I’m a sceptic of the paranormal. I don’t believe in ghosts. The haunting I’m thinking about is the feeling of loved ones gone and how their deaths affect us in our lives.
My family has a streak of depression and so I have several suicides in my family tree. I don’t wish to belabor the point because I feel that, although suicide is a tragedy, ultimately death is universal and we all must deal with it in one way or another. Even the most natural and painless of deaths at an advanced age has to be absorbed into our psyche and processed. The important thing is what we learn from loss and how we apply it to the time we have left.
When I was eight or nine years old my mother’s brother committed suicide. I remember playing on the floor and surreptitiously watching my mother as she cried. It was the first time I realized that there were circumstances beyond our control. Even adults could be blindsided by fate. How could it be that the people who care and provide for you, raise you, teach you, did not have complete control over their lives? I had no answers. Not even a way to ask the questions raised. It was a tremor of thought that shook my world. My first brush with death.
When I was twenty-two my father committed suicide. There had been other deaths of relatives between my uncle and father but, in the age old euphoria of youth, they seemed more pro forma, the natural course of things. My father’s death shook me to the core. He had health issues all his life combined with depression. His last years were spent battling a cancer that eventually resulted in the amputation of his arm. The onset of the disease was in my freshman year of high school and he died when I graduated college. It was doubly hard to watch this tragedy because of his depression. I remember sitting with him at the kitchen table and asking,”What would make you happy?” With tears in his and my eyes he told me he couldn’t think of anything. Now, beside the fact that mine was a rather arrogant question from a young person who presumably had his whole life in front of him, I hadn’t understood that one of the deepest tragedies of depression is the inability to find pleasure in life. In the years following his death I experienced similar bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts. I am not a depressive. The episodes with the “black dog” as Winston Churchill referred to it went away. One of the many blessings for which I am forever grateful. What I did learn was that life could end in the blink of an eye. Anyone could be here one second and gone the next so you better make the best life possible.
My brother killed himself when I was thirty-eight. He was seven years older than me. As a younger brother I idolized him. As the third suicide in my family everyone in the family could see what was going on. It was the cliche of watching a train wreck in slow motion. He left behind my two nephews, who were in high school, and my sister-in-law. The mixture of grief and rage after his demise was overwhelming. How could he hurt so many people? Once again his depression was part of the equation but did that explain everything? I had to learn true forgiveness. We humans are frail creatures with many foibles. We all have good points and bad points in our personalities. Death forces us to celebrate the good while accepting and forgiving the bad. I have learned to see the good and bad in other people and have tried to do the same for myself. Only by celebrating the good and accepting/forgiving the bad can we let go of grudges and arrogance. I’m still working on this. It is one of the hardest things I do.
My mother died when I was forty-seven. Not a suicide. I shouldn’t say her death was “easier”. It just lacked the hurt and drama of my brother and father. What stays with me was the actual death. My cousin, sister and I decided to “pull the plug” and we were there when it happened. As my father-in-law said,”It’s a mystery. At one moment the heart is beating and someone is alive, in the next they are dead”. To actually see this happen gave me a profound intuition that death is not something to be feared. It is the inevitable result of living. In fact, we cheat ourselves of all life has to offer if we don’t allow ourselves to occasionally contemplate our death and the death of others.
So, where does that leave me in my present condition. Since I may have to decide I no longer want therapy to keep me alive is that a form of suicide? In our society we’re supposed to fight cancer and death tooth and nail. “Do not go gently into that night.” But death is inevitable. Is there a certain threshold when courage becomes foolhardiness? Luckily I don’t have to make this decision by myself. I think my friends and loved ones will help me make these decisions as my disease progresses.
I have had several people say I have a good attitude towards what’s happening. I fear that right now, while the therapy is working, it’s easy to do. I fear, as I have more pain, lose my dignity and depend on other people for my daily needs, this will be harder to maintain. It is a letting go that each of us as autonomous beings fear. However, I have hope that the haunted feelings I have dealt with during my life about death will continue to keep my perspective. I hope that they will help you, my reader, as well.