Will I ever get over my parents' suicides?

I used to be a carefree person. Now I am trapped by tragic history.

Published February 15, 2006 12:21PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm stuck. I don't know how else to put it. Both of my parents committed suicide within the past 10 years, although not at the same time. My mother wouldn't let there be a funeral for my father, and my brother wouldn't let me have a funeral for my mother because my parents didn't embrace religion and felt it would be hypocritical.

I have no family other than my brother and we don't talk. No aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. So there were no relatives to join us in our loss. My parents didn't have friends, or at least none that cared enough to send a card.

I'm so angry with them for checking out like they did. They were in good health. They had adequate finances. They left a hell of a legacy.

I carry a huge load of anger and grief. I've cried and cried but it's like I'll never lose this feeling of loss. I can't tell you how much I wish they had died of natural causes -- cancer, car wreck, heart attack, whatever. But they chose to check out and I never got to say goodbye.

Their deaths changed who I am. I used to be pretty carefree. Life wasn't perfect but I was a pretty happy person. Now I feel a huge loss and I don't feel comfortable even telling people how my parents died when asked. I'm ashamed, I feel stigmatized. I feel like people will judge me, wonder if I have a screw loose like my parents. I don't.

I think life is an adventure and I'm thankful for the good things that come my way. I'm divorced with no kids, won't be going that route. I just wish I could move past the sadness and anger and shame. I work at moving past it but it's still with me. I've been crying inside for years, people who know me would never guess what I'm feeling except for my closest friends.

How does one get closure on something like this? It feels overwhelming to me, so huge. I envy people who lose their parents to natural causes. I envy people who have supportive families. I don't like this bitterness I carry inside. I don't want my life to feel like this.


Dear Stuck,

About the way past trauma persists in our lives, I can say this.

It is shocking, first of all, to realize the degree to which we really are who we are, that we really are the children of this thing, shaped by it, immutably, beyond our conscious ability to control or spin it. And always there are the layers, the further layers, the peeling of skin after skin to reveal the shadows of bones. That is what we are. (If I may speak solely for myself, hoping that it will make some sense to you: This whole process of my epistolary confessions overheard, overread, opened in the dark as it were, under a midnight lamp while the family is sleeping and read for secrets -- what I mean is this Internet correspondence is a kind of faux-confessional; I pretend to be alone and writing just to you and that is what creates the drama: We are overhearing something. And now I am hardly even writing to you, only in the most indirect way; I am really writing somewhat circumspectly about myself alone, how the bones are revealed. And I am writing circumspectly because I do not want to flay myself in public any more than I already seem to do. I simply want to sketch the landscape. And yet as a letter writer mentioned to me this morning, it is in the details, isn't it? It's all in the details.)

So I mean to say in my roundabout, whispered way that the towering events in our past form literally the boundaries and character of our emotional experience; we are never going to be the happy carefree people we might wish to be. We are not them. The happy carefree people are people built on happy carefree ground. We are built on ashes and tangled metal. Or we are built on a cheap uncertain floor ready to give way.

No, that metaphor is not going to lead us very far. Here is another one: The world of inner reference points we have is quite solid. Your reference points are the suicides. They are like fenceposts that define the yard; you can't go much beyond them; you don't know what is out there. When you begin to cross between two fenceposts -- the suicide of one, the suicide of the other -- there is a pain and a fear of what is on the other side. It could be death, who knows. It could be unimaginable confusion and pain. We are bounded by these events; they circumscribe our lives. But how then can we change?

One way is that we can move the fenceposts out a bit. In time, this will happen on its own. But perhaps we can help them along, by moving them out mentally a few feet at a time, gradually filling in the yard with things that we love, and perhaps eventually building a hedge where the trauma used to be. Maybe actually some night we go out with a shovel and move the fenceposts. But I do not believe, actually, that we are permitted to touch them. That is where the metaphor breaks down: These are not fenceposts in the literal sense; if you tear them down in your dreams, they probably reconstitute themselves in the morning. They are right there where they used to be. You cannot destroy the fenceposts themselves. That is what I mean about the immutability of past trauma.

But maybe sometimes we boldly walk right by them. We walk right through the fenceposts. There on the right is the suicide of my mother; there on the left is the suicide of my dad. I walk by into the night unafraid, not looking either way. And then maybe one night I walk out and I stare right at the fenceposts: There is the suicide. I stare right at it, unblinking, unflinching. There it is, that's what happened. There is the other suicide. I stand in the night sky under the stars and the moon, staring at the fenceposts and as I do the skulls of my mother and father appear at the top of the posts.

Maybe at that point I run inside.

Or maybe I don't run inside. I stand and stare. I contemplate the skulls. I contemplate the deaths. I contemplate the stars. I contemplate the night's immensity and our brief stay here. I summon courage. They are after all phantoms, these things. They did take many things from you. But they are phantoms. They cannot detach from the fenceposts and come and get you. They cannot sing or yell. They are forever on the other side of time.

This is me attempting to use spatial and temporal metaphors to get at an idea of our relationship to past trauma. It has its drawbacks. But perhaps it will be useful inasmuch as visualization can be useful.

To back away a little from the impressionistic style, however, and try to speak in more direct language, I am trying to say that the first step in dealing with such great tragedies in life is to recognize that they do indeed circumscribe our emotional lives. They are not simply going to go away. They are there, as rooted in the ground as old fenceposts. I say that as a corrective to the expectation that we should be able to easily overcome these things. We cannot. They are powerfully rooted markers, or totems, in our emotional landscape (or seascape, as I now find myself envisioning these markers on lodge poles in the sand at the edge of the sea, perhaps only because that is where I live, at the edge of the sea).

So when we look out -- that is, when we feel, or when we expand our emotional feelers, when we expand our consciousness to take in the world -- they are going to be there, threatening us, attempting to make us feel afraid. They are going to influence us profoundly. We are going to feel sad suddenly, or thin-skinned and overly sensitive, or angry or depressed.

It is helpful to think of these occurrences as marking a boundary -- that in a moment of unexpected fear or sadness, we realize we have touched the boundary. We have encountered those phantoms on the fenceposts.

That boundary defines the emotional landscape we are left with after such a thing as parental suicide. Our task is to expand that boundary.

In response to the unpleasantness associated with these permanent markers, naturally we may contract; we may choose not to risk new ventures, the way we favor an injured leg or protect a wound, drawing inward against intrusion, wary of knocking against something.

What I am saying is that to get better we must consciously and somewhat counter-intuitively push against these boundaries, even when it hurts a little. We must try to push back against them. If we do not, we adopt habits of ever-contracting fear. In the same way that we rehab an injured knee by working it, through pain and resistance, to build it up again, so we must rehab ourselves emotionally after terrible trauma by going up against it, trying to face it, a piece at a time, reminding ourselves that it is there, trying always to go by it, to break through the fear day by day, little by little.

It helps of course to have encouragement and some kind of regular program to keep going.

The way we rehab after trauma is by re-experiencing the trauma in degrees, and strengthening our ability to do that, to hold it and not drop it and run, to look at it and not flinch in terror. We do that by talking about it. We try to talk through it without breaking down. Maybe we break down the first few times. But then we get to where we can talk through it without breaking down, which means we can regard it peacefully.

We also strengthen our ability to regard the past equably by working in or around areas that remind us of the trauma. So you might, for instance, counsel other people whose parents have committed suicide, thus gaining strength in yourself, thus playing the role not of a victim but of a survivor, someone who can help others. We also bring to consciousness the many ways these suicides crop up unexpectedly. For instance, as you are sitting talking and someone mentions something and it comes into your mind and you say it out loud; you say, "That makes me think of my parents' suicides." And you take a moment; you acknowledge its presence there, and try to contain it. And you practice making it just another phenomenon in the world, not something to be hidden, nor something to be overdramatized. Just something that is there. I'm not saying it can be taken lightly. But it can be taken. It can be borne.

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