Weaving the Tapestry of Memory After a Parent Dies by Suicide

On a visit home last year for my mother’s birthday, my mom and I hunched over the contents of two or three boxes, darkened over time and overflowing with photos now strewn across my aunt’s kitchen island. Amid the family photos of trips to amusement parks, backyard BBQs and birthday cakes were wedding invitations, condolence cards, and the occasional weird religious pamphlet with titles such as “Why Catholics Can Not Be Freemasons" and “Don’t Be Afraid to Go to Confession." I took pictures of some of the photos and posted them on Instagram. To amuse my friends, I posted one of me with terrible late-’80s 8th-grade hair, sitting on my grandmother’s couch with my mom and assorted visiting Irish relatives. Under my father’s black and white, late-1960s high school graduation photo, I wrote the caption, “my dad, aka Don Draper," guessing friends would see the resemblance and get the “Mad Men" reference.

I had seen that photo many times, but others I saw that day were new to me, despite being decades old. In one, it’s summer, and my mom is in shorts, a sleeveless top, and Terminator-style dark sunglasses, sitting in a woven blue and white plastic lawn chair with metal armrests. I’m a year or two old, on her lap in powder-blue footie pajamas. I have the gleeful, open-mouthed expression of a toddler not currently crying; my hands hover in front of my chest as if in mid-clap. My father stands behind us. His dark hair is on the conservative side for the time, swept to the side but cut above his ears. Pale and dark-eyed, he wears a button-down, tan shirt with a pen clipped on the front pocket. He’s smiling but not broadly — not “smizing," or smiling with his eyes, in Tyra Banks parlance. He looks thin, as he did until he died.

There’s another photo of me and my father that I’ve studied a lot over the years. I’m a red, wrinkly newborn staring up at him, and he’s holding me while sitting in his black vinyl recliner. He looks up at the camera, not smiling, and I always thought he looked kind of scared and bewildered. He was only 22, a college dropout with a family to support, which probably was legitimately terrifying. But my mother disputes my interpretation. She claims my father loved having a baby, describing how after they brought me home from the hospital, he’d stand over my bassinet staring at me and say with wonder real or that she imagined, “She’s so beautiful!"

It’s hard not to read too much into my father’s expression in photos, which make up the bulk of my memories of him. Photos capture a stiff formality even when he’s smiling, something I have probably inherited, considering I’m in my 40s and still don’t know how to look comfortable in a picture. Even in snapshots, my father looks like the serious, analytical man older relatives have reported him to be. He was a Merit Scholar who could compare virtually any movie they saw, often unfavorably, to the book it was based upon, my mother told me. I’ve wondered if part of his photographic discomfort stemmed from his cold, WASPy upbringing in the repressive 1950s and early ’60s. But I’ve always suspected a sadness seeping through as well, even when he’s smiling.

Other memories of my dad are a mix of long-ago experiences and second-hand reports. Just a few years ago, I learned that my dad hung out with his friends the night he died. He was probably drinking, even though he wasn’t supposed to on his medication for epilepsy. If he was taking it; sometimes he didn’t. Sometime after arriving back home, alone, my father shot himself. He was 27 and didn’t leave a note.

In the process of divorcing from my mom, he lived in a small house across town by himself. Two policemen came to our house to tell us. My mom gasped when they took their hats off as they climbed the front steps. I was 5 but understood whatever euphemism they used for “dead," somehow. I ran upstairs and cried, leaving my mom weeping, her forehead against one hand, which gripped the wall by the staircase.

I remember that bright, sunny morning vividly, or at least I think I do. Not long ago, I wrote a story for a parenting site about how memory works, particularly in children. People like to think memories are like a videotape that we can playback, the experts I interviewed told me, but they’re not. Memories are more like a path of things that happen to us that we scuff and kick and rake over to create new versions of. The most interesting thing I learned from the people I interviewed was that research suggests even the act of retrieving a memory fundamentally changes it. You sort of weave in your perceptions and experience and things you’ve heard from other people into a metamorphosing version of the memory. This is precisely why eyewitness testimony is increasingly controversial and regarded as unreliable in court.

My father died so long ago that I no longer remember the last time I saw him. This might sound sad, but even sadder, perhaps, is losing someone when you’re old enough to remember the last moments you spent together. To have the last words you exchanged be angry ones, or to have not said “I love you!" out loud even though you thought it. To ask yourself how they could have done what they did after having such a seemingly great time the last time you were together. To feel that pit of regret, deep in your belly, when you think of that pause in conversation or dark look that you almost pressed him or her about but didn’t. To wish, so badly, that you had stopped yourself from looking exasperated when he or she mentioned, for the 300th time, feeling depressed enough to end it. To have the weight of guilt dogpile onto loss.

“Why didn’t I see the signs?" is common and understandable to ask when someone you love ends his or her life. But there’s a good chance there weren’t any. It’s also possible that you might be rewiring your memories, inserting signs that weren’t really discernible at the time. Suicide is mistifying, even to mental health experts. There are countless studies, published and ongoing, attempting to figure out why people decide to end their lives — why people who talk about it all the time might never do it, or why people who never told one person they were thinking about suicide go through with it.

I understand the urge to endlessly analyze, scouring photos for clues, and playing the movies of your interactions in your mind over and over. We all crave the feeling that we have some control over what happens, no matter how complicated the situation might be. Not being able to help someone who’s suicidal is devastating. But I have to admit I cringe when people post on social media about an acquaintance or celebrity death at their own hand with a 1-800 suicide hotline number tacked onto the end and a blithe plea to “Get help if you’re depressed!" I understand how frustrating it is to feel helpless and why it can be comforting to say things like, “If only I’d known he or she felt that way, I could have helped."

But the saddest and most frightening thing about suicide — and I don’t say this lightly, or without regret — is that nothing you could say or do was likely to help. I know this not only because my father killed himself but because I’ve been on the verge of suicide myself. It’s scary to look back on that time and remember how useless any effort to help me was. Letting me work through the feelings on my own was confirmation that no one cared and my life wasn’t worth anything, I thought then. I dismissed a friend’s concern as pity; I thought she just felt obligated to try to help.

It’s also tempting to look for pat reasons why someone ends their road in life. But experts say there’s rarely if ever just one reason. For a lot of people, I’m guessing and remembering when I considered suicide myself, it could boil down to, simply, that life becomes too painful to continue living. For myriad reasons.

I’m Facebook friends with my dad’s best friend, one of the guys with him the night he killed himself. I’ve been planning to get together with him and ask him about those last hours of my father’s life, but I haven’t yet. Part of my hesitation is that I don’t want to bother this friend — who I call Uncle Stu even though he’s no relation — and dredge up decades-old pain. Nor do I want him to feel accused of something or defensive about why he didn’t see my father’s suicide coming. But I think it’s also because I fear that there won’t be much Uncle Stu can tell me. By all accounts, my father was quiet, even brooding, smart and sarcastic, and likely kept his darkest feelings to himself.

It’s also my personal belief that even though many people likely mull it over for months or years, deciding to go through with your own death is a split-second decision. Maybe my dad was upbeat that night, hanging with his pals and talking about motorcycles. There are probably many days where someone’s life almost ended as mine did, but for whatever reason, didn’t. And no one around the person had any idea.

Although I believe all of us who lose someone close to us to suicide share a bond, I know my experience is likely very different from yours. In a recent essay for The New Yorker, V.S. Naipaul described his grief over his father’s death from a heart attack, writing, “We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. It is always waiting to happen. Love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love and is inescapable."  Because my father died when I was so young, as an adult, I’ve been less crippled by grief than robbed of it. When acquaintances post heart-achingly about their loss of a parent on social media, I sometimes can’t help but think, unkindly, that at least they got to enjoy those years or decades of love and support. Not all of us do.

My grief is more for the loss of life with a father rather than grief for a man I only briefly knew. Over the years, friends would mention nonchalantly that they’d sent employment contracts to their dads to check out for them before they signed, or that they took their dads with them before they bought a new car to make sure they didn’t drive home with a lemon. My presumptions about what my dad would’ve been like had he lived longer are idealized, generalized, and even gendered, but over the years I’ve thought wistfully about what it would have been like to have a father to turn to when I needed him.

When I was younger, I used to imagine I could have helped my dad if he had talked to me. I no longer feel that way. The only short, and inadequate, answer we have for why my dad left us was that he was depressed. There are longer versions of the “why" to explore. During that trip to Rhode Island last year, my mom told me stories about my dad. I learned for the first time that my father didn’t find out he had epilepsy until he was an adult. He had a seizure at the hospital when he and my mom went in for their blood tests to get married. Growing up, if he woke up on the floor at home, his parents just told him he had passed out. Maybe they didn’t really know what was wrong with him, but clearly something was, and they never bothered to find out what.

My mom was in a different room of the hospital and heard some commotion and doctors and nurses running but didn’t find out until they’d left the hospital that they were running to help my dad. She says my father told her, grimly, that the doctor just told him he has epilepsy and that if she wanted to break off their engagement, he’d understand.

I had no idea, until last year, what a risk it was for them to even have a child. No one had ever told me how relieved my grandmother had been that I was a girl because male children are more likely to inherit the disorder. I had known about my father’s epilepsy but not about how much it bothered him. That he saw it as a defect, a handicap, and not simply a medical condition. It kept him out of the police academy he had applied to join. My mother pleaded with him to not drink alcohol, which was dangerous to mix with his medication, but he didn’t listen, she says.

Who knows why that night was the night for my father? Who knows what anyone could have said to change his mind? I hate that — unlike I did decades later — he couldn’t get out from under that dark cloud himself.

If you know someone who’s still under it, I don’t want you to feel helpless. But I also urge you to accept the limitations of those of us who aren’t clinical psychologists. Offer to help research available therapists or to just be there for them, whatever that means. Offer to listen and promise not to judge, shame, or reason with them. All you can do is offer a hand and hope they take it.

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