A Year as a Suicide Loss Survivor
The loss of a parent is life-changing in so many ways. The loss through suicide is simply devastating.
It’s a word that feels like a mouthful of tacks I am unable to spit out. I gargle the sharpness as I search for a way to own the words I need to say. There is no easy way to force these words through the tiny crevice that is now my throat. With suicide there are questions without answers and an inability to find a way to describe your pain to the world.
As survivors we carry the shame that society says we are supposed to bear. We hide our grief the same way we perhaps hid our loved one, in silence, away from the world that questions our valance and the lost individual’s bravery. There is no easy way to describe what happens when you receive that news, nor enough space in the world for a pain that great, but maybe, as survivors, we need to learn to carry on the torch of valor and speak our truth.
Here is my truth:
On February 27, 2015, I sat down at work on a Friday. Around noon or so my brother called me.
“Jessica,” he said in a tone I’ve never heard my name stated before. “Dad’s gone.”
My brain quickly turned into a relay race attempting to process what I had just been told. I felt the information moving through the synapses and fibers, but it was too heavy to carry. My father’s death was like one of those archaic weapons you see in a history museum with spikes protruding from all sides of the structure. It hit me at every angle, and the wounds were so deep they seemed beyond repair.
When I received the news I asked my brother what happened. At first he stated “I don’t know.” I kept on and did not change my trajectory. “I don’t know, Jess, they think something with his heart.” With this news came the next wave of uncontrollable sobbing and ultimate confusion.
My father suffered from bipolar disorder with severe depression. Over the years he spoke to a therapist and took a series of antidepressants and mood stabilizers fairly infrequently. As the years went on, the depressive states got longer and more severe. Months would pass without a conversation with him, and he would hide away, burying himself in his business. As a mental health counselor I should have seen what was happening, but my love for him blocked any ability for me to see his deterioration. Now, on the phone in my office with my only sibling, I uttered the words I couldn’t control, “Tell me it’s not what I think it is.”
He paused and whispered into the phone, “No, it isn’t,” almost choking on the instant decision he made to keep the truth from his sister.
When I saw my brother, I sat down on the couch in the living room and took my first deep breath of the day, filling my lungs to capacity and then slowly breathing it all out into the open room. Everyone sat around in the living room staring at me in an awkward silence, holding a secret about to be revealed. My brother slowly walked over toward me and knelt between my legs. He placed one hand on each of my knees and looked me in the face; his face, so young yet worn with expression looked at me intently.
“Jess,” he stated, his voice shaking trying to find the words. “You were right. It was what you thought.” I raced through the living room, beyond the kitchen and finally fell to my knees next to the front door. I sobbed and wept in the fetal position where my brother came and sat calmly beside me, just sharing the empty space. I grabbed his face full of pain and I said, “How? Tell me how.”
We held each other, quivering in the silence and the dark of my aunt’s foyer, and in that moment I have never felt so empty, so alone, exposed in the pain of the truth about my father’s death.
Almost one year later, I still feel unprotected and vulnerable in my truth. We buried my father the afternoon before my 31st birthday and one week before my brother’s wedding. Since his death, I have needed my father every single day. I have made choices for the first time without his advice and constantly wondered what else I could have done.
My father was always a sensitive man. It’s what made him wonderful but also what made him doubt his greatness. My dad gave my brother and me everything and was the strongest man I know, but I don’t think he ever actually believed that. My father’s depression had gotten so bad that eventually he stopped sleeping at all. His business had been failing, and unbeknownst to my brother and me, he’d poured all his money into a store that was essentially bankrupt.
His suicide note was so unlike my father. He was full of life and possessed a natural writer’s ability to create masterpieces with language and pen. The letter was detached and practical. One for my brother and me that instructed us to move on and for my brother to please carry on with the wedding. One for my aunt and uncle initiating their assistance in helping my brother and me through the formalities of the process. We found these notes and later others stashed away in his home dating back almost 10 years.
Without my dad, I feel like I walk slowly through life from moment to moment — as if I am alive and my surroundings are photographs, still images I can’t quite relate to anymore, but I am allowed the vivid, momentary sensations. So much life is left to live, yet I can’t quite figure out how to form a world without him in it. I struggle with the pain and how to express my feelings about the manner in which he passed. I look for him everywhere in faces of strangers and sometimes, for a moment, I think I see him in a glance or in a smile, but then I am reminded he is no longer here.
Struggling with depression and trying to keep his business alive was, in the end, what exhausted my father. I think of the bravery it took to wake up each morning and continue looking the world in the face regardless of the extra pain he was carrying inside.
Society looks down on a person who died by suicide, as if the person was weak or gave up. I see it differently. I think my father was the bravest man I know. I still believe this. As one of his survivors, I hope to have half the courage he displayed throughout my life. I’m learning to live in the space he left behind, floating through and grasping for anything tangible I can find. Tragedy changes and moves us. Being the daughter of his tragedy does not shame me because I am still his daughter. I am the daughter of a fighter, of a man made of the ultimate strength, and for that I am grateful.