September is National Suicide Prevention Month

bellstreetpress.com Autobiography, Bell Street Press, Contribution 23 Comments

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.

Comments 23

  1. Sometimes the burden of living must just seem too great to bear and devastated survivors are left to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of what happened. Everyone deals with things differently — denial, escape, work. It’s hard to make sense out of something you can’t understand.

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      We agree on all of it. It is just a shame that people decide to not live. I’ve been around for 65 years and there is so much more that I want to experience.

  2. Lew,
    As I read your piece about those in the family who chose death rather than life, I was struck by the sadness that has filled your life for years. But further I am amazed by your strength. You are definitely a survivor of suicide, but how much stronger you are because of those losses. Strong enough to be a cancer survivor. As they say now, You are still here. AND HOW WONDERFUL IS THAT.

    Your Blog is delightful. Keep up the great work.

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  3. Lew,

    Can’t tell you how happy I am to see you exploring the death of our Dad and how it has affected your life–our lives. I am surprised that you did not include our maternal grandfather, Herbert McChrystal’s suicide–our Mom’s Dad in your post. As I shared with you once, I find it interesting that both of the men for whom we were named decided to end their lives through suicide and how profoundly these acts affected each of us, albeit in different ways–from our world views to our health.

    As you recall, suicide is not the kind of thing families and the culture-at-large talks about with open abandon. The result can be devastating in the way of repressed grief and anger affecting our lives in ways for which we are not immediately or presently conscious. I experienced it in my own life and see it in my health care practice all too often.

    The very good news is that when we do begin to explore it–talk/write about it, spectacular, healing things can and in my own experience, DO happen.

    Dad WAS a wonderful guy. He died of the often fatal disease of addiction through a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the heart. Grandaddy McChrystal, also a wonderful man, died from the depression and compulsive disorders associated with Parkinson’s disease via a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. While it took me many years to dig and do my own exploration of these events, I’m left with a deep, abiding and cherished relationship with Dad and our grandfather both of whom left me with the terrible, but life giving and saving gift to LIVE being true to my Heart–and to cherish and develop my Mind for as long as I live. To live fully, consciously; just for today.

    Thank you for your willingness and courage to talk about what’s in your heart and on your mind, Lew. I love the fit, feel and finish of your blog and let’s continue the conversation one day at a time for a long, long time to come.

    Love,

    Herb

  4. Ps– Forgive me for not seeing your entire post and all of its contents. You have indeed mentioned Grandaddy and much more. Thank you, brother. A beautiful contribution to my day…and Life./H

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  5. As have you, I have contemplated the family tendency toward suicide. I was mad and bitter after my father took his own life but, upon reflection, I do not think he would have ever been happy had he lived. He suffered from depression and was treated for it, as much as anyone was in the late 60s. There were none of the drugs that are available today which minimize depression.
    He was depressed for many reasons, I suppose. I theorize that one of the most overwhelming reasons was that he suffered from “future shock.”
    He could not deal with the fact that the world was dramatically different from the one in which he, and your father, grew up.
    While he was greatly respected, he did not have the godlike status of his father. Also, as far as I can tell, our grandfather was never wrong and his will was never questioned by his children or our grandmother. My perception is that he was not dictatorial, but a just and reasonable man. My father tried to assume that persona but, never handled it very well which caused rebellion on my part. As Staunton grew, young doctors who came to town with a lot of energy were putting a much effort into building their practice. This meant that he could not come home for lunch and a nap for a couple of hours in the middle of the day nor could he go quail hunting three afternoons a week.
    Of course, there is a lot more to this story but, I think it will give you some insight into the Bell Family dynamic.

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    2. Thank you, Dick. I join Lew in learning something really valuable by your comments.

      What impresses me most about this post and thread is how much we all care for these family members of ours which can really lend itself to further understanding the intergenerational nature of these disorders including addiction and depression–and maybe help prevent any more these tragedies down the line. Love youse guys.

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  6. Lew et al,
    Quakers often put column(s) in meeting spaces, even when not needed for structural reasons, to be a permanent reminder that we all view life from a slightly different perspective. Those differences, not to mention denial, are among reasons communication is so difficult and (therefore) avoided by most families about their challenges and “secrets”, and all families have both. When communication can occur it is so helpful, even if it is always imperfect. I am grateful that communication, in our family and beyond, and just a greater openness in society at large, has made subjects like suicide more accessible and perhaps better understood. I am grateful too that advances in biological/medical knowledge, predicted by our father by the way, have inched us toward better treatment of those struggling with depression, bi-polar and other mental conditions which are so often underlying addiction and suicide. I realized at the time of Brandon’s death (Monica’s friend) that things had changed for the better . . . though it is never easy.
    It is true I think our dad was wonderful. I didn’t need to invent that. I lived it for 14 years and only wish it could have been MUCH longer. It didn’t give him a pass however, and I have felt much hurt, anger, and abandonment by his death. I recognized some of the problems as a child. I used to pray that he would “see what he was doing to us” (with the addictive behavior) and then for a long time felt guilty when it suddenly occurred to me that that prayer had been “answered”, albeit not AT ALL like I intended. He also told me — and Jane, I learned from something she wrote a few years ago,– before he left that last time that he admired everyone’s (especially Nana’s ) ability to adjust to Grandaddy McChrystal’s death. And, like you, I felt guilt for a long time that I did not recognize that “warning”.
    I know that our grandparents on both sides did the best they knew how, including helping financially in various ways. As implied above , nothing was communicated openly to us as children, but I realize now that Grandpa and Grandma Bell did no doubt finance rehab for Dad on at least two occasions in our lives and perhaps even before that in addition to repaying the gambling debts (which I hadn’t known about). I know that on at least one occasion, unrelated to anyone’s hospitalization, when some money was distributed to their other five children and our parents were stunned to learn they had “already received their share”. Perhaps I just don’t know, but I do not think the plug was pulled during the course of rehab treatment. I don’t know what the planned length of the program at the time we relocated to California, but Daddy was there for a full 6 months. The other occasion, when we were in California, Daddy came home “early” but mom attributed that to his good behavior which she felt “fooled” those in charge of his discharge. And although I didn’t know it until much later, he was not rehired at Agnew because of closure of the facility (which did happen later, under nationwide cuts to mental health facilities during the Reagan administration) but because he had apparently stolen drugs while there and they would not entertain his rehire.
    I am very proud of our coping abilities and our individual and collective efforts to choose life. I love you.
    Mimi

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  7. Lew, Thank you for this courageous piece of writing. I suspect it was not easy to write and, perhaps, even more difficult to push the “Send” button. I was especially struck but two of your sentences:
    1. “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.”
    2. And, after describing your multiple fights with cancer, you describe the most powerful legacy you have received: “I have fought hard to stay alive.”
    Hemingway, a writer I admire, wrote: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true writer who would keep that from you.” Starting today, you are, indeed, a true writer. And the goodness that happens between any “now” and “then” matter more than all the rest. But, I prefer these words from Garrison Keillor that more accurately personify what I have learned from you: “Thank you, dear God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”
    Write on! — Dan

  8. Dear Lew, I had no idea, of course, of your family’s background of tragic personal loss. I am sorry that you, your mother, and your siblings had to live through that trauma.
    My compliments on your writing – while the subject matter may be hard to deal with for many, you have done an excellent job of outlining the circumstances and repercussions of each of your relatives’ passing. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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  9. I’m wondering, Lew, since you mentioned all of us in your original post, where are our sister’s comments, additions to this provocative and important conversation?

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  10. Thanks, Lew for posting so many corrections to your original post. This is such an important topic to address. It is, I think, important that we try to get the facts right, though that too is always subjective. We each heard different stories, even if the from the same people.

    I too harbored a lot of anger at Dad for leaving us, and perhaps more for his behavior before his departure. It was embarrassing, to say the least, for me, at eleven, to deal with his appearance at my Girls Scout father-daughter dinner so obviously high that I still cringe at the accounts of our friends and neighbors also present.

    That said, he was such a wonderful person in so many ways. Of all my friends and acquaintances, I don’t know anyone who can tell a story about how their father picked up on their dismay at loosing their stuffed kangaroo and posted postcards “from Australia” from the marsupial, with accounts of his visits with his country cousins. I don’t know anyone who can tell a story about deep sea fishing with their dad, and how he guided them through almost catching a blue shark, and after it was all over gave them his permission to tell a fish story about the catch that day. I don’t know anyone whose dad took them up to the mountains to look at the stars, or brought home a human brain one day for them to view and discuss.

    That we lost him is sad, though we all did our best. That we remember him for his strengths, as well as his frailties, is very important to me

  11. Thanks, Jane, Mary and Lew for shedding more light on this all-too-common chain of events in families. I’m hoping people reading this very important post will learn more about the chronic and potentially fatal brain diseases of addiction and mood disorders and hopefully change the way they think, (as you envision, Lew) about them especially as it relates to being survivors of suicide as in our family.

    We have much to learn via 21st Century brain science and addiction medicine and I encourage all affected and interested to visit this site for more information:

    https://www.hbo.com/addiction/thefilm/supplemental/624_nora_volkow.html

    I love the expression, “As we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.”

    And as you say, Lew, here’s to Life, health and happiness, [one day at a time].

    Thanks again./XO

  12. Hi Lew,

    I had no idea that you’ve had such a heavy burden to shoulder for most of your life. I haven’t known you but for a couple of months, yet during this time you’ve appeared
    to be an one who sees opportunity at every turn of life, whether good or bad. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and family as you again face the enemy and turn this into a fighting opportunity to live.

    Best wishes,

    Bob

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      Thank you, Bob. Discovering new friends is always a reason to stay on the positive path. I have been lucky to have a lot of wonderful friends. I hope we get to know each other well enough to call each other friend. I’m not sure my “burdens” have been any more than anyone else. I choose not to dwell on them, but to focus on my blessings. The old, “Out of sight, out of mind” really works. I really appreciate your kind words.

      1. Hi Lew. I hadn’t realized that you replied to my little missive. I was checking a few old bookmarks this morning , and here we are. You are spot on with respect to burdens. Though these may seem quite heavy at times, such are really no worse than those of others — just different. And now, six months down the road and you’re as good as new. Well done, my friend.

        Bob

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