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.
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.
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.
Probably the worst thing about losing my father to suicide was that I could never stop thinking about it. It sat right under the edge of every thought and action. His death invaded me, waking or asleep. It was hard to know how to go about my life.
One woman that I met at a support group who had lost her husband to suicide said she had to structure her life tightly to keep going. “I did everything I could to limit the impact of the suicide and grief on my life,” she said. “I kept going. I kept functioning. I took enough control that it didn’t cause additional problems for me.” I think her organized methods of structure helped her compartmentalize her emotions.
My sister told me that she put her grief and memories of my father into an emotional box and took them out when she had the strength.
I found that I couldn’t handle a tightly structured day or find an emotional box tight enough to hold back the thoughts. In the beginning, my mind didn’t operate well enough to keep up with details. Silent screams, memories, and images wormed their way in and out of all details. I had to leave plenty of time for staring into space. At work, I eased out of as much stress at possible. At home, I refinished furniture, sanded the wood in a hypnotic state and thanked God that I didn’t have children. Each of us did what we needed to get through.
Find what works best and do that. There are no rules in how to go about a day after you have lost someone to suicide. Just getting through it is the goal.
I’m not sure when portions of my journal turned into a daily thank-you-list to a Higher Power. I wrote these the first month after Daddy died.
Thank You for
· the bird songs when the sun comes up. (They took me to a non-thinking place.)
· for the smell of the woods during my walk.
(The honeysuckle and wild roses penetrated my thoughts.)
· for the people at work. (They kept their distance last week)
· for giving me a few quiet moments from the emotional waves of grief.
· for my husband’s friendship. (How could anyone have been my friend today?)
· for Kleenex and friendly ears.
· for the right to my anger.
· for helping me dial the wrong number. (I needed to talk to that person.)
· for the love of my dogs. (They were more tuned in to me than I was.)
· for the sleeping-late days. (I was so tired.)
· for letting me be a cranky child today.
· for a chance to see an old friend.
· for the ease of looking at the sun through the haze.
· for helping me not to argue with my sister yesterday.
· for the tools to clean: a dishwasher, a broom, a washer-and-dryer, a vacuum.
· for sex and being held afterward. (I didn’t feel worth the effort.)
· for the time that’s past since Daddy died. (Each day will take me a step out of this hell).
My first flashback came after cooking supper and then going to a movie.
“This is probably the last thing Daddy had to eat,” I told my husband while I fried the salmon patties. “How do you know that?” he asked. “Because Mom was heating up their leftovers for lunch when I found him; I’m not sure if he had breakfast.” I said. Somehow I sidestepped then reliving the memory.
After supper my husband left his plate in the sink and hurried to get dressed. We were going to see a remake, Godzilla 2000. Cleaning the kitchen, I got mad, “I’m not your damned maid, you know.” His only defense was a smile. I swallowed my anger, halfway smiled, and got ready for the movie, too.
In one scene of the movie, Godzilla was shot. It moaned and fell face-forward. Its head was cocked to one side with its forelimb crumpled under its body. Jumping at the shot, I thought, “That’s how Daddy was laying when I found him.” The death scene had just completed the brain-circuit for my flashback—from salmon patties to Godzilla. In my mind, all over again, I found my father’s body.
I jumped up and ran out of the theater. My husband followed me. In the hall, I tried to convince him I was okay. “Just go back in; I’ll be back. I just need a minute. It’s only a movie—for God sake,” I said, but my hands shook. I was angry, frightened, and didn’t want him hovering over me. “Let’s just go,” he said. “Fine,” I answered, jerked away from him and walked toward the door.
Outside in the truck, my mouth began an uncontrollable quiver. Sweat soaked through my clothes. It soaked my scalp. It rolled like tears from my armpits to my waist while I hyperventilated. We sat there till my breath came back. I felt like I was losing my mind.
Emotions and physical reactions to traumatic stress are like piling a bunch of small bouncing-balls in a box. They bang into each other and go everywhere. It’s easy for you and others to think you’re crazy. You’re not crazy. You’re normal. Talk about it with someone who listens.
My favorite TV shows and movies bothered me after Daddy died. High suspense stories didn’t interest me anymore. Comedies weren’t funny. Sad movies broke my heart too much. That visual art medium intensely triggered my feelings in the beginning. My heart pounding, I would rush to the bathroom wishing to vomit out the stirred memories. Mostly, I just stared at the clear water in the toilet. Later I simply disconnected my attention from TV shows or from a movie. I usually drifted into thought, or maybe went to the kitchen during some action packed scene. Dullness served its purpose for a while. I wasn’t feeling anything.
Then the determined anger came. I felt it toward my father and with myself, too, that I couldn’t even get lost in a story. So I set about the task of desensitizing, watching my favorites over and over again till I wore a callous over the ultra-sensitive nubs of my mind. Hardening myself, I purposely watched even the hardest parts of murder and mayhem. But the suicide themes, they were definitely off the list. Some things can be taken too far.
My ever-protecting husband many times tried to change the channel—for me. I got angry at him, too. I took back the remote control and flicked the channel with my single intention. I didn’t want suicide to ruin everything fun in my life. I would watch what I wanted, damn it.
Anger is an emotion of enormous power. Filled with robust, bursting energy, it’s the spark that sets the flame. Just as the mind mercifully shuts down in self- defense, anger can push it back right into reality.
I didn’t realize the streams of dark liquid were blood. Maybe it was because Daddy was in a shadowy area in his garage, or maybe it was because my mind had begun already to mercifully stop processing reality. My thoughts had reduced to a crawl. I didn’t see the gun hidden in a sock laying a yard or two away from his body. It must have jumped from his hand when he shot himself. There was no exit wound from his head because he had used such a small bullet. Thinking he had perhaps had a massive stroke or heart attack, I didn’t know he had shot himself. I saw the dark streams as motor oil. Slowly, looking at his body, I wondered what he had been working on before he died.
It bothered me that I hadn’t recognized something as vital as his blood. That first night at home in bed, I tried to explain to my husband how guilty I felt that I didn’t know it was his blood. The words howled out in such rushed anguish that the bedcovers twisted around my body. I had seen my father’s blood rolling away in rivulets and didn’t know it. If only I had of known, I could have tried to scoop it up. Surely, I could have done something!
Afterwards, if I saw where someone had poured out liquid on to concrete, I felt queasy, a sick pounding just under my heart. My ribcage would widen-out in fright. I worked, then, at an automotive dealership. Seeing oil or some other dark liquid on the concrete was an everyday occurrence. I felt I couldn’t get away from the sight. Even the habit of tossing out the last few swallows of coffee from my cup when I got out of the car took my mind right back to that moment.
I had developed a phobia of dark liquid. I felt no one would understand, so I only spoke of it once in a support group. I cried so hard that I lost my breath. I didn’t speak of it again for nearly a year. I wrote my thoughts and fears in a journal where I felt comfortable crying in private. Thankfully, that intense fear of liquid being dashed out on the ground subsided. I’ve since learned that no matter how much I think to the contrary my mind can’t hold itself in an extreme state of fear forever.
The thing about fears is that they always seem to have a source of origin. The truth is fears are wider and taller in the shadows than they are in the light. Put them in the light.
Pictures of my father entered my mind, uninvited. Thoughts of his blood invaded everything. They swept through my every action and camped out in my dreams. Day or night, asleep or awake, it didn’t matter. I was suddenly emerged, pre-soaked, and never rinsed clean. I had bloodstains on my mind.
I obsessed. How long had he been thinking of killing himself? He started clearing away everything around his house nearly a month before. Had he also planned on killing Moma? He really could have, you know; I believed it was on his mind. He had tried to throw away her tomato cages as if she wouldn’t have another growing season. But Moma gave Daddy a hard time about throwing her gardening supplies away. So he put them back.
“What in hell’s name were you thinking?” I cried out in my sleep enough to wake me. Had he planned on me finding him? He knew I was coming to visit. He knew that I usually came looking for him. Did he have faith that I would take care of things for him?
How long did I suffer from traumatic stress? It was a long time. I longed for just the grief of missing Daddy and not being stuck on how he died. Counseling helped, although I have had uneasy feelings that tap me on the shoulder still.
Finally, I could pinpoint when the lessening started. In a dream, I didn’t raise that garage door; I didn’t go in calling out his name. In my dream, I chose not to go in. Waking, the dream left me feeling rested. Perhaps that one particular dream was the first real scabbing-over of my heart.
Raw grief hurts so much. It does get easier. It takes a while. Look to your dreams.
I sat right up front at the seminar, but I didn’t ask one question while a panel of police negotiators discussed their side of what happens when called out to a suicide attempt. I was at a special program put on by a suicide support group. What I heard filled me with a new respect for the police. In some ways it helped lighten my guilt and yet burdened me with even more. I learned that it took more than one person to talk someone out of suicide, and it took a lot of connection.
Thoughts deviled me that I didn’t do enough to connect with my father. It was always hard to give him direct attention. In his depression, his indifference was a barrier. I didn’t know about assessment questions then, and probably wouldn’t have had the courage to ask them if I had. But, I knew something was wrong, didn’t I? Guilt ate at me like termites.
My recent anxiety came, though, because I sat in the middle of crisis prevention counselors. Their focus topic on how to stop a suicide was altogether different from mine, the aftermath of a suicide and how to get past it. One policewoman said it was better to err on the side of too much attention. Sitting there listening, I felt emotionally engaged to my father’s death realizing the things that I or someone else could have done for him. I quietly ached with my self-imposed blame that I didn’t “err on the side of too much attention.”
The negotiators all agreed that if someone completes the effort of suicide then that is the time that the police have to emotionally disengage. Each agreed that negotiation was all about control and connecting psychologically with that person. I shook my head and thought “for me it’s all about letting go and disconnecting.”
Has my guilt been more self-made than actual? The police negotiators said that “it takes a group of about ten people to negotiate successfully” someone out of a suicide attempt. I was but one person.