On the Anniversary of a Suicide

Mountain Lake

It’s been five years since my father tied a rope around his neck and jumped. Five years since a co-worker found his body hanging from the rafters of a warehouse. Five years of shock worn down to grief and the waves that ripple out so wide I sometimes have to stop, look back and wonder where it was exactly that they started.

I’m not the first of my friends to lose a parent, and sadly, our numbers seem to grow year by year. We all miss our mommies and daddies, and there is a sort of cold comfort in that. In knowing we are not alone. But I still can’t help thinking there is something different, something strange about a suicide.

The last conversation I ever had with my dad was a long-distance call. I’d rung him up because one of his best friends was dying from a decades-long fight with his nervous system. Multiple Sclerosis. The end was near, and I couldn’t believe my father hadn’t gone to visit him. I had no idea at the time that my dad was already planning to take his own life. In the end, Dad agreed to call his friend, but he “didn’t have time to visit,” he assured me. Not right now. He had a lot going on at work. “And what difference would it make?”

Those words sit heavy on my heart, still, all these five years later. What difference? The difference between crippling loneliness and loved ones by your bedside? He couldn’t see the difference. The loneliness had already consumed him.

My dad’s lifelong friend was surrounded on all sides the day he passed. His body had failed, but he was buoyed by love as he left this life. He fought until his last breath to stay. To love his wife, his kids, the grandchildren he had yet to meet. He battled for longer than I’ve been living, no matter the cost, the pain, the loss of ability, of independence and control. He stayed–he lived–because he loved.

He died within hours of my dad.

My dad, who’s body hadn’t failed him, though his mind had. My dad, who battled without the benefit of allies, against demons he was too scared to let out into the light. My dad, who died alone. In a warehouse. With a rope around his neck.

One succumbed to the ravages of MS. One to the ravages of an undiagnosed depression.

Death is such a waste. Especially when it comes swooping in at the prime of life. My dad never lived to see the waste of what he wrought. He didn’t live to see the legacy of brokenness he left behind. All the hope of what could have been, strangled, for ever at the end of that rope.

I have been sad. The dutiful, sorrowful daughter. But I have also been angry.

The rage that boils over with my tears is raw and rough and real. Most of the time, I try hard to hide it. I don’t want to share it, and anyway, What difference would it make? How could anyone possibly understand?

But there are people who understand. Those who try, despite their distance from a tragedy like this, to get inside my head, to walk inside my heart and love it’s darker corners without judgment. And there are those who understand because they’ve been in my shoes, cried my tears, and buried a loved one full of self-inflicted battle scars. I share my story for them. For the others like me who have lost a loved one to suicide. I share it for you, dear reader, who feel the strangeness of these tragedies we’ve been forced to live through. To live with.

It’s taken me five years to put words to the dagger that lives daily buried in my heart. (Just one word, actually.)

ABANDONED.

Remember the good stuff.

Of course he loved you; he was your father.

And my personal favorite, He’s in a better place. 

These are the things people have said to me for five years running, and all the while, in my heart I’m screaming for them to just. shut. up. Back off, because you don’t know anything about it.

The only way I can explain to you what I feel is to ask you to imagine. Imagine you are a vulnerable child, for years seeking approval and affection from someone who has daily, yearly grown more distant, even cruel. And then one day, you feel this lull, this calm before the storm, only you’ve been hoping so hard for some improvement you mistake the hush for hope. You talk, maybe a bit more openly than you have in a long while, and then he says good-bye and leaves you on the side of the road. Abandoned. With love still unrequited and so many explanations left unspoken.

Yes, he was ill. Yes, it is sad. Yes, I am sorry.

But my anger is as vital as my sadness. And the only way for me to move beyond it is to have it out, to hold it up to the light, acknowledge it in all it’s bitter, broken ugliness and have it validated. That’s the only way that I can let it go. 

To be honest, it’s not an easy thing to do under the best of circumstances. What complicates it even more is when everyone assumes I’ll grieve like it was cancer. Like it wasn’t his fault. Like it “has nothing to do with” me.

I am angry because I no longer have a father, because my children lost their grandfather before they even reached this earth–and he did this. He took himself from us. 

I’m angry because I look at these children of mine and can’t comprehend how he couldn’t care enough to live and know them.

I’m freaking pissed that someday, one by one, I’ll have to sit my precious ones down and explain how their grandpa died, how addiction and depression scar their DNA and why they’ll need to take precautions to stay healthy. And he won’t be there to take responsibility.

Yes, I am furious, because no matter what anyone says, I don’t know if he loved me. Truth is, I don’t know if he loved anyone in the end. One thing is certain: He didn’t love himself. And there will never be any answers this side of the grave. Late nights, lying there strained for sleep, they swim behind my eyes, these unanswered questions–and there’s that half-conscious state I find myself falling into where I half-believe I can simply grab my cell where it’s lying on the bedside table, dial his number, and hear his voice on the other end, all groggy with waking, “Hello?”

“Daddy, do you love me?”

But there’s no number. No voice. No answer.

I turn to my Heavenly Father, give thanks but still with salt tears flowing freely and the taste of all this sadness in my mouth. It’s enough, but it still hurts, and don’t you dare tell me different.

For the past five years, I’ve oscillated between pity for my father and for myself. For some reason, I still struggle with feeling both at once. I can never quite get there. Maybe one day.

Most days, I suffer it in silence and (when that fails) in half-truths. My father passed five years ago. Yes, it was sudden. Thank you for your sympathy. I know it’s well meant. I’m sorry if my lack of full disclosure seems disingenuous, but you see, I don’t want to burden you with the shock of the truth. I don’t want you to feel guilty every time you slip in front of me: It was so embarrassing, I could have killed myself. I get it. You don’t mean for words like that to slug me, breathless, in the gut. It’s just a turn of phrase, and I don’t blame you, but see here’s the thing. It only serves to underline the fact.

Suicide is not like other deaths.

It’s sudden as a car crash or a heart attack…and it’s grueling as a battle with MS. It leaves you bleeding with doubts like stab wounds that, sure, prayer and time can suture…but they still leave scars. Scars that your loved one carved himself with a razor blade…or pills…or a gun…or rope, and you’re left there wondering how he could be so selfish. And you grieve even the fact that you can’t grieve like other people, who at least have the succor of being angry at the cancer, or the car crash. Not the corpse.

I’ve found healing over the last five years, and a certain modicum of peace. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, and blessed be. I don’t believe the Lord ever dreamed or desired for my father to die at the end of that rope, but I do believe He saw it coming. He was waiting, ready to catch him–to catch me. I am not alone.

And you–daughter, son, mother, father, friend of a suicide victim–you are not alone, either. I hear the questions plaguing you in the dark, because they are mine. When you don’t know if your tears are sorrowful or just plain bitter, I know it doesn’t really matter, because either way, they need to fall. I am not afraid of your anger. I do not believe it is selfish; it’s a step. A step on the road you were forced to step onto through no fault of your own.

Because it’s. not. your. fault.

And it’s not your loved one’s. Even if it feels that way sometimes. (It’s okay to feel that way sometimes.)

It’s been five years since I lost my father to suicide.

Whether I wanted to or not, I’ve learned a lot in those five years. But more than any one thing I have learned in the last 1,826 days, I have learned forgiveness. I’ve done more forgiving these last years than in all the previous ones combined. Forgiveness of my father. Of my living loves who didn’t or couldn’t validate my unique brokenness. Most of all, I’ve learned to forgive myself.

It’s a beautiful thing, this forgiveness. I hope, I continue to pray that, these last five years, my daddy has finally been learning it, too. And I hope he’ll forgive me when I’m angry, because the truth is I’m just a little girl, standing on the side of the road. I’m standing with my cell phone in my hand, dialing a number connected to nowhere. I’m asking the question with bated breath.

“Daddy, do you love me?”

I think, sometimes, I’ll never stop asking.

18 comments

  1. Deb Russell says:

    I was so connected to you and all you wrote dear Bethany…I think of you so often and hope you can deal with this along with the joy of your wonderful husband and 4 gifts from God. I know that it was a horrible time for all of us, March 2010. for you and all the Carlbergs, for Tom Dole…and thank you for sharing your feelings.
    I hope that you know how much we care about you, and always will.

    • Bethany says:

      Thank you, Debbie. And thank you for allowing me to share a small part of your story, as well. I will forever miss them both. Sending my love to you, Kim, and Zach this week.

  2. cannot say says:

    bethany, can i just say thank you? and that i’m sorry….sorry that your dads demons won and left you holding that phone with silence on the other end.
    thank you for being brave enough to share what it’s like to be on the other side of that pain, and for giving a stranger something very real to look at as i battle my own demons every day, and manage to still be hanging on by a thread.
    i do not want my children to feel the abandonment you have felt so i will continue to wrap my fingers around that thread and keep looking for help so that my thread becomes two, and then three, and then hopefully, eventually, i’m reaching up with both hands to accept the help that i know is out there.
    forgive me for sharing something so personal and selfish but i wanted you to know that you helped me.

    • Bethany says:

      If my words have helped you in some small way, then it is more than worth all it took to write them. You ask for forgiveness, but there is no need. Your sharing is not selfish; it’s your heart. Your journey. Your battle, and I am privileged to be on the receiving end of your honesty. I am praying for you and yours tonight.

      All sweetness + grace,
      Bethany

  3. Lea says:

    Oh Bethany.

    We, too, have felt the sting of suicide in our family and the chaos and hurt and, yes, anger that were left behind.

    Thank you for this post and thank you for bringing up this topic.

    My husband, a pastor-in-training with the Lutheran church, just spent the weekend on a confirmation retreat with a group of students that had to deal with this topic head on (a child in the group had just experienced this). He came home exhausted but at peace with the conversations they had.

    So many people are effected by this and I am grateful for your post.

    Lea

  4. Tamra says:

    Your writing is eloquent and your insights are deep and emotionally gripping. Thank you for sharing a perspective nobody can understand without firsthand experience. I remember when Robin Williams died and later hearing that he had Lewy Body dementia due to his Parkinson’s, which probably precipitated him hanging himself. At least his family had some answers, but, I doubt it was much comfort. I admire your writing skill and emotional clarity.

  5. Cindy says:

    Bethany,

    Thank you for saying so much of what is inside of me, and even after 23 years this Christmas, I still call my Mom in my mind to ask her if she loves me! My faith in God assures me I will see her again, and just maybe I can begin to understand. Suicide is as lonely for the survivors as it is for the loved one that left us

  6. Jean Young says:

    “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God
    (…the God of all comfort), and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you….and give thee peace
    ….the peace of God which passeth all understanding
    …through Christ Jesus.”
    2 Corinthians (1:3);13:14; Numbers 6:26; Philippians 4:7 KJV

  7. D says:

    It’s been almost 20 years since my dad’s suicide, and I’ve come to accept the fact that it will affect me until the day my Lord wipes away all tears forevermore. His suicide didn’t just destroy his body, it destroyed his whole family. Bitterness and suspicion and long-held contempt boiled to the surface after his suicide, leaving estrangement in their wake.

    What surprised me was how few people would let me talk about his suicide. Most comments seemed to be an effort to shut down discussion: “Just focus on your beautiful children instead,” or “He could have died from a heart attack, so don’t get hung up on how he died,” or simply “I know it’s hard, but you just have to move forward.” Perhaps all these dismissive responses could be understood if I was bemoaning his suicide years later…but they came in the early weeks and months that followed his death. Even my normally patient (and always loving) husband grew exasperated with my grief in those first few months. I guess it was my job to put on a strong front, and hold it together for the benefit of others. Beyond an annual or semi-annual anonymous post into the void of the internet, I rarely discuss it anymore. I find some comfort in Psalm 27:10 — Though my father and my mother should forsake me, yet the Lord will gather me up.

    I don’t know if I’ve so much as forgiven my father as I have yielded to the futility of holding a grudge against a dead man.

    • Bethany says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss. I find grief as a survivor of suicide to be very complex, and I’ve begun to think it’s not really possible for most people to understand it. I’m glad for them, because it’s a horrible thing to live with. After almost 10 years, I’ve finally come to a place of forgiveness and pity for my father, but it doesn’t heal the hurt or cover up the pain of realizing all the things he might still be able to enjoy if he’d chosen to stay.

  8. KayKay says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Suicide is such a horrible thing. We are survivors. My kids father took his life a year ago today. It’s so hard to let go of.

  9. Anel Padilla says:

    My son took his life 2years ago on Oct 19, 2015, he was only 19 years old… It was the saddest Monday of my life! I can’t fathom why or how sad he was and he hid it so well. I will forever feel I failed him as his mother. If only he knew how deep my love for him is. Still is! Halloween was his favorite time of year along with Christmas when he was small.The pain runs deep, this time of year is so hard. Thank you for sharing your story. Nothing anyone says can ever make it better. Simply put, I come home from work and relive a nightmare he’s not here. I only pray that God catches me, my husband and 2 other kids. Because we are forever broken. Rest in peace “Charlie Brown” Charles Anthony Gonzalez

  10. CW says:

    Thank you so much for these words. I am able to confide in them as I lost my mother to suicide. I completely understand and share the anger and sadness that you do.

  11. Feath says:

    My Grandpa shot himself a year ago tomorrow.
    I hate The he is in a better place comment because I’m not so sure.
    I struggle with his selfishness.
    I will never forget my Grandma’s screams when she called me.
    Ever heard of the song Even If by Mercy Me. Helped me through that summer.

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