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.
My feelings swung from one extreme to the other for a long time after Daddy’s death. Numbly, I reasoned that I must be doing fine. I would feel guilty that I didn’t feel anything about Daddy’s suicide. Then I judged there must be something terrible about me and doubted my ability to love. The next day, or maybe even the next minute, something would trigger a flashback. It could be anything, the food I ate that day before I found him, a movie scene with gunshot sounds, or a sudden sound of silence. And I became a trembling volcano of feelings and memories that I couldn’t turn off. I felt like someone stripped me of my skin and dragged me through salt.
My soul burned from those flashbacks. I felt embarrassed by them if they happened to me in public. I felt afraid of them if they came while I was alone.
Those experiences led me to believe that I would never get over my father’s death. I felt I was either a rudderless vessel carried or tossed by raging currents or sitting flat on a dead sea. Then the anger came, and I vowed that I wouldn’t let my father’s choice affect the rest of my life. None of those ways of thinking predicted the truth of my future.
The actual relief of my experience came when I realized time had gradually slowed those swinging emotions and memories to something less extreme. Little by little, I stopped reliving the pain. Recalls became bittersweet and controllable. That adage about time healing wounds became my truth.
Suicide is like a razor slashing at the souls of those left behind. The cuts are deep and serious. No matter how much you want this to be over, keep talking, keep breathing. It takes time to heal.
Since my inner critic usually stood over my shoulder to sound off, it was hard to describe her looks. I caught a few dim glances of her in the mirror. Her lips were in a perpetual frown; on her tiptoes during a rampage, she tried to make herself bigger than the whole of me.
She was my internal nitpicker. Her words, filled with perfectionism and off-handed remarks, hurt my feelings sometimes till they became numb. More often she just aggravated me. If I didn’t redo something till it was past good enough, she berated me over and over for days. She came at me about neatness, too, with a listed spool of criticism. “This house looks like crap,” she said. “Other people keep their houses clean. The young woman next door has two preschoolers and her house is spotless. You need to vacuum, mop, dust—oh, God, do you need to dust—and spray some deodorizer for that dog of yours. It stinks in here!”
Sometimes I wouldn’t listen to her. I’d write things all jumbled-up with my thoughts tossed-up like pick-up-sticks letting the chaotic words go out for the world to see; then I’d get mad at her. Why else was she in my head if not to keep me on my toes?
Once she verbally abused me as I drove down the road. When I missed the turn, I heard her. “Are you just stupid or what?” Fed up with her, my inner self-talker, I slammed on the brakes and shouted “shut up.” Surprisingly, she quieted down as if realizing she had gone too far.
But my inner critic also rescued me. When my father died, she stepped in. “You need to get someone for the funeral,” she said rather gently. I let her loose on all the details while other parts of me hid behind a wall of shock and grief. She did her job well that year pushing for the care of my mother, carrying out an elaborate Christmas party, selling our house, and supplying the energy and determination to go to work each and every morning.
Thinking back now, my father’s suicide must have terrorized my inner critic with all the details to look after as much as it did other parts of my psyche. It was hard to give comfort to that side of me though; I was always on the defensive against my perfectionist method of coping. I think I unknowingly invited more hopelessness allowing her to direct so much of my life at that time.
Living comes from all your faculties.
Become aware of your inner critic. This is a hard time for her, too.
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?
I awoke one morning with clear visions of Daddy teaching me how the guts of an AC unit worked and then another memory of his sitting at the kitchen table trying to drum into my head the notion of compound interest. In the first, he pointed to black tubes with his grease-covered fingers, and though his brow beaded with sweat, his eyes smile-crinkled at my understanding. But in the next, he sat upright with a pencil eraser tapping impatiently at the examples that made no sense to me. “Look here,” he said, his voice raised and frustrated, “you mean you can’t understand this?” I never wanted to talk to him about money, but always, I loved helping him work out there in his garage.
After his death, such nightly memories sucked away my energy. Throughout the day, I felt like bland food with no added salt, no pepper, no spice. Come nightfall, thoughts and memories of him flickered behind my eyelids like a movie-marathon. I saw him laughing, talking, or just looking off into thin air. I saw his hands petting his dog or holding my mother’s hand. I saw him sitting on the couch with his elbow on the armrest. I heard him cuss under his breath when something he fixed broke. I heard him whistling when things he worked on went right. I missed him so much—I still do.
At first, those memories hurt. Leaded with the pain of his suicide, they came with extreme sadness and wild, horrible imaginings of the seconds before he shot himself. Later after time healed the rawness of my grief, my true memories helped me understand that his life meant far more than just how he died.
Memories are a pathway that connects us to others. Memories help me hold my father in a gentle and real place now.
I was stingy for his love after he died; he was, after all, my father. But memories of his attention seemed always to be for someone else.
Reacting with sibling competition, I envied that Daddy had once apologized to my older sister. When she was a child, he had mistreated her. I guessed the reason was because she had taken all of Mom’s attention. But I had been his little buddy. Perhaps he felt there was no reason to apologize for his behavior toward me. After his death, the thought of his need for my sister’s forgiveness angered me as if lightening had struck white heat through my heart.
Jealousy of Daddy’s love for Mom overpowered me, too. I felt he loved Mom as if she were the only person in his world. “Don’t you think your moma has such a good way about her?” he would ask me, grinning, always telling me how pretty she was. I remembered the times he held my hands out to the light, turning them this way and that, and then with a smile declaring them “just like your moma’s.”
Even the affection he felt toward his dog tore at me. The sound of Dad’s gentle talk to that dog echoed in my ears after his death. Every day for years, he had taken it for a walk in the woods on the hunt. “We scout ‘em squirrels out together,” he bragged. On my visits home, those squirrel hunts were his funny stories.
My family relationships suffered from the resentment that wiggled in and out of me like worms. But, it seemed that as grief ever-so-slowly abated, my feelings evolved into something more respectful. I became grateful that Daddy had given my sister a chance to forgive him. I became thankful that his life was filled with a love that many never find. And I was glad that he taught me how to be an honest and forthright individual. That was his attention to me; he was, after all, my father.
Grief turns on the basic emotions like switching on all the lights in the house. Jealousy is one. Listen to it. It is saying you have every right to hurt. Talk to someone who can help you find a healthy release.
My marriage was only three years old when Daddy died. It was my second marriage. I was frightened my grief would tear it apart. Those intense emotions of heartache, traumatic stress, and fury funneled their way down to one emotional pipeline and spilled out in angry, watery, aggressive reactions. I couldn’t control my feelings and acted like a tired, cranky two-year-old child. I felt embarrassed to cry, but tears traveled down my face in rivers. Grief left me looking sulky.
My husband became a safe target. Most of my anger was focused at him over trivial things. We painted the house together and I furiously blamed him for leaving a paint-can in my way. He worked a split shift and was sleep deprived; I yelled at him for not listening.
My father’s suicide taught my husband and me how to communicate. We had a lot to digest. He didn’t understand why I was so quick-tempered, and he would react defensively. I didn’t recognize how tremendously angry he was with my father for hurting me. He tried to keep those feelings to himself; they came across to me as condemnation. We had a lot of conflict—and, thank God, ended up going for professional help.
Anger, I realized, had always been my method of dealing with uncontrollable things. That realization and my husband’s loving concern may well have been what saved our marriage. A counselor helped teach us both how to interpret our feelings. I learned it was because I felt safe enough with him that I centered much of my grieving fury at him. It wasn’t fair of me to do that. He learned that I needed to be held when I acted like a child, not walked away from. In counseling, we talked out our feelings without so much emotional-fuel.
Afterwards, he was there for me all the way. He hugged me, and gave me space when I needed it. But most importantly, he listened to me when I experienced my anger-disguised emotions of helplessness. At a support group for families affected by suicide, he learned that my anger wasn’t as unique as he thought. My tears came with less anger after they stopped meeting his resistance.
After a suicide, communication and emotional support is as necessary as water and air.
My husband had rotator-cuff surgery on an outpatient basis. On the second day that he was home, he lost consciousness when I took off the surgical bandage. Not armed with enough medical knowledge, I felt scared for him and didn’t know what to do. My hands shook as I frantically held him upright in the chair and called out his name. Later, after my husband had regained consciousness, we laughed. He fainted because the bandage came off with most of his chest hairs.
Nonetheless, that inadequate feeling I had with my husband that day reminded me of how I felt when I found my father. I felt helpless, afraid, and called out his name. After my husband’s bandages were changed, I lost myself in a ton of housework.
Even before I saw my father’s body, I knew something wasn’t right. His garage was strangely quiet. The old, manual garage-door was lowered too much; the dog tied-up outside the door looked too sad. I had a dozen questions running inside my head. Where was he—on a walk? Why hadn’t he taken his dog? As if reacting to a premonition, my heart pounded when I pulled up the door. My hands shook and time seemed to stop. When I stepped inside, I called out, “Daddy.” That one word echoed off the walls of my mind since he died.
My mother and sister said I took control that day, arranged things. It was my way of fighting off what happened to me in that garage. I came up against the core of what was horribly uncontrollable; my mind disassociated from reality. Later, I went on auto-pilot and made a to-do list. Organizing, making calls, watching after my mother as if she were my only concern—all that was an effort to stop feeling helpless. I actually felt heartless because I couldn’t feel anything, but I wasn’t. I was just in shock. I was a vulnerable adult-child hiding behind tasks and to-do lists.
Sometimes just listening to my own breath brings me to the realization that many things are uncontrollable. I do not have to be afraid of everything that I can’t control. If I hold my breath, mostly I will just pass out and breathe again.
“Poor God,” I thought. “God gave away all control over us when God gave us free will.” It was one of my first thoughts when Daddy killed himself. I felt sorry for God and thought God helpless. I imagined God crying along with my family, grief-stricken. Everyone loved my father and thought well of him. Everyone was hurt by Daddy’s death, including God.
I worried that God would have no choice but to send my Dad to hell. From the first day, I started bargaining. I remembered rationalizing that certainly as my father’s Judge, God would have to take into consideration mental illness—even human judges did that. Didn’t they? Surely, my family and I were about pay enough of a hell-debt to get Daddy into heaven. I wasn’t the only one with this worry. One aunt said she was almost sure that Daddy had been baptized, as if that saved him from Hell—as if God would have sent him straight to hell.
That fear of my father going to hell was covered over later with hurt and anger. My husband and I were invited to a neighbor’s party. All the women chatted together for a while in the kitchen. One woman talked about her love for God and stupidly said how sorry she felt for people who kill themselves because they would never get to heaven. Such judgmental words about God flowed out of the same mouth that had just described a loving God. I wished, at the time, that I could have said my thoughts to her, but I hurt too much to speak. And I was too afraid of what I would say. I stomach ached from swallowing my words.
It took me a while to get a handle on God’s power over death since Daddy’s suicide. I started reading the Old Testament; I wanted evidence of a powerful God that could save my father. What I learned really didn’t have anything to do with the business between God and Daddy. The day after he died, an Episcopal priest told me that she believed God gave redemption even after death. She said that she felt God would heal his mind and give him time to make amends. Daddy’s impulsive actions, sins if you want to call them that, are now between him and God.
What I learned was about my own relationship with God. God wanted me to always ask, to always seek, to always find courage. God was a tough old character that weathered my anger, despair, and even my lack of faith. God wanted me to be happy. But even a higher power couldn’t make me happy or make me live in the Now, the kingdom of heaven where God is, without my consent. That was the gift of free will. It was my choice.
“Do we really worship a God who is unable to be God when people need God the most? None of us have kept the commandments. Do we really believe God’s hands are tied by anything?”
…Rev. David Sawyer
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.