To live a life of meaning is to know that nothing is ever set in stone.
Stones – they can be used to build bridges or be a source of destruction. They can trip us up, placing obstacles in our path, or be the foundation of a new beginning. They can be collected as remembrances of new places we visit and memories we make. They can be polished, smooth, turned into ornaments. They can be rough and jagged, worn down by the elements. They can weigh us down if we try to carry too many of them on our own, a truth we know all too well.
And …they can mark a final resting place. An eloquent monument for a loved one we’ve lost, whose death didn’t have to be. Mother Theresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
We who loved you are the ripples. The continuing legacy to that stone your life cast. And it is in those ripples that we must find you and carry you forward. This headstone will stand for eternity. It is heavy like grief yet strong like the human spirit, it will not wither. Neither is it left untouched by passing storms. It is not where we find you, but where we instead honor you. It is where we come to remember, to cry, to talk, and to feel as if we are with you. As we strive to move forward in a world without you, one where so many others know the same pain that you felt, suffering in silence, and feeling alone, I offer you one last promise:
Your life and death won’t be for nothing nor be without meaning. No stone will be left unturned. No matter how deeply rooted they are in shame or stigma. If even one life can be saved from telling our story, then the ripples of your legacy, your life, and even your loss will be without end.
In the few moments it took two high school seniors to confess to each other that they had lost their mothers to suicide a few years earlier, their lives changed . . . forever. They wouldn’t fully appreciate their good fortune for some time to come, but the gift they received that day was among the rarest of gifts: true friendship.
Those wounded, drifting teenage boys were us – and that heart-to-heart conversation took place “just” 55 years ago. Nearly everything in our lives has changed since then – except our friendship. We realize now that finding each other probably saved us, and without a doubt, has sustained us ever since.
We stumbled upon each other waiting for the school bus – Rick on the wrong corner, waved over by David. Back then, we both felt lost, abandoned, and trapped in an unrelenting fog. On the day we opened up to one another for the first time, it was as if a dam burst. All the clashing emotions, impossible questions, and self-doubts we’d kept bottled up since our mothers’ suicides surfaced in a rush of bad memories and hopeful revelations.
We needed empathy and honesty from someone we trusted – and we found it in each other. We are the rare exception for the other, someone who also experienced as a young teenager the crushing loss of a mother to suicide. Someone who “gets” what it feels like to be left behind by the person who is supposed to love you the most.
Our friendship provided a permanent outlet for expressing our pain, anxieties, and confusion, and offered us a kind of solace unavailable anywhere else. Together, we recognized we were not alone in bearing such an inconceivable loss. No small revelation at the time.
When we met, David was living with his aunt and uncle. He vividly remembers the tears running down his aunt’s cheeks as she realized the fledgling relationship we were forming. She recognized immediately what we only realized years later.
After school, we would walk from the bus stop to David’s house for milk and Oreos sweetly provided by Aunt Phyllis. Or we’d take a slightly longer route to Rick’s house. Or we’d wander through the park and spend hours on our favorite bench as we said aloud what we had kept locked away inside our heads. That park bench became our psychiatrist’s couch and each of us the other’s therapist.
Though we never met Dr. Carl Rogers, a highly respected psychologist during the latter half of the 20th century, he could have had us in mind when he wrote about “empathy” — the ability to sense or imagine other people’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings. Empathy was at the heart of what drew us together as isolated, grieving boys, and has kept us together for over half a century as friends, husbands, fathers, and grandfathers. Rogers wrote:
“When I truly hear a person and the meanings that are important to him at that momenthearing not simply his words, but him, and when I let him know that I have heard his own private personal meanings, many things happen. There is first a grateful look. He feels released. He wants to tell me more about his world. He surges forth in a new sense of freedom. He becomes more open to the process of change.” ~A Way of Being, 1980
From the instant we shared our deep dark “secret,” we felt that “new sense of freedom” Dr. Rogers wrote about and our connection became – and remains – indelible. We wrote our book, Sons of Suicide: A Memoir of Friendship, over seven years while living more than two thousand miles apart. Thank goodness for the internet!
Our friendship is firmly rooted in the common tragedy we experienced as boys, but we don’t want to leave the impression that all we talk about are the suicides of our mothers. Indeed, until we began working on our memoir, it was rare that we’d resurrect the awful years after our mothers’ deaths. More likely, we’d talk about our families, mutual friends, baseball, photography, professional pursuits, and volunteer work.
Nor do we want to imply that our friendship has somehow eliminated the hole in our hearts left by our mothers’ deaths or resolved the many unfathomable questions and emotions that surfaced after their suicides. What we learned from our experience is that opening up – talking and listening to each other – helped us push through our grief and come to terms with our jumbled emotions. That, in turn, began our healing.
Our friendship has served each of us faithfully during sorrowful and joyful times alike. We have been there for each other – in person, virtually, or in spirit – through the natural ebbs and flows of a lifetime.
When David’s beloved Uncle Ben – our Uncle Ben – passed away after a lengthy illness, Rick flew from Ohio to Maryland unannounced to deliver milk and Oreos, along with hugs and compassion, to a surprised David and Aunt Phyllis. And when Rick’s Dad died, David was on the other end of the phone to listen as Rick tearfully read a draft of his eulogy, looking for suggestions to improve it and receiving, in addition, an empathetic ear and an unspoken understanding of the mix of deep-rooted feelings he was grappling with.
The joy of our friendship also extends to family and friends. We and our wives have vacationed together, traveling to places as different as an Alaskan glacier and a Costa Rican rain forest. One year we rendezvoused in Prague. On several mornings, the two of us woke early and, cameras in hand, wandered onto the famous Karlov Bridge for sunrise and then meandered across the river into residential neighborhoods near the legendary 9th-century Prague castle. Photography is one of several passions we have in common, and these quiet mornings were an opportunity to share time together capturing images of a grand new place.
One afternoon, we toured Prague’s old Jewish Quarter. It was interesting and educational – and sobering. As the two of us stood in the solemn silence of a centuries-old synagogue, our minds imagined the Nazi invasion when hundreds of families were wiped out, entire towns “cleansed” of Jews and others. And we gazed through tears at a display of heartbreaking pencil drawings made by Jewish children days before their deaths. Soon, moved by the surroundings and our memories, we were transported back to times when we were bewildered teenagers seeking consolation in other synagogues. In that special place, we shared with each other:
“For months after my mother died,“ David whispered, “I practically lived in a synagogue. A tiny Orthodox one. Just me and the old men with long gray beards and side curls. My grandfather, who I loved and admired, nudged me to go before school every day to say Kaddish [the prayer for the dead] for my mother’s memory. I was supposed to do it for a year, but I stopped after seven months.”
“You’ve never told me this,” Rick said, incredulous that this hadn’t come up before. “Listening to you reminds me of the months after my mother died. My sister and I would sit in the silence of our temple’s sanctuary before Sunday school, just the two of us, in the dark . . . except for the red glow of the eternal light.”
“You never told me this,” David mimicked, muffling a grin.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, we drew even closer. A reminder, perhaps, that we’ll never know everything about each other. Yet, no matter how long it’s been since we last discussed our mothers’ suicides, we can pick up instantly where we left off, our understanding of each other a perpetual bridge between us.
Tragedy drew us together. Friendship has kept us together. Until we found each other at age 17, we carried a terrible burden in silence. Today we’re in our 70s, retired and content, and can’t imagine our lives without the other.
How to explain our relationship – our friendship — in everyday terms?
Recently, a friend may have done it for us. After he heard us share how we met, in a recent TEDx talk we gave, he sent us this insightful note:
“’Hey, buddy, over here … Wrong corner.’
“With those simple words, you two embarked on quite a journey. A journey across many miles and over many decades. Of heartache and joy. Of loss and love.
“And you’ve been in each other’s corner ever since.”
Every survivor of suicide loss needs someone they trust in their corner. It makes the difference . . . who’s in yours?
It will be ten years come August that I lost my mother to suicide. Memories of that warm summer day are always vivid in my mind.
“Honey,” she said. And I knew. “It’s your mother,” she said. And I knew. “She’s killed herself,” she said. And I knew. I knew it was my fault. It was my fault. Over and over again. I knew it.
Guilt engulfed me. I experienced all the stages of grief, many times, but guilt ravenously held me in its grip.
Life as I knew it was over. “Normal” was gone. All that would have been was forever altered. I was thrust into an emotional tsunami. I was not sure I could survive, but something deep within me kept pushing me on. My sister was my constant companion on the journey. Her love, as well as the understanding, patience, and support of family and friends, kept me going.
I read books on suicide, grief, and mental illness. I journaled. I allowed others to care for me when I couldn’t care for myself. I went to support group meetings, therapy appointments, and I stayed on my meds. Even though I’d fall, I kept going through the motions, trusting familiar routines to direct me through my days.
Now I realize that each step I took was a part of the healing process. Even the falling down was valuable, for in getting up there was progress, insight, understanding, and acceptance. Eventually, weeks evolved into months and months into years. I can’t say when happiness returned, but it did. I can’t say when my breathless grief ended, but it did.
There were unexpected gifts along the way. I can see many now in hindsight: conversations, shared moments, a touch, connections with others at our most damaged, vulnerable, and human level.
I believe that everything is a process and that no one person’s grief or journey is exactly like another’s. Staying with the process and on the journey is important. In the beginning, we think healing will never come, but it does. I still experience “moments.” There will always be “moments,” but I honor them by embracing a tender memory rather than visualizing a final, desperate act.
Now I have stronger faith and a deeper understanding of myself, my Higher Power, and of others. I am more aware of how life can change in an instant. I’m also aware of the strength we possess within. I have more empathy and more compassion. I listen better, and I share more.
I try to maintain a positive attitude and to connect more with people. Rather than assume or hope that someone knows how I feel about them, I now make sure that they do, regardless of their place in my life. I try to remember that with each encounter comes an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, if only with a smile or a gentle touch of the hand.
At some point, I knew I wanted to give back. I now facilitate support groups for other survivors. I am passionately committed to helping others heal. Ultimately, I would also like to be involved in suicide prevention and education.
After my mother died, I made a list to help myself. The paper I wrote it on is worn and a bit faded. It’s been read and re-read, torn and taped, folded and unfolded, wadded up and cried on, held to my heart, and thrown to the floor. And many times, it has been essential. I offer it to you–with a wish that comfort, peace, and healing will find you.
Life is fragile
Be gentle with yourself
Clearly speak your needs
Know that you have value
You do not walk alone
Exercise kindness no matter how small
Give yourself permission to take the time you need
It’s okay to remove yourself from uncomfortable situations and conversations
Some people will never understand, God bless their fortunate ignorance
It’s not your fault; you’re not to blame
Pray some and sleep some, write some and speak some, smile some and weep some, and know that you are loved
As Executive Director of Alliance of Hope, I often receive books. Survivors send them to our office in the hope that what they have written will make a difference for someone else. Last month, a children’s book landed on my desk that stood out for its grace and simplicity and especially, for the hope it offers.
When author Rebecca Mason’s husband Todd ended his life 14 years ago, she faced the excruciating task of telling their sons ages 2, 5, and 8, that their beloved father had died. In the ensuing weeks and months, Rebecca did what she could to comfort them – and when she could not find a book that fit their needs, she wrote one. Later, not finding an illustrator who felt comfortable capturing the importance of the book’s emotion, she illustrated it herself.
I want to share this newly published book with you because it is a lovely book for children … but really, beyond that, I invite you to join me in bearing witness to Rebecca’s journey. Her resilience and her accomplishment parallel the journey and accomplishments of so many survivors. In the beginning, it is hard to believe that one will ever make it through, but those who have gone beyond just surviving, like Rebecca, provide examples and hope that it can be done.
I leave you with Rebecca’s words, found at the end of her book:
“I wrote this book shortly after my husband passed away in 2007. His death was sudden and tragic, and it shattered my family’s safe world in an instant.
I searched for children’s books that would speak to how my boys were feeling. I wanted to find something that would directly relate to them and help them process the feelings of this unique kind of grief. But my searches left more to be desired.
As I lay awake one sleepless night, I looked at my three small children snuggled in close to me sleeping soundly in my bed. I was determined to do my best for them and give them the support they needed in order to help them process this in the healthiest way possible. It was out of this deep desire that I began to write this story. I wanted them to know they were not alone in having their Daddy die. Because it felt like they were. When I read the finished story to them, they were surprised that another little boy out there know exactly how they felt. And they said it made them feel better … so, we read it often.
It is my deepest desire that this story will also comfort your child or children in some way. I hope they can see themselves in it as my own children did. I hope that you and your children can find strength in the fact that you are unified with many in this experience; you are not alone, and you will get through this horrible time. And I hope that you will ultimately be triumphant in your grief journey and find the will and grace to move forward with love.” ~Rebecca Mason
It has been 23 months since my dad died by suicide. When this journey of suicide grief began (and still now) I thought I wanted to use my experience to lessen the stigma around mental illness, suicide, and suicide loss. I still feel it is important to talk about suicide and breaking the taboo – but anytime the subject comes up my anxiety skyrockets. It just hits too close to home. It is too personal. It is too raw. My life and my heart are profoundly affected by suicide.
I am sure this has everything to do with anxiety after a traumatic event. I wonder if this is how others feel after losing a loved one in another way. Many people do not realize the impact their conversations have on grieving hearts.
I get so offended by people’s insensitive comments and ignorance about suicide. I want to be able to shed a light on the subject, to educate people. Yet I cannot help in the way I want to. Even with the knowledge and experience I have gained, I cannot shine a light on the subject in a composed way because of how much I am affected and how raw and damaged I am.
I know this will always be personal for me and wonder if I ever will be able to talk about suicide without becoming emotional. When I hear others discussing the death of someone who died by suicide, will I ever be able to shed a light on the subject or even be in the conversation? Will I ever not have a major setback just when the subject comes up?
I am trying not to be too hard on myself, to allow myself time to grieve and to be raw. I am trying to acknowledge my feelings when they come to the surface. For now, I will hold close my knowledge and experience, knowing that one day it may blossom into something helpful against the taboo and stigma.
Perhaps helping starts on a smaller scale. We do not have to force ourselves to speak up in every conversation. Just planting little seeds of help along the way makes a difference.
Hello all. I don’t post often but I felt compelled to share tonight, as I find myself in deep thoughts. At almost 4 years out I have seen growth and even healing, and those nuggets of hope should always be shared with others. We learn as we go and I’m so very thankful for the Alliance of Hope (AOH) holding my hand along the way.
My first year was a lot like most, filled with unbearable pain and sadness, barely doing the basics, sleepless nights, isolation, and not seeing a way forward after losing my dear dad.
During my second year, the shock was gone but my pain was not and I was still struggling despite therapy, AOH, self-help, research, faith, and lots of wonderful family and friends encouraging me. I’m thankful for these angels here on earth.
By year three I forced myself to do things again like zoo trips and family meals once a month with our close family members. I went out with friends more. I tried to focus and watch whole movies without my thoughts wandering. I tried to learn to live again beyond my grief. I tried to embrace the love that was still viable in my life with my family and friends.
As I am laying here tonight, I paid close attention to my thoughts – reflecting on this journey I never could have imagined. This is what I have learned …
I choose love – to love myself and others beyond our limitations or our shortcomings in this life. We are all learning. I will not let my grief harden my broken heart. I have to keep moving forward for those still here as well as myself.
I choose healing – this was not about me. This is so much bigger than what we can truly understand. My dad would want this for me.
I choose compassion — for myself and for others. We all deserve this. This life can throw some mean curveballs as we now know.
I choose joy – I’m still a work in progress here, but it’s a start. I wish to be more present in my life and with those that I love that are still here. Never forgetting the love and memories of my sweet dad but learning to release my pain. It is unwarranted and serves no positive purpose in my life.
I choose forgiveness – for myself and for others. My dad does not need my forgiveness, he was silently suffering, and his body failed him. Just as a cancer would. I had to learn to forgive myself for not knowing more.
I choose kindness – we could all use more of this and offer more of this not only to ourselves but to others. We are always stronger in numbers.
I choose hope — this is a big one for me. It is what has gotten me through most days. This is definitely the hardest journey of my life. I hold onto hope for myself and for others. For all those who struggle especially.
Thank you for letting me share my growth and journey here and I am sorry that it is so lengthy. I actually wanted to share more but this was a good start. When I look back at the devastating journey that I had to walk through to get through, sometimes crawl through, I can see that the lessons that have been for me to learn have been to create a better and stronger version of myself. They were not meant to steal my joy or love or hope or compassion, but to help me grow.
My dad is still teaching me and yes, this makes me smile. I miss him every day. I know he is still with me in spirit and still guiding me.
If you read all this … then thank you. Guess I should post more often huh? Wishing you all healing and hope and peace in your journeys.
In June we celebrate Father’s Day, a day set aside to honor our fathers, grandfathers, and father figures – both living and deceased. It can be a very painful day for fathers who are grieving the loss of a child or grandchild from suicide. It is also a painful day for those who are grieving the loss of a father or a grandfather from suicide. The holiday highlights how much we miss them.
I believe it is important the day is observed, and the void is addressed, and we not pretend everything is the same. It is not and it never will be. The suicide of your loved one has permanently altered the family system and that system will never be the same again. Rituals are a healthy way to address the fact that this key person in the lives of family members is gone. The ritual can be a prayer or a lighted candle or a favorite song of the departed one.
The purpose of the ritual is to make this dearly loved one present in a different form. Your loved one has departed from the earthly scene. They are still a part of the family but in a different form of presence. I believe that a tragedy worse than this person’s suicide is if this person were to be forgotten. As long as there are rituals performed in your loved one’s memory, that person remains a part of the family – albeit in a different type of presence. We never want to forget our loved ones who have departed from this world.
I am sometimes asked if there is anything positive that can come from losing a loved one to suicide? I do believe there can be some positive results from such an experience. I am not talking about a “silver lining” coming from losing a loved one to suicide. Each survivor needs to ask themselves just what good can come from this excruciating and painful experience. What can a survivor learn from this devastating loss? That is the crucial question that needs to be asked. Can the survivor become a better person or a more thoughtful person? Can they make a difference? What lessons are to be learned?
Obviously, survivors must first get through the initial stages of the grief journey and resolve that this loved one found life too painful to endure. That is one of the most painful parts of the grief journey. That part of the grief journey takes a lot of time and energy.
At some point, most survivors recognize that the ultimate goal of the grief journey is not necessarily a return to happiness, though that can happen eventually if the grief journey is successfully traversed. Suicide loss offers us the opportunity to respond to a call to holiness. I do not mean this in a religious sense — but in the sense that survivors look upon life as a series of events that are sometimes positive and sometimes negative.
The challenge for survivors is to see how this completed suicide can be redeemed into something sacred so that the memories of the loved one have a positive and lasting effect on the world.
Some survivors have formed foundations in memory of their loved ones. The money from the foundation is used to further causes involving mental illness or other issues that are dear to the survivors. There is a myriad of opportunities to foster awareness about depression or support services that assist the survivors of a completed suicide.
I believe that actions to memorialize our loved ones are transformational in that the pain resulting from the suicide can be transformed and redeemed into something positive.
Will such efforts result in happiness? I do not know if that is the right question to ask. I think the right question to ask is: will these efforts cause some change in society that makes a difference? If that is the sought-after result, then there can be a sense of satisfaction and contentment that a loved one has not died in vain. The efforts of the survivors have resulted in something positive to the world. What a great gift to offer in memory of a loved one.
As always, I want to assure all loss survivors of my thoughts and prayers on a regular basis during my quiet time. This will be done especially on Father’s Day. I encourage each one of you to do the same for each other – especially for those who are new to loss.
After ten months, I know I am getting better because:
I cry much less.
I can tell people in a matter-of-fact way that my brother died by suicide.
I can think about other things.
I have reached back out to my friends. When my brother died, I shut the world out.
I baked I-don’t-know-how-many-dozens of cookies for a church fete.
My iPod and I have walked miles and miles this fall. In this late fall, I see the beauty of nature shutting down for the winter: the brilliant yellow leaves in the sunshine, the huge number of acorns the mighty oaks gave up, and, of course, those deep blue autumn skies here in the northeast.
I no longer drag myself through the supermarket in a fog.
I am so much less angry.
I am beginning to feel some inner peace – almost this Zen-like feeling.
I wish I could get back to doing some serious reading, but I’m not there yet. I can do newspapers, but I don’t have the concentration for books.
It’s remarkable what we human beings can come back from. I think about my darkest days, and I didn’t think I was going to make it. Now I know I will make it and have a good, productive future life.
I am deeply grateful to the people who have helped me. They have helped me cope with breast cancer, the loss of my mother, and the suicide of my brother. What a 15-month period this has been! I now realize I am still standing. That, in itself, is an accomplishment.
Every year it seems that once the month of October arrives, everyone begins to get into the festive spirit, for this commences the time of year that holds all the most important family holidays. It has begun to be dark in the morning. The sun sets earlier in the evening. Temperatures are beginning to fall. Soon the leaves will change color. Fall foliage is emerging and then that too will fall to begin the winter season.
Everyone seems to be engaging in fun family fall activities, like pumpkin carving, apple picking, and Halloween festivities. These were things I used to look forward to, but now are things I fear.
I like many of you, am in my first year after losing my parent. I am anxious about the holiday season and how different it will be since there is a huge piece missing. I cannot picture walking into my mother’s house and seeing it not decorated with witches, caution tape covering doors, and pumpkins throughout. But this year it will for sure not have the things she always did.
It is even harder to picture going to Thanksgiving dinner and not seeing my mother struggling to make a turkey, all the sides and dessert. She always did.
And It is impossible to fathom that I won’t go to her house this Christmas and find her in her Christmas pajamas with presents labeled ‘from Santa.”
The holidays come with a sense of dread and anxiety. I’m sure many of you – especially those experiencing the first holiday season without your loved one – are feeling this as well.
I think it is important during this time … that we all take gentle care of ourselves. Here’s to wishing everyone a happy, healthy, and safe fall and holiday season; I hope this may help anyone who is beginning to have these feelings emerge as well.
Five months ago, I was given the most devastating news that my dad had taken his own life. During the first couple of months I was not able to function as the event that took place clouded every inch of my thinking. I struggled to accept or understand what my dad had done and the complexity of his death was overwhelming to say the least.
Somewhere along the line however, I chose to live, and from that moment on I have found a strength that keeps manifesting and growing. I realized that it was possible to live a happy life again so long as I allowed myself to do so. Rather than continuing to seek answers to questions that cannot now and will never be answered, I chose to release myself from being stuck in my grief.
Dad chose to end his life, and if I were to have let it, the darkness of the grief and pain that I endured could have consumed me as well. An important part of being able to release myself from the grief was to ground myself in the life I have now and the people that are still here. I cannot bring my dad back and, although I will always love and miss him, I need to make the most of the people in my life now.
The reality is that life can end so quickly and I do not want to regret not making the most out of the precious time that we have on this Earth, nor do I want to feel that life isn’t worth living, when it most definitely is once you realize the joy again of sharing moments with those you love.
I’m the child of an American hero and I want to acknowledge him and all of our American military today. This is Memorial Day weekend in the United States. Advertisements on TV remind us that it’s also the kick-off of BBQ season and the start of summertime. But in reality, this day is so much more.
On this significant day, we recall and respect those who served in our armed forces and perished. They’re not here to enjoy a BBQ or put up a camping tent, but it’s because of them that the rest of us have the chance.
Growing up, my world was filled with these men and women. I called them Dad, Grandpa, Uncle, Cousin, neighbor or friend. Clarence, Art, Jane and so many others. I now realize I never told them how much I respected or appreciated their service. I want to do so now.
These men and women put on a uniform each and every day. Whether they served during peacetime or war, they stood between me and the wolf who might come to the door. They stood for everything that we hold dear in our country. They didn’t do it for glory. They didn’t do it for money. They did it because they felt it was the right thing to do. These men and women were American heroes.
They told plenty of stories about the places they’d been and the people they’d met, but they never glorified war or the work they’d done while serving our country. They protected and defended us every day, but just saw it as doing their job.
I’m sure you can easily call up a memory of a military man or woman from your own world. These are the people who always stand, take off their hats and salute or place their hands over their hearts when they hear our national anthem. These are the people who tear up and say the Pledge of Allegiance as though it were sacred – because they feel each and every word deep within their hearts.
Today, I want to acknowledge each and every person who served in our American military and has gone on to their reward. Yes, I’ll be firing up the BBQ and enjoying the beginning of summer, but before I do so, I’ll be offering a prayer of gratitude for each of these heroes. Those men and women made this day possible because they did a job I can’t even imagine.
I’m a grateful American, the child of an American hero.
I invite my fell Americans to say a word of thanks today. When you see the American flag, recall these heroes, standing straight and tall. We’re blessed to live in a country that while deeply flawed, is still a place which produces men and women who are willing to give their all so that others may sleep in peace.
This message today is about much more than me. It’s a message of thanks from a grateful American — so I’m not going to sign my name. I’ll simply sign,
In November, it will be 39 years since my father died by suicide. He is still with me as much as he ever was, and paradoxically, he is also more absent than ever. My emotional relationship with him has changed and evolved more during the time since he died than it did when he was alive, and I daresay that I understand him better than I understand any other human being I have ever known. And at long last –actually, beginning about 18 years ago –my understanding has given me peace. It almost makes me weep to talk about that, for during the first decade after he died, I had no peace at all over his death, and during the second decade, although I gained ground consistently, I had no idea where I was headed.
Those two decades, more than anything that came before or after, landed me where I am today –truly made me who I am, both for better and for worse. I am not a fatalist –for any number of things, the smallest happenstance, might have turned me this way or that, even toward my own demise or exaltation –but everything unfolded in a way that makes sense, at least now it does, looking back at the thousand subtleties in the push and pull of navigating my life. My father’s presence in my life (even if the most tangible force behind it was his absence) contributed something vital every step of the way, and he still is conjured up at times in a way that makes it difficult for me to separate the symbolic from the thing itself.
Three years ago, my now 18-year-old grandson came to Boston for a visit, and one night, I taught him how to play cribbage –and even without a mention, my father was there. His presence at such moments, it seems to me, is neither complicated nor magical, for it is easily explained by the power of memory. My dad taught me to play cribbage a year or two before I was old enough even to understand the game very well, and I’ve sat across the dining room table from him hundreds of times, watching him shuffle the deck in a kitchen soaked in the smell of Paladin Black Cherry pipe tobacco. The last time I saw him alive, I played a game of cribbage with him, sitting in the hallway of a psychiatric hospital, with the whisking of paper slippers passing next to us and more fear and uncertainty hanging in the air between us than I could bear.
Yet, even though merely saying the word “cribbage”connects me with him –and even as a dozen other sights and sounds and smells and tastes bring him into view –my memories of him are becoming fixed, and those that are lost are lost forever. I can remember clearly only a few things he once said, and I can no longer hear the sound of his voice. Sometimes when my mother tells a story about him –even though I am a character in the scene –I have no recollection of it whatsoever. I remember the oddest incidents –seeing them almost dreamlike in my mind’s eye –but I do not recall him at my high school graduation nor during the birth of my first son (and he was surely there for both events). If I were to write down more than a few lines in an attempt to describe any sustained interaction I ever had with him, I would wonder which parts of my tale actually happened and which I was embellishing to fill in the gaps.
This is the nature of memory, and it operates the same for my memories both of the living and the dead. Similarly, the nature of intimate relationships –both with the living and the dead –is that they continue always changing and evolving. Even as the reality of my father as a living person slips further and further into the past, his influence in my life –which is now almost exclusively a very positive influence –continues to grow. For me, the strength of my relationship with him –the concreteness of his “presence” in my life –comes partly from the fact that my work for the past 18 years in suicide prevention and suicide grief support has been devoted to him. But even that has evolved remarkably: My work used to be motivated by my need for redemption and now it is being driven by my desire to change the status quo, to focusing on my intention to create something meaningful in every moment, in every task, in every connection.
In the end, all that has occurred which keeps me connected to him (who is gone) has come full circle and caused me to be more meaningfully connected to everything unfolding in front of me (which is right here, right now).
Normally my dreams are very traumatic as they show vivid replays of what might have happened on that fateful night three months ago when I lost my dad to suicide. Last night was different.
I have been struggling the past few days to the point that I got in touch with my bereavement support worker. She arranged to come and see me yesterday and the flood gates completely opened. I let so many things out that I have not spoken about to her yet and then at the end of the hour and a quarter, although tired I actually felt some relief.
Around 6:15 this morning I had a dream that I was back at my dad’s house in South Africa. It had been cleaned thoroughly and everything of Dad’s was back in its place. A few things were in a different place, but nevertheless it was all tidy and calm. As I was saying my final goodbyes (like I did on the final day I visited the house), my dad came through the door. I burst into tears and he just held me (just like he did when I last said goodbye to him at the airport after our final visit to see him). He kept saying ‘my little girl’ (as he did whenever I was upset) and kept holding me tightly.
Then my partner shouted to tell me people were coming in cars on to the farm. I came outside and it was police cars with lights flashing and the people who got out were shining flashlights towards us and the house. I walked onto the driveway and collapsed crying on the floor. I looked across back towards the house and the doorway. Dad was sitting in a chair by his outside table. He looked so relaxed and calm, not smiling but peaceful somehow.
My tears felt like they were then put on for the police as I knew dad was there–like it was his and my secret. I knew he was there, but no one else could see him. I woke up after that and began sobbing uncontrollably because it was so real. The comfort I felt when dad held me, made me feel safe–though I knew it was a dream because I kept saying to dad in my dream that it was. He gave me the ‘daddy hugs’ I have been longing for and I could feel how calm and peaceful he was.
Now I don’t know whether this was dad visiting me–to let me know he is at peace and give this broken heart and mind some comfort, or whether it was my own mind trying to put things into some kind of order. Either way, although I have felt extremely sad today, I do feel like I have mourned my dad and not just focused on what he did. I feel more peaceful. This gives me hope that my mind is working to protect me and not against me right now.
In November, it will be 39 years since my father died by suicide. He is still with me as much as he ever was and, paradoxically, he is also more absent than ever. My emotional relationship with him has changed and evolved more during the time since he died than it did when he was alive, and I daresay that I understand him better than I understand any other human being I have ever known. And at long last — actually, beginning about 18 years ago — my understanding has given me peace. It almost makes me weep to talk about that, for during the first decade after he died, I had no peace at all over his death, and during the second decade, although I gained ground consistently, I had no idea where I was headed.
Those two decades, more than anything that came before or after, landed me where I am today — truly made me who I am, both for better and for worse. I am not a fatalist — for any number of things, the smallest happenstance, might have turned me this way or that, even toward my own demise or exaltation — but everything unfolded in a way that makes sense, at least now it does, looking back at the thousand subtleties in the push and pull of navigating my life. My father’s presence in my life (even if the most tangible force behind it was his absence) contributed something vital every step of the way, and he still is conjured up at times in a way that makes it difficult for me to separate the symbolic from the thing itself.
Three years ago, my now 18-year-old grandson came to Boston for a visit, and one night, I taught him how to play cribbage — and even without a mention, my father was there. His presence at such moments, it seems to me, is neither complicated nor magical, for it is easily explained by the power of memory. My dad taught me to play cribbage a year or two before I was old enough even to understand the game very well, and I’ve sat across the dining room table from him hundreds of times, watching him shuffle the deck in a kitchen soaked in the smell of Paladin Black Cherry pipe tobacco. The last time I saw him alive, I played a game of cribbage with him, sitting in the hallway of a psychiatric hospital, with the whisking of paper slippers passing next to us and more fear and uncertainty hanging in the air between us than I could bear.
Yet, even though merely saying the word”cribbage” connects me with him — and even as a dozen other sights and sounds and smells and tastes bring him into view — my memories of him are becoming fixed, and those that are lost are lost forever. I can remember clearly only a few things he once said, and I can no longer hear the sound of his voice. Sometimes when my mother tells a story about him — even though I am a character in the scene — I have no recollection of it whatsoever. I remember the oddest incidents — seeing them almost dreamlike in my mind’s eye — but I do not recall him at my high school graduation nor during the birth of my first son (and he was surely there for both events). If I were to write down more than a few lines in an attempt to describe any sustained interaction I ever had with him, I would wonder which parts of my tale actually happened and which I was embellishing to fill in the gaps.
This is the nature of memory, and it operates the same for my memories both of the living and the dead. Similarly, the nature of intimate relationships — both with the living and the dead — is that they continue always changing and evolving. Even as the reality of my father as a living person slips further and further into the past, his influence in my life — which is now almost exclusively a very positive influence — continues to grow. For me, the strength of my relationship with him — the concreteness of his “presence” in my life — comes partly from the fact that my work for the past 18 years in suicide prevention and suicide grief support has been devoted to him. But even that has evolved remarkably: My work used to be motivated by my need for redemption, and now it is being driven by my desire to change the status quo, to focus on my intention to create something meaningful in every moment, in every task, in every connection.
In the end, all that has occurred which keeps me connected to him (who is gone) has come full circle and caused me to be more meaningfully connected to everything unfolding in front of me (which is right here, right now).
As the anniversary of my father’s suicide approaches, I wanted to reach out to the Alliance of Hope to thank members who took the time to give me support when I needed it most. My father died when I was young, and it wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I was able to fully grieve and come through the other side.
I have learned that this loss is a process that ebbs and flows but that the devastation of suicide doesn’t have to diminish your own light, joy, and hope for the future. I know my father would be proud of me, and I am proud that I carry a part of him inside of me and see him in the gentleness of my children.
One of the hardest elements of suicide, and one that isn’t spoken of much, is the stigma it carries. I spent years growing up ashamed of how my father died. I worried that others would see me as broken or similarly troubled, as he was. I struggled with how to explain my father’s death to new boyfriends and, eventually, my own children, who had many questions.
What I’ve taken away from this experience is that the stigma must change. Suicide is a terrible, aching, painful loss. But it does not define us as survivors. We have suffered, but we are strong. My father’s death will always leave me with questions and sorrow, but I am at the point where I can remember him with love and caring, I can forgive him (yes, for me that was necessary), and I can say I’m not ashamed.
It has changed me forever, but it has not destroyed me. I am a strong, resilient, caring, and emotionally healthy survivor of a soul-crushing loss.
That’s pretty amazing. And I got here in part through the care and support of other survivors who took the time to be there for me. My heart goes out to everyone still in the throes of grief and to everyone touched by the loss of suicide.
I just wanted to remind you that you did nothing wrong and this wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault. Be kind to yourself, take all the time you need to grieve, and remember in the middle of the darkest hour that the pain does change. It moves past the ache in your chest where some days you can’t even breathe to eventually a slip of a smile as you harken back to a wonderful memory, and in that moment you feel the love you shared with the person you lost and the love you deserve and hold for yourself. I’m sorry you are here, but I am proud that you are surviving and strong.