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.
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?