The "S" Word
I knew he was gone before I even made the call. There was a nagging feeling I had deep in my belly that I had been pushing away all day. There was something about his text that didn't sit right with me. "You were all I ever wanted but I lost my way..."
I got up around 4am to go to the bathroom and when I got back to bed, I glanced at my phone. There was a message sent by my husband at one minute past midnight. I rolled my eyes. He was pouring his heart out. He was obviously drunk. And for what might have been the first time in my life, I fell right back to sleep.
About nine months earlier, he had moved out of our house. He said he didn't know if he wanted to be married anymore. Nothing made any sense after that. He seemed "off" somehow but I was too busy resenting him and adjusting to single motherhood to try to figure it out. He didn't seem to want a divorce but didn't act like he wanted to come back home. We were in limbo. I was crushed and confused. He would come to see our son on Sundays but even that had started to slip. Somehow he just wasn't himself. I assumed he was enjoying his freedom a bit too much.
The next morning, I stared at his words from the night before. It still sounded like bullshit to me. Why the sudden sentimentality? I replied, "you okay?" I got no response. It was early. I figured there was no way he was awake yet. I was sure he had been up all night. I tried him several times throughout the day with texts and phone calls, waiting for him to answer me. I kept reading that text knowing something was wrong but my denial game was strong. I tend to worry. I can easily imagine the worst case scenario in any situation. He always teased me about catastrophizing. I was probably just overreacting.
After a full day of failed attempts to make contact, I knew this was more than an all-night bender. In a pleading voicemail I said, "I don't care what you've done. I just need to know that you're safe." He had talked about needing help to get clean. He was looking into going to rehab. He had taken time off work. I thought he must have fallen off the wagon. He was probably too ashamed to admit it. I thought maybe he was embarrassed to tell me. But he would never let me worry this way. I figured he had drunk all the scotch and taken all the pills to quiet the critical voices in his head. I thought he might have taken it too far. I had to do something. I needed someone to make sure he was okay.
I sent one final message. "I'm extremely concerned about you. Please answer me or I'm sending the police." I thought that would get his attention. But I sill got no response. I finally called. When I hung up with the dispatcher, I paced my kitchen floor, trying not to freak the fuck out. I kept hearing a phrase in my head. "We found him unresponsive." I had been silently repeating it all day. I was preparing myself for what I expected would be true. Then, after waiting for what felt like an entire lifetime, my phone rang and my heart stopped. I barely remember how the conversation began.
The officer introduced himself and told me he had performed the welfare check that I requested. What he said next was completely unexpected. "Unfortunately, he committed suicide." I could hear all of the air rush out of my lungs. He continued to speak but I could hardly breathe. How could this be true? I became hysterical. I was in no way prepared for what I was told. It wasn't what I had rehearsed. I never saw this coming. It wasn't drugs. It was on purpose. And he was gone. Looking back now, I still have to remind myself I couldn't have known. There was nothing more I could have done. It was not my fault. It seems like it should have made sense but it didn't. Everything just happened so fast.
I had the daunting task of telling two people that their only child had taken his life. The thought of telling my son was unimaginable. I had no idea how to break this little boy's heart. He had been playing at his best friend's house all day and when he came home he was hyper and giddy. I asked him to sit on the couch so that I could talk to him about something serious. I told him I had to tell him something that would make him very sad.
When he found out his daddy was gone, he got tears in his eyes and got silent. Eventually asked me what happened. As I searched for the right words he asked me, "did somebody kill him?" I said, "no, baby." Then he asked, "did he kill himself?" I just froze. I looked into his huge, innocent, 7-year-old eyes and had no idea what to say. A million thoughts raced through my head all at once. I just stared back at him. And even though there was a part of me screaming just tell him the truth, I couldn't do it. I couldn't find the words to tell my sweet child that the person he looked up to didn't want to be here with us anymore.
I realized right then and there that I was part of the problem. I didn't know how to talk about it. I didn't even feel comfortable saying the word. Suicide. It felt forbidden. Wrong, Dirty. Shameful. Bad. Ugly. Illegal. Sinful. Crazy. Scary. Selfish. Off limits. Taboo. It felt like something I should be ashamed of. That I should apologize for. That I should only whisper about. It wasn't often that when I mentioned my late husband someone would ask me how he died but once in a while I would be caught off guard. And when that happened, I would cringe. I worried about making the person feel uncomfortable. I was afraid of what they would think. I was terrified they would judge.
I'm not going to lie. I would have given anything to have a different story to tell, especially to our sweet boy. A car accident. Cancer. Even an overdose. Because those situations I could explain. But how do you wrap your head around the fact that someone didn't want to live anymore? And even using the word suicide feels vague. There are many ways to take your own life. All of them are intentional. All of them sound like a choice. Most of them are violent. I used to envision a scenario where he ran into a burning building to save babies and then died a hero. But that isn't what happened.
For days upon weeks upon months I played detective. Digging and reading and rereading and analyzing and asking the same questions over and over again. I was looking for a simple explanation. Why? I wanted there to be a reason he did this. A terminal illness. Intoxication. A secret life. I was terrified that I may have been at fault. I didn't do enough. I didn't listen enough. I didn't love him enough. I wasn't enough. He didn't love us enough to stay here and fight.
For a long while, my husband's suicide felt like something he did to me. Like taking the easy way out. Walking away from all his problems. Leaving me here to pick up all the pieces. There were so many financial and legal issues to resolve. So many phone calls. So much red tape. It was infuriating. And every time my son would struggle, I would walk out to the garage or close the door to my bedroom and I would yell at my husband. "How could you do this to me? Can't you see what you've done? This is your fault. You did this to us!"
I would compare myself to other widows. I would envy their simple grief. I wished I could just feel sad. But my feelings were so complicated. Like a shitstorm of emotions all at once. I felt anger and frustration and regret. I felt abandoned. I felt guilt and disappointment. I felt numb. I felt helpless and anxious and shocked. I felt betrayed. I felt so fucking mad. And I would judge myself for all of it. I would wonder what kind of monster could blame someone who was hurting so much. But I did.
I'm not saying I'm not still adding to the stigma. I still wish I had another story to tell. I still cringe when someone asks me about my husband's death. I'm not as comfortable as I would like to be saying the "S" word. But now that I've had time to reflect and be educated about suicide, grief and feelings, I can see the bigger picture. My perspective has vastly changed.
I've been given the gift of learning that I get to decide. It's up to me which thoughts I keep and which ones I leave behind. I can decide how I talk to myself when I feel all my feelings. I get to choose how my story is told. I have decided to believe that his death meant nothing about the amount of love he had for us. He was fighting a battle he was keeping to himself. None of us knew what he was going through. So many people loved him. None of us could have saved him.
I have read that text again a million times. "Please know that I love you...Don't feel any guilt... It was my job to take care of you..." I no longer see his suicide as something he did to me. If anything, he might have thought it was for me. He didn't want to be a burden anymore. He wanted to make good on his promise to take care of me. It wasn't selfish. He was suffering. He was ashamed. He was depressed. I choose to believe he was doing the best he could until he couldn't do it anymore. He didn't see any other way out. He found a solution to end his pain. He didn't want to die. He just wanted the pain to end. And because I will never know the details of that night that changed our lives forever, I choose to believe that now he is free.