It’s Tuesday, December 19, 2000, the day my life changed forever. I pick up my daughter Jennifer after school promptly at 3:35pm. She is ten years old and in grade five. She hops into the backseat of the van, her blonde hair peeking out from under her winter hat. She quickly removes her scarf once she is buckled into the vehicle. It’s extremely cold outside and even the short walk from the school to the van is worth covering her face. My son, David, who is fourteen and in grade eight, arrives home soon after. He is already over six feet tall, with light brown hair and beautiful brown eyes, like his dad.
Brian is not there. Strange, I think. And stranger yet, there’s no note, nothing to tell me where he is. This is so unlike him. Where could he be? I search the house room by room, calling his name and looking for clues to his whereabouts. A little voice in my head tells me, look in the kitchen cupboard. See if his Demerol is still there. The bottle is gone. My body starts to shake. My intuition tells me, something is wrong, very wrong. I fight back those thoughts and tell myself, you’re being too dramatic. There must be a good explanation. I call two of my neighbours to see if Brian is at their house. No luck.
I put on my coat and go outside. Trudging through two feet of snow, I walk around the perimeter of the house. I even look at the roof, as if, for some ungodly reason, he might be up there. Nothing. No sign of him. I knock on other neighbours’ doors, “Have you seen Brian?” I ask. I’m sure they can hear the panic in my voice. Tears well up in my eyes. No, they haven’t seen him. As much as I try to remain calm, I can see on their faces they are at a loss for what else to say.
I return home. Almost two hours have passed; my kids are hungry. I quickly make them something to eat. The voice in my head keeps telling me, do not panic in front of the kids. I take the phone downstairs to the laundry room where I think I will have the most privacy and call the Calgary City Police.
“What’s the reason for your call?” the authoritative male voice asks.
“My husband is missing,” I say, trying to keep my voice from quivering. “He’s in a lot of pain and his prescription of Demerol is gone.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he says, his voice slightly softening but still in professional mode. “We don’t accept missing person’s reports until twenty-four hours has passed.”
“Are you kidding me? Is there nothing that you can do?” I plead.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he says with compassion in his voice. “Those are our procedures.”
I thank him for his help and hang up the phone. Shit, shit, shit! What do I do now? Tears flow down my face and my chest tightens even more as the panic rises.
I look around the very small laundry room that doubles as Brian’s office. The floor is covered with piles of documents and file folders. A drawer in the filing cabinet is open, and it looks like he has pulled out every file and thrown all the contents on the floor. Clean clothes are heaped on top of the dryer, waiting to be folded. The picture on the wall is crooked, as if it has been hit. The room is in chaos.
My kids come into the laundry room. There is a bulkhead at the entrance to the room and David must duck to clear hitting his head. Slowly, they look around the room at the mess on the floor and see the tears running down my face. “What’s wrong? David asks, his voice filled with concern. I wipe my nose so I can speak. Trying to comfort them, I say, “I don’t know where Dad is and I hope he will come home soon.” But my voice is shaky and the tears keep leaking. My son pulls me into his arms and holds me. Too old to be a child and not quite yet a man, he is old enough to recognize his mother is having a meltdown.
* * *
I remember back in elementary school when teams were picked for a sporting event or spelling bee. As others were chosen, the tension built inside me, and I prayed that I got picked next so I didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of being last. This feeling of not being in control of my destiny while others determined my fate has always bugged the hell out of me. Brian’s suicide determined my fate, forcing me to join a club I didn’t want to belong to. I had no say in the matter.
The World Health Organization estimates that close to 800,000 people die by suicide each year. If we go with only six people being directly impacted, almost 5 million people a year become club members. That figure is more than the population of Los Angeles, and one-fifth the population of Canada. In other words, every single year an astounding number of people are impacted by suicide.
Joining the Suicide Survivors Club was not something I ever thought would happen to me. I am in good company. Of course, no one expects to join this club with its very costly admission fees. Sadly, you cannot just hand back your membership card and quit. Once Brian died by suicide, I became a card-carrying member. There are many supportive, caring people in the club. But no one wants to be there, and it’s heartbreaking when someone else joins. I have never talked to a member of the Suicide Survivors Club who would not forfeit their membership in a heartbeat.
This club is a secret. Membership is typically kept a secret until someone else metaphorically raises their hand and divulges that they have lost a loved one to suicide. For me, when that occurs, I feel less alone. I know that person understands what it’s like to be in this club. I don’t have to explain myself as much. In my experience, sharing my story has opened the door for others to admit their membership and tell their stories. Most people don’t want to talk about the experience, but finding another club member can be healing. In fact, I believe a higher power has brought us together for just that reason. Sadly, we feel a connection that otherwise might not be there.
I have experienced some amazing heart-to-heart connections with other survivors. One of my favorite lines in the movie Avatar is “I see you.” In a world where survivors can feel misunderstood and their pain overlooked, I want to say to them, “I see you.”
Cathie Godfrey, a former social worker with experience counselling suicidal youth, never imagined her husband of fifteen years would die by suicide. This autobiographical story is excerpted from chapter one and chapter eight of her forthcoming book, Your Suicide Didn’t Kill Me: Choosing to Live and Love After Loss. Cathie currently works as a corporate trainer and coach. She is a certified Teaching Parent for “Teaching Families of America,” a graduate of Leadership Calgary, an energy worker, mother of two, and now, happily remarried.