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The Journey: A Letter to Ellie on her Birthday

Dear Ellie,

A few months ago while chatting with your dad we discussed how we might commemorate the fifth anniversary of your death this year. It is a very difficult time for us as it comes just four days after your birthday. Oh how painful and almost unendurable that is for us now, to have the day of your birth mixed with the horror and pain of your death by suicide all in the same week in May. Oh Ellie, can all of this really have happened to us?

The day of your birth was the happiest day in our life up to that point. Oh what joy to be blessed with such a precious and treasured gift. Your arrival brought us such joy and made us so happy, you were so beautifully perfect and I could not believe we could be so happy.

The memory of it, that day of your birth still shines out like a precious jewel gleaming in brilliance, it’s hues never fading with time, 32 years ago now exactly. As I lay in the hospital bed that morning unable to move without wincing in pain after childbirth but so mesmerized by the tiny perfection of you in the cot beside my bed. Days later we got home and I can still remember Dad dancing around the house with you in his arms and sitting gazing in cooing adoration in total awe at you. You Ellie our beautiful first born treasured baby.

It was inconceivable back then that in the same week in the month of May we would lose you. Ripped from the safety of our embrace in such a violent manner that it would take part of us your parents with you. Your death by suicide took us out at the knees and we have been crawling our way forward painfully through each day since. Losing the will to live at first but keeping each other up and going forward together for the sake of your brother who we cherish more than life itself now.

You were sick, I know and tried so hard to stay with us. I know you stayed as long as you could and you did the best you could to cope with it and to live. But you were overcome by it, overwhelmed and unable to go on. You died because of your illness and it is not just physical illness that can be terminal, no your mental illness proved to be terminal and it overcame you. You died by suicide Ellie but it was mental illness that killed you.

Dad suggested recently that we would focus on your birthday this year and celebrate it as the joy it was. That was not a new idea to me as I had made the same effort in recent years but on each occasion it ended up with us sitting miserably unable to even talk around a restaurant dinner table. But I was willing to try again.

I organized an early morning mass in the Franciscan friary for you, we got up at 6.30 am and attended the mass remembering what joy you brought to our lives and what happiness we enjoyed as a family when you and your brother were young children. I also cried that you are no longer with us.

We then visited your grave and lit a candle there and recalled how you loved candles. I also recalled the occasions I feared a house fire and that we might burn to death in our beds as we slept as you often fell asleep before quenching the candle on your bedside table. Dad then wanted a celebratory breakfast so we bought pastries. We got home and cooked bacon and eggs, I lit a candle at your place at the table and we enjoyed our breakfast together remembering all the joy you brought to our lives.

Last night we went out to dinner in memory of your birthday to continue the celebration. Your brother was unable to come home this weekend so he was not with us, but we did not let that deter us. We went to a lovely restaurant on the banks of the river and sat out on the riverside terrace in the early evening sunshine and watched the river flowing serenely by, with the odd duck or two.

Dad surprised me by wanting to bring your photo to place on the restaurant table with us, I say this because in the early days of our loss he could not bear to see any photos of you around the house. This was too much for me to do though as I did not trust myself not to break down in public and ruin the occasion. Anyway it all went very well indeed. We had a beautiful meal followed by dessert and a few drinks. We recalled the good times we had with you and how wonderful you were and how kind and loving you were to us.

We also mentioned the bad times which were as a result of your illness, the times when your behavior was so difficult for us all. There were many such times when we could not have any family celebration at all without it being ruined by your behavioral problems. We acknowledged that those were of course as a result of the mental disorder you suffered from and battled so hard. It was not a decision you made. No one in their right mind chooses to behave like that. We did shed tears and bemoaned the fact that mental illness does not enjoy the same credentials as physical illness and is not taken seriously with regard to its ability to be terminal for some.

We lamented the stigma of mental illness in society which labels those who struggle without acknowledging the overwhelming challenges they face on a daily basis because they do not look obviously in pain. Had you suffered those years with a physical illness that took you in and out of hospital the way your mental illness did we all would have received sympathy from those around us in a different way and that hurts me so much still.

I realize now that in your case medication for depression and anxiety did not work. It mostly swapped one set of problems for another. This I believe is why you chose alcohol and smoking in an effort to cope. This form of self-medicating caused even more erratic behavior and had you judged as just badly behaved. The stigma of suicide has clung to us in the most surprising and unsuspecting places. We have been shunned by some and insulted by others in their ignorance and blindness.

As I heal from the agony of this devastating loss I have come to a better understanding of your illness and death. I know it was as a result of a disorder and not a decision, no one in their right mind decides to die.

Overall Ellie this week in May has been easier to bear this year. We celebrated your birthday like never before and marked the anniversary a few days later by a grave visit to light a candle and bring you flowers. Yes, we miss you very much and wish you were still with us. But now, we can remember the good times with love and carry you with us every day in our hearts.

With all my love to you Ellie on your birthday,

Mum