when i was about seventeen years old, i met this really nice family at the pool. they looked perfect to me – a mom and a dad and two little girls having fun together, splashing around in the water. i was sitting on the edge of the pool and one of the little girls swam up to me and asked me to play with her. after a while her mom said hi, and before you know it i had a babysitting job.
i loved babysitting for this perfect family because on some unconscious level it made me feel like i was part of it. i babysat for them almost every weekend. sometimes i would have dinner with them beforehand, and they would ask me about school, or applying to college, etc.
i made a tremendous effort never to mention my dad during these conversations. i maneuvered my way around whatever subject we were covering, and changed it before it got too close to my family. this took a lot of effort – kindof like playing mental dodgeball. i just didn’t want to say “my dad killed himself” out loud. i didn’t want to experience that awkward pause afterwards. i didn’t want to have to explain or feel responsible for their feeling uncomfortable. i felt like it would shatter this little bubble i had created for myself – that one evening each week i could escape from the reality of my dad’s death.
a few weeks turned into six months that i had been babysitting for this family. “my parents” had come up in conversation a few times, but i didn’t say anything to set the record straight. finally, one night they asked me something pointedly about my dad. my stomach dropped and i felt a cold sense of panic wash over me. “um….actually…my dad died” i stammered. extra-long awkward pause. they said how sorry they were, but i was too mortified to hear them.
after i left that night, i never talked to them again. i didn’t return their many phone calls or emails. i totally cut them off. the mom even wrote me a letter, begging me to come back to babysit and telling me how much the girls missed me. she said she had no idea what could have happened to make me disappear.
i look back on this now, almost fifteen years later, and i think wow, i really needed to run away from my grief. i had suffered through a trauma that was too painful to face. saying it out loud made it too real and too scary. i wish i could go back and soothe my terrified younger self. i would tell myself that it is ok, that there is nothing wrong with me because my dad killed himself. i would tell myself that i can accept myself and that other people can accept me while knowing what i have been through. i would tell myself that there is nothing wrong with wanting safety and security, but that aura of perfection that i so often see in other people but not myself is just that – an aura.
today i don’t feel the same need to avoid mentioning my dad, but i do still struggle with that desire for acceptance and guilt that so many suicide survivors live with. but i want to treat myself the way i would treat that scared teenage girl – with compassion, kindness and respect for what she has been through.