After a Suicide Loss, Choosing to Live
by a Widow in North Carolina
Trigger warning: This blog discusses a widow’s experience with her husband’s death by suicide. This may be difficult for some readers or triggering to those with similar experiences. Please engage in self-care as you read this blog.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and it has been since 2003. Unless you are in some way affected by suicide, it is just September. In June of 2020, I was affected; in a big way. On June 14, 2020 my husband of almost 38 years tragically died by suicide.
I am a medical professional, a Registered Nurse, and I saw some signs and symptoms over the years but I loved this person so much I overlooked them and made excuses for his behavior. I had encouraged him to get counselling for depression in the past but he angrily brushed my concerns away. He was in law enforcement and there were a million reasons that I could rationalize were the causes; lack of sleep, crazy long rotating shifts, compounded with all the stress of dealing with possible life and death situations and so many atrocities that he witnessed.
In 2012 he had the opportunity to retire early and I was hopeful this would bring about a new beginning for us. We were almost empty nesters and looked forward to traveling and enjoying life. It did not turn out that way. We did have some great vacations, cruises, sailing in the Caribbean, visiting London. He was a different person on vacation but a week after we returned the person who was so great on vacation just disappeared. He began to lose interest in all those home improvements he promised to do and became more depressed.
I continued to work every day and one day came to a realization that I had comforted myself with food for so long and had gained so much weight that my clothes no longer fit. I had begun to believe that I was the cause of some of the problems and struggled to figure out how I could make our marriage better; to fix us. Maybe he would be more interested in me if I lost weight and I was more attractive in his eyes. I started a medically-managed weight loss program. It wasn’t easy but I kept at it and as the weight came off I felt better, and was healthier, both physically and mentally. My husband was not very supportive of my weight loss and as everyone told me how wonderful I looked he became threatened that I was improving myself. I realized I also had more confidence and was stronger, but he became more withdrawn. We basically led separate lives. He watched TV all day and late into the night and I went to bed early by myself. He would go away at a moment’s notice on a motorcycle trip or to help with a project for a friend and be gone for days. I felt so unhappy and alone and had difficulty dealing with his mood swings and outburst of anger. Eventually I just couldn’t keep living so unhappily and did not know what to do. My mother even noticed how on edge and unhappy I was even though I put on a happy face with friends and family.
One night while my husband had been away for about 2 weeks, I realized how much happier and more relaxed I was while he was gone. I eventually decided I had to leave, that I could not continue to live with the constant stress and feeling so miserable. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. I sought counselling and eventually decided to move to my mother’s house when she left for Florida for the winter. I wanted my husband to seek help and address some of his mental health issues, and when I saw him wholeheartedly putting forth effort and committing to getting healthier, then we as a couple would seek counselling to improve our marriage. It never happened.
He did start therapy and I would see improvements. He would seem better and then spiral out of control. He started working part time at a car dealership in the service department driving expensive cars and was really enjoying working there and enjoyed being with people. Then COVID arrived and everything shut down and his counselling all but halted. This of course didn’t help his depression and paranoid thoughts.
No one ever realized how well he hid his mental illness. Even his best of friends never saw how severe it really was. He was secretly stalking me day and night and was convinced I was having an affair. He scoured the cell phone bill and researched every call and text number. He went through my mother’s house while I was at work. He went through the trash, my underwear drawer, and the mail looking for evidence of my affair. He told lies to our friends about me and things he thought I had done. Worst of all he tried to influence my children about how I was treating him and that I was with someone else. He fooled friends, family, and his counselors and doctors.
He had shoulder replacement surgery the 1st of June 2020 and I don’t know if that plus a change in his medication was a factor or not. He said that they thought he was bipolar so they changed his medications and that would also help his PTSD. He received a letter from my attorney notifying him to have his attorney get in touch regarding a legal separation. He knew this was coming so it should not have been a surprise, but he was insistent I planned the delivery of that letter on the specific day he came home from the hospital, as if I could control the mail.
On Saturday evening, June 13th I was having dinner with a group of friends when he called and asked if I would come out to our house in the morning to pick up a few things, and said he wanted to talk. I told him sure, and I would text him in the morning. The next morning, around 9:30, I texted him and asked if I could come to the house. He told me he had just gotten up and to come at 11:00. At around 10 minutes before 11:00 he called me and told me I needed to come out to the house immediately, it was an emergency. I was afraid he had injured his shoulder but he said no, just hurry. In about 5 minutes he called again and told me to hurry. I got in my car and headed to the house about 10 miles away, but when I was about halfway there he called again. I pressed him about what the emergency was and said I was scared, were the kids okay? What had happened? He told me no, it was a personal emergency. I was upset and told him it was not appropriate for him to scare me like this, and he could not just summon me when he wanted to for no true emergency. He hung up but called again to ask how much further I had to go. I was getting off the interstate and was just about there.
As I drove up our long gravel drive which is well off the main road I saw him sitting outside by the campfire ring and he’d been burning something. For some unknown reason, maybe divine intervention, I did not park in my usual parking place in front of my garage door, but instead I turned left, with the front of my car facing away from him and the back of my car facing him. I got out with my purse and cell phone in my hand and a diet Mountain Dew in the other. As I spoke to him and told him that he had scared me and questioned what was the emergency, he stood up from the Adirondack chair and I saw the gun in his hand. It was the police service duty weapon he received when he retired. I immediately ran to the front of my car. Because I had parked in this spot, my car was a shield and put distance between us. Had I parked in my usual spot, I would have walked directly in front of him with nothing to shield or separate us.
I immediately put my drink on the hood of my car and called 911. I told the operator about the situation and that I needed help immediately. My husband was yelling at me and telling me to stop talking to them and put down the phone. I put it on speakerphone and put the phone on the hood of the car and showed him my hands so he could see I wasn’t holding the phone. I began begging him to put the gun on the ground. I reassured him that if he put the gun on the ground I would come over there and I would help him. The 911 operator now recognized my husband from his career in law enforcement and relayed this to the officer enroute. I pleaded with my husband to stop and put the gun down, to think about our children — I called out their names. I reminded him that we would soon have a grandchild to be born in November and that our only daughter was getting married the next year and he needed to walk her down the aisle. Nothing I said penetrated his brain to make him to stop and consider what he was doing. He continued to rant and I actually do not know all that he was saying, everything was such a blur. Then he stated he never wanted to get divorced and without any hesitation, with his healing shoulder, he raised the gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The 911 operator heard the shot and heard me scream and at first thought I’d been shot. I ran to my husband as he fell to the ground and my nurse brain took over. I had worked for years in the operating room and had seen many gunshot victims, and I needed to do something. I reached to check a carotid pulse and there was nothing. Before I could do anything else, a hand was on my shoulder and the Sherriff’s Deputy pulled me away and took to over by my car where I collapsed to the ground. I kept saying to myself over and over that everyone is going to say I caused this, this was my fault. My children will hate me. The Deputy was comforting me and I can’t remember all he said and then more and more cars were arriving and he spoke to them and took me inside. I felt numb and so cold. They wrapped a blanket around me and helped me into a seat at my kitchen table.
They had called my daughter; she arrived and was brought to me and more and more law enforcement support arrived. My son in California was calling because he had received an email from my husband telling all my children how much pain I had caused him and he couldn’t suffer any more. He told them how much he loved them and how sorry he was to hurt them. My son was confused and concerned but didn’t realize what it all meant until the Deputy answered the phone for me to tell him his father had taken his own life. My husband also sent me an email telling me how I caused all of this, and it was all my fault and he hoped I heard the sound of the gun shot every day for the rest of my life. He wanted me to suffer and relive this day forever.
It has been almost 15 months since my world came crashing down around me. But my world did not end that day. It has not been easy. I know I am not at fault. I know I could not have caused his illness but it doesn’t take away the pain. There are so many unanswered questions, so many whys. So many tears and so much anger. He meant to hurt me, but it is our children that have been hurt the most, the very ones he loved the most. Our friends and family have been there for love and support. They now realize all the untruths my husband told them and how sick he had become. Those closest friends are amazed that he had fooled them all and was able to hide his illness.
Suicide is like the ripples of water caused by a thrown rock; it rolls outward and touches more than only those closest to where the rock hit the water. It affects the lives of the ones who love them the most. We will never stop loving my husband, my children’s father, and my new grandson’s grandfather.
I hate that he is missing the best parts of life, walking our only daughter down the aisle, and the father-daughter dance that she had already chosen a song to dance to with him. He is missing our beautiful grandson’s first smile and first steps. There will never be the travel adventures we’d talked about for years that we wanted to do after I retired, or family beach vacations he loved so much. All gone in a moment on a quiet Sunday morning. There are no do-overs, or take-backs, no more “I’m sorry.” It is final.
Life for those who are left to pick up the pieces keeps going, one day at a time. Just like a thunderstorm eventually runs out of rain and eventually the sun shines again. As time marches on the pain lessens, and we find joy bit by bit. We find happiness in being together and we celebrate the happy times and love each other. We cherish the good memories and find laughter and comfort remembering the good times. We cannot let the darkness of the bad times block out the sunshine in our lives.
Mental illness is a disease that can be hard to identify and diagnose. It can hide, and like a chameleon can change its appearance so it can’t even be recognized. It is almost like a tumor that is slowly growing and you don’t see the signs and symptoms until it is too late. It can be hard to treat something that can be so hard to see.
September shouldn’t be the only time we focus on suicide awareness. It is something we need to be aware of every month and every day.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential, 24/7 phone support at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Modern Widows Club offers a virtual Widow Survivors of Suicide community and support group: modernwidowsclub.org/communities/wss