In the past two weeks two friends lost men they loved to suicide. One, her uncle, the other, her father. Both gone twenty years too soon. Both leaving gaping holes in the lives of those they left behind.
It’s now 11 years since my own father ended his life and, after fighting hard for it, making almost every mistake that could be made along the way, I have found my way back to happiness. There have been many lessons learned in that time, particularly since undertaking this project. For me, the most important of them all is that love and forgiveness — for myself, for my father, for those who love me but were unable to connect with my grief — are all-powerful emotions and a much better use of my time on earth than anger, guilt or regret.
In the 4 years I’ve worked on Left Behind I’ve been interviewed on numerous occasions about the work. As is commonplace in these digital times, the interviews are conducted via a series of written questions and responses. The end result is usually a vastly truncated version of what was discussed, but the information contained in these interviews has proven valuable time and time again when I have been contacted by survivors, looking for answers. So today, on the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day, September 10, and Suicide Prevention Week, September 8-14, I have decided to begin publishing a selection of those interview transcripts, as well as some of the interviews I’ve conducted with my subjects, in the hope that it will help others who are seeking answers, or comfort, or validation that they are not alone.
The first is from an interview with Marie Claire (Italy), first published in March, 2011. I have updated some of my responses to reflect current facts.
[MC] Tell me about your life now.
KP I consider myself a positive, optimistic person, grateful for the blessings I’ve received and more determined than ever before to live a happy and purpose filled life. I am a documentary photographer and a visual artist. Since I was twelve years old and received my first 35mm camera for Christmas, I knew I wanted to be a photographer, but for most of my adult life I have been a businesswoman, building and running a global consulting network with my ex-husband Richard, who became part of the collateral damage of my father’s suicide.
Interestingly, it was my father’s influence that took me away from a creative life, and it was my father’s influence that brought me back to it.
He was a modern day drifter. We were far from homeless, thanks to my mother’s strong work ethic and the financial support her brother offered when times were bleak. Dad was often unemployed, we moved frequently and there were times when we were not sure where our next meal would come from, or how bills would be met. As a child I was acutely aware of the stress in our household relating to money and vowed not to repeat that cycle for myself. When I discovered at an early age I had a talent for business I put my childhood dreams of becoming a photographer aside and instead followed the path that offered financial security.
Six years after Dad’s suicide, when it was abundantly clear I was no longer able to avoid dealing with it, I knew photography was the means by which I would explore and express my grief and I left everything I had built in the business world behind to pursue it, including my marriage. It was as thought I had no choice, really. It had to be done. For the first year I skirted around it – working on essays about loneliness, isolation, dark and light. 18 months ago, I knew I had to approach it head on, and so, amidst doubt and concern from those who loved me, I began to document the stories of others who had lost people they love to suicide. The project is called Left Behind, The Suicide Survivors.
In sharing my story and those of other survivors, I discovered a purpose that meant more to me than I could ever imagined. Dad’s gypsy spirit turned me away from expressing myself creatively, and it’s almost as though his lost soul brought me back to it.
[MC] Tell me about your family, their jobs, their happiness, their sadness, your relationship, and some of your memories about them.
KP We were a small family. Just me, my brother Larren, my mum and my dad. Despite being separated by an ocean, my brother and I are close, although we do not feel pressured to talk regularly. We rarely, if ever, talk about Dad, and never about his suicide. Larren is 3yrs older than me and is married. He is a gifted musician and a teacher, and shares my fathers love of motor sports and tinkering with engines.
His wife Debbie was seven months pregnant with their first child when Dad ended his life. I’ve never spoken with my brother about this and would not presume to speak for him; but I imagine the pain he felt when our Dad chose not wait to meet his first and only child, Dad’s first and only grandchild; must have been devastating. It was bittersweet when my nephew Charlie was born 10 weeks after Dad’s suicide.
Charlie is now 11 years old and a source of great happiness for our family. He is a funny, high spirited, intelligent and creative child – his horoscope is Leo, just like my father. They would have been great friends, I’m sure. He occasionally speaks about his Grandpop Bean who is in Heaven, but to my knowledge, he is not yet aware of suicide or what that means. I’ve spoken with my brother very little about this project. I’ve sent him links to my work, but I sense he is not quite ready to open that wound and I don’t intend to push him to until the time is right for him.
My mother, Dorothy, works with the elderly and is one of the kindest, most caring people I know. When I was growing up, she was the rock that held our family together. Hard working, resilient, compassionate and giving, she finds it difficult to talk about Dad, or their life together.
She cries a lot and carries a deep sadness within her. At first, I rejected any discussion of Dad’s suicide, insisting that we all just needed to pick ourselves up and get on with life. This had been Dad’s choice after all. I realize now that in doing so I denied her the opportunity to talk with her closest confidante about her feelings, and I wish I could go back in time, knowing then what I do now about the healing power of talking with somebody who understands.
She told me about finding my father who died by hanging. She described the effects that such a death had taken on his body, his facial expression. I wish she had not. It is an image that is now burned in my memory and I want it gone. I was not even willing to see him in his burial casket because I wanted to remember him the last time I was with him… cheeky, laughing and full of life. I loved his laugh.
My mum has suffered from depression since my father’s death and has relied on anti-depressants to help her get through. She doesn’t speak often of the suicide or it’s impact on her. As a family we rarely talk about it.
She was very worried about me pursuing this project, feeling it would be too emotionally taxing. It has been. It is. And yet, as a result, she too is starting to be able to talk about suicide. She is proud of the work I am doing and in addition to posting links about my project on her Facebook page, she talks about it with her work colleagues and friends… something she would not have done prior to me taking on this work.
[MC] Tell me about your relationship with your father, about his illness.
KP As a child I adored him and was a little afraid of him. He was a proud, loving, giving father. I look back now and know that even though we were not financially secure, he indulged us to the best of his ability in our youthful passions. I was crazy about horses so he bought a small farm for us to live on. My brother and he shared a passion for motor sports and spent countless hours together at motorbike race meets, and building and driving speedway cars. When we became teenagers and the farm was too remote, he moved the family again to be closer to better schools, and nearer to our friends.
All this I see so clearly now, but I am sad to admit that growing up, I held him to a higher ideal than he was able to meet.
He was a drifter, did not stay in steady work for too long, had a fondness for alcohol and gambling and a temper that flared quickly when things did not go as he’d like them to. He could be very hard to live with at times and I know it was difficult for my mother. They separated a few times but always came back together because their love for one another was so strong. Our family life was not easy. We moved houses and towns frequently and I witnessed them losing their house, selling possessions and sacrificing a great deal to keep the creditors at bay. As an adolescent and a young woman I blamed my dad for this. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t like the fathers of my friends, who held steady jobs and could be relied upon to support their family.
In my twenties, when I had experienced enough of the world to learn a little about what it can do to you, I began to understand that he was simply a man, doing the best he knew how.
My dad’s own father had abandoned his family when Dad was 12yrs old, leaving his mother pregnant with twins and three children to support. As the oldest child, Dad became the man of the household and left school to work and help support his family. He joined the army and much of what he earned went back to his mother and siblings. Undoubtedly he had dreams of his own which he could not realize because he was so heavily burdened with responsibility from such a young age and that makes me sad. Perhaps that is why I am so determined to life my life to the fullest, follow my dreams and try to have no regrets at the end of my life.
He had attempted suicide before, many years before his death. More than once, I discovered.
Despite his personal demons, he was a man with a hugely generous and softhearted nature. He would always help a friend in need, and took in every stray animal that ever crossed his path. He was fired once because he refused to bulldoze down a field of trees that he knew was home to koalas. He would often stop on the highway to check the pouch of a dead kangaroo for babies — many of which he would bring home and hand rear until they could be taken to a wildlife preserve. I remember one time he came inside with blood streaming down his face — he had found a baby magpie bird which had fallen from its nest so he climbed the tree to return it — all the while under solid attack from its fiercely protective mother.
Like me, he loved to throw a party, often spontaneously, much to the chagrin of my mother, who had to scramble to cater to the friends he would invite home. He would gather people together for fun, and most times he would be the first to sneak off to bed. He always got the party started, and was usually the first to leave it. Not unlike his life story, really.
When I was first married he helped me fence properties and renovate my home… what he had not been able to provide financially he worked hard to provide through the blood sweat and tears of his own labor. There are dozens of stories like this I could tell, and many more we heard from his friends when they came to pay tribute to his life.
I wish I had not judged him. I wish I had been more compassionate and more aware of his life story and the impact it had on him as a man, although I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity to share this with him several years before he died. He and I recognized our similarities, we celebrated them, in fact. We became the best of friends, kindred spirits and allies.
He had settled down, we thought. His drinking was under control and he seemed to be at peace for the last years of his life. He seemed happy and that’s why it was such a shock to receive the middle of the night phone call telling me he was dead. By suicide.
[MC] How did you know about his suicide? Tell me about that day and the day after. What details do you recall that are very emotionally involving and important for you.
KP I was at at my Lake Tahoe mountain home in Northern California, sleeping. Some 7,900 miles from my Australian family. It was well past midnight, maybe 2:30 or 3:00am when the phone rang, I don’t remember exactly. It was my brother. My brother never called. Certainly never at 2:30am. I answered but he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, he just insisted I hand the phone to my then husband. He never asked to speak with my ex-husband so I knew it was bad. I recall those seconds so vividly. As my ex-husband spoke quietly into the phone, the expression on his face told me that somebody I loved was dead.
When he hung up and turned to me and said “Your father’s dead. He’s killed himself.’ I remember thinking “thank God it’s not Mum”. It took a long time to forgive myself for that thought, and everything changed in that second.
It felt like all the color in my life faded to grey, like all the emotion I’d ever felt just drained away. I remember crying NO and punching the wall. Rough hewn pine. Those small details stand out. I sat on the stairs for perhaps 10 minutes, numb, unable to speak, in shock. I think I called my brother back and told him I loved him and my mum, and then I got busy, calling airlines to arrange a flight, packing to leave for the 4hr drive to the airport and the 16hr flight back to Australia to be with my family.
It seems to me that in those 10 minutes I made a subconscious decision about how I would cope with this… being busy allowed me to block out the pain and that’s how I clumsily went about dealing with it for the next six years. It was a strategy that almost worked.
[MC] What suggestions would you give to other survivors scattered around the world?
KP First, know that you are not alone. This is a global issue of epidemic proportions and as such there are support services and people who have survived this in every city in every country on the planet. It can help enormously to talk with somebody who’s been through what you’re going through.
Be gentle with yourself. It’s normal to swing between feelings of anger, grief, disbelief and guilt. Allow yourself to ask the questions and feel the emotions, over and over if you need to, until you can let them go. There is no schedule for how long it will take you to process this, regardless of whether people around feel there ought to be.
Forgive yourself for the things you wish you’d done differently. Forgive your loved one for their illness and celebrate the life you shared — rather than only remembering the way they died. Know that you will never be the same again, but that you can survive this.
[MC] How many years did you choose not to speak about your father’s suicide?
KP I spoke about it rarely for six years. It was too painful, too raw, too shameful. I felt I had failed as a daughter and I was angry with him for leaving us, for doing this to us. For not giving us a chance to help him, for not even telling us he was sad and depressed. A combined sense of failure and being angry at your dead father; these are not exactly great conversation starters.
My friends were uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say, and I was so stubbornly determined that his decision, his act, would not ‘define me’, or change me, or ruin my life, that I just put it away and found it was easier to get busy than to really acknowledge the scar it had left in me.
In 2007 I was in Paris, doing a photography workshop and I met another Australian photographer, Mary. Her father had recently died by suicide and for the first time I was able to talk freely, and without shame with somebody who understood every emotion I was experiencing. Mary and I became wonderful friends but importantly, it was a breakthrough for me, the first time I realized how healing it could be (for both of us) to share the experience with somebody else who had gone through this.
[MC] Three thoughts you had in your mind in those years.
KP This will not define me. This was Dad’s choice, and I will not allow it to change me. (of course, it did. how could it not).
Why wasn’t I a better daughter? If I’d been a better daughter, this would not have happened. He would still be here. I spent a lot of time reliving the things I regretted doing or saying, and wishing for a chance to do and say the things I had not.
How dare you do this and leave us behind to try and make sense of it. I was so angry with him, and that made me feel even more guilty. It was a dangerous, damaging cycle. Since embarking on this project, and becoming better educated about depression and suicide, I’ve accepted that Dad was sick. He had a mental illness and I know that he could not have been cognizant of the devastation his suicide would cause us. Eventually, I have been able to forgive him and myself and that was the first critical step in the healing process.
[MC] Three things you’d avoid doing and thinking now in that situation.
KP Forgiveness is key to recovery. Forgiving the person who died, forgiving yourself for the things you wish you did and did not say, do, or notice. And forgiving those around you who may not offer you the support you need to be able to recover.
One realization is that surviving suicide is not just about the immediate survivors, but the people in their lives too.
I think this is particularly the case for men who tend not to be as open about their emotions or feelings as women can be. For example, my ex-husband is a ‘fixer’ but he was unable to fix this for me. He was clumsy in his support, offering me the advice that I would just have to ‘get over it’ the very day after Dad died. It was devastating and made me feel even more alone. I know now he was not being cruel or heartless; rather, in hoping to help me move forward, he pushed me not to dwell on it. In hindsight, perhaps it might have been better if I’d been able to dwell, for just a little while.
I had a hard time forgiving him for not being more sensitive and supportive. He had a hard time understanding the depth of my grief and my anger and the numbness I felt in trying to cope with the emotions of guilt, regret, shock and, of course, heartbreaking grief. He also found it difficult to support my decision to pursue this project — he did not understand why I would want to open ‘old wounds’.
What he didn’t understand was that those wounds had never healed.
Consequently, our marriage suffered greatly and we separated. As a result of me undertaking this project and what we both learned from it we grew close again, and attempted to reconcile, but it was not to be and we divorced. I am now happily remarried to a wonderful man who does not shy away from the topic of my father, who understands and supports the creative process and my need to explore and heal through this project.
I have heard many variations on this story. So many of the people I have interviewed were not able to get back on track and sadly the also suffered the added loss of their relationship as a result of suicide touching their lives.
The right way for me to grieve and recover is not necessarily the right way for the other people who loved and lost my Dad. That’s been a big lesson. We all deal with this in the way we’re best equipped to and patience and understanding and talking openly is the best way I’ve discovered to start to mend the wound loss by suicide leaves in a person’s soul.
Attempting to block out the pain through avoidance or artificial means is not wise. I spent a few years working too hard, a few more years drinking too much, and the entire time trying to deny the gaping hole my Dad’s suicide had left in my life. All of those things ultimately manifested as other difficulties in my life and it’s been an interesting journey to get to a point where I can recognize that.
[MC] How is this project important, for your pain, for your experience?
KP It’s been very important to me on three levels.
First, it has helped me to come to terms with my father’s suicide, to better understand the reasons that may have led to it, and to subsequently release the anger and guilt I was carrying about it for too many years. It has started to have the same effect on the members of my immediate family and some of my closest friends.
Something that’s been a huge revelation is that there is barely a person I’ve talked with about this project who has not been touched by suicide — whether it is somebody they knew directly, or a friend of a friend, or a colleague. I’ve known some of these people for years, yet they’ve never spoken of it. There is still too much silence and stigma surrounding suicide and it must end. Mental illness and death by suicide is a tragedy of epidemic proportions and one that must receive greater attention and increased funding for preventative efforts.
Second, I feel that by undertaking this project it has given some meaning to my Dad’s death. It is my hope that this work will help others like me who are struggling to make sense of their loss to begin their recovery sooner. And it is my greater hope that this work will save lives. I truly believe it can, and it will. Perhaps it already has, and that’s what keeps me going even when it becomes very difficult to do so.
Finally, in meeting and talking with my subjects I have experienced such great compassion, me for them, and them for me. It has also given them an outlet for their grief … a way they can channel their pain into something positive and it has helped me to understand that the emotions, the questions, the experience I had were typical of suicide bereavement.
[MC] Have you ever thought about suicide for your life?
KP No. In retrospect, there is little doubt that I entered a period of depression after his death, though I was in denial about it at the time. My old self was hard to find, outwardly I functioned brilliantly, inwardly, I was broken. I did not begin to really mourn my father until I commenced this project.
When the first of my stories was published in 2010 (an event that coincided with the anniversary of Dad’s death) I became very despondent, and for a couple of months the grief settled over me like a heavy black blanket. But by then I had done enough interviews, had researched other survivors, to know that talking about my feelings would help. In addition to finding a wonderful psychologist in the Lake Tahoe area, I turned to, and leaned on my remarkable ex-husband who, despite the fact that I had left him and was living half way around the world, spent countless hours listening to me as I cried for my subjects, encouraging me when I questioned myself, and soothing me as I mourned the loss of my father. Neither of us knew how to handled my fathers suicide in 2001, but by 2010 his love and compassion and patience was invaluable. Sadly we could not save the marriage, but I am certain this project and what it taught us was the gateway to us remaining dear friends to this day.
[MC] What did you learn after these strong experiences?
KP Love and forgiveness are all-powerful emotions and for me, a much better use of my time on earth than anger, guilt or regret.
[MC] What would you say today to your father?
KP Dad, you little shit, you are loved and you are missed. We all wish you hadn’t left this party early but I am grateful for the love you gave me in your life, and the purpose you’ve given me in your death.
[MC] What is more useful to prevent suicide: family and friend’s love, hospital services or maybe really nothing?
KP All of the above. 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable (but not always diagnosed) psychiatric disorder at the time of their death (most often depression or bipolar disorder). Just as people can die of heart disease or cancer, people can die as a consequence of mental illness.
Most suicidal individuals give some warning of their intentions. The most effective way to prevent a friend or loved one from taking his or her life is to recognize the factors that put people at risk for suicide, take warning signs seriously and know how to respond. In short, know the facts about depression (it can be a lethal and should never be ignored); 2) recognize the warning signs, 3) take it seriously, 4) be willing to talk and listen and 5) seek professional help.
**This link to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website contains a list of warning signs and suggestion actions, http://www.afsp.org/preventing-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs
[MC] Try to explain to a child the meaning of a “suicide” as you’ve seen around you.
KP The question of what to tell children is a complex one. Children can be particularly vulnerable to feelings of abandonment and guilt and concern that this is somehow their fault.
I am reminded of Sunniva Delamaire, one of my interview subjects, and now somebody I consider a friend. Her partner Ash took his life at just 32. Her children are from a previous marriage, but they grew to love Ash and his gentle, creative, free spirit. Sunniva told me “My children loved Ash. They loved him. What he gave to them was beautiful. Sometimes I am angry at him. My children learned so much from him but they did not need to learn about suicide. They were 10 and 7 and a half and 3 and a half. But he loved them. And they loved him. And if I had to do it all over again, I would.”
Experts agree that it is important to be truthful about the issue and not lie to children about how the person they loved died, but it should be up to the parents as to when they determine their child is ready to learn about this.
Amongst other important advice, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggests that whatever the age of the child, do your best to use simple, truthful language.
Here are some suggestions:
– She died by suicide. Suicide means she killed herself.
– He had a very serious illness in his brain. The illness is called depression. It’s very different from just having a bad day.
– The illness in his brain caused him . . .. to feel very confused, . . . to feel hopeless, . . . to make very bad decisions, . . . to stop taking his medication,. . . to end his life
– He didn’t know how to get help/see any other way to stop the pain.
– Suicide is complicated – we’ll never know exactly what went through her mind or what she was feeling – but I do know she must have been in terrible pain.
When I think about my nephew Charlie, I am nonetheless nervous about the implications of an awareness of suicide at such a young age. Aren’t there enough tough lessons a child must learn, without adding suicide to the mix?
**This link to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website offers advice for explaining suicide to children — http://www.afsp.org/coping-with-suicide/where-do-i-begin/helping-children-understand
[MC] Which “stigmas and outdated taboos associated with suicide” have you experienced?
KP It begins with the stigma surrounding mental illness. Unfortunately we live in a society where depression is not yet broadly recognized as an actual illness. People with a mental disorder or depression are often told to ‘be strong’, ‘think positively’ or ‘snap out it’; they can be discriminated against in relationships and in the workplace, despite scientific evidence that shows an irrefutable physical connection with most mental disorders.
Consequently, people who are suffering depression or mental illness are reluctant to admit to it or seek help and untreated mental disorders can lead to suicide. When somebody has died by suicide, there is a stigma attached that act. It is often said that they were selfish, or have taken a coward’s course of action. In some religions suicide is considered a sin and suicide has historically been treated as a criminal matter in many parts of the world. Attempting suicide is a punishable crime in some countries even today.
Several of the survivors I have interviewed told me they felt that some of their friends and family members of the person they lost treated them differently after their loved one died… they felt people were looking at them and asking “what did he do that caused this”. Others tell me that they sense the people around them watching them closely, wondering if they, too, will go down the same path.
[MC] How did you reach your interview subjects? Did you ever receive “no” when you asked them to be involved? And why?
KP It was very important to me that in the process of documenting these stories, and raising awareness of the issue, I would do so in a responsible way, so when I arrived in New York I approached the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and explained my goal with the project.
This is critically important because mainstream journalism often sensationalizes death by suicide and rarely offers information on where to seek support or help. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “Research has shown that graphic, sensationalized or romanticized descriptions of suicide deaths in the news media can contribute to suicide contagion, popularly referred to as ‘copycat‘ suicides.’
They have been tremendously supportive in introducing me to fellow survivors, directing me to research sources, and in helping me ensure the message I am sending is correctly positioned. In turn, I volunteer my photography services to cover their events or whenever they have need.
I generally don’t invite somebody to be involved in my project until they are at least 1 year past their loss. Their emotions are often too raw and the interview and photography process, while ultimately healing, can be very painful for newly bereaved survivors. There have been instances where people have approached me to participate, but I have not felt they are ready to open their wound so completely. And there was just one occasion when somebody I wanted to involve in the project felt she was not ready. Yet.
Mostly, my fellow survivors, like me, feel this is something they can do to help others who are grieving, to perhaps save a life, and in taking positive action, give some meaning to a loss that is otherwise very difficult to comprehend.
[MC] Is your project exhibited in a museum, school or to be published?
KP My pictures have been published by Esquire magazine online in Russia and also by Burn Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald and Revista Photo Magazine in Brazil. I have exhibited on billboards throughout Sydney, Australia, and held a solo exhibition & reception at the Australian Embassy, in Washington DC. They have been shown in a group slideshow at FotoDC, used by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Suicide Prevention Australia and as funds permit I am creating multimedia vignettes for them to use in helping other suicide survivors understand the journey they are experiencing.
I intend to exhibit, publish a book, and create a mini documentary film based on my interviews. This is an ongoing global project and I anticipate it will be another 2-3 years before I have a sufficient body of work to really make the impact I know it is possible to make.
Perhaps even more important is my intention to use the work in my pursuit of advocacy for greater awareness of and increased funding and attention to mental health issues and suicide support resources. To this end, I have been invited by leading suicide prevention groups to deliver key note presentations and show the work to politicians and policy makers and each time I present, I am told this puts a personal and more urgent spin on a topic that might otherwise be reduced to statistics, numbers and faceless data.
The most beautiful emails I have received are from other survivors telling me my photographs have helped eased their pain, and from people who had contemplated suicide, telling me after seeing my work they know now they could never do that to their loved ones. When this happens, I know that every tear I’ve shed, and every tear my subjects have shared with me, are worthwhile.
[MC] We will publish this story for the issue dedicated to Father. Could you tell me about your regret, love, words never told to him, discussions, anger, whatever you want about your father?
KP Of course I am filled with regret. Regret that I did not see his pain, that I was so far away when he clearly needed me. Mostly, I wish I had not wasted a single minute being angry with him when he was alive or after his death.
I loved him. He was a human being, brave and vulnerable, certain and confused and as filled with dreams and regrets as we all are.
I wish I had the same understanding of the frailties of the human condition then as I do now. I treasure my memories of the laughs and the life we shared and I am so glad I inherited his passion for life, his adventurous, sometimes fiery nature, his gypsy spirit and his love of a good time with good friends. The lessons he taught me – both in life and death – have enriched my experience on this earth beyond measure.