Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Other Suicide: The Story I Don't Tell

Thinking about the stories of guilt I carry about my son Noah’s suicide jogged some long-buried memories around my father’s suicide in 1982, just in time for his death anniversary this month. For 39 years, I’ve carried the story that my father took his life only a few hours before I was due to arrive home at his request. His action was a betrayal of trust. But there’s more to the story.

This is how I usually tell it: When my father sent me a telegram, being treated for severe depression please call home, I’d been living in Greece for two years and only in touch with him by letter. When I called, I was surprised and alarmed at the desperation and disorientation in his voice. I got back to the U.S. as fast as I could—which from the village to the provincial capital to Athens to New York to Baltimore took a few days. Meanwhile, my father went to the local lake and drowned himself; his body was found a few hours before I was due to arrive. I felt devastated and betrayed. How could he do such a thing when I was on my way home to help him? I was an only child who had lost my mother only six years before. It felt like a slap in the face, as if my love and care and what remained of our family were worthless.

He had mentioned depression and chronic pain in his letters but he didn’t go into detail and I didn’t take it seriously. At 26, I was busy living my adventure in another culture. I didn’t know that his therapist had wanted to hospitalize him that week and my father had refused, terrified at the prospect of a psych ward. Trying to make sense of the suicide and its timing back then, it didn’t occur to me that my father may not have wanted me to see him in his desperate state, that he may not have wanted to burden me with taking care of him, that he may have had a plan and called me home from far away so I could take care of business after his death.

Here is the part I gloss over or leave out of the story: As a young person, I didn’t want to be saddled with my father’s problems and feel the weight of his loneliness on top of my own. I thought I was being generous just writing to him regularly and trying to cheer him with encouraging words. When I arranged to fly home and realized I’d be going through New York City the night of my best friend’s wedding there, I decided to stop over for the big event before flying to Baltimore the next morning. It didn’t occur to me that the delay might not be OK. I’d never seen my father in a severely depressed state and I didn’t know what it meant for someone to be in crisis. I figured another 12 hours wouldn’t matter. And it’s possible that the timing of my arrival would have made no difference in his actions.

Looking back, I’m ashamed and disappointed at my clueless, self-absorbed younger self. I’m appalled at how little I understood, not only about depression but about kindness and compassion. I’m mortified that the last interaction I had with my poor father was telling him I was putting a fun party first before him and his needs. He must have felt crushed and betrayed, too. How could I have done such a thing to someone who was suffering?

If I knew then what I know now about mental health and suicide, I would have flown to his side post-haste after that telegram. I would have understood that it could be a life-and-death situation. In my letters, I would have questioned my father more directly about his mental state, how bad it was, whether he was getting the support he needed, maybe even asked if he was thinking of suicide. I like to think I would have visited or at least called before he descended into crisis. Maybe if I had done these things, years later I would have also had “the talk” about mental health with my kids when they were teens and been more alert and aware when my son became depressed and suicidal.

Five years ago, I wrote a tribute to my father’s life on this blog and told myself I’d try to make room for mourning him while still immersed in grieving Noah. Since then I’ve managed to tap into tender memories of my father in a few poems and prose pieces. But I’ve barely begun to process his suicide and its place in his life and mine, especially compared to all the expression and exploration of my grief after Noah's suicide. I’m realizing how little I know about my father’s mental health history and how much silence and mystery surround his suicide. And that I don’t have to be silent.

P.S. In response to those urging me not to be so hard on myself, I would say that I'm in the process of turning self-blame into regret, as survivors are often able to do over time. I regret having likely hurt my father with my insensitivity when he was in despair, just as I regret things I said to my son the night before he died. It's OK to carry regrets along with my love.

 To my fellow survivors: Is there a part of the story of your loved one’s suicide that you keep hidden from others or yourself? Have you reflected on why that is or tried sharing that part of the story with someone you trust?

11 comments:

  1. Hello dear Susan such sadness you’ve experienced but please don’t berate yourself for what you see as a harsh action in youth. I reflect on my own youth and my actions with remorse and I know that at that young age we can be judgemental and sometimes in the moment thoughtless. You have matured and with that your depths of compassion and concern have grown with you. With some people that never happens. Thank you for sharing and helping me to grow and recover Roslyn xx

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    1. Thanks Rozzy for your support and take care.

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    2. How insensitive of me not to emphasise that of course you should not feel in any way to blame although regret is perhaps a natural, inevitable and rational response. You were in need of love and care after the sad and untimely passing of your mother as too was your father but you both were grief stricken. I never really appreciated my mother’s feelings when my father died when I was 26 I regret that now as I was wrapped up in my own grief. I bitterly regret my exasperation with Gareth the day before he died and I know there were a multitude of things but I blame myself for the way his life turned out. Thank you again for pointing out the difference between regret and blame. With love and gratitude to you Roslyn

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  2. What a hugely painful experience you lived through, and after having already lost your mother at such a young age. I can't imagine what it must feel like to lose both parents so young. You had no siblings either, to offer mutual comfort or share in the loss with you. You are still somehow trying to find a way of making sense of your father's suicide, and in the process you are being terribly hard on yourself. You were the child (even at 20) and he was the adult. I feel sure there was nothing that you could have done that might have prevented his death (perhaps that is why we do this to ourselves; the awfulness of knowing how little control we really have over another's actions). Only he will ever know the reasons behind the choice he made that day, and sadly he cannot tell you. From an outsider's perspective it does seem as though you are finding ways to blame yourself for not being the "perfect" daughter. You were young, with your whole life ahead of you, and you had a right to that life, unencumbered by your father's pain and suffering. Of course you had no idea of what he was suffering, no concept of what would happen; and that is just how it should be. In the same way that you would not have burdened your sons with your own depression if you had been in a similar way - we are all responsible for our own feelings and behaviours, and we can never be responsible for another person's happiness. Especially as a child. It was not your burden to carry. Be kind to yourself Susan, and be especially kind to that young Susan who had already been through so much, and had to cope with a second catastrophic loss in those tender years when she was just learning about the world and about herself. I am glad that you have managed to tap into tender memories of your father; perhaps you could think about doing the same for your younger self xx

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    1. Hi Ligia, thanks for the reminder to be compassionate not only with our present selves but with our younger selves! You are right that I was not responsible for my father's happiness, just as we cannot engineer our children's happiness, especially once they become adults. But I think when people with depression take their lives, their burden becomes our burden. We have to learn how to bear it at first and then later figure out how much of that burden we need to continue to carry -- hence trying to confront the guilt. And to share stories with others walking this path. I hope this makes sense!

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  3. Dear Susan, Thank you for your blog. Your posts resonant profoundly with me. I lost my 19 year old son two years ago and my father 24 years ago, both to suicide. You are right: we don't have to be silent.

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    1. Hi Alison, I'm very sorry for the double losses we share. I hope that having been through this kind of experience before gives you some foundation for what you've been going through the past 2 years - knowing that you will survive. Take good care.

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  4. Dear Susan and the rest of you, my sisters in grief, greetings from Greece.
    The third "black" anniversary of my son David just passed(15 of May). The nature here is celebrating, flowers blooming, fragrance in the air, the sky is glorious, the sea is amazing and it is the Easter Period.This causes joy and sorrow together, for which feeling a new word was created in greek language:
    χαρμολυπη= joysorrow
    I like what you said Susan, that guilt must and will, hopefully, transform to regret, because whereas guilt is paralyzing, regret is a sweet and even merciful pain that makes you a better person, trying not to repeat past mistakes and mine was that I always have been like an ostrich, hiding its head in the sand, hoping that nobody will see her and that as long as she chooses to ignore danger, it does not exist. My husband several times asked me if I called David on the phone , but I did not, preferring texting, smileys, hearts, because I did not want to risk hearing his voice in case he was depressed, or wondering what happened whenever he missed the call. What kind of mother does that? A f****** coward, incompetent and self centered one. That's me, so, please, pray for me so that I will become a better person, for the sake of the rest of my four children.
    "τον πόνο που'χω στην καρδιά κανείς μη μου τον πάρει" (greek mourning song,=let nobody take away from me the pain of my heart)
    Love to you all, God bless you.

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    1. Hello Vassiliki it is so hard trying to support someone with depression and/or mental health issues. I saw Gareth every Monday and Thursday and I would often dread it and I would then dread leaving g him. I remember that anxiety of calling him and no answer, the week he died had been difficult but no different to his usual behaviour but I keep going over the things he said. I remember he asked what I was reading and I’d replied ‘Flight Behaviour ‘ by Barbara Kingsolver and he’d said that was appropriate but he often said things like that. He would not seek help. With love xxxx

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    2. Hello Vassiliki it is so hard trying to support someone with depression and/or mental health issues. I saw Gareth every Monday and Thursday and I would often dread it and I would then dread leaving g him. I remember that anxiety of calling him and no answer, the week he died had been difficult but no different to his usual behaviour but I keep going over the things he said. I remember he asked what I was reading and I’d replied ‘Flight Behaviour ‘ by Barbara Kingsolver and he’d said that was appropriate but he often said things like that. He would not seek help. With love xxxx

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  5. Oh Susan, this post breaks my heart for you. I know I can never understand or fathom the depths of your grief, but I need to join the chorus of people here and remind you to be kind to your younger self. To judge your 26-year-old decisions and actions based on what you know now is so unfair to your younger self. You arranged to come right away, yet wanted to celebrate a friend's joy to buoy your spirit before facing the heaviness of your father's depression. Of course in hindsight you regret your decision, but please don't feel guilty about this choice you made as a young adult. Back then, we didn't talk about, let alone understand, depression or mental health. We certainly weren't taught the right questions to ask, and parents didn't share this kind of thing with their children. It was a different time, and I am grateful that we have progressed in our abilities to have conversations about mental health, even if we still have a long way to go.

    I hope you can continue to recall sweet, tender moments of your father as you continue your grief journey and help others with theirs. You are amazing and I greatly admire your strength.

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