Most of what I write is done in my head while I’m actively engaged in other pursuits. If an idea sticks around long enough to congeal into a sentence and if I whittle and hammer that sentence into something I think might be of some value, I jot it down. Usually digitally, but this trait is so ingrained that I have boxes and boxes of handwritten sentences from the past 25 years or so stacked in various spots in and around my house. Of those I would guess that a substantial portion, perhaps as much as 5% of them, are about the topic of suicide. A good chunk from my teens and twenties was about my sincere and often serious consideration. It was a part of my character I referred to as ‘my death wish’. For me I faked my death by drinking ungodly amounts of liquor both sadly and alone. There are innumerable times in which I put myself in situations in which I could, and even should have wound up dead. I suppose that for me it was enough of a manifestation of my feelings to satisfy me.
In retrospect I have a hard time understanding why I was so sad. I thought I was awful for no real reason. And not ‘I’m really in the dumps’ kind of awful, but rather, ‘the lives of those near me would be better if I were dead. I make life awful just by being in it.’ It sounds crazy to me now, but when you have a soundtrack of your own voice working to construct sentences around such a feeling all day every day, it can really start to blot out reality and sound rational when it isn’t ever given the light of day to be refuted by the world around you.
Another part I’ve spent a good deal of time writing about was my grandfather. When I was 12 my grandfather killed himself. I’ve written quite a bit about this privately, but so many other people, almost all of the people in my life, are so effected by it that I feel sometimes like something as basic as simply saying it, saying that my grandfather killed himself is somehow stealing the pain of others or exacerbating the pain that others are experiencing. No one tells you not to say it, it just feels like something not to mention.
It’s had perhaps as profound an impact on my life as anything else. I’m a middle kid from a giant Irish-Catholic family and the timing of this for the person that had to bare the brunt of it in my household could not have been worse. Six kids to raise, more than half of them teens and a toddler for good measure. She has handled this with grace as she does all things. Much of the story is hers, but the small part that has been mine has been a weight and I bring it up only to inform you of the root of my perspective.
There are people who will read this who may have thoughts about my sharing of my perspective and my past. All of these peoples opinions are valid. As are mine. The thing is, we all see the world through our own personal keyhole. With such limited access to such a broad subject as life, what we see through that keyhole is at least as informed by what is on our side of the door as it is by what is on the other.
There have been several occasions, most recently the passing of Robin Williams, which have brought me closer and closer to a tipping point in terms of my feelings about suicide. My thoughts about those that go through with what I thought about often as a young man. Sadly, an event in my circle occurred last night which has made me think about the subject once more. An event so sad and only sad that I find myself changed.
A young man, far younger then me and far too young to have died, passed at his own hands last night. A man I didn’t know well but a person who profoundly touched many of the lives that have touched my own. There is infinite sadness filling the hole he has left.
Until now, due to my early, personal and all consuming experience with coping with suicide,the subject,I have held very stern and fairly cold and unforgiving opinions about people that have chosen to end their pain this way. I’ve always had endless compassion and empathy for the survivors. The sons and daughters and the brothers and sisters and of course, the mothers and fathers and husbands and wives. I’ve witnessed as best as one can from a short but protected distance the journey that ensues for those closest to the person in such pain. My feelings of anger led me to a position all these years of anger and judgment. How selfish, I’d think? These were my firm, defensible opinions. Not uninformed I might add. And every time popular culture would start godding up a Robin Williams for example or before him the similar feelings I found myself feeling in the aftermath of the overdose death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I’d find myself prepped and ready to unleash all of my pent up anger and frustration and judgment. I’d craft an impenetrable wall of logic, passion and scorn, wad it up into a ball and hurl it at the world.
With this event, with this tragic and epically sad event I feel nothing but compassion. I fear all the judgment I’ve made in the past was merely a way of releasing the anger I felt at my grandfather for compromising my family. To some degree it took me getting to a certain age so I could get some perspective. He was my papa. If parents are gods to a child as the world slowly emerges while they hold your hand, Papa’s are Zeus. To such a small creature as myself the thought of compassion or empathy for Zeus sounds crazy. But you grow up and you learn that they are simply human, just like you. You know this earlier, but emotionally it takes some time to think of them as anything but residents of Mt. Olympus. This latest news has informed that perspective and filled me with sadness.
I’m sick for the mere thought of his parents. The journey they are on now is one with no maps, no guarantees and virtually no guides. I am positively sick for them.
He was a young man who accomplished impressive things in his short time. Not of the typical, garden variety worldly accomplishments kind. He accomplished great acts of caring and loving and giving that I was afforded the opportunity to witness first hand a thousand times over at the place where I knew him. It was a place of work, yes, but it was more a community of caring and he was an admired practitioner in a land of giants. To know that there was so much love their for the taking had it been what he needed just kills me. Love of truly good people who thought the world of him. And not just yesterday, everyday. He was squarely in the middle of this powerful community. And even that didn’t save him.
I have been there. I often had to remind myself of how awfully I judged people that did this in order to keep myself from trying it. I think it was chemical and I think it was situational and I think it lasted much longer than it should have because of depressants. Alcohol. But I also think I did things that put me in a position to die, and not little things we all did a few times, real things. I’m lucky. It always surprises me when I hear people say that they can’t imagine what he must have been feeling. I always assumed we all could understand it. I can put myself at the moment. I can see how one gets there. I can remember being that age and that stage and feeling it. Intensely.
As has been true since I first found out it had happened, my thoughts and feelings about my Grandfather continue to evolve. Thankfully. Now, as a man, as a parent I have a great deal more understanding and acceptance that despite whatever was happening, he didn’t know how his final act would so effect those around him. He had no idea, couldn’t see so far beyond the giant pain that was hurting him so deeply. Whatever ideas we all think we have about the event, we don’t know. What we can surmise though is this. He was in extreme pain. He was a man that loved his family dearly and deeply and the pain was enough to block out even that. So now I take the time to feel sorry for him. Truly sad for him. It took me almost 30 years.
5 thoughts on “Finding Compassion and Mourning Loss”
Wonderful story. Really hard sometimes to drag the hurt from our youth under the scrutiny of our adults selves – because to change that feeling can generate it’s own “butterfly effect.”
Also so tragic when someone young makes the choice that this young man did. As always, I enjoy your perspective.
So powerful this was to me, speaking straight to my soul, where I have stored the memories of my own days filled with such great pain that I thought the world would be so much better without me in it. I have a lot of respect for those who have taken their lives because I can truly sympathize with the place they were at in their lives. What a great piece & my deepest sympathies for your losses, both present & past.
I am so sorry for your loss, Joe, but really glad that it brought you to a perspective you haven’t been able to find in all the years since your grandfather’s death. Suicide is such an unwieldy subject that, to me, warrants a huge range of emotions from the people left behind. I had a friend, a classmate from my high school days, who took his life several years ago after losing his battle with the demons of post-war PTSD. In the wake of his death, I was so damn angry at him; I didn’t want to be, but I saw the unimaginable sadness of all the people closest to him and I just couldn’t get my head around the selfishness of his actions. In the years since, I’ve come to be able to forgive him as the sting, the shock, of his death wears off a little, but part of me will probably always feel that way. And I think that’s OK. I’m entitled to feel the way I feel as were you all those years you were mourning the loss of a god-like man in your life. Happy to know you’ve found some closure.
We all see the world through our own keyhole – good line and oh so true.
Sorry about your friend’s passing.