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.)
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.
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.