I’d only known Britt—a warm, hospitable, lovely new pal—for a few months before she told me about her best childhood friend, Al. The story was so tragic and heartbreaking I could hardly believe what I was hearing, but I also noticed an urgency in Britt’s voice that I now recognize as a passion to see Al’s story told and awareness raised about Postpartum Depression. If this blog is anything at all, it is a place for women to gather, connect, and truth tell, even when those truths are hard to hear. Thank you, Britt, for sharing Al’s story with us and for helping bring PPD into the light of day.
Her Heart: Reaching for the Sunlight
Tell us a bit about your friend Al.
One of my earliest memories of Al is from first grade. A little girl with thick long brown hair and sparkly blue eyes rolled down the hallway of Beulah Elementary School . . .dressed as a robot. It was the coolest robot costume EVER. She had taken a box, wrapped it in tinfoil and completed the outfit with silver roller skates. This girl had spunk and confidence and I instantly knew we had to be friends. Lifelong friends.
Al was so many things to so many people. She was passionate, gave the best hugs, was a competitive athlete, and was also creative and crafty. She was a hardworking, patient, inspiring teacher. She was also incredibly thoughtful and would sew the sweetest gifts for new babies. If there was a need, she would figure out a way to meet it. She was brave and a doer. She was fun, silly and so compassionate. If there was a dance party, she would be right in the middle of it. She asked the best, most meaningful questions. She once drove five hours to be with me at my grandfather’s funeral. I loved how she answered the phone and never want to forget the sound of her voice. She loved York Peppermint Patties and ice cream. She was adventurous. She was a marathon runner. She was a perfectionist. She was the MOST incredible mother.
It absolutely breaks my heart to write “was.” I never anticipated her life ending at such a young age and in such a tragic way. On a hot summer day in 2016, Al checked her baby into a childcare program, wrote an email to her closest family, drove out into the desert and committed suicide. There was not a single warning sign but her email made it clear that we lost Al to a silent battle of Postpartum Depression.
As mothers, how can Al’s story be all of our stories?
Being a mother is the hardest job in the world. Our role is so rewarding but it can also feel extremely isolating. I think for someone who is a perfectionist like Al, being a mom is even more difficult. As a parent, you are constantly second guessing yourself and worrying about your children. You give away so much control and, in many ways, parts of yourself, too. Al was a first-time mother. She had a wonderful pregnancy and loved her baby beyond measure. She once described that love as raw and fierce. A love like no other. She adored her baby, posting pictures on social media frequently. From the outside, Al looked like she was on cloud nine. But on the inside, she was fighting a silent battle with Postpartum Depression (PPD). PPD is a mental illness that can affect any mother, or expectant mother. It lies to you. PPD can make you feel like you are not worthy to be a parent—like you are a complete failure. In Al’s case, she convinced herself that taking her own life would be the best thing for her four-month-old baby.
What do you wish people knew about PPD?
I wish people knew that anxiety and depression affect up to 20% of new and expectant mothers and their families. I wish that people understood more about PPD and mental illness in general and realized how common it is (1 in every 5 women suffer under it). I wish that women struggling knew they are not to blame and they are not alone. I wish that people could talk about PPD freely and not feel ashamed of it. I wish that there wouldn’t be so much comparison or high standards set for new mothers. I wish moms could encourage, love and check in on each other daily. I wish spouses could educate themselves on PPD, so they could be aware of warning signs.
Since Al’s death, I’ve learned that anxiety and depression is the number one complication of pregnancy and childbirth. I wish doctors could take more time to truly dig deeper with their patients. As a doctor’s wife, I know that patient/physician time is limited, but more needs to be done than just having a mother fill out a form about PPD while she waits to see her doctor at her postpartum check. I wish that there were more support groups for PPD in every city.
In my own life, my son was only three months old when Al died (she and I were pregnant together). The loss was almost unbearable. I would breastfeed my son and begin to have full-on, can’t breath, panic attacks. I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend not being able to hold and nurse her child, or how she must have felt handing her sweet baby to daycare workers and walking away for the last time. Some dear friends began to recognize my own PPD (which I had been suffering from before Al’s death) and encouraged me to seek help. I thought I was grieving and would get better in time. I tried to exercise the anxiety out. I was on the verge of screaming or crying at all times. I had repetitive thoughts that I was a horrible mother and wife, and that my husband would be better off if we divorced. PPD can sneak up on you and can be hard to pinpoint. My dearest friend took her life because of this awful disease, and I still didn’t realize I was experiencing a form it. PPD is so common.
If you are feeling this way, even if you can’t describe it, I encourage you to tell a friend or physician, “I’m not okay.” That is a step in the right direction. I wish I had gotten help sooner. Not and a day goes by that I don’t wish Al had told me—told anyone—how she was feeling. It could have saved her life.
What piece of wisdom would you offer someone whose grief struggle is similar to your own?
Grief doesn’t look exactly like you think it will. You can’t put a timeline on it. With Al there was no time to prepare. It’s crazy how a call phone can change your life drastically. There were months when I would sit down to read my Bible and all I would do is stare at the pages and weep. I couldn’t go to the mall for months where Al and I spent our last day together. I still cannot go to the parking lot where I was when I received the phone call that she had taken her life without feeling like I can’t breath. Grief comes at the strangest times. At preschool, watching my daughter hug her friend. While driving and seeing sunflowers on the side of the road. In the middle of a workout class, I once burst into tears.
I try to be present and work through my emotions and not hide them. I am learning to give myself grace. After losing Al, I want to be an open book with my struggles. I encourage everyone to have friends with whom you can share the good, the bad and the ugly. Please know there is not a one single mother who has it all together. Not one. We are all just trying to survive and figure out this crazy parenting adventure, day by day. Also, if you are struggling with PPD, know you are not to blame and you are not alone. PPD doesn’t make you a terrible mother. If anything, seeking help and working through it will make you stronger. Do NOT be ashamed.
How do you honor Al’s life?
Al loved sunflowers. When we were younger, her room was decorated in sunflowers everywhere. In third grade, she wore a Blossom style hat (90’s say what?!?) with a big sunflower on it. I don’t see a sunflower without thinking of what a ray of light she was in my life, and countless others. There were over 1,000 people at her visitation. She touched everyone who came into contact with her. At her funeral, there was a quote that said, “Help me be like a sunflower, so that even on the darkest days I can stand tall and reach for the sunlight.” I want to stand tall for Al. I want to love others with my whole heart. I want to pour into my kids because it is such a gift that I get to be with them everyday. Al was an “all in” kind of person. She was passionate. I want to pass that passion onto my kids. I know she would be proud of the work I am doing to spread awareness about PPD. She would be honored to know that her story is helping save lives.
///Photographs by Signe Clayton Photography