No Note, No Explanation

Suicide rates are rising, and the pain of the pandemic put more people at risk. Talking about it matters.
Mm Final Bleed

Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

This article contains explicit and disturbing accounts. Reader discretion is advised. If you or someone you know is struggling and needs help, contact the PRS CrisisLink suicide prevention hotline by calling 703-527-4077 or texting “CONNECT” to 85511.

I feel my heart thrashing in my chest. I’ve interviewed plenty of people for my podcast, and yet I’m nervous. Pamela is a friend, but this topic is different. What if I unwittingly say something insensitive? I reassure her that we can stop at any time and edit out any parts that make her uncomfortable. I put on my headphones and click the video button on my screen. As the ring-chime begins, I take a deep breath and begin.

On Dec. 25, 1980, Pamela’s father took his own life. Pamela was 13. Her mother found him Christmas morning.
“I heard my mom screaming,” she remembers. “I ran into the room and she was just lying over his body.” The rest of the day was a blur, as were the weeks and months that followed.

I ask Pamela if she’d been angry at her dad. “I had a lot of guilt. I don’t think I was angry about it as much as I felt guilty,” she says.

They had gone shopping on Christmas Eve. “He’d been so busy, he hadn’t really had time to do any shopping,” she recalls. “I remember he was incredibly subdued, and I thought, Well, Dad’s just tired. I said something a selfish 13-year-old would say: ‘Gosh, Daddy, Mom has so many presents for you under the tree and you barely have anything for her. We need to get more things for Mommy to put under the tree, because, you know, it’s just not even.’ And he just looked really sad. He’s like, ‘Okay. Well, help me.’ So I picked out a nightgown for her.”

Pamela continues, her memories shifting to self-blame. “The last thing he said to me was, ‘Make sure you come and wake me up on time so we can go see what Santa brought.’ And I overslept.”

I feel her anguish as she says those words. Even tougher is what comes next.

“The first week afterward I looked head to toe, all throughout the house for a letter, just thinking he must have left [one],” says the Arlington resident, now in her 50s and married, with a daughter in college. “I would take every book off the bookcase and put it back. And then the next day I would do the whole thing again—open drawers, look under anything to see if I could find a note. But he never left one.”

Pamela’s desperate search for a reason is not uncommon. Many who lose loved ones to suicide find themselves struggling for answers they never find.

“Suicide can shatter the things you take for granted about yourself, your relationships and your world,” grief counselor Jack Jordan observes in a May 2019 article in Harvard Women’s Health Watch. A clinical psychologist based in Rhode Island, Jordan is also co-author of the book After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief.

Many loss survivors feel compelled to do a kind of chronological “autopsy,” Jordan explains, to try and make sense of what happened. They look for clues or triggering events that might explain the “why.” They imagine being able to turn back the clock.

Shortly after my interview with Pamela, I get an email from a man who listened to the podcast: I’m 35, married, have two kids, and my father recently took his own life. No note, no explanation. I finally heard a story that I felt like I could compare myself to… It’s been 2 years. Thank you for putting this out for others to hear. It helped me.

I forward the man’s email to Pamela, remembering her saying she didn’t think she’d offered enough helpful advice on weathering the despair. It’s not the “how” that helps, I had reassured her; it’s the sharing of stories that let us know we are not alone.

It was for that reason that I shared my own story with her.

Categories: Health