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  • Writer's picturePaula Fontenelle

My dad's suicide changed my life

I was a successful journalist and published author in Brazil until my father took his life in 2005. Now I'm a psychotherapist and an activist in suicide prevention.

In January that terrible year, I was on vacation in the US when I received a call from my older sister Renata. She was worried about our father. Earlier that day, he had stopped by for a visit, and during the many hours he stayed there, she noticed he was in deep emotional pain, the kind of pain that is best expressed by silence. 

"I think he wants to hurt himself. There were times I could see his lips quivering as if he were about to cry," she said. "Don't worry, I will be there in three days. I will talk to him when I arrive," I replied. The next day, I woke up with Renata sobbing on the phone: "He is dead. He killed himself." 

For the next several months, my life was a blur. Simple daily habits were overpowered by question marks that screamed "why?" at me, repeatedly. This is a common reaction experienced by those who lose a loved one to suicide. Even when we think we have the answers, nothing ever seems to be enough. This kind of void can never be entirely filled.

My dad was a man of strong principles. He was an extrovert who made friends easily; a people's person. Our home was always open (and full). Weekends were especially crowded because he would cook delicious meat — in the Brazilian way — with charcoal "churrasqueiras" (grills). Everyone would gather around him to hear his stories and music. Fontenelle — the name he was called by — was admired and loved by many. 

He was also a self-taught man. Coming from a family who had lost everything to his father's gambling addiction, very early on he had to work in order to support his mother and siblings. His deepest regret was that the financial circumstances of his family didn't allow him to go to college. But his lack of formal education never got in the way of his love of learning. In fact, it fueled it. 

His nickname was "walking encyclopedia." Dad was one of those people who seem to know everything about everything. When I began to study English, asking him the meaning of a word was usually a source of annoyance. My question would always be followed by another question: "What is the context?" he would reply. With luck, I would have my answer in ten to fifteen minutes. Irritated, I would roll my eyes and wish I had just looked at the dictionary instead.

But that was only part of his complex personality. Buried inside the outgoing, friendly man, were unseen layers of raw, unresolved pain. Somehow, even as a child, I knew that he kept something from us, a wound so deep he could not bring himself to share. At least not in a healthy way. Drinking changed that. On the weekends, we would gradually lose him to alcohol, and although we still couldn't name his pain, it would touch all of us. 

My outgoing father would turn into a silent, tormented man who would listen to classical music with his head in his hands, staring at the tabletop, surrounded by hundreds of books and albums that filled the room. 

In front of him sat a bust of Beethoven, his favorite composer. Sometimes, I would listen to sonatas and symphonies with him, twirling around the center table, pretending to be a prima ballerina on stage. He would interpret the pieces in detail: "Can you hear the drums in the background?" he would ask. That was the only way he could get the little ballerina to stop for a second. 

The secret he never shared

The time surrounding his death was a tough one. He was 68 years old, and in a short window of 2 years, after three decades of marriage, my father had divorced my mom, moved in with someone else (who had 2 young kids), had opened a business, and was struggling to keep up with his bills. We had become quite close, and I knew things weren't easy for him. At times, he would come to my home for lunch and just sit in silence. His bleak demeanor was familiar to me, it was the same I remembered seeing as a child.

One day, I asked him to see a psychiatrist. I could sense a tone of hopelessness in his voice. He followed my advice and days later, told me he had been diagnosed with depression. We talked about it, and he promised to follow the treatment — one I would submit to myself after his suicide — but never did. My father was a proud man. The idea of being mentally ill was incompatible with his self-image. The pills remained untouched until the day he died.

After his death, I buried myself in books. This is my way of dealing with pain. And as a journalist, I was driven to investigate anything I didn’t understand. To find the story behind the story. I interviewed his best friends, family members, specialists, authors in the field of suicidology, mourners, and many people who had attempted suicide in the past. It was during one of these interviews that I finally learned about my father's secret.

All our lives, my siblings and I knew very little about our grandfather. What we had been told was that he was a gambler who had died when my dad was twelve years old. The family had been left with no money, so being the oldest, my father had to work to pay the bills. It turns out that I had already been born when my grandfather died but was too young to remember. What my dad didn't want us to know was that by confronting his family's past, he would have to face his own demons, and that was too much to ask. 

My grandfather represented a cracked mirror my dad could not bear to look into.

Here is the real story I learned from my uncle when I interviewed him: my grandfather was addicted not only to gambling but also to alcohol. One day he got sick, was taken to the hospital, where he would remain for days, and was told that if he ever drank again, he would die. When discharged, he walked to the nearest bar, had a few drinks, and on the way home, he fell dead on the sidewalk. At the time, my dad was in his thirties, which means that Renata and I had already been born.

Shame is a powerful concealer. It had kept part of our own family history hidden from us. It's still hard for me to believe that this secret survived thirty-nine years. Thirty-nine years of silence. It only came out because by then, I had already decided to write a book about suicide prevention, and was rewriting my own story. 

Since my father's suicide, I have left a career in journalism, finished a degree in psychoanalysis, and will soon graduate with a Master's degree in counseling, in the United States.In Brazil, I have been working with suicide prevention since the publication of my book "Suicide: the interrupted future", in 2008. My website (in Portuguese) has thousands of views every month, and I have just launched my site in English so that I can reach a wider audience. The book will soon be published in English as well.

Suicide is everywhere; it touches all of us. 

Currently, it is the tenth leading cause of death worldwide; the second-leading cause of death within the 15–29 age group. Every year, we lose approximately 800,000 individuals to self-inflicted death. People like my father, who was in immeasurable pain and saw no other way out.

In this space, I will share everything I have learned about suicide over the years. I cannot bring my father back but I know I can help others understand their grief, and maybe be more compassionate toward those who take or attempt to take their own lives. I invite you to join me in building a community where, together, we can fight the persistent stigma that still surrounds suicide while lighting a path towards healing and hope.

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1 Comment

Aug 28, 2019

Thank you for sharing your story. Hope the account of your struggle could assist other survivors to find their strength amidst such an insurmountable turmoil, and also transmute their pain and fears into a life-changing journey like you did.

For those that are contemplating ending their lives, I hope this blog may be a tool in helping them articulate their inner struggles and seek help.

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