Three years ago today, my father took his own life. I struggled with whether or not to ease readers into that: “Three years ago, my dad died,” or “I lost my father and best friend three years ago today.” All true, while simultaneously hiding behind the truth.
I’ve spent the last three years easing friends, family and myself into it, and it hasn’t done us any good. As a result, I end up worrying more about other people’s feelings than my own—not wanting to upset them or open their eyes to the ubiquitous grief that is my daily reality. I’m vowing to stop that cycle today and be more honest about Dad, my reality and suicide in general.
I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was at work and my mom called wanting to stop by, which was strange because I hadn’t seen her in some time. The second she walked in the door, I knew something was wrong. She walked toward me hesitantly, yet determined—like someone who’s afraid of bugs trying to kill an elusive spider. Her facial expression and awkward gate alerted all of my internal instincts. Warning! Warning! This is not good.
A middle schooler named Chloe volunteered with me in the bookstore every Tuesday. We were organizing the science section as Mom approached. Knowing something was wrong, I led us away from Chloe, not wanting to worry her. It was a small bookstore, and Chloe and I were the lone inhabiters.
Ten seconds later I was collapsed sobbing on the floor, flanked by civil war and ancient history texts. For whatever reason, I didn’t ask how it happened and robotically picked myself up, told Chloe she should leave, and scribbled a note explaining the store was closing early and hastily taped it to the door. I never saw Chloe after that and still wonder what she must have thought about this grownup she looked up to thrashing about on the floor in a fit of panic.
It was on the car ride home that my mom told me she thought Dad had killed himself. Was she not sure? Was there ambiguity surrounding his death? No and no—she just didn’t know how to tell me, just like I don’t know how to tell you.
From what I pieced together that week, from first-hand accounts from Dad’s fiancé whom he lived with at the time (Mom and Dad had been divorced about two years at this point), after days of not being able to get out of bed due to chronic back pain and what seemed like acute anxiety and paranoia, he drove himself to his childhood home in Roswell that he owned and had lived in after the divorce, walked down into a corner room of the basement where his younger brother used to live, and shot himself in the head.
I didn’t know he had been hurting so—he lived with severe back pain most of my life and had recently entered into more intensive treatment for it. He was over three years sober and had recently quit smoking. He was getting married that Saturday and I was to be the best man. My speech, never given, still sits waiting in my journal. He was 55.
I used to obsess myself with the type and caliber of the gun. I don’t know why—I guess imagining I’d have more control over the situation if I knew which he had used out of the many he’d owned since childhood. A few weeks after his death as I was immersing myself in estate paperwork, the Fulton County medical examiner called. I could hear the anxiety in her voice as she asked my intentions for his belongings. I was his only child and as he was in-between spouses, my name was on all the forms.
Dad and me, on the last Christmas we spent together—it was always both of our favorite holidays. His smile coveys his approach to life that he relearned through his sobriety.
“The gun, you mean?” I asked more candidly than I had broached the subject prior, as I had already been given his wallet, keys and phone. I could hear her choke back tears but I let mine flow, grateful to finally be able to talk to someone about it. She explained that I could come get it or she could burn it with other unwanted belongings of the recently deceased. I elected to burn it. I remember getting a piece of paper detailing the incinerated “evidence,” and as strict as my filing system is, I have no idea where the letter went. I think it was a .45 pistol, but I’m not sure and I’m ready to let that obsession go.
I’ve never written about this publicly. Some have suggested I do so, and others that I’m not ready. I’m not certain that I’m ready, but I’m certain that I’m ready to stop treading water. I’ve neglected publishing about it not because I’m ashamed or worried about the effect. But because I’ve held onto the grief as tightly as possible, fearing that if I shared his story, I would start to lose it one piece at a time, and subsequently lose him. Grief and memories are all I have remaining.
I’ve never been in denial about the finite nature of death, nor the violence of his death.
But it is that sudden, decisive violence that makes it harder to talk about—and that which makes it so uncomfortable for people to hear. Death is already hard enough to cope with, but purposeful self-inflicted death scares the hell out of people. Fear and insecurity then drive the choice to remain uninformed about suicide. And the jokes.
Thus, my most pressing desire—for you to stop using suicide in jest. Don’t say, “I’d rather kill myself than …,” or “just shoot me now.” Every time a survivor of suicide hears those phrases or some passing remark about death being a better option than whatever someone has on their plate, which is usually daily, our world crashes down around us. Sometimes you’ll notice or sometimes we are so used to it that we don’t even visibly react. But inside, we’re reliving the instant that our world changed forever.
Avoid cliches about jumping off a bridge or in front of a bus. Say what you mean instead. Try giving your reality the accuracy it deserves without tossing around accosting hyperbole that most certainly is a friend, coworker or family member’s reality.
I don’t say this to shame anyone or have you walk on semantic eggshells. That’s the last thing I want. But I want—I need, rather—you to understand that the words you choose to use matter. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been offended, and then after awhile not so offended, by people’s carelessness with words. I’ve developed sensory calluses.
But it took me three years to get here—and the first year was rough. Really rough. Every time someone, even friends who knew what I was going through, mimicked shooting themselves with the pointer-finger-and-thumb-to-temple motion, I’d literally almost faint or throw up.
I’d often excuse myself to sit in a quiet space and try to release or escape the anxiety that the simple thoughtless joke (because it is a joke, only in this scenario, I’m the butt of it) causes. Sometimes they’d catch on and apologize, most times not. It’s not an apology I’m looking for, but for you to realize the impact that your words and actions have on survivors of a loved ones’ suicide.
One thing nobody tells you about grief, is that it comes in waves and often ebbs and flows completely unexpectedly. In the beginning, good days meant I thought of him once an hour; bad days, constantly. Now, not a day passes that I don’t think of him, but it’s mostly in positive ways and the bad days are less frequent. But the good days still come crashing down when you joke about suicide. When a once beloved TV show character makes a passing, meant to be sarcastic, remark about taking her own life. When you ask me how my dad died, rather than who he was or what he was like. Those turn the good days bad and the bad days worse. We all have triggers. I’ve got a bunch now.
My mom worked long and erratic hours, so from an early age it was Dad and me against the world. I was raised on a golf course that he maintained and spent countless hours in-tow across the greens.
It’s an inconvenience to be held accountable—especially to one’s words, actions, and even friends’ situations. It’s hard to chose empathy and acknowledge unknowing over easy words and jokes. But when we use untrue words, whether in jest or for hyperbolic effect, we are stealing someone else’s words, lives and worst fears turned reality.
Just think twice next time, and remember that the words we use matter, more so than we often realize.