I understand the crucial nature of talking about a family member’s suicide because it has not been my experience. What I know firsthand is the opposite: what happens to your family when you don’t talk about your family member’s suicide.
We may not ever bring it up in conversation, but it’s still screaming all around us all of the time. I see it in my father, who’s perpetually tired by his existence and feels that life dealt him a bad hand. I see it in my mother, who hides the shame she carries by fixating on things of general unimportance – curtains, renovations, brushed nickel appliances. I see it in my aunt, who snaps every November until the weather breaks in the spring, leaving me manic voicemail after manic voicemail: demanding that I write a eulogy for my perfectly healthy grandmother, threatening to have my father arrested for being unkind to her, on and on. And I see it in my father’s mother, who’s been slightly more willing to share stories of her husband than anyone else in my family, but who’s still kept something of a protective film around them, allowing me to understand what life was like when he was alive but not what life has been like since he died.
I don’t know much about my grandfather’s suicide. I know that it happened in mid-November when my father was around my age, in his early 20s. I know that he drove to a reservoir in Baltimore, attached a garden house to his car exhaust pipe, threaded it through his car window, got in, closed the door, rolled it up and fell asleep. I know that he was suffering from bipolar disorder. The way my mother once talked about it when she and I were in her car together (and I truly mean once), she was six months into having met my father when it happened. When she heard and rushed to meet him – when she’d found him on that busy street and started running to him – he’d dropped to his knees on the sidewalk, sobbing.
Since then, none of us have talked about it. We don’t mention him in November, or on his birthday (though I have no idea when that is), or at the holidays. To my knowledge, my parents don’t talk about him between themselves either. I’ve had questions that I’ve known not to ask, so I’ve kept quiet. But if our silence was an attempt to make our family member’s suicide “go away,” as if it were something that could be erased from our story, it’s likely only done the opposite: become louder and louder the more we’ve avoided it.
What happens to our pain when we lock it up deep inside of us? What happens to our pain when we don’t talk about it, share it?
I most understand what my family members felt and went through when my dad’s father committed suicide by what has been passed on to me. I see their shame and struggle for worthiness in what I learned to feel towards myself growing up.
Shame is an incredibly complex emotion, but thanks largely to Brené Brown’s research, we do know one unanimous truth about it: it doesn’t do anyone any good. While guilt can be a powerful motivator, encouraging us to apologize or make a change when we’ve done something wrong, shame just festers inside of us, eating away at our self-worth, teaching us that it’s not our actions that are bad, but us ourselves that are bad. That is what shame does: it tells you, “You are bad. You are not enough.” And in the wake of a tragedy like losing a family member to suicide, it becomes very dangerous territory when you start self-blaming, telling yourself that it happened because, in some sense, you were not enough.
What happens when we start telling ourselves that we’re not enough? One potential route is that we start looking for our self-worth elsewhere; as Brown puts it, we start to “hustle for our worthiness.” We essentially beg those around us to give us our worth, seeking approval through our relationships, our work, the things we come to own and beyond.
Another potential path is that we become so deadened to the world that we don’t even care whether we’re worthy or enough – our days bleed into the next and we’re certainly not happy, but we’ve accepted our unhappiness, almost resigned ourselves to be that way.
The scary thing is, when we experience a lack of feeling as if we are “enough,” whether we intend it or not, we end up passing that on to generations after us. Unless we can figure out ways to learn that we are enough – that we are worthy of love and compassion and kindness – traumas like a family member’s suicide will start to spread into everyone around us, into all the people we love. Because here’s something that’s difficult to hear but true: we can’t love another person more than we love ourselves.
We can’t give more kindness and compassion to others than the amount of kindness and compassion that we give ourselves.
The kind of love that we give our kids – the kind of love that my parents were able to give me – is limited by the kind of love that we’re able to give ourselves.
And one way that we learn to become enough – that we learn to give ourselves the kind of love and kindness and compassion that we want so desperately to also be able to give others – is to start talking about the things that are difficult for us, to start owning our stories. We don’t have to respond to a family member’s suicide with shame, remorse, anger, fear, resentment and silence. We can allow ourselves to feel and accept and talk about it. That’s how we’ll begin to break the cycle.
This is me breaking the cycle and talking about it.
This is me telling you that if your family is struggling with the loss of a family member to suicide, or if you know someone who is or has struggled with this, that you can break the cycle by talking about it.
When you own your story, your pain – when you accept it, work to understand it to the best of your ability and allow it to be a part of you but not define or debilitate you – you free yourself from the things that you initially locked up inside of you, the things that slowly, slowly ended up unexpectedly putting you in chains. What happens is that you learn to understand that you are enough.