Very recently there has been a fair amount of media coverage on the topics of mental illness and suicide. The death of Robin Williams, while as tragic as all untimely deaths may be, has brought these issues to the forefront of our society and has acted as a relevant catalyst for necessary and long overdue discussion. I have been feeling the urge to finally publicly share some of my own personal experience on the subject matter. Some people know about this portion of my life, and others don’t, but here I am now, putting it out there.
This is my story about being a suicide survivor. It’s a little gruesome. A little sad. And I hope a little encouraging. Either way, it’s part of my life and never in a million years did I think it would turn out this way.
I lost my father to suicide.
He didn’t have a stroke and die. Well, he did have a stroke, but that was about six weeks earlier. I suppose you could say that the stroke did kill him, since it completely killed his will to continue living in its aftermath. What it says on his death certificate as his official cause of death by injury is “gunshot wound of head.” It’s a little troubling to read.
For some reason it was more upsetting to see it on paper than it was to see the room where it happened: Pieces of skull, spots of brain, splatters of blood, the hole in the wall where the slug made its final resting place. My then-husband and brother-in-law kindly removed the bedding before I arrived, however, a part of me feels like it would have given me more closure to take in the scene in its unaltered entirety. I have not spoken with the woman who found him. She did leave me a voice mail several days later and she didn’t sound too overly traumatized. She’s either become accustomed to these things or she did a lot of praying. Or both. I can only speculate.
In fact, I can only speculate about most things it seems. I may think I know what my dad was feeling and why he made this choice, but I am fooling myself if I think I understand. I don’t know his feelings—only my own. Among those myriad stores of feelings is one that stands out significantly: Guilt.
There are a lot of websites and books and whatnot that tell you that when you are a survivor of suicide, it is not your fault. It is normal to feel this way, but you must learn and know that it is Not Your Fault. You are not responsible for other people’s thoughts and feelings. You cannot do these things for them. But what if it is your fault? What if your last words to someone were, “You are an adult. Do not make me babysit you.” I’ve been known to choose poor wording.
My therapist tells me it’s not my fault. Knowing it and thinking it has helped me to cope. But feeling it is something else. Throughout my entire life, my father had made it very clear that he was not interested in growing old and suffering in any way. He had no intention of having his ass wiped for him, and he had no problem with the self-infliction part of this. Let me repeat: He was very clear on this. As it turns out, he wasn’t bluffing, and sadly, I was the only one who actually believed him. So, is it my fault for allowing him the mechanism to execute his plan? Is it my fault for telling him (years ago, mind you), “if that’s how you feel, so be it, but I’d like for you to say goodbye first, and I’d prefer if you went outside” (for the record, he did neither of these things, which really broke my heart). I knew it was coming, though I didn’t know when. I knew this was his plan from day one.
So point being, it still feels like my fault because I didn’t try harder to stop him from wanting to do this. My most pointed effort (and after an internal struggle, no less) was telling the social worker in the rehab facility that my father has spoken of suicide and had the means to do so. I figured that I did the right thing because I did what she did: nothing. My husband suggested that I remove his guns from his house before he came home from rehab, and I struggled with that also. I knew he’d be extremely unhappy with me if I did that. I also had told him time and time again that he was an adult and he was allowed to (and encouraged to) make his own choices. This would just send the opposite message now, wouldn’t it? In the end, I know I didn’t kill my father. It was his choice. But the feeling remains.
His life was his battle, not mine. I have my own battle.