Suicide transfers your suffering to those who love you

One year ago today, I was backing my car into the driveway when my phone rang. I pressed the steering-wheel button to answer it. It was my son Garrett.

“Dad, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we just found Rana dead in her house. She shot herself in the head.”

I kept it together until I made it into the house. Then I felt as if someone had struck my temples with a heavy object. I felt dizzy; my legs were weak. I found Margaret in the kitchen and told her. It took several seconds for the news to sink in, and then she wrapped her arms around me and held me for a long time.

I don’t know why Rana killed herself. I don’t know what had been going on in her life. She had periods of depression in her teens and twenties. I know of a couple other times when she checked herself into the hospital’s stress center. I know of one other suicide attempt, where thankfully her mom found her just in time and she survived. When she came out as transgender and began to transition, I saw my child turning a corner, becoming who she was, and moving into a happier life. At least, that’s what I thought I saw.

Through Rana’s mom and ex-wife, I’ve learned that alcohol had become a serious problem and was the reason for the divorce. Threats of suicide had become common in the last few years. Yet whenever I saw Rana, she always seemed together and happy. Now I’m left to think that my child created a facade and hid behind it so I wouldn’t know how much she struggled and hurt. I ache that she didn’t feel able or willing to trust me with the truth.

Rana’s mom has offered to tell me the whole story. I haven’t accepted that offer so far. I am not sure how knowing more will help me grieve. I think it will only make me hurt more for no purpose. Rana is gone, irrevocably. That’s pain enough.

Margaret and I had planned a long January a weekend in Chicago. It’s nuts, but we love Chicago in the winter! But days before that weekend Margaret got COVID. Then Rana’s funeral was set for that Saturday.

I really, really did not want to go the funeral alone. My first wife had treated me so terribly that I put her forever in the Not Safe category. I had been in the same room with her only one other time since our divorce. I thought of all of the people who would likely come — her sisters, her husband and his family, Rana’s biological father and his family. What had she told them about me? Did they harbor any ill will? I just wanted to grieve.

So did everybody else, of course. Those I encountered were warm to me. My ex spent a lot of time with me. I think we both wanted comfort from each other, despite everything. She and I had shared Rana for most of her childhood. Her biological father came around from time to time, but I did the day-to-day fathering. My first wife and I are forever connected by raising her child together.

I stayed at the funeral until the very end, and then I drove straight to Chicago. Margaret had urged me to take this trip without her to be “out of my box,” as she said, and to have some time alone to process. “The room is nonrefundable anyway,” she finally said. “No sense wasting it.”

Someone had just given me a Minolta Maxxum 5 with a zoom lens, so I brought several rolls of film and spent most of my weekend walking around the Loop and the adjacent River North neighborhood making photographs. It was wicked cold. I hate the cold. But well bundled up, my camera tucked into my coat except when I made a photograph, I walked late into the night on those streets, trying to walk it off.

Down LaSalle St.
Minolta Maxxum 5, 35-70mm f/4 Maxxum AF Zoom, Kodak T-Max P3200, 2022

The cold finally got to me, so I stepped into a favorite pub that has a selection of excellent scotches. I ate, sipped a favorite scotch, and caught up on my messages. A well-known blogger for whom I edit photos had emailed, seeking work on short notice. I replied that I was in Chicago all weekend, but could do it when I got back. She was online, and she shortly replied asking what brought me to Chicago. I told her about Rana. She immediately wrote back expressing shock and sadness. We emailed back and forth about it over the next couple of hours while I sat at the bar. I didn’t know I needed that, but I needed that. Even though it was good to be alone, I felt my aloneness acutely. She helped me feel less alone, and it was just the right thing at the right time.

I’ve written occasionally this year about my grief, which has been heavy. I’ve also reflected a lot on what it must have been like for my ex-wife to walk in on that scene of her child, and to carry that horrible memory through her staggering grief. I don’t minimize my own suffering since Rana’s death, but my first wife has suffered far more greatly.

Rana was clearly suffering or she would not have taken her own life. In so doing, she’s poured out suffering onto so many others.

Rana would not like it one bit that I told all of this. She was intensely private. I’ve held these details back in my earlier writings about her death to honor her. But I’ve decided that this is my story to tell, too. All of this affects me. I have to work all of this out for myself, make as much sense of it as I can, and integrate it into my life so that I can be at peace.


31 responses to “Suicide transfers your suffering to those who love you”

  1. Keith Devereux Avatar

    So sorry for your loss, and thank you for sharing. Sometimes we never know about someone’s suffering until something dreadful happens. My aunt took her life decades ago and I still wonder why. On the surface she was always lovely, but perhaps this was just a façade, too. But thank you.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you Keith. It’s a hard day for sure.

  2. Cynthia Avatar

    You have reminded me to reach out to an acquaintence/friend whose daughter committed suicide in early December. Thank you. It’s so hard to watch what she’s going through. I feel like I have some insight through your writing.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s hard to know what to say to someone who’s dealing with this, but I think just trying is the win.

  3. lasousa2015 Avatar

    Jim, this was very moving and personal to me, having also lost a daughter under very difficult circumstances. It is a cliche but a truth that only time heals. Louis.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m very sorry to hear it, Louis. Yes, time will do its work.

  4. Shirley B. Avatar
    Shirley B.

    Thanks for sharing, Jim. Since this affects you, to me it seems your right to share as you have. Many years ago a friend of us lost his mother to suicide. She left no note, nor any other kind of explanation. To her husband and children, that was what made it even more difficult. A psychologist helped them to find some sort of peace. The “why” will never be answered, though. So sadness and grief also remain. Each one found their own way of coping with it. But it took time.

    So, do whatever you need to do, to cope with your grief.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I try hard to not tell the stories of people in my family on this blog, but as you point out sometimes their stories are mine as well.

  5. DELORIS A Avatar

    I lost my twin sister and father to suicide 51 and 45 years ago respectively. Dad never really got over her death. Jim, your losses over a period of just one year is so sad and I really feel for you. I may have already written this when your mom passed. It has comforted me over these many years.
    ” There is no empty chair
    To love is still to have”.
    I hope you can find some measure of peace over the next years.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m sorry to hear it, Deloris. That is staggeringly hard. I’m sure I’ll find peace. It always comes eventually.

  6. brandib1977 Avatar

    Jim, I am so profoundly sorry for your loss. It’s hard to believe a year has already passed but I’m sure it feels like a lifetime to you. My community has seen an uptick in suicides this year and I’ll never understand it. My parents are headed to the funeral home today for someone we know. He did at least put a note on the door of his home telling his wife not to come in but I can’t imagine even coming home to that, much less finding your own child.

    We lost my grandpa to suicide when I was fifteen. That was thirty years ago and sometimes I think I still haven’t made peace with it. Give yourself some time and grace and know that some questions will never be answered. People show of themselves what they want the world to see. Whether it’s alcoholism or depression or any number of other causes, some people become skilled at building that facade. I just hope you never fall into the trap of believing you should have known.

    You have suffered so much this year. Be kind to yourself, my friend.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Brandi. I can’t say that this has been a bad year. It’s had some stupefyingly bad times in it, though.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        That’s because you are a mentally strong person with a good support system. Anyone else would be struggling to function. Give yourself some credit.

  7. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Such a thoughtful and moving remembrance. As someone who has experienced thoughts of self harm myself, I do believe that often when someone takes their own life or contemplates it, they’re driven by a feeling of hopelessness. The feeling may not in fact be reality, but it “seems” real. If you really feel like your situation is hopeless and can never get better, it’s hard not to believe that to be true.

    I hope my distinction between feeling and believing makes sense here?

    Regarding facades of cheeriness; I don’t believe that it’s always a facade. People are many faceted beings. Thoughts of suicide are just one facet of a person and not the whole person. I think not everyone chooses to present all aspects of themselves at all times.

    Also a person contemplating suicide greatly fears being a burden to those they love (this in itself may be a factor driving one to self harm), this makes it very difficult to broach the subject with loved ones.
    When one finally resolves to commit suicide it feels like all their burdens have been lifted. It’s a way of finding hope when there was none. Again, you have to remember a person contemplating suicide is not thinking clearly.

    Sorry for the long rant, but I thought my two cents was relevant here. I’m so sorry for your losses and I hope the new year brings you peace and happiness.



    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Hi Sonny — Thank you for sharing something so personal here. I’ve been on the edge of suicide at times in my life as well. Depression and anxiety have been ongoing challenges in my life. If you click the Suicide tag on this post, you’ll see everything I’ve written about it.

      I really like your reminder that we’re more complex than we appear on the surface. Rana may not have been painting on a face for me. She merely may have not been showing me her despair. Or maybe the days I saw her, the despair was on holiday.

  8. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Thinking about you today my friend.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks so much. I spent the day yesterday out with Margaret – we saw a movie, we watched a football game at a bar (drinking Guinness, of course), we did a little shopping, we caught a late dinner. I felt heavy all day, but it was good to do light, easy things to keep my mind from going places it didn’t need to go.

  9. ronian42 Avatar

    HI Jim, one year already. Where has it gone? Our thoughts are with you on this difficult day. When I think about those friends and family I’ve lost, I like to recall Acts 24:15. It helps me a lot.

    Ian R

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks so much, Ian. A good scripture reference always goes a long way.

  10. Kurt Ingham Avatar

    Thank you, Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      No, thank you for your encouragement.

  11. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    I rarely know how to respond to posts that are as personal as this. Adding a like feels impersonal and without context, but doing nothing feels worse. So I’ll just say I’m sending you kind thoughts Jim and wish you and your loved ones a good 2023.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I understand. Don’t feel compelled. It’s okay. I appreciate your kindness.

  12. William Whitton Avatar
    William Whitton

    I’m so sorry, Jim. I’m having a terrible time as well dealing with my younger brother’s suicide in October.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m terribly sorry, William. I hope you have good people to surround you and support you through this.

  13. Julie's Camera Vause Avatar

    Beautifully written. I so can relate to how you’ve written about your feelings. My cousin’s 20 year old daughter, a top New Zealand Squash Player, committed suicide some years ago. All the thoughts you have expressed, were similar to mine at the time. It’s just plain sad.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks so much, Julie, and I’m sorry that suicide has affected your life as well.

  14. J P Avatar

    This has to be one of the most difficult and painful things that can happen to a person, and I am so sorry you had to go through this. I have been blessed to not have experienced the suicide of anyone close to me, although I still remember when a neighbor woman did so when I was a teen. It must have been devastating to her family.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The first time I had any experience with suicide was when I was in college. I came home for a break and Mom told me that my first-grade teacher had ended her life. I wasn’t close to that teacher anymore but it was still challenging to take it in.

  15. Steve R Avatar
    Steve R

    I have lost a very close person to suicide who was a father figure to me through my childhood and adolescence. He killed himself when I was 20. I am now 70. You have my deepest sympathy as you try to process your feelings of grief, deep sadness, and (very likely) guilt related to this unfathomable loss. Adding that it is your child makes the loss much, much greater. With the personal perspective of additional 50 years I will also add that one of the things that makes suicide so incredibly hard to come to terms with is that we are programmed that the allowable emotion to feel is sadness and pity for the poor soul who felt so terrible that they found this to be their only choice. This is most certainly true. However, what is rarely discussed is that the loved ones left behind also, in parallel, feel anger and rage, which can produce shame. They already feel guilty that they didn’t somehow recognize the danger and intervene in time. But now they also feel guilty because they are feeling an “unacceptable” emotion that they think they are a bad person for feeling, and that is anger at the victim who, after all, was so tortured that they took their life. How can you “blame the victim” in this way? But suicide is at its core an aggressive and hostile act, whatever the underlying reasons may be and how much we may sympathize with them. Homicide and suicide are two sides of the same coin–suicide is homicide of the self. The murder/suicides that you see on the evening news are an extreme expression of this. And, as you noted in your Blog post title, while the violence is carried out against the person who dies, the effects are borne by the survivors and causes great pain for the rest of their lives. I think that it is important for the family and friends of suicide victims to see this duality of emotions for what it is, to acknowledge the anger along with the sadness, and to know that it is (sadly) common and “normal” to feel this way. To let yourself off the hook. I am sending you positive and healing energy through the ether.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I had a lot of anger at first. I know that whatever emotions come after something like this are all normal for me, and to just let them be. I’ve had a wide range of emotions since this happened, all over the map. It’s been quite something.

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