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.