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!

* * * * * * * * * * *

                                                                     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,