In 2010 I traveled to Ireland to research suicides. The gap between the loveliness of the people and grimness of my topic was wider than the Atlantic. I had the world’s worst response to: “Welcome to Ireland! What brings you here?”
I’ve carried a lot of stories over the past twelve years I’ve been writing, but few have been as heavy as those stories from Ireland. They have been even heavier because the book never came into existence, and I’m not sure where you publish such stories. So for the first time, I’m sharing them on the blog of the Facing Project.
I’m not an expert on suicides. I’ve never been personally touch by suicide. So one of the first things I did in Ireland was track down an expert, Tom, who you can meet on this post “How to Talk About Suicide” over on my own site. You don’t have to read that post before reading this one, but I did want to share one passage with you:
Tom doesn’t ever say, “commit suicide.” The two words are almost married in everyday talk, in the newspapers, and on TV. “A criminal commits a crime. A murderer commits murder. A man who cheats on his wife commits adultery,” Tom says. “Suicide isn’t something you commit. It isn’t a crime. People choose suicide when they feel like they are a burden.”
Tom volunteers with a group that works to prevent suicides, Samaritans. Samaritans has a resource on how to report on suicides here.
The thing about writing about suicides is that reporting on suicides can lead to copycat suicides and ultimately suicide clusters. In the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic death by suicide, we need to talk about suicides, and we need to talk about suicides responsibly.
Honestly, I’m afraid to talk about suicide. And we’re afraid to talk about suicide as a society. But we have to.
Below you’ll meet a mother and father who faced the unthinkable: their son killed himself.
Trigger Warning: If you are reading this and think maybe you shouldn’t, please stop.
Another phone rings. Again, at one end is someone who listens. Again, at the other is someone talking about killing himself.
I wait outside the building out of earshot of the ringing phone thinking about something Tom said to me after arranging for me to meet people who have lost a loved one by suicide: “I didn’t think there was any way that someone would agree to that.”
I paint unspeakable tragedies on the history of all who walk in front of the Limerick office of the Samaritans. When they pass I’m relieved for them, but someone else is always approaching.
It’s a few minutes after I was supposed to meet them. I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t show. I’m not exactly sure of whom I’m meeting and what their circumstances are. I do know that their losses aren’t related to the financial crisis. I was told it would be too soon and too raw for someone to talk about that. But with the dramatic increase in suicides in Ireland, I’m trying to get sense of what life is like for a family after suicide.
So I stand here mourning oncoming pedestrians and celebrating their passing.
“Kelsey?” A short, energetic woman with glasses holds out her hand. “I’m Patricia.”
Patricia works with Living Links, a group that reaches out to help families cope with the loss and turmoil following a suicide.
“This is Michael and his wife Rose.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Michael says. He looks like a freshly showered farmer. One of those guys who is working all the time and his normal condition is a sweaty brow and greasy hands with a firm handshake.
Rose has a contagious laugh and a kind smile.
Patricia shows us into a room bare but for a few chairs and a table with informational brochures on suicide and a box of Kleenex. I push the brochures to the side.
Patricia leaves. Michael sits at the head of the table and Rose across from me to his right.
We talk about their two granddaughters. I pull out my phone and show a picture of my daughter, Harper. She’s got this wry grin on her face and is standing in a pair of my wife’s boots.
“They,” Rose beams, “were the beginning of really changing our lives.” The statement spans happiness to sadness. It shines like the sun and ends with a dark cloud, marking the end of our small talk and getting down to business of why we’re here.
“Where do you want to start off?” Michael says.
“What was that day like?”
Mike exhales. Rose sits beneath the cloud – stoic. It’s as if eighty percent of her focus is inwards and she’s telling herself, ‘Be composed. Be composed. You can do this.’
For ten minutes Michael tries to answer while Rose sits as silent as the Mona Lisa. Michael’s thoughts cascade backwards over the day previous to the day, the month before, and all the way back to the upbringing of their son Patrick before Rose breaks her silence.
“Pattie was very good in school,” she says. “He was the one child I didn’t have any worries about. Just goes to show you.”
Her voice has a musical tone and rhythm. It rises and falls in crescendos of emotion. Breaths are stolen between thoughts, but their importance seems inconsequential to the need to tell her story. Mona Lisa no more.
Rose’s first breakdown comes when she talks about Patrick returning home from college for his sister’s first communion. At first he wasn’t going to be able to make it because it was the day of his last exam. Patrick was disappointed. But Rose’s brother arranged to pick him up after the exam.
“I bought new clothes for him and left them on the bed. But he didn’t. He came in these old rags. I can see him in my mind’s eye. I was sitting just here and he was over there,” she points to the end of the table to an imaginary Patrick who joins us. “I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘He’s in trouble. Big trouble.’ Michael thought he was immature. But now I see he had mental health problems.”
“Every child is different, Rose,” Michael says.
“No. No…” Rose says, “This is the way I see it. We’ve had this discussion before. We’re very different. This is my own personal version of it.”
There are several moments like this that Rose and Michael are at odds. It’s obvious that they’ve churned through these arguments and moments again and again never finding common ground.
“We all draw our own conclusions,” Michael says. “Every member of the family – all fourteen – comes to a level of acceptance about the death and no one argues with another one. If anyone tried to survive in this world, he did.”
“Yeah,” Rose says, “I can understand what Patty did. [After he died] I was nearly in that place myself. The light nearly went out for me.” Her voice wavers as she looks at her husband. “Thank God it didn’t.”
Finally, they arrive at the day – September 12th, 2004. It was a Sunday.
“He was in great form,” Rose says. Patrick had been watching a soccer match with his friends and stopped over at the shop Rose and Michael owned. “He came down the stairs and he was smiling. He looked me in the two eyes and said, ‘Good luck, Mom.’ That was the last thing he said to me.”
Rose planned on going home that night, but on her way out her daughter, Maura, stopped her. Maura was battling cancer and was tired. Rose offered to stay the night with her at the shop with Maura. Her son David was also at the shop and decided to go to a friend’s instead of straight home.
“(David) went left instead of right. I went back instead of going home.”
Their son Michael went home to get something from the medicine cabinet. The details that Rose recalls are exact: what he was looking for and where it was.
The house was dark. Michael heard the bang. It sounded like it came from upstairs, even though it hadn’t. He saw that Patrick’s door was shut and assumed the wind had slammed it.
On Monday they wondered where Patrick was. His car was home, but he couldn’t be found.
“I had a feeling myself, you know?” Michael says. He called his sister and met Rose over at the house. “I checked my guns and one of them was missing.” Michael had thought about hiding the gun cabinet, but didn’t want Patrick to think he didn’t trust him.
“Rose was ahead of me,” Michael says. “She let out a scream, ‘He’s here!’ He was in the hay barn.”
Patrick became “the body” and “the remains.”
A gun was beside the body. They found the remains.
“Nothing prepares you,” Michael says. Rose is pale. “Nothing. Nothing. You can read and talk to people but until you have your own personal experience and it comes to your family… the devastation is just unbelievable. I mean it’s just always there.”
Michael breaks down. Rose steps in.
“You never think it’s going to happen. That’s the thing about suicide. I would cry from the pit of my stomach – from depths I never knew before. For three years his death was my life. Visualize a circle.” Rose draws a circle with her finger on the table representing her life defined by her grief. “I’m just starting…just starting to get back. My life is just a little bit outside.” She lands a finger barely on the outside of the circle. “That’s what suicide is. And that will be there for the rest of my life.
“When we came in here now and sat down and focused on Patrick again…I’m back where I was – the sadness, everything. It’s all there. It never goes away.”
Rose lived at the graveyard. Some days she visited two or three times. Michael wore Patrick’s clothes for the first year. In fact, when their first grandchild was born he was wearing Patrick’s sweatsuit.
“When I held my first grandchild,” Rose says, “it hit me that I’ll never get to hold Patrick’s children.”
Their daughter, who was nine at the time, started to miss school because of stomach pain. She was worried that something would happen to her mother while she was away. David, their son, who had been in college with Patrick when he started to use drugs kicks himself for not stepping in. And Rose and Michael have twenty-four years of ‘What if’s.’ They didn’t sleep for a year and a half.
“You blame yourself,” Michael says. “One-thousand-and-one good things might have happened between a father and a son and you focus on the one bad thing.”
“It’ll be six years this year,” Rose says. “It is the first year I’ve come to a level of acceptance. This year on New Year’s I said, ‘ah, yeah, a new year.’ My New Year started after his anniversary date [last] September. Until then I was day-to-day. It’s as painful as sad as the day it happened. The only thing that’s not there are the regrets because I’ve dealt with them.”
At Patrick’s funeral Michael faced a church packed with family and friends and vowed that good would come out of Patrick’s death. It has.
Michael is doing something that few in his position ever do: he speaks openly about his son’s death and the effect on his family on TV and radio. Families from around Ireland who’ve been touched by suicide have contacted them looking for help. Rose volunteers at the addiction center and her outlook on life has changed.
“I think different. The materialistic side of life has gone completely from me. Now I smell the flowers. I feel the breeze. I’ll never forget Patty. I see him out on the lawn cutting the grass, kicking the ball like he used to. We’ll be talking about him until the day we take our last breath.”
Michael nods and says, “There’s life after suicide.”
We end our conversation as it began, talking about kids.
Somewhere inside the building a phone rings. Rose and Michael step out onto the street and walk on.