The Swiss psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, wrote in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, about the various stages of grief that the bereaved know all too well. I’m sure many of us have heard this from our shrinks or bereavement groups. As I reflect back on the eight years since my 17-year-old daughter Casey’s suicide, my journey tracks remarkably closely to Kübler-Ross’ own writing working with the terminally ill.
It all started one weekend in January, 2008. My wife Erika and I had a big fight with Casey over her mouthiness, rudeness and defiance. Parents fight with their teens, right? At one point Casey locked herself in my home office crying and yelling at me.
“I’m going to go live on the streets and you’ll never see me again!” she screamed.
“Good!” I yelled back out of sheer frustration. I left her behind in a puddle of tears. Drama queen, I thought.
Later that night I passed Casey sitting on the living room sofa, watching TV, pounding away on her laptop. We just glared at each other.
And that’s the last time I saw her.
I awoke the next morning to a note on her desk: The car is parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sorry.
At about dawn that morning, she took our car, drove to the Golden Gate Bridge and jumped. She was never found. The life we once knew, all of our hopes and dreams for the future were gone, a firestorm, earthquake, catastrophic power failure. When the police officer gave us the news from the Bridge Patrol I wanted to go to sleep that day and never wake up.
Every loss is tragic, but suicide sits apart from other types of loss. Even the language around suicide is different. One “commits” suicide as if it were a crime. The suicide victim and survivors left behind are cloaked in shame, scorn and stigma. I couldn’t imagine outliving my daughter for even one minute. In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d be here eight years later. Instead I stumbled through Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, just barely.
First came denial. In the days, weeks and months following Casey’s suicide, Erika and I were in a fog. This couldn’t possibly have happened. They hadn’t recovered her body so maybe this was a hoax, a prank to scare us. Maybe the girl on the Bridge Patrol video wasn’t her. We couldn’t look at it. Now I wish we had but it’s too late.
Maybe she was holed up somewhere, in hiding with a friend. But her friends swore up and down they knew nothing; we believed them. I had a dream of her walking in through our front door, dirty from the streets, with her friends Roxanne, Maryse and Max in tow.
But she didn’t.
Next came anger. I was a rage-aholic, angry at God, the universe and everyone around me who had their kids and could find nothing more than empty platitudes: we’re sorry for your loss, you’re in our thoughts and prayers, she’s in a better place. I wasn’t pleasant to be around, and lost friends, neighbors, parishioners and co-workers. Family relations were strained. Sometimes grief isn’t very pretty, and the bereaved are not very lovable when they are in their lowest, darkest moment.
Bargaining and depression came hand in hand with anger, although I never fully understood Kübler-Ross’ stage of bargaining. I lost my job in the 2009 financial meltdown, and found some relief that I didn’t have to drag myself into work anymore. I was a useless zombie anyway and didn’t much care about work, money, status or stuff. Our Casey was everything to us. So I sat at home trying to drink myself to death – vodka. I felt undeserving of any kind of happiness.
By that time a year had passed since Casey’s suicide, and many clueless but well-meaning people urged me to get over it and move on, that familiar and infuriating platitude for the bereaved. You don’t get over this; rather, you adapt to a new normal. And what would I have moved on to anyway? I had to cling to my grief because to let go would be disloyal to my Casey. My grief was all I had left of her.
Fast forward seven years and I am now in the stage Kübler-Ross calls acceptance but I prefer resignation. I’m past denial, anger and vodka. I let go of the army of therapists and anti-depressants. I’m resigned to a life no one would want, but am making the best of it. Erika and I downsized and moved to a smaller home in the Bay Area. We joined the fight for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, and let go of people we thought were friends in favor of others with bigger hearts. I speak and work in the Marin County school districts, and published a book (Scribner). The Girl Behind The Door is my search for answers to Casey’s suicide. It won two literary awards.
When I’m asked today, “How are you?” I can’t bring myself to say good or better … not yet. Each year that passes means my Casey drifts further and further away. She becomes a distant memory I can only connect with through photos and videos. But every year is also slightly less unbearable. I’m getting control of my anger, not reacting to every slight or insensitive remark as a rallying cry to war. I’m working on rediscovering some sense of purpose. And that’s a huge step in the right direction considering where we began this awful journey.