How Long?

“Just when you think, ‘Maybe I’m going to make it,’ you’re riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man.’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.”

Joe Biden on the constant weight of grief.

Joe Biden talks about grief triggers. He talks about music, flowers, and the night reminding him of his loss. There are some triggers in this world you just cannot hide from. Not if you are going to live.

This is the seventeenth year since my dad’s suicide. When his death date, April 17th,  rolled around this year, I felt it more—I think—because the date landed on the same day of the week, Friday, as that day. Next year, I’m sure I’ll tell you another reason.

I’ve written how Easter bothers me, especially the Passion of Easter. Sunday School lessons on the betrayal and suffering of Christ weave around the guilt I have about my father. It just kills me to think about my father’s mindset that day. I really believe I’ve developed a phobia to the Easter season. The death of Christ isn’t something a Christian can avoid.

Pressing down my feelings and pretending everything is just fine doesn’t work. For me trying to stop a tide of grief is like trying to make kudzu stop growing. I can’t stop it unless I kill all my feelings and the earth around me. The only way I’ve found to get on the other side of the pain is to let go and just grieve. After the storm of feelings pass, I feel lighter. Perhaps that’s the way of the Holy Spirit, too. Being there with you as your soul heals; even providing the triggers so you can heal.

Suicide grief is not a straight path, but it does level off. My first year or two were overrun with turmoil, filled with visions of his death. That rawness subsides as time goes by. When I think of my father now, I— more than not—remember his sweet voice and his laughter that always sounded like water bubbling over pebbles. I think how he used to make up comical names for my sister and me. I think first of helping him work on something in his garage, not finding him there at the end.

Joe Biden also said. “There will come a day – I promise you, and your parents as well – when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye,” Biden says. “It will happen.”

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Shame

“Beyond the combination of normal grief and traumatic grief, survivors of suicide suffer an additional insult to injury—the societal stigma that surround suicide. It may be relatively easy to tell a friend or coworker that a person died in a car accident, or of leukemia; it can very difficult to form words, “She killed herself.””

Grieving a Suicide, by Alber Y. Hsu

I went in for my yearly physical this morning.  The nurse went about getting my family medical history.

Did your father have heart disease? It was her first question.

Yes, I said.  Then those loud thoughts in my mind chanted.  Don’t ask. Don’t ask. Don’t ask.

Several years ago, my husband and I bought some life insurance policies; a nurse came to our house to take some vials of blood and took our family history.

How did your father die?  She asked.

He died of a gunshot wound to the head, I said. My answer tumbled out of my mouth full of anger. She looked like I had slapped her.

It’s been seventeen years since my father’s suicide, and those questions still bother me.  Some ask if he’s still alive and when I answer in a monotone no, they might ask how.  The answer sticks in my throat like someone’s stuffed cotton down it. I am just now realizing my anxiety comes from shame.  It’s one thing to feel shame; it’s another to realize I’m actually feeling shame.

Ahh, shame is slippery and is such a shitty feeling. It comes out sideways. I have wanted to blame others for making me feel shame.  Like that poor nurse.  You know.  How dare she ask me that question!  Or shame can stay inside and constipate.  I have pretended I’m fine and not let friends comfort me. Sometimes, I’ve had the insane thought that even God couldn’t comfort me.

Anyone who’s lost a loved one to suicide needs and deserves comfort not shame.

Guilt Triggers

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. (Luke 24:36-37)

This was part of our Sunday school lesson yesterday. Jesus has appeared alive after being crucified; now the disciples are holed up in a room talking about it. Our teacher yesterday described how all of the disciples must have felt at this time. They all had betrayed Jesus in one way or the other by not speaking up.

That was about as far as I could listen before my throat started getting thick and my bottom lip began quivering. These end parts of the Gospels hit too close to home for me. Yesterday, I gathered up my belongings and said with that voice I hate that’s all quivery and weak, “I apologize, this is just too hard.”

Last week, I left early, too, only I didn’t apologize because last week I tried to push everything down and pretend I was fine. That resulted in having a full-assed panic attack right there in the middle of the Sunday school class. I ran out with the church’s bible still in my hand. Afterward, I was embarrassed and thought myself a drama queen.

The above verses are a guilt trigger for me. I know exactly how they felt—they blamed themselves. I don’t think about failing Jesus when I study that passage. I think about how I failed my father who killed himself seventeen years ago. I still suffer from the guilt of not understanding how depressed he was, not insisting that he get help, not doing something. I think there is terror in that kind of guilt because it digs in like a diseased tick.

I am glad I went to church yesterday and heard this verse. Even though it hurt like all hell, I learned something. I’m triggered by feeling like a disciple, and not by the resurrection of Christ, which is what Easter is all about, that Jesus died and came back. Jesus was human and is God as well. It is complicated, and it is simple. Jesus isn’t my dad. My dad isn’t a God. Maybe I can work on untangling them in my mind now.

The death of someone I love cracked a hole in my heart and my soul. Stuff gets jumbled up. My dad killed himself just a week or two after Easter. I fear that holiday and the days afterward when disciples feel so guilty.

Yesterday, I also heard that Jesus said “peace be with you” to his miserable and frightened followers.

Therefore do not let anyone [I think includes myself] judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. (Colossians 2:16)

Cries and Sighs

Let my cries and sighs heal me and restore me and bring me to joy. Let me never again succumb to bitterness or depressing thoughts, God, show me life’s meaning. (Rebbe Nachman of Breslow)

This coming Friday will mark the anniversary of my father’s suicide, gone now for seventeen years.  The calendar this year is the same as it was that year, with Easter coming the week before he died. I am so grateful for the space of time between his death and now. The first year after he died, I was caught—every day— in the rawness of grief, and in the post-traumatic-stress of losing him to suicide.  The second and third years the grief washed in and out like the tide. I suffered with periodic depressions all through the year. Now it’s mostly around Easter and his death date.

Things still remind me of his suicide.  I’ve worked at desensitizing my tender feelings as much as possible, but every year around this time, I feel irritable and emotional. Movies, books, family, friends, and Easter are big reminders. Some little thing like my husband not listening to me will tie me in knots for days.

A minister where I used to go to church did that suicide-mimicking thing from the pulpit.  I finally drummed up enough courage to let him know the way he joked up there during his sermons bothered me.  He reacted insensitively, and said I needed to get over my dad’s suicide. I stared at him, pushing back the desire to jump up and leave. I stared at him, thinking of every cuss word in my large profane vocabulary. I think I stared at him for a long, long time. It might have only been a minute.  But my knees were weak and my mouth was speechless.  Finally, we started talking, beyond my anger at his quick remark and his callousness, beyond his reaction that I was criticizing his sermons. He apologized. He said, still, he was trying to tell me I needed to live in joy and not let things hurt so.

I wish I could say that his insensitivity is the reason I left his church. It’s so much easier to blame someone than to look deep within, and I did kinda do that for a while. But things always go deeper. Every year, I want to not do this holiday. I want to push past Easter. I want to push past the anniversary of Daddy’s suicide.  I hear how people say they are so grateful for Jesus dying on the cross for their salvation.  His dying breaks my heart, and guilt pours out of me nearly as much as the year Daddy died. I can’t say I am grateful for anyone dying for me. Mostly, my feelings just hurt.

I feel defensive that I don’t want to celebrate Easter. It seems to announce, in my mind anyway, I’m not a Christian and that I don’t love Jesus.  My epiphany today: If I didn’t love Jesus (or my dad), I wouldn’t have this grief swirling around in my brain.

     God listens, loves, and heals a grieving heart.

Closet Ghosts

 

I found the poem below in some old documents the other night while looking for something to read at my writers group.  I wrote it in 2004 and revised it a little more this week.  Daddy’s shoe was the first thing I saw when I found him.  Reading this poem in the group gave me some trouble.  No one said much in the way of helping me make it better except one person.  She told me to put the word “alone” in a line by itself.  

I’ve found it is good to talk about things that trouble me and not hide myself from them.  As I read the poem, I could feel that old shitty fear rising up in my throat, scared of something that had already happened.  Scared of how the people in my group might think. I read it as fast as my heart was beating. Someone said it was “dark,” and I said yes, I wrote it while I was in a dark place.

The same person who offered constructive thoughts on the poems I read that night wrote a note just for me to see.  These are real life experiences, don’t apologize for how you felt or express them.

When I hide away from the things that scare or trouble me, when I don’t speak what I believe or feel, then I make it easy, too easy, for me to fall back into invisibility.  Being invisible is just as terrifying as finding that one left shoe.

 

Closet Ghosts

Peering

into the closet

I found a shoe,

Alone,

resting sideways

containing my father’s foot bones.

Wanting to just close the door,

I stood focused on the one

left behind

shoe. 

 

Memories

shivered up my spine as

I watched him lace up

his one-day-in-my-life

Sunday best. 

Shoe morphed into a boot

fragile now and

cracked from years

walking construction sites.

A hard hat ghosted in,

completing the wardrobe.

 

If I could, like God,

raise up from the essence

of those shoe bones

the image of my father,

I’d ask

“why did you leave

only a shoe?

Why not a note?”

 

Karen Phillips, 2004, revised 2013

Gratitude List

           Today, I woke up feeling shame that I always dread Easter.  This year that dread seems to be at a higher level than usual.  It will be fourteen years since my father’s suicide, the Friday after Easter, and I still feel weighted down.  And even that feels shameful.
            I don’t talk much to my church friends or pastor about the reason I tend to disappear during Easter.  In a nutshell, I’ve got Daddy, Jesus, and death rolled up in a pretty tightly knitted ball.  I feel pain, so I retreat.
            This morning I thought maybe a gratitude list of what is going on in my life right now might help me out of my funk.  Here it is:
·         I am grateful that my Higher Power loves me and allows me moments of doubt as well as moments of clarity.
·         I am grateful for my marriage.
·         I am grateful that my mother is still alive and seems to be doing so well.
·         I am grateful for my decision to write even though I struggle for ideas and scenes.
·         I am grateful for the Spring season coming.  I saw buttercups sprouting this morning.
·         I am grateful for my Codependence Anonymous support groups that I attend on a regular basis. 
·         I am grateful for the friendship of my dog.
·         I am grateful for grocery stores.
·         I am grateful for new friendships.
·         I am grateful for the realization that I grieve today.

Losing a Father to Suicide

“I just adored him.” 
            Frances Moore (1998)
            Stereotypically, my father was the breadwinner; he was the person my mother used to threaten to tell of my misbehavior when I was a child; he was supposedly the man in control.  I felt he was my protector, too, and even though I am an adult now, that child-like feeling is still within my heart.  I felt he could handle anything.  I loved and adored my father.
            Some may not care for their fathers.  Some fathers are bastards.  Really there’s no easy way to deny that reality.   Either way, the loss of someone so instrumental in getting you into this world is a major event.
            To lose my father to a death of his own decision created a lot of different questions in my mind.  Could suicide be something that I might choose to do because I have his genes?  Did I mean this little to him?  Did I not love him enough?   What the hell was he thinking?
            Your father’s decision to die is not the sum total of his life.  If you adored him; allow yourself to feel the heartbreak.  If you were mixed up by his treatment of you; allow yourself to feel the confusion. 

Visiting The Grave

It took me a long time to go back to the cemetery after my father’s funeral.  I went alone not sure what my feelings would churn up.  Disbelief, anger, sadness, worry, fear, stress, all filled me. 
I brought a single rose and a shell.  One had soft, vulnerable pedals and a stem full of thorns.  One had a spiny, barbed shield surrounding an empty hole.  Both represented my heart.  I laid them against his monument.  The cemetery was quiet.  Except for several crows squawking as they jumped on the ground and then back into a tree and a muffled road noise from the busy highway, I heard nothing but the sound of my own thoughts.
“Oh, Daddy,” I cried out, “You broke my heart.  Why did you do it?” 
Just as he left nothing explaining why he killed himself, no great answer rang out from the clouds or even in my head.  I heard only the shouting crows.  Presently, their lively game of tag gave my grieving mind and aching heart a release from the emotional turmoil.  I smiled and went home.  Throughout the rest of the week the sounds and games of the crows stayed with me—especially after I read this bible verse. 
Consider the ravens:  They do not sow or reap; they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them.  And how much more valuable you are than birds!  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?  Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?  Luke 12:24-26.

Contagious Depression after the Suicide of a Loved One

            You might have called my father an adventurer.  Certainly his suicide caused me to explore a new whelm of thought.  Before he ended his life, death to me was something that came swift or slow either unwanted or welcomed.  The key idea, though, was that death came; it wasn’t an option.  Something innocent in me had the notion that no one person had that much power as to end their own life.  Death, like birth, came from God.
            The first few years after Daddy died, I went through my own depression.  I suffered through countless child-like angers at family and friends.  Little problems or stresses brought about a thought of how easily death now could be called upon.  Suicide or perhaps more the fear of it carried a heavy weight in my thoughts. 
The fear that I could simply kill myself sat upon my shoulder like a maliciously smiling monkey, chattering extreme suggestions into my ear.  I was scared of my own thoughts.  Dangerous thoughts came from the mile-wide crack in my soul; I wasn’t in full control of myself.  I felt no one in my family would understand, but they, too, were just as shocked by my father’s death.    
            Rather than death, I sought help.  I began talking, first to counselors, then to a priest, and then to friends.  It was important that the people I chose to talk with about my father’s suicide and my fears were not dependent upon my being ok—that I didn’t have to put up a front for them.  I needed to tell the truth; I was horribly afraid that suicide was genetic.  These trustworthy, objective people allowed me to safely expose my fear and be as weak as I felt.  They listened, nodded, and assured me that I wasn’t crazy—and that I had more strength than I realized.  The fears eased up as I shed light upon them.
            The thing about suicide is that its bleak aftermath wants to spread like a bad cold or influenza.  Get help.  Talk to someone immune to your pain.

Family Reactions

            The weekend between my father’s death and his funeral, my mother’s house was filled with people.  Extended family, friends, neighbors, they all came.  I appreciated most of the support, except from one aunt.  She, like me, was filled with the need to take care of my mother.  It became a sick competition between us.  I resented her help.  I felt she should back off.  Uneasy, she talked too much.
Everything she said came out wrong or inconsiderate.  She bragged on how nice my husband was and how she wished we had children—knowing I couldn’t get pregnant.  She realized her insensitivity and apologized.  Conversationally, she said someone she was close to suffered from depression and thought he might kill himself, too.  Her comments seemed casual to me.  I couldn’t process the things she said.  In my mind, it had only been a few hours since I had just found Daddy’s body.  
At first, I felt hammered by her words and listened in shocked silence.  Then my anger spewed forth.  It didn’t come out so much in my words as how I said them.  I bore down on her—leveling my eyes upon her like an aggressive dog on the verge of attack.  She went flying out of the room, crying.
            Even though we were in a reactive state of mind, the resentment stayed with me for a long time.  Slowly, I realized I had been using her as a safety valve for my anger—anger that Daddy had been so selfish, that he had left his body for me to find, that I sat there feeling so powerless.  She was a safe target, a scapegoat; I knew she loved me.  Later, I apologized. She said there was nothing to apologize for.  She was right.  We were all so full of grief. 
Grieving people say and do stupid things.  Grieving people react just as stupidly.  We hurt each other.  Be thankful.  Understanding or not, we become great teachers in the lessons of forgiveness.