About a year ago my dad died of suicide. Like many men who’ve gone the same way, he was a famously charismatic, kind, funny, and deeply smart person. We were extremely close.
In the year before he died, he hurt my mum and our family, admitting to having been seeing someone else for a number of years. Not long after he moved out of the family home, he lost his job. After that, I was one of three people (that I know of) who he was confiding in and seeing regularly. Neither of my siblings was in contact with him.
I don’t want to go into much more detail about the year leading up to his passing, but I’ll just say it wasn’t easy. He was not himself, and we often fought (mostly about me wanting him to see a counselor and him refusing, or me not seeing things from his perspective when it came to the family issues).
For the past two years, I’ve lived in the fantasy that I “did everything I could” and “was there for him,” mostly because that’s what people like to say to me, and because it makes the world a little more bearable. But it’s not the truth.
Maybe three months before he died, my dad asked me if I thought he should contact my mum and sisters. He said he still loved my mum and he wanted to make things right. I said he should leave her alone and work on himself. He asked me if I thought she’d ever take him back, and I said no.
A year or so later, my mum told me that she’d spent that same time waiting to hear from him and that she’d never been able to understand why he didn’t reach out to her, especially if he was suffering. During that same conversation, she told me that he was the love of her life and she would have taken him back at any moment.
I haven’t told her or anyone else about the conversation with my dad, not just because I’m ashamed (though ashamed doesn’t even begin to cover it) but also because I don’t want to hurt or traumatize anybody and make this any harder than it’s already been.
I currently live in complete denial. I’ve become very good at projecting the image of a healthy, grieving, and healing person to the world, and have even begun to believe it myself. But privately, I cannot think of my dad or his death, because I feel completely responsible. The shame and guilt and sadness are too much. The few people (therapist, partner, friends) I’ve told about feeling responsible have all said that I’m not to blame. But I don’t accept that.
I’m not sure what I’m asking you.
I think your advice would be to not tell my family about what happened, because it would unnecessarily hurt them and ultimately serve no purpose. And maybe you would suggest that I get used to the idea of not forgiving myself, of living with this truth and just doing that. But I’m struggling. I don’t know how to love myself or enjoy my life after what’s happened.
This was not your fault. Under no circumstances are you to blame for your dad’s death. You are not in the least bit culpable for any of this. It is not your fault.
I need to say that first because it’s the only important thing I will be able to say to you. I can say that telling your dad he needed to work on himself before attempting reconciliation was the right advice. It is what I would have said to him in your place (what anyone would have said to him!) but I know you won’t believe that yet. “I’m sorry” is so insufficient, and “I know what you’re going through” would be a lie. People I love very much have died but it’s not the same thing and I won’t pretend that it is.
Grief has become a sort of all-encompassing buzzword of late, as a way to capture the feeling of living through calamity, but I don’t think we should be so quick to call that feeling one of grieving. We do not “grieve” a lost summer, we are not bereaved when contemplating the whole of humanity. Grief is terribly specific. You loved your father, an individual and irreplaceable person, who is no longer here. That kind of tragedy is unbearable.
It is no wonder you have been trying to obliterate it with a different feeling. Some years back the poet Anne Carson translated a few plays by Euripides, in a volume called Grief Lessons. In it, she writes, “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” This is an insightful thing to say about Antigone and also about you. I think you have turned your grief-driven rage inward, where it becomes profound shame.
That is not rational, but it is perfectly understandable. Apportioning blame helps us order the things beyond reckoning. But this is not something you can live with, and it is not something you can keep from people who love you. The things we hide from others—even the hideous things, maybe most especially the hideous things—have a way of becoming very precious to us. If you keep this to yourself, if you tend to it in secret, it will grow and grow until it casts everything in its shadow.
You did do everything you could. You loved him and that love did not change the outcome. I don’t know why. I know what it’s like to think about dying, to want to die, and I don’t know why I am still here and your dad is not but I swear to you it’s not because at some point somebody said the “right” thing to me and you said the wrong one.
Tell your mum, who is still here and cares about you and will say it is not your fault. Tell your siblings, who are I’m sure feeling a whole different sort of grief about being estranged from him and who will tell you it is not your fault. Keep telling your therapist and your partner and hear that it is not your fault fifty times, one hundred times, a thousand, so that eventually, slowly and painfully because once you stop blaming yourself there will be nobody left to blame, you can come to see the truth. This is not your fault.
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