September is Suicide Prevention Awareness month. In a split second I became a “Survivor of Suicide,” and if what I am about to share helps just one person, my words will have done their job. I have included warning signs of potential suicide and suicidal behaviors which are considered an emergency. Writing has always been part of my healing process, and so I need to write. I am sorry for taking you with me as I try to begin the healing process, but I don’t want to be stuck forever, and this is one of the only ways I know how to become unstuck. If you have had a similar experience, please refrain from reading if you think this may bring you back to your experience if you are not ready to go there again.
You may have noticed that Faces of NATH was missing from the August newsletter. As much as I appreciated the month off, I still cannot bring myself to share a success story. I stare at the blank screen and can only think of a special young man I call SIL (son-in-law) who took his own life on a balmy August night. On that night I was sitting outside enjoying that peaceful summer night when I was startled by either a gunshot or a lone firecracker going off. I didn’t know until later that what I heard was the last moment of my SIL’s life. So, just as I was alone at that moment, I am also alone at this moment. What follows is strictly my experience in the aftermath of losing a loved one to suicide. I’ve included lyrics from a song played at his funeral, Casting Crowns’ Scars in Heaven. I hope to have a success story to share with you next month.
I met SIL in 2012 when he and my daughter became a couple. I instantly liked him and was calling him SIL within a month. After graduation that year he and my daughter moved to Sun Prairie to attend school. It was just assumed that they would one day marry. They remained together for a couple years and became parents to my granddaughter in March of 2016. When they parted ways 11 months later, his mother and I put our heads together trying to come up with a way to get them back together. Everyone who knew them hoped a reunion would one day become reality. We never found that way, and I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had stayed together. I torture myself with that question to which I will never have an answer. Although they were never together again, they did co-parent my granddaughter, and he remained a part of the family. He would come over to do laundry or ask my husband for help fixing a junker truck he had just bought. I can still picture him walking through the door with a smile that could light up a room.
I know the road you walked was anything but easy
You picked up your share of scars along the way
After they split up, SIL began doing drugs, and before long he was an addict. He floated in and out of recovery for years but could never quite “get” it for longer than a couple months. When he was doing well, he spent time with my granddaughter who he lovingly called “little bug.” When he wasn’t doing well, we didn’t see him. This could last weeks or months, but he always reappeared vowing to do better.
There's not a day goes by that I don't see you
You live on in all the better parts of me
I am eternally grateful to SIL for the living gift of my granddaughter. He does live on in her. She has that same smile and curly blond locks. They both think farting in a car with the windows up is the funniest thing ever. I see him every day because I see her. She is five and doesn’t quite get that she won’t see dad again. In her mind he is up in the clouds with my mom, so he must be okay if he is with the “cloud grandma.” He will always be part of her life - even if only in the memories I share with her.
Hindsight is 20/20, and it is only after that I can now see subtle warning signs of what was to come. Courtesy of NAMI, here are a few other warning signs of suicide and suicidal behaviors:
● Increased alcohol and drug use
● Aggressive behavior
● Withdrawal from friends, family, and community
● Dramatic mood swings
● Impulsive or reckless behavior
Suicidal behaviors are a psychiatric emergency. If you or a loved one starts to take any of these steps, seek immediate help from a health care provider or call 911:
● Collecting and saving pills or buying a weapon
● Giving away possessions
● Tying up loose ends, like organizing personal papers or paying off debts
● Saying goodbye to friends and family
Again, if you or a loved one starts to take any of these steps, seek immediate help from a health care provider or call 911.
He checked all the boxes on the list of warning signs: increased drug use, withdrawing from family and friends, increased aggressive behavior, dramatic mood swings and impulsive behavior such as buying that junker truck. I was used to him floating in and out of our lives, so I didn’t consider his behavior a form of withdrawal. I was told of a night he punched a hole in a wall which was not at all consistent with who I knew him to be. I assumed drugs were the reason for his anger. In his last 24 hours he showed all behaviors of a psychiatric emergency. Again, I can only now see them. Out of the blue he showed up at our house to see my daughter and his “little bug”. They went to lunch and when they parted ways, he gave my daughter a huge hug which wasn’t normal, but did not hug his daughter which he normally did. I think had he hugged her his plans would have been thwarted, and his tortured mind needed to succeed. Again, a question I will never have an answer to. That same day he gave my daughter some of his ear gauges, and he left his phone on a counter at our house. He didn’t have a gun but knew where to get one. He tried to put his affairs in order by depositing money in the child support account which he was rarely able to do.
SIL was homeless during the last month of his life. He never inquired about a bed. He wasn’t one to ask for help and never wanted to be a burden to anyone. Looking back at pictures of him during that time, it is plain to see that he was always deep in thought when nobody was looking. Behind his eyes I can now see the pain and sadness.
My daughter asked him countless times to tell her what was wrong, but he always said everything was “peachy keen.” Nobody is blaming themselves for not being aware of what was going on. His life during the last month was a pattern we all grew familiar with and assumed he would return to the beginning of his cycle, being happy and drug free, sooner rather than later. In the immediate aftermath, I pretended he was just off on one of his self-induced isolation adventures, but a month later my heart knows that I will never again see that smile. There is a void in my life that nobody can fill.
The only scars in Heaven, they won't belong to me and you
There'll be no such thing as broken and all the old will be made new
And the thought that makes me smile now even as the tears fall down
Is that the only scars in Heaven are on the Hands that hold you now
I truly never knew how much I loved that kid until he wasn’t there to love. I’ve also never felt such anger towards a person. I am outraged that he would leave his daughter that way, and that my daughter’s life has been altered forever. I am resentful that I have had to be the strong one when I really just want to crawl in bed and wallow in sadness for a week. I am angry that our lives are divided into before and after. I hate that my thoughts can go from love to hate, to understanding the addict part of SIL. As a survivor of suicide, I have so many questions and a litany of “what ifs” that turn into ugly crying when I think about it for long. I play the song Scars in Heaven over and over hoping for comfort because he is free. But you know what? I want him here. His demons, scars and even the part of him that disliked Springsteen. I want to travel back in time to his last night on the dock, put his hand in mine and convince him how much he is loved, how important he is to all who know him. I want to comfort him and bring him home to heal. I want to be Clarence and SIL to be George Baxter so I could take him on a journey and show him how many lives he has impacted and earn my wings. I want the lead actor of the show The Resident to quit because he reminds me so much of SIL that I can’t watch a show I once loved without my eyes starting to leak. I want people to quit setting off firecrackers, so I don’t have to be reminded of that night. I want him here for all the milestones of his daughter’s life. I want her to not look so much like him. I want a crystal ball so I can know now what the future will be like for my daughter and granddaughter. I want to see my daughter’s eyes twinkle when she smiles, instead of seeing haunted eyes that convey her daily pain. I want to NOT feel. I want him to come back and explain to me what was so awful that he had to leave all of us. I want to quit expecting him to walk through the door with that beautiful smile I so desperately miss. I want just one more day. Just one.
I can’t have these things, and one day I will reach a point of acceptance, but today is not the day. Today is the day I share my experience and the signs of impending suicide that a month ago I thought was just SIL being SIL. I have to not blame myself but learn to live with it. I’ve lost quite a few people, but this grief is different. For the rest of my life I will wonder if there was something I could have done. I will never know exactly why he did it. I will never lose the mental image of him lying on that dock, even though I was not there. I wish I had told him I loved him instead of assuming he knew I did. I am grateful he was a part of my life for so long. It just wasn’t long enough.
If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately. The NAMI website is a great source of information, so please check it out if you have just a twinge of concern for someone in your life.
SIL’s family made a donation to Frederick Place in remembrance of him, because he was homeless. I don’t know if any of them will see this, but I want to publicly thank them for thinking of us in the aftermath of losing their loved one. Also, thank you to the members of the Northwood’s Quilters for donating several beautiful pillowcases in memory of my SIL. I took three of them home, so now my daughter, granddaughter and I rest our heads on those pillowcases and are somehow comforted every night.
Thank you for being part of my healing process. I needed that. Thank you also to my Fred Family who let me talk or not talk, still offering to work my hours so I could be home with my family, and for the comfort of always knowing they are always there for me when I need them.
RIP my SIL. I hope you have found the peace that you were unable to find on Earth.