My father killed himself on a Tuesday evening. My mother found his body slumped at my brother’s gravesite, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His death destroyed our family and left my siblings stranded in a wake of pain. I have spent most of my adult life trying to understand the events that led to his decision and how I can protect my own family from a life of emotional turmoil.
The last time I saw my father was the morning he died. He drove us to school that day. I had just turned 14, and my sister trailed me by two years. We sat in the back seat of the family car, oblivious to our unstoppable fate. My mother worked in administration at our school, and as we pulled up to the curb, we all hopped out, chattering about nothing, and waved our goodbyes. The lease was up on the car, and Dad was supposed to exchange it and debut the new ride when he picked us up at the end of the day. He never showed up.
I was never close to my father, and I have always carried a sense of guilt that I didn’t feel more upset over his death. My father never had much of a presence in my life. I am the fifth child of six, and by the time I came along, my father was working hard to support us. After a long day at work, he could be found reading the newspaper and sipping beer after beer, blind to anything that wasn’t printed in the paper.
My father had been an alcoholic for as long as I could remember. One of my older brothers died when I was about two, and shortly thereafter my father began drinking daily. Our family began to crack after the loss of my brother. My mom lost herself in grief, unable to offer the emotional energy to care for five kids. My childhood was colored with the grey tones of mourning, and I cannot seem to recall any moments of lighthearted playfulness. I became a very serious little girl who understood the weight of death. Somewhere around age six I started having panic attacks at the thought of eternal darkness.
Then, as I stood on the cusp of adolescence, my father committed suicide. My life was forever changed, but the lack of my father’s presence didn’t feel like the biggest problem. I remember being fearful, scared that we would lose the house. Terrified that my mother would completely lose her mind. I was lost in the chaos. I felt as if I were trying to climb out of a hole: my own grave.
For the next decade, I struggled with depression and addictions. This happened alongside the similar struggles of my siblings, and even today, I am sad to see how broken we are as adults. It seems to me that my father’s death was like an illness that infiltrated our family, infecting all of us. We found ourselves battling the same feelings of hopelessness and using the same self-medicating behavior to cope. I eventually came to realize that if I ever wanted to leave the past where it belonged, I would have to travel into the abyss of my family history and battle the disease head-on.
Despite my hesitancy, I went to therapy…a lot. It took me a few tries to find someone I felt comfortable with, but once I did, I unloaded a lifetime of heartache and confusion. Slowly, I saw the connection between my past and present. There was always an obvious connection, but by talking through it, I began to understand the learned behavior (and, as some argue, a genetic predisposition) that led to many of my struggles. I began to focus on healthy coping mechanisms and learning to feel my emotions and think through instead of fighting or trying to numb them.
As I walked this road, I was able to open a dialogue with the rest of my family about what we had been through. Traditionally, our family had a strict policy to bury all feelings. We didn’t talk openly about anything, especially the ugly and painful things. But I pushed. I pushed not only because it felt like an important part of my journey, but because I could see warning signs in other family members. Had someone intervened with my father, he might still be alive today. I continually expressed my feelings on the seriousness of mental illness and addiction. I made it known that I wanted to talk about our family’s history, because suicide is 100 percent preventable. I let those around me who were struggling know that there was help, there was hope.
As I began to heal and move on with my life, my family tried to follow. Slowly, they became more open, and I learned more and more. My mother revealed a long history of alcoholism and suicide, not only on my father’s side but within her family as well. I discovered that my paternal grandfather had struggled with alcoholism until he committed suicide. My mother also discussed her own painful childhood, which was filled with the terror of having an alcoholic and abusive father. I was shocked to hear about so much of my family history that had been covered up and never spoken about. I finally understood the source of my struggles, which allowed me to proactively address my emotional and mental health.
My father’s death had once seemed like a foreign idea to me. As a child, I couldn’t wrap my head around the thoughts that would lead someone to suicide. Now I can see it was a long familial cycle that had continued in my own generation. But now, I had the tools to stop it.
Now that I am a mother, these experiences have opened my eyes to the impressionable and delicate mind of my own child. I have become painfully aware of the effects my actions have on his behavior. My quick temper has translated to him, and I am horrified to see him mimic my own angry reactions, which I in turn distinctly remember seeing from my father. My reactions are all internalized by him. When I am calm and patient in a frustrating moment, he will mirror my behavior. If I lose my temper and yell, he immediately responds in anger, or worse, with fear. I realize that I must be more patient, more loving, and more open about discussing emotions and more honest about the past. When we understand our feelings and how they manifest in our actions, we gain control to make better decisions and allow ourselves to be healthier, well-adjusted people.
My father’s death led me down a very dark path, but when I finally found the light, I also found my strength. It gave me insight into the most basic and fundamental components that make up my human nature. Had my father not died in the manner he did, I don’t think I would have come to the same realizations, nor would I have discovered much of the family history that had been hidden.
I have reached a point in my life where I can say I have truly let go of my past, and I am using what I have learned to make myself a better person and a better mother. As people, we are the sum of our experiences, and if we don’t learn from our past, we waste time and energy fighting things that cannot be changed.
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