On the advice of a friend, I started reading "The Quitter" by John Acuff and as I read through the part about finding your "hinge", I realized that, whichever way I cut it, writing is my passion. When he asked if you'd even do it for free, I have and I would.
This led me to reflect on what really caused me to start this blog which began on Facebook in early 2009, later migrating here when I got frustrated with the format and lack of space. And that something is what I keep referring back to as my "18,000 words of garbage". But the fact is, it isn't all garbage, and it did have a really good purpose, so what I'm going to do today is share the first chapter of what I've tentatively titled "Live After Suicide: Healing and Forgiving".
Chapter 1: In the beginning…
My mother chose to end her life on December 28, 1993, less than a month before a cataclysmic earthquake rattled Northridge and quite a bit of Southern California. Choosing to remain in bed when my father left for work due to some unspecified malaise, she sought to get rid of the pain with a bottle of sleeping pills. She didn’t leave a note or a sign but left behind her 6 year old granddaughters, her infant grandson, my sister, my father and me. And scores of unanswered questions.
For years, I was angry with my mother. Angry because, as my father struggled with depression and the well-meaning questions from friends and family, she’d left him to find her cold body in the bed they’d shared for nearly forty years. Angry because she left the granddaughters who loved her, even when she was making their mother crazy with her opinions on how they should be raised. And angry because she left during a very difficult time in my life as I slogged through an ugly divorce.
My father followed her down that road nearly 10 years later, on September 11, 2003, exactly two years after the fateful World Trade Center disaster, and one day before his granddaughters’ 16th birthday. As near as we can tell, he pondered the lung cancer diagnosis he’d recently received, wrote a note, smoked one last cigarette and put a gun I wasn’t even aware he owned to his head. He did remember, before he left us, to send the girls birthday cards and checks, which arrived a couple of days after he was gone. Through most of the ten years following my mother’s death, my dad dated a woman who was freakishly like my mom, in a shorter, more earthy kind of way. The note he left was directed to her and gave her his apologies. To me he left the job of cleaning up after him, and clearing out what remained of both his life and my mother’s, while my sister wondered why I couldn’t get the job done faster. I never saw her cry.
My mother taught me how to read and how to bake Snickerdoodles, irritated me with her obsessive –compulsive neatness, loved my daughters to distraction while making me crazy with her “suggestions” on raising them. And one day, quite suddenly, she was gone.
It came with a voice mail message from my father, who sounded like a man in shock, unable to believe where his life had led. The details, though, came more slowly. Wading through caramel slowly, in fact. A question from the coroner had Dad searching Mom’s office for a how-to book on suicide. He found it hidden behind some other books on her bookshelf. Clearly, she’d had time to think before she acted.
From my dad’s family I learned how to cope. And by coping, I mean keeping things in, not letting those around you see that you weren’t really keeping it together as much as it appeared. That the strong, solid exterior you showed the world was merely a front for how broken, how shattered you were inside, the part which must never be shared. From them I also learned to depend only on myself. It wasn’t appropriate to expect anyone to take care of you or even for you to need anyone.
That ingrained aversion to being dependent is, I believe, what drove my Dad to take his life. He could not conceive of having me, my sister and our children watch his deterioration the way he had watched his mother’s, nor could he conceive of us having to care for him until nature took it’s course. He was a very proud man, and, from his perspective, did the only honorable and loving thing he could for us.
Families of suicide victims face challenges in the grieving process which are quite different from those who lose someone to cancer or a car accident or even murder. We feel shame, and with that shame, comes guilt. It took me a long time to get past the shame, and to really understand why it’s even there. I came to the conclusion that because Society has been as judgmental and uninformed about suicide as they are about homosexuality, it has become a subject that is only discussed in whispers, looking around to make sure nobody overhears. One of the most common of those misconceptions is that family members should have seen it coming and gotten help before the unmentionable act occurred.
This may be more apparent in the case of a youthful suicide as there are many studies and reports about teenage suicide, behaviour changes and obvious drug abuse. But in truth, the percent of adults who attempt suicide and succeed far exceeds that of teenagers. In part, this is because, as adults, we learn to protect ourselves by revealing only a small portion of who we really are. When things are painful or difficult, adults often withdraw, but in the meantime, they continue to be responsible adults, going to work, raising kids, even volunteering. They don’t share their struggles over finances or parents who are aging and need extra care, or marriages that are slowly imploding. They can go through their life, their normal routine, being functionally depressed until one day it just overwhelms them. Because they’re upholding their responsibilities, we tend to overlook or work around their moodiness, their overreactions to simple things, and assume they’re just having a bad day. In cases where the crankiness goes on for a long period of time, people just write it off to the person’s nature and interact with them as little as possible, which, in reality, probably fuels the depression.
This societal insensitivity is no less damaging to the victim’s family as well meaning people ask why they didn’t notice or find help for the victim. I remember watching people badger my Dad right after Mom died and wanting to look at them in disbelief, saying “He’s not a psychiatrist! Living with Mom over the years, I’m sure he learned to overlook certain behaviour to avoid arguments, if nothing else!” And in my Mom’s case, I had heard from some of those same relatives that the mere mention that she had a problem and should see a doctor would cause her to go ballistic. I know for a fact that my dad never really learned to cope with her anger, except to withdraw into himself until it passed. It’s like saying, “I know the stove is hot and I’ve felt the pain of a burn before, but I’m going to put my hand on that hot burner anyway.” How many of us are stupid enough to intentionally repeat an action we know is painful, or at least highly uncomfortable? Isn’t that the true definition of insanity? Knowing what the result of an action will be, but doing it over and over, hoping for a different outcome.
And suppose we do notice and try to intervene? Would our efforts be met as well intentioned, or simply as meddling, and quite possibly, make matters worse? Mental health issues aren’t exactly table talk either. It’s only in recent years that seeing a psychiatrist or a counselor hasn’t caused speculation about nervous breakdowns or schizophrenia and thoughts of that crazy cousin nobody every sees, or dear Aunt Agnes who’s “delicate” and who the children have learned to tiptoe around on the rare occasions she comes to visit.
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Due to the nature of today's post, and it's digression from what has become a "normal" post these days, I'm leaving the gratitudes for later, except to say that I appreciate anyone who read through to this point.
Love and light.