Shortly after losing my father to suicide, I was watching a television interview with a fellow survivor. There was a particular part of her interview that has stayed with me throughout this grief journey. She talked about a “psychological autopsy.” When we lose someone to a physical illness, the autopsy, if performed, is left in the hands of the physicians. When we lose someone to suicide, it is left to the family and loved ones to try to piece together what it was that led them to end their life. Yes, we may know the
method by which they died. But the “why” of it all, well that eludes us.
I’m sure I am not alone in sharing that as my wounds were fresh, raw and wide open for all to see, there were questions that continuously doused them with salt.
Were there signs?
Did you have any idea he might do this?
Had he tried this before?
I had to endure many variations of the above.
There we were, examining the rearview mirror, trying to look for the clues, the answer to the unanswerable question of why my father would leave us this way. We were troubled by guilt, wracked with grief, desperately trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle to find what it was that we must have missed; and those questions continuously came.
I wanted to scream, “Don’t you think that if we saw signs we would have gotten him more help?” “Don’t you think if we thought he might attempt suicide, we would have hospitalized him?”
I wondered if they thought all suicides were preceded by large flashing yellow lights and bold signs that stated, “Warning, Danger Ahead.” I wondered if they thought we simply chose to bypass those signs, take a detour and treat my father’s struggles with depression and anxiety simply as a bump in the road he could just plow through. I wanted to say those things. But I didn’t.
Instead, I tried to answer them. And with every answer I had to give to that unsolicited question, my guilt intensified and my anger began to grow. Because what I heard in those early days, lurking at the root of those questions was, “What did you miss?” What didn’t you see?” And that only added to the burden of my pain.
Eleven months later I have come to understand much more about the signs that were there. I’ve learned them in hindsight. There were drastic changes in my father’s mood, changes in sleep and eating patterns and more. There was talk of being a burden. And above all, there was a sense of hopelessness. Today I know these are some of the signs that somebody might be in crisis. I’ve completed the mental health first-aid training, I’ve read the articles, and I know now that there were indicators that my father was in danger. I know now what I didn’t know then.
I have re-framed my guilt as regret. Guilt can swallow you whole. Regret, while painful, is something that slowly, I can come to live with. I regret that I didn’t know these things when my father was still here. I regret that I did not ask the question of him, “Are you feeling suicidal?” And I regret that I did not know how to answer those who pondered what it was that we, who loved him most, might have missed?
Today I would ask people to honor my pain and my loss. I would ask them to consider why they are asking the question in the first place? Today I know that I need not answer curiosity, that there is rarely a good reason to ask those questions of a survivor. Even when asked with the most innocent of intentions, we must acknowledge that at their root they are an attempt to draw a line in the sand. On one side, is the survivor, and on the other a basic human desire to know that what happened to them can never happen to us. Because surely we would see it coming, even if they did not.
Of course, there will be those with loved ones who are struggling with mental illness, who might ask in hopes of preventing this tragedy in their own family and community. That is an honorable intention. Still I would encourage, a thoughtful and honest statement instead, such as, “If and when you are ready, I was wondering if you’d be willing to share what your father was experiencing. I have a loved one that I am concerned about.” And then let the survivor answer, or not answer, when it is right for them, if it is right for them. And know that for some survivors, that day may be very far down the road.
Yes, suicide loss and grief have placed in my path some of the most painful lessons I’ve ever had to learn. I am a survivor, navigating this difficult road toward healing. This is my story to tell, on my terms, in my way, and in a manner that honors my father and me. And that is true for so many survivors. So please, when you encounter us, before you ask a question of our experience, consider your motive. Consider that we are working through vast layers of trauma and grief that are not visible to the naked eye. And consider whether the answers you seek are helpful or hurtful to the one you are
And after all of that, consider setting your questions aside, and stand with us in loving silence instead. Because in truth, the answers you may seek are the answers we will never find in full. So be present, hold our hand, extend your comforting embrace and when it comes to your words, be guided by compassion and “proceed with caution.”