esther calling

‘I Lost My Husband to Suicide. How Do I Recover the Self That I Also Lost?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Message

I lost my husband of 25 years to suicide back in May of 2018. It was the most emotionally devastating experience I’ve ever had in my life. And while I’ve done the work to know that there was nothing I could have done to prevent it, what I’m most curious about now, as I think about potentially entering new relationships: What did I miss? What behaviors did I normalize and settle for because he was so different from men I had come to know in my childhood and early adulthood? I often did the heavy lifting emotionally in our relationship. I’m concerned that I normalized behavior that was maybe abnormal. How could I have saved myself from the emotionally devastating experience of his suicide? Should I have left sooner? 

The Call

Esther: Just out of curiosity, how do you know of me? 

Caller: I started listening somewhere in 2018, maybe 2017. I would play them sometimes at night, something would resonate in there for my husband.

Esther: What message did you hope would infiltrate his sweet dreams or not sweet dreams?

Caller: Just that everybody’s struggling and that relationships take work. I was also hoping that he could get a glimpse of or hear something that might help him, not just us, but him. ’Cause he was probably a little confused about what was going to actually help him. He was usually thinking that the surface stuff — the next big job, the next big title, the next big salary — that those things were going to help him.

Esther: With what? 

Caller: With his mood. With him being depressed, with his anxiety.

Esther: Was that the main thing he grappled with, or was his anxiety about something? 

Caller: His anxiety was definitely always around work. Whatever problems we had typically stemmed from some situation that he was having at work. He made that his identity. I almost felt like sometimes it was his wife.

Esther: And his source of identity means a sense of competence, self-worth, a place in the world, status? 

Caller: Competence, all of that. He was born in the projects, Puerto Rican, and the only boy in his family. His father died when he was young. He worked really hard to make a life for himself and to define himself in other ways, and he always grappled with that being taken away and somehow he was going to end up back in the projects, even if it wasn’t something real. It seemed it was often things that he fabricated in his head … the fear would just take over.

Esther: So he was a young man of color who came out of poverty and was haunted his whole life about …

Caller: I won’t say out of poverty. He grew up with his parents, his father was a police officer. But his father died of cancer when he was 16 years old. So he did see the people around him that weren’t doing well. It was always like this dual personality — he lived in the projects, but he went to a very prominent private school. It was always this living in that world, and then having to come home and live in a different world.

Esther: What do they call it when you think you continuously are a fraud and you don’t belong and you’re going to be found out?

Caller: Impostor syndrome.

Esther: Is that a word that was ever used? 

Caller: No, never, because he was so brilliant. He was so smart. He was so bright. There was nothing that he could not put his head to and achieve and was always striving.

I lost him in 2018. He hung himself in our home, after several months of really, really deep depression and anxiety. It was the worst I had ever seen for him. He just couldn’t see his way through. He just really couldn’t.

Esther: And you tried for how many years to help him? 

Caller: We were married for over 25 years. We had celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in September and then he took his life in May of the following year.

Esther: You tried to help him to see the light or some light? 

Caller: Yeah, it was always episodic, over 25 years. There were these pockets of times when he wasn’t doing well, but it always was around work.

Esther: I just want to ask you before — this has been such an enormous and devastating experience for you. Is that what you want us to talk about today? Because those were the 25 years you’ve lived. We are five years later. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: And you tell me, “I need to process the suicide of my husband more — what I did, what I didn’t do, what I wished he had experienced, what I wished I had said or didn’t say.” We can go there, but you may have another question too. I just want to make sure that we start where we need to start. 

Caller: Five years later, I know that there was nothing that I could have done differently, nothing I could have to save him. But what I grapple with today is What did I miss? What did I allow, what abnormal behavior did I normalize?

Esther: Of yours or of his?

Caller: Of his. Because I think, ultimately, now he’s gone and I’m the one left, you know? I struggle with, Could I have done something to save myself from experiencing that level of trauma? Yes, I’ve done a lot of work and I’m very much healed from knowing that I could have done something different to have impacted him. Now what I’m concerned with is …

Esther: “What happened to me?” 

Caller: What happened to me? When he did display behaviors that were abnormal. Why didn’t I leave?

Esther: Meaning? 

Caller: Telling lies around work, like he was going to get fired or things that just never really seemed to be true. Also he would check out emotionally. Now I know some of that had a lot to do with his anxiety and depression, but there also were times that we didn’t have a very active sex life. So I think about, when you’re in it, it seems like you don’t necessarily see it that way. But when you’re outside of it, you start to see the totality of it all.

I can be a fixer, I can be a rescuer. I feel like I always did the heavy lifting in the relationship that I had the emotional capacity to do that. I just wonder sometimes if I didn’t do right by myself, didn’t do right for me. Someone had pointed out to me, they said, “Well, if you had left and then he had taken his life, you probably would feel that somehow you should have been there.” But it’s five years later and I would like to, at some point, be in a relationship. I’m 55, I have a lot more love to give. And I just want to make sure that I’m right in terms of making decisions and not rescuing people and looking out for myself.

Esther: Tell me if I hear it correctly. As I understand it, you spend 25 years focused on your husband, on his mood, on his crisis of self-worth, on his panics about how he was going to be dispossessed. And you accepted a disconnect between you and him because he felt he had nothing to give, so he didn’t have much to give to you either. You became his nurse. You were constantly watching for him, tracking him, making sure that he’s not doing what he ended up doing anyway. I’m sure this was not a complete surprise, or is that accurate? Yeah, I see your head shaking.

Caller: Yeah, near the end, it was pretty obvious.

Esther: Right. Basically, you put your needs aside because he became the focus, because while he felt very, very weak on the inside, he actually took up a lot of space between the two of you, and you could not ask for any connection, any intimacy, any sexuality, any physicality. And basically to keep him alive, a certain deadness entered into you. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: And you wonder, What did that mean for me to live with that kind of abnegation, and what effect does it have on me today? I know that I can be a real caretaker of the first degree, a fixer, a rescuer, and I would like to be in a relationship henceforth where somebody takes care of me for a change, a little bit at least.

Caller: Yes, and I don’t want to portray that, you know, the 25 years was all just horrific because they weren’t, they really weren’t. He was a good man, he was a loving man.

Esther: I hear you, I know. 

Caller: I never doubted that he loved me and cared for me, I just knew that he cared for work a lot more. I didn’t grow up with my dad, and I don’t have any brothers, but the men that I did know, it was kind of like, Okay, there’s worse things someone could chase after. He’s chasing after education and titles and credentials and, like, he’s not chasing women, so it’s okay.

Esther: I don’t hear any blame from you. This is not about a revisionism of the marriage or a blame, this is you taking stock and saying, “Now that I can finally think a little bit about me as well, I want to know what happened to me over this many years, in this relationship, and what do I want to pay attention to from here on.” I don’t hear you trying to say, “I failed this because he did this to me.” Some of it, you chose to do as well. So how did you become such a good rescuer, such an amazing caregiver? 

Caller: Some of it was meeting him, I think.

Esther: Yeah, but you had skills. Or did you only hone your skills with him? 

Caller: I had been in the helping profession, worked with cancer patients. I don’t know. It’s probably just my heart. I think I’ve always just had a bit of that. Can’t say that it was taught, because I didn’t really gain that at home.

Esther: But did you learn it on your own growing up? Did you have circumstances that made you hone those skills?

Caller: Yep. I took care of my little sister oftentimes. We were nine years apart.

Esther: We were nine years apart or we are?

Caller: We are, sorry. We are nine years apart.

Esther: I just want to make sure that I know. You said it with a smile, actually, your whole face just lit up as you’re thinking of her. 

So, tell me more. Because this is a very different experience of caregiving. Caregiving comes with a smile, and caregiving comes with a sense of heaviness and loneliness. You just showed me two experiences of yours for caretaking. Tell me about the smiley one. 

Caller: Yeah, I have older sisters as well, two older sisters. Having someone to take care of and someone that I had to look out for, that I could help my mom with … When it was time for her to walk, I would carry her on my hip and my mother would have to tell me to put her down or she’ll never walk. Or if she would stumble, I would rush over and my mother would say, “Don’t you move, let her fall and get herself up.” When I left to go away to college, I was really sad to leave her.

Esther: It was difficult because you really felt loving and responsible like a mama? Like a bigger sister?  

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: And today? 

Caller: Today, she’s still my little sister. Although I’ve been able to step back and realize that, you know —

Esther: She can walk alone.

Caller: Exactly. But I love her and my other sisters very much.

Esther: What I’m hearing is you’ve had more than one experience of caretaking. Not always does it mean that you erase yourself, you efface yourself, and you just have no needs. You have an experience with your sister where caretaking is not about keeping someone alive, but about helping someone grow. And it comes with a smile and tenderness and softness and juiciness. You don’t want to erase that entire part of you that you call the caretaker. 

Caller: Yeah, and I experience caretaking now. I have a wonderful neighbor. She’s elderly. She helps me grow and I help her grow and I enjoy spending time with her very much. The other day, she says something about the relationship being one way or something, and I told her, “It’s funny our relationship developed at a time after I lost my husband.” I take great joy in being there for her and helping out and things like that. So, yeah, I’m glad you pointed that out … because that is how I do have different experiences.

Esther: Giving often is very much a form of receiving. In the case with your husband, you feel, “I gave him so much and he gave me a lot early on, but at some point he drowned in his own sorrows and challenges and crisis around self-esteem and feeling that he would never really belong or that his place was ever legitimate enough.” In the course of that, he stopped paying attention to you — not as a caretaker, but also as a woman, as a sensual woman, as a woman who would love to receive some attention and love and care. 

Caller: Even when I would tell him sometimes, “What am I supposed to do?” he would just shrug his shoulders and walk away. He literally had no answer.

Esther: And you felt he had no empathy either?

Caller: There were definitely times in our marriage that he lacked empathy, for sure. My stepdad passed away, and he was supposed to show up for the funeral. He didn’t. He didn’t call. He didn’t say he wasn’t coming. I think that’s when I realized that I’m the heavy lifter. I’m the one. He’s just not capable.

Esther: The “heavy lifter” is a word that you used in your head a lot. But what you’re also saying is, “I was there for him and he stopped being there for me. I have other experiences where being there for someone feels nourishing to me. With him, I began to feel more and more lonely and empty.” 

Caller: Yes, that is how it felt.

Esther: And you’re saying, “I don’t want to feel like that when I meet the next partner.” You have such a thirst for life and so much love to give, but you’ll be less afraid when you meet someone. At this moment you meet a person and in your mind you’re thinking of your husband, versus thinking of your neighbor, your sister. Who else? Are there other relationships of giving and receiving in your life? 

Caller: Yeah, I would say that most of my relationships are pretty balanced.

Esther: So tell me, why do you think about him as the primary reference, besides the fact that he’s a man, besides the fact that — you say — not having a father and the presence of a man in my life means something in particular. Maybe that’s not a besides, maybe that’s actually really crucial, but you have so many other examples in your life, and they need to be right there on the forefront. When the fear kicks in, they need to talk to that fear and say, “Hey, I have many fantastic experiences. This was one. This is not the pivot of my life.”

Caller: I think I give it so much weight because he’s the only man that really loved me in that way. I didn’t have a lot of great relationships. We met and married in nine months. Um, I was young, in my early 20s, and he was the first man that really was genuinely interested in me.

Esther: Do you remember what that felt like?

Caller: Oh, yeah. I felt special. I felt loved. I felt a level of companionship that I had never experienced with anyone else.

Esther: Were you lovers? 

Caller: Yes, early on we were. But I’d say a few years into the marriage, the imbalance started in terms of intimacy.

Esther: When he would withdraw and he would become a recluse and he would be living with a sense of dread that the world under his feet would instantly disappear, the world that he had so built. You knew he wasn’t doing this to you? 

Caller: When I first experienced it with him, I would say that I did think it was personal, and that was before there was ever any talk about male depression or anything. I thought he was just mean or not a happy person. And we did break up for a short time. It was around 9/11 and I just thought, The world could end tomorrow and here I am, stuck with you. So we separated for a time and then we got back together and he was better.

Esther: Was he in treatment?

Caller: At the end he was, but during the marriage. We would have episodes where we would see marriage therapists, but he never understood that the problem was not gonna be fixed with the next big job or the next degree or the next title. So when he did get into treatment — because he had had a couple of attempts — he still wouldn’t be truthful with the psychiatrist or the psychologist. Then I would sit in and say what I observed and it would be so different from what he had been telling them.

Esther: Oh, how lonely it must have been! But it must have been so lonely for him to think that he alone can change this and that it’s all on his shoulders. You say, “I want to start to date and I have grieved, I have mourned, I have processed, and I want to now live again and love again and feel special again.” Is there one particular moment when you felt special and energized with him? Is there a moment like that that you can retrieve? 

Caller: Oh, several over the course of 25 years. And it took a while for me to reach back to those memories because often with such a tragedy — the tragic way in which he becomes the lens in which you see things. But I do now, as of the last couple of years, I do recall the good times.

Esther: Tell me one. Before you even tell it to me, as you bring it up to your awareness, I want you to imagine how you’re bringing it from way back in the past to the front and bring it literally in front of your eyes and hold it in your hands and look at it so it doesn’t stay in the recesses of your memory, but really begins to move and take precedence over other memories. Really see it. Don’t just think about it. Imagine it. See it. Feel it. Remember it. Go right back there. And when you really have it in front of you, then tell me. Yes, you can close your eyes and just go to that time when you felt special, adored, seen, desired. 

Caller: There were, like, many times when he was able to show his affection. It wasn’t sexual intimacy. He had a special whistle for me when we were in a department store, like a Marshalls or T.J. Maxx or something. He would do the whistle. That’s how we found each other. He would be whistling for me. And I would whistle back. And he would ask me, “Are you ready to go?”

Esther: Stay there, stay there, stay there. Say to me in the present tense: “So I hear him whistling, and I’m whistling back.” 

Caller: I hear his whistle, and I respond back with my whistle, and we would miraculously meet somewhere. We are — we would follow the whistle, and we would find each other. Once we found each other, he would ask, “Are you ready to go?” If I wasn’t, he could say, “I’ll be in the car.”

Esther: Say to me as if it’s now. It’s right in front of you. It’s no longer just in the past. 

Caller: I feel like sometimes those moments are more fleeting, but I can remember whole conversations of things that weren’t good. The other things — they seem harder to remember. I know he loved me and cared for me, but it seems hard.

Esther: Would you be willing to try something with me?

Caller: Sure.

Esther: To help ground the other memories — because those are the ones you want to take with you when you date again — I’m going back with you to Marshalls. We can start there. What year are we in? What season is it? What’s the day like? What are we wearing? 

Caller: I don’t know.

Esther: But you hear the whistle. 

Caller: I hear the whistle because he whistled a lot.

Esther: No, no, no, in the present tense. I’m gonna ask it to you today. I’m a young woman. It’s the first few years that I’ve been with my partner, my husband. We develop these little private codes that couples have, those little things that nobody else knows. We know exactly what that whistle means. And the whistle changes tones, and it instantly changes signaling. It’s intimate. It’s tender, and it’s just ours. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: Yeah. I see the smile on your face. Or I imagine it, because my eyes are closed. Because for me, to be at Marshalls with you, I too have to close my eyes.

And then, when we find each other in the store, there’s grace. “Would you like to go back?” You say, “No, I want to stay a little longer.” And he says, “Okay, I’ll wait in the car.” So you know that you can go play. It’s like a kid that goes off to play. But they know that the adult is there, holding the fort, grounded. “I’ll wait for you when you come back.” 

Caller: Yes. Not too long.

Esther: Not too long, no. But it allows me to feel completely safe while I’m exploring the store, knowing that someone is waiting for me right outside when I’m ready to come back. It’s delicious. Am I seeing it? Are you seeing it?

Caller: I see it.

Esther: You see it. Where in your body are you feeling it? Describe to me the sensation of the whistle and the free time to roam around while he’s waiting for you and there’s no urgency and your needs are not too much and somebody’s there just for you. That feels very special. 

Caller: Yes. It’s like I can feel it in my upper body.

Esther: Tell me more. 

Caller: I can feel it around like my shoulders and my heart and my neck.

Esther: So you hold your hands crossed over, and you are literally hugging yourself as you felt hugged when you could stay in Marshalls with him, just waiting for you, being there. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: Let it come out. Yes. 

Caller: Or sometimes he would give me these things called smooches on my head. Or he had a nickname for me, he called me Moose. Weird little things that only we knew, little things, our little language, our little ways of communicating. They were beautiful, and they were special.

Esther: Do you see Moose right now?

Caller: I do. I do. We had traveled somewhere. I think we were in Minnesota somewhere, and there was this moose in the store. After that, it just became a thing.

Esther: And Moose, can she go on the dates with you? 

Caller: Oh, yeah. We enjoyed dining and going out and just enjoying each other’s company.

Esther: Can you do a deep breath into Moose, the dinners, the company— just soak it up. Just take it in. Because that too is part of your relationship and that too is part of your history. It’s slowly moving in front of you and entering through your arms into your body, and it’s going to accompany you. It’s part of the memories, but they’ve been fleeting, as you say, and they need to become more central, or you want them to be more central. When you meet people, you want them to meet Moose. You don’t just want them to meet the wife of someone who hung himself and who felt so tortured in his life. You want them to see Moose.

Caller: And I think I do carry that with me. I love to smile and I like to laugh.

Esther: You have a beautiful smile, do you know?

Caller: Thank you.

Esther: I’m seeing it through Zoom, so imagine if I saw it in real life — and it’s a smile that comes immediately when you think of your sister, when you think of Moose, when you think of the whistle. You don’t just remember it, you relive it. 

Caller: Yes. I know I am capable of loving again, but part of me does feel like it’ll never happen, like that was just it for me. Just a little teeny part.

Esther: Okay. Will you keep it tiny? 

Caller: Yes.

Esther: And the truth is we don’t know, but we do know that when people walk in the world with a smile like yours, and the radiance, and Moose, and her joie de vivre, that it attracts. We do know that. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: And that ray inside of you, that radiance, it wants to go in the world now. It’s not the only part of you, but it’s one that you feel is yearning to come out. What would Moose say? How does Moose talk? 

Caller: I don’t know. He gave me that name. It’s not a name I would call myself, but it was cute.

Esther: Right. Okay. And who is she? What does she say to you? 

Caller: She’s like, “Girl, get it in gear. Get it in gear.”

Esther: Yeah. Now, do me a favor. Show me the body of Moose. What’s her posture? How does she say this?

Caller: It’s like, “Get it in gear, girl. Get yourself together. There’s lots of life to live. There’s lots of loves to have, not just one, many. Lots of loves to have. She’s feisty. And that guy’s got my back.” Very alive.

Esther: Yes, very alive, and she’s got your back and she goes with you into this next stage. Because Moose didn’t die with him. Moose is alive with you. So you go, girl. He’s a major part of your life. But he’s not the one who’s going to dates with you. Moose goes on a date with you. Is this a good place for us to stop? 

Caller: Yes, I think so. I guess that the end is that I wanted to know: What did I miss?

Esther: Moose! 

Caller: But, I mean, what did I miss in the relationship that —

Esther: Parts of the things you say you miss is Moose. It’s, “Go, girl, I got your back. We are going to live. We have lots of loves to experience still. We’re hungry, we’re yearning. We cherish life. We have this smile that wants to go into the world.” Moose is what you lost and the whistles that come with are your playfulness, it’s not just him.

Caller: And my ability to respond to playfulness. He was a serious man, but he also could have his moments of being playful, and that’s what I miss.

Esther: “And that’s what I’m going to find. I want to be playful. I want Moose in with me.” That body of yours that’s instantly like Moose, she sits up and she’s a force. She charges. 

Caller: And I don’t have to be so serious all the time.

Esther: Do you still have the question? What did I miss?

Caller: I missed me. I lost me. I forsake myself for him. I don’t know what it would have looked like if I had done something different. I think up to this conversation, that looked like leaving. Why didn’t I leave? That was the question that I was thinking. But now, it’s not about leaving or going physically. It’s about leaving and going mentally. And how maybe I allowed myself to succumb to his illness, just like it took him. It didn’t take me in the same way, but I succumbed to it as well.

Esther: Yes. His depression became his life and your life. I couldn’t have said it better. What you say is profound. 

Caller: It certainly is, because that’s not what I was thinking before I joined the call. I was kind of like, “Why didn’t you go sooner? Why didn’t you leave? I could have avoided experiencing all of that.” But, nope. I’d say he checked out, but I checked out too. Checked out from myself. I lost connection with me.

Esther: Yes. 

Caller: That’s really the bottom line.

Esther: You know what’s very apparent? Every time you speak from that place, It’s like the energy of Moose enters your body. What the hell happened with me?

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: That’s the energy that accompanies you in your next phase of life. 

Caller: Yes. It’s actually with me now. I think sometimes I lose it because I think that I did something wrong or I think that I could have done something different or better. So then I second-guess.

Esther: Do you feel that this has given you a different … a different what?

Caller: Yes. A different perspective on how I responded in the situation. It wasn’t that I missed something in him or something. I was busy loving him and taking care of him and I just lost myself. I will not do that again, for no one.

Esther: That’s a manifesto. 

Caller: I won’t do that again. Yeah, there’s no points for martyrdom. I so just want to experience love again.

Esther: There’s nothing I can promise you, but that smile, I can tell you will attract love in any form. Maybe not romantic love, but all kinds of other loves. You said in plural, “There are other loves.” You will have other loves. I don’t know which form it will take.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for free, anonymous support and resources.

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