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by Nicole C.
In 2007, I had just finished the most fulfilling semester of my life -- I sought out treatment for my mild depression; I did fantastically in my classes and my passion for art history crystallized; I was about attend classes at an Italian university for a year; and I had earned a research assistantship that would lead to eventual publication.
All of that joy, progress, and passion melted away in a short hour.
As I prepared for a party my roommate and I were to host on a Friday night, I received a cryptic call from the state police. When they found out I was not at my parents’ house, they informed me that my mom would get in contact shortly.
I spent 1 hour in limbo, knowing something was wrong but not knowing what. I received confirmation of my worst fears -- that my father had died -- in front 20 of my friends.
My two dutiful friends drove me home in the middle of the night while I sat in the backseat alternating between crying and talking to my friends as if nothing happened. When I arrived at my mom’s at 3 am, she met me at the door and hugged me in tears. She could barely squeeze the words out under her breath. He had committed suicide.
Later the pieces came together in horrifying detail: My father had woken up early in the morning, stepped over my sleeping sister, left his beloved dog at home, drove to my mom’s house, taken his shotgun out of the safe, drove 20 minutes to a state park, turned off his phone, and shot himself in the head.
The calculated precision of this chain of events still confounds me.
While my father had suffered from depression, he had successfully managed it for two decades. There were none of the telltale indications of suicide I had been taught that could have predicted this. He left no note, no sign that he had planned it. That he could wake up and so methodically take each step to end his own life introduced a level of confusion to my crippling grief.
Herein lie the painful subtleties of grieving a suicide: There is no closure, only doubt, second guessing, and confusion. Grief becomes a cloudy process, where emotional helplessness compounds the acute pain of loss.
Weeks later, as my mother, my sister, and I stood ankle-deep in Cape Cod Bay dispersing my father’s ashes, I didn’t think my pain could be any more intense, until shortly thereafter, when whispers of my father’s involvement in an abduction and murder began to circulate.
On a local message board, an anonymous poster began to draw comparisons between my father’s suicide and an unsolved crime. The private, isolated grief of my father’s death instantly became public, as people and institutions began to bring the validity of my suffering into question.
In 2000, a teenage girl was abducted from her lifeguarding job at a local pond. Only a few murky clues surfaced. Some say she ran away with her boyfriend or wanted to disappear. An eyewitness allegedly saw an ominous white vehicle near where the girl had been abducted. One account recalled the driver as a mustachioed man whose sketched visage looked eerily like the Unabomber.
Finally, in 2002, concrete evidence emerged when a hunter found her remains in the woods. However, the passage of time and recovery of their daughter’s remains did not dull her family’s resolve to find her killer. It had been 8 years since the tragedy, and her family clung to hope that some denouement -- a moment of deus ex machina -- might lead them to the truth.
Our local CBS affiliate -- newly formed and in competition with long-established news teams -- sought to capitalize on these rumors. Their hunkering news vans crawled up our quiet, dead-end street. Their reporters pestered my 18-year-old sister for an interview while my mom wasn’t home.
Their broadcast claimed that my father had killed himself because he had been overcome with guilt from his molestation and murder of this girl. Her remains were found in the woods near my house that my father was known to frequent -- woods that every local hunter visited.
She disappeared in the same state park my father killed himself, the state park my father hunted in and brought our black lab to run. My father also had a mustache (like most middle-age Italian men) and drove a van (in a different color) for his work. They purported that this circumstantial evidence connected my father to multiple aspects of the crime. Therefore, he must be guilty.
Local gossipmongers -- ubiquitous in small towns -- flooded message boards to debate my father’s character. He was a weirdo and a creep, they claimed, always driving around in his van checking out children.
In reality, he drove around to smoke pot and look for deer. My high school classmates claimed that he had always given them the willies, that of course he committed suicide because of the guilt. Our friends began to post comments disputing the rumors. The online discussion blew up. My pain came under fire, as I supposedly grieved a molester and murderer.
My take? These claims were ridiculous.
Though not a pillar of the community, my father coached our basketball teams and came to all of our soccer games and band concerts where he cheered for all of our friends. He took all the neighborhood kids waterskiing in the lake in our backyard. He was a gentle stoner who loved animals and listened to a lot of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. People who knew him loved him.
The friends and family of the abducted girl propagated a lot of these rumors, putting me in a difficult situation. I felt both contempt and empathy. My grief became relative to theirs, as they undermined my loss to help soothe their own.
Like me, they sought closure for their suffering, but, unlike me, that closure remained tangibly in reach and they grasped for it without reservation.
Suicide, thanks to its internal nature and the societal stigma, leaves its victims suffering in isolation. The funerary ritual of suicide is shrouded in euphemism and obfuscation -- my father’s obituary eulogized him and his death in the vaguest terms, his service was closed, lead in prayer by a Catholic priest inherently ambivalent about suicide, and filled with family members whose frustration, incredulity, and anger anchored their crying.
On the other hand, this family’s daughter remained forever innocent, while they remained forever victims of some heinous crime. Their suffering was both public and accepted. My suffering, now marred by allegations of murder and pedophilia, was intrinsically unresolved, invalidated by society, and full of complex, often competing emotions.
I had nothing to anchor me, no investigation to mount, no fund to create, only shame, frustration, anger, and isolation.
I don’t directly blame this family for the magnification of my suffering, nor do I blame the stigmatization of suicide to my isolation, but I do think that the shame and impulse to hide mental illness creates a cultural misunderstanding about the experience of the mentally ill. We pathologize and categorize mental illness to legitimize it, but in this process, we create common narratives that override the mosaic of experiences that comprise mental health.
My father had few markers of a suicidal person. He demonstrated no suicidal tendencies, expressed no overbearing emotion that might drive him to this decision. However, we seek to fit these enigmatic cases into established narratives as an effect of the grieving process.
For my family and me, we did this privately as we processed our grief, retroactively looking for any sort of clues to alleviate some of the pain. Publicly, the community, seeking to bring order to another chaotic and unsettling event -- murder, did the same, by ascribing a plausible narrative to my father’s unknowable decision -- guilt.
The rumors eventually subsided, I moved abroad as planned, and, eventually, 5 years and thousands of dollars worth of therapy later, the anger has transformed into forgiveness.
My father’s suicide no longer exists as the defining moment in my life, it no longer dominates my identity. However, I am reminded of this painful episode by a billboard that remains in my hometown, plastered with the image of a 16-year-old ghost pleading for any clues.
I feel a twinge of pain whenever I see her face, but I now feel sympathy for her family, for the uncertainty of my father’s death helped me heal, while the potential for closure for their case, however unlikely, forever limits this girl’s family from resolving their grief.
In this billboard, I am reminded that my forgiveness extends not only to my father, but to her family as well.