Relationships with the Dead Have a Life of Their Own

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).

The Journey: Shifting from Struggling to Living

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 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 also. 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 actually it most definitely is once you realize the joy again of sharing moments with those you love.

I am still here and I still have my life to live.

A Visitation Dream: My Dad or Just My Mind?

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.