Along with everything else, I wasn’t prepared for the stigma of becoming a widow this way.
When I lost my husband in 2008, I learned that the shocking cause of his death wasn’t as rare as I had thought. More than 45,000 Americans died last year from suicide, in a staggering but seemingly silent epidemic. All this week mental health professionals are sounding the alarm about this crisis, drawing attention to the warning signs that someone you love may be at risk.
I missed those signs until it was too late. Once he was gone, my life was unimaginably altered, both by his deadly decision and the stigma it left in its wake.
Not long after I was widowed I found myself at an elegant dinner party on the Florida coast. I sat mostly with strangers at a linen-covered table with candlelight. Wide doors were flung open to the ocean before us.
Occasions like these gave me a chance to escape the grief I had been drowning in since my husband’s death. The salty ocean breeze and the fine cloth brushing against my knee reminded me that even though I had lost my life partner, I was still breathing and that I needed to learn to embrace life as a gift again. That wobbly hope slipped away as soon as the dinner conversation began.
The woman sitting next to me sized me up and wondered if I’d been married before. I answered with a simple yes.
From there the conversation read like a script. “Oh, you’re divorced?”
“No, I’m widowed.”
I’d always thought divorce signaled a failure in life’s greatest commitment. But in the months and years after my husband’s death, I discovered that there’s something worse than a marriage that ends in divorce — a marriage that ends the way mine did.
My table mate tiptoed further into fragile, off-limits territory.
“Did he have cancer?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
“Yes, he did,” I said solemnly. Now I felt the shame not only of Mark’s death but also of my own deceit. Curiosity seems to overwhelm wives when they meet someone once married but now single. It’s like rubbernecking alongside a bad wreck.
“Oh, my God!” they wonder. “Could this happen to me?”
The woman pressed on. “What kind of cancer did he have?”
I set down my fork and opened an imaginary door to a closet full of disguises I now owned. Tonight, I would don the costume of a woman on top of her game, one who had grieved her husband’s death from cancer successfully and was happy to be out socializing.
“Pancreatic cancer,” I said without hesitation, confident that this would satisfy my determined acquaintance. I’d known a woman whose husband died of pancreatic cancer, and he’d gone quickly.
Instead, she turned to me with an expression I’ve come to know too well — fear mixed with pity, the worst kind of sympathy.
Breathlessly, she asked, “How long from the diagnosis to his death?”
It was too late to backtrack. To tell this stranger the truth — that my beloved partner of a quarter century had killed himself at our family’s lake house — would be to step into the starring role of a horror movie too terrible to watch. I couldn’t do it.
I excused myself and hurried through the open door toward the ocean. If only I could wade in over my head and hold my breath in a safe and silent place, where I could wrestle with the unrelenting question, “Why did he do it?”
This is what it’s like to survive the suicide of a spouse. The depression and shame that take a loved one’s life don’t go to the grave with them as pancreatic cancer or a brain tumor does. Instead, they attach like a sticky film to the survivors.
That’s why when news breaks of the suicide of a celebrity, like Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain or Mick Jagger’s longtime girlfriend, L’Wren Scott, others look for the reasons they took their lives, but I scan for clues as to how their loved ones are surviving the anguish and the shame.
Kate Spade’s “heartbroken” father died two weeks after her death. But I resonate most with Spade’s husband, Andy, who defended himself publicly against speculation that their less than perfect marriage contributed to her death.
“We were best friends trying to work through our problems in the best way we knew how,” he said. “We loved each other very much.”
I could have said the same thing, because as much as you may love someone, it’s not easy to sustain a happy marriage when one partner struggles with debilitating depression or severe mood swings. Mr. Spade said his accomplished wife fought personal demons.
I knew those demons. I prayed and battled against them for more than 25 years, but on the night they convinced Mark he was better off dead, I collapsed in defeat.
In the months and years after my husband’s death, I would slip into a foggy depression of my own, fueled by my loss and sense of failure.
How is it I could persuade the man I loved to apply sunscreen, get regular checkups and wear a bike helmet, all in an effort to prolong our life together, but I couldn’t keep him from killing himself? Wasn’t it my job as his wife to help him stay safe and happy — securely tethered to life?
In the wake of a loved one’s suicide, irrational shame haunts those left behind. On the night Mark took his life, he had a dinner date scheduled with our younger daughter, Hannah, who was home from college. For days she wept, asking, “Wasn’t time with me enough to keep Dad from killing himself?” His closest friends condemned themselves for not following up when he didn’t return phone calls. His mother, who just turned 93, still wonders, “If only I could raise him all over again,” as if that could have saved him.
The questions friends and strangers asked in the months and years after Mark’s death only made it worse. At the funeral of an elderly friend, an acquaintance seated next to me in the church pew patted my knee and whispered, “I can’t quit wondering, have you figured out why he did it?”
At another gathering, while standing in a cluster of people engaged in small talk, a young woman said, as if she was asking whether I washed my whites in hot or cold water, “Peggy, did you see any sign it was coming?”
For months the questions, like fiery arrows, came — in the grocery store, in airport security lines, in restaurant restrooms. I began avoiding people I didn’t know well. When unwanted queries caught me off guard, my replies grew understated and were clearly unsatisfying. “No, I was stunned,” I’d say. “I don’t fully understand why he did it.” Or “No, I didn’t see signs it was coming.”
But as I would drive away alone in my car, I’d rehearse what I wished I could have said.
“Sure, I saw it coming,” I’d snap, pounding my fist on the dashboard. “There were little nooses hanging all over our house and I just ignored them!”
Truth is, no one saw it coming. My husband was bright and sociable, an adoring father and husband. His humor made him the life of the party. His own battles with depression led him to help countless others find the assistance they needed to overcome it. But like many accomplished men, Mark was good at masking his feelings and powering through his bouts of despair. His fateful mistake was failing to reach for help when he needed it most.
Over time, I’ve found a way to protect myself when people ask me how and why my husband died. I pause to leave the question suspended in awkward silence. Then I say gently and firmly, “You know, that’s not something I’m really comfortable discussing with you.”
The kindest thing anyone ever said to me may also have been the most painful.
At an impromptu gathering of Mark’s college friends in Chicago, one of his former roommates, whom I hadn’t seen in years, pulled me aside quietly, put a hand on my shoulder and said, “There’s something I’ve never told anyone but I think it might be a comfort to you.” He described the days he’d come home after class to find Mark, captain of the college ice hockey team, weeping in inexplicable darkness, wishing he were dead.
The story broke my heart, but I go to it when I find myself looking back over our marriage for evidence that I failed him as a wife. Never mind the stories of his black moods in adolescence, the history of a mood disorder that predated me; I believed love would triumph, that I could coax him into the light. What I failed to fully comprehend until he was gone was that I had no more power to heal my husband’s mental illness than I do to cure pancreatic cancer.
Many widows have told me it takes six to seven years to recover from the death of a spouse. I’d throw in a couple more for suicide.
Unlike death by cancer, which has a clearly defined perpetrator and victim, suicide feels criminal. The act is often prompted by a wide confluence of causes and circumstances, hardly understood by mental health professionals.
During a week that elevates suicide prevention to a national imperative, we might do well to consider its invisible casualties, the living wounded.
After more than a decade, the painful questions from others and my self-condemnation are mostly gone. Grieving comes now in manageable waves on occasions like our daughters’ weddings, the births of our grandchildren, other firsts my family always dreamed we’d share with him.
Some nights, when I lie in bed still wondering why Mark left us like this, I find my greatest comfort in the paradoxical treasure he left behind. In a last letter to me, waiting on our kitchen counter, his final written words were, “I love you, Peggy, with all my broken heart.”
Peggy Wehmeyer is a former correspondent for ABC’s “World News Tonight” and a writer living in Texas.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
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