Coping with Father’s Day as a Suicide Survivor in 2018

I self-published my memoir The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans in October 2016 after spending more than 20 years working on one version of the story or another. The book’s name comes from two sources.

The concept of being an orphan, particular in the Black community, may seem jarring. We are, after all, known for taking care of one another even when we’re messy.

But even before my parents died – my father by suicide in 2010, my mother from cervical cancer in 2012 – I had been orphaned by them in many ways, largely because of untreated mental illness.

In Mira Bartok’s The Memory Palace, she wrote:

The Sami call the period from mid-November to mid-January the Dark Time, or Skabma Dalvi — the Beautiful Darkness. Most of the day, the sky is a deep indigo blue, even in the morning. It is so hard to know when to wake up, when to work, when to eat a meal.

The phrase the Beautiful Darkness stayed with me for a number of reasons: I’m a winter baby; I prefer cold weather to warm; I last saw my mother alive and forgave her for our hard times together during this time and it was the season in which she also made her transition.

The Beautiful Darkness, for me, is also a way of thinking about grief that has been helpful. It’s a time that can be disorienting in the way that Bartok describes, so that you feel lost. This can also be a gift, a way of learning new way.

These days, this season reminds me that we learn these things in order to share them.

The depth of my father wound sometimes feels like it doesn’t end. I’ve written about it so much over the years, including a blistering open letter included in the award-winning anthology My Soul to His Spirit: Soulful Expressions from Black Daughters to Their Fathers edited by Melda Beaty, published in 2005.

It’s just a fact of my life now, stuck to me, permanently part of my story, like his suicide.

In this spot on, achingly accurate essay, HuffPost senior editor Ashley Feinberg, a fellow suicide survivor, captures some of what last week was like for me, trying to be in the world during a news cycle that included spirit compressing headlines, news alerts, social media feeds with relentless reminders of suicide and mental health breaches from Tuesday through Saturday.

And because people so rarely talk about suicide, the days on which we talk about almost nothing else hit especially hard…” in our modern day attention economy when almost all media face the revenue pressure to write sensational, lurid headlines that drive search engine traffic. Of course journalists would do best to first do no harm, but we’re not doctors, nor, as recent events show, are we skilled mental health professionals.

Not just journalists or the average social media user, but any of us. Remarking on Twitter timelines filled with advice and hotlines, Feinberg wrote,

All of these things are good and true and helpful, or at least they feel like they should be. But they also made my gut ache.

It’s the ache of being reminded of what I’ve lost, sure, but it’s also the anxiety of not knowing what to do — how to comfort those dealing with what I’m dealing with, what to tell those who have no idea what it’s like but want to help, whether it’s ridiculous of me to think I’m qualified for any of this in the first place.

The cynicism and the concern work together in weird ways. On a day like Friday, I end up feeling watched.

Yes, I know this well. To feel seen for a fleeting moment but also to feel like the world is waiting for you to help, to jump in. To be useful with your pain.

When someone famous, especially someone who means so much to so many, dies by suicide, a voice in my head screams at me to get out of my own thoughts and do something. This is the consequence of having had intimate experience with suicide. To know suicide is to be obligated forever to give witness, not just as an act of communion with people who’ve experienced something similar, but also as a sort of activism — haunt the conscience of people entertaining thoughts of killing themselves, act as a stand-in for their loved ones, show them what wreckage might be left in their wake. Every suicide is personal.

Feinberg’s piece is worth reading and bookmarking. We diverge here, but it doesn’t make her wrong and me right – every suicide is personal and every grief is personal. She grieves openly, she ends up sharing her grief with others, and reliving hell. I’ve retreated away from it, actively, in favor of self-protection.

For most people, who only think they understand what these demons are and who they afflict, I wonder if knowing more of the details of a celebrity suicide make them feel like they’re closer to understanding somehow. This person they admired or looked up to or loved from a distance is no more and must have been in great paid and now we must do something. Let’s control it, if we can.

Here’s how we make sense of it: Remind other people to stay alive, for us, please. So we don’t lose any more people unexpectedly. So we all stay in control. So we all have the stories we believe are ours to have.

And yet, there is just the reality that some lives are valued more – in life and in death – than others. This adds a different kind of complexity to my grief, almost deepens it, layers more resentment on top of it.

On any given day, especially in June as Father’s Day approaches, I try to forget the Saturday morning in the newsroom when I picked up my phone and learned the news that my father had been found dead after no one knew how long in his home in the same way that Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade died. Their lives, their profiles, could not be more different but in death, they are united in this haunting way.

I always have competing impulses when I encounter this news in the world: To learn the names of the living, to pray with them, to wish them well for the long road littered with questions and mourning ahead. To survive a loved one’s suicide is to become a part of a faceless international tribe of people connected by this really painful loss few people speak about with care or compassion.

Then, there are the nuances.

The fact of a mental health crisis in the black community that just lingers and cycles, inches ever upward. A stat from a piece about exposure to racial trauma via police shootings in The Cut last year estimated that 20 percent of Black Americans have a mental health issue.

At the end of last month, the Washington Post reported that researchers confirmed findings first noticed several years ago – that black children between the ages of 5 and 12 are dying by suicide at twice the rate of their white counterparts. Some of this is due to a lack of culturally appropriate behavioral health care. It may have to do with access, availability of black counselors, affordability, stigma associated with therapy that still exists, lack of information about what it means to be mentally well or how to cope with stressful life events – the list goes on. None of this happens in a vacuum, either – children see the world a few years ahead of them. Surely, they see that young black children are also less likely to survive their childhoods than other children in this country, and that can’t be helpful.

Knowing these things stings the father wound even more. And in these moments, being a witness to the outpourings, the spectacle of grief, I remember the warnings I used to hear my newspaper colleagues talk about when I reported on suicide. Related to contagion. It is, in fact, true that when the details of a well-known person’s suicide are reported, it makes those vulnerable engage in copycat behavior.

But it’s also easy to become overcome with the priorities of a news cycle that needs to keep audiences with an endless appetite for celebrity, even in death. While I have compassion for this, I also have experience with suicide as someone who survived my own attempt at taking my life when I was young in addition to coping with the grief of my father’s death.

I was about 11 when I tried to die at my own hand and I thank God everyday I wasn’t successful. Going to church regularly and developing a deep spiritual life helped me cope until I made my way to middle school, where we were fortunate to have a therapist. On and off for the rest of my life until I was in my early 30s, I would seek out a combination of self-help literature, websites, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) groups and resources, and physical practices – like running — to help me get out of my own head for a little bit. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also helped with resources and support.

The Internet can be both healing and wounding, a place for replicating your relationship with intimacy, but it’s not a replacement for real relationships, as anyone who has tried internet dating will tell you. Our phones and devices are so deceptive because they are the worlds that are almost always with us. But during times of loss, particularly a loss like suicide, they can leave us feeling particularly empty. I learned this the hard way when I found myself in need of a very specific kind of connection after my father’s death but unable to find the right kind. I needed one on one conversation that felt tailored to my heart and to me.

And space to be able to feel all the things that emerge. Our culture is bent toward happiness, which is one of many reasons I loved even just the title of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Brightsided. But we’re all entitled to feel our dark feelings, too, and in fact, we need to in order to move on, to cultivate resilience. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not working on my resentment and my anger toward my father, and it all comes up around Father’s Day.

Black women are always being told how to feel. When to feel. When to express and how.

I freed myself so that I could cry as I write if I need to without needing to also take on the emotional labor of processing how other people would receive (or not) my tears. So I could say no to a ripping and digging around in this wound according to a news peg suitable for the Internet’s metabolism. This is progress. It is practice.

And it’s necessary, especially, when the world’s attention turns quickly to the next news alert. The survivors among us, exhausted, with the scabs to our wounds ripped off, feel most alone and need those who say they love us most during weeks like this – when the conversation around interventions recede. When I can feel even the sweetest, kindest, most compassionate people in my world go back to the routines of their daily lives because this is what life is. That is what their life is.

For most people, suicide is the story of someone else’s tragedy. It is a terrible land to visit, a sick, twisted version of an amusement park where voyeurs rush in because they have been sad, they have been in a dark place before.

They had a friend. They knew a guy. They had a cousin, etc.

Suicide is in my DNA, my blood. It’s the house I live in, a world of its own adjacent to the beautiful universe I love dwelling in. Most days, I forget about it, or if I don’t forget, I don’t have to look until I’m ready, like a mirror.

Sometimes, like last week, I don’t get a choice.

Unfortunately, two of my closest friends have lost their mothers in recent weeks. I’ve shared some of the following with them which were helpful to me after my parents died. I offer them to you in the spirit of Alice Walker’s wise words from Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ foreword: “Those who love us never leave us alone with our grief. At the moment they show us our wound, they reveal they have the medicine.”

  • When you are grieving, especially if you are grieving primarily online, know that people are often at a loss for words. We live in a culture that devalues holding thoughtful, intentional space. There are no social, secular, agreed upon communal standards for grieving online, which means even the most well-meaning people will say insensitive, even dumb, things.
  • If you think this might be you, or you don’t know what to say to a loved one, consider saying something like, “I don’t have the right words, or know what to say right now, but I love you and I want to support you. How can I best show up for you? What do you need me to do for you?”
  • Offer to run errands if the loss is new. Send a handwritten card. If snail mail feels too extra and you don’t want to, text or email. Doing or saying nothing in the moment is always an option, too. But at the very least, if you’re not sure what to say, say that, instead of the first thing that comes to mind, especially if suicide is involved.
  • Do not make the grief of others about you. Because we don’t have any systems or processes around mourning and grief, just the flat hierarchy of info on the Internet, it’s just tough to navigate communicating around death and mourning. But the flat internet is not nearly as visceral or tangible as the needs of our bodies. Death, as life, is a sensory experience. Grief can be, too. But if someone is grieving a fresh loss, do not go in about yourself right away unless you have some kind of guidance. Some medicine. A tangible take away. Otherwise, you’re probably not helping.
  • In Ashley’s suicide week piece, she talked about feeling watched, suddenly. Grief is vulnerable and exhausting because of how exposed you become to the unknown. It is an incredible teacher this way, but it is harrowing and it’s not really anything that anyone can prepare you for especially, I think, as it relates to the death of parents.
  • Grief ebbs and flows. It comes in with the tide and goes out without warning. When famous people die in similar ways, suddenly it feels like everyone knows how you feel while you watch them perform the distant social graces of people who have been trained that having information is the same thing as spending time. Those are the times when I feel the loneliest. The most devastated. Realizing that when the global shock recedes, I’ll be left with the familiar, ancient ache, the would that I know, the distance of the apathetic world I know is trained to pretend to care in the interest of traffic and etiquette.

Time marches on. It was my Dad who told me, actually, “Time lost can never be recaptured” when I met him at my high school graduation in 1996. We had a few good talks before he left this world, a road trip to Buffalo, New York and Montreal; a mini-tour of his history, an introduction to his side of the family. But he was complicated. We were complicated. Which made his suicide that much harder to bear. I coped by training for a marathon. Taking in a beautiful rescue dog, working myself to burnout.

Because I tried to avoid Father’s Day for years before I knew my Dad, I navigated it awkwardly while he was alive and now I awkwardly dread it with only slightly less nausea and loathing than the other parental marketing spectacle. Each year I get a little bit better at figuring out how to take care of myself, how to care for this tender heart, how to ask other if they can be mindful of doing the same.

When it doubt, it’s best to go in with a plan. If you are newly grieving a father or father figure, it might be helpful to:

  • Mute automatic marketing newsletters/emails from retailers selling Father’s Day stuff until next week
  • Develop a ritual or read Scripture/spiritual material that will help you feel ease and comfort on or around Sunday
  • Plan to treat yourself to something you love – a movie, dinner, a trip to the beach, a mani/pedi – something you might not ordinarily do or spend time with friends
  • Be mindful of Father’s Day outings and events for Sunday that might be triggers for your grief. Make plans with other friends who may also be missing their Dads and/or don’t celebrate the day
  • If it’s true for you, send and express love to the fathers or father figures in your life who have brought meaning to your world.

Most of all, I want to just say, that even though I have written all of this, I am not a mental health professional. I’m just someone who has experienced a lot of loss, gone to a lot of therapy and read a lot of books about some aspects of the mental health, grieving and parental loss experience. Take what may be useful here and leave the rest.

Here are some helpful tips & resources

Crisis Text Line: You can text HOME to 741741 in the U.S.

National Alliance on Mental Illness 

Quick 1-Page Reference Guide from the World Health Organization for Reporting on Suicide

A longer booklet for media professionals from WHO to help prevent suicides while reporting on suicide, especially involving celebrities, is here.

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About Joshunda Sanders

Author, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. @JoshundaSanders on Twitter | @joshunda on IG.