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  • Writer's pictureLee Erickson, MA, LPCC

#2 Coping with the Loss of a Loved One to Suicide: My Personal Experience

As I pulled into the parking ramp of the BonTon department store, I knew it was going to be a bad day. I had contracted parking in the circular parking ramp which was attached to the downtown Seattle department store. The ramp up and down spun round and round and sometimes the spinning left me nauseous. It was expensive parking and my boss had adamantly refused to pay for it. It was my eighth month of working for Aquent, a creative staffing agency in Seattle. I felt trapped as if I was stuck in the circular parking ramp, constantly spinning.


I had taken a cut in pay to take this job but, in a way, I was desperate. The company I had been working had been purchased by a foreign entity not long after I had moved and the job I had been promised had drastically changed. I needed a new job and I had been contacted by a headhunter, “Teri from Florida” who would call me at all hours of the day and night to talk with me about the “opportunity” she was presented with in Seattle. I never actually learned her full name. She was always “Teri from Florida”. 


“Were you up?” she had said when I answered the phone shortly after 2 a.m. two days before the initial interview with Aquent


“I am now,” I said. I must have been snoring because my throat was hoarse and I was struggling to understand exactly what was going on.


“I have a strategy for talking salary, if it comes to that,” she said. 


“Who is this?” I asked.


“Um… it’s Teri from Florida,” she said, sounding a bit put off that I hadn’t recognized her voice after three phone conversations.


“What time is it?” I asked. 


“Never mind that,” she said. “Here’s our strategy. When they ask how much money you would like to make, you simply say, ‘I am open to considering any offer that would be reasonable.’” 


I didn’t know much about bi-polar disorder but I was convinced that Teri was struggling with something. It would have been an hour later in Florida and she clearly had little impulse control. 


“Teri, could we talk about this tomorrow? I get that it’s important to you but I need to sleep. I have a big day tomorrow.” I didn’t have a big day tomorrow. I was just tired and wanted to get her off the phone. 


“Okee Dokee,” she said, “But think about the strategy to get the most bang for the buck.”

I hung up the phone.


That had been eight months ago and I had gotten the job but there had been no negotiation on the salary. They were paying what they were paying. I wondered if there would have been more money if Aquent hadn’t had to pay the finders fee to “Teri from Florida”.


It was Tuesday, which meant we had a staff meeting at 9 a.m. The two ibuprofen I’d taken to greet the day were stubbornly starting to kick in although my head still was throbbing like a freight train. I stopped at the Starbucks next to WestLake Mall to get some coffee. I ordered an extra shot of espresso. It felt like that kind of day. I sighed a heavy sigh. What I later deemed the “dead sigh” which is the mustering of all your mental energy to do something that sucks the life from your soul. I crossed the street and headed up the half block to the entry to our office building. 


Aquent, as a company was going gangbusters all across the globe. With offices in every major American city and offices around the globe, the company was expanding and doing well. Our office was the exception, as the corporate trainer Randy, would often remind me on his visits. 


“What is it about this office?” Randy asked disappointingly on one of his visits. I didn't know. There was a pall on the office that never seemed to lift. 


In addition to the headache, my stomach felt like I had just drunk a bottle of fresh cream along with a bottle of fresh lemon juice. The churning in my stomach wouldn’t stop. “Soup,” I thought to myself. “I need a bowl of hot brothy soup to calm it down.” But sadly, lunch was still three hours away.


I was the manager of the office. My purpose was to run the day to day operations and to “turn the ship around” as my boss, Ann, a kind woman headquartered out of our Boston office had told me on a recent visit.


It wasn’t going well. 


And it was March in Seattle, a miserable time of year where everything is cold and damp and grey. I knew about cold. I had grown up and lived a good part of my life in the Midwest where the summers are short and the winters are long and windchills are often below zero. And I knew about damp. The summers in Minnesota are often humid and, along with the high temperatures , can spike a heat index way above 100 degrees. The Seattle cold was different. It was a wet, bone chilling cold that carved at your core and was difficult to escape. 


While the weather was a bit better this particular year, it seemed difficult to hold out hope that it was going to last. People often have misgivings about Seattle weather. They have either visited in the summer and tout the amazing temperature and beautiful sunshine, which is true or they have visited the other nine months out of the year and know the desolation that can sink into your soul when you step outside and feel the bleak, damp chilling temperatures that cause a kind of daunting depression to sink in deep.


And my depression was teetering.


That’s where I was. It had been a difficult couple of years. It became easy to see why there were coffee shops on every corner. You needed that little boost of caffeine to make it from coffee shop to coffee shop just to survive. 


I had moved to Seattle in the summer of 2000 with my partner, Henry, but truth be told we were already in a difficult place before we moved. We had tried to work on our relationship and besides the parts of the relationship where we struggled, we were ideally compatible. We had fun, inside jokes, shared interests in movies and pop culture and TV shows. We even shared a deep love of disco music which was more his thing than mine but I grew to appreciate it.


He didn’t really want to move to Seattle. We had been pretty happy together in Chicago where we had met. We had friends, good social supports and we both loved the city but I needed to make a change. There was a discontent that I had felt my entire life. Change seemed to be the way to escape it. I loved change. As a child, I would rearrange furniture at my parents house. It seemed like changing things was a way to allay the discontent. There would be brief periods of rest but the deep need to have something be different would slowly return. It had never occurred to me until later years that the change I really needed was inside myself.


I had been to Seattle years before for a friends wedding and loved Seattle. It seemed like a place that would be good for me. In hindsight was it a place I wanted to live or a place I wanted to escape to? To this day, I still don’t know but I knew I had to go. I had a new job waiting for me there with a promotion. Financially it was a good set up but personally it was a disaster.


My partner had decided to move back to Chicago a year or so before which left me in a bad state. We were stitching a friendship back together since we had parted. Weeks after we had split up, I found out he was already dating someone new. That sent me spiraling deeper. It only reinforced the deep core belief I held about myself. 


I just wasn’t very lovable.


I had lost a very important relationship and support system and the office where I worked was a train wreck.


The office itself was located in downtown Seattle on 4th Street between Pike and Pine. There was a kitchen store on the main floor and you went up an escalator to elevators that took you to the fourth floor of the building. The elevators opened right into our office which led us to often have unexpected visitors, people who were checking out the building who would end up in our office, most often looking for a restroom.

 

I was using caffeine to survive. I would have had an IV drip of Starbucks from the time I woke up till about 3 p.m. if I could. There were about twelve coffeeshops, eight Starbucks alone, within walking distance from our office, the most notable being the stand-alone store at Westlake Center, kitty corner from our office. There were often tons of homeless people that would gather around the store. It was the only Starbucks I knew of that didn’t have a public restroom and I would guess it had to do with keeping the homeless from using it as their own personal bathroom. 


I drank a lot of coffee when I lived in Seattle. A lot. I also did a lot of writing at coffee shops throughout Seattle. It was a thing I did to pass the time on long, quiet weekends spent alone with my thoughts. Except for an occasional clerk or barista, there would often be weekends where I wouldn’t engage in conversation with a single person. Those were lonely days.


In hindsight I was terribly depressed. I hadn’t thought much about my state of mental health. I was full of a midwestern ethos. You pull yourself up by your bootstraps and figure shit out. I didn’t know anyone who was “depressed”. The terrible stigma about depression and mental health kept people from really talking about how they felt which leads to greater loneliness and isolation.


The people who worked in my office were difficult. In the first few weeks, I fired one of the recruiters because of her poor performance. 


I hated firing people.


I felt like the employees in the office were actually working against me. They were adversarial and difficult. I soon realized that the people working there were miserable and so was I.


I had made a few friends at a previous staffing company job I had worked at in Seattle before coming to this one and they were nice people but our busy schedules didn’t give us a lot of time to see one another.


My boss, Ann, had called me a few months before and said that she had a woman who had worked in the Boston office of our company who wanted to relocate to Seattle. She wasn’t really asking me if I wanted another employee. She was more telling me that I was getting another employee. Her name was Catherine and she had worked for the company for a long time and knew company processes and procedures. She had great interviewing skills and knew how to talk to clients. She became a confidant for me which only infuriated the old office guard. She knew how things should work. She also felt some of the resistance from the other employees and was supportive of the changes I was trying to make in the office. In some ways it bonded us.


It was Tuesday morning. We were in a staff meeting. Sales were down. We were working on ways to try to increase sales by interviewing more talented freelancers and finding good clients to place them out on temporary assignments. That was how the company made money.  We billed out the freelancers for more money than we paid them. It was a constant battle. Freelancers wanted to be paid more and clients wanted to pay less. We were talking about our value and how we add value to the client’s experience.


My cell phone was tucked deep in my front pocket and it began buzzing. I seldom have my phone set to ring and I ignored it.


Shari, one of the recruiters who had worked for the company for many years, was defending a deal she had made with an old client of hers with whom she had worked with for years. My boss thought maybe Shari had been too cozy with her clients and her freelancers because the margins on her clients were among the lowest in the company. The corporate office had a “Big Brother” way of monitoring all of the transactions from the main office in Boston through a database called The Wall.


Shari was arguing with me about how I was wrong. She had a perfectly good reason why our company should take less profit margin and why the freelancer she was working with, someone who had been loyal to her for many years, deserved more money. She said, again, that I didn’t understand how it all worked.


The headache from earlier in the day was slowly returning and conflict with Shari had been a constant since I started. In the beginning, the staff had been outwardly kind to me but there had been lots of whispered conversations I had stumbled upon and happy hours I had heard about afterwards. My paranoia was starting to rise. 


I also understood that it was difficult for staff to tell clients and freelancers “no”. It was difficult to find ways to finesse billing to benefit the clients and the freelancers and our company. I was already thinking of ways to have to have some kind of conflict management training. The staff needed something. 


Shari was blabbering on and on and for a minute, I wondered if she might just talk until my head exploded. The headache had now become a dull throb. 


It was the bottle of wine from last night. I knew it was the wine. I had a glass and then another and then there was no way to reseal the bottle and I hate when wine goes bad so I might as well just finish it I thought and then I was left with an achy head and a shitty feeling in my stomach. It wasn’t the first time that had happened. 


Shari was still talking.


I also was kicking myself for trying so hard with the people in the office. My boss’ words haunted me often, “You should fire them all and start fresh.”


My cell phone kept buzzing. I pulled it out and looked at it.  The screen said “Mom and Dad”. 


My mom and dad weren’t really “callers”. We typically would talk once a week on the weekend and as with all my siblings, you always called my parents. They had to pay for long distance on their landline but children with cell phones could call for free. My parents were cheap. They also knew their kids were busy and didn’t want to bother them.


I ignored the call and continued the debate with Shari. Shari and I had never really gotten along since I started working as her boss. I later learned that Shari thought she should have been named manager when the previous boss left. My boss had told me Shari never had a chance at the manager position although it was clear that no-one had ever told Shari. She was stubborn and a renegade and would do things her own way and then, if you were lucky, she would tell you later what she had done; often after it was too late to change anything. She would set pay and bill rates that were too low or too high and encouraged others to buck the system. She also refused to drive on the freeways, which meant going to client appointments with her was challenging. 


For all of Shari’s quirks, several months before all this, my dad’s aunt, Alberta, had died. I had gotten the call late in the afternoon and Shari was the only one in the office.  She came over to talk to me about something else and asked if everything was OK. I explained that my dad’s aunt had died and that she had lived in my hometown and I had been close to her. She asked if I was going to the funeral and I said that I probably wasn’t and she sat down and told me the importance of family and how important being together was when loved ones died.


I ended up going to the funeral and I was grateful to Shari for the nudge that helped me to make the decision. My parents and my brothers and I all went together to the funeral and I was thankful that I had gone. It turned out to be one of the last times we were all together but part of me always wondered if Shari had been sincere or if she was looking for more reasons to get me out of the office?


My phone buzzed again. I glanced down and it was “Mom and Dad” again.  This time there was a voicemail message. We came to a lull in the meeting, realizing that there was no winning the argument with Shari and realizing all of her coworkers were agreeing with her although they remained silent, except Catherine. I asked if we could take a break and went to my office cube to listen to the message.


My head was now throbbing. 


“Hi Lee. It’s mom. Could you call…” she began to cry. “Could you call me when you have a minute… love you.  It’s mom.” My mom never liked answering machines. She always seemed to feel self-conscious when she would leave a message. But she didn’t sound right. 


Something was wrong.


My beloved grandmother, Olga, had been in a nursing home. She was my only living grandparent left and she was 93 years old. My grandma and grandpa had babysat me when I was growing up. My mom would work three days a week at the family hardware store and I would stay with my grandparents. She was a simple woman, living her whole life in the small town I had grown up in. She smoked, drank wine, ate food fried mostly in butter and lard and she never formally exercised. She was my kind of woman. She also was able to love unconditionally in her own way and she could look past peoples faults to see the truth about who they were. She was amazing.


It had been a bad winter for sickness in the small Minnesota town of Westbrook where I grew up. The flu had been bad that year and had traveled through the nursing home where my grandmother was living. My mom had told me months earlier that they had restricted visitors at the nursing home because there had been some deaths from the flu. I was worried it was grandma.


The other thought that crossed my mind was my mom’s only living sister, Esther. She lived in a care facility in Florida. She had been struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and my mom had a difficult time finding out how she was doing. She also had been in poor health. I was convinced that something had happened to one of them.


My heart was pounding as I dialed their phone number, the same phone number of my childhood. I often wonder what happened to that phone number? Would it be reassigned to some other family in the small midwestern town when my parents no longer needed it. 


I dialed the number but it was busy.


My life was about to change. I didn’t really know it was about to change or how but it was. It was a kind of calm before the storm although my heart was beating rapidly and my breathing had become shallow.


I shuffled some papers on my desk and hit redial.


The phone rang once before it was answered in a quick jerk.


“Hello?” It was my mom.


“Hi mom, what’s going on? Is it grandma?” I asked?


“No,” she said. 


“Is it Esther?” 


“No,” she said, “Do you have someone there with you?”


I wasn’t computing. Why would I need someone here with me?


“Yes, mom, I’m at work. There are people here. What’s going on?” I pleaded.


“It’s your brother, Doug,” she said with a big sigh, the dead sigh, “he killed himself.”


“Oh no,” was all I could muster.  “Oh, dear God, no.”


By Lee Erickson, MA, LPCC ©2024 All Rights Reserved.

 

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