I sat across from one of my girlfriends at my kitchen table. I asked her about her life and she updated me with the usual mix of exciting stories and struggles of a young 20-something. And then it was my turn.
"So how are you?" She asked. I saw the all-too-familiar flicker of fear and pity in her eyes.
I don't remember what I said, but it must have been something about how the days were still hard, but I was trying to be optimistic. There was no way to tell her that nothing in my life felt right.
Because nothing was the way it had been. Four months earlier my mom had died by suicide.
She took her own life on a warm July night. We'd talked on the phone just a few hours before, but I hadn't noticed any red flags. At the time, her talking to me about how I would find my own path when raising my children, how I would do some things like her, and some things opposite of her hadn't been any more than a mother musing about her daughter's future. The voicemail she left me while I laughed with friends at a birthday party wasn't particularly concerning. I decided I would call her back in the morning.
I called her back in the morning not knowing she had been dead for hours.
Maybe I thought about this as my friend asked me how I was doing. My eyes glazed over and she took my hand.
"I'll be okay," I reassured her, sick of the pity and the puppy dog eyes.
"I know you will," she said, "because you're a survivor. You are a survivor. One day when you're on the other side of all of this it will all make sense."
I smiled and thanked her, wiping tears from my eyes and changing the subject. And I wanted to run screaming from the room.
When someone goes through the tragedy that is losing a loved one to suicide they are called a "survivor of suicide loss." I became a survivor of suicide loss on July 19, 2011. I was 23 years old and my mother Joanie had ended her own life.
In an instant I went from a girl curling her hair to a person lying on the floor feeling broken, holding on for dear life as the world around her shattered.
I understand why we're called survivors. The trauma of suicide is complicated. In addition to the pain everyone experiences after loss, we often face violent deaths, unorganized wills, stigma and family tensions. So we survive. We survive because there is no other way.
Surviving suicide began when I picked myself up off the cold, concrete floor after hearing that my mother was dead. It continued as I rushed home to be with my brother, called family and friends, sorted through complicated legal documents and planned a funeral. I stiffened my shoulders and tightened my jaw as I dealt with terrible decision after terrible decision. I survived as I transitioned back into my life, struggled to work and interact with my friends and loved ones the way I once had. Surviving was my only choice when I woke up feeling happy only to feel the sudden, crushing weight of grief as I remembered the awful truth that my mom was gone and was never coming back.
In those first few months every day involved gritting my teeth, squaring my shoulders and grasping for breath while waves of emotion knocked me off my feet.
Surviving came naturally to me. I became an expert at surviving long before my mom ended her life. She was complicated. She wanted desperately to be good, generous and kind. Sometimes she was, but she also battled mental illness and addiction. Her demons created chaos and I was often left managing various crises on her behalf.
In many ways her suicide felt like another one of her emergencies that I needed to push through. Then the dust settled, her affairs were organized and the to-do list was finished. The crisis of her suicide had passed, but the reality of her being gone was just beginning. I realized that my grief was never going to go away. I wanted to run from the room when I was called a survivor because I was so afraid of having to survive for the rest of my life. I was tired of surviving, but I had no idea how to live any other way.
In the summer of 2013 I decided to volunteer in memory of my mom. It had been two years since my mom's suicide and I was feeling disconnected from the memory of her. She had taught me the importance of volunteering. She was a pediatric nurse practitioner who often went above and beyond in her patient's lives. She cared about her friends and neighbors and would have done anything to help them, even when she couldn't help herself.
I signed up for a volunteer activity that had nothing to do with suicide and had everything to do with the way my mom lived and how I wanted to remember her. I spent the day painting an elementary school and it changed my life. For the first time in a long time I felt connected to the way my mom lived instead of the way that she died. I felt connected to my future in a hopeful way
I wondered if volunteering might help other people who have experienced the trauma of loss and I founded Hope After Project. At Hope After Project we build memorial community service projects to help those who are grieving find hope. Each project is custom built in memory of their loved one. Since founding the program I've had the honor of seeing people come together and connect with their communities over loss. I've watched as grievers bravely step into the sunshine and hold their grief in a way that makes sense to them. At every project I see the power of community and service transform hearts.
At every Hope After Project I find myself feeling grateful for the journey I'm on and the opportunity to help other people. I know I'm doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing with my life. At Hope After Projects I never feel like a survivor, I feel like a volunteer.
I survived the trauma of my mother's suicide, but I volunteer for my life. And that changes everything.
Let me be clear, my grief did not vanish when I founded Hope After Project. The pain of being motherless is still with me every day, although it is more subtle than it was in the beginning. No amount of volunteering could fill the void I felt on my wedding day or change the twinge of sadness I feel listening to my unborn child's heartbeat knowing this child will never know the woman who was their grandmother. Being of service doesn't erase that pain, nothing ever will, but it does change it.
There's no need to survive my life anymore. I volunteer to embrace missing my mom because it is the price I'm willing to pay in exchange for the gift of loving her. I accept that I will always grieve the memory of my mom so I volunteer to give her a very special place in my heart. I volunteer to walk alongside others in grief because of all the tremendous people who walked with me in my darkest hours. I volunteer to create a safe and sacred place at every Hope After Project and to let the hope that is felt there wash over me because it is the only way for me to make sense of my loss.
I volunteer because it gives me a choice where surviving did not.
Today I do not consider myself a survivor, but rather someone who survived. Today I am a volunteer.
Hope After Project accepts for requests for memorials all over the United States. To begin the process email your story of loss to firstname.lastname@example.org
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
If you have a story about living with mental illness that you'd like to share with HuffPost readers, email us at email@example.com. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.