On July 17, 1967, an earthquake rocked my world.
Felt by relatively few people, it immediately devastated those of us at its epicenter and instantly brought chaos to our lives. Although not a dynamic force of nature, the event shook my universe with intense magnitude, crumbled my seemingly stable foundation, and sent rippling shockwaves far into the future. It was suicide.
Suicide is a subject I would rather consign to a dusty corner of my mind. I would like to, but can’t, because I think about it every day. Whether in my ministry or in the shadowy haze of memory, suicide is a topic I cannot escape.
In a nine-year-old boy’s mind, life in Memphis, Tennessee was perfect. Then July 17th dawned. On that day, my perfect world shattered; my life forever changed.
I was cutting the grass when I saw my father drive out of the driveway in his white ‘66 Mustang. To this day, when I see one of those cars, an involuntary shudder overtakes me, yet I keep a die-cast model of his car on my desk to remind me “God causes all things to work together for good.” (Romans 8:28) As usual, I shouted out over the roar of the mower, “Dad, where are you going?” I expected to hear his familiar reply, “Goin’crazy. Wanna come along?”
That day, the answer was different. “I have to go somewhere.” His answer puzzled me. He drove off, but stopped the car to look back at me. The look on his face will forever trouble me. If only I had known what he was going to do, the somewhere he was going, could I have said something to stop him? I’ve relived that moment a million times. I never saw him alive again.
My mother found his note when she came home. She was frantic, but I didn’t know why. She sent me off to the neighbor’s house while she contacted the police. I spent a sleepless night there, separated from my family, wondering, as I peered out the window, why all those police cars and people surrounded our house. I later learned the police found his body at the horseshow arena during the night. Why my father chose that location for his death is still a mystery to me.
The next day, I had a sense of urgency about going home. I tried to enter the house, but felt almost as if I was crossing a picket line. Arms reached out to intercept me and I was prevented from going inside. This is when my concern increased and I became fearful that something had happened to my mother. Up to this point, I never associated Dad’s odd behavior the previous afternoon and my mother’s sense of panic with the ensuing chaos at our house. Later, after being taken to a house I’d never been to before, I was brought home. People jammed the room. My mom was lying on the couch. Although relieved to see her, I knew something was very wrong. My mother was alive, but seemed incapacitated. Because she couldn’t tell me herself, my Sunday School teacher broke the news to me of my father’s death.
My mother waited until the night before the funeral to tell me my father had killed himself. I remember sitting on the end of her bed while she told me. I guess she delayed a day or so because she was trying to shield me or didn’t know how to tell me. Certainly, we were all living in a state of shock. Telling me must have been one of the hardest things she ever did in her life. Finding out the truth after everyone else was one of my first sources of anger. My father’s obituary read “self-inflicted gunshot wound.” It was in print for everyone to see. Today an obituary would never say that.
We actually had two funerals, which was very hard. Following the service in Memphis, we immediately left for South Carolina where my mother’s family lived. Despite double funerals, I never grieved the loss. I stayed in South Carolina with relatives, whom I knew loved me, but I’d seen only occasionally, while my mother and sisters returned to Tennessee to sell the house and tie up loose ends. Remaining in South Carolina kept me separated from the ordeal, but didn’t stop me from feeling disconnected and displaced. Almost immediately, I wished I’d returned to Memphis with my family. I was very homesick and kept thinking who am I going to lose next? My mother’s cancer surgery several years earlier played at the fringes of my mind. The possibility that she might be the next to die worried me.
Life changed dramatically after that. The move to South Carolina meant leaving a nice middle-income home for a small rental house. Ties with friends, some personal belongings, and all things familiar were broken. The decision to move was made independent of me. From an entry in my sister’s diary, I believe my mother and sisters made the decision the day after my father’s body was discovered. It was a logical decision because my mother’s family was in South Carolina, but I wanted to move back to North Carolina to the hometown I remembered. There life seemed normal: before my mom’s illness, before my oldest sister went away to college, and before my dad began trying to outrun the depression that was overwhelming him. We moved three times in two years. I was searching for stability. Now there seemed to be no chance of that.
As with the move, no one discussed my father’s death with me, signaling the shame I felt was accurate. I wondered if my South Carolina relatives even knew my father had killed himself. Since no one talked about him, I assumed they didn’t know the circumstances of his death.
Not until I enrolled in a new school (the fourth school in four years in four different states), did the impact of my father’s suicide, six weeks after his death, became real to me. As I filled out paperwork on the first day, I saw the blank that said, “Father’s Occupation.” Then it hit me. Shame, anger, guilt, betrayal, rejection, and loss cascaded over me like debris falling from an earthquake-ravaged building. I wanted to escape, but couldn’t. There was nowhere I could go to get away from the churning emotions I was experiencing.
I was the last one to see my father alive. That was both a gift and curse. It felt strangely special to be the final family member to see him just prior to his death. But also, somewhere deep inside, I felt I was responsible because perhaps he saw me as his last hope for rescue, but I missed his cry for help.
In retrospect, I can see it was impossible for a nine-year-old to pick up on the warning signals. It is not unusual for loved ones to blame themselves no matter how unreasonable their sense of responsibility.
The fact that I saw him last made it much harder to understand the delay in telling me that he was dead and had killed himself. If my dad wanted me to be the last to see him alive, shouldn’t I be among the first to know the truth? I kept wondering if I had information others didn’t have regarding my Dad that might have saved him. If I had been consulted earlier, would my input have made a difference?
During the next few years, I hardly spoke of my father at all for fear of someone asking me where he was or how he died. If they did ask, my answer was “he had ‘heart problems’”. This answer, although a lie, was not totally false. His heart, “sick” from loss of hope, ultimately led to his death.
Talking about the circumstances of his death was unacceptable. At a time when our family should have clung together for strength and support, we struggled silently with our own private pain. I realize now there must have been a lot of late night telephone calls between my mother and sisters, but I never knew about them.
The family make-up in the home went from five to two seemingly overnight. Both of my sisters were in college, so I was alone with my mom. I didn’t know what to say or do and neither did she. I can remember on several occasions pretending I didn’t know my father had committed suicide in an attempt to get her to tell me the story all over again. She never took the bait or perhaps she thought I had blocked out the circumstances of his death and didn’t want to retell me. To this day, thirty-six years later, my mother and I rarely speak of my father’s death.
Even as a child, I could tell my mother was sad. I took her picture once about six month’s after Dad’s death. She was looking out the window and had the saddest expression on her face. I know she must have been thinking about him. I still have a hard time looking at that picture because it reminds me of those long-ago emotions.
By the age of thirteen, my feelings of anger and guilt were so great I was almost dysfunctional. I missed fifty-four days of the seventh grade, locked in my room, sleeping and watching TV. Probably the only reason I passed the grade was because I did well the days I was present and was not a behavior problem. But, I was mad at my father for taking the coward’s way out and killing himself. At the time, I don’t think I equated my “shut down” with Dad’s suicide. To go along with my anger was an overwhelming sense of guilt for being angry with a parent I longed to have still alive and present in my life. I remember composing suicide notes as a teenager, although I never followed through with a gesture or attempt. I took out a lot of my anger on my Mom, something I regretted later. I guess she was just an easy target. Now, as an adult, I realize she did a wonderful job getting all of us through this awful period.
Although I don’t think my mother saw the connection between my anger and the suicide, she took me to a psychologist for counseling. Many times parents are caught off guard by the lag time children experience between the event and the manifestation of anger and depression. They presume since a period of years has passed, the child’s present problems are unrelated to an earlier trauma.
Outwardly, I was annoyed by being forced to go to a “shrink.” Inwardly, I was terrified the doctor or my mother thought there was something wrong with me. Maybe I was crazy, too! Now, when I counsel teenagers, I try to remember how I felt. I let them know in the first session that I understand their reluctance to talk about their issues.
As a teen, I hated going to the sessions, probably only four in all. They were mostly unproductive in dealing with the root of my anger and fear of abandonment, because, as far as I can remember, we never discussed anything about my father or his death, although I may have blocked that out. The psychologist gave me several different kinds of tests. The most vivid memory I have of this is working puzzles. How dumb is this? I remember thinking. At some point, I began to wonder if the psychologist even knew how my father had died. Surely my mother told him, but he never mentioned it. I got the message loud and clear that suicide was something you didn’t discuss.
It was seven years following my father’s death before I was able to tell anyone he killed himself. I was sixteen years old and attending a camp. Following a skit that hinted at suicide, a girl dissolved into tears and ran outside. I overheard someone say she was so upset because her brother had recently committed suicide. Because I identified with her pain, I felt I should approach her and tell her about my dad. It was the first time I had spoken of it to anyone.
While still at camp, it bothered me that I had told this girl my secret. Had I betrayed others by this? She wanted to stay with me constantly. I was uncomfortable with that, not because I didn’t like her, but because it made me think about everything again. Her clinginess reminded me of how emotionally unhealthy I probably still was and had been immediately after Dad’s death. I felt almost smothered by her (more my issue than hers) and that experience caused me to withdraw even further from divulging my story to anyone, unless I absolutely had to. Later, I was able to understand from this experience how important it is for survivors to have someone they can identify with and talk to. Not talking is probably one of the most destructive things for a survivor.
I could hardly wait for the camp to be over so I could get home. I think I wanted to distance myself from the girl I had confided in. I wasn’t ready to help anyone else yet. Also, I was dating someone at home and felt I had betrayed her by telling another person first. It seemed important to get home and make things right. It took me a while to work up the courage to tell my girlfriend, and when I did she just accepted it as information. This huge thing in my life that I was telling only for the second time was basically no big deal to her, or so it felt. I’m not sure what reaction I was looking for, but she simply said, “Oh.”
During the next few years, the only other person I told was a college friend whose mother tried to commit suicide. He talked to me about his experience, and afterwards I told him about my dad. I convinced myself I was handling things because I was able to tell those three people over an eleven-year period of time.
Then, as a seminary student, I went to a campus film festival and saw Alfred Hitchcock’s “Frenzy.” In the surprise twist at the end of the movie, a criminal appears to be about to shoot someone. At the last minute, he turns the gun around facing straight at the camera, as if turning it toward himself, and fires. The whole place erupted into applause and cheers and something inside me snapped. Here was this whole room full of people cheering and clapping because someone had just committed suicide!
I fell apart emotionally. I was mad and upset and kept thinking how insensitive everyone was. I had to get up and leave. It was then I realized I had a lot of work to do to come to terms with my father’s suicide and that I probably needed some help doing it.
I started going to counseling sessions while still in seminary and continued with counseling while in a chaplaincy program. It was during the chaplaincy counseling that I was able to begin to work through things. During this time, I worked in the emergency room and the psychiatric unit and saw many completed suicides and suicide attempts. This was very hard at first, but eventually these units were where I wanted to be all the time. I was determined to stare suicide down and not run from it.
Even after the counseling, telling my future wife about the skeleton of suicide was one of the most difficult things I ever did. I delayed telling my own children about the circumstances of their grandfather’s death as long as possible and then only because they were going to hear me discuss it on the radio talk show where I was promoting a suicide survivor’s support group. At the last minute, I realized I had to tell my children. They didn’t need to hear it over the radio. I couldn’t do it. The bondage of shame surrounding my father’s death still had a choke hold on me. I asked my wife to take the responsibility of telling our children. It was just something I didn’t want to face. I remember thinking, How ironic, I’m promoting a survivors’ group yet I can’t even tell my own children.
For years, I thought my father’s situation unique. Now I see it was not. Because there was much shame associated with his death, my personal journey toward healing and peace was long and circuitous. Had I chosen to allow it, the disgrace and anger surrounding my father’s death might have rendered me useless or ineffective in God’s Kingdom. My father’s suicide could have forced me to a level of withdrawal where ministering to others would have been impossible. However, I feel this event in my life has enabled me to counsel with the degree of compassion and understanding necessary to reach hurting individuals.
My Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, Todd Walter, told me something once that helped me immensely. He said, “You’ll get to a place where you can talk about your father’s suicide openly, but it will never be without a wince of pain in your soul.” That is exactly the way it is today.
Although I cannot bring my father back, as a result of the circumstances of his death, I have discovered I possess the capacity to minister to suicidal persons and their families. I didn’t choose for suicide to be part of my history, but I praise God that for me personally, the good that came from my father’s death is greater than the harm. I am grateful my Dad didn’t decide to “take” my mother, sisters, or me with him. So often suicide victims also commit homicide thinking it spares those who remain the shame of surviving.
Only within the past five years have I reached the point where I can say, given the opportunity, I wouldn’t change the fact that my father committed suicide. There are days when I doubt the truthfulness of this statement, but I trust God to continue to perfect the work He is doing in and through my life. My prayer is that I will always be a willing servant in the saving of many lives.
Like the Old Testament character, Joseph, I identify with his painful journey into bondage. I also experienced abandonment, loneliness, fear, and anger. Joseph, abandoned by the brothers he trusted, was separated from his dearly loved father. Given the choice, I would never have chosen to be separated from my father. Joseph went from life in a big family to a life of slavery and loneliness in unfamiliar surroundings. I moved to an unfamiliar town with only my mother.
When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to ask for help during a famine, Joseph displayed a wide range of emotions. Even though the actions of his brothers were in the past, Joseph remained angry, accusatory, and difficult. When he saw his younger brother Benjamin for the first time, he was overcome with emotion to the point of having to leave the room for a time. I, too, have experienced all these emotions and flashbacks of emotional pain over the years. It hasn’t kept me from functioning, but I’ve had to work around and through the emotions.
Even today, it is still very painful for me to relive the events surrounding my father’s death. The pain is not a “paralyzing pain,” but rather like the pain from hard exercise – stretching, purging, cleansing, purifying. There is a part of me that wants to believe it is all a bad dream. I keep hoping I will wake up at the neighbor’s house across the street where I spent that long awful night; the nightmare will be over, and my father will be alive.
Like Joseph, I’ve come to a place of victory. God blessed him and caused him to find favor in the land of his captivity. God’s hand was on his life even though Joseph was in a difficult situation. The same is true for me.
Looking at all of this again in writing the book has been much harder than I anticipated. Many feelings have surfaced, some that I haven’t felt in over thirty years; some for the first time. Perhaps I still have some work to do. The healing process is on-going. Only those who have experienced the pain of suicide can understand how it lingers and ebbs and flows. However, you can reach a point of living victoriously. I have!
From AFTERSHOCK: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide, David W. Cox and Candy Neely Arrington (Broadman & Holman Publishers 2003)