By Dianna Bonny
Roughly four hours after my husband’s death, I’m sitting in the county coroner’s office in a small, nondescript room. A friend and my 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son are next to me and across the table is the coroner, who happens to be a young, attractive woman. I am having difficulty reconciling her appearance with the words coming out of her mouth because her beauty is in stark contrast to my preconceived notion of a Coroner’s appearance. She is explaining how my husband died.
Looking back, I don’t know why her looks mattered at all; perhaps my mind was more comfortable processing this trivial information than the devastation I faced. I even blurted out my thoughts, asking how she happened to choose this profession. She chuckled and said she would rather be dealing with people here in this condition than on the other end, before they got here. “It’s a crazy world out there,” she said, shaking her head.
We had gotten off to a rough start a few hours earlier when I called desperately trying to find out if my husband was here. I was refused information because the office believed they had already spoken with me. It turned out I had been impersonated by my husband’s mistress and, as a result, I had to prove I was me. This was difficult given the circumstances and my state of mind: only a few moments earlier, a police officer had pulled out of my driveway after confirming the news that my husband had taken his life.
I clearly remember the sense of yelling at the Coroner on the phone. It harkened from a primal place. I was outraged by this humiliating and preposterous situation, but I do not know the exact words I said.
The coroner greeted us when we arrived, effusive and gushing apologies for the mix up. My head began spinning as she methodically explained the details of my husband’s death. She was nearby working the scene of another death when she received the call so she was at our condo within fifteen minutes. Neighbors had heard the shot fired, so there was no disputing the exact time. She explained the state my husband was in when she found him, as well as her estimation of what happened.
Sitting across from her, I tried to stay present, but my mind wandered along like a curious child as she spoke, evoking vivid images of every detail she mentioned. My husband in his robe, lifeless on the deck of our condominium. The dining table, strewn with papers and bottles. Drops of blood on the white deck.
I was fixated on the neighbors who heard the shot. “Who were they?” I kept asking, but she didn’t have that information.
Slowly, she segued into the business matters of suicide, explaining that although she knew the cause of death, an autopsy had to be performed and a report filed with the county. She handed me brochures for support groups, burial and cremation options and, finally, directions for obtaining the death certificate.
“Do you have any questions?” she asked when she was finished. I had a million questions but I remained silent, knowing she wouldn’t be able to answer the one I desperately wanted to ask. A question that sparked fierce anger in me, making me want to lash out and break things and rant: “Why did he do this to his children?” I shook my head, and then she asked to speak to me privately.
My friend and children stepped outside the room and the coroner leaned in and looked into my eyes to share some of her personal wisdom about the journey I was now on.
“I wish I could tell you differently, but death by suicide can be very difficult for families. It tends to bring out the worst in people. Be gentle with yourself and let me know if I can help,” she said, holding my hand.
Her expression conveyed a compassion that made me profoundly sad for myself, and even more so for my children. I listened to the gentle whisper of her voice and couldn’t help but feel I was being indoctrinated into a secret society that I wanted no part of. She had relevant insight into what we were facing and shared one thing that was particularly enlightening: her encouragement to honor my children’s desire to see the body, if they so wished. One of my children had asked to see him as soon as we arrived, but the coroner had gently explained that it was impossible, due to procedure. I was taken aback by the idea, even somewhat repulsed, but let it sink in as a possibility.
I’d like to think that I would have considered this possibility regardless of her suggestion, but given the various forces that came into play in the post-suicide aftermath, I’m not sure I would have had the presence of mind to follow my instincts and intuition. I am forever thankful for her permission to do what was best for my family.
She explained that in a death by suicide, children often have difficulty believing that their loved one is actually dead. It doesn’t make any rational sense that someone who cared about them would actually choose to leave them behind, so they become lost in a maze of denial and disbelief. Seeing the body offers a concrete and definitive end they can grasp so the work toward healing can begin.
I mustered up the courage to ask my children if they wanted to see their father and four days later we stood in the waiting room of the crematorium. I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing so I went in first, on my own. I wanted to protect them and remember feeling I should bear the brunt of this experience; I did not want them to be further traumatized.
The room was a lonely, empty space that swallowed my courage. I sat in the back for a few moments gathering my thoughts and then approached his body with trepidation, half expecting him to come to life in the casket. Since the night in the coroner’s office, my anger had become diluted by sadness and confusion. There was no sign of my rage; rather I was a humbled and frightened mother in search of answers. I stood quietly next to my husband’s body, staring at the silent shell of a man who had once vividly occupied and dominated a quarter century of my life.
I spoke to him, naively asking for answers. “Why?” I said, over and over, willing him to respond. I didn’t understand then how perilous asking that question could be, nor did I grasp the fact that I was standing on the threshold of a very lonely journey that would yield very few concrete answers.
It became apparent to me that I hadn’t fully accepted the fact he was dead. His choice was so foreign to me that it didn’t, and couldn’t, feel real in my world. I understood what the coroner meant when she said that children often live in a state of suspended denial. I was in that state too.
I returned to the waiting room and my children and I seemed to take steps toward accepting their father was not coming back. I walked back into the room with them and let them take in the scene before them without comment. There was nervous laughter and one of them agreed that he did not look like himself. Thankfully, it was a quick reconciliation with the truth and we were on our way home soon after.
Later, as we drove home up the freeway, I had the sensation of floating, as though there was no safe place to land in my life. Gazing out the window, I couldn’t fathom how everything had changed so radically and irrevocably in just a matter of days. My mind circled endlessly around the thought that I was now a widow and the mother of three children who’d lost a father to suicide. What would become of us?
Mercifully, my mind landed on the most hopeful thing it could find that day, the simple gem offered by the coroner that night, to honor my children’s desires on this journey. I began cultivating and polishing this notion and it has continued to shimmer brilliantly throughout our journey, like a lighthouse on the shore during the bleakest of nights.
Dianna Bonny was inspired to create a better legacy for her children after her family’s life was derailed when her husband took his life. She is an advocate for those who, like herself, are navigating the silent aftermath of suicide. You can learn more about her work at www.livingonthefaultlines.com.