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.