Vail Valley Voices: Suicide is nothing like the song for survivors
Eagle, CO, Colorado
Whenever the tragedy of suicide strikes a community as it just has in Eagle-Gypsum, the repercussions will be long felt.
Lingering pain, guilt, anger and feelings of loss, betrayal and abandonment will haunt the surviving family and friends, and those peripherally touched will examine their own lives and look at their loved ones with renewed appreciation.
Acquaintances will not know how to act or what to say. They will struggle with when or how far to reach out for fear that the offer to be a shoulder or a sounding board may be interpreted as an intrusion or the desire to gather gossip.
Parents will have to explain the concept of suicide to their children, and others will alternately be of the opinions that one should feel sorry for the deceased or believe him a selfish coward.
My father committed suicide when I was 13, so I have a frame of reference. My parents had divorced a number of years earlier and my father and his new wife had subsequently moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. I had not seen my dad in just more than three years when we got the call that he had shot himself. It was Sept. 11, 1970; so, long before the World Trade Center disaster, I wasn’t a big fan of that date.
On the surface, everyone thought I handled it quite well at the time for someone my age. It wasn’t until years later that we all realized I hadn’t.
I never felt guilt, as though if I had done this or that I could have prevented it. I was too young to feel the kind of irrational sense of responsibility that suicide survivors often feel. The burning pain for me was the belief that he simply didn’t love me enough to want to hang around for my sake. If he could leave me like that, then I must not have been very important to him. I went on for years convinced my father just didn’t love me.
We knew he had been depressed and out of work and that he had a pretty extreme problem with alcohol, so he was more or less viewed as a down-on-his-luck kind of guy who took the easy way out.
We lost touch with my stepmother after his death. As I grew older and understood more of life, questions built up in me for which I had no answers. No one in our family had much communication with him those last years, as he had pretty much isolated himself from all of us. We were left just to assume his reasons for ending his life.
I developed some serious issues with depression and addiction myself in years to come. When you go into treatment for mental illness, one of the things you are often asked to do is complete what is called a “life chart.” It is a long list of feelings and potential symptoms that would reveal a troubled mind, and you are asked to indicate if you have had each particular symptom and estimate at what age it first surfaced.
Perhaps it is no surprise that all of mine began in my mid-teens. I didn’t make the connection at the time, of course. Symptoms of depression creep up on you, and we didn’t know near enough about it all in those days.
But I have had insomnia my entire adult life, I have great fear of losing people I care about and I am subject to very dark depressions. The “abyss,” I call it.
Over the years, I, too, often contemplated suicide and those close to me were terrified any time they didn’t hear from me for a while. I believe I am beyond that danger now, but it took a lot of work over a lot of years.
And it all stemmed from my father’s death.
I spent years burying my feelings and the anger I felt toward my dad. Then, in my mid-20s, I decided it was time I attempted to find some answers.
I flew down to Ft. Lauderdale and tried to locate my stepmother, but there was no record of her anywhere. I knew she no longer lived in the house in which my dad died. In fact, she never re-entered it again after discovering his body. There was no listing in the phone book for her now, no record of her death or possible remarriage ” nothing.
I went to get a copy of the medical examiner’s report following my dad’s autopsy and found he had had an astonishingly high blood-alcohol level at the time of his death. I was told by the medical personnel I spoke to that odds are he would have been dead within 24 hours from blood-alcohol poisoning had he not pulled the trigger that night. I learned much later that he had been in a psychiatric hospital at one time during his Florida years, as well.
I then went to the Broward County Sheriff’s Department and asked for a copy of the police report filed upon his death. After a bit of a wait, a detective came out to the lobby with some papers. One was the police report I had requested, and the other item was something I never, ever expected.
He handed me an envelope, yellowed with age and covered with dried brown spots, drips and splatters. It was my father’s suicide note ” a note I never even knew existed. Now, there I stood, so many years later, holding my father’s last thoughts in my hand on a page covered in his blood. I will never be able to describe the feelings I had at that moment.
Trembling and already in tears, I opened the envelope and read the letter. In it, he revealed his complete despair and his inability to go on and took a slam or two at one of his siblings and her husband. He ended by saying how much he loved my sister and me and how sorry he was. I nearly fell over. The dam that had held 12 years of devastation burst as it had to if I was ever going to be free.
Well, three things happened that day.
First, I was able to let go of the long-held, haunting belief that he did not love me. Second, for the first time, I was able to shift the focus from myself to my dad and begin to understand what brought him to take his own life. And third, I was able to start the process of dealing with my own psychological issues, a process which never really ends.
Despite what you may think or hope, you never completely get over it. Not even 40 years later. But what you can do is learn to go on.
What has not surfaced, much as I would like to say it has, is the ability to completely forgive him. I thought for a while that it had, but I came to realize that what I had instead come to was a measure of understanding of him. And that is quite a different thing.
I was no longer angry. In fact, I both sympathized and empathized with him. The level of pain and hopelessness he must have felt that day are unimaginable. So I no longer place myself above it or him and think how selfish and cowardly he was. I can only believe his demons must have been more crushing than any of us can ever know. Despite what anyone thinks, it is conceit to judge anyone else’s pain.
I visited my dad’s grave two and a half years ago for the first time in 25 or so years. I stood there looking at his tombstone, and a revelation came to me. I saw the dates of his birth and death and realized for the first time that I was now older than my father was when he died. An odd feeling, that.
But I also felt an enormous sense of personal victory. Despite all the anguish and turmoil his suicide caused me over dark and dismal decades, I was still here. I had made it. I was able to withstand this thing called life longer than he was able to, and I harvest great strength from that. I also felt incredibly sad for myself and sorry for him that he didn’t make it through with me. I felt for him in a deeper way than I ever had before. It was, indeed, no longer just about me.
For the family and friends in our community now dealing with a similar event, we can only support and try to understand their level of loss. In suicide, everyone is a victim.
Seek counseling if needed, talk to one another, and don’t bottle up your feelings.
Above all, know it is not your fault, and it had nothing to do with his love for you or the lack of it.
Don’t forget to at least try to understand the demons that drive a person to the unthinkable because, believe it or not, it will give you comfort.
And though forgiveness may or may not be in your reach, know that you can make some measure of peace with it all in time.
David Dillon is a resident of Eagle.