Title: Brutal Honesty
Format: Open Speaker Talk
©2022 Bob Cristello
My name is Bob. In the early morning hours of August 16, 2017, my son Anthony took his own life at the age of 35.
I open with that type of declaration for people who might be joining our virtual meeting halls for the first time. I also have learned to say ‘I see you and I love you’ to recognize our shared pain and respect our shared journey. If you are new, I encourage you to listen with an open mind to others who are sharing their experiences, strength and hope with you today. We are all truly sorry for your loss and for your presence here today. We hope you find some comfort here.
I wanted to use today to discuss brutal honesty.
I chose to share my internal dialog with the public in November of 2021. I neither promised the public that they would like it, nor that they would enjoy experiencing me openly sharing my journey as a parent who lost a child to suicide. I did promise to be brutally honest, searching and fearless in the process.
I do not call it an internal monologue because I do not have that level of focus. I hear snippets from conversations, see memories as vivid as if they were playing in front of my eyes and I remember feelings or emotions I was experiencing whenever I think. So, I have an internal dialog that is constantly being filled with the words and memories of others I have interacted with as well as having a singular voice I recognize as my own thoughts.
In Jaws, Peter Benchley wrote the opening line “The great fish moved silently through the night water”. For me, the night water is the calmer pool of grief that I now swim in. I swim in it every moment of every day and I will never be able to leave. I can, instantly, be tossed into the deep and dangerous ocean of shock when I realize that my child is dead all over again. If you have lost someone to suicide, you know the waters I speak of. If you have lost someone for any reason, you still swim in the night waters of grief that we all can identify with.
Like the great fish in Jaws, I am a predator. Unlike the great fish in Jaws, I am a man with the ability to think, reason and overcome my own failings if I am so inclined.
Curiosity is that inherent nature to question so that we may comprehend something. I chose to question myself, to use my inherent gift of curiosity and answer the question ‘What was my role in the death of my child?’. It was the only question I could answer because all of the unanswerable ‘Why?’ questions were driving me insane.
I openly stand before you stating without a doubt that I am responsible for the death of my son.
I neither require, nor solicit, your sympathy on this point. I do ask that you learn to empathize, since empathy encompasses the entirety of the human experience where sympathy is always limited. What I do want you to understand is that the only way to truly answer this question, and put all other questions to rest, is to have the courage to ask it. Like most parents, you will discover that this was completely out of your control. It will allow you to move from a state of shock into a state of grief, which is preferable in our common experiences. Grief can be stepped away from for periods of time, shock cannot.
When you become brutally honest with yourself, you are committing to change. It makes you brutally honest with others and, more importantly, gives you the ability to hear their brutal honesty about you in return. I have lost friends that I have known since I was six since going public in November of 2021. I gained, and lost of course, sympathizers because sympathy is a limited gift from others that I no longer require. I have also lost friends simply because they became a clear and present danger to my family. Many turn away from my words, because they are difficult to hear. To you all, I say that I see you and I love you. I have forgiven myself of my shame, forgiving you is something I am required to do just as I must exhale once I have inhaled.
In this great American culture of ours, we have all probably seen the Adventures of Popeye when his friend Wimpy makes the eternally spiritual statement ‘I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger you buy me today’. For those of you that can draw the inference to Siddartha and Vasudeva, I congratulate you for being born in a time when thought was still free and likes, subscribes and shares were not your ticket into a global spotlight.
Siddhartha sought spiritual enlightenment and found himself learning in the presence of Buddha. Siddhartha believes that Buddha is supremely wise, but his teachings did not account for the uniqueness of each individual. He believes each person requires a unique spiritual journey that cannot be given to them by a teacher. To continue on his quest, he comes across Vasudeva who is the ferryman across the river and into the city where Siddhartha must continue his journey. He has no money to pay so Vasudeva becomes Popeye to Siddhartha’s Wimpy. He gives him the ride and tells Siddhartha that he knows he will repay him one day. In time, Siddhartha becomes wealthy, knows the carnal pleasures of man and yet still is an empty human being. He turns back to the spiritual and he sits by the river and listens. As he listens, he comes to understand his journey, the role of his son in his own life and in the life of the world. Eventually, he returns to Vasudeva and becomes the ferryman himself that brings people across the river and on their journey to their own destiny.
We, each of us, is on a journey. We walk a walk that we had no choice in walking. Every 40 seconds, someone on Earth will kill themselves. That is a World Health Organization number. In America, 22 US Veterans take their lives each day. Brutal honesty, dictates that I see death in a different way now. I cannot turn away from racial injustice and the brutal war zones that my fellow human beings in this country were raised in. I also have no ability to see religion, gender, sexual preference or political conflict with any level of intensity compared to the death of my child and my need to help others. Brutal honesty also dictates that I must accept the truth, or there is no point in seeking it out.
I am what I am because of the life I lived. That is the past and I take responsibility for it. I do not have to be that person any longer and I can be forgiven. I can also forgive and I can love. I can be loved and I can be reached if you reach me with the truth. If you turn away from the truth, you have turned away from yourself. No matter how much you fear the truth, never let it dissuade you from seeking it out.
I weep and I still cannot breathe at times. The panic overtakes me and I break out in cold sweats. I get tunnel vision and I have learned to sip hot coffee or make a note on a piece of paper to regain the flow of oxygen, even if I am sitting in a board room. I decided to change and now I am in the act of changing. I am transitioning from one thing to another and I am doing it in public.
Before you start opening your mouth in public, please consider carefully all of the ramifications. I do not encourage others to take my path, though I have found it to be the only path across the river from the land of the dead back into the world of the living. I do encourage you to share with others who are sharing your experience. I encourage you to place a hug or a heart on a post in one of these groups that touches you. I plead with you to find something positive in this experience today that will allow you to open these same groups tomorrow. Today, I am strong. Tomorrow, I may be weak and humbled in a corner and I will still be in the right place. Maybe you will be the one who gives me hope tomorrow. I have come to believe that there is hope to be gotten, and I encourage you to be open-minded that there might be hope for you as well.
I see you and I love you.
My name is Bob, thank you for letting me share today.