*Trigger Warning: discussion around personal experience of grief and loss related to suicide*
Laura | Toronto, ON | Federal Public Servant
My dad killed himself in 2013, less than a week after his 42nd birthday. I was 21. Nobody saw it coming. My dad made several poor financial decisions, dug himself into a hole he didn’t feel like he could escape from and didn’t feel like he could tell anyone about. He died by carbon monoxide poisoning in his car, in which he’d sealed up the windows and doors, alone on a dirt road around an hour from my family home. Two police officers found him, as we’d reported him missing the day before. They knocked on the door, told us the news, stood in the foyer awkwardly for a few moments, and left.
My father’s death blindsided me and my family—my mom and my five younger siblings. We were shocked, angry, and, most of all, scared. I remember an overwhelming feeling of fear, as if I was suddenly in danger, for some reason. We tried frantically to piece together hints or signs we’d noticed before it happened, but it was futile. Nobody knew anything. Did he seem upset? Was he smiling when he left for work? Did he say anything weird? Was he acting normal? In fact, my dad had called me the day he went missing. He said, “I just wanted to tell you that I love you!” and I said “I love you too!” and that was it. I hung up and went to class. That was the last time I spoke to him. I didn’t think much of it until I found out that I was the only family member he’d called that day. Then I tried to sort out clues. Was that meant as a hint for me, a hidden message? Should I have asked him if he was okay? Could I have stopped it? These types of questions are so prevalent, so common, so unending, for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. We wonder if we could have seen it coming or if we could have helped prevent what happened. We feel guilt. We feel shame. We feel anger. And, inexplicably, we feel at fault. I know now that there’s nothing I or anyone in my family could have done, and it took me several years to come to terms with that fact.
The way suicide is covered in the media veers into the sensational. When beloved celebrities die from suicide, we publicly mourn. We post emotional tributes, or listen to their music, or watch their shows, or discuss their life and death at length. When someone you love dies by suicide, the view shifts. It doesn’t seem very public; in fact, quite the opposite. My family and I felt separated from everyone else, stuck to deal with this earth-shattering event alone with no help. We felt like extended family, friends, and community members were judging us or making assumptions about him and his death. It seemed like nobody really wanted to acknowledge what happened, and they were only interested in his death as a dramatic and singular event. This makes an already traumatic event worse: to experience a heart-wrenching, violent, sudden loss only to have the public sweep it under the rug and only focus on the theatrics of it all rather than the pain behind it. It alienates and isolates. I learned that suicide is also violent; it's not the gentle drifting that I'd conceived it to be, back when I'd only thought of suicide as a distant concept. I feel so horrified at the thought that he was alone, and he was scared, and he was maybe in pain, and I used to torture myself thinking about this for hours on end. He left a note, but it wasn't much. It didn't unlock mysteries like I thought it would, like it does in movies. I also had to deal with questions about who my father really was. What he did made me feel like I didn't know him, and often times I hate him and love him and miss him all at once with equal power. My family and I were so desperately angry at him, yet so sad at his absence. It's a harrowing thing about suicide: the person we love is both blamed and blameless, the perpetrator and the victim. There's nobody to get validation or answers from because the answers are gone.
I’ve always been responsible. I’ve helped care for my younger siblings since I was a kid. I was a good student, and I'm efficient, ambitious, independent, an introvert. I get things done. Nobody really ever had to worry about me when I was growing up. I’ve always been trusted to make the right decisions. When my dad died, I continued on operating as I always had, but it kicked into some strange level of overdrive. Maybe I was trying to overcompensate for how staggeringly lost I felt by acting extra functional. And I was functional, I guess. I graduated, entered the workforce in a professional capacity, moved out, and got an apartment. I certainly appeared to be okay, so in hindsight I’m not really surprised that nobody bothered to ask how I was. I had other things to fill my brain with, and everybody else in my family was preoccupied dealing with loss in their own ways. It felt fake, and I knew it. I was going through the motions of life without diving underneath to confront how shocked and hurt I still was.
That type of life doesn’t sustain itself for long. Grief, trauma, and loss—especially the complex grief surrounding suicide—is an ever-changing animal. It shifts the way you see the world, the way you react to things, and shapes your interactions with others. I couldn’t help but notice a change in my personality. I became a little harsher, a little meaner, and I felt almost frantic and panicky. I couldn’t deal with events I previously had no major issues with, like big social gatherings, or concerts, or driving, or drinking alcohol, or watching certain movies. Sometimes I can almost see it, the thing that stops me. It’s tangible for me...like a thin veil that separates me from other people. I’ll be at a party or around a lot of people, or somewhere loud, or it'll be getting late and I'll get tired and let my thoughts wander, and I’ll see it. It makes me feel lonely and far away. Watery, hazy. People and things seem distant, and I feel isolated and a little resentful that nobody else can see what I'm seeing.
I knew I had to make a change, because I felt like I was just being plain mean to myself and to others in my life. I was very clearly neglecting my trauma and loss, and those fleeting months and years really escaped me. I decided to make a start by choosing to speak up a bit more about what happened, in a more casual way, to integrate it into my day to day life. When I decided to start speaking about my loss by bringing my dad up in conversation, for instance, it was painful. I felt like nobody really wanted to talk about him and what he did, and I could feel hesitancy from others. I don't blame them. It's difficult to be around a grieving person. But I owe it to myself to push past. What he did is a part of my life. It’s a defining moment, no matter how much I dislike that it is. I don’t want my father’s death to be a clouded veil hanging in front of my face forever, though I want to be able to push it aside and see clearly, see me, see a future where I live unencumbered from resentment and shame.
How do I help dig myself out of grief every day? I’m in therapy, which I love. It feels cathartic to talk to someone who won’t judge me and will give me advice. I have an incredibly supportive partner who is so easy to talk to, and he gives me what I need when I ask for it—advice, a hug, some space. He is so empathetic and caring about a situation he is so far removed from, and I'm incredibly grateful for that. I have friends who know the real me, and who know who I was before my loss, and are gentle with me as I bring the two versions of myself together. My family is still hurting badly. We don’t talk about my dad very much yet, but we love each other a lot. The joy that I get from being with my family is unparalleled. I hope we can move on to healing together, and I know we have painful things to work through, but for right now, this is full and this is enough.
The most important thing I’ve learned over the last 6 years is to be nice to myself. To be a bit softer with my thoughts, and stop punishing myself for something I never could have prevented in the first place. This won't ever leave me, but I can grow and move forward and have a full life with this alongside me. Some days I don’t think about him at all, and other days I can’t get him out of my head. I feel heartbroken when I think about how he missed so many graduations and holidays and birthdays, and how he’s going to miss the rest of them, too. Sometimes I hang out with my boyfriend's parents, who I adore, and end up crying in the bathroom anyways because I miss my dad. Sometimes I’ll watch certain movies or shows that depict suicide and I have to turn them off. But this is all part of what makes suicide grief so complex. There are moments of joy in my life that I can hold on to, and it makes me feel like my dad is with me, somehow, in some way. That’s something I can be proud of.