By Khary Penebaker
I am a 37-year-old man and I don’t remember my mom. I don’t know her birthday. I don’t know her voice, her touch, her smell. I don’t know much about her. On September 8, 1978, she committed suicide with a gun that my grandfather had given her. She died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, alone in her car. She left behind an infant who would never get to grow up with his mom.
For most of my life, I have struggled with two questions: how much could I be worth if my mom wasn’t willing to push through her depression, and why she did this to me? Neither question really has an answer—or at least an answer that would be worthwhile, given the fact that it wouldn’t bring her back or make this never-ending pain go away.
I have only had two real conversations about my mom and what happened to her. The first occurred in January of 1996 when I was a senior in high school. I had been snooping around my father’s things and stumbled upon her death certificate. I knew my mother committed suicide with a gun, but reading the death certificate meant learning for the first time what exactly had happened without any sugar-coating. After reading it, I felt like my already shaky existence was thrown into a whirlwind of more self-doubt and even greater grief. I told my father what I had found and that sparked the first and the last conversation we had about her. I could tell it was hard for him to talk about, just as it was hard for me to hear. I didn’t want to press him on it because I felt maybe it was easier on both of us if we just avoided the talk so we could pretend the pain wasn’t there.
The second conversation was in 2000 with my grandmother—the first time I had asked her about my mom. She told me some fun stories and tried to fill in some blanks, but she knew that a few hours of a conversation wouldn’t erase the two decades of time I had lost with my mother.
I have never blamed my mother’s death on the gun itself. However, I do wonder if things would have been different had she not had access to it since she had a long history of depression. Suicide is often an act of impulse; if that gun hadn’t been there maybe she would have pushed through that low point and been alive today. Suicide attempts committed with a firearm are twenty-one times more likely to result in a fatality than several other methods, including suffocation (69%), falls (31%), and poisoning/overdose (2%). When parents store their guns safely, they dramatically lower the chance of accidental shootings and suicides in their homes. But more than two million American children live in homes with unsecured guns, and for them and their families, preventable deaths are a real threat.
I wish I could go back in time and tell my grandparents to secure that gun so my mom couldn’t get to it. I wish I could have told my mom everything was going to be okay and that I was worth living for… but I can’t. I have to live every day with lingering, unanswerable questions.
I don’t wish this pain or the emptiness I often feel on my worst enemy. My father eventually remarried and, while my new mom has been a godsend, I will always long for the opportunity to hug my mom, to kiss her, to take in her smell and the way she feels, to know her, to see myself in her, to have her meet her grandkids. I want something to remember her by other than old pictures, which usually just trigger a wave of nearly unbearable emotion. Her suicide robbed me of part of myself.
Despite a difficult start to my life, I have been very fortunate. I am married with three awesome kids. My wife loves me, even with this burden I have to bear. There is an immense amount of security and reassurance in that alone.
Beyond my wife and kids, I also find comfort in helping others who have been personally affected by gun violence. Recently, I became a volunteer Survivor Outreach Leader for Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety in Wisconsin. In this role, I am connecting with family members of victims and survivors of gun violence to give them support and help them, if they choose, to become advocates for gun safety.
Before my involvement with Everytown, I practically never spoke about or even let myself think of my mother. But, during the training for the position, I had the opportunity to meet others who had been through similar tragedies, and I shared my story with them, confronting it head on. The support I received—and continue to receive—from them has empowered me in ways I never could have imagined. I didn’t know that my experience was something I could open up to anyone about, and learning that I’m not alone in this journey has made all the difference to me. I am looking forward to providing this same support to others.
If you or anyone you know has been personally affected by gun violence and would like to share your story with Moms Demand Action, please email [email protected].