I grew up against the sprawling backdrop of the cornfields, in a college town 75 miles west of Chicago. Despite my physical disability, my father made sure that I had a normal childhood — the kind that feels like the perfect home movie when you look back years later as an adult. We chased lightning bugs in the summer and sledded down snow hills in the winter.
Life was simple.
And then my father was diagnosed with sinus cancer and died by suicide about a month after finishing treatment. After that, things weren’t so simple anymore.
People talk about all the things that happened before the suicide . . . what led to it, the warning signs, etc. But what about what happens after? The devastation. The people who are left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of a life they thought they knew. A life they know, down to the very core of their being, will never be the same. Ever again.
How are we supposed to cope? How can survivors even begin to make sense of all the pain and confusion? That gnawing, sinking feeling in your heart? It just won’t go away. Where’s the instruction manual for navigating this dark, unfriendly terrain?
My father’s death wasn’t pretty. His death was ugly, the kind of ugly that makes you just want to run away. It’s the kind of ugly so dark and unimaginable, you never see it coming. The kind that can make you feel like you’ll be lost forever in a sea of grief. It renders you powerless as its tide pulls you out farther and farther, and you begin to wonder if you’ll ever make it back alive.
There were no final days spent sitting by his bedside, where we all were able to say everything we wanted to say to each other. There was no comforting hospice care. Those loose ends left dangling at the end of every life? They weren’t neatly tied up in a pretty box with a bow on top; in fact, many of those loose ends are still dangling more than a decade later, whipping around wildly in the air.
He got to say all his goodbyes in a letter he left us. We didn’t. He got his “closure.” We didn’t. Instead, he left us with open, gaping wounds. People say that with suicide, a letter is helpful. They say that the survivors who get one are lucky, as not everyone leaves their words behind. But my father’s letter just painted a confusing portrait of a man who, it turns out, I didn’t even know — a portrait of a man who wasn’t my father.
His letter left me with more questions than answers, in the end.
More consuming than even my father’s actual death, I’ve come to realize, is processing the way he died. No one wants to feel like their loved one would rather leave than stay; it’s the ultimate heartbreak, the kind that bears down on your shoulders, leaving you unable to breathe. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, he wasn’t supposed to die like that. The superhero doesn’t give up halfway through the movie — he gets up and keeps fighting. Our story, at least the chapters with him, were not supposed to end this way.
Since my father’s death, some friends and family haven’t talked much about him. It’s either because they don’t know what to say, don’t want to upset us, or, perhaps, it’s just too painful for them. But this denial, their failure to speak of him, is something I struggle to accept. How can someone be such an important part of your life and then just vanish from it? People act like my father never existed at all. Sometimes I just want to scream, “CAN’T YOU SEE IT?? HE’S STILL HERE!”
And he is here — in everything I do, in all my little quirks that remind me of him, in my red hair that he passed down to me.
Memories are my way of keeping my father alive. They make the past feel within reach again, a necessary comfort when you feel like your life now and your life with your loved one are two completely separate existences.
The word “suicide” is like a black hole of sorts. It’s expansive, never-ending, and dark; no matter how much you talk about it, there’s always more to say. Always. I wish I could say that I know no one can relate, but unfortunately, I know far too many of you can. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. We are, in fact, in the middle of an epidemic, with suicide rates at a 30-year high.
So I know that many of you are grappling with what to say, trying to find the words to comfort a family member, a friend — possibly even yourself. It’s been 13 years since my father’s suicide, and I still fumble, every single day, to find the right words. So today, I will write them. Not just for my father. But for me and for you — and for the millions who live with the effect of suicide every day.
Suicide changes you forever.
The idea that a loved one died so unexpectedly and so violently shakes you to the very core of your being, and as much as you may wish to deny it, you’ll never be the same person ever again. I never really understood this until I grieved my father. Slowly, however, I realized that not only was I grieving my father’s death, but I was also grieving the loss of my “old life.”
I think, in the end, the real journey I’m on is learning to say goodbye to my old life, not just learning how to say goodbye to my father. It’s important to remember that sometimes, I — you, we — need to try saying hello to our new lives, if just to see how it feels.
And please, please continue to talk about your loved one. Whether you’re angry or sad or reminiscing about happier times, it’s important to keep your loved one with you. Keeping quiet is akin to letting the suicide win. Don’t let it. You owe it to your loved one — and most importantly, you owe it to yourself.
For the group of us who knows so intimately that life will never be the same, my heart is with you.