Gravity shifted: a woman on her father’s suicide

Almost 2 years ago, my very dear friend Catherine lost her father to suicide. Ever since then she has been adjusting to her new normal with a quiet strength that has left me in awe. Recently she reached out with some reflections and insights she’s gained in the months since his passing, and has kindly consented to me sharing her story here. I hope you find her grace in the face of trauma as inspiring as I do, and perhaps some of you can find solace in knowing you are not alone. Thank you, Catherine Wehrey-Miller, for your courage and generosity.

My life ended on Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at approximately 8 PM.

At that moment, I was born as a version of my prior self, forever living in a world where I now say, “My father put a gun in his mouth and ended his life.”

One of my first reactions was hating him for making this part of MY story, part of who I would be, forever a person whose father killed himself. I fought my new life and my new narrative for so long. I wasn’t ready for my former life to be over and my new one to begin. I survived trauma in the past and never felt as I did at that moment; I previously went to therapy, learned from my trauma, and moved on. But the suicide of a parent is different. It is described as “a personal and interpersonal disaster.”1 The word “disaster” is a strong one. It conjures up images of earthquakes and fires, chaos, destruction, and ruins.

Now, almost two years later, I know that my father’s suicide fundamentally changed me. My center of gravity shifted in a big way. What I thought I knew, I realized I didn’t. My whole life now feels like one confusing reality of “did that really happen?” I will be forever asking, “Why?” “Why did he do this?” And who was he, really? Did I ever really know him? 

I can’t watch a suicide by gunshot on TV or in a movie anymore. I have to look away. It’s unfortunate that it took this experience for me to realize that far too many suicides are shown in the media. They hurtle me back to that moment when my mother called me and said, “He’s dead. He shot himself.” 

I now have an utter loathing for anyone who carries a gun or believes in his or her inalienable right to own one. My depressed and disturbed father walked himself into a store and bought one. He kept it in the glove compartment of his car, took it out to the desert and just… spent time with it. Like bonding with a dear friend. And I never knew.

I’m suddenly more preoccupied with death and have an intense need to identify what happened to my father after his heart stopped beating. I want to know if he suddenly became nothing, a complete ceasing of his mind, body, and soul. Did he wake up in another place, a lit world where that light engenders an astounding happiness that we cannot even begin to fathom?

I’ve retreated into myself because no one close to me has lost a parent to suicide. My shell is my usual friendly, contented self… and I am content with most things. I have a wonderful husband and friends, a roof over my head, and a paycheck that allows me to travel. 

But underneath, I am an intrinsically different person. I am a human being no longer standing upright, but forever slightly lop-sided, slightly off balance. I view people differently, tolerate less bullshit, and find it difficult to forgive and forget. My frequent anger and frustration have developed into something not wholly like everyone else’s. It’s more introspective and has a certain degree of beauty, because it’s filled with a love towards my father that can’t go anywhere. My love is trapped inside me where it fuses with anger and grief to produce something new that will never quite be familiar to me.

With this second life comes the necessity to familiarize myself with the unfamiliar, find balance in my off-balanced reality, and engineer something brand new from the ruins of a disaster. Dad, whoever you were, wherever you are, I hope you’ll be proud.

1 Shneidman, E.S. Foreword. In: Survivors of Suicide (Cain, A., editor. , ed.). Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1972.

Essay and graphic courtesy of Catherine Wehrey-Miller. You can follow her journey at Memories of Dad.

So proud

green ribbon border isolated on white backgroundAs Mental Health Month draws to a close, I want to talk about something often overlooked: personal pride.  A lot of press goes to self-help and self-care in the form of therapy, outdoor walks, or medication, all of which are excellent and good and necessary.  I’d also propose that something as small as a little bit of pride can be wonderful, too.

As someone with anxiety and depression, I am rarely proud of myself.  In my head it is always more about getting better at something, looking better, feeling better, or at least trying keep up a facade of being “good enough,” whatever that means.  So when a rare shiny moment of pride comes up, I’m learning to sit up and listen, and bask in it for all it’s worth.

Last month I attended a conference for work.  I am introverted, so I always walk into events like these thinking how draining they will be, and how nervous I’ll be.  Over the course of those few days, though, I was struck by how much easier networking has become for me over the last several years.  I had colleagues to greet, a committee meeting to run, opinions to share, and expertise to pass on.  I was doing it!  And I wasn’t scared.

During and afterwards, I discovered an immense sense of pride in myself.  I was proud of how much I’ve learned and grown professionally.  I was proud to see myself as a confident professional — a stark contrast to the shy grad student that first attended these conferences almost 10 years ago.   It was kind of novel, actually, how good it felt to be proud of myself.  To pause for a moment or two, and just glow.

I’m trying now to realize pride doesn’t necessarily have to come from something as grandiose as professional growth.  I can simply be proud because I got out of bed this morning.  Proud that I made it through another day.  Proud that I made a good choice for myself.  Acknowledging ourselves is so, so important.  And I’m learning.