Though not a family secret, we rarely mentioned it.
In the years before Mom’s death in 2013, I don’t recall talking with her about it. Dad, who dearly loved his father-in-law, never once discussed it with me. I suppose it spawned too many harsh memories and, inevitably, an immense sadness.
What is it? Suicide.
With my family, the memory is hyphenated: murder-suicide.
In April of 1978, likely before midnight on a cool spring evening in the California town of Merced, my grandfather slept alone in his bed. His wife of a few years—not my grandmother—entered the room. She gripped a pistol. She shot Grandpa at point blank range in the head. Several times.
She exited their bedroom, retreated along a hallway, crossed through several rooms, and finally settled onto a chair in a different part of the house. Seconds or moments or maybe even a half-hour later, she pulled the trigger again.
The woman who murdered Grandpa and then took her own life entered my grandfather’s life after Grandma’s untimely death. Mutual friends introduced them. Did Grandpa fall in love with her? As a widower, was he was lonely and vulnerable? Maybe she schemed to wrap him around her finger? Or did their ill-fated relationship just happen as so many relationships do? But at some point, something changed. To me, way back then, in a time focused on seminary and starting a career in ministry, she seemed like an okay person. Nearly everyone seems normal until they are not.
Why did she squeeze that trigger multiple times in the deep darkness of an April night?
+ + +
Suicide slams the door on answers. Even when a note remains, or the “clues” become more obvious as friends or family discuss the tragedy, or (like Robin Williams) the person struggles with mental health issues, or addictive, destructive drugs played a cruel role, the questions invariably, insidiously outnumber the answers.
I’ve been wondering about suicide in recent days because the hospice where I work has taken a Survivors of Suicide Loss group under its umbrella of programs. I suspect there are other hospices that have direct or indirect connections to groups that provide education and support for the survivors of suicide loss. I am grateful for every one of them. They are needed.
Where I live (Fresno County in California) there are two suicides every week.
Nationally, there are 117 suicides . . . every day.
Which means, if you read this “brief” posting about suicide, not long after finishing the last sentence, someone in the United States will have killed him or her self.
I just deleted a lengthy, well-researched paragraph with statistics: suicide and guns, suicide compared to other tragic deaths, suicide and social media bullying, etc. Sigh. Statistics are easy to find. Statistics are confusing or contradictory or both. People argue about facts. The facts numb us. But no statistic or comparative study ever brings any comfort to those reeling from loss.
When someone takes her or his life, every life around that person is forever changed. Whether by the ubiquitous gun, or the endless other means to stop our heart beating—poison, drug overdose, leaping from a bridge—I am glad the hospice that gives me a paycheck will now provide a space and place for those grieving the death by suicide of a loved one. I’m not writing this to “hype” a new program, but more in calling attention to two things.
First and foremost, because I am not an expert, there are numerous resources only a phone call or web link away for those impacted by suicide. You can find suggestions HERE. Those suggestions will lead to other resources and other avenues for contacting people. If, in the extensive web universe of key links for hospice or suicide prevention or caring for the survivors of suicide, a few folks read my words and find solace, I will feel immensely grateful.
Secondly, openly talking about your suicidal thoughts, or openly sharing your feelings and reactions after a loved one’s suicide, are too often put off until the next day . . . and the next day. Or perhaps any “sharing” isn’t being put on hold as much as it’s buried. There can be an intentional choice to never say anything at anytime with anyone else. As with conversations that never happen about hospice when a loved one has a terminal illness, all the reasons for never talking about suicide create more damaging secrets and lies.
Often, when suicide is contemplated, people believe they become unseen, unheard, and unworthy. Those self-perceptions likely close doors to meaningful sharing with loved ones or professionals.
The survivors of suicide loss frequently feel ashamed, guilty, helpless . . . and every version of those feelings prevent conversations about the soul-wrenching loss from ever starting.
Instead of providing comfort, religious beliefs about suicide have caused horrific extremes:
- The so-called “suicide bombers,” influenced by a flawed understanding of faith, destroy their life and the lives of many others. And then a cycle of violence is continued as individual survivors or entire nations plot revenge.
- In some faith traditions the person committing suicide is deemed a sinner, which means that survivors reeling from a loss may also be burdened with guilt . . . and may not receive support from their faith community.
As I work on these words, I am vividly aware of how little I know about suicide. (And in all likelihood, the moment I post this essay I’ll regret something I wrote or realize something helpful I just found or forgot to mention could be added.)
But I do know I’m a tiny part of suicide’s grim percentages, a member of a family profoundly impacted by one person harming another and then harming herself. There was too much silence before the tragedy and too much silence afterwards.
Please, no judgments, only compassion.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by