By the time I was a college sophomore, with six years growing up in Northeast Arkansas and 14 years in small town Collierville, I had never known anyone who had committed suicide.
Then, my father killed himself.
He was 45 years old and the manager of a business office in Collierville in the days when it had around 2,000 residents. He was devoutly religious and sang in the Baptist church choir. He had been married for 27 years and had three children. He enjoyed a game of golf and hunting.
He was the last person anyone would have predicted to do what he did – although that is said often about people who take their own lives.
And yet, on November 18, 1968, while forced to bed with one of his debilitating migraine headaches, he picked up his rifle and shot himself.
The Video In My Head
You never forget where you were when you hear the news. I was in journalism class at Memphis State University, and while no one could track me down, they did find my best friend from high school and college dorm roommate who found me and told me my father was dead.
It was when I arrived to a stunned house palpable with shock that I learned it was his choice.
From there, the video that plays in my head shifts to disjointed images over the next couple of days as coping became the priority.
There was the visit to the funeral home where the manager tried to shame my 23-year-old brother and me from selecting the coffin that my father’s burial policy paid for. Surely, we would want more for our father, he said. In a room full of coffins, the one covered by the policy was tucked away in the corner behind curtains. We said we’d take it….along with whatever basic funeral was covered by the policy.
There was a crowded visitation at the Collierville funeral home, which was in fact in a former home off the town square. I spent much of the evening on the front porch away from the hubbub with my friends. I don’t remember much specific from that night except for my beloved English teacher, Ethel Thompson, saying: “There are dark waters we all have to navigate and none of us know what we’ll do until we are there.”
There was the typical Southern Baptist funeral – only considered a success if we could all be pushed to sobbing – and featuring the usual emphasis on the Plan of Salvation and hellfire. There were two ministers – the one from the church and my friend, Frank McRae from the Collierville United Methodist, who would later become known for his leadership for justice for Memphis sanitation workers.
The Baptist preacher spoke first. He said that my father was weak and his faith wasn’t strong enough or he never would have done what he did. In response, Rev. McRae refused to refer to sin and weakness, but instead, uplifted us with words of comfort and consolidation. It ended up being the funeral version of Point-Counterpoint.
There was the funeral procession from Collierville to the cemetery in Forrest City, Arkansas, where my father was buried near others in his family.
A Different Time
Suicide was not discussed those five decades ago, because of the shame and embarrassment attached firmly to it, so there were whispers but more often silence in the weeks that followed. People had no idea what to say, but then again, we had no idea how to respond anyway.
For those left behind, there are the inevitable questions: Weren’t we reason enough to stay alive? Did we have any hints of what he was going to do? Why did he do this?
In other words, it is not just the hole in our lives left by his absence, but it is the imponderable, unanswerable questions that fill that space.
As for me, I intellectualized my father’s act in order to disassociate from my emotion and distress. I reasoned that everyone ultimately had the right to decide when their life was over, and we had the benefit of a plausible reason for his action.
We were accustomed to his migraines being so severe that he could not function and could only lie on the couch or in bed until they passed. He had a gnawing fear of cancer and had recently been in the hospital for melanoma surgery.
It is said that a large majority of suicides are acts of opportunity, and we could file my father’s death in that category – blinding pain and a gun nearby.
We say that people commit suicide, but for many of them, it is not a commitment at all. It is a spontaneous act born of the moment and the circumstances and if those had not converged, it might never have happened at all.
I think about all of this as I read about the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, but in truth I think about it when I hear and read of most suicides, particularly those of people much younger than my father, young people battling depression or bipolar disorder or just unrelenting sadness in their lives, and people I don’t even know who are in a news story about their deaths.
But most of all, I think about the new normal for the families searching for answers that may never come, for the solace that is hard to find, and for the closure that ends up being a myth. That said, at least now, we talk openly about the trouble signs, the interventions, and the professional help that is available.
This year, there will be 45,000 suicides as the rate spikes upward, and for every actual suicide, there will be five other attempts.
The mandate for family and friends is to get involved, talk directly to people you are concerned about. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries relevant to Memphis.