by Dorothy Paugh
In the five decades since my father’s suicide by gun, I have made my peace with his deliberate death. I had told my son Peter just how devastating my father’s death was to me as a young girl, so it hurt me that much more when he followed his example in 2012. I tried my whole life to not let suicide be my family legacy and failed. I realize my son’s tragic act was not about me, but that knowledge hurt too. Of course his ultimate rejection of life, family and love will affect me to my core for as long as I live. We mean more to each other than we can ever know. I wish everyone realized how much.
Like most survivors, I searched high and low for an explanation-- anything to make sense of my son’s incomprehensible act. No doubt the fact that Peter knew what my father had done influenced him, although it’s beyond me whether the cause lay in his genes or in his awareness of suicide as an option. But as I combed through the details of my son’s life to find answers and then dug into the research, one thing became clear—the fact that he kept a gun in his house doubled his risk by making suicide too easy, quick and certain. The science on this is settled--the longer it takes, the harder it is to do, the more lives are saved by an intervention or a change of mind.
About blame, I hold my son ultimately accountable for his action, but love leads me to forgive and release any offense taken. All his suicide note said by way of explanation was "Something is wrong with me and life seems like too much of a burden." Likely it was depression that hid from him his own capacity to get better. I believe he did not know how to handle his emotions and was ashamed to ask for help. How I wish he'd told someone how badly he felt. I know he could have found relief, a way forward and eventually joy. I have learned that darkness cannot claim a monopoly over us forever. It takes its place within a rich spectrum of experiences.
As for guilt, I made plenty of mistakes as a parent. Most of all, I regret that I did not speak up more about the risks and odds involved to counter the mass marketing of guns for protection. Peter bought his gun just after buying a modest home just outside Baltimore City. In the city, gun violence disproportionately takes the lives of black males. Much less in the news are those lost to suicide--twice as many as homicide with white males over-represented in this toll. I’ve made it my mission to share what I’ve learned the hard way. It’s not about blaming myself, my son or the gun. It’s about saving other people’s fathers and sons, as many as possible, by taking simple precautions that cost next to nothing.
For the first time since my son’s death, I feel that I can relax a little now that two powerful organizations have taken up this cause. The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention is teaming up with the National Shooting Sports Foundation to educate gun owners and sellers on the risks, signs and steps to reduce the terrible toll of lives lost to suicide by gun. The most effective step is to remove firearms from the home if someone is known to be suicidal. Always, store guns unloaded, in a safe. Keep ammunition locked up in another location lest this terrible urge come without any obvious warning.
Dorothy Paugh is a retired naval officer from Maryland who volunteers as a moderator on the Alliance of Hope forum and as editor of its blog. She lost her father as a young girl in 1965 and her middle son in 2012 both to suicide by gun.