Love in the Archives: A Patchwork of True Stories about Suicide Loss
by Eileen Vorbach Collins
Apprentice House Press, 2023
Reviewed by Casey Mulligan Walsh
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens and young adults ages ten to thirty-four. Today, nearly twenty percent of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide.
Though these numbers are shocking and important, no statistic will ever capture the heartbreaking fallout that surrounds the death of a child who has taken their own life.
Love in the Archives: A Patchwork of True Stories About Suicide Loss by Eileen Vorbach Collins evokes the visceral grief of the suicide of a fifteen-year-old daughter, the most tragic and gut-wrenching of losses, while also leaving room for hope and even humor. As the mother of an almost-adult who died at age twenty, though not by suicide, I deeply related to the sense of one’s world having ended in a single moment, one we mothers relive with the hope of rewriting again and again.
A prolific essayist, Collins brings readers through these moments with skill and care, never plunging us so far into her own at times all-consuming despair that we abandon reading. Instead, in each essay she finds new pathways into the truth of her experience, by turns sad and funny, despondent and bursting with life. In every case, love is the underpinning that carries her—and us—through to a satisfying and genuine close, though of course her grief has no end.
In addition to exploring the death of her daughter and its impact on her and her son from myriad perspectives, Collins reaches back to her own childhood and employs themes that include interfaith marriage and parenting after divorce. These leave us with a well-rounded reading journey we’re grateful to have taken. She also weaves in her love of the natural world—cicadas, crows and cardinals and birds of all sorts, lizards, trees and plants, and her beloved dogs—all of which give her hope, a doorway into reflecting on her daughter’s life, and a way to find peace amidst the sorrow.
In varied forms that range from traditional first-person past-tense narratives to third person fictionalized accounts of her own experience to those in her son’s voice, her daughter’s imagined thoughts (a relatable portrait of a perfectly snarky early teen), and her daughter’s own writing, these essays indeed form a patchwork that, like a quilt, result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Love in the Archives is a stellar addition to the canon of grief books related to suicide loss. It joins other important works on this topic, including Carla Fine’s No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One, about Fine’s husband’s suicide, and The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide by Gayle Brandeis, whose mother took her own life shortly after Brandeis gave birth to her youngest child. Each of these books is skillfully crafted in its own unique style—while Fine relies mostly on narrative form, Brandeis alternates narratives with letters to her mother and transcription of a documentary her mother was obsessed with producing at the time of her death. Collins’ use of linked essays allows her to approach Lydia’s death from multiple perspectives. In addition, those still reeling from loss, whose focus is impaired by grief, are able to read in small doses.
Without the proverbial pillow over her chest, Collins shares her regrets, her fears, her worry that there was something she could have done or not done that would have changed the outcome. Love in the Archives steers clear of platitudes and solutions du jour. Instead, we get a glimpse into the never-ending process of learning to love a child who has died while refusing to ignore the very real regret that will forever walk beside that love. In “Anniversaries,” Collins writes:
“This year, I am making an effort to not try to understand the reasons she took her life when it had just barely begun. It’s easy to say I’m thankful for the gift of her, but not so easy to always believe it. I wonder how my own life and my son’s would be different had we not loved and lost her. Had we never known the unfathomable pain of that loss.”
Collins deftly examines her regrets over her own childhood behavior in “Hold You Close, Tiny Dancer,” placing it beside the things she wishes she had said or done with her own daughter, the sort of hindsight that can both torment and comfort:
“If I could have one more day with my daughter, I would hold her tight. If she fought, I would not let go until she stopped. I would hold her until she melted into my embrace and I would convince her life is good. That she is good. That’s what I would do. If I could have one more day, I would dance with her, a Viennese waltz. We’d spin and spin until we were dizzy and the colors ran together and everything was beautiful again.”
Yet she also paints a loving portrait of a girl burdened with perspicacity, who felt things deeply—maybe too deeply—and whose gifts were evident early on. In “Like a Miracle,” she writes, “She saw the many parts that make up the whole, like I did once when peeling an orange after dropping acid. Each tiny piece exquisite in its separateness. A million minuscule miracles in one orange.”
When we read Lydia’s own words in “Because I Am a Woman,” we feel deeply the loss of a special soul:
“I believe faith is what enables us to understand eternity,” [Lydia wrote]. “To become lost in the words of a prayer, to become the prayer, to lose control of your body, rocking back and forth like a small ship above deep green water, to swoon under the pressure of the melody and to feel the words wrap around the human mind and body, a tension too great to be contained in one person or in a thousand–this is to feel God.”
Perhaps most poignant are the pieces written in second person, where Collins speaks directly to Lydia—at her grave (“I Can’t Believe”/”Nag Champa 2021”), about her love for trees (“A Tree Named Friendly”), recounting the story of how she learned to laugh again (“Laughing Lessons”), and worrying whether her grief was holding her daughter back (“You Light Up My Life”).
By the time we reach “Acrostic,” the collection’s final essay, when Collins reminisces with Lydia, much in the way families sit around living rooms and tell stories of those who have died, we’re listening hard. We’re pretty sure Lydia’s listening, too.