Tell me about the person who died:
My father died a little over 10 years ago. He killed himself. He had dealt with depression my entire life, so in some ways, this was not a complete surprise, but of course, it was incredibly shocking and traumatic at the same time.
When I was young, I was Daddy's little girl. He adored me and the feeling was mutual. My mother was the disciplinarian and my dad was all about fun. We went everywhere together. He'd patiently put up with my never-ending questions; he gave me candy and food that my mother did not allow. We hit golf balls at the driving range and went to car shows. Even going with him on weekend errands was fun. He would embarrass me with dorky “dad” jokes and, like me, he could be the class clown. I saw that whenever we went to a restaurant and he made the waitresses laugh. He was a good, but troubled person.
When adolescence hit, I no longer wanted to hang out with him and didn't feel comfortable talking to him, as all these things were happening to me, both physically and emotionally. Then I got to high school and I separated from him further. I think at least unconsciously, I felt like I didn't know how to relate to him now that I was no longer a little girl, so most of my interactions with him were brief and superficial.
Our relationship was also marred by his relationship with my mother, which was not good. I would say my mother was emotionally abusive to him. And he let her be that way—it takes two. I spent most of my adult life being angry at him for putting up with my mother. Our relationship suffered because of that, and I never returned to being close to him the way I was when I was a child.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died and why?
So many things remind me of him, but food probably stands out the most–peanut M&Ms, seltzer, bagels with tuna, sturgeon, and caviar cream cheese, which he would buy on special occasions, to name a few. Also, on occasion, he would eat an absurdly huge, unhealthy and delicious hero that he would get from the neighborhood deli, piled with turkey, roast beef, tongue, Russian dressing, and coleslaw. He would often give me some of it and it was one of our small ways of bonding. We both loved to eat and to indulge in "bad stuff,” especially since my mom was so concerned with what I should and shouldn't eat.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
It was pure hell, initially. The worst experience I’ve ever had, without a doubt (as my sister once said, we lived rather charmed lives until my dad died). It was shocking and painful and excruciating and numbing and terrifying. I had never lost anyone very close to me before, with the exception of one grandmother who died when I was 13. I had never experienced true grief.
My mother called me and told me what had happened. For the next two hours I went back and forth between shock and hysteria, even apologizing to her because I thought it was my fault. I was not thinking clearly, and I ran around my room trying to figure out what to pack to go back home. I packed a bunch of workout socks. I didn't pack any funeral-appropriate clothing.
I was going to take the train home but my roommate at the time convinced me that I should really take a cab. After a thirty minute ride, I gave the cab driver $100, got out and crossed the street to my childhood home. I started walking across my lawn when two cops approached me and asked if I was Alison*, my sister. “No,” I told them. “I’m Jessica.” I felt myself walking backwards. Each cop took an arm and guided me forward into my house where I began yelling for my mother as I walked down the hall. I was watching myself from above, as if I was in a movie. I reached the eat-in kitchen and at the table sat my mom, my father's best friend, his wife, and my father's brother and his wife. They all looked like hell.
My sister and her family were not able to come until the following day, and I remember being scared to be alone in the house with my mother. I’m not sure why I felt that way. Maybe I felt like I had to take care of her? I just couldn’t wait for my sister to be there with me. It was too much to handle on my own.
The first couple of weeks were full of terror (was this a dream? how can this be happening?), shock, guilt, tears, pain, and more guilt. Not just emotional pain, but physical pain in my chest, which I carried with me on and off for many years after. It's weird what your body does. My mom who "felt fine" ended up getting shingles, which is often caused by extreme stress.
My grief is not linear. The worst was not on day one and the easiest is not today. It ebbs and flows. Things are pretty stable now, but in the beginning, it almost felt like I was going insane. I could be completely fine one minute and breaking down the next, yearning for this excruciating pain to subside. I remember talking to someone whose sister had committed suicide, asking him if the pain was ever going to go away. It felt permanent and eternal, like I would never be normal again.
Although I was in therapy at the time of my dad’s death, I don't think I've ever truly dealt with my grief, even to this day. I've talked a lot about it, but it still feels almost imaginary. It sometimes feels like nothing happened because I'm so filled with guilt that I can't miss him. I also don't miss him because we weren't close for so many years, so I was used to not having him in my life, as horrible as that sounds. Most of the time, all I feel is guilt or nothingness. In many ways, he feels like a ghost.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape you've been passing through, what would it look like and feel like at different points in your journey?
At first it felt like a cave–dark and deep with lots of sharp stalactites hanging down. Black, deep reds, and fiery oranges. When I was not in hell, it would feel pretty normal, like a calm lake on a partly sunny day, with something bubbling beneath the surface. It reminds me of an EKG, where the lines go up and down, up and down, but then they even out a bit more. It's like having a massive heart attack, and then it calms down, and then maybe you have some heart palpitations along the way and it calms down again. At the end of the EKG line, the up and down is more regular like a normal heartbeat and hardly anything goes too high or too low.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
I was surprised at just how much I loved my dad. I remember sitting in therapy and crying so intensely into a pillow, trying to muffle the guttural screams coming out of me. I don't think I realized the depths of it when he was alive because my feelings were always clouded with anger and discomfort. It’s really hard for me to get out of my anger and be more accepting of things sometimes. I wish I had been able to express that love for him while he was alive.
How did people support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
My close friends were incredible. They listened and sympathized and were there for me in ways that astound me now. One of my closest friends called me every single day for three months after my dad died. I don't talk much about my dad now for the most part, but I know I can talk to them if I need to.
I cannot speak to my family about it. I have tons of anger towards my mom as I sometimes modeled my behavior towards him after hers, which burns me up inside now. She won't really admit to the role she played in his death or in their relationship, which she still insists was not so bad. Her general attitude towards anything is pretending everything is fine. It’s very difficult for her to accept feelings of sadness or regret or pain.
I also cannot speak to my sister about it, for the most part. My dad killed himself on my nephew's birthday. My nephew was 5 at the time. It wasn’t intentional, it was just a day when my mom was going to be out of the house for a few hours and he saw an opportunity. My dad loved my nephew very much. But my sister has always been very focused on making that day about her son and protecting him from anything negative. She helped me through the funeral, and I think we were there for each other in the beginning, trying to process all of this. But on anniversaries, we don’t discuss it. I’m sure everyone is having their own experience of it, but sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who thinks about him.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
No. I generally don’t get into this kind of thing. I have visited my dad’s gravesite once or twice, but even that seems strange. He is not in the ground any more than he is standing right next to me, so I do not feel any different or closer to him at the cemetery and I’d prefer not to be there.
How did your loss and your grief change you?
I definitely felt like my dad’s death created a divide in my life. There was life before he died and life after he died.
For the first seven years or so after his death, I was very agitated in the weeks leading up to the anniversary. I felt sensitive and depressed and anxious. I did things in those weeks that I would not normally do. I called friends out on things in inappropriate ways. I just was not myself.
I think as time has gone on, things have returned somewhat to normal. I’m not the same person of course–I’ve experienced a significant loss and something very traumatic and that will never change. I feel horrible saying this, but there are many days and weeks where I don’t think about my dad.
Is there anything else you want to share?
When someone takes their own life, everyone is left with so much anger: at the person who did it, at family members, at oneself. There is a lot to untangle. And there is finger-pointing and so much “what if.” When I think about why this happened, it is like peeling an onion—things from his childhood contributed to his death as much as things from the week he died.
And then there is the taboo surrounding suicide. People talk about suicide in hushed tones. In the beginning, my mother straight-out lied to a number of people about how my father died. People who went to his funeral had no idea he killed himself. A few years after his death, I told my mother I was getting back in touch with a childhood friend via Facebook and she threatened me over saying anything about my father. I think the taboo stems from a few things—from not understanding how depression works, from the guilt that people feel about the person who died, and from the idea, which I disagree with, that the person who did this must be selfish.
I have suffered from depression since I was about 13 years old. I have “attempted suicide” (they were really cries for help rather than legitimate attempts). I was depressed at the time my father killed himself, which was partly why I had barely been in touch with him during the months before his death. I understand what depression can do to you and where it can bring you. I have been at the edge before. I do not wish it upon anyone. Sadly, though my father and I both dealt with depression, we never discussed it.
*Name has been changed.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.