The Day It Happens
After I order dinner – sushi, teriyaki, sticky rice – we wait for him to arrive. Me, our two small kids, my visiting parents, sitting around the big table in the airy front room of my Brighton flat. He’d emailed the day before, saying he was looking forward to seeing us, then texted to say he’d be here by 8pm. All perfectly normal. My former husband, with whom I amicably co-parent, who spends almost every weekend with our children, has never not turned up before.
8pm arrives, but he doesn’t. We begin nibbling at the California rolls, the nigiri. Making bright conversation. The kids asking where’s Daddy, why is he late. He’s rarely late. Even when the trains from London are unreliable, he always gets here. We eat dinner without him, as I check my phone under the table. Nothing. The kids go to bed, my parents eventually walk back to their hotel.
That night a powerful full moon glares parallelograms onto the sitting room floor, filling the space with harsh monochrome light, and filling me with an intangible sense of dread. Something is wrong. I can feel it.
When the police come the next morning – a bright, golden September morning just before the start of kindergarten term – it feels like a scene from EastEnders or The Bill or some other soap opera where the cops are played by extras from central casting.
Two matching ink blots against the creamy light of the sunlit front room, twentysomething faces fresh and unlined. I’d called them, you see. Reported him missing, even though the required 24 hours had not elapsed. But I rang them anyway, because he is not the kind of person to go missing. He is reliable. Always has been.
The police – I make them tea, because I don’t know what else to do – play with the kids, letting them try on their helmets. Jokey and jocular, making the kids laugh in delight. Their grandmother is on her way to take them to the communal garden, so that they will not hear me saying words like 'missing' in relation to their dad; when she and the kids leave, the cops' faces instantly change. Like steel shutters have been yanked down over their playful banter with the kids.
Is he dead?
The question blurts out of me, unbidden. Like that’s the logical place to start, the worst outcome, from which we will work backwards. They will smile and say of course not, he’s fine, except they don’t, because police don’t come to your house and take their hats off to tell you someone is fine. Do they?
Turns out they don’t.
They are nodding to my question.
Yes, they are saying.
He is dead.
I inhale. So it’s happened then. His heart, weak since birth, has given up, like his own father’s heart, which stopped when his son, my future husband, was still a baby. Now, my former husband has followed suit, had a heart attack on the Tube, a coronary on a red London bus, collapsed and died on a commuter train to Brighton. He is dead. He is dead decades too soon. His heart has given out too early, despite all his heart medication.
I inhale again.
How, I whisper, almost as an aside. He is dead, but I need to hear the medical words – coronary, cardiac arrest, heart attack. The two young cops look at the floor, shift on their feet a bit. Radiate discomfort.
He took his own life, one of them says.
Jesus Christ. I was not expecting THAT.
Everything slows down then, as I float to the ceiling and watch the scene below as it continues to unfold. The grim-faced young men, their police training keeping them from squirming at the words they have to say, at the reaction of the recipient. The woman who is staring at them – me – open-mouthed, momentarily struck dumb. I swoop in and out of myself, seeking distance from this new reality. I can’t. I can’t get away from it.
He is dead. He is dead because he killed himself.
He can’t have killed himself, I say stupidly. He has kids.
They nod, their faces impassive. They would probably rather be raiding a crack house than having this conversation.
They’re his kids, I say, jerking my thumb towards the garden where our two children are happily playing, oblivious.
I keep repeating this, as if to reason with the cops that they must be mistaken, because parents aren’t allowed to do that. You can’t just bail on your kids. Not like that. Not permanently.
The cops squirm some more, as I insist that he can’t have left his kids like this, that he loves his kids, he wouldn’t do that to them, before they back towards the door, murmuring condolences, leaving me to it. Leaving me asking the empty sunlit space, what am I going to tell them? What am I going to tell my kids?
When something enormous and awful happens, your brain shuts down. Turns out it can only digest horrific news one small sliver at a time. So my brain, instead of taking in the enormity of the tragedy that has just befallen my small children, can only digest the superficial fact that their father is not going to be here this weekend to look after them.
Monstrous, I know, but it’s what happens inside my head. He’s not coming to look after them, so I will have to cancel my plans. Like when the babysitter cancels last minute, and you grit your teeth. I cannot process this new information, so my brain shuts down, rejects it, and I focus instead on the inconvenience rather than the horror. All my reactions are wrong. Anger, disbelief, irritation. (It takes a year before I cry, which happens at the cinema, unexpectedly, watching a film about Ian Curtis from Joy Division; when he hangs himself at the end, I start sobbing and cannot stop, much to the discomfort of my then-boyfriend.)
So how do you become a single parent overnight, and tell a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old that their beloved dad is dead? When do you tell them how he died – when they are 15? Forty-five? Never? How do you manage other people’s reactions, when those who knew and loved the person who killed himself are grieving, heartbroken, subsumed in tears, and all you feel is rage?
My shock and anger is what will hold everything together in those initial cracked, headachey days and weeks. It’s what will get me up in the morning, help me to feed and dress them, get them to school. But I have only told them half the truth – that he is dead, but not how he died.
On the day of his death, telling them that he is dead is appalling. Bursting their magic childhood bubble with hideous adult shit. I do it quietly in the big shared garden, with chocolate, a few hours after the police have left.
I have something important to tell you, I say, in my calmest, steadiest voice.
Dad became very ill yesterday, and he died.
I pause, desperate to say something consoling, but the best I can come up with is telling them that he is an angel now. A beautiful angel. (I have zero belief in angels, but I have to tell them something.)
They nod, deadly serious, and shove Kit Kats in their faces. Daddy is dead, they echo. One of them cries a bit, from the shock. I remain locked down, dry eyed, because they will take their cue from me and I am not going to lose it as their small faces search mine for clues. I’m all they have now and I need to keep it together. The fear bears down on me like a speeding truck.
Maybe you’re wondering about my reaction. How it lacked empathy, compassion, a sense of tragedy, other than rage on behalf of my kids. Why my reaction did not conform to standard grief. So, apart from the toxic ripples of anger that suicide often creates in those closest to it, I was also in the process of getting sober after a lifetime of alcoholic drinking.
Just a few months before my ex-husband’s sudden and unexpected death, I’d finally quit booze. And as anyone who has ever spent time with an alcoholic or addict knows, we are a self-absorbed, selfish bunch, before emotional sobriety slowly filters through to make us human again. At the time of his death, I was physically sober but still a long way from balanced and well. I was still stuck in me-me-me.
So my kids now had a newly sober mother and a dead father. People assumed I would drink again – I mean, it would not have been beyond the realms of possibility, given the circumstances – which would have truly orphaned my kids, even if I were still physically present. I didn’t though. Instead I went to loads of 12-step meetings, and the people there seemed to understand my anger, rather than recoil from it. Slowly, agonisingly, and still in deep shock that lasted a whole year before the depression stage of bereavement set in, I crawled towards recovery, carrying two grieving kids on my back.
We got there.
We got help – from the children’s bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, which took my kids under their wing and gave them invaluable age-appropriate support to help them process their loss. There was play therapy, art therapy, and the support of their local Steiner school community. Within a year of his death, on the advice of child psychologists, I was able to tell them what really happened – that Dad had died not from a physical illness but from an illness in his mind called depression. Telling them bonded the three of us tightly, fused us together in trust.
It took a while to adjust to single parenting – to never being able to turn your phone off, to never being able to turn your brain off – but as time passed it slowly became easier, as I became better and stronger. I was endlessly supported by friends, by the recovery community, by loved ones. I couldn’t imagine anything else now, other than being a single parent. They are my kids. Nobody else’s.
They are almost adults now. One of them works for the Brighton Five teen mental health initiative, is studying textiles and fine art, and interns at The Vampire’s Wife. She’s cool AF. The other one has almost finished school, to his great relief – he wants to be self-employed, earn loads of cash to buy expensive sportswear. Textbook teenage boy stuff, even one without a dad role model. They have turned out alright.
And so have I. As my recovery from alcoholism developed, so too did my compassion for their poor dead dad, who had been unable to ask for help. My anger has long faded, replaced with sadness that he will never know his amazing kids as they grow into amazing adults. And regret that they don’t remember him.
I feel huge pride in and solidarity with single parents everywhere, who became single parents for whatever reason, by choice or not by choice, because it is the longest, hardest thing you can ever do. We carry the can. All of it, all the time.
Yet when I see my kids thriving, happy, balanced, surrounded by their friends, loving their lives, I feel absurdly proud that they survived being dealt a suicide and an alcoholic as parents, and have emerged as decent, functional human beings. Obviously, they regularly tell me to eff off, they drink and smoke weed and their rooms are disgusting, but hey – they’re teenagers. I’d expect nothing less. They’re alright, and so am I.
Suzanne Harrington is the author of The Liberty Tree, published by Atlantic Books. She is currently working on a new book, titled Calais, set in the Calais Jungle.