01 May 2016

April is the Cruellest Month: Loss, Suicide, and Finding Joy During a Tough Month

Tia--a good day on the canal
Simon and Garfunkle's "April Come She Will" has been playing in my head since April 11th, the day we lost our pooch, Tia Maria, to liver cancer. It was a rough five weeks from diagnosis to the day when we had to call the vet.

Dan and I loved that little dog. Never having been without dogs or cats, our empty house seemed to echo the time when I lost Dad to suicide and our family had no anchor. I also haven't been able to get T.S. Eliot's first four lines of his poem "The Waste Land" out of my head either.

April is the cruellest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain.

I remember Mom often saying, "I hate April," that month when you expect birth from winter, the land greening with newness, the flowers and trees blooming, the sun finally remembering it needed to shine. Warmth, birdsong, goslings waddling behind their parents, calla lilies spiking through dirt.

April seems a schizophrenic month that promises a new start, a leaving of winter and a thriving of all living things but tests everything and everyone. Sometimes after seedlings burst, April will deliver a frost. Birds are wild with mating, but lose their head and smash into windows. Frenetic energy brings mistakes. The season is full of beauty and the stirring of desire--from sexual desire to a need to garden. It's all about planting of seed and escaping winter.

And this brings me back to suicide and the seasons.

Many believe the rate of suicide peaks in the cold and dark months of winter, but that's not true according to research. Suicide is prevalent in late spring and early summer months.

My theory on this is that the holiday season keeps us engaged and filled with interaction with loved ones. My dad made it through pain and emotional suffering the winter of 1969 surrounded by family and celebration. There was hope. Then the need to carry this through with New Years and the idea that something would change, a better year, a different year. By March it's pretty damn clear that nothing has changed for the person suffering, and when April comes, so does the frenetic energy, never mind taxes and the responsibilities of clearing, growing crops, pruning, weeding, the long hot summer ahead meaning work, maybe the craziness of not being able to mate or let go of that pent up energy, and like a bird flying into the window, the mistake is made. 
Dad, me and my brother Kent working in the garden 1955
So today, on the anniversary of Dad's death, I offer this letter to you, one I wrote to him today in the hope that I can pass on more info about the pattern of suicide. I have no idea if any of this will help anyone, but I do know the rate of suicide is brutal for the men and women in our military. Maybe, just maybe, if we understand more, have more information, and keep a list of resources handy, we might keep someone from leaving us, someone who if they live might invent something amazing or give birth to the next great leader. Who knows? I am ever hopeful.

Today is the first day of May. Yay! May brings birthdays, my oldest granddaughter and mine. May also brings new life. We're so excited because on May 19th we bring little Stevie, our new Havanese puppy, home.

Stevie at four weeks
Embrace life. Love and light to you all!
Val

* * * * * * * * * * *

                                                                     30 April, 2016 


Dear Dad,



On this day forty-six years ago, April 30, 1970, you committed suicide.

I understand why you did it. You were in pain, struck down from an autoimmune disease that hit in 1944 when you were an officer during WWII. You spent a year in a Texas Army hospital that couldn’t diagnose your illness. Later it would be called PTSD.

April 3, 1970 was your 54th birthday. You told us not to buy you any presents. You were gray-haired, skin and bones, and physically worn out. You still had two kids at home, a 17-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. I was going to have your first grandchild in July.

But you couldn’t wait. And as I said, I understand.

You were always self-sacrificing. You thought your family would be better off.

The truth however is something you didn’t understand and I didn’t discover until much later—the idea of suicide is addictive like a drug. The pattern is the same, the same spikes and plateaus, the ever-shortening relief brought on with the bigger the need. The idea of suicide brings relief at first, but then needs to be fed more and more to get ever larger doses of serotonin, the calming, happiness-producing hormone.



I don’t know when you first thought of suicide as a possible way out. It could have come rather innocently.

Maybe it came when you had to call into work sick because your body felt aflame. Perhaps a bill came due that you couldn’t pay or it was the day you scraped your beloved new blue Oldsmobile against the side of the garage and realized you no longer had control. Maybe it was from me dropping out of college, getting pregnant, and marrying a Vietnam Vet with his own demons who I thought I could save. Possibly it was when your business partner bailed and your business failed.

The day I drove you to the VA Hospital in Vermont for tests, you thought you might have cancer. You hadn’t felt good for three years you said. Because the hospital had no doctors on staff that day or over the weekend, they said to go home. We went for coffee. You seemed calm and relaxed. In an unusual confession, you told me you had never wanted children because of your condition, knowing you wouldn’t be a good father, even admitted to being too controlling, like your father was. Later, I would realize that this was your way of saying sorry, and goodbye. Thank you for that. Later, it would give me understanding and closure.

           

Whatever first put the idea of suicide into your head, you thought of it and experienced your first hit of serotonin. You were back in control and had a way out if need be.

That didn’t last however.



The next time you experienced stress and your body was wracked with pain, you thought of suicide again, and that brought relief, only this time not as much. When the pattern repeated, relief came when you started planning your suicide. Now the relief was stronger and longer.

The family doctor had given you painkillers. That’s how you’d do it. A big surge of relief this time. You functioned for a while and felt back in control.

But it didn’t last long, and the next time some incident brought back the pain, you were ready to be done with it. You calmly took that bottle of pills and laid down on the bed, waiting for relief. Instead, you slept for three days. Probably you’d built your drug tolerance too high. Mom had me go over to change your sheets and I found you in the bed, and you were breathing, but wouldn’t wake up. Only nineteen and scared, I called Mom, but Mom said let him sleep. He’s tired. He sleeps a lot. So I covered him and left.

After the failed attempt, you no longer felt a big surge of serotonin. So this time you started carefully planning, took your time, and made sure your business was in order, from making sure your insurance policy had no suicide clause to figuring out how much paint it would take to finish painting the garage. The serotonin surged. You were acting happy around that time, even for your birthday on April 3rd.

By the end of the month, you’d finished writing a love letter to Mom and telling her how and why you were doing what you were doing. You’d convinced yourself that since you couldn’t provide for your family anymore and no one could help you medically, you’d end up being a financial burden on your family. You said you hadn’t felt good for three years and didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I wondered if you cried as you wrote that four-page letter. I can imagine you also felt relief. You felt free. You’d done the right thing for your family. You gave Mom instructions on everything she’d have to do after you were gone, including having me paint the rest of the garage. You told Mom how much you loved her and the best days of your life had been with her. You said how sorry you were. You even apologized to me for not being there to see your first grandchild and made a joke that we would probably not name our baby after you, Albert Horace. You also told Mom where the police could find your body. You didn’t want Kent and Wendy coming home from school and finding you.

You folded the letter, sealed it in an envelope, and left it along with a copy of your insurance policy standing against the fruit bowl on the kitchen table.

Then you drove to town, bought a new license for the dog, paid all outstanding bills, got a haircut, drove home to leave the license and pick up your gun.

At one of your former favorite hunting grounds in Sanbornton, you parked your car. That beautiful blue Oldsmobile that you loved so. The day was sunny. A lovely flood of serotonin hit. You no longer had to worry about your family or the burden you’d become. You’d no longer be in pain. The gun felt familiar in your hand. I don’t know if you were crying or smiling or just ready to go. Then you shot yourself.

You were free. But we had to suffer the burden that suicide leaves on a family.



I’ve had many years to heal from losing you. I still write letters to you and one year I even bought a Father’s Day card for you. This year I want you to know one thing: I don’t blame you, Dad, for what you did. Many forces were at play.

I blame war and our stupid fixation on what is heroic. I blame a system that hadn’t identified PTSD as real or the health system that failed you and still fails others in our military. I blame the Greatest Generation’s belief that they could control everything and valued keeping an outward appearance of perfection vs. recognizing when a family or person was in trouble. You couldn’t ask for help. It was too embarrassing and would be a sign of weakness.

Suicide is not painless. We would have rather had you alive even if it meant hard times, because suicide caused rough years for all of us. Twenty years after your death, like a gateway to grief, when my two dogs died in one year, I finally felt your loss and grieved so hard I thought I’d never stop crying.

I love you. And as I said, I understand your decision. I don’t even look at it as the wrong decision. It was the only one you thought you had at the time, and who knows? I cannot see into the parallel universe that would have been if you had lived.

All I can say is you were and are deeply loved and missed. I forgave you years ago for leaving so soon. You missed so much joy with Jason and his girls and the two great-grandsons.

Yes, there is pain in life, but joy is always around the corner. You just need to be patient and keep the light on.



Love always,

Valerie




28 comments:

Melissa Embry said... [Reply to comment]

So sorry to hear about your loss. The season when we're looking forward to new life can throw us some cruel curves.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you, Melissa. I so appreciate your comment. I'll be putting up a much different blog in the next few weeks as May bursts forth and I put April behind me.
A hug for you.

Jane Lamanuzzi said... [Reply to comment]

Jane Lamanuzzi I read this blog and was thinking of my father who also committed suicide. Unlike you, I never really knew him. My parents were divorced and I didn't have much contact. But still, there are always questions when someone does this. To some it may seem like the easy way out; but I think it takes courage to do this. Anyway, I loved reading this letter.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Jane, I didn't know your father committed suicide. I'm so sorry. Whether you knew him well or not, he was your father. I also think it takes courage. Or can often be affected by prescribed drugs and depression. My dad's letter gave us his reasons and I'm so grateful he spent the time to do that. When the person leaves nothing, or in the case of a good friend whose father left a nasty note, it's much more difficult to comprehend and have closure, not that there is closure, but at least peace. A big hug to you. I know what it's like to live with this.

Rachelle said... [Reply to comment]

My mother, father, and aunt died under similar circumstances. Two of them without a nationally recognized war to mark the eruption of their pain. And I don't blame them. I get it even though I don't suffer similar demons. It's great that you are writing about this. I'm sending you love.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

MARY JO COMINS via EMAIL:
Powerful blog, Val. Stevie looks like a marvelous antidote to loss, as far as that's possible. Your letter is more than a magnificent tribute to your dad -- and it is that. It needs to be published beyond your blog, even with email and facebook notifications. Multitudes will benefit. You are a treasure. A giant hug to you, my dear!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Oh, Rachelle! I had no idea. I'm so sorry. How did you deal with such a terrible loss? My heart goes out to you. I'm so glad you don't suffer "similar demons." I hope you have plenty of other family that are like you. Sending you love, also.

Julia Whitmore said... [Reply to comment]

So sorry to hear you lost your puppy! And what an amazing tribute to your dad. Here's to May and happier days with Stevie (OMG) ahead. Cheers --

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you so much, Mary Jo. I hope to find a way to put it out into the world. Thanks so much for your support and love. xoxo

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Ah, yes, Julie, it's been a trial. But writing about Dad always helps and I hope helps others. Yes, Stevie! OMG! Wait until you see the latest photos. She was meant to be. hugs and love

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

VIA EMAIL

Valerie.......
Thank you so very much for sharing.
I feel much closer to my long deceased parents.
Wishing you and Dan peace.

Adam Cole

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

VIA EMAIL

Thanks, Val. Big hugs to you!

Jennie Shortridge
www.jennieshortridge.com
www.seattle7writers.org

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

VIA EMAIL

Thank you for the letter to your father. I am the daughter of TWO suicides--different pressures of course--and I am sure in both cases they thought it the better choice.

And, you know, perhaps it was. We can’t judge or know the future--but it is difficult to understand. And I am proud of you for writing that.

Billy


PS--I am still walking on air after receiving this award a couple of weeks ago at the OLA convention..

2016 recipient of the Oregon Library Association’s Evelyn SIbley Lampman Award for significant contributions for the benefit of the children of Oregon.

Author of Drawn Together...in art...in love...in friendships: The Biography of Caldecott Award-winning Authors Berta and Elmer Hader.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you so much, Billy! And super congrats on your award. Wow! You are so deserving. You’ve worked so hard on that project.

I’m so stunned by the number of my friends who have had not only one suicide in the family, but more. Yes, who’s to say what is the better choice? As an adult, I do see how my dad’s illness would have put us in the poorhouse. Thanks for your support. I’d really like to get my letter to Dad out onto a bigger platform.

hugs,
Val

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

BARB SULLIVAN VIA EMAIL

Your beautifully, painfully detailed account of how the suicide impulse works so seductively is information that should be broadcast as widely as possible--because I don't think that's very well understood. If it were, people contemplating suicide might make very different choices, or at least more informed ones, and their loved ones might be better able to see the signs in time to reach out instead of having to struggle for resolution in retrospect: even if the outcome were the same, the result would be different.

I also respect and admire the path you show through the tangled chaos survivors must travel--a path that follows compassion while also recognizing how natural it is to be angry when someone leaves us in this way, a path that avoids judgment while laying out evidence, a path that leads to the inevitable conclusion about where the blame really lies.

Suicide is epidemic in some places (Greenland, for example, where one in four people attempt it), and in some groups--our own vets, as you point out (41% higher risk of suicide than the general population). One common denominator, at least in the failure to prevent suicide regardless of causative factors, is silence.

Thanks for the time, energy, and heart that I know this post required.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

SAMANTHA WALTZ VIA EMAIL

Val, I found so much value in this blog. Much sympathy to you of course. I was fascinated with the whole concept of back and forth spring because I wondered why when the sun first burst out my spirit sank instead of applauding. And a dear girlfriend fell in to a black hole that lasted nearly a week without understanding why. I’m going to read this several more times tomorrow. I’ve never heard the concept before but a guy friend likes winter best, fall next best, and I didn’t understand that either. It helps me understand him better. I hope you reach a lot of people with this “confession.”

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Dear Samantha,

I’m aware of how many people think spring will bring relief, but my observation of the years is that it’s just the opposite. I could give you astrological reasons, too, but for now, I’m suggesting that it’s that frenetic spring energy (affecting physiological elements that I don’t understand) combined with high expectations for relief (oh, sunshine! oh, flowers! oh baby geese!) that cause the deep dive. It’s like working yourself up for the prom and finding out it’s just your classmates in fancy dress and at the end, nothing has changed. In fact your rival at school was crowned queen.

You get the idea. In winter, we tend to hunker down and our bodies know this.

Here’s Wikipedia’s info on the suicide aspect of the season. I found it interesting that even Australians experience the same thing even though they’re spring is our fall.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_effects_on_suicide_rates

Let me know if you want to talk further about this. I’m hoping to get this info out into the world, so please pass on my blog if you think it will help others. I will try in the next week to post some ways I’ve personally found to pull myself from the “waiting for the other shoe to drop” syndrome.

big hug,
Val

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

KARLA DROSTE VIA EMAIL

Val, dearest!

I am so deeply moved by your writing. I've always felt like we had such a bond from the moment out there by the river where we confessed our deepest pain to each other. Mine was so new at the time, it had only been a year, and I remember gaining so much solace from you; seeing you helped me know that I really could heal from this tragedy. I knew I would never be the same, but I watched you and I knew I would heal, a deeper, wiser, more compassionate woman than I was because you showed me it could happen.

You were the first to share with me that suicidal ideation is an addictive process. That was always so helpful to me, because having my own addictive processes, I was able to understand it - - a little more. Of course, it's still painful, and I still think about him. But like you, I have come to understand his decision. I think he was also afraid he could not provide for my mom, and thanks to insurance, she would have more money if he was dead than alive. And there was a deep down pain in his soul around both the relationship with Mom and his career ending when the money dropped out of the oil business, and he just couldn't live with it. He bought the gun four years before he used it. I bet there were several "serotonin bumps" in those four years before he made his final decision. When I wrote his eulogy, I ended it with "And we are so glad you are finally free, the Aquarian has found his star." something like that - he had 5 planets in Aquarius, and saddling himself down in such a conventional life never really suited him. That made me sad for a long time . . .

Dad died in August, 1989. I am not surprised at all that most suicides are in the spring/summer. I know that when i am feeling off or blue it is the warm weather and sunshine that can make me feel more anxious; everyone else is so happy, why aren't I? I feel left out of life somehow. Sitting by the fire, cozy in the winter is a lot easier on me when I'm feeling like that.

So I thank you, dearest Valerie, for sharing your family story. Little will you know the healing ripples it will send out to the many people who love you and for the people who don't even know you! You are brave and wise and courageous and I love you so.

And Stevie is adorable! Enjoy her!

Love,
Karla
Karla Droste, MS
~Deepening Relationships With God- spiritualdirectorkarla.com

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Dearest Karla,

Thank you for responding with so much heart. I love you so much!

I remember well our talks about our fathers and suicide and then scattering some of your dad’s ashes from our deck. It was a moment of faith, your faith in me and in the ritual, and touched me deeply. Yes, your dad, the Aquarian, had found his star, and we found our lasting and loving friendship.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

LESLEY HOWARD VIA EMAIL

Thank you for sharing the letter to your dad -- powerful, as always, to hear others' stories. And :( for the loss of the dog. I have become quite the passionated mutt-owner and as my oldest one begins to slow down, I am enjoying every minute with her because life is so short. Duh, right, but somehow it takes living a certain number of years to appreciate their temporality.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Yes, it does take a certain number of years to appreciate their temporality. I do wish it were not so temporary, but we must enjoy every single minute we're given. Thanks so much for writing. Please come to Oregon again! I miss you.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

BILL POPPIE VIA EMAIL

Hi Val,

You touch my life and I’m glad to have you in it. Here’s to our Birth Month and all the glorious struggles we are lucky enough to have!
Love,
Bill

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Ditto, my May birthday pal! Love, Val

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ms. K @ Write On Thyme said... [Reply to comment]

Oh Val, this brought tears. Such beauty and heart in your writing and I felt your pain and blessedly your forgiveness in ways I hadn't in our discussions on the subject. Thank you for sharing and for the beauty of you. Love you and can't wait to see Stevie! New life, new love. Life always gives us new opportunities for love... and forgiveness. And gratitude for those who were here before. Love to you, Kirsten xoxo

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Ms. K @ Write On Thyme Thank you so much, dear friend. Yes, to new life, new love. Can't wait for you to meet Stevie! Soon! Blessings & much love. xoxo

Jill said... [Reply to comment]

Dearest Valerie,

To read this of course brings tears to my eyes, because I remember those events only too well. It was the first time I ever saw my own Daddy cry, broken down in sobs when he received the news that his best friend and fellow WWII Vet was gone. The events that followed: the mostly silent long trip from NY to NH, and all I could think of was what could I possibly say to my "cousins" that would make them feel any better. I remember that the prior summer your parents had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a big party at the house and thinking how life had gone completely upside down now. I know my Dad, who had introduced your parents, felt a responsibility toward your Mum from that moment on. They still took her out to dinner on her anniversary, I guess trying to keep Uncle Slick's memory alive. Not that we could ever forget him. When those two men got together there were plenty of laughs. And by the way, you could have named Jason, "Slick," you know! After all, it WAS the 70's.

Thank you for sharing your letter. And my condolences on the loss of sweet Tia, whom I was lucky to meet when your Mum first got her. Stevie has big paws to fill!

Love always,
Jilly xoxo

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Jill Thanks, Jill. It's a heartbreaker knowing your dad was so upset and crying. I think my dad was the person people expected to do that. I'm sure it was hard on you, seeing your dad like that and having such a huge change in our family dynamics. Our family split apart, Kent and I going off to someplace else just to distance ourselves from reality. Wendy, of course, was the only one at home. I'm glad you two were so close. Thank you for telling me about your family's history around that time. Yes, we could have named Jason Slick, but no one could fill those shoes. We did however, nickname him Spike, kind of similar.

We miss Tia, even with the new pup. Stevie does have big paws to fill. xoxo love always