The Suicide of a Loved One

written by Sara

Trigger Warning: This post contains the story of a loved one’s suicide. If you feel as though you are at risk of harming yourself, please visit The National Suicide Prevention Hotline or call 1-800-273-8255.

I grew up in Savannah, Georgia. It was me, my mom and dad, 2 older brothers, and my grandmother who I called Nana. We’re a pretty tight-knit family who love each other fiercely and have been through a lot. We’re the typical old-school southern family who just go with the flow, and deal with whatever comes to us – with a southern flair, of course. My grandmother died when I was 7 from complications due to the removal of her gallbladder, and things became difficult at that point. I still remember when I was a kid I learned what the word “unconscious” meant because of the 911 call that my brothers and I made when we found her after coming home and discovered her laying on her bathroom floor. She died a few months after that, in January. I knew about death, I knew she wasn’t coming back, but at that point, that’s really all that I was certain about. I didn’t know that suicide was a thing, or that it was possible to actually kill yourself. Sadly I learned much more than I wanted to know about it 9 years later.

My dad was a very kind, very gentle man who had a green thumb and a golden heart. He loved to make people laugh and made people feel at ease. He was very artistic, painting and making music often. He also wrote poetry that described the scenes that played in his head on repeat. I inherited his artistic abilities, his love of music, and the love of creating tapestries with words. I still am told by others that I remind them of him, and I think of it as an honor. He was, and is, my hero.

My mom is a very strong woman who cares very deeply for others around her. She freely gives without expecting anything back, which is something that I think she passed to all of her children. She is so grounded in Christ, and it shows when you talk to her. Her belief in Jesus literally saved my own life.

My brothers are the “strong and silent” type. They don’t talk often, but when they do, it’s usually pretty important. We’re all very different from each other, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. When I was growing up however, they would express their frustrations by tearing me down and making me feel terrible so they could feel better about themselves. It made me very self-conscious and overly self-aware. They were young, so they just didn’t know what else to do when upset, so I took the brunt of it. Considering what we were dealing with, I think we all turned out pretty well.

What is something difficult that you have encountered (childhood or adulthood) that you wish someone would have told you about?

Being the survivor of a suicide victim is hard. So, so hard. And living with a mentally ill parent makes things that are not normal seem as though they are. 

My dad was a survivor of multiple tours during the Vietnam War. He lived with severe  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which led to mood swings, insomnia, lack of appetite, flashbacks, outbursts, and suicidal idealization. He slept through a good bit of my life, since he couldn’t sleep at night and his medications for PTSD kept him in such a haze he had a hard time navigating through life. I adapted to being a night owl so I could spend as much time with him as I could, along with following him around in his garden and listening to music with him. There were many days that were spent in the Dublin Georgia VA Hospital, where he would get treatment for whatever episode that he had at that time. I missed birthday parties, sleepovers, and a lot of other things that little girls normally go to because I had to go visit my dad that weekend. I remember he would be gone for weeks or months at a time, calling whenever he could and writing us letters. I grew up believing that everybody’s daddy goes to the hospital for months at a time, until one day a girl in my class looked at me like I was crazy for saying I couldn’t go to her sleepover because my dad was going to the hospital that weekend and I had to go visit him. That was my first taste of “this is not normal” in my life. I would get accustomed to the taste eventually, never really questioning but somehow knowing I missed my childhood. There would be family counselors coming in and out explaining to me and my brothers about my dad’s condition, finally putting a name to what was my life. Part of me was relieved, I could finally say the name of what was happening. Yet there was that gnawing piece, that piece knowing that I have to spend every day of my life wondering if my dad was coming home that day. I would be so stressed about everything that it would manifest by me having nightmares and acting out dreams that I was having, along with mood swings and random bouts of anxiety, making me become the outcast kid that nobody wanted to be around.

Everything came to a head when I was 16. One day things just seemed…off. My dad left early that morning to go get cigarettes and never returned. My mom asked me to stay home that day, which is out of character for the hard-working teacher but I brushed it off and told her I had to go because of a field trip I had been looking forward to. That was a terrible decision, since my dad committed suicide that morning, and he wasn’t found until that night. He didn’t leave a note for his family, but he taped a letter for rejection of veteran benefits with a giant “F*** YOU” scribbled across it to the front door of the counseling center that he was a regular at. I still waver between sadness and anger knowing that he didn’t, and now couldn’t, explain himself. I don’t know why he couldn’t write a simple “I love you” or “I’m sorry,” but he didn’t, and it breaks my heart.

My world was flipped upside down that day. People who were once mean to me were suddenly nice, those who were close to the family kept speculating as to why he did it, and I lost a huge part of my heart. I still struggle with missing him some days. Usually it’s during holidays or days that I know he would have loved, but sometimes it just hits me, and it knocks the wind out of me. Those days are the hardest, when I just want to weep for what was lost.

I had one brother walk me down the aisle for my wedding and another brother do the first dance with me. It was hard, since that was reserved for someone who wasn’t there anymore, but my brothers did a wonderful job filling in. My oldest brother started talking about how my dad would have been so proud, and started crying right before walking me down the aisle, making me cry in front of all of my wedding guests, but I wouldn’t have changed it. I had a charm on my bouquet with his picture, reminding me that my brother was right. 

It’s so hard knowing that my father died. It’s even harder to know he died on purpose. There are a million things that I blamed myself for – I could have been kinder, gentler. I could have talked more to him, I could have not been so selfish and asked him how he was, and how I could have helped him. I wish I was told to brace myself. I wish I was told that being the kid of a war-scarred veteran makes me become a war-scarred veteran myself.

What would you want someone else to know who is currently navigating a similar life experience?

I want them to know it’s not their fault. Nothing, including the action, is their fault. There are so many things that come into play that I’m still uncovering almost 20 years after it happened. It’s ok to feel angry, sad, and all of those negative emotions, and it’s ok to let them out. You don’t have to be strong. You’re already strong. Also, this feeling of emptiness…it gets better. It doesn’t totally go away, but it gets easier. There will be things that you do that are inexplicable, other than it’s a coping mechanism. Realize this, and get better. Learn. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself grace. Go to therapy, get out what you need to get out with someone who will listen and understand and work to make you feel normal again. It could literally save your life.

What would you want to tell the rest of the world (those who would never experience what you have experienced) about this experience knowing they will never know exactly what it’s like? 

For those who haven’t been through this, I just want to emphasize: we want to be heard, but not patronized. Those who have survived a loved one’s suicide are a lot stronger than what we get credit for. There’s an added element of knowing your loved one is gone from something that they controlled, and it’s a difficult element to deal with. There’s going to be some behavior that even the person who is going through it will not understand. Be patient. There’s a burden that the person will carry for the rest of their life of thinking that if only they did something, their loved one would still be here. I just want them to know we carry around scars too, they’re just different from others.

Why do you think no one told you about what navigating this particular experience was like? Why do you think this isn’t talked about? 

Suicide is such a taboo topic, it’s only been recently that society has encouraged those who are suicidal to talk about it and get help. Suicide has been seen as a weakness, as a “permanent solution for a temporary problem.” It hasn’t been until the past few years that those who are suicidal feel as though it’s ok to get help, that getting help isn’t deemed as a waste or a hassle. My dad never talked about how he felt, or what he went through. He never expressed his struggles. There was an unspoken understanding that whenever he checked himself into the hospital, it was because he was about to attempt suicide. I’m certain that if there was as little stigma back then as there is now, I would have danced with my dad at my wedding.

What would you say to encourage someone going through this right now? What positive note, or bit of advice, can you offer someone experiencing something similar?

It’s difficult to live as though you haven’t lost a family member. Remember the one you loved. Remember the good times, remember what made them laugh, what made you love them. Things will be weird for a while but talk freely about the one you lost. I talk to my husband constantly about my dad and how much they would have loved each other. I tell him the good and the bad, and when I’m having a hard day I tell him. If something reminds me of my dad, I talk about it. I always have and always will love him…I mean, he’s my dad. And I’m his girl.

  1. Lauren says:

    Thank you for your vulnerability. Your words and story is going to help so many people feel like they are not alone. Mental illnesses and mental health are still such taboo subjects but I believe the more people share their stories and the more it’s talked about then the more things will change. Thank you so much for helping start the conversation.

  2. Anonymus says:

    Reading this brought up so many emotions for me. I lost my stepmom 20 years ago and I, my brothers, and likely even my dad, never found a way to talk about it or express our feelings because of the stigma associated with mental illness. Posts like this help to break down that stigma and it doesn’t matter if it’s 20 years or 20 days. Thank you for sharing your story.

leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.