Honoring the Past and Living in the Present

Grief and memory after a suicide

Posted Aug 07, 2013

Once each year, I step back from writing about suicide and suicide prevention as they appear in pop culture and emerging research and, around the anniversary of my father’s death by suicide, I write a post that’s more personal. 

This year, remembering my dad on the anniversary of his death is different. Mostly it’s different because I am now a parent myself.

As I went through my first days of parenthood, I faced a most important choice - I had to choose a name for my child. A month after my son’s birth, I wrote about how difficult that choice was to make in the wake of postpartum emotions.

But what I didn’t say at that time was how much harder that choice was for me because my father died by suicide.

I’d known for years that if I had a child, I would name that child, in some way, for my father. When I was facing the prospect of naming an actual child for my father, the dream I had played out in my head smacked full force into reality.

I knew that I would want to stand in front of our family and community and talk about the name we had chosen. But each time I imagined what I would say, I thought, ‘I don’t want to talk about suicide.’ I wanted this moment to be about my son, his new life and the life he faced in front of him, not my father’s death, the life he’d chosen to end.

I wanted two things: to honor my dad’s memory, without honoring his suicide.

We chose a name full of positivity and hope, healing and presence. We looked into the past, but didn’t dwell in it. Ultimately, I said a little bit about my dad and didn’t say anything about suicide. Perhaps the stigma of suicide is so powerful that even those of us who work against it can’t entirely overcome it. Perhaps, although I tell my dad’s story often enough, I just wasn’t up for telling it on the day I gave my son his name.

Now, several months later, I think about how, one day, I’ll tell my son about this grandfather, the one he never knew. I hope to tell him about the little moments of his life that have reminded me of moments in my father’s life. 

My son looks, actually, a lot like me, and of my father’s three children, I’m the one who looks nothing like him. I don’t look at my son every day and think of my dad, and, honestly, I’m glad for that. 

But there has been at least one moment when I felt like my dad was here with us. It was a moment full of humor and sweetness, and I’ll end this post by recounting it.

My stepfather picked out a tiny pair of shoes for my son. Baby boat shoes, with Velcro closures. When I put the shoes on my son, I saw his legs in a new way - in these shoes, his chubby thighs, his sleek little calves, looked like a man’s legs. In that moment, he reminded me so much of my dad, standing on his boat in the summer, in his boat shoes.

It is the most beautiful coincidence that it was my stepfather, a man who’s been in my life many years longer than my dad was in my life, who was the person who gave me that moment. I grieve so deeply that my father will never be a part of my son’s life, and I rejoice so fully that my stepfather is my son’s grandfather. The emotions connected to grief, loss, and memory are so complicated, I don’t pretend that I could address them even in part in anything less than a thousand-page tome.

What I can say is that becoming a parent has forced me to live in the present. I’m grateful more often than I’m grieving. For me and for my son, I maintain a connection with my father while building a connection with my stepfather. This year, part of my healing is happening through balancing a hold on the past with a firm grasp on the present. 

Copyright 2013, Elana Premack Sandler. All rights reserved.