Trigger Warning- The following tale is a suicide survivor story. It makes mention of gun violence, suicide, grief and trauma. If this will upset you, please do not read it. If you or someone you love needs assistance, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
Disclaimer- I am not a licensed therapist. A suicide survivor is someone who has survived the loss of a friend or loved one to suicide, not to be confused with surviving an attempt.
If you are reading this and have not read Part I of this series, please go back and start there so the following post is in context.
The following morning, April 8th, 2009 the phone rings again- this time it is my mother. She tells me to wake my father. My father worked the night shift so I was cautious about her request, but she insisted. So, I knocked on my father’s door to wake him. I told him my mother was on the line insisting she speak to him. Bear in mind my father and I were still reeling with the tears and sleeplessness of Bob’s passing just one day prior. I exited the room and pressed my ear to the door when I heard my father gasp. Turning around, I went back to that same patio and lit a cigarette while weighing all the possibilities in my mind.
Someone was hurt.
Someone was dead.
Someone had cancer.
Who could it be?
What could it be?
Why could it be?
My father appeared in the doorway. Saying nothing, he passed me the phone. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he lifted one of the chairs and placed it next to mine. I held the phone to my ear and heard my mother’s words. “He did it,” she said.
My mother’s father, Lyle Montgomery, had died early that morning from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. He was 62 years old.
I was in shock, complete and utter disbelief. How could this be? How could my entire family be shattered by suicide in less than twenty-four hours? My father and I cried relentlessly for hours. I could not stop even long enough to pee. Grief is a very strange thing. While sitting on the toilet I saw my dad emerge in the hallway and said, “We have to do something. We have to get out of here.” He agreed. So that very day we packed up and headed to Galveston Island. It is difficult to recall the details in a state of shock, but all we knew was that we needed to be together, and we needed a change of environment.
We decided to do our best to honor these losses by making an attempt to indulge in all of the things these men no longer could. Nature, wine, laughter, food, good company music, shelter and sea. With sand in our toes we cried into our champagne together, nearly taking out a seagull in the process. Being that we both survived this life on the value of good humor, we made what room we could for healing and joy. We vowed to one another that day to never choose suicide as a viable option – no matter what. Some say happiness is only real when shared, but I think the same can be said of grief.
My grandfather, Lyle, had spoken openly about suicide in the years prior. He had health conditions that caused him a great deal of pain and limited ability, exacerbating his suicidal ideation. This was not a weak man. He was a tough well-worn American businessman who loved the outdoors. He was a concrete cornerstone, the very foundation of our family. He loved his family and took pride in his home. He took great effort to make the holidays special and record home videos. He demanded togetherness, good food, and entertainment – even if it wasn’t all together functional. Like anyone, he had his own history including the abandonment of his mother, the casting away of his siblings, and the fact that he was a recovered alcoholic. He hadn’t always been the best father or husband, and viewed his grandchildren as a second chance to love well. Our family was fairly well-known in the town where I grew up. My grandfather owned his own business and participated in local sports while my grandmother was a nurse at the very same hospital I was born in. She also filled a leadership role in the church.
Toward the end, my grandpa Lyle was diagnosed with a benign cyst that was located on that back of his neck near his spine. Here was this man, this almighty superhero of a man in the eyes of his grandchildren, a man I had never seen frightened of anything in my life – and he was scared. He was scared of surgery. He was scared of pain. He was scared of living if it meant the quality of his life would change. Here was this man who hadn’t attended church in forty years who was now attending church, and people were noticing. I can say that I was not entirely surprised by the fact that he took his own life, even though my mother resents me for it. In fact, I resent him for taking my mother from me, but that’s a tale for another day.
After his surgery nothing was the same. His mobility lessened – a significant loss to an otherwise healthy, active, hard-working man. He soon became over-medicated, falling asleep at the dinner table with lit cigarettes in his hand – towels laid out to catch the ashes and spills. This highly opinionated leader and conversationalist became reduced to narcotic-saturated slurring and sadness.
Everyone who spoke to him in his last days said that he was not in his right mind. I remember our last phone call. He was angry with me for moving away. He viewed my leaving as abandonment. Respectfully, we disagreed. He could hardly speak and when he did he spoke openly of an indifference toward life. I told him I loved him. I reassured him. I told him he needed to travel more, to get out of Minnesota where the cold sucks the life from your bones. He agreed and we hung up. That was the last time I heard his voice.
So, why am I telling you all of this? I am telling you this to teach you three things:
1.) Suicide can happen to ANYONE .
2.) There are warning signs, but not always, and they can vary considerably.
3.) We never truly let go of suicide loss. We are changed forever by our grief, and simply learn to carry it.
The most meaningful revelation in my healing came five agonizing alcoholic years after this tragedy fractured my family. It seemed so simple, almost trivial. I was driving down Main Street in a small mountain town in Colorado where I lived at the time when a Pearl Jam song came over the radio. The sun was shining in through the windows on a beautiful day when suddenly it occurred to me that they were dead and I am alive. It sounds harsh, but it’s the truth.
I knew then that neither one of these men would want me wallowing forever in grief. In that moment I realized that this was a choice they had made completely independent of my ability to help them. I realized I was not responsible, that I could not have done anything differently, that THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE, and that perhaps the outcome would have been the same regardless. More than that, I was going to use my pain to help others, to educate and dismantle stigma and say these things out loud, to enlighten those who may consider suicide and share the burden of suicide survival.
I still cry when April rolls around each year and I consider that my children will never have the joy of knowing these men, but I have not walked away entirely empty handed. Suicide has taught me how even in the pinnacle of pain we can be made better for it, how the aftermath of trauma affords us the opportunity to grow, how a shared sense of community grants us sanctuary in an often isolating grief, and to take nothing for granted.
**If you’re a mental health survivor or mental health provider and want to tell your story – please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!**
For more excellent insight and entertainment through a collaborative approach to all things mental health, including a guest post from yours truly, visit the Blunt Therapy Blog by Randy Withers, LPC! For additional perspectives on suicide prevention from master level mental health providers visit, 20 Professional Therapists Share Their Thoughts on Suicide!
In collaboration with Luis Posso, an Outreach Specialist from DrugRehab.com, Deskraven is now offering guides on depression and suicide prevention to its readers. For more information on understanding the perils of addiction visit, Substance Abuse and Suicide: A Guide to Understanding the Connection and Reducing Risk! In addition, for a comprehensive depression resource guide from their sister project at Columbus Recovery Center visit, Dealing with Depression!