More than a day

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. As far as I’m concerned, every day should be World Suicide Prevention Day.

For those of you who don’t know, I am a survivor of suicide. For those of you not up on the lingo, this does not mean that I survived a suicide attempt; rather it does mean that I’ve survived the suicide of a loved one.

My dad took his life in 2001, and it was a life-defining event. I wrote more extensively about it on my other blog, and I’m going to attach that post to this one, because, even two years out, it accurately captures all of the complex thoughts and emotions that surround his death.

A suicide in the family changes you, changes your family, changes what you imagine is possible in the universe. It’s an ache that may wax and wane, but will never recede. The anger, the anguish, the self-recrimination – you learn how to lean into them, to find adaptive coping mechanisms, to learn how to keep living. I have. And I’ve learned that life can hold beauty and wonder despite the permanence of pain.

Here’s my dad. And below that, the post from my other blog, Work Still In Progress.

My father took his life on March 28, 2001.  Dad was 60, a highly respected lawyer, in good health, with a wife of 33 years and two grown children.  I had just gotten married the year previous – my brother had settled in San Francisco and was establishing his life.  From all outward appearances, things seemed to be going well.

The public face never tells the full story of course.  Dad had always had a depressive streak, something I began to notice in my teens.  His way out of it was what felt like a forced manic extroversion; he was the life of the party, the most lavish gift-giver,  planner of extravagant trips, the loudest laugher at any gathering.  He strove to be larger-than-life.  He was adored by his friends and clients and acquaintances alike.

My relationship with him was far more complicated, a tale for another time.  Suffice it to say that seven months after my wedding I realized that I needed to work through my complex feelings about him, and I needed some space to do it.  I asked Dad to give me some time to figure some things out for myself, and that I would be in touch with him when I felt ready.

Three months later he was gone.

It’s taken me many years and a bank-breaking amount of therapy to come to a place where I can accept that my actions were not the cause of his suicide (it didn’t help that he jumped with a picture of me in his pocket).  It may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but the reasons were probably many.  The torture for those of us who survive a loved one’s suicide is that we will never know, and part of the pain of their death is living with that uncertainty, and being able to accept that there will never be an answer.

I’ve also come to understand that my feelings about Dad and his death will never really be resolved.  Seventeen years later I still have my moments of absolute grief, or uncontrollable anger, or utter confusion.  I know that for me the best thing to do is to sit with those feelings, allow myself to feel them, to not judge myself for feeling so conflicted, and to seek out support, whether from friends or from a professional.

Most essays and articles on the subject of suicide end with numbers for prevention hotlines, how to ask for help, how it is avoidable with the right intervention and support.  It seems like little is said to those who are left behind, those whose lives are torn apart, those who must live forever with the reality of an avoidable loss.  It is we who blame ourselves for not seeing the signs, for not being able to help.

To us survivors I say this;  we’re all doing the best we can in a complex and uncertain world.  Some have made the decision that they are no longer able to make their way in it.  We can only be accountable for ourselves and our own actions.  The best we can do is to direct the tenderness of our broken hearts out into the world, knowing that the kindness that arises when the grief finally softens can bring healing not just to ourselves, but to those around us.

Although, with time and healing, we can move through those initial feelings, know that they will always be there.  The challenge is to neither let our loss be that which defines who we are, or to push it below the surface in hopes that the pain will go away.  The suicide of a loved one is an inextricable part of our experience, part of the intricate tapestries of our lives.

And we must remind ourselves that the resurgence of grief is to be expected, and that the sometimes overwhelming and overwhelmingly complex emotions we feel are simply part of the human condition.  When it becomes too much, reach outward, because connection, too, is a part of the human condition.  Support and love will be there.

Finally, let us be gentle with ourselves.  Let us remember to see the small, beautiful things around us daily.  Let us allow our compassion to guide us.  Let us hold our own hearts softly, like a newborn.  Let us be well.

2 thoughts on “More than a day

  1. Oh Sarah! That is so beautiful – I mean, beautifully written. I’m so sorry for your terrible loss. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. But I can see that It is a lot to hold in your heart.

    My own father (now rounding the corner on 86 years old) is a man who’s broken in a fundamental way, and there are times when that brokenness means he hurts others without really meaning to. He would never believe that his words and actions hurt me like they do. He would protest that he loves me. And he really does. Your father, although from your description a very different person, sounds like he loved and injured others in a similar manner. I’ve not experienced near the pain that it sounds like you have (for instance, I can still call up my father and yell at him, which doesn’t get me anywhere but serves as a small release valve). And yet, I know how confounding it is to have a parent who both loves you profoundly and causes you profound distress.

    I wish I could give you a big hug. Maybe when this pandemic is over I can.

    Thanks for this post.

    Connie

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  2. Wayne Zelenak says:

    Sarah, OMG, your words have a profound effect on me as if the words jumped out and grabbed and shook me because I am also a suicide survivor. I lost two female cousins and two close friends, one male, and one female, to suicide. All three females were suffering from deep depression involving failed marriages.

    The worst part, I was providing emotional support by phone and chat sessions to my relatives 24/7 when they needed to discuss their marital problems. I had many long conversations, always staying positive, and trying to redirect their deep and dark thoughts and stories. Three of the four used guns to end their life. The news of their passing and the resurgence of grief produces pain, nausea, and guilt. Guilt for not seeing the red flags leading to their demise. The horror of finding my cousin after her suicide is a grisly image that will haunt me as long as I live. She was only 28.

    What I have found is depression knows no cultural boundaries and every situation is similar but different. Having a severe bout with depression myself years ago, I like to use an analogy that brings home the compelling feeling of depression that consumes every ounce of energy in your body. The example I use is having your hand over a hot flame, with searing pain erupting from every pore in your body, every second. The only thought is to remove your hand regardless of what it takes. In the case of suicide, it is taking your life.

    In our conflicting world of fear, anguish, and uncertainty, I try to inspire others with poetry, amusing anecdotes, and positive thoughts and photos through FB. I feel compelled to share my warm feelings about music, nature, compassion, and gratitude, hoping to avert any hostile actions by those suffering from depression. Listening to music and walking in nature always works for me to change my mood from negative to positive, and gives me a better perspective of what is important in life. Kindness and sharing are just a few. Thank you for sharing your intimate and profound words that connect us through our virtual friendship and mutual interests. I share your feelings about the small but beautiful things that surround us also connect us, regardless of the distance between us.

    Watching another person smile is one of the greatest gifts in life and even better is knowing that you are the reason behind it…

    W

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