Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Suicide is painless (except for those it leaves behind)

A Jewish friend of mine says that, if you don't know how to process an experience, simply telling it can help, that telling has great power. Now the Jews know a thing or six million about losing and telling, so I'll give it a try. This is about my grandfather who, despite the fact that I never met him, has been a huge presence in my life, because of how he chose to end his. As long as I've known anything, I've known that my grandfather killed himself. It happened some years before I was born, and my mother, who adored him, talked to me about him a lot. I think she had no one else to talk to about the suicide, and I think she was afraid that I would kill myself one day too. Not because I was depressed or suicidal. Just because it's what people did in the family when things got too overwhelming. Some families drink (actually, we did that too), some families go on vacation, we kill ourselves.

As I grew older, I filled in some of the details. He'd had a nervous breakdown some months before he killed himself, because he was afraid he was getting alzheimer's. His doctors didn't give him the medication that was available at the time, and told him the best thing for him would be a vacation in Florida. So he dutifully drove to Florida with his wife, then drove back, and two days before Christmas, on December 23, 1952, went to work and jumped out the window of his office to his death. He left a note saying that his wife, my grandmother, should sell their large house. (She didn't and was rattling around it in an alcoholic haze by the time I really knew her.) But really, I knew very little about it, partly because our family culture is to not talk about unpleasantness.

So the last time I visited my mother, I asked her to tell me more. Here is what she told me:
My family was living in Bangkok at the time, which might as well have been Venus. My mother had just given birth to my middle brother, who she named after my grandfather. She received a telegram telling her that she needed to fly to Manilla and call her brother, but it didn't tell her why. In a panic, she made the long (at the time) flight, called her brother, who asked her if she'd "heard anything," but told her nothing. She flew back to Bangkok frightened and confused and only found out what had happened when she flew home to the US.

Now, before you think it unbelievable that my uncle said nothing to her, you have to know his part of the story. On the day his father killed himself, at the very time, in fact, that he killed himself, my uncle was going to his father's office to meet him. As he approached the office building, he saw a crowd on the sidewalk. He went over to the crowd. Someone said, "A man killed himself. Anyone know who he is?" My uncle said, "I do. It's my father." I can't imagine the pain he went through, then and after.

Please don't think that I am, in any way shape or form, thinking about suicide. I'm fine. Really. I'm just interested in the way this event, that no one talks about in my family, has shaped all of our lives, and how this man I never met has shaped mine. I don't know exactly what I think and feel about this, except that telling it, talking about it, can only be a good thing. As my friend says, perhaps simply the telling of it will help me understand it. If any of my wonderful cousins who read this blog, have further information/comments/thoughts, I'd love to hear them.


sageweb said...

How awful for your family, especially your uncle. That has to be such a horrible thing to live through.

more cowbell said...

Wow Elizabeth. What a difficult thing for your family to go through.

My maternal great-grandmother killed herself by drinking something like Lysol. My grandfather was 10 years old and the one who found her. My mother believes it affected him, in various ways, for the rest of his life. There were a lot of family secrets that I - or even mom, for some of them - didn't find out until I was an adult. Mom thinks that a lot of their family dynamics probably go back to what happened with my great-grandma.

I hope that if there is any other info about your grandpa that you're able to find out and talk with your family members about it.

Elizabeth said...

Sage and Cowbell - Thanks. Yes, a awful, awful thing, that affects us all in the family and that we don't much talk about. I honestly don't know what to make of it all, except that I do know, as you say Cowbell, that talking about it can only be a good thing. Silence and fear make things so much larger and more powerful than they already are.

yellowdog granny said...

oh terrible for your mother and uncle..and for you...that's the difference between your family and yours you kill mine we kill others..

Willym said...

I honestly believe that the sharing of an event can help us deal with it. So often we keep things bottled up or hidden - our fears, our concerns and our history. When those hidden burdens are shared with others they become lighter.

Really your heading says it all doesn't it? For you, your mother, your uncle and the family - all those left behind. Abbracci.

Anonymous said...

Last I heard you had the flu... I had never heard Sara's end of the story. My mother never said a thing even when we ask her. The residual results after the fact have been enormous in my families life, direct and indirect. If my information is correct my parent were with them on the trip to Fla. Picking up the pieces to the puzzle and putting them back together never really gave us a focused picture again of a whole family. HC & Bo

Miss Janey said...

Miss J has ALWAYS hated that song. Suicide is most definitely NOT painless, and even if it’s meant to be ironic, it still bugs. Suicide is preceded by over-whelming sadness in the person committing it, and followed by over-whelming sadness by those left behind. Miss J knows because her first boyfriend killed himself after Miss J ended their relationship. It was awful for his family (and probably still is) as it no doubt was and is for Miss Elizabeth's family. Therapy helps, and yes, so do talking and writing about it. There is no healing in burying it, that's for sure.

jason said...

I think it's probably the things that we never talk about that shape us the most, you know?
That's one of the saddest things of all, I think.

Doralong said...

I wondered for years (and still do) what possessed my Grandfather to kill himself. On the surface he had everything a person could want, and then some. It warped some part of my mother in a way I never could define, but she was just a child and thus I guess never processed it herself. The whispers, suppositions and missing pieces of that puzzle still confuse me to this day-

a thousand shades of twilight said...

So sad to hear about your grandfather, and to try to imagine what it must be like for you and how it was for your grandmother, mother and uncle. These things need to be talked about. They do shape families for generations. They don't go away. It can help you make sense of the presence and I hope that talking about it helps.

mumbliss said...

Dear elizabeth,
We just watched a movie last night(In Her Shoes), which deals with some of these questions, and it made me think that there are probably lots of movies that attempt to understand this topic better. (You might peruse netflix).
My immediate family doesn't have suicides that I know about... but I certainly wouldn't hear about them on the paternal side. Their secrets are well kept in attics and cellars. Many of them have used drink which is slower and different. N. has suicide in the complications of his family's background set design, but I do not know too much about that either. Mental illnes is another big and nasty secret that thrives in the dark.
An unhappy similar subject:over the past few years,we have had a horrible almost epidemic series of teenage suicides here in the middle and high schools of our small group of towns. Numerous wakes and memorials, attended by sad and stunned teenagers dressed in black, unbelieving teachers and devastated parents and siblings. The pain and guilt and grief seems insurmountable. It hits the family and the friends and the community very hard. It is very confusing to deal with such a lonely, sudden loss, to make any sense of the why and the how. It is a challenge to know how to give comfort or what to say when we have to look in the faces of each of the people left behind. Who can you ask the questions you need to ask. The town is working on a lot of anti-suicide programs and training classes, but it hasn't made them stop yet.

I am so sorry for your family. It is a devastating way to lose someone you love. It is all so utterly confusing and hard to resolve.
I send love to you all as you are moving all the boulders from the mouth of this next cave.

Elizabeth said...

Granny - I've been sitting here wondering which one I'd rather have, a grandfather who was a suicide or a grandfather who was a murderer, and the answer is... neither. Sigh.

Willym - Thanks dear.

Cuz & Bo - How hard it must have been for your mother to have been on that trip, just before he killed himself. So much guilt and pain, so many 'what ifs.' And it shattered them all, it seems, in different ways. I'm actually now thinking about writing a book about the aftermath of his death, a biography of a family after a suicide. We'll see.... I don't know if Uncle C. would be willing to talk to me about it. My own mother can barely manage it.
xo to you and B.

Miss Janey - I've always hated it too. Stupid song. My grandfather's depressive strain runs straight through me (thank God for SSRIs!). I had a nervous breakdown after my daughter was diagnosed with autism, so I know all too well the psychic pain, the wishing life would simply stop because it hurts so much just to breathe in and out.

I'm so sorry about your ex. The pain of those of us left behind is endless. And no, burying it only makes it bigger and more powerful...

jason - What a deep and thoughtful thing you have said. I've never thought about it that way, but I do believe you're right. Must chew on that for a while!

Dora - Once again, the parallels in our families are a little spooky. My mother was an adult when it happened, but other than that, what you've written could have been written about my grandfather, and my mother as well.

1000shades -Well, you know me. I'm a big believer in (over?) sharing. The whispering, the fear that it will happen to us or those we love, have ricocheted around the family ever since. I think asking questions and knowing more can only help.

Mumbliss - You know, I feel so lucky to have been born into the era of SSRIs, which for me at least, soften the blows of life for me. Things still are what they are, and still hurt when they should hurt, but they don't push me over into despair. I feel like SSRIs have given me my true self.

So awful about the suicides in your area! People must talk and talk and keep talking - to their kids, to each other! Love right back at you, sweetie.

Utah Savage said...

I'm sorry for your loss and pain. I'm glad I no longer have any family to suffer this when I eventually take my life. It is the curse of the bipolar patient to always see this as an option for escaping the pain of the roller coaster ride.

I'm also sorry I've been neglectful in visiting. I started putting my blog roll on a feed so when one of you posts, it will pop to the top of the feed and I will then be drawn to it like a crow is drawn to a shiny object. So now I'll take your http thingy home and link it to the feed.

mumbliss said...

Dear Utah savage,
Your comment creates a great deal of pain as I read it.Your roller coaster ride with bipolar is a difficult life to live. I know and love several people who struggle with the unpredictable feelings, perceptions and actions that haunt their well-being because of bipolar illness. It is important to work with a doctor who can help you weather the storms and also work hard with you on the idea that suicide is NOT an option. Please do not speak lightly about your life. It is without argument precious. You are important to many other people, other than your own immediate family members. You are a critical part of a fabric that we all create together. You have your own, albeit, difficult mission and contribution to this earth and the goodness of our planet. You may be angry, sad, hurt, depressed, too invisible, too huge, but....You can take a break, rebalance the proportions, forgive yourself and redetermine to honor yourself, even if you don't think you like what you are seeing.
We have lost people in my town that we were not very close to, but they were part of our lives. Our own lives are broken and diminished with their violent action against the life they have lived and were struggling to live along with us.
Suicide has drama, but it isn't worth the life it takes.

So... a good doctor who can show you how to find the way to your laughing, happier self, to the loving people around you and to your own sense of how precious your life is. Take your medicine and do not consider suicide as an option. ( I am a Buddhist and I believe that each moment is fresh and new, that cause and effect is strict, that anyone can transform their suffering, and that you don't necessarily ditch your suffering at death. You may have to revisit unfinished business another time).
Please take good care of yourself.
It is important to me and a lot of other people. A

Elizabeth said...

Utah - I'm so sorry for the pain you've had to struggle with. I know some of what you feel from my own struggles with depression and I count as one of the great lucky strokes in my life the fact that SSRIs balance my chemistry. I know it's a hard path that you walk. I also know that, leaving the world, you can't know whose heart you'll break, how many pieces it will shatter into. Step carefully, dear, get help. It's not only your own life you carry. Hugs.

Utah Savage said...

Your kind word have made me cry. I never think of myself as loved. I have friends who would be sad and hurt if I vanished, but I have spoken of suicide as an option for me for a long time, and I assume they will be prepared.

But what you said to me made me remember the suicide of the blogger known as Liquid Illusion and how terribly shocking and sad this death was for so many of us last Christmas. I haunted her site for many days after she was gone, looking for clues and wondering if I could have been kinder, or said something at just the right moment. But I also know that bipolar disorder can be torture and I know the desperation to escape that pain. I have already written a poem that could serve as my obit. I have already donated my body to the University of Utah Anatomy Department. So there will be no messy aftermath, no expenses, no questions about my wishes. I have been giving away the things that I know will please the recipients. One of my girl friends only wants my cookbook collection. Her name is in the books. I feel oddly comforted to know that everything is ready. The real thing that keeps me going is that I have a body of creative work I would like to see in print before I die. So this is something to look forward to. I also have a wonderful group of bloggers who are so generous to me. I was not loved as a child, but this group of bloggers have made me feel loved. Thank you for filling up that vessel so much more with your generosity in a time of your own suffering.

Again, I'm so sorry for your loss.

yellowdog granny said...

I have four granddaughters that have a grandmother that is a murderer, and they still invite me to sunday dinners.

Elizabeth said...

Granny - I would too, honey. We are who we are and we've done what we've done. Those things shape us, but never entirely define us. xoxo