The Way It All Began
"Don’t worry. It’ll never happen. It will never come to that." I don’t know why I remember these words like they were spoken yesterday, but Bill was reassuring me that it was OK to sign the agreement using our house as collateral against a business loan for an investor. I was reluctant to do it, but Bill was a smart man, fiscally conservative, so why should I doubt him? Anyway, our house was worth much more than we owed, and the economy was in full swing so I signed the papers. This was in August of 2001. Years went by and nothing happened to make me doubt complying with this request. I wonder now…if I had refused to sign the papers, would Bill still be alive?
A letter came addressed to me. I read it once, twice, three times. It stated that I was to appear in court in regard to the foreclosure of our home. Was this a joke, junk mail? I got so concerned I called Bill who was visiting his mother out of state. He said it was not a joke and that we were in danger of losing our home because his business went bankrupt and we couldn’t pay the creditor.
It was our 36th wedding anniversary. That morning, as usual, Bill brought me my cup of coffee in bed. I can’t remember anything after that except when I got home at 7 p.m. Bill’s car was in the garage, but the house was pitch black. I searched all three floors, looked outside, called and left a message on his cell phone. I had an eerie feeling so I called our son who tried to reassure me that there was nothing wrong. As I was talking to him I noticed a pile of papers on the dining room table. They related to Bill’s benefits package at his new job and a life insurance policy. I did not see the small envelope right away. Then, seeing the envelope with the suicide note inside I told my son to call 911 and ran to the bomb shelter in the back of the house. Bill had left a post-it with the words "BOMB SHELTER" on top of the note so I would know where to find him.
It did not take long at the hospital. There wasn’t anything they could do to revive Bill from the carbon monoxide fumes he inhaled. Because of the nature of the death, they would not remove the tubes in his mouth until the toxicology report was done. There could be no last kiss.
I got home to find that the police took the suicide note as evidence. I had read it in such a hurry I could not remember exactly what Bill wrote. It was just a few sentences. I told the kids he said he loved us because that is all I could remember. It took more than two months to get the note back. I was devastated to read it again—there was no "I love you" just "I am sorry." It bothered me that when I got the note back the post-it was missing. It kept bothering me so I called the lady at the police station. She was very nice and knew exactly what I was talking about. She thought the police had written the post-it. I was able to go back to the station, get the post-it, and feel some sense of closure. In addition to the evidence taking so long to get back, the death certificate was also in limbo until they made a final ruling, which took a few months.
Organ and Tissue Donation
At the hospital, we had agreed to organ and tissue donation. Apparently they have to get separate permission for nearly every body part. That was not something I was prepared for. I can imagine it is too much for some people to handle the explicit questions—knees, femurs, spine—every body part. A few months went by, and I received a letter saying that two women each received an eye from Bill. One lived in a nearby community. I often wonder if I could be looking into one of Bill’s eyes someday as I gaze into a stranger’s face. A few months later, another letter arrived saying that Bill’s knee caps were used for transplants as well as cartilage for knee/hip replacements and that part of his spine was sent to an area university for a study. However difficult these letters are to read, I am grateful that his senseless death can at least do some good for others.
One of the most difficult things to reconcile is how Bill could not want to watch his grandson grow up. The day Bill died by suicide was not only our anniversary but also our grandson’s four month birthday. How could he not want to experience the joy of being a grandpa? For his first birthday, I wanted to give my grandson the state coin collection that my husband had started years earlier; he gave up after about six months of collecting so I took it over. I had one coin left to find (Arizona), and it was getting close to his first birthday. Then one day in Bill’s dresser drawer I spotted a shiny quarter—yes, it was Arizona. Bill started the collection and finished it for his grandson.
It was our 36th wedding anniversary. That morning, as usual, Bill brought me my cup of coffee in bed. I can’t remember anything after that exceptwhen I got home at 7 p.m. Bill’s car was in the garage, but the house was pitch black."
There was no way to tell our dog that he would never see or play with Bill again. I found a t-shirt of Bill’s that had not been laundered so I hoped the scent of Bill would provide some comfort to the old pooch. I put it around the pillow he slept with. The dog keeps an eye on me—sometimes lying down with one eye open if he knows I am upset. He does not like it when I cry and comes up to me with a look of concern on his sweet face; sometimes I leave the room so as not to upset him.
Neighbors and Friends
People asked me what I wanted to tell everyone. "The truth" is all I said. We can’t help remove the stigma of suicide if we don’t talk about it.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Response
People respond in many ways to the death of a loved one, but I know that many of us avoid going to places where we will see our friends and neighbors. Instead of shopping at my local grocery, I often go further down the road so I don’t have to chat and be hugged and asked how I am doing. It just takes too much time and energy to deal with people sometimes. Apparently, many people with PTSD have an exaggerated startle response. That fits me to a tee. I jump when the phone rings. I won’t answer the door unless I know who is there. I bring the mail in and dread what might be waiting for me. I am a bundle of nerves, but being "jumpy" is a reaction common to survivors after a loved one commits suicide.
Out of the Darkness Walk
My son walked the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention walk—an overnight walk of about 20 miles. We were all so proud of him. Before the walk, they gave out beaded necklaces. Each color represented your relationship to your loved one who died. The color for a spouse was red. I saw only two red necklaces in the crowd. Most were children wearing the gold for a parent.
At the AFSP walk there was a table with a flyer that had photos of jewelry made by someone who donated a percentage of proceeds to the organization. I took a flyer home. Later I decided to order the Remembering Bracelet. There is no protocol for wearing or not wearing your wedding band when you are widowed, but I made a deal with myself that when the bracelet came, I would take off the bands. I had been wearing Bills wedding ring sandwiched between my two bands. I cancelled my jewelry insurance policy so I knew I should not be wearing my diamond anymore. I got the bracelet. The first day, I wore both the rings and the bracelet. On day two, I took off my rings and went to the safe deposit box where I placed them for safekeeping until I have to either sell the diamond or hopefully hand it down to my grandson. Some day I would like to have the three bands melted together to make one new ring.
I have had just one dream of Bill since he died. I think it is unusual but the mind will only handle so much stress at once. I am waiting for him to come to me in a dream again but must be patient.
I was wondering if I was going to faint from the stress at the judicial hearing to save my house and settle with the creditor. That morning, I took off our nameplate on my front door; if the sale failed that day I might not have remembered to remove it. We prevailed at the sale; however, there was no feeling of jubilation for me, just relief. My lawyer had us all shake hands -- a very nice gesture for all of us. Days later, I sent an email to the gentleman that we settled with and told him how sorry I was for his loss (financial) but that my family had paid the ultimate price and that I hoped he had no hard feelings.
I could not have asked for finer representation than my lawyer and his very nice wife to help me with my legal woes. My husband had told me he had a great lawyer. I believed him then, and I know it now. They have been not only my legal support but also provide stability for me in days of great uncertainty. A spouse’s death by suicide, a bankruptcy and a home foreclosure are enough in themselves, but take all three at the same time and the stress level is off the charts.
I work for a group of psychologists, and it couldn’t be a nicer or more supportive atmosphere. I am so fortunate to have a job that I love and people I work with who are like family. It gets especially difficult when the patients ask me how I am. I reply "fine" since they don’t know my situation—nor should they since they come in with their own issues. Some days are harder than others especially after holidays when everyone expects that you had a wonderful time with family.
I am a widow but what are my children? They are not orphans although sometimes I bet they feel that way. There is no word to describe their situation. And what is the term to describe Bill’s mother who has lost her son?
I am so grateful for the people in my life. The love and support that they give to me is boundless. My appreciation for everything around me is so heightened. The grass seems greener, the birds sing a sweeter song, and the trees in my yard are more beautiful that ever. All these feelings while I am in the midst of grief—they don’t seem to go together, but I am fortunate that I can appreciate what is good in life.
Not the End
My story isn’t over yet. Some day I hope to wake up not feeling like I have been run over by a truck. For every problem presumably removed by the act of a suicide, there are a hundred that take its place leaving a wake of destruction in its path. I am not out of the woods, but I can see sunshine in the clearing. There is a tagline from an old movie that says, "Love means never having to say you are sorry." While Bill’s suicide note started out saying that he was sorry, I do know that he loved his family dearly.
Addendum: June 15, 2010
I can cry as hard as I want now. My beloved dog has died. Bill chose our dog right away at the animal shelter. After Bill’s death, I felt as though I was always tethered to Bill through our dog. Now that they are both gone, it felt as though I was releasing the string on a balloon watching it float up to the heavens. I spread my buddy’s ashes at his favorite spots in my yard, at the park, and a few sprinkles on Bill’s grave. The ashes were pristine white, like sand at the finest beaches in the world, and so soft that I felt like I was touching his fur. Adjusting to being entirely alone and to the quiet in the house will take time.
Suzy lives in Downers Grove, Ill. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.