I know from experience that when a parent dies your world crumbles, but when a parent commits suicide your universe disintegrates into an infinite amount of pieces, all of which have to somehow be pieced together again in order to inhabit a safe enough place to live. There is no point in comparing suffering between one sort of loss and another but it is important to acknowledge the impact of being left behind by someone who chose to die and the effect that has on the self-esteem of children who believe their parents didn't love them enough to live for them. Parents are suppose to love their children enough to die for them, not care too little about them to die on them. So how then do you begin to rebuild your own life in the face of a parent taking theirs? Where do you find the strength of character to forge ahead in the face of atrocity when you feel that you were either invisible or insignificant in the eyes of a primary love?
My father committed suicide in 1971 when I was six years old. I was young and naive and so too was the study of clinical depression. Along with the ignorance of mental illness came the shame and the negative social stigma that always accompanies an event that isn't well enough understood. It's true that "the treatment of emotional or psychological problems can be traced to antiquity. The ancient Greeks were the first to identify mental illness as a medical condition rather than a sign of malevolent deities," and yet still today, thousands of years later, we still speak of the "demons" that posses the hearts and minds of people who suffer from depression. Even with the advent of antidepressants and the corresponding recognition by the medical establishment of clinical depression as a disease we still refer to sufferers as "being depressed" rather than "having depression." According to the New York Times:
A year after the Food and Drug Administration approved Prozac in 1988, 2,469,000 prescriptions for it were dispensed in America. By 2002, that number had risen to 33,320,000 and 2008, antidepressants were the third-most-common prescription drug taken in America.
According to the the World Health Organization, depression ranks as the fourth leading cause of disability and premature death worldwide. And yet, unlike with any other disease, people who have depression are defined by their affliction. They are depressed. Patients with depression are themselves the disease, unlike people who have cancer, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, etc. The devastating implication for sufferers and survivors that goes along with that assumption is that, just as they are the disease, they could cease to be it, much in the same way that loved ones are saddled with blame and responsibility when the outcome is suicide.
I know that the way I personally pieced my universe back together was to tell myself that I was the child of suicide because I had the ability to receive the profound message of meaning I decided my father was leaving me. Every time people learned of his death and apologized for it, I always replied by explaining that his choice to die was really the gift my father had given to me about how essential it was to build a purposeful enough life to want to remain in it. I created an entire mythology around this idea that one has to attach enough to the world through purpose and love in order to keep tethered to it. I used what I comprehended as his desire to die as a reminder for me to construct a life that would guarantee my will to live. I believed that his decision to die was my secret advantage, a private insurance against slipping into the mundane triviality of everyday life. Like so many other children of suicide, I went off in search of great love, relentlessly in pursuit of making myself memorable and important enough in the lives of others that they would never leave me. My sister, conversely, tried to defend against love. I built a wall to keep people in, she constructed her own to keep people out. This was the story I told myself, and these were my ways of protecting myself against my own demise. My sister had another tale and her own ways of defending herself from abandonment. I have heard countless other personal "stories" that "explained" suicide throughout my lifetime and the only thread that runs through all of them is the need to have a rationalization for something that defies our personal comprehension and is still seriously marginalized by society at large. However different our personal explanations are, they all suppose that one would not take their own life if it had been filled with more love and meaning and less pain and disappointment. Certainly nobody would choose to leave a world that they embraced and that embraced them.
And then came the day of reckoning when I realized that my father didn't make a choice at all, and I had to throw all of that out. I believe the truth is that none of us has the choice whether we live or die. Each of us faces the same end, and the only difference, to me, is if we know when or not. But I think none of us chooses death, not even the ones who commit suicide. And none of us has the power to prevent someone from doing so, though it serves us to believe that we are equipped with the ability to save a life just as it comforts us to imagine that we are born with the freedom to end our own. The problem is that I think my father didn't pull the trigger because of unsung philosophical anthems or irreconcilable existential conflicts the way I needed to believe he did in order to prevent being angry at him for leaving me. I believe Mary Richardson Kennedy didn't hang herself because of a failed marriage, financial woes or abbreviated dreams. People don't decide to die because life didn't add up to enough to live for. None of it is as romantic as all of that. My father, like Mary and thousands of others who commit suicide each year, had an organ in his body that failed him, I think, in the same way that others have hearts and kidneys and livers that do. Though there is much mystery and intrigue that surrounds the power of the brain, it is still only a part of our all-too-vulnerable bodies and like everything else, it malfunctions. I believe my father and Mary and others who commit suicide were taken by a disease that ravaged their body and mind. That is their true story, and it is time that it is told without apology, blame, guilt, or shame.
So to all of you have been left with the legacy of a parent who had depression who committed suicide, I beg you to dispose of the "is" in front of depressed and replace it with the "had" that belongs ahead of depression. I believe one simple word makes all the difference. In the wake of Mary's tragic loss, let us finally rid ourselves of the guilt that goes along with surviving and the blame that is assigned to the stricken. Depression is a disease, and it's nobody's fault. Please, children, finally free yourselves of the emotional complications that go along with the feeling of anger and abandonment that accompany a parent with depression's suicide and dedicate yourselves instead to raising awareness about the disease of depression in honor of the ones we loved and could never, ever have saved.
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