I Am A Survivor of Suicide

Courtesy of Rev. Robert Cooke.

On Wednesday, September 6, somewhere around 8:00 in the morning, my father got out of bed, put out the garbage, took out some squid for supper, went out to his shed, took two pieces of old scrap rope he had tied together and took his own life. I am a survivor of suicide.

From June to that September day my father had slipped into a deeper and deeper depression. We all tried to help. We all reached out. We convinced him to go to the doctor, but he never did take the prescribed medication properly. I would call him on the phone to encourage him and try to get him to accept more help. His brother and sister did the same. My mother prayed, cried and begged him to get better. Nothing seemed to make a difference. We all had a growing dread that something bad was going to happen, even as he reassured us that he would never do anything to hurt himself.

As a 75-year-old man from a generation where you didn’t talk about this kind of stuff, he couldn’t ask for help. I don’t even think he knew how to accept the help that was being offered. I don’t even know if he saw it as help at all. The darkness had set in and that was that.

Looking back now I can see all kinds of signs down through the years that my father struggled with anxiety and depression. The least bit of stress or conflict would trigger a bout of anxiety. Although he was one of the friendliest people you would ever want to meet, he had a crippling anxiety when it came to anything remotely business-like. Any phone calls for doctor appointments, banking issues or technical difficulties with phone or internet had to be done by me. When he moved to St. John’s – the big city, for an outport man like himself – he simply could not drive. He defaulted on his car lease rather than deal with the anxiety of driving in town.

He made comments that I just dismissed. Often when a family or community member would die Dad would say “Ahh, so and so got the best of it.” Now I see that was his way of saying they were better off dead…he was better off dead. It pains me now when I think about how excruciating his last weeks, days and moments must have been. For him, death was his only escape.

I loved my dad dearly. It seemed like the older I got the closer our relationship, the better I understood him. I loved having him living close by and so did he. He would cook lunch for me regularly. We would feast on cod tongues and britches, moose, mackerel, herring, fish and brews, mustard salad and corned beef hash. The more I enjoyed it, the more he enjoyed it.

I knew he was proud of me, proud that I was a priest, proud of the things we did at our parish, proud of me as a son and a man. He loved my wife, Lorie, as much as any man ever loved his own daughter. He never missed an opportunity to tell me that he loved me. Actually the last words I said to him just two days before he died were “I love you.” His response was a heartfelt “I loves you too.”

He loved his grandchildren – the girls, as he always called them. He loved for them to visit and to hear about what was going on in their lives. “Got eeder boyfriend”, he would ask them. “Yer makin’ da money now”, he would say when they told him they were working. All he talked about to his family and friends in Leading Tickles was the girls. I knew that, of course, but after his death I was told that over and over again by everyone.

Right after my dad’s death I was angry. I wasn’t angry with my dad, but I was angry with the circumstances that lead to his death. I was angry with myself. Surely there was more that I could have done or said to save him. I was angry with his depression, the thief that had stolen my dad away. With the help of family, my faith community and some grief counselling sessions, much of that anger has fallen away. It was no one’s fault. No one is to blame. Things happen…that’s all they ever do.

There is one thing that still hurts and causes the anger to rise in me. My dad died alone in his rickety old woodshed. He was robbed of a dignified death surrounded by those who loved him most. His family was robbed of the tearful, bedside goodbyes that every person losing a loved one deserves. I never got to hold his hand, tell him that I loved him or tell him that I would take care of everything. I never got the chance to say “Dad, it’s ok for you to go.” But I see now that there is nothing fair about mental illness and suicide.

I am ever so slowly moving forward. There are days when it hits me anew that he is gone. Sometimes it’s a song on the radio; sometimes it’s eating something that I know he would love; sometimes it’s just the sense that I would love to talk to my dad on the phone right now. I still get choked up every time I drive by his old apartment.

The tears still flow and the pain of loss is still raw. I try not to pretend when people ask me how I am doing. There’s no point in covering it up anyway, because I have learned that I am not very good at covering up my emotions around people who really know me.

I wish I had a profound way to end this reflection but, sadly, I don’t. It might sound like a cliché, but the only advice I can give is to love the people around you while you can. Hold them close, pay attention and listen. Life is too fragile and short, no matter how long you live. If you struggle with any kind of mental illness, and let’s be honest, most of us do at some point, then ask for help. You are not alone. We are all survivors so let’s take care of each other.

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Reposted with permission from Neo(un)Orthodoxy.

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Rev. Robert Cooke is the priest-in-charge of St. Mark's Anglican Church in St. John's, Newfoundland.

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