What Is It Like to Be a Child of Suicide?

You are not alone.

Posted Jun 12, 2018

Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain, free imageb
Source: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain, free imageb

I never owned a Kate Spade fashion accessory, but I once almost crossed paths with Anthony Bourdain. What unites them in my mind (besides their celebrity status) is their death by suicide and the fact that they both left not only grieving friends and partners behind but also a child. 

Kate’s daughter is 13.

Anthony’s is 11. 

Commenting in The New York Post (June 6, 2018) on the death of Kate Spade, Bethany Mandel says simply: “While Spade assured her daughter ‘it had nothing to do with you,’ it will have everything to do with Frances for the rest of her life.” As the seventy-something stepdaughter of a man who ended his life when I was 18, I second her testimony.

My stepfather, a progressive civil liberties attorney in St. Louis in the 1940s and 1950s, married my widowed mother in 1955, the year before I graduated from eighth grade. 

I hated him, not because of who he was but because of who he was not—my beloved father, who had died tragically by drowning at the age of 42. Devoted to my father’s memory, I could not adjust to this new member of our family. Yet, as time passed and our life settled into new routines, I grudgingly accepted him. 

He was unhappy in ways that I did not understand, given that I was more concerned with myself than anyone else. He tried to commit suicide when I was in my mid-teens by taking an overdose of sleeping pills in his downtown office then sleepily calling my mother. She rushed to his rescue, taking my older brother with her. They got him to the nearest hospital, where he had his stomach pumped. It was my older brother who confided this story to me sometime later, as my mother did not want to talk about it. 

Two weeks after my graduation from high school, he died at home in his sleep. He and my mother had quarreled in the middle of the night, and she had slammed out of their bedroom to sleep in the guest room across the hall. From my own room, I heard them shouting at each other and also heard my mother’s exit. Later in the night, I was awakened by the sound of ragged breathing: a rough, snoring-like sound, which seemed abnormal. I was frightened, but didn’t know what to do. I wanted to believe that there was nothing wrong.

In the morning, when my stepfather did not come downstairs for breakfast, my mom went to check on him. This is when I heard her scream; she was hysterical and insisted that I go look. I did not approach his body lying on the bed but observed his stillness and pallor from the doorway. 

The family physician came to our house and pronounced my stepfather dead of a heart attack. 

I never believed this. I knew of his dependence on sleeping pills and amphetamines (which were generously prescribed in those days) and privately concluded that he had died of a combination of alcohol (he’d been out late drinking with a law school buddy) and sleeping pills. 

My mother subscribed to the heart attack theory of his death, and I was unable to share my doubts and fears with my two brothers.  A half-century later, after my mother herself passed away, my brothers and I (all now in our 60s) shared our theories about how our stepfather died. We agreed that it was an overdose. He was depressed, his marriage to our mother was failing, and he was known to take a lot of prescription drugs. It is possible that he did not intend to die that night, but he did—leaving us to deal with the consequences.

I can’t speak for my brothers (themselves now deceased), but I can tell you how my stepfather’s death affected me.

My first and most overwhelming response was guilt. I hadn’t liked him, hadn’t been nice to him, and more or less suspected his problems with alcohol and depression. But who ever talked about such things in the 1950s?

I thought that I was a very bad person for having hated him, which I believed had contributed to the despair that led him to end his life. I felt like a murderer. There was no one I could speak to about my horror at who I was and what I had done.

What I did with such an intolerable burden of self-hatred and pain was to shut down my emotional life, to pretend that everything was fine, and to leave home as soon as possible—as if changing geographic locations would also free me from the legacy of my family history. I had already been accepted to college on the East Coast and was eager to create as much distance as I could between my family’s tragedy and myself.

Well, you know how that works.

Following a long period of attempting to numb myself, which inhibited my ability to form close relationships in my late teens and early twenties, I descended into a period of acute shame and feelings of inner destructiveness. 

I was well into my thirties and a beneficial course of psychotherapy when I began to understand that I was not responsible for my stepfather’s death. My life dramatically improved in these years, as I began to trust and confide in others and to create a good life for myself. 

Yet it took another twenty years for me to realize that I appreciated my stepfather for who he was (a brilliant pro bono lawyer who had fostered my education) and who, though shy, had always been kind to me. Without his presence in my life, I doubt that I would have followed the career path in higher education that I pursued.

In my later years, I have begun to feel sorrow and regret (rather than guilt and shame) about how I treated him when he first married my mother. And, at long last, I am able to feel gratitude for what he gave me—a belief in me as someone as intelligent as himself, who might be able to make her own mark on the world.

He was a more troubled person than I could have understood and brought his own inner demons into our family, but he gave me a sense of aspiration that was unusual for girls and women of my time.

I owe him something else—a desire to help others and to save lives where I can. I believe that this desire has motivated much of my career as a teacher.

Since my retirement from the University of Minnesota last spring, I have been engaged in the (seemingly endless) process of cleaning out my office, which has given me time to review my course notes and syllabi, comments on student work, and letters of recommendation. As I page through these documents before commending them to the recycling bin, I realize how hard I worked to help my students come to an understanding of themselves—through the teaching of literature and creative writing—in order to help them overcome the obstacles (emotional as well as practical) they were facing as they moved into maturity. 

I am more than usually attuned to signs of others’ distress (a plus as a teacher of the humanities), and more than once I have acted to prevent an unnecessary death. 

Yet, having made my way successfully through my own richly complicated life, I would not wish what happened to me as a girl on anyone else.

If you who read this piece are having thoughts of suicide, please believe that you are not alone. There is someone who can help—if not a family member, friend, teacher, member of your religious community, or therapist, then one of the good people who are available to take your call at any time of the day or night at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). 

It won’t hurt, and it may well help.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons