Yes, My Mom Died By Suicide. No, She Wasn’t Being Selfish

I sat on top of a table overlooking my high school track field, which at one point was my happy place, but things were different now. Twenty-five minutes into first period, I walked out of class, holding back tears. The old wooden table was the first place I wanted to go. My best friend, Nadine, and the boy who would later become my first love found me and took their seats next to me. We cried until the table broke, and we crashed to the ground. I erupted in laughter, which has become my favorite medicine.
One day before I found myself on that table, and five days after my 16th birthday, I woke up to the sound of my dad calling 911. "My wife, my beautiful wife. She's in a tree," I heard him say, out of breath. His frantic voice shot me out of bed that morning of December 9, 2008; I ran through the house to their room, then downstairs to the garage to see if her car was still there. I didn't know what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t good.
I went outside, staring at the ground while I ran up the hill. I’m not sure how, but I suddenly teleported to the zip line my dad had built our family. There lay my mom, Elia, in her pajama pants, sweater, a rope around her neck, and a cross necklace. She was a Christian until she took her last breath. My father had already cut her down, and I watched him attempt to bring her back to life with CPR.
I couldn't stop screaming, "What the fuck!" Kicking and punching the surrounding trees, I caught the attention of our neighbor who began walking up the hill. "Oh my God," she shrieked as she stumbled across the scene — the sound of the siren closing in.
Photo: Courtesy of Jovita Trujillo.
"She's still warm,” I heard one of the EMTs say. For a second, a glimmer of hope crossed my mind, but I knew she was gone. The mother I knew was no longer laying there. I ran to my room and called my brothers and sisters-in-law to tell them what happened. We all knew my mom was battling depression, which ran in her family. She had been diagnosed a couple of years before; she took all the precautions, the usual meds, therapy.
The last time I had seen my father cry was after watching Where the Red Fern Grow when I was 5. Once we got back in the house he was inconsolable, sitting on the floor in tears, screaming, "My wife, my beautiful wife." The police came, asked questions, and scoured the room for a note. They were so cold, unsympathetic. I wanted them to leave.
My oldest brother, Cuauhtémoc, showed up while the police were still there and entered my parents' bathroom, where he found my mom's journal in plain sight. A suicide note, the date on the top, and her name signed on the bottom. “Jose, I can't go on with life any longer. Please forgive me," it read. The journal seemed to be waiting there for one of us to find. “Where did you find that," an officer asked. My brother pointed at the counter. "I looked everywhere in there. I didn't see that," the cop said in an accusatory tone. After they asked me a few more questions, they finally left.
We sat at the table in our usual spots while my sister-in-law Maria cooked breakfast. From my chair, I could peer through the window. I watched as medical professionals took my mom’s body away in a black bag. I stared back down at the yellow plate of scrambled eggs in front of me, untouched. The silence was deafening until my brother finally said, "Are we supposed to just sit here and eat like this didn’t just happen?" Even in that dark moment, I remember the comedic charm. The absurdity and somewhat movie-like experience that we sat at this table, a plate of food in front of us like our mother didn’t literally just kill herself.

"I never felt ashamed of the way my mom passed, but I knew there were so many assumptions and stigmas surrounding suicide."

jovita trujillo
Immediately after my mom’s death, I wondered what I would tell people. I never felt ashamed of the way my mom passed, but I knew there were so many assumptions and stigmas surrounding suicide. When word got out around school, I heard one girl talking about it; I responded by texting her a fury of hate. (Sorry, girl.)
The first person who blatantly asked me how my mom died was my piano teacher, who went to our new church. Shocked, I tried to figure out what I could say. I murmured that it was something with “her head, her brain,” which wasn’t necessarily untrue. My teacher finished my sentence, "Aneurysm?" "Yes," I nodded. From then on, mostly when I was too tired to explain, I told people it was an aneurysm.
For the first couple of weeks, my entire family slept in the living room on mattresses while my dad was on borderline suicide watch. When they had to return to their day-to-day lives, it was just me, the youngest in the family, and my dad, still sleeping on a mattress in the living room. I couldn't sleep, and it would be the start of my journey with insomnia. My doctor prescribed Xanax and Ambien, which I popped like candy throughout the night. I would wake up constantly, making sure my dad was still next to me. The smoke detector, with its dead batteries chirping at me every few minutes, was unwanted company. The sound still triggers me to this day. Without a good night’s sleep and drugs still in my system, I fell asleep in class. I watched my dreams of becoming an Olympian fade as my anxiety and PTSD manifested themselves into my running. It became hard to breathe during my races, and I began faking injuries to make it stop. 
But my lack of sleep and running wasn’t what concerned me. My biggest fear was that people would think my mom did not love me — that she was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and a bad parent. In reality, my mom was none of those things. She had never been drunk. She never smoked or did any drugs. She was one of the purest and most innocent souls I knew.

"My biggest fear was that people would think my mom did not love me — that she was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and a bad parent. In reality, my mom was none of those things."

My mom immigrated from Michoacan, Mexico, when she was around 8. She and her 10 brothers and sisters worked in the fields as a migrant farmworker in labor camps. Once, she passed out in the fields because the sun was too intense. She didn't know how long she lay there until somebody finally found her. My mom worked in the fields until she went to college at UC Santa Cruz.
My mom loved dancing. As a teenager, she and her sisters worked at Mini Corps, a California program to support migrant students, where she taught the children how to dance. During her more than 30 years as a teacher at Bardin Elementary School, she taught hundreds of kids ballet folklórico, her way of keeping her culture alive and giving back to the students and their primarily farmworker parents. She produced and choreographed performances and even took the show on the road at conferences and multicultural events, never asking for a dime. While the students were mostly of Mexican heritage, she wanted to accommodate the small, but still impactful Philippine community. My mom studied traditional Indigenous dances like the Maglalatik, using coconuts she cut in half at home with the help of my dad, and the Tinikling, using bamboo sticks. She included the dances in the performances, recruiting the Philippine students at the school. I never realized how incredibly special that was until I was older. At her funeral, at the old cult-like church we attended, the students whose lives she touched filled two stories of pews. People had to stand outside. That’s how immense her impact was. Members from the dance group performed at the funeral, finishing with the ribbon dance, bowing at her casket with a flower arc in each of their hands.
My mom was a perfectionist, maybe the most hardcore Virgo I've ever known. She was a stickler for fitness. She was one of a kind, yet not at all unique in that she came from a long line of generational trauma. There’s nothing I regret more than not asking my mom to tell me her stories. But the ones I remember are a glimpse into who she was. She loved sports, especially running. But she could only compete in track until middle school because her high school didn’t offer the sport to women. Instead, she chose the only one available, cheerleading. She excelled at it. She passed down her speed and athleticism to all of us but not her cartwheeling ability.
Religion was always deeply important to her. Raised Catholic, she once confessed to the priest that she watched a chicken lay an egg — I wonder how many Hail Marys she had to recite as a child for her very innocent and pure “sin.” When I went into my mom’s room after it happened, her small book of “Our Daily Bread” was open. I think up until her passing, she was begging God for help. I still haven’t forgiven “Him,” but I’m working on it.
Photo: Courtesy of Jovita Trujillo.
When a celebrity dies by suicide, I read comments on social media, knowing what I’m going to find: “What a selfish choice;” “They gave up.” They level accusation after accusation at the person but often don’t extend them kindness. When I read my mom’s journal, it quickly became apparent that what she did was anything but selfish. The night before my mom decided to end her life was one filled with tears, sadness, and confusion. I could hear my parents downstairs, my dad pleading that she fight her depression. She came up to me before I went to sleep and apologized. I can't remember exactly what for, but I told her she didn't do anything wrong, hugged her, and went to sleep. I looked back and saw her standing there. I wish I would have hugged her longer. 
I knew my mom for her beautiful, perfect cursive. In the journal, her handwriting was unfamiliar, chicken scratch. "Things that will happen if I don't overcome my depression," she wrote. "I will go to hell;" "Jovita's life will be negatively impacted." If she did not get out of her depressed state, she believed she was going to ruin not only my life but also that of everyone around her. Once she felt it was a losing battle, her only solution was death.
Emilia Ortega-Jara, LCSW, a Xicana psychotherapist, founder, and clinical director of Corazón Counseling Service, told me via email, "Suicide is not a pathology of the individual mind. It’s an accumulative tragedy brought on by the lack of resources and the stress of acculturation into an oppressive system — in addition to the emotional pain our families carry from generations of trauma passed on by the harmful legacies of colonialism. These economic and social-cultural stressors are at the root of our mental and emotional distress. The level of misery, despair, and hopelessness overrides the desire to live."
I want to not live in the past, but I struggle to continuously move forward without letting her go. My therapist says people who deal with major trauma often see life as "before and after the event," which is nearly impossible to stop doing. I try to talk to my mom more, and I still wait for the nights when I see her in more dreams than nightmares. It's an ongoing process. But one thing I know for sure is my mom was not selfish when she put her life behind her. People who think loved ones in their lives would be better off without them are wrong, but life on earth is a battle that is much harder for some than it is for others. Despite how much you know someone, you can never fully understand their inner universe.

"Suicide is not a pathology of the individual mind. It’s an accumulative tragedy brought on by the lack of resources and the stress of acculturation into an oppressive system — in addition to the emotional pain our families carry from generations of trauma passed on by the harmful legacies of colonialism."

Emilia Ortega-Jara, LCSW
In 2019, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for Latines between 15 to 34. The rate for Latina girls in the ninth through 12th grades was 30% higher than for non-Latina girls that same year. To improve these numbers, we need to start talking about mental health."The taboos around mental health and suicide among our Spanish-speaking community will only break down if we begin to have these difficult conversations,” Ortega-Jara said. “We need to talk about it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and lovingly listen. Research suggests acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce rather than increase suicidal thoughts.” 
I hope to one day use my story to help spread awareness about suicide and depression, especially for women of color. This essay is my first step in doing that. For those struggling, I hope you find the help you need and know you are worthy of life and love.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

More from Relationships

R29 Original Series