Author Laura Trujillo on mourning her mother after her suicide

USA Today editor Laura Trujillo talks about grief and motherhood in a new book, "Stepping Back from the Ledge"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 8, 2022 10:00AM (EDT)

Silhouetted hiker overlooks Arizona's Grand Canyon (Getty Images/Mark Watson/Highlux)
Silhouetted hiker overlooks Arizona's Grand Canyon (Getty Images/Mark Watson/Highlux)

Note: This story deals with serious themes, including suicide, and may not be suitable for all readers. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

On an April day ten years ago, Laura Trujillo's mother took herself to a ledge in the Grand Canyon — and jumped off to her death. She left a note in her Jeep saying, "I know this is not right but it's all I can do. Please pray for my soul." Four years later, Trujillo returned to the place, looking if not for answers, some understanding.

As Trujillo, a managing editor for USA Today, writes in her new memoir "Stepping Back from the Ledge: A Daughter's Search for Truth and Renewal," "Despite all the research, there still isn't a proven formula that can predict precisely who is going to kill themselves and who won't, which interventions work, or work for a while, and which don't, which words might save someone one day only to have them slip away the next." Yet the quest to unpack the narrative matters. It matters to loved ones left in the aftermath of suicide, it matters to the millions of people vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

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Trujillo delves into her mother's life and death, as well as her own struggles and sexual abuse, to explore the difficult legacy of grief and family trauma, and the strength and survival that are possible in their aftermath. Salon talked to her recently about what she learned when she walked in her mother's footsteps, and how she discovered that "You don't know people the way you think you know them, especially your mother."

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Your mom's suicide had a degree of forethought. What we know to the extent that is possible from people who survive attempts is that most planned it within the hour, within the half hour. That wasn't the case here.

I miss my mom a lot and I feel really grateful that I had her as long as I did, because when I look back at how much depression she had and mental health struggles, I wonder how many times had she gotten to that edge and stepped back? When my sister and I talk about it, we're like, Mom had moved the house into a trust at a certain point beforehand. She definitely had all her passwords in one place. She had a notebook for my sister, which was not like my mom. She did not have everything organized.  

When I think it seems so planned for that day, I don't know if there were times before. Her husband had a lot of firearms, so many that we would have my mom count them before I would let the kids go over there to make sure they were locked up. She had access to what would be one of the more common ways to kill yourself.  

You think, if you can get past that moment to the next moment… I've had that. I think a lot of people have that in their life where I'm almost surprised by how down I can feel and how awful, and then two hours later I'm good. She had a lot of time to think driving up to the canyon. I often think about different things like if she had a flat tire on the way, would that have delayed it enough that her brain felt a different way on that day? I don't know.

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When we talk about prevention, understanding that it can be a very transitory feeling and that it can be something that you can ride is important. There is this myth that everybody leaves a note and everybody plans it meticulously. Instead, that ideation can be something that, if someone can sit with for a little while, can pass, even if it's not healed or better.

But it gets you to that moment perhaps, where your medicine works better or you have a really good counseling appointment. What we know is from people who maybe were going to kill themselves and didn't. One guy who's done a lot of talking, I think it's Kevin Hines who   jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. He said, if  someone on the bus would've said, "How are you doing?"  he might have had that connection. It's not this inevitable thing they're getting to. It's like you get through something. I remind myself of that since I clearly have depression like my mom. Okay, well, you've been there and then you got past it.

Depression, I try to say, visits. It doesn't move in, it visits and then it's going to leave. Your brain lies to you in many ways. The truth is you've felt really crappy before and you're still here. You know that this helps you.

We talk a lot in our family about what you can put in your toolkit, and how can you build the best possible toolkit, right, for whatever is you're facing at the moment. As you say in the book, "Therapy, good people, and medicine." 

And probably luck. I'm not saying a hi and a hello saves the world, but it's really strange how you're almost carried at a certain point in your life from one person to the next person, to the next person, and they don't even know that their interactions helped you. Maybe you didn't know it at the time.

"When the ranger was telling me, they were like, 'Your mom was really considerate. She knew where to jump so she wouldn't land on a trail.'"

I'm not saying that is what prevents it. I think it gets one tiny part. We know how important connection is. That's where I feel really grateful for people who just ask me to go for a walk or whatever. When I do that, it's a good thing to do and I want to do it. I'm not doing it as a mental health public service, but I do think it is, especially now since our lives have been difficult. I think it's been hard on everyone.

You describe in the book how your mom died. When you went back to the spot later, what's the word that the ranger used to describe her?

"Considerate." Thoughtful. And that was my mom, I guess. She was a nurse, which I think defined her in many ways. Caretaker. When you say that she was a nurse that helps you understand who she was.

The day that she killed herself, she pinned a note to herself with her husband's name and phone number, so that when she was found, it would be easy to identify her and let her family know. When the ranger was telling me, they were like, "Your mom was really considerate. She knew where to jump so she wouldn't land on a trail." She knew she wasn't going to harm people where she landed. And she also put a note with the car. She wanted to die, but she didn't want to cause a lot of trouble in it, which it's so weird to think of because her brain was going against everything your body wants to do, which is live. If you're sick or whatever, you want to live. Her brain was taking her the other direction yet she did some not logical things, but helpful things. That is really perplexing to me, but also indicative of who my mom was. 

It also speaks to the paradox that is suicide. She seemed in pretty good spirits, and that is often actually a warning sign. That can be a real red flag that we need to know and identify and recognize particularly in people who we know may be vulnerable.

If everyone who knew my mom had a conversation about my mom together, if everyone would've said what was going on, we clearly would've been like, she needs help. But each of us knew one little part and my mom kept the rest. I knew one part, that she was having a hard time with coming to terms that I had told her about the sexual abuse from her husband. My sister knew she was having a hard time because her husband and sick and she was taking care of him. Each of us knew one little part of my mom struggling, but we didn't know the entire thing. I think that's true all the time. It's not so simple to be like, "Everyone's fighting a battle that you don't know," but it is true, even with your own mother. 

I like to think that if we all talked, maybe we would have realized that she needed more help than she was getting. I don't know because, well, you can't. That was an interesting thing to learn when I started getting some of the pieces together. I was feeling all this guilt and my sister was like, "I lived in the same city with her and I didn't know these things." I knew that she was sad, of course. I knew that she was having a hard time, but your brain doesn't immediately go to, "She's having a hard time, therefore she's going to kill herself." In hindsight, you can back it up and look at that and see maybe there were signs that we all missed or didn't see to the extent we should have, but you can't really do that. I tried for ten years.

We can all help each other, but we can't save each other.

You write about the sexual abuse that you endured for years at the hands of your mother's husband. You had recently come to a reckoning with your mom, communicating with her about it. How do you look at that experience now that they're both gone?

I will always carry guilt about my mom's death because I didn't know was she not strong enough to know that information at the time. I've gone through a lot of therapy in the past ten years, so I know it was not my job to protect her. Had I known that she was in such a fragile state, would I have told her that at that time? I think I wouldn't, but it's really hard to say what you would or would not do.

"Everyone does the best they can with what they know at the time. My mom was as good of a mother as she could have been with what she knew at the time."

Her husband died about three months after she did. My sister will often say, "If mom could've just held on, do you think that would've been enough? Would that have taken some of that stress off her?" You can "What if?" yourself to feeling really bad. I will say it is important for me to look at, "What's the story that's been in my head and what are the actual facts?" 

Everyone does the best they can with what they know at the time. Most humans do, not everyone, but I think most people do the best that they could. My mom was as good of a mother as she could have been with what she knew at the time. And I'm a better mom than I was five years ago or ten years ago, because you just learn things.

Sometimes I feel bad or I'll apologize to the kids like, "I'm really sorry that after Grandma died that there were times that I wasn't present." I was making dinner and going to work so I was like, "I'm a fine mom." But I wasn't, and I was just kind of going through the steps. That was the best I could do at that moment. It's hard to not beat yourself up over that, but to recognize, okay, but you're not doing that now. You're acknowledging it and moving forward and trying to talk more about feelings with the kids than my family did, which was none. 

When you talk about everybody doing the best that they can, that never feels more evident than when someone is going through a loss. The grief of that is not necessarily understood or acknowledged, even though we all go through it.

As adults you think, it's expected at a certain age that you're going to lose a parent. I'm lucky I still have my dad, but it is such a weird relationship to lose, no matter how old you are. It's really hard to not have a mom. You know that.

My mom and I were estranged for a long time and she had a lot mental health issues. Whether it's that or whether it's because your mom died by suicide or whatever the case may be, the complexities around grief and loss get thrown into the ways in which death can make other people uncomfortable.

I think we always want to protect people when they ask something. For a while, I never even said that my mom died by suicide. I would just say she died. It wasn't like I was a kid, so people were like, "Okay. You're old enough to have your mom die." I didn't want to talk about it.

"People have two reactions when you say that someone died by suicide. Some just slowly back out of the conversation, like 'I do not want to even physically be here any more.' What I've actually been really surprised by are the number of people who have had a suicide of someone they love."

People have two reactions when you say that someone died by suicide. Some just slowly back out of the conversation, like "I do not want to even physically be here any more." What I've actually been really surprised by are the number of people who have had a suicide of someone they love. I guess I have been lucky to not know how prevalent it is. Talking about it gives people a spot to talk about it too. I feel like you should be kind and useful in the world. Even when I was telling my dad, his wife said, "My brother killed himself." I hope that just talking about it, that for my dad's wife to be able to talk about her brother a little bit, because I honestly didn't even know she had a brother, it just opens that space for people.  

People carry things with them and people don't often talk about suicide. We talk about it more than we ever have, de-stigmatizing mental health and suicide. We still have a ways to go. We're great at it, but I'm not going to call into work and be like, I just can't really do life today. I will say, I have a sniffle or I have a bad cough, but until we can actually say that, "I need to take the day and walk and maybe have an extra therapy session," we haven't de-stigmatized mental health to that point where it's just health.

You talk about the role of us in the media. So much has changed just in the decade since your mom died.  We still have so far to go. As you point out, people still say, "Suicide is selfish," or treat it as this macabre point of interest. As a professional, what do you try to do? How do you try to lead in communicating about this?

When I started in the business, it was like, you don't write about suicides. At a certain point you realize, okay, well you do do it in certain cases. Someone famous, if traffic is stopped, if it's in a public place. I do think journalists, and I'm not speaking for everyone, we're afraid to write about it. We don't want to make something worse and there's a hundred stories you could do on any given day. Does it make sense to write about a suicide and make it worse or not be able to explain it or is this going to be more harmful to the family?

I don't know exactly what the right answer is. I think it's important to write about, once you give context. I will say that the media now almost always has a trigger warning or "If you need help, call this number." And that was never thought about years ago.

It's important to give us the language to discuss it in a way that's responsible and doesn't make people feel, not ashamed, but just a feeling of guilt. Did you not do enough or did people not do enough? Or how did you not know that about your kid, or about your mom? You don't know people the way you think you know them, especially your mother. It is really weird to think of your mom as a person, and not just your mom.

More memoir and family stories: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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