I Wasn't Able to Prevent My Dad's Suicide
After losing someone to suicide you can find yourself combing through every moment of the past, questioning whether you missed the signs. Every memory holds new meaning. What if I would have paid more attention that day? What if I would have questioned their thinking or pointed out something that didn’t seem right? Would they still be here today? Questions like this often contribute to the overwhelming presence of guilt we feel in the aftermath of suicide. Problem with this thinking is, it leads to unrealistic expectations of self. We can’t go back. We can’t change the past. So, why do we hold on to these experiences, and why do we struggle to relieve ourselves from the weight of guilt?
I wanted to use this post to talk about my own experience with guilt and how I was able to release the guilt I felt after losing my dad to suicide. It is a part of my story that isn’t always easy to talk about. While it is the part of the story I struggled the most to let go of, it is also the part of my story that brought the most self reflection. When people ask me, “Did you see the signs?” I struggle with my response. Yes, I saw the signs. They were right in front of me, and I wasn’t able to prevent my dad’s suicide.
The night before Thanksgiving 2011, my sister called to tell me she was worried about our dad. “He just seems off, and I am scared he is going to do something to himself.” So, I called him. I remember sitting in the car for over an hour talking to him about how he was feeling. He showed signs then, but I just didn’t think they were severe. I thought they were fleeting thoughts, ones so many people have but don’t act on. Fast forward to Christmas day, the last day I saw my dad, and there you will find every sign you need. He told me he was feeling suicidal. He brought my late grandmother’s large standing jewelry box for my sister and me to go through. He was detached, uninterested in any gift he received. He wasn’t himself. I remember when he left that day, the tears in his eyes as he hugged me tightly and waved good bye until we both could no longer see each other. An act I haven’t done since childhood. I turned to my husband and sister and said, “I don’t think I am going to see him again” and broke down. My sister and I planned an intervention of sorts. We would bring him to my sister’s house, find him a new therapist, get him the help he needed. I would stay in Colorado longer than planned and do what we needed to do for my dad. The following day we talked to my dad. He was back. The lively, happy, fun-loving man was back. He told us he was out shopping and felt “so much better.” The signs disappeared. The next day, I got on a plane back to Chicago. Four hours after getting home I received a call from my hysterical sister telling me my dad took his life. In an instant my whole life changed.
I think we often set unrealistic expectations for ourselves. We forget about one important element within our tragedy: free will. We can’t take away or alter someone else’s free will. I think this is an important reminder as we struggle with guilt after a suicide. I struggled for a long time with this concept. I saw the signs, I could have done something, I could have changed the ending to this story. Those are just a few of the things I told myself after my dad’s death. As I write this post I find myself questioning it all over again. It is hard not to. However, it just isn’t productive. Could have I done more? Maybe. Would it have changed the outcome? Maybe. That’s just it. Maybe. We can’t go back, we can’t change what has already occurred. That is what I had to come to terms with and accept. Not easy, but an essential part of my own journey. I had to make the choice. I can go on living in this world where I hate myself for not doing more. Or, I can accept what is. The reality of the situation is that my dad is gone, and there is nothing I can do to change that. The only thing I can change and have changed is my own way of thinking and my own way of living. I made the choice to forgive myself and decided I would live a life my dad would be proud of. A life that he potentially was never able to have.
A good friend always says, “You have a fire of regret and a fire of hope for the future. You choose which one to feed.”
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