We Asked This Woman About What It's Like To Lose A Parent To Suicide

During what she thought was a routine Monday shopping excursion at Whole Foods, Deborah Greene got a call from her brother. This was odd, as it was the middle of a work day, so she picked up the phone to learn what was going on. Greene's brother revealed their father had committed suicide. Overcome with shock and grief, she started to sob and scream about what she just learned in the store.

Deborah Greene and her dad

Greene tumbled to the ground in tears, heartbroken and seemingly inconsolable. But what happened next was just what Greene needed in that moment. A group of women dropped what they were doing to comfort Greene as she took in the worst news of her entire life. They also helped her find her friend Pam, who worked at Whole Foods.

Greene was taken aback by the kindness of these women who didn't even know her, and ultimately wrote an open letter on her blog thanking them for supporting a stranger during the saddest experience of her life. Greene's emotional open letter was then republished on The Mighty, a site that focuses on mental health issues and disabilities, and more than a dozen other news outlets caught wind of her story and decided to cover it as well. Greene's experience touched so many hearts, she thinks, because it shows that even in the most crushing moments of life, you can have faith in the goodness of other people.

ATTN: had a chance to interview Greene about her incredible experience in Whole Foods, grief, losing a parent to suicide, and how to talk about loss with others. Here is what Greene had to say.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

ATTN: You found out about your dad's death on a phone call in Whole Foods. Do you ever wish that your brother had texted you first to say, 'Deborah, I have something to tell you. Call me back when you're home'? Obviously finding out that information wouldn't be easy anyway, but finding out in a public place like that must have been so jarring despite the warmth you felt from others.

Deborah Greene: You know, I really don't [wish I found out another way]. When the letter went viral, I was initially trying to read a lot of the different comments, and there were certainly a number of people who passed judgment on my brother, [asking], 'Why would you make such a call?' 'Why wouldn't you wait until she was home and in a safe place?' For me, that never crossed my mind. The notion that this might have all been unfolding and that I got to continue running my errands or spending another hour or two in ignorant bliss, I think would have been harder for me. [I wouldn't be able to handle my family going through] this horrific trauma [while] I was just out and about doing my business and not having to deal with the reality that they were facing.

The effort was put into place to reach my husband first. That was what the detectives who came to my mother's house had tried to do. But my husband was unavailable. We lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, and he was in the city of Atlanta. He's actually a rabbi, so he was in the middle of a conversion, so his phone was off. From the time he got the message, it probably took him about 40 minutes to get to me at Whole Foods. So the thought that I would have been alone in my house, nobody would have been with me, and I would have been sitting there just sort of ruminating in all of this with nobody around me, doesn't necessarily bring me any more comfort. I don't know if a neighbor would have been home. I don't know if I would have thought to go seek that out. I think that in some way, as odd as it might be, it was safer for me and better for me [to have this happen in Whole Foods]. Even if my friend had not been there, I knew those women had a plan in place to at least get me home safely.

I think the other piece of it is [that] it's very easy to think rationally in the aftermath about how to handle a trauma, but my mother needed me to know, and my brother wanted to be the one to take that phone call off of her hands and tell me himself. So I think trauma sort of breaks all of the rules. I never once have questioned it. Probably if he had said, 'Wait until you get home, I don't want to tell you,' I probably would have pushed him, and I'm not sure I would have waited to call until I got home anyway, because it was so unusual for me to hear from him in the middle of the work day.

ATTN: Did you ever hear from the people who helped you in Whole Foods again?

DG: One of the women happened to have been a neighbor of someone in our congregation. We have since moved to Colorado, but that former congregant said to me that she did share [my letter] with that neighbor. That happened to have been the one who gave me [a] Whole Foods gift card, and she was very moved by [my letter].

I heard from someone who witnessed the whole thing. They initially said, 'It's so strange. I witnessed the exact same thing happening, but I was in Atlanta and I see you're in Colorado, so it couldn't have possibly been you.' So I backtracked with her to say, 'Actually, it was me. That's where I was living at the time.' Those have really been the only two [people to have reached out about witnessing it], though I have to say at a certain point, I couldn't even keep up with where [my story] was being posted and what the comments were and who was responding, so it's always possible that I missed that somewhere because it just became too overwhelming.

ATTN: And you didn't expect your story to go viral, right?

DG: No. I wrote it initially on my blog, and I had never even submitted anything to The Mighty before. I thought, 'You know, this seems like the kind of thing they might be interested in publishing,' so I just took a chance. I remember when I did a podcast with [editor] Sarah Schuster from The Mighty, she said, 'I knew when I was looking at [your piece] that it was something very, very special and going to resonate.' I didn't. As I said, I don't really know what it is. I think it spoke to different things. Some survivors can completely relate to that moment and what it is [like] to find out. Other people who, I think, just want to be reminded that people can be kind and good and reach out to someone in need [appreciated my piece]. A lot of people who struggle with suicidal ideation or mental health issues reached out to me to say, 'I never thought about what it would be like for my family to get that news, and what it would look like for them. You gave me a reason to keep fighting and holding on another day.' So it seemed to touch upon a lot of things but I had no notion at all that it would resonate the way that it did, both here and it ended up in other venues in [other countries]. At a certain point, I couldn't keep up anymore.

I don't even think it had to be suicide [for people to relate to it]. I think people can remember, particularly if it was a sudden loss of somebody, what it's like to try and maneuver through that in any shape or form. Who was with you, who showed up, who didn't show up. I guess there must have been some aspect that could touch on a global human experience that you didn't have to be a suicide loss survivor in order to find something in it.

ATTN: Do you have any words of wisdom for someone who loses a parent to suicide? What do you wish you'd known when this happened to you?

DG: First, I wish I had known more about what the signs are of someone who is in danger of suicide, because as much as my father was struggling, now I know that the signs were there: expressions of hopelessness, withdrawing from things that used to bring him joy, all of that. But he didn't talk about ending his life. Even the night that he took his life, it had been a lovely evening of my nephew [doing] a concert at his university and having a solo. It was a really nice night out.

I struggled so much with the guilt, and I think that's a very natural response. You go through this psychological autopsy. You're constantly looking back at everything that you missed that you wish you'd seen. When I went to one of my support groups, they talked about re-framing the guilt as regret. The guilt can consume you whole, but regret you could learn to live with, and regret you could channel into something useful and powerful and positive. That helped me a lot. It sounds like it should just be semantics, but it really wasn't. Those initial days of everything that we missed, I felt like I failed my father on every level, and I think all of us who loved him felt that. But when I began to look at it through the lens of regret, [I realized] these are the things I didn't know then and I know them now, so what can I do to channel this so that maybe, even though I couldn't save him, I can save someone else? That little nugget really helped me tremendously.

Everything you're going to feel is OK, and it's not going to be linear. You're not going to move from one stage and finish it and then into the next. Everything you feel is OK, but you need to find somebody who has experience with traumatic loss to help you navigate through it. For me, it was support groups initially, and then that wasn't enough. I needed, and am still in, individual therapy. I made sure I found someone who had the experience with traumatic loss and suicide loss, and that's not always easy to find. Somebody told me it was OK that I got really angry at my father, and I was angry at him for months. But I never got stuck in any one of those places because I had someone to continually help me through it.

It's a very difficult kind of loss, and I lost people as well. There were some people who were comfortable showing up and being in the midst of this very messy grief. There were some people who [acted like] my kind of loss scared them, or they didn't know what to say so they [didn't say anything] or said all the wrong things. I found that it was important to try through one venue or another to find fellow survivors. Whether it was through social media or a support group, it's a very isolated kind of grief, and there's something very powerful about being in the same room with people who really do understand what it is that you're facing. I had to come to terms with the fact that the father I loved took the life of the father I loved.

ATTN: What should people ask relatives or friends who have recently lost someone to suicide?

DG: I don't know that I feel there's a place for the asking as much as an acknowledgement of being able to say, 'I don't have words. I don't know this loss. But I want you to know that I'm here.' The hardest thing for me were the people who asked me continuously, 'Were there signs?' Well yeah there were signs, and I was in the process of realizing I missed them all. So for anyone to ask me that was like a knife in my heart. Yeah, there were signs, but I didn't know to recognize them, so what does that say about me as his daughter, or my mother as his wife? The best thing people did for me was show up, hold my hand, listen to me, and let me say what I wanted to say.

I was so lost that sometimes, it was just the simple act of a friend coming over and saying, 'I'm putting this meal out, you don't have to say a word. I want to make sure you eat. You can go lay down, but I'm going to be here and I'm not going to leave you alone in this.' I've spoken to a lot of survivors, [and] we feel our loss is so unique and has so many layers to it that it feels isolating. Somebody else may have lost their father and so they can understand that feeling, but they didn't lose their dad the way that I lost my dad. They didn't have to live with some of those violent images and the notion that he suffered in those last moments of his life and died alone in the dark with nobody to hold his hand.

Again, it's not about what you ask. It's about showing up, continuing to show up weeks and months later. I moved a few months after losing my father. I moved to a new state and met new people, and I thought to myself, 'These people don't know me, and now I have to deal with all of this in this place.' But there were people who showed up and said, 'I'm going to step right into it with you. I want to hear what you have to say. I see that you're struggling and I am going to be here with you.' The questions, I think most of the time, do more harm than good. When people told me [my dad's death] had nothing to do with me, it was dismissive. I understand the intent, my father had an illness. But it had everything to do with me, my brother, and my mother, because we were left in the aftermath of that. So I think the greatest gift is just to show up and listen and let the survivor guide you and tell you what it is that [they] need. We have enough questions, we have to live with unanswered questions, we don't need anybody else's questions. They don't help us.

My husband interviewed at a new congregation four months before I lost my dad. I said to this woman, 'I feel like the person you met when I [first] came [out during the interview], I'm not that person anymore. She's gone. I just feel like a mess.' And [the woman] said, 'Maybe you can look at it as a blessing. We don't know the old you, we got a glimpse of you over one weekend. This is the you we're going to know, and this is the you we're going to embrace.' It was almost a relief, because what I had begun to feel from some people in Atlanta was that no one wanted to look [my] grief in the eye after a few weeks. It makes them uncomfortable. I had trauma and grief going on. People didn't know what exactly to do with me. The person I was before that phone call, she wasn't going to show up anymore.

ATTN: Is there anything else you want people to know about your story?

DG: I want people know that I tell my story and my father's story so that his life won't be defined by this one final act. This to me is how I make meaning come of his loss and his pain. I think for a lot of us survivors, it often feels like it gets hard to get past that final act and to be able to reflect on our loved ones in life. I still struggle with that, but I tell my story so there will be a greater legacy to my father's life and my loss. That's what carries me forward, even when I have to tell my story through tears.

You can read more of Greene's work at The Mighty here.

If you know someone who might be having suicidal thoughts, or you are having them yourself, you can call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.