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.
My father wasn’t himself. At times he seemed resentful, and I reacted defensively. Other times, his gentleness touched my heart so much; it made me ache. I’ve never been able to describe him easily, but there toward the last, his actions confused me.
The Christmas before his death in April, he looked sad, withdrawn—almost vacant. Sitting next to him near the Christmas tree, I tried to get him to laugh. About all that I got was a pinched-smile.
Mom took ill a month before he killed himself. Stubbornly, she refused to go to the doctor. His face crumpled, and in a croaking voice, he asked me what to do. The tears scared me. He was the one that I’d always looked to for confidence.
Three weeks before he died, he asked, “We’re not as close as we used to be, are we?” His question ignited a great anger in me. Sometimes I felt I had given him my whole life—wasn’t that enough? I didn’t say anything—not one word. I’ve wished for that moment back so many times.
His actions and my reactions haunted me. The week after his funeral, I tried to occupy myself with a lot of busy work. While cleaning the inside of my car, my mind was suddenly flooded with a year’s worth of back memories. I collapsed in the back seat crying, “I’m so sorry, Daddy. I didn’t know. I just didn’t know.”
Guilt sat on my shoulder like a feral cat licking blood off its paws. I carried it with me everywhere. Its wild, unsatisfied hunger for self-blame nearly sucked the life out of me.
I found some un-mailed letters that I wrote to Daddy. Written long before his death, they said all the things that I wanted to say in person: his emotional distance hurt me; he was too remote; I worked too hard for our relationship; he didn’t work hard enough; I wasn’t sure he cared for me, and I needed him. It was there, written but not sent. They were the practice letters.
I managed to mail one letter. Around my forty-first birthday and just before my second marriage, I told Daddy some of how I felt. But the words weren’t the right ones, still. They hurt him. One day on his front porch, in front of Mom, he told me that the two of us would be ok with each other if I would never write him another letter like that again. His voice was lower and scratchier than usual. I swallowed hard, and stared the old oak tree. I remembered it as a seedling. I remembered, too, as a little girl desperate for his attention, that I ran bird-flight circles around Daddy while he staked it down.
“Okay,” I promised, “no more letters.” Afterwards he talked more, and hugged me tighter when I came to visit, and looked at me with different eyes. My heart ached when I was around him. I was still that needy kid.
When he died, I felt I had failed him. Yes, I knew he was the parent. Yes, I knew what I had wanted from him wasn’t asking too much. But how had he felt about me when I was a child? Maybe I meant more than he could say. Maybe, like me, he couldn’t find the right words. Who knows the inner struggles of another if the words are not spoken out loud?
Revealing yourself to another is a risk. Setting boundaries, or asking for more communication are not bad things. They’re healthy and loving actions. Through the guilt-haze after a loved one’s suicide most everything feels wrong. That doesn’t make it so.
The year after Daddy’s suicide, my anger funneled into a constant release at my husband. In my eyes, he did nothing right. A marriage counselor explained that many times grief spills out at a safe target—but, looking back, I’m not so sure that’s the case. His very nature made me think of my father.
Once at a restaurant right in the middle of a conversation, my father’s face superimposed itself over my husband’s. Now those blue eyes belonged to my dad, and they looked straight at me. My ears rang. My heart hammered. Swallowing, I told myself this was just my imagination, but still my breath caught in my throat as my husband’s voice drummed in the background. I sat there looking at the two most important men in my life. Alive, one touched my hand; dead, one broke my heart. Twisted waves of anger and adoration for both rushed at me. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. But I didn’t. I threw my napkin down and walked out.
Perhaps through a window, I could have seen my husband’s face change again. Possibly a legitimate confusion played across his face for several seconds. His widened eyes would have revealed it. Then his anger would have taken over as pupils pinpricked and jaw muscles flinched. But I didn’t see if he sat there methodically chewing his own anger. Outside, I leaned against a brick wall with my chest heaving.
Recovering from Daddy’s suicide was like living in between two worlds. Half the time, I thought I was crazy; the other half, I was filled with a terrible, hurting anger. Emotional confusion inhabited the very center of those worlds. My husband wanted—no, he needed—valid explanations. I didn’t have them.
Loved ones need to understand what’s going on with you. Find a way to explain.
Since Daddy died, it has really shaken up my faith in God. Here’s the thing—I have a hard time seeing the intangibles of God now. Before Daddy died and when I was naïve, I looked for the good outcome of any event. If I, say for instance, got fired on Christmas Eve, I felt in the back of my mind it might be the best thing that ever happened—even through the dramatics and hysteria. Events surely would unfold a path much more fulfilling than the present rut. I was a middle-aged Pollyanna.
Seeing Daddy’s death, I felt that I had run up on an ancient scene of evil. I couldn’t locate the good outcome of what Daddy had done in any part of my mind. It’s been five years now. I still have trouble with the looking.
My husband and I grew very close after the suicide. My mother became an independent thinker. My sister worked toward her own happiness. And I stepped off my soapbox and learned some new things. Time is a changer of things. Surely Daddy didn’t have to kill himself to make change happen. Wouldn’t we have done that anyway?
Even though I don’t actually feel the rose-colored shades of optimism as I once did, I’ll cast my lot with Good rather than Evil. It’s the only way I see of keeping my sanity for the next era of my life. Isn’t that an act of faith?