Visiting my mother after Daddy’s suicide was more than difficult. I varied from extreme emotions of fear and anger to numbed-out feelings of procrastination and passivity. I forced myself to make those trips. Driving there, I couldn’t count the number of times I wished she would sell their home of nearly a half of a century. Nothing seemed changed to me. She said that wasn’t true. She was right, too. Mom had repainted the house, had changed the household into her own place. Still, for me, the house was stained with unthinkable memories.
After we had found my father’s body, the police asked us to wait inside Mom’s house while they roped off the garage with yellow crime-scene tape and waited on the coroner. Mom and I sat and just looked at each other, speechless, helpless. Then the medical examiner came and pronounced his death as a suicide. Screams spilled out of the both of us. That was when her livingroom furniture became stained from my own drowning emotions. Days, months, and years later I tried not to sit in the same chair anymore when I went there. I tried not to look at Mom out of the same corner of my eye. I tried so many ways to avoid the lapsed silences when our eyes would meet, for me, in that one great memory. When I went there constant, nervous conversation poured out from me in that room, along with arguments, cut-off attempts of answering the ‘why’ question. Or I sat white-knuckled with the same trapped-fear I have in a dentist chair. Many times, I cut that trip so short it broke off into the quick of both my mother’s heart and my own. For a long time each and every element of my mother’s house, as well, sometimes as my mother, filled me with dread.
Many times I took my dog with me if my husband couldn’t go. They distracted the demons lurking in the furniture while my mom and I laughed. I was not aware when the dreadful feeling subsided, but it did. It honestly did. She and I have strived to retain our love that had always been influenced by Daddy in one way or another. I didn’t lose a relationship with my mother just because I wanted to hide from the memory-stained furniture.
Feeling the feelings of post-traumatic fear and dread is worth the effort.
My father, several years before he shot himself, told me where he wished to be buried. It was during the trip home from my grandmother’s funeral. He said he wanted to rest in my mother’s family-cemetery out in the country where there were trees and birds and farm sounds—not the cemetery plot that he and Mom had picked out two decades ago. When Daddy died, I felt a great need to honor his wishes, but chose not to go against my mother. She wanted him in the in-town plot. It was closer and paid for. There was enough stress without my making a big deal. But still, I felt that we had put him in the wrong place. It nagged at me.
One day driving to work, window down, I heard bird songs along the country road. My mind worked on a ridiculous plan to dig him up when Mom died and bury him in the right place. That’s when I actually heard my father’s voice speak with that same grinning-tone that always tried to talk me out of things. “Don’t worry about that, Karen,” he said, “I kinda like hearing the traffic. It’s ok.”
Hot and cold at the same time, I pulled over to the side of the road to let sink what had just happened. For the last few weeks, yes, I had heard the memory of my father’s voice, but today—I felt him actually near me. I heard his voice. It was different from remembering it.
I never knew how to explain that moment. I gave up the particular worry over where he was buried. The rest of the day felt light and easy. It was probably the first light and easy day I’d had since I had found my father’s body. Later in the evening, I wished he had of explained what in the hell he was thinking.
Who’s to say what’s real? It’s faith that gives a miracle its nourishment.
The emotional bonds to my family had always been convoluted. Strands of affection, anger, joy, love, rebellion, untold concern, and knots of pure, seething frustration had piled up over the years like heaps of tangled rope from an unfinished project—in such a mess that I had stopped trying to sort them out.
The night after Daddy shot himself, I had a dream that all my family were cave-explorers. We were linked together with nylon ropes and walked cautiously into a cavern that went deep within the earth. On a plateau which only feet away dropped-off into a dark abyss, we pitched our camp for the night. In my dream, I awoke to see Daddy standing close to the plateau’s edge. He turned to look at me for a moment and smiled sadly. Then he jumped. His still-attached ropes nearly pulled us down with him. I dreamt that I frantically secured my sister and mother to a rock so that we wouldn’t be carried over the edge, too. I awoke wadded-up in bedding, struggling, screaming out instructions, trying desperately to get him back—trying urgently to secure everyone else.
The rest of the year after my father’s death, I lived that dream. When my mind wasn’t muddling over Daddy’s suicide, I worried over family members. I was afraid of my mother and sister’s grief and tried to ignore my own. I called, daily; giving out advice to adults capable of living their own lives, and never believed them when they assured me that they were ok.
“…overprotectiveness in relationships is one of the possible consequences of trauma-related guilt.”
Trust After Trauma,
Aphrodite Matsakis, Ph.D
Mom called us her little hummingbird warriors. When I was five-years-old, I wanted my older sister to read to me, but she wanted to watch TV. I got mad and cracked her over the nose with the book spine. She retaliated and slapped me. We sat there in front of the TV with tears running down our faces, whimpering, and patting each other’s leg in comfort. For nearly forty years, we had resolved our thorny problems with arguments.
After Daddy’s suicide my sister called and wanted to talk out her feelings. She wanted me to listen—that’s all. Each time I tried to share something of my feelings, she cut me off. I got angry and told her “if you want to talk, the street should run both ways.” She got quiet and said in a hurt voice, “I think so, too,” and hung up.
Our grief triggered each other’s despair, ruthlessly. One weekend my sister spent the night with Mom; my husband and I went down there, too, just for a day visit. I took some tools for Mom out to the garage—where I had found Daddy’s body only a few months before. My breath caught while I was out there, but I shoved down my pain. Maybe my sister had listened to too much of Mom’s talk about Daddy before I got there, or maybe she had spent too much time looking at the walls. Everywhere in Mom’s house were painful reminders of Daddy—pictures, tools, memories. Her broken heart, I’m sure, ached. Seeing the pain on each other’s face, we misjudged it, thinking the other was angry. Anger and grief looked a lot alike in my family.
So we did what came natural. We argued—loud, outside in front of the neighbors, in front of God. Even when we tried to make up, we just got into another argument. My chest heaved; her face flamed. Our pinpricked eyes gouged at each other. I’m not sure how we restrained ourselves from hitting. Strip away our adult veneer, and there we were again—Mom’s two little hummingbird warriors.
Twenty-four hours later, we apologized and meant it. We grew up.
Family members can and do trigger the grief process. Expect conflicts; it’s natural. Grief is a process for the whole family.
I had a catch-up conversation with a childhood friend I hadn’t talked with in years. We’d lost touch for too long, so the topics covered a lot of ground, divorces, remarriages, children, grandchildren, and even new careers. The topic changed to how our parents were doing, and I asked plenty of questions to keep her talking. I didn’t want to say anything about my father. I hated saying the way Daddy died. How do you explain? His death carried an undreamt shame. Years had passed, and I still had trouble.
I felt double-minded. She spoke unguarded and defenseless about her life. One side of me wanted to open up to her, to be vulnerable and share. The other side wanted to keep my grief a secret and press it tightly against my heart. It was hard to even listen through my loud and harassing thoughts.
To leave out such a significant detail of my life in this conversation felt a betrayal to my own person. This woman was a part of my life—a part of my good memories. Daddy was a part of those memories with her. I stammered my way through the words and felt the whole time I should have kept them to myself. She hesitated, listened, gave her sympathy, and asked if his health had been bad. I said yes, changed the subject, and asked more comfortable questions.
Keeping my father’s suicide a secret is as monstrous as finding his body. It walls me off and isolates me. It’s a part of this hell, at least, that I have some control over and can change.
Almost immediately after my father’s death, I had suicidal thoughts of my own. These thoughts seemed so alien; I didn’t believe they came from me—as if the same dark force that had killed my father now stalked me.
The demon whispered killing directions into my ear. It stayed at me—bullying me into a whimpering mass night after lonely night when my husband worked night shift. In isolated moments of the day, it seized me. I shuddered when I picked up a kitchen knife. “This sharp edge will easily slice your skin”, it whispered. I gritted my teeth and finished putting away the silverware. “Just take out the gun and look at it,” it begged. I asked my husband to take the gun out of the house.
Finding Daddy’s body had dislodged my thinking. Evil became tangible to me. The demon was too real to think otherwise. I had never been as frightened as I was then. Daddy’s suicide had terrified me. What I didn’t realize was how a serious depression can manifest itself. I felt that I needed help to fight an evil spirit. What I needed was help to find my way out of the hole I’d fallen into.
After my father’s death, I asked a priest for more information about evil. I wanted that knowledge to fight my sinister enemy. “Take your eyes off of it,” she said, “focus on the good in your life.” Each week I met with her and discussed bible stories. They nurtured my battered spirit. The talk, just as fortifying as the stories, helped me see the good in my life. My thoughts about evil stepped back and became less commanding. What I consciously (or unconsciously) chose to center my attention had a powerful effect on my mental health.
Search out something that will feed your soul with strength and light. Listen to good music, walk in the woods, or discuss a good story. Talk to someone who listens. Don’t look evil directly in the eye; there’s a black hole behind it.
The year my father died was one big blur for me. I slept most of the time. My waking hours were spent fighting against the onslaught of my thoughts. Luckily, I kept a journal. That action at least gave those thoughts a small release.
The first month after Daddy’s funeral, if my husband and I went to the grocery store, he kept the list and pushed the buggy because I would stop in the middle of the aisle and would just stare at nothing. Lost in thought, I was like a walking zombie.
Going on long walks—something that usually relaxed me—was out of the question. Before Daddy’s suicide, I did my best thinking when on a walk; after his death, I was racked by pains of guilt and sadness when I went. Crying at the thought of my father’s last few days, I would lose my breath and have to sit on the ground.
I signed up for a yoga class and went only one time. During the end of the class when we were supposed to surrender to the quiet and let our minds and bodies relax, I was overcome with grief and started crying.
I think when you love someone, and you lose him or her, it rips a hole in your soul. That was how I felt when I lost my father—as if my soul had cracked wide open.
Exhaustion was my body telling me I needed rest. My soul needed as much mending time as my body would have if I had lost an arm or a leg.
Fatigue is the result of a soul’s injury. Give yourself time to heal. Take it easy.
I grew up in a family with fuzzy, soft boundaries. With Daddy on out-of-town jobs most of my young childhood, emotional limits between my mother, sister, and I became either invisible or non-existent. I was so emotionally mashed into my mother and sister that I didn’t know where they stopped and I began. Maybe for a child that sort of close attachment is normal and healthy for a while, but it stayed with me too far into adulthood. In my mind, the three of us defined each other.
Change was always hard on the three of us. In the name of worry, we gossiped about each other. My sister and mother had a field day when I got a divorce. In the name of resentment, my sister and I joined together and labeled my mother as selfish when she looked to her own life or meddlesome when she peered too sharply into ours. In the name of concern, my mother and I talked about my sister’s weight issues. I think the three of us hated and enjoyed our talks. It was how we played the one-up games, who’s responsible, who’s not, who’s in-charge. My father sidestepped most of those games by being absent, silent or unaware. I never thought any of us could truly take care of ourselves, so in my mind, I became the self-appointed manager. Even into my adult life, I felt overly responsible for, and resentful of, the goings-on in my first family.
Daddy’s suicide threw me into a caretaking-frenzy. I was frightened my mother or sister would also choose suicide. I heard too many statistics of how suicide seems almost contagious in families. I spent a fortune in phone bills keeping up with everyone’s problems. Detachment wasn’t an option, or so I thought. I was scared of how guilty I would feel if something happened to one of them. Letting go meant I needed to face how powerless I was.
In the name of fear and concern, I called my sister and mother daily. I listened to their feelings and felt resentful for how occupied they were with themselves. If they asked, I usually told them I was doing fine. I wasn’t fine.
Over-concern is a pseudo-defense against being powerless; sometimes
caretaking is a way of hiding from grief. Detachment from another’s grief isn’t selfish or hateful. It’s necessary.
Daddy’s death changed me. The instant helplessness on the day of his suicide catapulted me into an earlier mind-set. I was like a child who had not yet learned a language, full of needs and fighting to find the words. For a long time my world was nothing but childish confusion.
Child-like needs filled me in numerous ways. Keeping in constant touch with my mother was one of them. One day at work when I couldn’t get her on the phone, I had a panic attack. I started crying and couldn’t stop. “My mind’s running away with me,” I breathlessly told my boss. No other explanation fell from my lips. All I could see was her lying helpless or dead in her house. She was actually at the grocery store.
Another childish defense was that I looked to the supernatural to justify harsh realities. I believed a demon possessed my parents’ house. Daddy had become obsessed over their septic tank not working. It was the last thing I heard him talk about. I felt an evil spirit had taken up residence there—in that dirty tank. Surely a demon was what killed him. At that time there was no other way for me to confront the evil of depression and suicide.
Visiting my mother afterwards was horrifying. “I hate this,” I’d cry to my husband. He always went with me that first year, or else I wouldn’t go. I couldn’t name what “this” was, but my husband didn’t ask. Probably nothing I said that first year made much sense to him.
But last night a screech owl flew close to my bedroom window. Its sound, screeched-out like an ancient prayer, gently awoke the adult in me. Wrapping my arms around my chest, I came to understand. Not only did I sorrow over the loss of my father, my very own child-like emotions needed comfort. I curled into a fetus position in the bed and hummed myself to sleep.
Grief is confusion of the heart. Try to understand and comfort your child-like nature.