I have lived with suicide aftermath for 61 of my 65 years of life. My grandfather, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, took his own life in 1954. When I was 13 years old, my father committed suicide the evening of May 13, 1963. We found out the next morning, my mother’s birthday, when a police officer came to the door. Since then, both of my father’s brothers, my uncles, committed suicide. I have lost two friends to suicide and have worked with two associates whose children have committed suicide. My niece’s fiancé also committed suicide.
I somewhat understand my grandfather’s choice to end his life. He spent his entire career in the US Army and retired as a Colonel after World War II. He developed Parkinson’s disease and lost all ability to control his motor skill movements. He was a very proud man and medicine at that time had nothing that could help him battle the disease. His hands shook so badly that he couldn’t drink a glass of water by himself. He died of a self inflicted gunshot. He was only 59 years old when he died. My grandmother was the one that found him. As I was only 4 years old at the time, I have no other information about his death other than that when I got old enough to understand about death, my mother lied to me and told me that her father had died of a heart attack. It seems there was, and maybe still is a great deal of secrecy and even taboo associated with suicide.
My father’s suicide was different than my grandfather’s. My father was born into a very influential East Coast family. He was the fifth of six children, his oldest sibling born 12 years prior to him. There were three girls and three boys. His father was a doctor. He and his two older brothers would also become doctors. He was evidently very charming and very gifted, both intellectually and musically. He graduated from high school when he was only 16 but was too socially immature to begin college, so he was sent to a very upper end prep school for 2 years. After prep school, he enrolled at the University of Virginia, where his father and two brothers had attended. Being pretty much a spoiled rich kid, he managed to get himself into trouble quite often by drinking and gambling. In spite of his intellect, he was a lousy gambler and amassed a very large sum in debt. His parents bailed him out at the cost of what turned out to be a large chunk of inheritance his heirs wouldn’t see. Also somewhere along the the line he became addicted to drugs, something he was never able to free himself from. After graduating from medical school, which had been taken over by the Army due to World War II, he, and all of the other residents, were placed on active duty in the Army. He was sent to Japan, where he met my mother. To speed things up, they married, moved back to the East Coast and had four children. I was the second. In 1956, it became apparent that his drug dependency required professional assistance, so he was checked into a rehab hospital and my mother and we four kids moved out to California with my grandmother. He joined us in California a few months later. His parents had pulled the plug on paying for the expense at the rehab hospital and he was released. In retrospect, a potential fatal turn of events for him. The next few years were ups and downs. He became a psychiatrist at one of the state hospitals in Northern California, but lost his job when they refused to reinstate him after yet another rehab attempt, and then, later, most of the state hospitals were shut down. He had been thinking about suicide for a long time, but at the time I didn’t realize it. When I was about 11 or 12, he and I were talking and he mentioned that dying like my grandfather did wouldn’t be such a bad way to go. Now if you remember, I had been lied to and thought my grandfather died of a heart attack, so I didn’t get the connection at the time. I did get the connection way too late, about when I was in my later teens and it shook me up quite a lot knowing that he may have been trying to reach out to me. He ended up getting a job at Atascadero State Hospital, a hospital within prison walls, and commuted back and forth, staying there all week and returning on the weekends. I remember that last time he said good bye before driving back to Atascadero. There was a different, somehow final dimension in his demeanor. In the police report, it stated that they had come upon a wrecked abandoned car. When searching the nearby hillside for any evidence, they happened upon his body, dead from a self inflicted gunshot to his heart. He was 41 when he died. His death changed my life. My mother had to go to work, something she had never had to do before. I felt I had to go to work, or so thought everyone I came into contact with. So I did. I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t be who I am now if I had taken any other course.
Although every one of those events was tragic, especially my father, I feel I am a more caring and loving person because of them. When my father died, I immediately lost my childhood and had to grow up really fast. I had three siblings and a mother that I needed to support. I developed a very strong work ethic and worked 48 years before retiring. I became a father to my son in 1980 and it has been my greatest joy ever since. Father’s Day is my favorite day of the year, because I never got to celebrate it for the 17 years between my father’s death and my son’s birth. When I surpassed the age that my father was when he died, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I knew I wanted to live.
Both of my father’s bothers committed suicide. His oldest brother, Dick, was 10 years older than my father. They almost lived in different worlds because of the age difference. Dick became a surgeon in his father’s footsteps. I have never been told the story of why Dick committed suicide, and it really doesn’t matter, now, so I am not going to go digging into it.* Tommy was just two years older than my father. He, too became a doctor, an OBGYN. Tommy was a delightful person that I admired very much. Tommy developed lung cancer in his late sixties. He had one lung removed, but the cancer had spread. He took it upon himself to put an end to his own suffering. I am told he shot himself in the head. He was only 71.
*( If you look below at the comment from my cousin, Dick, it sheds some light on his father’s death)
Suicide solves an immediate problem for the one that dies, but leaves a lifetime of hurt, doubt, shame, disbelief, sorrow and the list goes on and on, for the family that lives on. Although it has been 52 years since my father’s death, it still haunts me. My mother was never the same after that day. Her birthday was never again a joyous occasion for me. Each of my siblings have dealt with his death in their own way.
The two friends that committed suicide are two different stories. The first was a friend I went to college with. The day of the first draft lottery, during the Vietnam War, we all decided to meet at his house to watch it on TV. We all brought chips and drinks and were going to make a party out of it. Number One was announced, and his birthday was assigned to Number One. The party fell hush. We all gave him our condolences and each went our own way to find out in solitude what our fate would be. He was so petrified about going to war that he took his own life to not have to face that certainty. A terrible tragedy. The second was a friend in a wine making group I belong to. I didn’t know him for a long time, but did get to know him a little bit. One day he did not show up for work. It seems like it was a few weeks later that his body was found out in the wilderness hanging from a tree. He had evidently been battling depression and lost the battle.
I don’t hold any animosity towards those that take their own lives. I just wish they hadn’t. We all are born and we all are going to die. I just feel it is a shame not to live every day to the fullest and to live as many days as possible. I have survived three bouts of cancer, the most serious a stage four cancer. I was given a couple of years to live back in 1996. Numerous surgeries, 60 chemo sessions, 35 radiation therapy visits and a year of hormone therapy find me cancer free and living every day to the fullest. I have fought hard to stay alive.
To me, given the options, life will always be my choice.
I am hoping to convince others to think likewise.