The Painful But Important Lessons I Learned After My Father's Suicide
Anthony Bourdain; Kate Spade; friends, teenagers, neighbors, veterans; my father. Every suicide is distinct and differently devastating, for those who leave and for those who are left.
Yet there are some commonalities, some moments of recognition both in terms of frequent contributing causes and also in terms of what comes next. Here are the hard and important lessons I've learned since my father took his life in 2007—when he was 60, and I was pregnant and in graduate school:
1. Suicide is terrifying.
Suicide is what philosophers and mathematicians refer to as a surd—nonsensical, unexpected, a cavernous impossibility that is nonetheless real.
How often do we presume that other people's lives are on positive trajectories, if not always totally predictable ones?
Perhaps life looked fine, even good, on the outside (as was the case with Bourdain). Or perhaps friends and family members knew the person was struggling but had sought help, and they seemed to be OK (Spade).
After a suicide, many people will say it "doesn't make sense." In many cases, yes, there's a stunned inability to process that the person is gone. But I think there's a deeper fear at work here, too: the terror of realizing, "Oh my god, if it could happen to them—could this happen to anyone, even people I love, even me?"
It is OK to admit that fear and the cascade of uncertainty it unleashes. Suicide uproots our background assumptions that life makes sense.
2. There are no answers.
There may be generally explicable features in many suicides, but there are no ultimate answers. Hold space for the uncertainty, for the dimensionality of who this person was.
My father was a Navy fighter pilot before he left the military to become a commercial airline pilot. Like many vets, his experiences in Vietnam were traumatizing; he talked about them only rarely, but when he did, the moral and personal agony was palpable. Did he have PTSD? Probably, and society needs to do a better job of destigmatizing veterans and people who have been through trauma. But PTSD isn't the full story.
The most common response people have when I say that my father killed himself is, "Oh, that's terrible. Was he depressed?" We don't know. As a pilot, he resisted seeking psychological diagnoses that would prevent him from flying.
Perhaps he was bipolar, as many family members now think likely. It's natural to wonder, but we will never know for sure. Posthumous speculation can clarify past patterns. Diagnoses of depression are attractive to people who want explanations. But again: Be careful with the urge to make this "make sense"—because often, that is another way to say, "Oh, this would never happen to me or someone I know." One of the things that suicide challenges us to do is to recognize that other people's realities and dimensions far exceed the capacity of our projection.
3. Humility goes a long way.
Check yourself: Avoid explaining what this death means to someone who is grieving a suicide. (This is especially important if you think you have insights or are convinced you are being helpful.) Be present. People in grief need to lean on you, not be lectured by you. And what is true in grief more generally is excruciatingly so when mourning a person who has died by suicide. Frankly, unless we have explicitly said, "What do you think?" it is not at all helpful to hear your speculations or interpretations of what this event means. What we need is the space to grieve and heal in our own complicated realities.
More generally, all of us can work to eliminate unnecessary sayings that are obvious triggers—like "the line at the grocery store was so awful, I just wanted to kill myself!" or making hand gestures that mimic firing a gun into your mouth. It's been 11 years since my father's death, and I still cringe at those expressions. Communication evolves with social consciousness, so it's time to retire those basic expressions.
4. Suicide, I believe, stems from hopelessness—not selfishness.
Some people feel that suicide is a selfish act because it fails to account for the difficulty and devastation wrought on the people who remain. But I agree with the many experts who suggest that suicide is often the result of a total loss of hope and self amid a tsunami of despair.
Suicide may feel selfish to survivors—how could he?—but when someone dies by suicide, they do it not out of selfishness or spite. They do it out of ultimate loneliness and pain so deep that most of us cannot begin to comprehend it because it is on a totally different plane of existence.
5. High-functioning people don't give many signals. When they do, take those seriously.
My father expressed to a few people that he was thinking of ending his life. Those people, who I know loved him deeply, took him at his word that he would seek help. But I know now that such statements are the high-functioning person's attempt to seek help—it takes massive effort and will to reach across a divide of loneliness and despair, to entrust someone with such honesty about such heavy burdens. It is another way of saying, "I am alone. I don't know how to proceed; please help me."
Take these statements seriously. Accompany the person to get help, right then if possible.
Our society can be very isolating. One antidote that we can give to one another as human beings in moments large and small is in our ability to see one another—to affirm the uniqueness and worth of each individual. We can contribute to bonds and societies that feel secure, safe, trustworthy, and consistent—and perhaps make life a bit less lonely, not just when someone confides in us, but in the caliber and kindness of our everyday interactions.
6. For survivors, some grief is incommunicable.
It is not your job to make your grief legible or to make it conform to other people's expectations. As a survivor, you will have major triggers that are unrecognizable to most people, and your reactions will vary. I can be totally leveled by the image of my dad's back in his blue blazer as he strode tiredly away from me at my sister's graduation, or by how I imagined him leaving the house for the last time, or the first 100-plus times I drove by the fire station outside of which he shot himself. Even the feeling of exhilaration on white water, a delight that he and I shared—these are all particularly potent emotional, geographic, and physical triggers for me, even 11 years later. Most people have no idea.
If you are a survivor, let the emotions surface, and let them pass (not easy: It's like getting thrashed by a huge wave of rage, sadness, and ugly crying). Let me repeat: You don't have to hide your emotions, and you don't have to apologize for them. You don't even have to explain them. Grief is a shape-shifting, surprising, and (in the case of suicide) often terrifying entity. Lean into people who are trustworthy, nonjudgmental, and who let you be you. And when you meet people who have also experienced the suicide of a loved one or family member, you might find yourself weeping together on top of a mountain during spring ski season (true story). It's OK.
Presence, care, laughter, and gentleness are salves. I have personally found therapy to be fantastically helpful, and many people benefit from survivor support groups. If you are trying to support someone who is grieving the loss of a friend or family member through suicide, support them with presence and infrastructure. Just hug. Sit. Bring food. Come over to walk the dog together. Call to say you're thinking of them.
7. Your presence will sometimes make people uncomfortable. Many will react strangely.
People say weird and even hurtful things out of their own profound discomfort after a suicide. Others will disappear entirely from your life. This sucks, but it's true. Suicide (along with what I call the 3Ds—other forms of sudden death, divorce, and disability) can make people really nervous, and as a result they may react to your presence in all kinds of intense and often unhelpful ways.
One person with whom I was close didn't call, text, or write me for nearly a year after. Only when I ran into her at a party by chance later did she laugh awkwardly and say, "Yeah, sorry about that. I mean, what could I even have said?" My answer now: "Just call and say you don't know what to say, and you love me and are thinking of me."
I have learned that people's reactions and statements say much more about what they are grappling with than what is true for you. This doesn't make it easier in the moment, but it does mean you don't have to take on their stuff. Find your way with the people who let you be you, without foisting their own anxious interpretations onto you.
8. Memorialize in ways that feel right to you.
Just as everyone grieves differently, everyone memorializes differently. In the aftermath of a suicide, ritual and burial are important, though they can take many forms. For some people, traditional religious funeral services may provide important closure. For others, those same services might feel like emotional handcuffs.
As time goes on, trust your creativity and the legacy of the person's memory. What are the moments that make you think of them with a grin? Consider memorializing a place or an activity that feels like a positive legacy—a meditation bench in a treasured spot or an annual walk with organizations that raise awareness about suicide or mental illness, for example. I have found it meaningful to memorialize my father by consciously giving him a shout out during water sports that we both loved.
Finally: The days around the anniversary of the suicide will be tough. Be gentle with yourself in these times. You also deserve love and kindness.
9. You will change, and your relationships will too.
Suicide is an extreme event that, for survivors, puts much into excruciating texture. For me, my father's death began a decade-long journey of self-reflection—about myself, my family, my partnership, me as a parent, and society more generally. It has involved devastating anxiety that, with time and therapy and life changes, has given way to profound, gentle, exhilarating clarities. Many relationships, including my marriage, were sundered as a result of this journey.
It has not been easy. Grief doesn't end, but it does change, and with time it becomes less debilitating, more gently poignant. I wish beyond words that my daughter could have met her grandfather. I also have found ways that my father's positive legacy lives on in me—and in her.
One aspect of my journey is a radical honesty, forged in agonies that none of us wished on ourselves. I am the person that I am because of many factors. One of them is my father's suicide.
10. You can be OK.
There are no neat closures to the surd of suicide. But healing can be real. Small or large changes in your life may emerge over time. Sometimes they will surprise you. But I'm here to tell you: There is healing, and believe me—you are not alone. With the life you have, you can narrate the story that you are always unfurling.
If you're feeling suicidal or know anyone who is, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. is at 1-800-273-8255.
Christiana Zenner, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, and professor who bridges the humanities and sciences and whose work is both compassionate and rigorous. At Fordham University, she thinks and teaches about topics like environmental ethics, the cultural values shaping fresh water access, and ecology and human nature. She is the author of the acclaimed book Just Water (2nd edition, November 2018).
Dr. Zenner’s analyses and perspectives have appeared in many venues—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, CBS, Public Radio International, TED-Ed, and more. She is a longtime friend of mindbodygreen and loves participating in constructive conversations about wellness, ecology, and justice. A Californian by birth, Prof. Zenner is now also a New Yorker. Join her for conversations, writing, and speaking events on Twitter @christyzen.