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.