A LIFE INTERRUPTED
On Friday 17, February, 1996 I felt as if an earthquake had rocked my world due to the chaos that came with it. The very foundations of our family circled crumbled when the call came to tell us that death had claimed our son. The resultant anguish was ours to bear. I felt as if David had taken my life too. And he was not yet 34. But I could not cry. I had used up all my tears. What a terrible way to end one’s life. Will I ever heal? Will my family ever heal? Overwhelming emotions left us reeling. Could we have done something to stop it? No. We’d been warned years before that it might occur, that our son might end his suffering. He’d entered the military with the highest health profile one could score, and on his release, he was with us physically, but mentally, he was missing in action. Paranoid schizophrenia was the diagnosis but, he was medication resistant.
A suicide is different from other deaths. My son didn’t die according to the rules. He left us far too soon. Death by suicide is sudden and violent. We had to deal with the police and then go through the waiting period while a post mortem was carried out. After hearing how it had occurred, I found myself replayig his final moments over and over in an effort to understand – maybe because I was unable to get those thoughts out of my head.
Word of David’s suicide flew faster than sound and the doorbell did not stop ringing. When my parents died, I lost a piece of my past, but when my son died, I lost a large part of my future which left me reeling. People felt painfully uncomfortable in our presence but at least we did not feel isolated. I think it must be one of the most difficult of losses to bear. The same way that mental illness carries a stigma, the same stigma is associated with a suicide. I remember a woman saying; ‘But he wanted to end his life you know, so …’ In other words, was she intimating that we should have felt less pain?
Before leaving for the cemetery to bury our David, my husband spoke to us quietly; “I want you to remember that David did not take his life. He took what schizophrenia had made of it. He ended his agony and I thank my son for putting a stop to his suffering. I hope that he has found the peace of mind he so desperately sought, the peace of mind that eluded him during the last 16 years of his life. Now, we have to face the tragedy of our loss.’
We buried our son, and on that dull winter’s day, I talked to him for the last time, while in the cold, still air I heard a thousand birds sing their songs of life. All the people who had loved him could finally say farewell, even those who had not coped with his schizophrenia but they knew how to handle death. So many friends, family and neighbors stood, shoulders touching, breath mingling in the icy air into one great sigh for our loss. I whispered goodbye. So much left unsaid. I ached to see him on his surfboard. I heard the thud of earth and he was gone. He didn’t even say goodbye. In a tumble of memories, I saw David’s smile superimposed on the painful image of his anguished, tortured expression. I love you, David. Rest. 1962 – 1996
Few people knew what to say to us, how to behave. All we wanted was to talk about our son, about his extreme pain and his lack of peace of mind, Some stayed away which was probably easier for them. We understood but it was hurtful. We did not blame ourselves for what had happened. All my family needed was to concentrate on healing and grief recovery. It had not been easy for any of us to watch our child suffer and feel as helpless to ease his pain as we’d been.
It might seem to some people that suicide is a selfish act by leaving near and dear ones behind to deal with the fears and the grief. But, he was mentally ill and a person who takes his life intentionally is not in possession of a healthy mind.
Shock was our first reaction. Then came the numbness and an indescribably overwhelming sadness. I was also very angry with the mental health profession for their inability to help our son. I knew that he was medication resistant and could not survive as he had no peace of mind at all, but that didn’t help then. Hearing voices all the time must have been indescribably painful. All he wanted was a good job, someone to love, and peace of mind…not much to ask for, is it?
I knew instinctively that I had to use the word suicide when talking to people. I had to get used to saying it. People were shocked at first. The healing and coping process required me to talk about my feelings, about the sadness, anger and hurt. I wrote everything down too.
My husband and our daughters each grieved in their own way. We visited our son’s grave quite often at first, but when we stood in front of the icy slab of marble, we felt that it could not possibly be our son in there. Home again, I held a snapshot of him on his surfboard and spoke to him.
There were painful reminders everywhere. I gave his surfboard away together with his surfing magazines. He’d loved them so.
Birthdays and holidays were so difficult. Going into his bedroom was impossible at first. Friends did not know what to say but by being there, it was a great comfort to us all. Nothing could return to the way it was. We took one day at a time. It was so difficult.
Every year, on the anniversary of our son’s death, my family chooses to be alone. We go to the cemetery where my late husband read a prayer; we speak to him in turn and cry a whole lot, but we do not feel like having a lot of people around us. I don’t know why, but that is the way we all feel.
To this day when people ask me how many children I have, everything comes flooding back in a flash. Nobody has said anything wrong, but that’s the way it will always be. When I see men of his age with wives and children, my hopes and dreams for him that came to nothing, wash over me. I doubt whether we will ever get over the shock and I know that our son will always be in my thoughts.