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.
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.
At its best our mother/daughter relationship was an intense flip-flop thing. One moment we bathed in each other’s love and attention, sharing laugher and friendly conversations. Then—flip, one of us penetrated the other’s skin-thin edges and we got mad, or hurt, or both. Sharp words crystallized into sudden swords stabbing. Then—flop—we would start a conversation about Daddy or gardening or birds, the whole time smiling those there-you-go-again grins. It had always been like that for us. We were close.
My mother and I shared the brunt of finding my father’s body. The first year after Daddy’s suicide, we reminded each other of that day just by eye contact. Traumatic shock affected our relationship.
I felt angry and guilty toward her. I didn’t want to talk to her about my father after his death, good or bad. She had trust-issues and leaned on me for too much emotional fuel. I erected reinforced wall-boundaries. When she crawled over them, I felt angry that she wouldn’t seek support from anyone else. Sometimes I even hated being around her. Then I felt guilty—thought myself uncaring. To keep from hurting her with these feelings, I kept an emotional distance. And truth be known, I think she felt the same way around me.
I wished that our relationship would snap back to its original innocence and felt a spinning anger at my father that his action had set Mom and me haywire. At least we still had gardens and birds to talk about.
Some things shouldn’t be measured in terms of good or bad. They are as they are. Suicide takes its toll in relationships and each person is responsible for their own grief. When the well is empty, does it apologize to the dropped bucket?
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.
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.