I wrote this in July while I was in Florida and shortly after the phone conversation to which I allude. The recent campaign to encourage awareness of suicide and its prevention has made me decide to post it.
An online friend of mine named Al is a passionate and intelligent man who reached out to me at moment of deep grief. He has lost his best friend, who took his own life in a moment of surrender to despair. Al called me to talk because he knew of my own experience with my father’s suicide many years ago.
I was eighteen and Dad was fifty-five. He moved out of the house when I was nine. I saw him one weekend a month, but many of those days were filled with words unsaid. We didn’t have much time for those spontaneous conversations that fill in the jigsaw gaps of who we have become, but it was a gentle silence of mutual love. I knew without a doubt how much my father loved me.
When I learned of his suicide, the first thoughts of my young mind were—of course—of guilty ownership. Somehow I had contributed to his death. What could I have done to prevent it? My thoughts raced with all the what ifs. What if I hadn’t asked for help with college tuition? His death gave me the benefits that allowed me to stay in school. What if I had told him more how much I loved him? I wasn’t alone in that kind of thinking; I learned from his friends that my older brother was convinced that our father couldn’t live with the thought of a gay son. I’m willing to bet my two sisters had similar thoughts of their own responsibility.
Over time I have come to understand the folly of “what if.” We simply don’t have that kind of control over what other people do. Control of anything but our own actions is an illusion.
While I can accept now that I could not change the outcome, I still mourn briefly at moments I have not been able to share with my dad. And a few years ago when my husband and my daughter reached the same ages as in that tragic year, I looked at my daughter’s complete devotion to her father and imagined how she would be irrevocably damaged in similar circumstances. Perhaps for the first time I truly allowed my anger full expression. How could you do that to me? I was so young. I loved you so much. I needed you here.
The devastation of that act has repercussions even today, as I struggle every day to give the ones I love access to my heart. Having been burned to the ground by someone whose love was certain, it has been a long and difficult journey for me to give anyone the power to do so again; and in recent years I have succeeded in keeping the walls down. My husband wields his power gently, and it is a gift without measure.
Al’s best friend left behind similarly devastated loved ones, people who cannot fathom the depth of his despair. We who choose life will never fully understand. There comes a time when we must acknowledge that “I don’t know” is a sufficient answer. It is the first step to forgiveness.
Al and I talked for over an hour. I don’t know how much help anyone can provide for such grief, except to say, “I’m so sorry.” We connect over terrible pain and memories. It is what we must do, for ourselves and each other.
We come together in our vulnerability. It is our humanity that binds us. Our most difficult moments become our finest as we seek our commonalities, accept our differences, and forgive ourselves and each other. Can we seek those moments of reconciliation with purpose and without pain? Let us try. Let us all move toward life.
If you are young and gay or questioning and need to talk to someone about thoughts of suicide, call the Trevor Project at 866-4-U-TREVOR / 866-488-7386 any time day or night. They will listen.
Anyone can call 800-SUICIDE / 800-784-2433 any time. They will listen.