It was Memorial Day, Monday, May 26, 1997. I was 17-years-old, an only child growing up in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. I had just finished my first year at a local community college. I knew I was not ready to go away to college; I had not declared a major yet, but was that the real reason? Looking back now, I realize that there was more that impacted my decision to stay home during my freshman year of college, and thank God I did.
It was early that Monday morning, and I was at my mother’s house, attempting to sleep in and get some much-needed rest. The house phone rang, waking me up. “Hello?” No one answered. Again, I asked, “Hello?” Still nothing.
I hung up the phone and attempted to fall back asleep. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. “Hello?” No answer. “Hello?” Silence. Again, I hung up the phone and fell back to sleep.
An hour or so had passed, and the phone rang again. I was annoyed this time. I picked up the phone, but before I could even say hello, I heard my Grandmother on the other line, and she sounded worried.
She asked if I had seen or heard from my dad this morning. She said he had gone out for a walk a couple of hours ago because he hadn’t slept well the night before, and had not returned yet.
My father had been battling depression the few months prior, and we thought it would be best for him to stay with his mom for his safety. And he was doing well and feeling the best he had since the depression started.
My Grandmother had already driven around her neighborhood looking for him with no success. She even drove to his house, which was a little over a mile away, but she didn’t have a key to get in, and no one answered the door when she knocked. She asked me if I could go over to his house to check if he was there.
It was in that moment that I got that nauseating, dreadful, pit in my stomach. Nothing could have prepared me for what I would find.
The house was quiet when I opened the door. I shouted for him, but there was no reply. I searched the whole house and thought I was in the clear until I remembered the addition we were having built.
There was a note taped to the door: “Do not open door. Call 911.”
Why? Why did I have to open it? I remember screaming, grabbing the phone to call 911, and having to run to the bathroom to vomit. The next thing I remember was police officers at the door. The rest is a blur. My body must have gone into shock. I don’t remember leaving his house or how I even arrived at my Grandmother’s house.
His funeral was held a couple of days later, which is also a blur to this day. What I do remember is the number of people who came out to pay their respects to my father. It was overwhelming. I remember thinking that if he had only realized how much love, support, and friendship he had on this earth, that maybe we would not be here at his funeral.
After my father’s funeral, I remember the feeling of his death being “final.” As a teenager, this was very hard to cope with. It was the first close family death I had dealt with, and for it to be my father was very traumatic.
Professionals say there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But as a person who lost someone to suicide, there is also a stigma attached to grieving, which I found to be the most challenging part.
Our society does not like to speak about the “s” word – “suicide.” To hear that someone died by suicide is usually whispered down the lane and not talked about publicly. When my father died by suicide, it was very hard knowing how suicide was perceived by our society.
I was ashamed to say how my father died when anyone asked, which made me not want to be in social settings. I stayed home a lot; I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. There were times that I needed my mom to lay in bed with me until I fell asleep at night. I felt out of control and unable to control my life.
I went through the denial stage for a while, thinking that my father was not dead. I kept telling myself that he is still out there somewhere, living a life as someone else, and he will be back someday. If only that were true.
The anger and depression stages overlapped and were the two stages that lasted the longest. They were the most detrimental stages in my life. Due to bottling up my emotions and feeling like I could not control my life, I needed to take control of something. That “something” came in the form of eating and exercising, and sent me down a destructive path of anorexia and bulimia when I eventually went away to college. I was exercising as much as I could between classes and studying for nursing school, hardly eating or drinking anything, and what I did eat, I would most likely throw up.
Thankfully, due to some fantastic college roommates, professors, and a therapist, they all noticed the destructive trail I was heading down and were able to get me the help I needed for my eating disorder and for grieving my father’s suicide. I was sent to inpatient rehab for a month.
After rehab and returning to school, I started going to a Suicide Loss Survivor’s Group that met monthly, which was the best therapy.
At a Suicide Loss Survivor’s Group, you are among others that have gone through and suffered the same loss you have. They can experience those sudden, raw emotions that others don’t understand, especially the stigma that accompanies suicide. Along with my therapist, this group is where I learned acceptance and that the word “suicide” is not taboo.
Since my father’s death, there is still not a week that goes by that I do not think about him or grieve him in some way. Memorial weekend and May 26 will never be the same for me, and those days I still get sad, but I am allowed; it is called grieving.
But every year it gets a little better and a little easier. What helps me move on are two things: 1. the phone that kept ringing that Memorial Day morning was him calling to hear my voice one last time and to say goodbye in his own way. 2. knowing that he would be proud of me and my life. I am a proud wife and mother to triplets. I am a certified school nurse and I help students in need with similar situations so that no other family has to feel the pain that I did.
Author: Danielle Barnette-Eckenrode, M.Ed., BSN, RN, CSN