Born and raised in Venezuela, Ruthie was my boys’ Spanish teacher during their middle school years. My older son and her stepson are very close friends. She’s a wonderful mom, neighbor, and active member of our community — a reminder that a death by suicide can happen in any family-she and her husband actually live on Normal Street. I don’t know too many people who haven’t been affected by suicide directly or very closely (my great aunt and my godfather died this way). Yet it still carries such a strong stigma that surviving loved ones often experience extreme levels of isolation. To have a healthy, beautiful child end his or her own life is almost too terrifying to think about. I know I have a hard time imagining what it could possibly be like and how I would cope. Which is why I appreciate Ruthie for sharing her inner experience so intimately. And with her gift for language and translation, there is something extra poignant and poetic in her words.
What is your child’s name?
Ni Kadek Djaruna Chandra Smith.
When did she die and how old was she when she died?
Djaruna died almost two years ago. She was 21 and a half.
I got off work and went to her place and she wasn’t there. I called the police and said my daughter’s missing, and I went home, and I walked straight to her. There were six other people there at the house and nobody found her. But I did.
How did she die?
I would say… I’ve been saying a lot of things… She died herself. Or she transitioned herself. Or she suicided. Or she suicided herself. NOT committed. Big teacher on this end. It’s very fascinating how so many people who have had a loved-one die this way use the word committed. Whenever I hear that, I often say something like, I invite you to use a different word, if that works.
How did you find out?
It was Sunday, the 19th of July, and I went off to work that morning. Around 10 or 11, her sister called me and said, “Mom, where’s Djuna?” And I said, “I don’t know, you slept in the room with her last night. She should be at work.” And she said, “Well, she’s not at work and her phone is here.” And I said I’d be home at 12:30, in the meantime, go look for her. So I got off work and went to her place and she wasn’t there. I called the police and said my daughter’s missing, and I went home, and I walked straight to her. There were six other people there at the house and nobody found her. But I did. And I screamed. It was more than a scream. It was gigantic. The police came. A friend who was staying helped me bring her down, because she had hung herself. She was beyond… it had been an hour or two. She was already stiffening. That’s how I found out.
Did anything help prepare you for this?
That moment? No. But contemplating death, seriously, is the key to live. I’d done it for myself, in the Buddhist way, but I never had done it for my loved ones. But everything, in some perspective, everything has already happened. We already have a finite time in this life, we know this. Well, we don’t know this but we can contemplate that.
I had no idea. I mean, I knew she was battling some depression, some inward thing that had happened before. We had scheduled to go to a specialist up in Seattle. But I believe it was her time, it was her time to go.
What has helped?
I feel like I have been blessed by her. I believe she has not allowed me to feel a lot of guilt or blame or shame or any of those things. I haven’t had nightmares. It was like, nope. What has helped me is my search, looking for people and perspectives that don’t have a negative judgment on a death like this. Advaita, or non-dualism, has been the resonating factor for me, because while we feel we totally have choice, we actually don’t have choice. Everything is already pre-destined. So I feel super grateful that she came through me, for as long as she did. She’s the closest person to me, and 21 and a half years I got to be with her. Not to feel sorry for myself. I mean, when you look at the past, could anything have really been any different? The more I look at it, it can’t. I mean, when I start to go there, to the questions of why or how I could have prevented it, the possibilities are just millions, endless. It just didn’t feel good to go there. It was like, no. No, no, no.
Being with other parents who have lost a child helps. Every story is different, but the gravity of a tragedy like this, there’s an “I know.” Or anyone who has lost a person to suicide. There’s a lineage. I’m part of this lineage. I’ve made some new good friends. Certain old friends have shown up, that’s been helpful.
I went through a big wave of having to tell everyone about what we’ve been through, and this sort of magic happened, like someone at the supermarket would say, yes, my son died of suicide, too. It’s so much more prevalent than we think. Every other person has thought of suicide or tried it. I’m totally for avoiding it if it’s avoidable. And I really believe in my daughter’s case, it was her time, that’s how it is.
It helped to have Djuna’s body at the house for three days. There was ceremony. Community. Support. Food. We had her in a boat, with dry ice and flowers. We tried to honor poa, the Buddhist traditions of caring for her body, not touching her feet so much, helping her spirit leave through her head. We didn’t want to close off, we invited people in. So many people said “this has changed my life.” It was about how to process death, because no matter what, it’s always going to be difficult and tragic, so as much as we can soften the edges, the easier it will be. We walked her over to the crematorium, which is an ugly place, next to a parking lot, it’s so jarring. I was grateful it was so close to our house, but still, it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m actually passionate about this now… I wish we had more choices for those places, somewhere beautiful, for us, owned by us, with a garden. Maybe I’ll end up helping to create something like that.
I went through a big wave of having to tell everyone about what we’ve been through, and this sort of magic happened, like someone at the supermarket would say, yes, my son died of suicide, too. It’s so much more prevalent than we think. Every other person has thought of suicide or tried it. I’m totally for avoiding it if it’s avoidable. And I really believe in my daughter’s case, it was her time, that’s how it is. We’re born with a due date and we die, we have a death date. I feel my daughter knew her time was close. She knew for two years. She tried to stay… But when it happens, it happens, that’s it. And if we accept that, we celebrate. We celebrate.
I really believe I owe it to my daughter not to suffer. I owe it to her to live as fully as I can. The best thing we can do to honor our children is to really get to know who we are and live our lives fully. And identify the thoughts and conditions and beliefs that cause us to cave in, to suffer, to close up.
I feel really blessed because I know how to live simply so I was able to stop and not go off to work. I didn’t have to stay on the treadmill. I could stop and deeply honor the experience.
What hasn’t helped?
If I could tell people what helps versus what doesn’t help, I would say, it’s good to show up. To not have the fear. Or even with the fear, show up. Make the phone call. Knock on the door. Not to stand behind that wall. Talking about her, asking. But I get it, it’s awkward for people. I feel like I have a pretty good sense of smell, like if people think suicide is cowardly or whatever. A lot of people want to know what happened to her to sort of box it up, so they can secure themselves and their family. But that’s not how it works.
This is my journey. This is our journey. It’s not pretty. It’s painful and it’s tragic. But it’s one of our diamond pieces, with incredible heart and wisdom and strength.
How have you changed?
It’s stopped me. I’m not afraid of dying. Everything that was important is not. The grace behind the tragedy is crazy big. I keep telling people whose child has died, we have a free ticket! It’s a tragedy, yes, AND we get to really reflect on things like who are we, what is the body, what part of us dies? It’s made me reflect on what’s going on. Nothing matters so much. Really. I mean, my precious love has died, what is this life all about? This is my journey. This is our journey. It’s not pretty. It’s painful and it’s tragic. But it’s one of our diamond pieces, with incredible heart and wisdom and strength. There’s that edge where nothing matters and I’m not taking care of myself, resigned. A story I’m buying into that I can never be happy again. But there’s also a part of me that’s really light, like, this world doesn’t even matter, just enjoy! Really embracing that. But I think about her all the time. All the time. Always. Okay, maybe not all of the time, but most of the time. When I’m quiet, she comes through.
I am not the same person. I am not the same person. It’s everything up until that moment and everything after. And that is how it is.
Do you still feel connected to her?
Yes, I do. I don’t have superpowers and I haven’t gone to psychics and things like that. I just trust this (points to her heart). My memories, my love. She’s so much in my presence.
What would you want people who haven’t been through this experience to know?
In our society, we do not contemplate death. We’re all going to die, and we really don’t know when. We’re in an age that doesn’t honor that, the denial is everywhere, in our language. My passion is sharing more on how to process death, how to have a more beautiful ending. Everything is always dying. Life happens, good things and bad things. We want the good things. We’re trained to think we have control. So learning not to attach, this will not be here forever. Whatever can bring us closer to that truth. I would never wish this on anyone, yet if I had to do this over, I would in a heartbeat.
What do you want people who didn’t know Djuna to know about her?
Super gentle, fun, pure, deep. She made people crack up laugh. People loved to be around her. She was sensitive, creative. The closest thing to an enlightened being that I’ve been around. She wasn’t perfect but she was a gentle, gentle soul who did not want to hurt anyone… She was a source of courage and inspiration. I love when people tell me what they remember about her, talk about her, say they wish she were here.
How do you respond when people ask you how many kids you have?
Two. Definitely. If someone asked how my daughters were doing, I used to say Djuna’s not here, she’s with god. But lately, the last couple of weeks, I say, she’s here, she’s great. What’s she doing? I don’t know, she’s doing everything. That is very true to me. And other times it’s very important for people to know my biggest love is not here, and it’s gone like this.