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I'm most recently a writer.  In the six plus decades of my life, I've been a wife, mother, grandmother, Jill of all trades though mistress of but a few, and most of the time pretty content with my lot.  As a much younger person, I believed I was called to write, but life and living distracted me for most of those decades.  An unwilling transplant from the South,  twenty years ago I unintentionally landed in the geographical center of the US.  Writing came about in part due to the unwillingness, I expect.  When caring for family, gardening, and renovating a century-old house failed to provide sufficient creative outlets, I turned to the one thing I always intended to do.  Eight titles later, I'm grateful I found myself while Lost in the Plains!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sixty Years a Survivor

This post from August, 2014, was my attempt to tell the tale of one case among too many of its kind. On the 60th anniversary of my father's death by suicide, I'm repeating it with the hope it may reach someone who also seeks comfort, or at least companionship, as the survivor of yet another seemingly senseless loss. 

Last night and this morning, FB is filled with posts expressing sadness and shock at the death of Robin Williams. Why? I suspect because we all felt we somehow knew him and the loss is personal in a very real way. Just as with the recent deaths of Cory Monteith and Lee Young, we are brought face to face with the tragic truth of suicide. We don't see it coming, yet when it strikes, we are compelled to respond with the desperate hope of preventing the next one.

My father with me in happier days.
I don't normally weigh in on this issue. For me it is indeed personal and I fear my private grief will color my comments. But last night these thoughts circled my dreams, and in the light of day, it occurs to me that if my thoughts touch one of you who read
this blog, perhaps it is worth putting them here. But be warned, my ideas are based on what suicide looks like from the inside and may not ease your mind on the subject.

Only this past year did I finally get around to destroying the letter my father wrote to my mother the day he died. I had promised myself for years that it would not be left for another generation to find when I was gone; that it was not meant to be part of my legacy to my children and grandchildren, but a heartfelt farewell to the woman he loved. But the words are forever burned into my memory, words that seem to make so much sense and yet explain nothing.

In 1957 my father chose to end his life because, in his own words, he was weary. He described a loss of enthusiasm for living, of falling short of his expectations for himself in every area of his life, feeling old at only thirty years of age. He expresses his joy in my mother's love, despite feeling he never deserved it. He blames no one, saying he's considered suicide many times during his life, looked for alternatives, and now believes it is the best way.

My father with his students-printed in the school paper at his death.
While he didn't enumerate his struggles, they had been obvious to those close to him. Possessed of considerable talent, he had failed to achieve recognition, at least the kind he sought. An aspiring writer and a gifted cartoonist, his numerous submissions had met with rejection, something he found very hard to accept. His career as a high school teacher was not the one he'd hoped for, and although he was loved and admired by his students, his performance came under criticism from his superiors, something else he found hard to accept. In fact, at the time of his death, he had decided to leave teaching for some as yet undecided new venture. During periods of high spirits, he ran up debts far beyond his ability to repay and made notably poor choices; during the low times, he turned to alcohol to ease the pain. He was a classic bi-polar with a load of baggage from his childhood. In short, he was a suicide waiting to happen.

In 1957 there was little viable treatment available for depression or bi-polar disorder compared to that today. My father did turn to the VA at one point, asking for help, but was told there was nothing wrong with him. To be fair, based on what they could see, there wasn't. He went to work, to church, taught and mentored young people, loved his family, and had a kind word for everyone he met. The kind of illness which caused his pain was only visible in his eyes, if you knew him well enough to see it. Even those who saw it convinced themselves he would never do anything so drastic. Only after the fact did they admit they had any fear he would self-destruct.

Also, in 1957, suicide was looked upon as an ugly secret among many families, something to keep hidden in shame. I was fortunate that that was not the case in my family, but there were others, who I'm sure considered themselves well-intentioned, who pointed out the disgrace my father had brought on us by ending his life. Time and again I went to my mother in tears, to have her remind me that no matter how hurt we were by his leaving, we must understand that he loved us and meant to do the best thing for us all. In fact, those had been his words as well. He said in his letter that he had spent weeks working out the best way, the method that would hurt us the least. He planned carefully, making sure my mother would not be the one to find him, indicating his plans to no one who might try to warn her. From all indications, he was carrying out what he had long seen as a option to end his suffering before he inflicted more on those he loved.

Could he have been stopped? I don't believe so. If not that day, someday, he would have succumbed to that weariness. That said, I believe some potential suicides can be prevented, and we must work unceasingly to raise awareness and encourage treatment. But for every one that is prevented, there will be others that won't be. We will be shocked and saddened, and hopefully led to look more closely at those around us. But when the unspeakable happens again, as it surely will, my hope is that we will not second-guess the reasons, look for what-if's, or lay blame at the feet of the victim or those who loved him. Whether it be someone as widely known as Robin Williams or someone in our own community or family, we will instead acknowledge the value of the life lived, even as we sorrowfully accept its end.

Just as all cancers can not be cured, all depressions cannot either. Each case is different, the sum of a person's life experiences compounded by the mysteries of brain chemistry. Just as all illnesses are not addressed "in time," the potential of those who suffer depression is not necessarily recognized until it is too late, even by those who suspect they may be suffering. Human nature requires us to question what might have been, pointless as that might seem. Fortunately, human nature also prods us to persistently seek a better way. Therein lies hope for some and comfort for others.

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