Today marks 2 years since my Dad took his own life with a firearm. I’m not really sure how much detail I want to go into about the circumstances of the day. It’s hard to know what details really matter most in the long run and there are portions of the details that will become other posts.
My mom found him, our neighbors who considered him like a father came over to help her. I was here in TN, going about my Saturday morning with my boys when my husband got the call in the middle of our older son’s soccer game. He held it together until he could tell me in private later when our boys were at a friend’s house. He looked so strange, so uncomfortable that it almost seemed fake, as he asked me to sit down because he had to tell me something. It was the oddest moment because I thought he was about to play a joke on me saying he was going to “put his foot down” about the mess in our house. That phrase had become a bit of an inside joke for us. So when he did actually tell me my father was dead I was especially stunned having expected a chance to laugh and joke about our chaotic household condition. Being a 74 year old man with a history of heart disease I assumed he had a heart attack. Nope, wasn’t that at all.
I would like to say it was totally a shock to hear my father had taken his life, and it was, but not in the way that many experience this news of a suicide of someone they love. My Dad had a history of depression and suicide attempts when I was a teen (more on that I expect in another post). So while I was reeling from the reality of the situation, it’s not something that I never, ever thought could happen. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it’s not.
The problem with losing a loved one to suicide is that the loss is so much more complicated. We understand when people die of natural causes, accidents, old age, even tragic events like mass shootings. I’ve experienced all those too and I can tell you it’s very different. Of course your heart breaks and you miss them like crazy, you shake your hands at God (if that’s your thing) and you may be very distraught for a very long time. But the emotions are pretty consistent, sadness, grief, disbelief. There is nothing quite like being so mad and so sad at the same time when you lose someone to suicide (I lost my dear cousin 5 years ago to suicide as well.) Then there is guilt, replaying everything in your mind, more anger, more sadness, round and round it goes. The hardest part of that week was the memorial service where so many of Dad’s friends looked so stricken with grief. They always knew him as a “good guy, who made everyone feel like a friend.” Many of them didn’t know about his illness or previous history with suicide attempts so they were positively floored. They didn’t know about his tremors from years of hard physical work, his loss of memory due to previous heart attacks and exposure to chemicals for years in his business. They didn’t know that when he wasn’t out “making jokes and making friends with everyone he met” he was angry and bitter about so many things. Old men don’t talk about these things, they keep it all to themselves and then they die by their own hand and leave their friends reeling with shock and grief. This needs to change.
I’ve gone back and forth so many times between anger, sadness, understanding, puzzlement and so many more emotions. At this particular time I am mostly sad and occasionally still mad. The mad is mostly in relation to the lack of him in the life of my boys. I was building squirt gun flame throwers with them with coat hangers and cotton balls last week. This was totally a job that should have been done by Grandpa. He would have gone to the hardware store and they’d have had some contraption that could light up the whole neighborhood sky. So that’s where I get mad, that he’s not here to do those things with them, and that the knowledge of the missing piece sullies a moment where it should just be pure fun with my kids. I’m sad of course because I don’t have a Dad anymore, that he’s just not here anymore, that one more of my already small immediate family is gone from this earth.
There is the age old question of whether suicide is a choice. This question weighs heavily on my mind fairly often. It is hard for me to decide what I think or hope. You see, as someone who lives with depression and anxiety myself, I want to think he had a choice, I want to think I have a choice. I want to know that mental illness can not just swoop in and take me away without my conscious decision. My counselor and I strongly believe I am conscious enough of my own state of mind to never let me get to that point. But as his daughter, his only little girl, I want to think he didn’t have a choice, that he would never truly decide to leave us with this anguish and heart break. When it came time to explain his death to my older son, I talked about heart attacks, when your heart isn’t healthy, you have intense pain and it stops working. I read somewhere about suicide being compared to a “brain attack,” that his brain wasn’t healthy that his mind and body hurt so much that it told his body it was time to stop working. This explanation seems to work for those of us who hope he didn’t choose to leave us. It doesn’t work so well for those of us who want to be sure we never leave the ones we love in this way.