It was the first day of school, my junior year of high school. That morning, during prayer in chapel, the headmaster had recited the names of three people who had died during the summer. I cried deeply and silently when he read my father’s name. Three weeks earlier, my father had taken his own life. Later in the day at lunch, a friend approached me, "Hey, what happened to the happy fun-loving Tinka? You just need to smile more." I didn't know whether to smack him or to start bawling, so I walked away, thinking, "There is no way that anyone can understand anything about what I am feeling."
Everything was minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. I became increasingly nervous about the health and safety of my mom and my brother. I was convinced that they would be taken in the middle of the night, quietly but still so deafeningly, just like my dad. Whenever the phone rang late at night or too early in the morning, I imagined the worst. I could no longer see or hear guns. I couldn't listen to music, especially his favorites—John Lennon and Motown—for months. I couldn't look at a photograph of my father. I didn't know any seventeen year olds who had lost a parent. I certainly didn’t know anyone who had attempted suicide.
I became obsessed with learning about loss. I wrote in my journal constantly. I read as many books as I could about loss and grief, hoping to find someone who would understand what I was going through. I wrote a paper on the Latin origins of the word suicide—"sui + cado," to let oneself fall. I dreamt about my dad often. In one dream he stood on a small rock in the middle of the ocean until I called to him, "It's okay, you can go."
Many of my friends wanted to ask me questions but didn't know how. I realized the heaviness and exhaustion of tears, but I also realized I wanted to talk about my father but didn't know where to start. Slowly, we taught one another how. The best friends were the ones who asked questions and listened and weren't afraid of silence. Still, so much of my strength came from my mother, from her ability to hold our family together and to help us see that we had a future after this loss. And so much of my growth comes from my relationship with my brother as we mature together.
There is a litany of feelings that all survivors of suicide know too well. The flippant use of "I could just kill myself"; the incessant wondering of why? why? why?; the anniversary of the death and its importance (no matter how long it has been); someone remembering that this is the day your world stopped and then started differently; the fear of memories yellowing and becoming harder to recall; and the instant connection that many survivors have with one another. Yes, you too, know this story.
I became obsessed with learning about loss. I wrote in my journal constantly. I read as many books as I could about loss and grief, hoping to find someone who would understand what I was going through."
I always thought because I had lost my father and knew grief so intimately that I would be well-equipped to console those in mourning. Still, whenever I sit down to write a sympathy note or call someone who has lost a loved one, I find an awkwardness and a loss for words. Gradually, the words come alive again and I can reach out and try to say the simplest yet still important words: "I do not know exactly how you are feeling and what you are thinking right now, but I am thinking of you and...." Sometimes I don’t want others to feel the pain of loss that I did. Then I realize that it is also, strangely enough, a real source of strength.
It has been ten years since my father died and each year has brought a different kind of awareness, perspective, growth and a redefinition of my relationship with him. I feel as if I have been wearing a bracelet for ten years. When I first wore it, it strangled me and caused me constant pain and tears. Sometimes the bracelet would jab deeply into the flesh of my arm other times it would hang on my wrist unnoticed yet always present, sometimes particularly present when it would catch on to a wool sweater, or cling to the straps of a backpack or be swallowed by the force of a hug. Now it fits more comfortably, but I’ll always know it’s there.
Whenever I go into a church or chapel, I light a candle in memory of my father—the sparkling lights have lit his way through Tuscany, Prague, Romania and Ecuador. He was a wonderful writer and foreign correspondent for twenty-six years. In our basement we have trunks filled with his articles and stories, and my brother and I are slowly dipping into his words. Yet, sometimes it’s easier to leave the boxes packed. Or not write an article about my experience of loss. There's a fear of returning to those earlier raw moments. Things may be less raw now, but they are no less complicated. This article cannot do justice to my relationship with my father. Grief is not about a thousand words, or summary. It's a mosaic that we all create over time, collecting memories, writing down feelings, and sharing the pieces with others. With each anniversary, I still want to ensure that I take time to honor him and the impact his full life had on his whole family. I want to introduce him into new friendships and new accomplishments in my life. I bring him with me wherever I go.
With the death of my father, one life was taken away from me and another was given. I am grateful for both lives but will always miss the man who was my father for seventeen years.