke your hair like I used to when you were little. And I could tell you how much I have loved you for your entire life.’
She held my head in her lap and I cried. She told me of her love for me, and through my tears I told her how much I’d miss her. I held her hands for a long time and described the trips I wished we could go on, the regrets I had.
She gave me the scarves she had laid out. ‘Why wait until next week?’ she said. ‘This way you can have these and think of me now.’
Irmgard and her husband Hans soon after their wedding: Hans brought up Christine and her brother after the divorce
met one last time before she killed herself. I took the day off work
and we met in one of the parks I had known since childhood. We had lunch
in the cafe and then walked in the snow to a secluded bench. Mum was
carrying a blue plastic folder.
we sat together she produced a small, leather-bound diary and read from
the first few pages about her decision to keep it for me because she
believed I deserved more than simply a final letter.
After she had finished reading, she closed the diary and handed it to me. We held hands and gazed at each other’s faces. ‘Tina I think it’s time,’ she said gently, after a while. She rose from the bench.
I stroked her face one last time as she stood without moving. ‘I love you very much,’ I said. Tears formed deep puddles in my eyes. The words felt completely inadequate.
‘I love you very much too, Tina. Thank you for being the most wonderful daughter I could have had.’
I walked away leaving her sitting on the bench. She smiled through her tears, raised her hand and waved. I waved in return, unable to smile, and walked slowly backwards, keeping her in sight as long as possible. Eventually the path bent. As I rounded the corner I could still glimpse her hand. Then she disappeared. I sank to ground sobbing. For all her reserve, I imagine she may have done the same.
Soon afterwards, my mother booked herself into a hotel (she did not tell me which one, so as not to complicate matters after her death). She took an overdose of sleeping pills and drank a bottle of vodka.
She had killed herself in her 70th year as she had told me would. I was 39. The worst thing I could imagine had happened, and I would be changed for ever.
And indeed I am. But my life did not end when hers did. Since her death I have become so much more assertive, so much more my own person. I am still fearful of loss but, when those old feelings come up, I am more self-aware.
Nearly seven years later I feel that I have moved on.
I am not angry with my mother. I have questions I’d love to ask her — why did she tell me so far in advance when she knew it was only going hurt me? Did she have any insight into how she was acting or was she unaware of how her actions affected others? But that won’t happen and I’ve accepted that actually, that’s OK.
Suicide is the 13th leading cause of death in the world
I’ve accepted that I can’t change history, that each of us did our best in what were very difficult situations. Due to my mother’s decisions I lived with the reality of suicide for 20 years.
I believe strongly in the ‘death with dignity’ movement — in doctor-assisted suicide in cases of unbearable suffering — but I would never do what my mother did. I could never plan something that far in advance and disregard the opinions of people who loved me.
When I think of her death now, the only way I can explain her choice is to recount what I told the police detective when her body was found. ‘Do you have any idea why she did this?’ he asked.
‘She planned this 20 years ago,’ I replied. ‘My mother wanted to live a healthy life and die while she was still healthy. She valued quality over quantity. She called it being terminally healthy.’
‘Was she depressed?’ he asked.
‘No. Not at all. Just the opposite.’ I tried to explain. ‘My mother was so aware of every beautiful thing around her because she knew she wasn’t going to be alive indefinitely. I know it might sound strange but she was very stubborn and wanted to have control of this last thing. It gave her peace.’
So Far Away: A Daughter’s Memoir of Life, Love and Loss, by Christine W. Hartmann is published by Vanderbilt University Press at £13.99.
Interview by Sarah Hughes
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