I’ve been waiting for a “good time” to write this post. But, the truth is, there is no “good” time to write about this stuff. The timing will never feel “easy” or “right”, because that’s simply not the legacy suicide leaves.
Now, to the possible chagrin of any conservative readers out there, I am going to preface this post with a trigger warning. In real life, trigger warnings are hard to come by. As someone living with PTSD I know all too well that triggers usually just pop up unexpectedly and you kind of have to white-knuckle your way through the fall out. In this particular case though, I feel a heads up is my obligation. This post deals with murder/suicide, suicidal thoughts, suicidal action. If you feel that any of these things may threaten your emotional and psychological well-being, please do not continue to read. IF YOU ARE ACTIVELY STRUGGLING WITH SUICIDALITY, PLEASE REACH OUT FOR HELP, EITHER BY CALLING A CRISIS LINE (IN THE US, THE NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LINE IS 1-800-273-8255), CALLING 911, OR GOING TO THE ER.
The week that transitions us from mid to late April is my absolute least favorite week of the year. In Northern Vermont, many people are wondering at the trees finally starting to bud, the green grass finally creeping out of hibernation, the sparse colors of early blooming flowers speckling the fields, and, of course, the wonderful warming rays of the sun caressing the land and our skin with long-awaited Vitamin-D. When you live 20 minutes south of the Canadian border, everyone and everything seems to gently, tenderly, slowly awaken from the dark and cold winter months this time of year. And, naturally, everyone loves it. They post pictures of the first signs of Spring on Facebook, they break out the grills and clean out the fire-pits, they revel in the fact that wearing short sleeved shirts will no longer result in hypothermia or frostbite, and everyone has a smile. That’s life in this neck of the woods. But I’m not originally from Vermont – I’m from Boston. And I do not spend this week basking in the glory of Spring. I spend this week tense. I’m perpetually bracing for the next tragedy, even though it’s been a few years since tragedy “hit”.
The Boston Marathon is known across the country. In New England, we’ve named the day that thousands flock to our flagship city “Marathon Monday.” It’s loved by many for its spectacle, as some of the best athletes in the world take to the streets and run like hell. Since the bombings in 2013, it’s become a sign of strength, resiliency, and defiance. We are all Boston Strong.
And that’s one of the things I love about Boston (and New England in general). We’re all tenacious. The blood of Revolution flows through us. We are tough. We fight through anything – we might be pushing through bare knuckled, bloody, and bruised, but we always push through. And afterwards, we brag about our victory over drinks with friends; but in public, we’re tight lipped. Stoic, even. There is no sharing the tales of our glorious battles to any but a small group of family and friends that we can “safely” talk to with out “airing our dirty laundry.” When something terrible and painful happens, we stand tall and proud and act as though everything is the same as it was yesterday, last week, last month, last year. The facade must never crumble. That’s the Boston-Irish way, anyway. But, I suppose such strength and resiliency can only last for so long. Eventually, it will fall apart. Eventually, in one way or another, we all break down.
I was born in the great city of Boston, and I’m truly glad to be able to say that. I love Boston. My family, going back generations, fits squarely into the Boston-Irish, Catholic box. My grandparents were raised in Southie and moved out to the suburbs after adopting my mother. My Papa faced indescribable hardships and difficulties in his life. I will not go into the details, because it’s not my story to tell. It will never be mine to tell. All I’ll say is that he was the quintessential stoic, stiff-lipped, fighting-Irishman. And he was my hero. My Nana faced heart ache and sorrow as well. In line with the Irish tradition, though, neither of them spoke much about the painful parts of life. The focus was always on the good – growing up in Southie where “everyone knew everyone” and if you did something “wrong” as a kid, you better hope NO adult from your neighborhood saw you, because if they did, your parents would surely hear about it and “boy, would you get it!” (Quotations are Nana’s words, not mine), memories of the “good ol’ days”, Papa telling stories of sailing in the harbor as a boy, and jokes and sarcasm at every turn, in every situation.
Growing up, my father was not a part of my life. Struggles with addiction and the legal system prevented it. In his absence, my Papa stepped in. When I was small, Mom and I actually lived with them for a time. Nana quit her factory job to be with me while Mom worked. Papa doted on me like no one else. I was their first grandchild, and, by all accounts, they were smitten. As was I. In fact, Nana and Papa were, and would remain, some of the most influential and positive people in my life. They were, truly, everything I aspired to, incarnate. When Mom made the decision to move to Vermont, they both took great pains to come up and visit often and called me every single night, just to see how my day was. I spent just about every school vacation with them in Weymouth. They were my rock in what was otherwise a very turbulent childhood. For 25 years, Papa was the one I would call if I needed advice or help; Nana was the one I would call for everything else – every Sunday was spent “gabbing away”, as my Papa called it – from the Bruins to the weather, my horoscope to the Patriots and the ‘Sox, the latest news from Nana’s neighborhood to celebrity gossip – Nana would talk about anything! (And talk, and talk, and talk – *I say with affection*.) They cheered me on every step of the way, and supported me each time I tripped and fell.
What’s more, their marriage was strong. The extent of arguments they had were over truly silly things. Like what show or movie they recognized a certain actor from, the appropriate term for a public water dispenser (Nana said “water fountain”, Papa said “bubbler – a water fountain is that thing in a city park!”), and whether or not Molly, their tiny Lhasa Apso, was blind. Their love for each other always shined through, though, in my eyes.
In 2012, what I will refer to as the “Marathon Monday Curse” began. Prior to 2012, my family was far from immune from tragedy and loss – but Marathon Monday 2012 was a turning point. It was a blow to everyone. My Great Auntie Barbie was murdered in her Three Decker in Southie by a guy looking to rob her for money to get heroin. I didn’t know her well at all, but watching family members I did know and was close to in so much pain was very hard. Marathon Monday 2013 was, of course, the bombings. My cousin Ricky was running in that marathon in honor of Great Auntie Barbie (his mother). Thankfully he was uninjured, but he crossed the finish line just moments before the first blast. I spent the next several hours frantically trying to get a hold of family and friends to make sure they were OK. I’m grateful that none of them were hurt or killed, but having something like that happen hit way too close to home. The whole family found it strange that both events happened on Marathon Monday. What kind of a cruel cosmic joke was that? Then came 2014.
Monday, April 21, seemed to pass without incident. The runners ran, and there was no phone call about someone dying. I actually breathed a sigh of relief. I, along with the rest of my family, would learn on Tuesday morning that the Marathon Monday Curse had indeed hit again. When I say “hit”, I mean sucker punched me. And then lifted me over its shoulders and slammed me on the concrete. Then kicked me in the ribs a few times before spitting on me and staring me down with its unimaginably cruel, merciless eyes.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014, I was at work. I was in a fantastic mood; my client was in a fantastic mood. We cooked breakfast. My phone rang. I ignored it. (I made it a habit of not answering my phone while at work.) My client requested to go to the local WalMart to buy some new headphones, and I drove him there. During the drive, my phone rang two more times. It was Mom. Then, in rapid succession, I received a text from my boss telling me I should call my mom (uh-oh) and an email from Tom, my stepfather of 15 years. Tom’s email was short: “Give me a call when you can. I just talked to your mother.” For some reason (and I’ll never understand why) it felt safest and most logical in that moment to call Tom. I guess I didn’t want to hear my mom hurting. Or maybe I was worried something was wrong on with her, and I wanted to be prepared for “The News”, whatever it was, before talking with her. In some desperate form of denial, I even had myself convinced that Mom was blowing something way out of proportion, and I just “didn’t have time for stress or drama”. So, calling Tom it was.
In the middle of the electronics section of WalMart, I called his work line. He answered, and I responded with an overly-cheery “Hey Tom! Got your email. What’s up?”
There was a beat. Then, in a slightly shaking voice and tentative tone he said, “You haven’t talked to your mother yet.”
“No, I haven’t. I’m at work. What’s up?” I replied, in the same forced-upbeat-tone. I thought maybe if I could keep myself positive, everything would be OK.
After a short back and forth of Tom insisting I call Mom, and me growing more and more concerned and telling him that he needed to tell me what was going on, he finally relented. “Nana and Papa.” he almost whispered.
Nana and Papa? I thought. Jesus, what happened? Did their house burn down? Did they get robbed? Maybe they got sick. Oh, I hope they aren’t sick. “What about them?” I asked, head misty with the fog of complete confusion and denial. I couldn’t bring myself to even think what I suddenly knew, in my bones, to be true. I could feel my hands and feet start to tingle. Every hair hair follicle on my body felt on end.
“They’re dead, Sheil.” His voice broke.
I had vertigo. It literally felt like something inside me, maybe my soul, dropped from my chest to my feet. I got dizzy. My vision blurred. I must have heard him wrong. They can’t both be dead. That’s not possible. I’ll call them as soon as I hang up with Tom. He must be wrong. He has to be wrong. Instead of voicing my frenzied denial thoughts, I simply said, “OK.” My voice was calm and even as I quietly asked, “How?”
Tom shared with me the information he had – that it looked as though Nana had died of natural causes and Papa had then died by suicide. Suicide. Papa? The day continued and only got more horrific as it went on. I left work after securing coverage for my client, Mom headed straight to Boston, and I took my younger brother and daughter to Tom’s. I told my other younger brother when he got home from school. We commiserated and speculated some, but mostly we just sat in silence.
I followed all of Boston’s local news sites on Facebook. They kept me up to date for my weekly conversations with Nana. After deciding I could take the sitting around and feeling numb no longer, I decided to distract myself by cruising around on my Facebook app. As I was scrolling through my news feed, I came to a News Center 5 article: a picture of my grandparents’ house with the headline “Elderly Couple Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide in Weymouth.” It didn’t register at first. At first, I groaned and started to hand the phone to my brother. I was about to say, “The news guys have to make a story out of everything, don’t they?” As my brother touched the phone, about to take it from my hand, it was like a thousand watts coursed through me. I ripped the phone back and looked at the headline again. And again. Murder-Suicide. Murder-Suicide?
I couldn’t quite wrap my head around what I was reading. I was trying to make sense of it, but it might as well have been another language. The letters were a jumbled mess. Then, suddenly, they all fell into place. Papa killed Nana. Nana didn’t die of natural causes. Papa killed her. Oh my god, Papa killed Nana and then himself. Vertigo again slammed into me. I started to shake. I stood up, I headed for the door because I needed air, turned around, sat down again, and then stood and went outside. I don’t know how long I sat on Tom’s porch, just staring blankly at the gravel and my shoes. Shoes Nana had bought for me. I couldn’t process any of it. And, to be honest, I still can’t. Not fully, anyway.
The end of their lives will never make sense. “Unexpected” is the softest, most muted and ineffective word you could use. I don’t even have a word (or words) for how blindsided I was. I don’t think I ever will. Just like I’ll never have that answer to the question everyone who loses someone to suicide asks repeatedly: “Why?” There was no note. There were no warning signs. Hell, I talked to them on Easter Sunday (the day before it happened) and Papa was running to the hardware store to get a piece for his lawn mower. Nana talked to me for over two hours that day. How does the corner get turned that quickly?
Friends called me to check in and I either didn’t answer at all or I kept the conversations short. I couldn’t feel the grief. That was too threatening. I couldn’t talk about it. That made it too real. I was much more comfortable helping my younger brothers process. At the wake and funeral, I didn’t really cry. Sure, a few stubborn tears broke through my wall of stoicism and propriety, but, for the most part, I held it together. At the gathering after the funeral, I did what any good Irish gal would do – I got plastered. And still, I didn’t cry. I cried some at home, and I did break down sobbing when I went to pick up Papa’s car and found “our” recorded cassette tape (A-Side: Willie Nelson, B-Side: Pink Floyd). That was the one we always listened to on car rides to and from Vermont. When I played it, I could almost here Papa’s off-key humming to “Coming Back To Life.” I bitterly thought about the irony in that. In the grand scheme of things, though, I was completely disconnected and numb.
I started going to therapy a few months after they died. I deemed their deaths “worthy” of seeking help. (A little aside about me: for a Social Work major and a direct service mental health worker, I am fantastically terrible at reaching out for help for myself.) My tendency is to close off, push anyone who might actually care away, and turn my back on the world at large. I won’t go to therapy unless something “really bad” is going on. If I do, I feel like I’m taking help away from someone who might need it more. (I know that that is backwards and illogical, just sharing my twisted train of thought.) In fact, I’ve had an actual, real, live, on-going therapist only three times in my life: once in college, when I was handling what, in hindsight, was Bipolar creeping out of my genes and into my every day life and screwing with my brain chemicals in all sorts of ways – including pulling me head-first into suicidal depression; after Nana and Papa died; and now, after a manic episode, deep depressive state, PTSD, and a hospital stay.
Depression has been a constant companion of mine for most of my life. Sometimes, it’s just static crackling in the background of my brain, other times it’s cranked right up to 11 and it’s all I can hear, but regardless of the volume, it’s always there. The first time I had a thoughts of self-harm or suicide, I was thirteen or fourteen years old. They were fairly passive thoughts for the most part. In talking with friends, I was able to avoid needing to tell my Mom or step-father and going to counseling or a doctor. (Honestly, I didn’t even know you could tell your pediatrician about depression and I didn’t want to get in trouble for saying the “wrong” thing.) Since those first, fleeting suicidal and self-destructive thoughts surfaced, they’ve been a sort of terrible companion, too. They’ve blended into the same speaker responsible for my depression. The two resonate in harmony, over one frequency. The only thing that’s changed over time is my ability to drown them out with other noises – noises like “I am worthy.” “This is worth it.” “I will accomplish something in my life.” “My family needs me.” “My friends need me.” etc.
These thoughts have never “cured” me (obviously). I’m not sure anything will ever be precise enough sever each wire carrying the high-voltage surround sound of negative self-talk, depression, and suicidal thoughts through my head. They’ve been intertwined with the tendrils of my brain stem far too long. They’re corroded in place.
But the volume and pitch changed after my grandparents died. The background static almost completely vanished. Instead, it was just a matter of how loud the thoughts were day to day and whether or not I could drown them out with my speaker of positive soundbites and self affirmations. Suicide was suddenly on my radar as a very real option, more real than it had ever been in my life. When you think about it, it makes some sort of sick sense. The man I admired most in this entire world not only died by suicide, but also took my Nana with him. That’s the kind of gaping murmur in your heart that simply can’t be fixed. It’s a hole burrowed straight through the grey matter of your brain.
My therapist made an observation one day, saying, “Once you lose a loved one to suicide, it’s going to feel like a valid choice by default. It’s no longer an abstract notion. It’s tangible. Real. It’s common to have an increase in those kinds of thoughts after something like this – for anyone.”
I found myself in a “special” category, though. I was not someone who lost a loved one to suicide and was now depressed and having my own thoughts of ending it. I was someone who had non-nonchalantly tossed the idea of suicide between my fingers for years. I idly twisted its fabric in my hand, feeling its texture on my skin, shaping my tongue into each syllable until it sounded soft and calming. For someone like me, my therapist said, of course losing someone so very dear to me in such a horrific way would increase those thoughts, and, if I wasn’t careful, breathe life into the idea of taking my last breath far too young and by my own hand.
The past three years have been a back and forth. Like summer afternoons spent on my Papa’s sailboat as a child, sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it’s choppy and makes me sea sick. I won’t lie, I’ve come way too close to just saying “Fuck it” and jumping off the proverbial boat into the abyss on more than one occasion. On the especially rough days, now, though, the thought that gives me the energy to steady the sail and reach out for help is the way that Nana and Papa’s death impacted me. While it used to be justification, after that conversation with my therapist, it’s now a deterrent. I realize that if I, too, were to die by suicide, in some ways, I’d be granting a sort of permission to my brothers, to my friends, to my family. Because that is the true legacy of suicide. On top of the pain, hurt, anger, confusion, guilt, and grief, it opens the gates and says to those you care most about, “This is a valid solution to your pain.”
Memorial Tattoo – My Papa’s Handwriting, reminding me daily that no matter how he left, he loved me always.
Speaking from my experience, though, when suicidal thoughts are cranked up to 11, and blaring through your brain, your rib cage is shaking with the bass of them, and your ears are ringing with the treble. Nothing else matters. Hell, nothing else even exists. You can’t make your family or friends or job or any other aspect of your life matter. You convince yourself that the entire world would be better off without you in it. This is where a safety plan comes in. This is where you talk to people you care about (and who care about you) when the noise isn’t overwhelming your central nervous system and tell them what warning signs to look out for. This is when you save a Crisis line number or two in your phone for easy access. This is when you plan the most effective distractions. This is when you resolve, no matter how terrible it gets, that you will not grant anyone else in your life permission to die by suicide.
“It gets better” is not an empty platitude. Living with Bipolar, my depression comes in waves. And sometimes, the wave is massive and when it hits me, thoughts of suicide flood in and sometimes, they threaten to carry me back out into the dark, frigid sea of complete hopelessness. But, through therapy and medications, they are easier to beat back now. My “really bad days” are not as bad as they used to be. Slow but steady progress is being made. It’s work, but it’s worth it.
Thanks for reading. Again, if you or someone you love is struggling, please do what you can to get in touch with a therapist, call a local crisis line, call 9-1-1, or go to the hospital. I might not know you personally, but I don’t want this world to go on without you in it.