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I knew that I was driving too fast, but the hospital nurse's voice over the phone that woke my wife and me at midnight 11 years ago had been urgent and very disturbing. She had said that something serious had happened to Christopher, our son, and that we should come immediately to the hospital. My wife and I could not look at each other for fear of speaking about the terrible tragedy that might have befallen him.
Chris, who was 22 years old, had spent the day with his mom, shopping for those "cool" clothes that he enjoyed so much. At 7 p.m. he called to remind me to pick him up in the morning on my way to my office, where he helped me by typing letters on the word processor. He asked in his special way, "Dad, can I have my paycheck a little early? I saw something special I want to buy." He sounded so enthusiastic.
The emergency room entrance was finally in my headlights, and we rushed into the admission area. The nurse who had phoned us motioned us into a room. It was empty; where was Chris? A doctor, who showed his sadness, held our hands and whispered to us that our son was dead. But Chris was at home when he called us a few hours earlier. "What happened?" I asked. The doctor quietly told us that Chris had committed suicide. He had hanged himself in his closet.
I could not accept what he was saying. Chris had been diagnosed with schizophrenia about five years earlier, at age 17. He had had many ups and downs, but never discussed or attempted suicide. Over the past year he had lived with a roommate in an apartment, and he seemed happy. We felt that he was, at last, stable.
At the hospital a policeman entered the room, and I rushed to him, shouting, "His roommate, Frank, must have been responsible. I never trusted him!" The policeman said that the roommate had discovered Chris and had called 911. The policeman said that our son left a note and that there did not appear to be any foul play involved.
We decided to have a small family burial service and then a separate church service for friends. Before the church service, I paced back and forth. I wanted to say something; I had to say something. After the formal portion of the service, when I stood at the pulpit, I spoke about Chris and let him know how much I loved him. I also spoke about how much he wanted freedom and how difficult it was for us to let go, to allow him to live first in a group home, and later in an apartment. I was proud of him, and I wanted him to know.
But however well I had coped at the church service, I found that Chris' violent and sudden suicide devastated me. I had prided myself on being a very positive and stable father, husband, and business manager. Following his suicide, I experienced so many feelings—anger, guilt, grief, and uncertainty. My self-confidence was shattered by my confused emotions and our terrible loss.
Shortly after Chris' suicide, I felt that I needed to talk about how I felt and to discuss why Chris had taken his life. I desperately needed to talk about our son to family and friends, But I discovered that suicide is a taboo topic. Friends tried to show sympathy, but seemed to be horrified at the mention of suicide. Society seems to associate suicide with violence and evil.
Fortunately, my wife, Barbara, and I have a close relationship, and we were a great source of comfort to each other during this period. Unfortunately, there were no support groups available for us, and many mental health professionals didn't seem to relate to our suffering. We felt that we needed a third person, a counselor, to help us cope.
We contacted a social worker who had previously managed one of Chris' group homes. She was very helpful and was able to identify with our sorrow, as she had known Chris for several years. We talked to her several times over the next year.
One explanation for Chris' suicide could have been my elderly mother's terminal illness, and her sudden death only three weeks earlier. She was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with cancer, which had metastasized throughout her body. She began to fail almost immediately and required a life support system. As a family, we agreed to discontinue life support, and my mother died peacefully within several hours. Chris was very attached to her. He may have felt that death is peaceful and that he could join her and leave behind, forever, the demons that tormented his mind.
I also eventually realized that I had been grieving since Chris was diagnosed with schizophrenia, five years before his suicide; however, the grief had been largely repressed. This terrible illness had robbed me of the Chris I had loved and enjoyed. The positive symptoms of schizophrenia changed Chris into an unpredictable and sometimes violent person. He fought with me numerous times, requiring intervention by his older brother. Barbara and I were encouraged to place Chris in a group home where he could receive supportive care and also be less socially isolated, as his former friends rejected him. The counselors told us that we could not help Chris by caring for him at home. It was a very difficult decision for us, but Chris wanted to be independent. Although I soon saw a happier Chris, the decision made me feel guilty.
During my grieving, Chris' loss tested my spiritual beliefs. It helped me to believe that Chris was in a safe place where his suffering had ended. I also felt that he was always near by, and it helped to look at his picture and visit his old room. For many years his clothes remained in his closet. Several times I wore one of his shirts; it made me feel close to him.
I decided to create a video scrapbook to help me remember Chris. I included pictures, school report cards, and other memorabilia. I felt that the experience helped me pull the pieces together. But Barbara would get very teary eyed when seeing the video and beg me to put it away. We had different triggers that brought on our sadness. Barbara would feel very sad on Chris' birthday and the anniversary of his death. Memories tended to flood my mind when I looked at his picture, and I would try to convince myself that they were happy memories.
Talking with others about Chris' illness and suicide over the 11 years since his death has been important in helping me to accept his death. I better understand the anger I felt because Chris left us without sharing his feelings. In his suicide note he wrote, "Don't be sad!" There was no explanation or even a goodbye. How could he hurt us so much? Didn't he realize how much we loved him?
I felt guilt, because schizophrenia is reported to be genetically transmitted, even though neither side of our families had experienced mental illness. Had we caused his illness? Had we made a bad decision in encouraging him to live away from home? I continue to experience grief, because of the tragic and violent way he left us and the knowledge that we will never again hear his voice and experience his special love.
Writing this article has caused me to re-examine my feelings about our son's illness and suicide. At first I experienced numerous blanks in my memory about Chris. I began to reconstruct the previous 11-year period and discovered some feelings that disturbed me greatly. Chris' illness had been so devastating that I accepted his suicide as an end to his suffering. I had felt guilty about this perspective, and it had caused me to bury many of my feelings.
At the end of the church service for Chris 11 years ago, I pledged that I would devote myself to helping others like Chris. That pledge was the beginning of another kind of long journey.
Since making that pledge, I have participated in several activities that help individuals like Chris. I have served as chairman of two state hospital boards and as president of one of the citizens' advisory board for the State Department of Mental Health. I have been active in the Massachusetts and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Sometimes I am able to help an individual gain access to services. What I really want to accomplish is to influence the mental health system: to make it respond better to the needs of individuals with schizophrenia who do not benefit from traditional community-based treatment. It seems an impossible task, but what a tribute it would be to Chris if I could truly influence policy makers and improve the system.
I am still continuing my long journey to help others like Chris. It has made me a better person. Although I still live with many of the same feelings of grief and loss, I feel that Chris would say, "That's my dad; he never gives up!"
Mr. Flory is active in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, currently as codirector of the NAMI long-term-care project. He is president of Zircon Company, Inc., 140 Summit Street, P.O. Box 3612, Peabody, Massachusetts 01961. Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H., is editor of this column.
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