The Victim Is The Murderer

Journal Entry                                                                                                 March 18, 1993

Who is the man who murdered himself in our garage? Who’s the man who took such liberty with my life, and with my son’s? Who hated me so much that he destroyed our family with a single slash?

The day he came, you left. He’d been haunting us for a while, I see it now. He looked so much like you, had some of your mannerisms down pat. He even liked Butterfingers.

I mistook him for you. How betrayed you must have felt that I couldn’t tell the difference. I didn’t notice he was an imposter. I thought he was you, with something weighty on your mind. But when he died in my garage he took you, too.

I know not to open my door to strangers. But he came when I was at work. He went to the garage and murdered my children’s father. He left notes everywhere.

But I couldn’t find a note from you.


Loss evokes feelings of anger, abandonment and outrage no matter the cause. Suicide does so in spades. But how can we be angry with a victim? Especially one that has apparently already suffered so greatly that death seemed reasonable escape.

I asked our therapist, “Did he hurt this badly? Worse than we hurt?”

Without hesitation he answered, “Yes. Even more than this.”

So how is it that we who are left behind reconcile our sorrow, regret, grief, guilt, and anger? How do we allow ourselves justifiable outrage without eventually feeling even more guilty if we believe the victim was in that much pain?

Books, I read books, searching for answers about suicide and survivors. I found information about the psychological make-up of both, data about who they are, observations about grief and healing, statistics about which month and day of the week suicide is most likely to occur, even the physiology I could expect after a shocking loss. But I couldn’t find the answer I was looking for and didn’t know how to go on without it.

For me finding a solution to carrying competing and conflicting emotions, beyond “it’s what’s so”, was essential to helping my young son cope with his loss and finding a road map to our future. I hoped it would set us on a course to life.

Later as I watched those in the family who moved forward, and those who didn’t, I made my own observation. Without reconciliation and acceptance of the paradoxical emotional residue left by suicide one overriding behavior seemed to remain, blame.

I saw a ping-pong game of blame. First, I blamed me for not being astute enough to see the signs and read the future. When that was too painful to bear I blamed others for every oversight, slight, and perceived wrong doing to my husband. Rarely could I blame him for his choice. It seemed unthinkable to make a dead man culpable and so I left myself two possibilities: my fault, or the fault of others.

In the early years after our common loss, my husband’s family and I attempted to remain close. We traveled to them a couple of times each year, and they to us. I wished for my son an attachment to his father’s kin, especially his half-sister and grandparents. I wanted them to have access to the boy their son, brother, and dad had left behind. I thought they’d find something special and comforting in each other and perhaps their family could satisfy a need to contribute and participate since they couldn’t with my husband.

Within a few years contact dwindled and eventually stopped. One can only blame one’s self for so long before it becomes too much to live with and finger pointing turns outward. When the burden of guilt became too great to carry, they began to blame me. Sometimes subtly, other times overtly. I believe the inability to appropriately place responsibility was at the heart of the rupture of relationship.

In suicide, victim and murderer are one. That is the solemn, simple truth. That was the sentence I had to fully absorb in order to put the puzzle of emotions together. It was hard for me to let those words seep into my psyche but once they did I could inhale deeply again.

The victim and the murderer lived in one body. Though I can’t fully understand the reasoning behind the act because I didn’t walk in his shoes, the statement is no less valid. It’s therefore reasonable I would experience a landslide of grief and horror at having my husband murdered while also feeling anger, resentment, outrage and sometimes hatred toward the one who ripped my beloved away. It was a horrifying experience, and my own husband was the horrifi-er.

Victim and murderer. One person.

Not long after writing then reading what I had written in my journal I began to understand its implications. I didn’t have to choose among my fault, or his, or anyone else’s. I didn’t have to protect him from the whispers of others. I didn’t have to keep a flame glowing to remind people that he was a good man. And I didn’t have to squelch my feelings of anger.

He could find his rightful place as a decent, hardworking, loving man who made an irresponsible, dreadful and tragic decision the consequences of which derailed our lives by depriving him of us, and us of him. His decency did not mitigate his choice. His choice did not undo all the good he had done. His last day did not erase the 50 years that came before.

Victim and murderer. Good man. Life-ending, life-altering decision to abandon us in order to set himself free. His freedom was our pain. It was fact. Concomitant, seemingly competing emotions could coexist and I didn’t need to protect him from my indignation and outrage. It was well earned. As was my sorrow and longing to have him back.

I didn’t find it in a book. I never heard anyone say it. Yet it was a hard truth. And it did set me free. I could begin to move forward.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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Something Beautiful

Vicki carried the orchid to work one morning and set it on my desk. A white phalaenopsis nearly two feet tall in a beautiful cachepot nestled in a florist’s white gift box. Spanish moss covered the redwood planting bark. Three willowy bloom spikes were supported by thin, green bamboo stakes. Some widely opened snowy blossoms, more on the verge, and swelling buds emerged from the stems. Elegant. Exotic. Breathtaking.

I had never owned an orchid. I had ideas about them though. Difficult to grow. Requiring expertise. Finicky. Expensive.

Not for regular folks. Not for people like me.

Orchids were found in homes fit for magazines or television. Their owners were successful, well bred, graceful.  Maybe they even spoke French. And drank cocktails.

Orchids were made to show off in parlours, salons, and powder rooms. Grand hotel lobbies. Unaffordable spas

Orchids were special. Owners, like the plants themselves, required special breeding.

One would not find orchids in family rooms where televisions beamed “Oprah” and kids did homework. Homes in which Legos hid buried in carpets and art hung cockeyed on refrigerators, held there by magnets made in kindergarten.

Or in one where the owner worried she couldn’t pay her mortgage.

“This is for you,” she said softly as she placed it front of me. “I don’t know what else to do. I’m afraid there’s nothing.”

Few weeks had passed since my husband’s suicide. Enough time for me to know it was real. Not enough for healing. Sufficient to feel the pain. To wonder every ten minutes how my son and I might get through the next. Ten minutes.

Vicki stood. I sat at my desk. She looked away from me then back again.

“I do know this,” she continued. “This orchid is beautiful and you should see something every morning that greets you with beauty.

“Put this where you see it first thing when you open your eyes and know that I’m thinking of you. I’ll be hoping that morning is a tiny bit better than the one before it.”

I took the orchid home and set it next to the bed on the table with the clock radio, and the photo of my son. I awakened to it daily. I was immersed in sorrow and though I felt powerless to mitigate it, I could not argue that my orchid stood in stark contrast to the darkness of the pain. Its beauty immeasurable.

There it bloomed for six months, each morning wishing me a day to match its loveliness.

That was 19 years ago. Not since have I been without an orchid blooming in my home. As I write this morning a golden orchid is company on the nightstand next to me. A white phalaenopsis watches from an adjoining bathroom. Another across the hall. A dwarf purple-pink plant greets guests arriving at my home and one that reminds me of the first regal white orchid Vicki gave me shows off in my dining room.

In the time I’ve lived side by side with orchids I’ve learned something. They were designed by the heavens for people exactly like me.

I have perfect appreciation for their unique combination of fragility and strength, tenacity, adaptability and resiliency. Because I am special. An orchid on my own.

Find your version of an orchid, your translation of beauty. Soon after awakening. As the pain and heaviness of reality positions itself on and around you, reminding you of what you’ve lost, defy it by taking a moment to focus on something beautiful. Allow your senses to feel bewitched if only briefly.

Maybe you’ll find a minute’s bliss in the warmth of a hot morning shower as water washes over you. Or a fragrance you once loved and now barely remember. Perhaps as you walk down the driveway to retrieve the morning paper you’ll notice dew still beaded on the petals of a flower, shimmering on the grass, or clinging to the trees.

You might listen to a piece of music that is your undisputed evidence of God or hear the simple sound of coffee dripping into the pot. Note the unique smell of burnt java as an errant splash hits the warmer. Caress your sleeping child’s soft pink cheek tenderly as he lies on his pillow.

You may not want to do these things. Do they sound meaningless in the face of your pain? These are signs of life moving forward even when you don’t want it to. Let them pull you with them. Give yourself time and space to build new meaning as you’re swept along.

The agony of unrelenting grief can make one so raw that even magnificence hurts. Cleanse your wounds anyway with the healing of something beautiful.

Know when you do, you are really catching a glimpse of your future.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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Support the Support

Meet my force field.

When my husband died I had a group of strong, empathic, pragmatic, and compassionate women surrounding me, a loving albeit bereft family, and the men for whom I worked urging me back to my job (though in truth I should have paid them rather than the reverse). Last, available to me were extraordinary professionals who ventured into a deep and honest partnership that included some of their feelings and experience, too. My husband’s suicide affected them as well and they did me the great favor of telling that truth.

My force field backed me up. I was the primary support for my son and when I wasn’t who I needed to be, they took over. They walked with him, talked with him, distracted him, refocused him and made sure he had homes everywhere he turned.

Support is hard work.                                       

It’s wrenching watching someone you care about struggle with loss. The present as known is snatched away and often left chaotic. The changed future is yet unconstructed. You’re part of a team sweeping up an old life, frequently going on instinct, and feeling your way through an emotional mine field.

Support is courageous and exhausting and it comes in many forms.

My parents couldn’t sit with my son or me during paroxysms of sobbing. It was too painful for them. They felt better in control with logistical issues. In part this reflected generational training—more comfortable with doing, less so with thinking and feeling. They were also mourning the loss of their son-in-law as they tried to soothe their grieving grandson and their widowed daughter. It was all more than they felt capable of handling.

Instead my dad busied himself by organizing my husband’s tools and straightening the garage; my mother cooked and saw to it that my house was neat as visitors arrived with their condolences. She preferred to stay behind the scenes in the kitchen, a warm and familiar place for her. She filled my home with a sense of normalcy in the midst of upheaval. She let others she believed better equipped step in for the emotional clean up.

My brother handled finances. He tracked my husband’s commissions and intervened when he thought they’d been paid incorrectly or when I had questions. He dogged insurance companies and my husband’s bankrupt pension plan. He thanked people I might have unknowingly missed and made sure no kindness went unacknowledged. He became a place of consolation for my son.

The big work was done by my closest pal. She began that first evening when she retrieved my cozy, torn, paper-thin sweat pants, and squeezed their comfort and reliability into an overnight bag. She continued as she turned away nosy neighbors, and was gutsy enough to send well-wishers home when we needed rest. During the funeral, beside another friend in the church pew behind me, her hand touched my shoulder so I wouldn’t forget she was there. She played the role of CSO, chief support officer, triaging, making requests of others, and stepping aside when she saw I could manage for myself.

When asked what qualities are present in extraordinary support I’m sometimes at a loss to describe them. I offer two stories instead; one about my pal, the other about the dear friend who sat next to her at the funeral mass.

First, my pal, small and mighty. Huddled on my sofa late one afternoon she held me as I cried. Profuse tears, along with my nose, ran down my cheeks, dripped to my chin, and onto her bare arms.

“You have snot rolling down your arm,” I noted suddenly and began to rise to grab a washcloth and a tissue.

“I don’t care,” she answered without flinching or releasing me. “It can roll as long as you need it to.”

The second woman, whose hand set upon my other shoulder at the funeral, has been a friend since childhood. Shortly after returning to her out-of-state home she sent me this note and a book.

        “I may presume too much… I was in the bookstore the other night trying to find something to help me know what to say/what not to say—something that might help me learn more about loss and grieving. As I started reading through this book words and phrases from last week’s conversations kept jumping out at me.

       “I may presume too much… but perhaps this small volume can help provide some affirmation and comfort.”

In truth anyone who could write such a note needs no direction, but the book, Companion Through the Darkness, by Stephanie Ericsson, became a friend who knew all the grief inside me. I have it still. A symbol of abiding friendship with its sender, her note tucked inside with other tender treasures.

Not everyone can be inspiring first-line support. I’ve been solid, steady support for some while with others a peripheral presence. In flight attendant language, sometimes I’ve been occupied putting on my own mask before helping the person next to me.

So, the topic at hand — support the support. Some of you will be comfortable in your discomfort. Literally and figuratively you’re able to handle snot rolling down your arm. And some of you won’t. Maybe because you’ve experienced your own loss and another’s pain acts as kindling, starting a brushfire of sorrow within you. Perhaps you don’t feel your relationship is close enough to step in without intruding but you’d still like to help. Or, as my parents, you feel better tending to logistics.

Support the support. You’re uniquely suited to this role. First-line supporters need sustenance, too. They need to tell someone what they’ve seen and heard, and felt. They need rest. They need a break. My support system needed their own support system to love and hug them. To acknowledge and affirm the difficult work they were doing, to give them a safe place to restore. My brother needed the safety and solace of his wife’s support so he could again work with his sister and nephew.

Those who cooked and delivered food to my home and my snot-proof friend’s also brought tears to her eyes. They saw her and recognized she too had lost a friend. While she cared for us she also did her job and attended to her children. Phone calls to her about her, food made for her, kind words for her, were fuel for her long days. As I had support in supporting my son, she needed reinforcement in order to buttress me.

Support the support. Maybe you’re snot-proof. Can’t write a letter that lasts a lifetime. It’s okay. Don’t worry. No sweat. You’re enough just the way you are.

After the initial flurry of activity begins to slow it’s the perfect time to take stock of the situation. You’ll note cakes and casseroles no longer being delivered. Daily phone calls dwindling. Still hard at work you’ll see first-line support walking the bereaved back to life. They hang in after the loss has become old news, and nearly everyone else is again on schedule.

That’s when you pick your spot; then spot those doing the heavy lifting. They need your help. Believe me, there’s enough work around for everyone.  Support the support.

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The Fine Print

This is what you need to know about this blog. Sometimes there will be journal entries. And sometimes there will be reflections, observations or stories about a point in time after my husband’s death. Occasionally you’ll find a combination or distillation of those. There might be recommendations that come from my experience or were made by the professionals working with my son and me.

About the latter, here’s the fine print.

To be fair and responsible with you and the brilliant and caring professionals I was fortunate to have in my life, those now retired and obscure, others well known and oft published and quoted, their recommendations are translated through my filters. I do my best to translate cleanly without spin but meaning is always extruded through our individual experiential template because in we human-types, it can’t be otherwise. I will try to remember to say, this is what I understood. If I don’t, please know it’s what I mean.

I will attempt to tender suggestions with some form of , it might be helpful to think about… Heads up!  I can’t be trusted. In spite of best attempts to offer, don’t be surprised if I barge in with a version of so, this is what I think, as a friend might. This is what I think means, I tried this and it helped.

When I’m not writing I’m a teacher, trainer, facilitator, and executive coach. In other words, I’m a trained critical and creative thinker. I’m not a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed social worker, or counselor. I don’t purport to be. I don’t want to be. Don’t come here instead of seeking out professional help. Don’t cheat yourself.

And when I’m writing, I’m still a teacher, trainer, facilitator and coach. I’ll share with you, tell you stories, make suggestions, and ask you to determine if and what applies to you. I’m hoping some wee thing you find might contribute to your healing.

Finally, if you have taken on the important role of supporting individuals slammed by the crisis of loss, you’ll find stories about those who supported me. When asked how I made it through I say I was fortunate to have people who loved me, people who believed in me, and someone who needed me. That combination made a difference. I have chronicled anecdotes about my support bench, whom I call the force field, and over time will add them here. Again, I hope they’re helpful.

If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or another, or believe someone else might, ALWAYS take steps to call for help.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Posted in Grief, Loss, Memoir, Support | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The First Bite

It’s difficult believing how many years have passed since my husband’s sudden death. My son was 11. He is now 30. I’m remarried. I live in a different city with a different husband, a different career, and a changed life.

Sometimes I speak about that time with friends and family, especially as an anniversary date approaches or an event that he would particularly enjoy or take pride in.  As I do, I feel a distant, tugging connection to the sorrow while also insulated by the years. Sometimes I remind myself it’s my story. Not one I read or heard about from someone else.

The first wholesale transformation of our lives occurred when my son’s father ended his. It was swift. Excruciating. Irrevocable.

After that life changed ever so slightly with each passing moment, almost imperceptibly in the beginning. Others would say they could see us slowly getting stronger. But we couldn’t see it. We could only feel grief and guilt without abatement.

As the coroner pulled away with my husband’s body still lying on the patio cushion he’d chosen for his deathbed, my son looked up at me and asked, “We can’t be normal anymore, can we?”

I stood in the driveway with stocking feet on a drizzling, black, January night, numbed, horrified, panicked. We watched as the ambulance and fire trucks drove down the street, no more red lights or wailing sirens.

“We’re not a real family now. Without Dad.”

I slowed. Cautiously chose my words. “We’re still real. And we don’t have Dad.”

He cycled back to this word many times after this first. “But we’re not normal.”

No. This wasn’t normal. If you can’t trust your parents to hang around and raise you, to fulfill that fundamental promise, then what do you trust?

I remember thinking I owed him directness. 11-year-old style, but direct all the same. It was the place to begin. I spoke carefully. “We’re not normal if normal is only the way we were. But we can build new normal.”

I had no idea where or when new normal would appear. But on that night where seemed less problematic than how. My desperate fear was we were ruined. That what had happened was so vast, life was unrecoverable. What if my son knew my thoughts and was pleading for a different answer?

Only later did I have sufficient clarity to realize his next words shifted everything, became our point of origin. Maybe saved my life.

“Life will never be as good again, will it?”

An 11-year-old with a life expectancy of about 80 years believed that normal, family, and good had all disappeared with the discovery of a body in our garage. The best was done. All downhill from that moment. He was pondering and piecing together his beliefs about life and his world.

“We will always think of tonight with unspeakable sadness. And you will have an incredible life. I promise. I promise.”

I said it. I was responsible for making it real. With no plan but for words I spoke and sealed as we held each other.

So beginning now I open my journals of long ago and add some of the lessons I learned on the way to building new normal. I offer the coming weeks and months of journal entries and reflections to anyone who might currently be doing the same grueling work we did.

I hope my experience will act as a flashlight down a path. Not because I can make the journey better or easier but with the idea that on occasion I might echo another’s anguished thoughts and render at least one step less solitary. Less lonely. Less desolate.

“How will we do it, Mommy?”

“The same way you eat an elephant, baby. One bite at a time.”

Are you in crisis?

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

           If you, or someone you know, are at risk for hurting yourself

or someone else, please call.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

Posted in Death & Dying, Memoir, Suicide | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments