This was supposed to get easier.
They told me time heals and that time was what I needed.
Time has passed. It is passing right now.
So why isn’t this getting any easier? Why is every day that much harder?
Like climbing a steep incline, picking up more rocks to add to my rucksack the whole way up, getting shorter of breath the longer I climb. The air gets thinner, where I began with you by my side becomes further and further as I watch the life we knew fade away from me and my body starts to give out from exhaustion, refusing to carry me any further. All the while, the heaviness of my pack increases by the step. It doesn’t get any easier. Dealing with the suicide of a loved one will never get easier and you were my most loved.
Losing you is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I lost a part of myself, the piece of me I had thought I’d never find, the piece of myself that made me feel whole.
The piece of me that was you.
My heart and soul shattered into a million pieces the night I walked into the bedroom and found you lifeless on the floor, rifle still leaning against the nightstand. I go through my days like a blind woman searching the dirty floor of a dark room with her hands trying to find the tiny fragments of myself that are still strewn about my world after being blasted apart by the single 45 caliber bullet you fired.
A single bullet. That’s all it took to bring you peace and to break me to pieces.
There are times when the thought of you brings me such immense joy. I can remember the sound of your voice, the softness of your hands, the smoothness of your skin as I would run my hands over your shoulders and down your arms, admiring the utter beauty of your body. I wear the purple shirt I loved seeing you in so much, buttoning up the front and feeling like all those memories of seeing you wear it are wrapping me in your love and begging me to never forget. I open up your tool box and search through it, play the iPod of music you left behind on the stereo, stroke the keys on the keyboard of your laptop and feel like my hands are somehow closer to yours. I tell stories of you and laugh and say your name freely. Sometimes I can actually forget that you aren’t coming back home or that I will never hear you laugh again, and for a moment, I can actually feel peace. Then it all comes rushing back in and the temporary reflections of memories are broken apart as the stone of reality breaks the placid surface and sinks all of my feelings of artificial contentment to the depths of the dark abyss.
It is almost impossible to explain to someone the pain of dealing with suicide. It is unlike any other kind of loss. Suicide reaches into the core of your being and shreds all of the confidence or satisfaction you ever possessed. It steals your happiness and contentment and in their places are now unanswerable questions, doubt, guilt and sadness that is so deep it drowns everything that keeps you afloat in your life.
Looking back on my beautiful memories they are all tainted. I can’t look back at pictures of you and see your smile without also realizing the hidden pain below it. I can’t look into the eyes of my children without feeling guilt and disillusionment overwhelm me. I can’t remember the time spent with your family without the bottom dropping out of my stomach and the anger rising up into my throat. I can’t get through a single minute without feeling a myriad of emotions that send my head into a downward spiral. Sadness, anger, love, guilt, depression, hope, determination, frustration, shame…every emotion enlivened at the same time. A swirling of vibrant colors into one puddle, turning everything to dark and dull gray. All the color extinguished. It is confusing, exhausting and both emotionally and physically painful. When I say it hurts, I don’t just mean I’m sad. I mean I am in so much emotional pain that my heart and mind can’t take it all and the excess that has to go somewhere spills over and becomes a physical pain in my body. My head pounds, my joints and muscles ache, each breath I take stabs me through the chest. It hurts so badly.
The worst part is that I can’t think of you without also thinking about the way I found you that night. All of these wonderful images and memories I have of you are now married to the image of you broken apart and lifeless. That image is synonymous with you now and I can’t express how it tears me apart and has changed my ability to function normally. As soon as I think of you, that picture is what pops up into the forefront of my mind. It is involuntary, uncontrolled and instant. At first it would break me entirely. I would see it in my mind’s eye and it was as if I were standing over you in that very moment, seeing you like that for the first time. It would physically jolt me, steal my breath, make my knees shake, my heart race, my head pound, send my hands up to cover my eyes as if that would stop the projection. Over time the reaction to it has become less violent but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that either. It is hard to comprehend what it means to be able to see that horrible image of you like that and to be able to just let it move through my mind until it rotates around to the back of the queue again. It is hard to comprehend becoming even slightly complacent to seeing you like that. It is almost as hard to comprehend as you having actually been in that state.
How can I explain to someone who hasn’t experienced something like this that it follows me, torments me, shows up at the most inopportune times, testing my strength and resolve. How can I explain that while I’m standing in front of my son’s teacher having a discussion about his science fair project that I am also standing in our bedroom, over your body, reliving the shock of losing you like that and I have to fight to just stand there, inside of both moments at once, to keep myself together, to keep talking and breathing and not let her know that I am on the edge of falling apart? How do I explain that when I’m driving eighty miles an hour down the freeway and should be concentrating on what I’m doing at the moment, I am instead involuntarily concentrating on the image of that rifle leaning against the nightstand and the story it told me when I walked in on you like that?
How can I explain to someone how real the flashbacks seem and how detailed they are? That it feels just like being there and the world around me melts into nothingness and our dark bedroom rises up around me, engulfing me in that horrific scene. I can hear my heart beating and feel the shallowness of my breath. How do I tell someone that when I think about walking into the house that night that I can actually feel the cold metal of the doorknob I reached out and turned to open the bedroom door, how the carpet felt plush under my sandals as I stood there in shock and took in the scene in front of me, how the straps of my tank top felt tight on my shoulders as I stood there breathing heavily while all the oxygen seemed to be leaving my body? How I can see your clothing, your glasses left lying on the nightstand, your feet, the lay of your right hand. I can recall every single detail of it all when the flashbacks happen and no matter what I’m doing, the flashback takes priority. Its terrifying and dangerous and it takes literally everything I have inside of me to keep my feet on the ground in the present moment.
Nobody told me these things would happen to me. They told me I would be sad, be angry, feel guilt. They warned me some would place blame on me because they didn’t know where else to place it. They told me I would find out who my real friends were and that people who I thought were there for me would leave my side because they don’t know how to handle the situation. They told me I would have nightmares and that I wouldn’t eat or sleep. They told me this was something I would live with for the rest of my life. All of these things were and are true. But these are all things that are obvious when you lose someone. Grief is universal. We have all experienced it on some level. But suicide causes a different kind of grief and there is no way to convey or comprehend it unless you have been scarred by it.
Unfortunately for my family, yours was the third suicide we have endured. My family is no stranger to dealing with this type of loss. Two great grandmothers and you, my husband, all decided the physical life was over and left the rest of us to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of it all.
I didn’t have the pleasure to know one of the two great grandmothers. She was gone well before I came along. It was something my family didn’t, and still doesn’t, talk about much. My sister, who is thirteen years younger than me, didn’t even know about it until after you were gone and I told her our family were veterans to suicide. My grandmother and great aunt, to both of whom I am extremely close, were young, in their twenties and teens respectively, when their mother took her leave. My grandmother is now in her seventies, my great aunt in her sixties, and my losing of you the same way they lost their mother has brought back around for them all of the hardships they have dealt with their whole lives. They have felt the same things I feel and struggled the way I am and after all of these years…fifty years…they are finally talking about it with me. It’s like cutting open again a wound that has scarred over. A painful reminder. And I have unwittingly joined them on their path. It hurts me to know that they are in this terrible club too and that they live with this every day of their lives. It does, however, bring me comfort to know that I am not alone in my family and that there are people who know me like they do and who understand with what I am dealing. They know my pain. They wear it too.
I was a child when my other great grandmother took her own life. She was my grandfather’s mother. I remember being at my grandparent’s house and watching my grandfather sob at the kitchen table, head laid down on his arms. My grandmother stood leaning against the kitchen sink, one hand covering her face, one arm wrapped around her waist. I can understand now how hard it must have been for her to be in that moment and my heart hurts for her. My mother stood at my grandfather’s side with her hand on his back letting him know that we were all there for him. I remember he kept saying, over and over and over, “Why? Why??” My grandfather is not the kind of person who cries and it was a shock for me to see him so diminished. My parents told me, even at that young of an age, how my great grandmother had died. I obviously didn’t understand the brevity of it all but I did understand how badly it hurt my family as I watched them cry together. Even as a child it was clear to me that this was a devastating kind of loss and that it affected my family differently than death by old age or sickness.
That day is a living memory to me. Almost as clearly as I can see you in those flashbacks, my husband, can I see the details of my family in the kitchen mourning together. I can hear the sounds of my grandfather crying, see my mother comforting him, smell the familiar scent of my grandparent’s house as I stood there observing. I can see my grandmother trying to keep herself together as I’m sure all the feelings of losing her own mother to suicide were threatening to break her apart and steal her strength as she relived her own experience.
Suicide has a way of etching even the smallest of details into your mind. Thirty years later I am still inside of that moment just the way I am now in theses moments with you.
It never leaves or fades.
After my great grandmother’s services, we barely ever spoke of her again.
I, however, never forgot her or the vintage coins she would give me every time I saw her. I can still see her polyester shirts covered in large flower prints, her gray, curly hair, the glasses that sat on her face and her smile.
But Why? Why didn’t we talk about her again?
Why can’t we talk about suicide? Why can’t we say out loud that someone made the decision to end their life without feeling shame or judgment? Why isn’t it ok to continue to speak the name of the person who is no longer here? Why do we have to lie to ourselves and others and make up stories about a more socially pleasant cause of death?
When you died, my husband, some who loved you were horrified at the fact that people might find out that you died by suicide. I never understood why and I still don’t. I look at you and I see a man who was strong, brave, a fighter. I admire your strength for dealing with what must have been an extremely painful existence for almost all of your life. You were a fiercely independent man who did what he wanted and nobody was going to change your mind after you made a decision. I loved that about you. When you died by suicide, they begged for a sign that it was an accident and even went so far as to tell people it was. It was offensive to me. I was offended for you. I looked at you and saw a man who had made a decision and who carried it out with intention. Do I like the decision you made? Of course not. But to think that you somehow fumbled in your handling of a firearm and accidentally pulled the trigger it or that you didn’t absolutely mean to do what you did is dishonorable to your memory and a misrepresentation of who you were. You were always careful, calculated and deliberate. Accutely aware of what you were doing. Your suicide was no different.
I need to honor you by telling the truth about how and why you died and not shame you for it or allow myself to feel shame for it either. I want to tell people that you fought your mental illness, that you tried and tried and that in the end, you were just exhausted. I want people to understand that dying by suicide is no different than dying from terminal illness or a car accident. I want people to understand the role that mental illness played in your death.
I just love you. I loved you and I love you still. I will always love you, my husband.
We must speak out about mental illness and we must not be afraid to talk about suicide. We must end the stigma and we must honor the lives our loved ones lived and also how they chose to die. We must not alter the story of our loved one’s decision to make other people feel comfortable. Suicide is not comfortable but it is a part of life and ignoring it will only feed the fire. Every day we lose 121 people to suicide in this country and we are made to feel we can’t talk about why or how they died. It is hushed, swept under the rug, altered to paint a different picture. We need to change that. We need to say it out loud. We need to say their names and tell their stories. We must learn from their lives as well as their deaths.
It is hard to talk about the suicide of a loved one, especially as a parent or a spouse. There is a crippling fear of judgment. There is fear that others will wonder what you did to cause it, how you could have stopped it, what kind of person you are that your child or spouse would choose death over proximity to you. And unfortunately, there are people out there who will show you just this. As an example, a friend of my husband’s called his phone the morning after he had died because she had just heard the news. I answered the phone knowing why she was calling. I told her what had happened and she said to me, “What? Were you guys fighting or something?” I was dumbfounded. Were we fighting? Clearly she had no real understanding of who my husband was or what his struggles were. As if she knew any of the circumstances or as if a marital fight alone is enough to cause someone to take their life. The implication in her question still lingers in my mind every single day. I became afraid of what other people would think, of what they would say or ask me, of how they would judge me as a person or spouse and it sent me into an anxious frenzy. What if other people thought I was to blame? What if more people say things like that to me? And unfortunately, they did.
I can barely deal with my own personal judgments, let alone those of others. But with a lot of hard work, I was able to rise above those fears and realize that I was not to blame. I didn’t cause his suicide. I loved him and he loved me but he lost his battle with mental illness and I couldn’t have stopped or changed that.
I can only imagine as a parent of a child who dies by suicide that the fear of judgment is tenfold. What kind of parent were you? What did you do wrong? Why weren’t you aware of what your child was going through? Why didn’t you pay attention? I’m sure the fear of these questions is haunting, maddening and so incredibly painful.
You don’t deserve that. Nobody deserves that.
I am here to tell you those people don’t matter. Those judgments aren’t real.
If we, as a society, were able to talk about mental illness in a way that spoke the truth, it would be clear that nothing any one person does or says is enough to cause someone to end their life. No one person is to blame. No one thing is a catalyst. Mental illness won the battle over our loved ones and we are not to blame.
Suicide is the result of dying from mental illness.
This is why we must speak out. Why we must tell the truth. Why we must end the stigma.
My husband died by suicide because of mental illness. He suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. He fought harder than I will ever know. I couldn’t have saved or changed him. I respect him as much now as I did the day I married him and I am grateful that he was, is and always will be a part of my life.