Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Memory: An 8-Year-Old Boy's Questions About His Father's Suicide, by a Fireplace

The following is probably one of my most tender, yet heart-wrenching memories during the days that immediately followed my first husband’s suicide. I was torn as to whether or not I should write it here, but because I have been wanting to record this event since it occurred, and I have this forum in which to do it, I thought perhaps it might not only help me, but someone else who has experienced loss as well...

This is the family I was born into (photo taken 14 months ago)…

This is what I will call my family members…

On a chilly fall morning, as I had just returned from taking the 15-year-old girl to the bus stop, I had found my husband’s body a little before 7 o’ clock AM. A few details about that are HERE, so I won’t repeat them in this post. That day, my three sisters, my brother and my husband’s father arrived into town after having found out what had happened. At the time, my husband, myself and our six children had been living with my parents in their home, as a result of the events that lead up to my husband’s suicide. I know that statement is ambiguous, but I cannot give more details about why he committed suicide than that.

As each of my family members arrived into town, they placed their belongings in any room that would hold them, or by the particular sofa on which they would sleep. I really don’t remember too much of what happened that day. There were visits from military officials, tray after disposable tray of food brought from compassionate friends and church members, trips to the store, for I don’t remember what. As the evening fell and the last of the visitors departed, we began making preparations for bed. My husband and I had been sleeping in what my mother calls the “jungle” room, as it is decorated with palm fronds, pineapples and neutral and moss green linens and wall paper. This night, however, I knew there was no way I could sleep alone in my bed. I had a terrible fear that I would wake up in the middle of the night, forget my husband was dead, then be shocked into a spiral of incomprehensible pain once the realization struck again.

So, we moved a queen-sized air mattress into the living room, by the fireplace. There are two sofas in my mother’s living room, each of which would be occupied for the night by one of my siblings. We all stayed up talking, even the kids, until late into the night. As our conversation dwindled down, it became clear that none of my other family members wanted to sleep in their usual rooms either. No one, except my father, who spent most of the next two weeks in his bedroom, I believe because he couldn’t stop crying and was embarrassed, made a move to go to bed, not even my mother. And I didn’t want to ask my kids to leave. So we got out more air mattresses, thick blankets and pillows and made room for every single person in my family to sleep together in my mother’s living room. I even moved the 2-year-old girl’s playpen in so she could be with us.

We finally turned off the lamps, placed a few thick logs into the fireplace, and quieted. A few minutes later, in the dark, with only the glow of the fire penetrating the night, I saw the form of the 8-year-old boy sit up. The 8-year-old boy is currently the 13-year-old boy, but for the purposes of this post, I will call him the 8-year-old boy. Here is a photo of him last year in Mazatlan when he was the 12-year-old boy…

(photo not available)

“Mom?” he whispered, trying not to wake those who, obvious by the sound of their breathing, were already asleep.

“Yes, Son?”

He hesitated, then continued. “Mom, did Dad know that there was poison gas in his truck?”

That morning, as my father, my brother and I had stood in the street, a few feet away from my husband’s lifeless, sheet-covered body, police detectives slowly walking around with clipboards, EMTs rolling up defibrillator cords and zipping up black leather bags, the entire block having been cordoned off by police tape, I had had time to think. I had decided that there would be no secrets, that I would tell the children the truth of what their father had done. Lies were what had contributed to his suicide and lies would play no part in explaining to the kids what had happened. My father, however, had felt differently. While we stood in the street, he had pleaded with me that I not tell them that he had taken his own life, but that I should tell them it was an accident. I denied his pleas, saying that truth would prevail in all that happened from here on out and that I would absolutely not live a lie for the rest of my life. As I turned to walk away, my father grabbed my arm to turn me back to him and with tears in his red eyes, begged me again to withhold the truth from them, suggesting a story I could use. I could say that their father had not been able to sleep that night, so he went out to his truck to read a book, so as not to wake me and the baby. He had gotten cold, as it was November, so he had lit two charcoal grills in the bed of his campered pick-up truck, which opened up to the cab, to keep himself warm. He had then become tired, fallen asleep, and was overcome by the fumes, dying quietly in his sleep.

I was amazed at the speed and ease with which my father had fabricated this somewhat believable story. But how could I tell this to my children, and maintain it for the rest of their lives? Impossible. I gently pulled my arm out of his grip and restated that I would be telling the kids the truth.

I asked the 8-year-old boy to come sit next to me on the air mattress. Pausing for a moment to pull my thoughts together, and saying a brief prayer, I answered. “Yes, 8-year-old boy, he did know there was poison gas in the truck.”

He thought for a moment, then asked, “Well, then why didn’t he get out of the truck?”

After pausing to make sure this was right, I answered, “Because he wanted to die.”

My natural voice is low and mellow, and in soft tones I went on to explain that he had been very, very sad and that he wanted to die so he wouldn’t be sad anymore. I said that his mind was sick and he couldn’t think right. I explained how we all wished he had not done this, that we were all so sad and that Heavenly Father was sad, too, and that we all wished he would have talked to someone about why he was sad so we could have helped him. I reminded him that his dad loved him very much, as he had said in the good-bye letters he had written to each individual child. I said that we would see him again one day, and even though it seemed really far away, that was something we could look forward to.

As I softly spoke these words, the only sounds we could hear were the crackling of the fireplace, the deep breathing of those who were already asleep, and the quiet cries and sobs of my mother, my sister with the 4 kids and my sister with the Ph.D. as they listened to our conversation.

The 8-year-old boy did not have any more questions at that time, but as understanding began to sink in, he began to cry softly also. I held him tight, and rubbed his hair until he was comforted and wanted to go to sleep. He walked the few feet back to the couch and in a few minutes, I could hear his deep breathing as well.

My family and I slept this way for the next two nights, all of us in the living room, falling asleep to the sound of the crackling fire. Eventually, I did sleep in my own bed, but not without the company of the sister with the Ph.D. until she had to fly back to California. Along with The Lord, my family was my rock and I never would have gotten through this ordeal without them by my side. Most of them will probably not read this, but for those who do, please know that I will NEVER, EVER forget how you were there for me. I love you guys.

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alessandra said...

Oh, you made me cry!
You are so lucky to have such a caring family, and I admire you for telling the truth, and in such a simple way.

KC Mom said...

Truth is so important. I think you made the right choice. I understand in a man's eyes why your Dad wouldn't want anyone to know the truth. Suicide is dishonor and to a man his honor is everything.
Not to mention men are for the most part, protectors and I assume your dad wanted to protect the children and thought that his story would be easier for the kids.
Fortunately, you listened to your heart and did the right thing. Truth now is better then truth much later, I think.
Thank you for sharing your story. You are a great example of resiliance and strength. Your story is necessary to share for those who have family members who struggle with depression.

MemeGRL said...

No wonder you wanted to commemorate that moment, as wrenching as it was.
It reminded me of a very different time in my family: the night before my oldest cousin was married. She was the oldest of 5 and I was an only, and we were all within 8 years of each other so we grew up very close.
The night before her wedding, all of us dragged mattresses (pre-air-mattress days!) in to one big room to sleep together one last time as we had done in "inside campouts" when we were little. We mostly talked about silly things--like whether there was a Brady Bunch episode based on Snow White--but it was a wonderful way to celebrate a beloved childhood ritual one last time.
I'm so glad for you that your family did this for and with you at such a critical moment.

Kami said...

I'm so proud of you for being willing to tell your children the truth amidst this tragedy. It couldn't have been an easy decision and it truly proves that you truly have a beautiful heart. I pray that these memories will continue to help you heal through the pain that likely persists. I love your story because I can relate to the heart-to-heart conversations with the kids about their mama's death, even though she died in an accident, those conversations still come up quite frequently.

I'm thankful that I found you, as I believe you are truly an inspiration to help my family through difficult times. :)

Momza said...

Tears. for you. for him. for your son. your mother. your father. your sisters and babies. I've been in your son's shoes. Such a sadness to live with.
Thank you for sharing this for whatever reason--it helps heal.

Jessica said...

Jen, I am sure that your children, as they grow older, are very grateful for the truth, no matter how difficult. It would probably be so much harder to discover the truth, even if by accident, many years later.
What a loving family to be able to be there for you through all you had to endure.

findingtrueserenity said...

I'm so glad you and your children found love and support to help you through such a shocking time.

Children are so smart, and it is even more amazing how easy they can decipher what is going on in their beautiful minds with simple answers to their questions as they arrise.

It can sometimes be difficult to speak an unbiased truth...your children were very fortunate to have received it with heartfelt love...

Suzanne said...

I want to give you a big hug, jen! That was such a sad time. I really liked R and, well, it's still sad.

On another thought, I had been told a huge lie from my mom, meant to protect me but when, at 18 I learned the truth it just hurt so much. Not just the lie but being told the lie in the first place. As hard as it was, you did the right thing. Telling them the truth then was right. If you had waited or it had come out later they may have wondered it the reason you kept it a secret was that they were somehow resonsible. You have a great family. I really love you and think you are a wonderful person!

Keeley said...


God bless you and your sweet family. God bless you for tenderly telling them the truth and supporting them through it. God bless your family for being there for you. And God bless your first husband.

Amanda B. said...

I have never met you in person, but I sit here listening to RS conference on the internet and reading blogs (I know...not the best use of multi tasking) and I cry because my heart breaks for you. I want to hug you, your children, Kristin (who I love dearly) and all of your family for being so amazing. I can not even imagine all you went through and I know God has lifted you to carry you through it. Thank you for sharing your story. I am so truly sorry for the unimaginable heartbreak you have faced in your life.

Melinda said...

I am already congested so reading this did not help a bit...*tear* tear* I got so emotional over it. I can NOT imagine how this would feel! Oh Jen you are AMAZING! What a special experience.

Cheryl B. said...

Jen, I originally read this in the just barely today hours this morning, but I was very unsure what I should say. Life has taught me that there is never 'the right thing to say' at times like these. After the miscarriages people would say things, things they meant to be comforting, things which weren't meant to hurt the way they did, but due to my emotional state at the time - my mind & emotions twisted things so-o horribly!!! Comments such as, "Well, at least you have the other two" became 'what?!! you don't think I could have loved this one too?', etc.. When my mom lost her battle with cancer - same type of sceniero's. And after our house fire. And ...

So I knew there are no 'right words' to say. At times like those in other peoples lives, when somebody comments that they never know what to say, I advice them to not say anything. Well, actually, tell them that you love them, tell them that you care, tell them that you are praying for them - and then prove it by your actions!! Send them a card a week for awhile stating that you are still praying for them. A week or two down the road, drop by and drop off a dinner they can just heat up. Leave it sitting (in a cooler) where they will be sure to spot it. Actions DO speak louder than words!!

But Jen, your how far away? And I don't have a mailing address for you. And even if I did, I'm really not sure what to send you. Your vegan, I'm not, so my recipies that are wonderfully chocolate contain ingredients you don't eat. And I look at the pictures you post of your house ... but I havn't stumbled acrosss anything that shouts "That's Jen" yet. ...

But I can say I care - and absolutely mean it!!! I know that much time has passed. However I also know that while they say 'time heals all wonds', the truth of the matter is, that it just subdues them, espically certain types of wounds.

I LOVE(!!!) how God often uses others in our lives to pour his love and care for us through. At that time in your life, he used your family. Amazing!! Now true, the reason you were even living with them was part of why your first husband did what he did. On the other hand, the Lord knew what was coming and had you placed where you would get the help you were going to need before you knew you were going to need it. He is just so amazing!!!

I agree with KCMOM that your dad was most likely trying to protect his beloved grandchildren by encouraging you to 'tell a story'. He could not hide 'the truth' from you, and he so-o desperatly wished he could!!! You are his precious child. But in his mind there had to be a way to protect those beloved grandchildren, so he thought hard and fast.

On the other hand I bet you had already been 'misleading' the kids about what all was going on, and then that happened. Enough was enough. You broke in a different way than your husband had. You desperatly needed to go forth truly open and honest. You wanted desperatly to prove to your kids that you weren't pondering doing the same thing. So you spoke the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, and God has helped you because of it. :-}

And because you are willing to let him use you via the telling of your story and it's connecting incidents, He is also helping others heal ;-)

So Jen, here is a hug for today. I do care!!! May you feel God's arms around you continuing to guide, heal and love you.

your friend -

Julie said...

Wow! This just drives home to me what an amazing and strong woman you are! Thank you for sharing this. I'm so glad you keep a blog. I learn so much from you every time I read!

Carlson Family said...

Hi, I just read your blog. I don't know how you do it. My son was 3 when his biological father committed suicide. He was my x husband. Even though he was my x husband and abusive, it still has a huge impact on me. Sept. 26th marked 2 years since it happened & I still get very emotional. I know one day I am going to have to explain it to my son but I don't know what I am going to say. His dad never left a note for him. He didn't leave him anything. Hopefully when that day comes I will have the strength that you have. Thank you for sharing with us!