WHEN YOUR GRANDPA DIED BY SUICIDE
My grandpa Charlie was the sweetest spirit. When I woke up at my grandparents' cottage on Lake Michigan as a kid, I'd often catch him sitting quietly in a lawn chair in the yard, meditatively watching the waves in the early morning.
When things got rough at my house as a teenager, he showed up at church and silently snuck cash into my pocket so I could pay for my school trip. When my family grew dogmatically evangelical and I was almost pushed out of my church for being queer, he whispered "just don't show your mom" and slipped me a credo he had written of his personal beliefs. On that tri-folded printer paper formatted in a way only someone over 70 would do, he confessed his knowing that God loved everyone, that a God so loving couldn't possibly allow for hell to exist, and that there must be so many more ways and truths than we can possibly imagine.
In October 2006, I got a call that my grandma had woken up to the phone ringing off the hook - his best friend was waiting for him at the restaurant for their weekly breakfast. She found Grandpa in the basement, a plastic bag sealed over his head with a heavy duty rubber band around his neck -- lifeless. Suffocation is an intensely physical and determined way to go. There's a dusty, open package of heavy duty rubber bands on the shelf by the tool bench to this day that must have been the ones. Either I'm the only one who's noticed, or we’re all silently too reverent to move them.
I found out later that his Parkinson's medications were being changed over, and that suicidality was a common side effect he had been experiencing from the drugs, which can be amplified in a medication transition. I learned my grandma had taken him to the hospital the day before when he expressed fear over having suicidal thoughts. But they sent him back home to wait until his doctor was back on Monday. Monday was too late.
As a community organizer it occurred to me over the years to hold someone accountable, to do something so that other families are not robbed of their precious elders by the medical and mental health industrial complex - but none of us ever had the heart. Instead I brought my laundry to Grandma's house every Thursday night, and we watched The Office together. We listened to the waves. She didn't want to talk about it. We kept on living.
Despite knowing what happened, there will always be a part of me that questions whether this really was caused by the drugs as seems to be the case, or if there was a dark and secret part of his life that he didn't let any of us see. Mental health and depression are so tricky that way.
My dad reassures me it was entirely chemical. That no drug with a side effect of suicidal thoughts is worth it. Are there others in my life might be on their own internal, overwhelming edge, chemically induced or otherwise, and I am missing the signs?
My work is all about challenging systems of injustice, and sharing personal stories to powerfully transform pain and struggle into liberation and change. But I never tell this story. I often feel like I can't claim a stake in the mental health conversation because it wasn't me, or that justice isn't mine to fight for because of all the incredible privileges I have. So many people have it so much worse -- we had so many advantages, and yet the pharmaceutical industry still stole my grandpa's life from us. In the end, capitalism is a death machine from which none of us are safe.
My celebration is that my grandma kept going - she struggles to descend to the basement anymore, but she is still in that house where they built their lives. I celebrate that I monitor my housemates' medications, pay attention, and make clear direct offers of support.
I run a project now that is all about mental health and wellbeing for activists, so many of whom are susceptible to getting towed under by the momentum of death and destruction we are facing every day. Healing Justice (@healingjustice) is my offer to care for and support all those who are fighting to transform our world. Our vision and power is only as strong as our willingness to fight for our own and each other's aliveness.
My celebration is that I am sharing my family's story here now, that I have built a way to contribute that helps me feel connected and like I can do something good for someone else, and that my work and life creates space for others to do the same.
I celebrate: my family's love. Our human ability to care for each other. The unbreakable spirits of those who know another world is possible.
Kate is a Midwestern community organizer, healing practitioner, and creator of Healing Justice Podcast. You can follow her journey on IG as @healingjustice or @katewerning, or at www.healingjustice.org.