Arne Vainio, M.D., receives the Physician of the Year from the Association of American Indian Physicians during the organization's annual conference in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on July 28, 2017. Photo courtesy Ivy Vainio
Health | Opinion

Arne Vainio: I blamed myself for my father's death by suicide for over 50 years





I always blamed myself.

By Arne Vainio, M.D.

Suicide is a scary subject and it’s a touchy subject. Almost everyone has been touched by suicide and those left behind most often suffer in silence. It’s difficult for people to bring up the names to family and friends for fear of reopening wounds too deep to easily close again and those names remain unspoken. The hurt runs deep in the wake of such a confusing and devastating event and there is a stigma surrounding suicide that keeps people from talking about it.

My father committed suicide when I was four years old and I blamed myself for over fifty years. Even as a little kid, I felt I was a burden to him and I could see the conflict in the families around me and I knew that was too much for him to bear. I used to dread certain people, kids my age and adults alike who would say things about my father’s suicide because they knew it would hurt me and I knew it was sport for them.

Sometimes people can be pretty mean.

When I was in my mid-teens, I started drinking and that’s when I wanted to talk about my father’s suicide. No one wanted to get into that conversation with me and there isn’t much you can say to a drunken survivor full of unresolved grief and anguish. My self-blame consumed me.

All through high school and into college I would wonder if I was on the right path and if that path might somehow be different if my father was in my life. I had friends who were into athletics and played on teams and I didn’t even know which end of the football was which. Every once in a while I would bump into an old friend of my father’s and they would tell me short stories about him, but never enough and I only have maybe four actual memories of him. One was of him opening and closing the door to my Finnish grandparent’s sauna to try to get some cool air to come in and I remember my hair being wet and clean and I remember him carrying me on the gravel path to the house with the sound of cicadas buzzing in the trees.

He must have died not long after that because his suicide was in the summer.

I used to drive down the road to the cemetery and then not drive in and I didn’t go to the cemetery until I was in medical school. I decided to write a paper about suicide while I doing a psychiatric rotation and writing that paper finally brought me to talk to my mother about my father’s suicide.

We owned a tavern called the Good Luck and it was a busy place. My father was smart, but he was too soft hearted to be a good businessman and people had charge accounts and many couldn’t afford to pay them. My mother said he walked through the bar that day and said he was going to shoot himself and this was a statement he had made before. One of the regulars at the bar was a woman who said as he walked by, “Those goddamned Finlanders don’t have the guts to shoot themselves.” I don’t doubt that was echoing in his head when he took his last walk across the highway.

I could tell the conversation was difficult for my mother and we were outside filling the water barrels for her garden. She was looking down into one of the barrels and once she started talking, the words came out and it was like she couldn’t stop. She was sobbing and dipping a watering can into the barrel and she told me about all the things that were going on around the time of my father’s death and all the fears she had for him and how she never talked with him about suicide because she was afraid she would plant that idea in his head and how she blamed herself for his death. We hugged for a long time after she finished telling me and her body shook with her sobs and I could tell she had that bottled up for years and years.

When I left to go back to my psychiatry rotation, I drove the road to the cemetery and I only had a rough idea of where to go. A gentle steady rain was falling and the sky was gray as I drove through the cemetery. I didn’t expect to find my father’s grave where it was and for some reason I didn’t expect to see my own name on the gravestone. I got out of my car and I knelt by my father’s grave and I wept as the rain continued to fall.

The heater felt good on the long drive back to the cities.

Suicide leaves a void and it leaves an empty place. I know about self-blame and I see it in others. I was a speaker at an event addressing suicide and I asked online and I asked on Facebook for the names of those who had committed suicide and I read them with a single hand drum beat between each one. I read one hundred and nineteen names and some were sent to me as names, but many were sent to me as stories. Every single name was somebody’s life and every name was someone who was loved.

Even if they couldn’t see it.

I had a father come up to me afterward and he told me hearing his son’s name with all those other names brought him the most healing and comfort he had to that point. Simply hearing his son’s name was medicine to him.

We need to speak those names and we need to remember them. Remembering my father to me brought healing to my mother and it brought healing to me. Remembering and loving someone, then never hearing that name again is heartbreaking. Talking about suicide to someone you are worried about won’t plant that idea in their head. That idea is already there.

If someone calls you or wants to talk to you when they are at rock bottom, it means they trust you and they are truly asking for help. They don’t need advice and they don’t need to be told things aren’t so bad. Don’t be afraid of them, mostly what you need to do is listen.

The National Suicide Prevention Crisis Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is always available. Doctors and other health care providers are important allies to have and can help and can find help.

We need to speak those names. We need to remember them and know they are loved.

This is a two part news story recently aired in Duluth, Minnesota, on WDIO TV and in part, it has to do with my father’s suicide. Each of the segments is about 5 minutes long.

Miigwech bizindawiiyeg.

Thank you for listening to me.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at a-vainio@hotmail.com.

More from Arne Vainio:
Arne Vainio: I wanted you to know you are loved and that I am bringing you home (October 19, 2017)
Arne Vainio: Helping the next generation of physicians climb that mountain peak (September 12, 2017)
Arne Vainio: Tough patient turns out to be a warrior with a promise to his brother (August 15, 2017)
Arne Vainio: Dignity and respect belong to all of us and cannot be hoarded (July 19, 2017)
Arne Vainio: What does the princess want to be when she grows up? (June 20, 2017)
Arne Vainio: Expressing gratitude for the people we have around us (May 19, 2017)
Arne Vainio: We lost a fluent Ojibwe speaker in Larry Smallwood (April 28, 2017)
Arne Vainio: Taking Jim Northrup's rez car out for another journey (March 13, 2017)
Arne Vainio: Finding some medicine in the woods and by the fire (February 22, 2017)
Arne Vainio: It's never too late to save your health and your life (January 25, 2017)
Arne Vainio: Christmas comes once again for a crabby old man (December 19, 2016)
Arne Vainio: Water is Life -- A sacred journey to Standing Rock (November 23, 2016)
Arne Vainio: Honoring unsung heroes in our throwaway society (October 18, 2016)
Arne Vainio: A father wishes for 'more time' after burying his son (September 19, 2016)
Arne Vainio: The late Jim Northrup shared his calling with the world (August 18, 2016)
Arne Vainio: A powerful homecoming for family in our troubled times (July 18, 2016)
Arne Vainio: Congratulating graduates on a major milestone(June 16, 2016)
Arne Vainio: A mother's gift carried me through many life journeys (May 26, 2016)
Arne Vainio: Saying Giigawaabamin (goodbye) to uncle and elder George Earth (April 19, 2016)
Arne Vainio: Let's start to banish the shame associated with suicide (March 3, 2016)
Arne Vainio: Watch Native Report for first Health Matters segment (February 16, 2016)
Arne Vainio: Starting a new medical segment for Native Report (December 15, 2015)
Arne Vainio: A mother opens up after the death of her child (November 16, 2015)
Arne Vainio: Happiness comes from my life of medical service (October 16, 2015)
Arne Vainio: Learning to dance to bring healing for our people (September 24, 2015)
Arne Vainio: Doing more to support our Native youth in medicine (August 21, 2015)