This wrestling with grief, this waking up to a reality of grieving, takes a great deal of honesty. With ourselves, with others, even with the dead. The day after Ryan’s suicide I expected to wake up deflated and flattened. I got up, made a cup of Earl Grey tea (strong, with a bit of milk and a healthy scoop of sugar), and sat myself in front of my desk to write. I did not write Shaun’s suicide, at least not much, and it’s something I greatly regret. Or, rather, wish had been different. I couldn’t write that suicide. This one, though, I can. And must. So I started the Morning After. What came out of my pen surprised me: I wasn’t sad; I was angry, furious. Not at Ryan, but at the situation. That anger persists, which is why I think it’s hard for me to cry about this death. Denial and anger are a potent mix.
But slowly, at odd times, sadness creeps in. A few weeks ago I made cookies for my friends, and as I was mixing them, it occurred to me that the last time I made cookies (a somewhat frequent occurrence in our home), Ryan was alive. I had to stop and catch my breath before adding the rest of the flour. I don’t know that I’ll ever make cookies without thinking of him again.
I almost missed seeing Ryan for a last time. I know that sentence is problematic; there would have been a last time no matter what. But this one I came close to missing. It was a family reunion, and I nearly didn’t go. I ended up in therapy about it—because this family in an election year was almost too much for me. But let me back up.
Some of my best family memories are from family reunions: the bear at the one in Colorado; the Alpine slides, where Shaun flipped his sled; SJ putting blue marks on my knee with the chalk from the pool table; sleeping on the beach in Oxnard, California; whale watching in Anacortes; driving to and from reunions with my mom and grandparents; going through Sturgis during the bike rally one time; spending time with multiple generations of Murphys in the same place at the same time; stories upon stories shared. These reunions started with my grandparents’ generation, my grandfather and his siblings gathering spouses and children and spending some days together. Time to be as family but, more important, as friends.
We hadn’t had a reunion for a good number of years. I guess one of the cousins (in my mom’s generation) mentioned this, and Ryan and his wife took the ball and ran with it, organizing a reunion in Bozeman for July 2016. I was already on edge last summer. My anxiety was returning as I started to dive in to some writing about Shaun; work was stressful; the election was looming. Our family—meaning my mom, her siblings, my grandparents, and I—has diverse political views. I am a Democrat; have a complicated relationship with the term “pro-life”; think that we do not do nearly enough to help the poor and vulnerable (here and abroad) as a country; don’t understand why guns are desirable; find education and arts to be some of the most important things we can spend our money on; am firmly against war; and think that Donald Trump is a disgrace to our country. We overlap on some of these things, sure, but there are some big divisions. The biggest one that was on my heart and mind last summer was gun control.
Early on, I knew I would support Hillary Clinton in this election. Bernie Sanders was fine, and, had he been the nominee, I’d have supported him, but I was 100 percent behind Clinton. One reason for this: she wanted to hold gun manufacturers responsible for their products. This seems smart to me. We hold other manufacturers responsible for their products; why not the gun industry? My uncles and I do not see eye-to-eye on this. They have guns. They like their guns. And they have tried, over and over, to tell me that they can be trusted with their guns. I think it’s pretty obvious by now that I just can’t believe this claim. Two of them have now taken their lives with their guns, and I am even more entrenched in my abhorrence of the damn things than I was before Shaun ever sat on that bench and took his life.
Attending this reunion felt unsafe to me. I debated it for a long, long time through several therapy sessions and phone calls with mom, visits with friends and conversations with my husband. Going felt unsafe and staying home felt unthinkable.
I went. I was not at my best. In the photos, I look tired, wary. I stayed on the fringes for much of the time, observing this wild bunch of people that shares some DNA. The older I get, the more amazed I am at how alike we Murphys are. Maybe everyone has this revelation, but being around these folks is like standing in a room of funhouse mirrors: different facets of the self are displayed by different people and I think, “Ah, yes, that’s why I act that way.”
During that trip, I didn’t talk with Ryan about guns or the election. I didn’t want to; I was afraid to. We talked about other things, and, though I wish I’d felt differently on that trip, there were quite a few shining moments of goodness. I am glad I went.
As I started this post, I thought it would be about forgiving Ryan, and even Shaun. But as I’ve written it, I wonder if perhaps I’m really trying to forgive myself. But for what? Talking to Ryan about his guns may not have changed the outcome. He might still have taken his life. After Shaun died, Ryan told quite a few of us that suicide would never be an option for him, that guns are perfectly safe in the hands of responsible people. But what I know is this: none of us is ever always responsible. We stumble.
Suicide is a complicated beast. Multiple things led my uncles to their decisions. They simply had an easy means to make the pain they were in end, and they chose to use it. The circumstances of their suicides were different: Shaun’s was more planned; Ryan’s was impulsive. The aftereffects, however, are the same: we hurt. And here’s the honest part that I’ve been writing around: I don’t blame them for their suicides because they were struggling in a way I’ve never known; rather, can I offer forgiveness for the pain they didn’t even realize they were causing? As I write it, that seems an almost proud question: do I deign to find it in my oh-so-gracious heart to forgive these men for their actions that have ripped through our family? Ah, yes, the anger is there. I do not want to blame the victims here, my uncles. I want to have a heart big enough to see their pain and let compassion wash over all of it. At times, I do. At other times, I wonder if forgiveness is really mine to give here. Maybe that’s not even the question to be asking.