Wednesday, November 18, 2009

National Survivors of Suicide Day: Part I

There are two months out of the year I'm not too keen on living through. One is March, obviously, since that is the month in which my father committed suicide, a month that still, almost seven years later, smells the same, looks the same and all-around feels the same as that cold day in 2003. The other month is November; well, actually, it's more like a single day. November 21 is National Survivors of Suicide Day. Over the years, that's what I've learned to embrace - the fact that I am, indeed, a survivor. But, make no mistake. It took me six long years to get to this point, and this isn't really the ending point, either. It's more like a rest stop on this long highway I'll be on for the rest of my life.

The day he died, I vowed that I would never, ever contribute to the horrible stigma of suicide that pervades our society. That's part of the reason I wrote this piece in the first two years after his death. I wanted to heal, yes, but I also wanted to people to know - to feel - what experiencing the suicide of a loved one is like. My father was a great man, but he left his family. I know I'll never get over that, but I feel compelled to tell his story - to tell the truth, even in its painful moments.

This is my story; for those who have also lost a loved one to suicide, you'll be in my heart on November 21. Look for Part II tomorrow

“Is he breathing?” were the only three words I could stammer as I lay curled in my bed beneath thin sheets on a cold March morning. Although icicles hung from the window panes outside, the air inside felt heavy and smothered me like those bed sheets. I gasped for air, futility peeking through my bedroom door left ajar, hoping to see beyond the slit of light now dancing across the ceiling. A few moments later, the eerie silence grew all too loud. On the other side, my world was changing. In one fell swoop, my father ripped the only life I’ve ever known from me when he chose to end his not 30 minutes earlier. And all I could do was lay there, helpless and scared. After all, my father took my legs with him.

Following a series of massive nosebleeds the previous November, my father was admitted to the hospital for tests that revealed a marble-sized tumor wedged inside his nasal passage. And it was life threatening. Cancer. It’s amazing how a simple six-letter word can at once both petrify and anger you. My father – a healthy, vibrant man of 51, with those sparkling green eyes, the distinguished auburn hair and the sort of chuckle that reminded you of Santa Claus – had just received news that thrust us into once again into a world of bleak hospitals, medicines we couldn’t even pronounce and a level of uncertainty we never felt before.

The day before Thanksgiving, my mom, sister and I gathered around a small, wobbly table in Loyola University Medical Center’s waiting room. My dad had just gone into surgery not 30 minutes ago, but the cold, unfriendly waiting room seemed to make time slow to a screeching halt. People came and went; doctors came to talk to other families. But we just sat there.

Finally, we were led down a sterile hallway to his room in the ICU. There, I stood face-to-face with a man I’d never seen before. It was my father lying in that bed, but it wasn’t the man I knew. The bed engulfed him, wires came from every direction and layers and layers of bandages covered my father’s head and eyes. It was almost one of those sights that make you think you’re watching a movie, but then you’re thrust back into reality and you realize that it’s all real. All of it.

That evening, the three of us came home to an empty house, and it was quiet. Eerily quiet. It had been the first time my dad had been separated from us, and it felt very disconcerting. The weight of the dim house barred down, and the darkness seemed to morph into a light, illuminating even the tiniest reminders that we were alone. Everything lay as we left it when we dashed out of the house the day before. The pile of dirty dishes in the sink. The magazines draped across the coffee table. Even the blanket spread acros s the couch that my father used to warm himself up during those cold Midwestern winters.

We were all stunned and exhausted from the day, and none of us had much to say. So we went to bed. We thought maybe if we went to sleep, we’d wake up the next morning and find this was all a horrible nightmare.

But the nightmare ensued over the next several months. Because of the severity of the cancer and its recurrence rate – most people didn’t survive beyond 18 months – doctors ordered a rigorous combination of chemo and radiation. For the next 2 months, my mom and dad traveled 70 miles one way, 5 days a week, so my dad could have radiation in the morning and chemo in the afternoon.

By early March, our lives finally resembled at least a bit of normalcy. With the treatment just ending, we were all in “waiting mode.” But I remember sensing a change in him for some reason, a change that went beyond “just being tired.” He was different somehow. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew something just wasn’t right.

“Father doesn’t seem like himself,” I told my mom. “Doesn’t he seem off to you – like he’s more depressed or down or something?”

“He’s just been through 6 weeks of treatment. He’s tired – this is what we should expect,” she said.

Even my father reassured me that he was fine. In fact, that night, he was more cheerful than I’d seen him in a long time. It was as if he was back to his old self, like a light had turned on in his brain. My mom made lasagna, and my dad ate a full plate – and asked for more. This was the complete opposite of the soup and yogurt diet he had been accustomed to during the treatment. We also played a rousing game of Uno that night. We were big game players, and my father sat there grinning from ear to ear.

“Let’s play one more game,” he said. He was content. And for the first time in a long time, so was I.

The next day, on a cloudy Monday morning, my father had an eye doctor appointment. My mom told him to get ready while she took20my sister to school. Clad in blue penguin pajamas that made him look so small, he kissed my mom goodbye like he did every time she left the house.

My dad then came in my room to check on me. Being half awake and groggy, I felt him pull the blankets up around my neck. This was something he used to do when I was a child.

“You go back to sleep, Rosebud,” he said, using the nickname he’d given my sister and me.

He lingered for a moment at the door like he never wanted to forget how I looked at that very moment, and then he quietly left the room. That was the last glimpse I would ever have of him.


  1. Wow, I am so sorry for what you have gone through and yet cannot wait to read the rest of this story.

    So beautifully and eloquently written.

  2. One can never fully recover from losing a loved one. My dad died 2 years ago from cancer (December the 7th will be 2 years to be precise, so I'm not very fond of this time of the year either).

  3. thank you for sharing this. i just sobbed my heart out all over your words. i lost my mother to cancer as well just shy of two years ago and i know all of the feelings attached to living your life everyday watching the one you love the most dying. its almost surreal. all you want to do is be happy around them and its so hard to hold back the tears. i am sorry that is how your dad chose to leave. i know that if my dad came down with the same diagnosis, he would do the same thing. he has already told me so. ill never know how you feel exactly, but my heart is with you and anyone else with the feelings of loss around this time of year.

  4. i miss uncle brian so much =(

  5. thank you for sharing this story. it was really touching to read, and very brave of you to share it. i'm sure that even after 7 years it can't be easy to rehash those feelings.

  6. Melissa your writing is so beautiful. I am so, sorry to hear about your father... 7 years ago or not it is always hard. I know someone that took their life and it is hard on everyone around them. There is so much I wish I could have done to prevent what had happened. It just one of those things you have to pray for and always tried to hold on to the good memories you shared with them.

  7. beautifully written by such a beautiful girl. you are an amazing person melissa. your father is so very proud of you. this i know.

  8. Thank you for sharing your painful story so beautifully. My dad has cancer right now, and it's "treatable but not curable". It's scary to not know how much more treatment he's willing to tolerate.

    It happens that my ex-husband committed suicide by police earlier this year. It's so hard to even know how to begin to react, respond, or even deal with suicide- in any form. There are so many feelings attached to it- grief, anger, betrayal, devastation, powerlessness...

    I'm so sorry you have had to experience this terrible loss.

  9. :(

    You are such a strong person.

  10. Thank you for sharing such a personal moment like this.
    Behind every writer is a story that has effected them, and this is one of them.

    Whether it's a lost parent, no matter from what, it's still hard.

  11. Thank you for sharing this. Losing a loved one no matter in what circumstances is never easy. I lost my aunt to cancer early this year and I still miss her so so much.
    BIG hugs to you, I think you're such a strong and brave person! xx

  12. i babysit for 2 boys who's dad comitted suicide suicide 1.5 years ago. this story sent chills down my spine. i'm sorry..

  13. Thanks for all the kinds words. You know you all mean so much to me! xoxo

  14. your story just rips at my heart I couldn't stop crying as I was reading it! I feel so sorry you had to go through such a terrible experience and that you lost your dear father. yet at the same time it is so amazing to me how much you've made of yourself after all that's happened. I marvel at the strength with which you can write this!
    I'm sitting here crying at the pain etched into these words knowing it is a billion times worse for you.

    March isn't my favorite month either, my Grandpa passed away this year on the 8'th. Almost exactly 5 months after my Grandma...

    I hope you are well!

  15. Olivia, I'm sending you a hug over the Web. Thanks so much for your kind words. :)

  16. I read your first post after reading the second one. I must say both are amazing; not to mention your writing style is beautiful. Melissa, with the little details you gave us about your father's last night, it's very noticeable how much he loved you all. Simple things like "one more game" show that he was saying goodbye in his own way and that he wanted to make sure he spent just a little bit extra time with you. I had forgotten about the Cancer part; now it's even easier for me to encourage you to forgive him. <3

    Thank you again for sharing

  17. I realize this is one of your older posts, which I am just now reading with a few tears falling. I am so sorry you had to go through this, but how you express yourself is so beautiful and I just want to thank you for being so open and honest, as always, and sharing this with us! You amaze me, Melissa!

    Liesl :)

  18. Just stumbled upon this, and have to say that the writing is unbelievable - well done. Hugs to you and your family. xoxo


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