Suicide: The effect on those left behind

By Arne Vainio, M.D
News From Indian Country 7-08

I assume it was a bright, sunny day when my father committed suicide. It was midsummer, 1963. It’s a time of year when the sky is clear, the birds are singing, the cicadas are buzzing and families are out having picnics. But not ours.

My mother and father owned a failing bar business called, of all things, “The Good Luck Tavern.” The business wasn’t doing well, and my father was not a good businessman. He gave credit to anyone, even if they couldn’t pay. He always had “get rich quick” schemes and once rented a truck to go to South Dakota to pick up a load of potatoes to sell. When he got back, he ended up giving away 100 pound sacks of potatoes, one sack at a time, to poor families. My mother told me he eventually gave them all away and never sold a single one. I suspect the bar was the same sort of business.

My mom was pregnant with my older sister when she met my father. When he committed suicide, he had me, my 2 younger brothers and my mom was pregnant with another sister. Lots of pressure, lots of obligations.

I was about 2 months shy of my 5th birthday when my father shot himself. I remember even then blaming myself for his death. When I started first grade the week of my birthday, the teacher had us make cards for a girl in the class who had lost her father to stomach cancer. I made her a card, but no one made a card for me and the teacher didn’t mention my father. As I grew up, I was jealous of my friends with fathers, and at times I could see people nodding toward me and whispering. I was the “son of the suicide” and I was well aware of it.

I started drinking when I was about 14 years old, and when I drank, I always thought of my father. Drinking did seem to ease some of the pain, and it was one of the few times when my mind could tolerate thinking about him. I cried often when I drank, but no one wanted to talk about it, and most redirected the conversation or avoided me at those times. I thought hard about suicide myself when I was 17 or 18, and even had a plan for a spectacular and fiery death in my 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner. At the time I thought I would have been glorified in my high school annual, and always remembered by my classmates. It seemed a better option than the misery I was going through.

I never talked to my mother about it as I didn’t want to reopen her wounds and add more to mine. It wasn’t until my 4th year of medical school that I was finally able to ask my mother about it. This did reopen wounds for both of us and it was a very hard conversation. She told me the bar was deep in debt and my father had turned to drinking heavily and was taking “tranquilizers.” He had already threatened suicide a few times, and when he walked through the bar that day and with the intent of killing himself, one of the women at the bar told him “you goddamn Finlanders don’t have the guts to shoot yourselves.” That was the last sentence he heard. He walked out of the bar and into a field across the road and shot himself.

It was our conversation that finally allowed me to go to my father’s grave. In all those tortured years, I could never bring myself to go there. It was a warm, drizzly spring day and I was months away from becoming a doctor. I knew his grave was on a corner in the cemetery and I drove slowly until I finally found it. For some reason, I wasn’t expecting to see my own name on the sunken tombstone, and it hit me hard. I got out of the car, knelt by his grave in the rain and wept for a very long time.

He owed money when gasoline was 19.9 cents a gallon, pop was a nickel a bottle and hamburger was 39 cents a pound. How much could he owe? $800.00? $1,000.00? $2,000.00? $5,000.00? How much was too much? It occurs to me that right now, as a doctor, I could write a check that would have saved him. But would it have?

If he had lived, would I be in the bar business or would I still have gone on to medical school? I would have liked the chance to find out. My son was born 35 years to the day after my father’s death. I see myself in my son every day. His thoughts and concerns are the same ones I had at his age. Did my father see himself in me? If so, how could he leave that behind?

Suicide leaves wreckage in its wake. It always lingers, it shatters families and it forever changes those left behind. My mother told me the last words he heard haunted that woman for the rest of her life. But that woman didn’t cause my father’s suicide and neither did I. There was a darkness in him that was fueled by alcohol and “tranquilizers.”

Lila George is the Behavioral Health Coordinator at our clinic. She has researched suicide extensively as she has had 3 of her brothers commit suicide. She talked to me of the concept of “hidden sorrow” and “disenfranchised grief.” There are some things in us that we are unable to tell others or we can’t articulate well. Many of these are things that society doesn’t want to hear. Without being able to talk about things, there is a snowball effect. Escape therapies are gambling, alcohol, drugs, shopping and other addictions. In the U.S. there are 80 suicide deaths a day and 10-20 attempts for every death. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults after motor vehicle accidents and homicide. Native Americans have the highest suicide rate in the U.S.

What can we do? We need to listen to each other. Talking about difficult issues is like lancing a boil, it needs to be let out. If it seems someone is suicidal, talking about suicide won’t put the idea into his or her head. It’s already there. Talking with them, being a support and getting them in to see a medical professional is essential. If you are or someone you care about is thinking of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This number is answered 24/7, is confidential and can connect you with resources in your area in addition to handling an ongoing crisis.

Can we prevent every suicide? Probably not. But I know preventing my father’s would have made all the difference in the world for me.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..