Interview – When Your Father Commits Suicide
Lieke van der Voort is a Dutch vocalist and composer living in Canada. I met Lieke when I was sixteen. We would go to the same concerts and dark underground parties and spent many nights in blissful teenage goth ecstasy. We lost contact when I moved away from my hometown and she moved to Canada a couple years later, but through the wonders of facebook we recently reconnected. Inspired by my death-related topics she told me the story of her father’s suicide. I felt it was an important one to share with you, so I asked Lieke about her experience, the pain of losing a parent to suicide and how she processed her grief through music.
What is your perspective on death?
For me there are two points of view when it comes to death: being the one dying or being the one left behind. My own death has never scared me. I rather think of it as peace and quiet after a hectic existence. It reminds me of winter, only when spring comes again, you won’t be able to join.
I am only thirty-five years old but I feel like I have done so much in my life already. Things I am proud of, things I really wanted to do. I hope to at least double my age – the idea of being an old lady artist is very appealing to me. But if I die earlier, I will not feel as if I missed out on anything.
Being left behind leaves you with no comfort. Your loved one remains in this winter state of being and you want to stand still as well, but you can’t. You have to keep going. Missing someone like that is unbelievably hard. I sometimes think of old people who have lost everyone they shared their memories with. Who is there left to relate to then? The idea of my own death brings me comfort at times, but being the one left behind when another person dies can be incredibly painful.
You were 21 when your father committed suicide. What exactly happened to him?
My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease when I was fourteen. He changed after this. It seemed as if he had given up on life. Depression and anxiety are actual clinical symptoms of Parkinson’s and usually are caused by chemical imbalance in the brain.
I found it hard to connect with him in his sadness. I was too young to be able to relate to him dealing with these emotions and I did not understand the severity of his depression. One time I found an article on how to commit suicide opened on the family computer. I was not sure if he was seriously considering this or if he needed someone to reach out and help him. I felt scared and paralyzed and did not know what to do. Eventually I did not do anything – and to this day I still struggle with this.
A few years later we spoke briefly about suicide, one time during summer in our backyard. He said he would want to do it eventually, and I told him I understood. I doubt I actually did understand when I look back on the conversation, but I think I did not want him to feel bad about it. I remember him saying that my siblings and I were his children and we should never have to take care of him, that the roles should not be reversed. He did not want to become a “vegetable”. Part of me understands that point of view. Another part of me wishes I would have just grabbed his shoulders, looked him in the eyes and told him that it didn’t matter and that we could have taken care of him.
I spent nights being afraid to come home – my parents were divorced so sometimes me and my siblings were with our mom – I was afraid he had done it. It was always a relief to see him sitting at his desk, working on his computer. When I moved out of the house, these fears became less prominent.
In February 2004, I was doing an internship in Angers, France. It was Friday the sixth and I had been there for less than a week when I saw a missed call from my brother and a message that said “Lieke, call me back as soon as you can”. I called him back right away. He said that our father had passes away that night. I knew it was suicide, but I asked him to confirm, which he did.
When he said it, I remember falling on my knees crying and wondering at the same time how it was possible that my knees perceived the message just as well as my brain did. There was another feeling which I was ashamed of and maybe still am: I felt relief. I never had to be afraid of him committing suicide anymore, because it was done.
“Suicide makes people uncomfortable as there is not just grief to deal with, but someone wanted this – someone consciously wanted to die, which adds an extra dimension to it.”
What was the immediate effect of his death on you, back when you were 21?
I had a lot of conflicting feelings. I spent the first months being almost proud of him. He had cheated life in a dignified way.
When he committed suicide he had hung little notes throughout the house, warning whoever came home first to not go upstairs, but to go get help. My brother was the first to come home and called my mom. My mom then found my father on his bed, in the room where me and my three siblings were born, surrounded by pictures of us. He had played music by Caravan “If I could do it all over again, I would do it all over you” from a portable cd player he had put next to the bed. He had typed out letters to say goodbye with, separate ones for a lot of people. He had been well prepared.
I was proud of him for ending his life in the best possible way. But I missed him so much. I found it hard to combine the feeling of missing him with the feeling of him now being at peace, as if I was not allowed to feel anything remotely negative, as if I should only be happy for him.
I could not concentrate on anything and slept a lot. I would dream about him telling me he wanted to die and that I was the only one who could stop him. I always failed. He would be mad at me in these dreams, which made me feel incredibly sad and lonely. I started struggling with anxiety about two years after he had died. During therapy I found out that I had neglected the feeling of anger that I had towards him, which I did not realize. But yes, I was mad at him. How could he have left us?
You recently released the EP ‘Atropos’ which you describe as “an aural account of illness, suicide, loss and my conflicting feelings surrounding these events” – Can you tell me about the process of channeling your grief through this record?
I had to find a place for all this anger, which actually mostly happened in the making of Atropos. Nobody wants to be angry at someone who couldn’t find a way to keep on living. Atropos made me realize that all these different emotions I was experiencing are actually valid and can exists side by side.
The first piece, Oizys, stands for the time of his illness. I wanted to show the desperation I could see in him, the chaos that came out of that. The beginning of the piece is quiet, looming. I remember him having problems running, which indicated something was wrong. The chaos in the middle and towards the end is built up from a spoken, drone-like rhythm, repeating lyrics, which symbolized the disease, with the cries of myself and the tenor saxophone in a freely improvised conversation. Towards the end, the repetition, the disease, wins.
The middle piece, Atropos, is a guided improvised piece which was by chance recorded on what would have been my father’s birthday, at midnight. It is about the night of the suicide. I could not get myself to write a piece about a night that I can only guess about. I had spoken with my sister about what she felt that night was like. It turned out we both had such different ideas that I decided to create a piece that would be different every time it is performed. I decided to work with the human voice only and asked three close friends to record this with me.
I prepared for five takes. Before each take, I gave the singers increasingly more, and more serious information about my father. I would show a picture, tell his name, where he grew up, excerpts from his diary, his illness and so on until the night of his suicide. It was a very emotional process. I picked the take that suited the album the most and made three edits with my producer. The words “You know how it feels” at the end are based on a lyric from “And I Wish I Were Stoned/Don’t Worry” by Caravan.
The final piece, Aether, is about the complexity of all the different emotions that took place after he had passed: the deafening loneliness, missing him, being proud of him, being happy for him, being mad at him and feeling complete emptiness. This piece is the most inward piece on the EP.
The smaller pieces are short interludes that are part of the story, but could be omitted. Nyx shows my personal view of death, something I do not fear ever since I was little. I remember sitting in the window of my bedroom, which was in the attic, thinking about how I would die if I would jump out. I guess I have always had an awareness of how fragile life is.
Athena tells the story of my father who played chess online with a lady he didn’t know in real life. I had always wondered if she knew what he planned on doing, or if she waited for him in vain the days after he had passed, to play another game of chess. In the music you can actually hear my father’s checkers pieces.
Did creating this record change anything for you in the way you relate your father’s death now?
I feel closer to what has happened. I understand my perspective and feelings better. In order to translate all my emotions into sound I had to carefully consider what I was really feeling and go outside the box of more generic feelings such as sadness or missing. It was difficult to do and I had to poke deep into memories that I’d rather not have visited again. However, this has created a lot of clarity in how I have been feeling about both his pain and my own pain.
By creating lyrics that were not only relatable to my father or my feelings, I had to compare a lot between this specific situation and other situations where missing, grief and confusion are felt. Grief is everywhere. A divorce, immigration, death, suicide, even something seemingly irrelevant like your supermarket next door closing; all of this can cause grief, and it is okay. I wish we were all a bit more patient with ourselves when it comes to this kind of pain. It takes a lot of time and even after that it will never completely go away. It is part of you. And that too is okay.
What is your opinion on suicide itself, and the current political discussion we have here in the Netherlands about euthanasia for people who suffer from mental illness?
I think suicide can be both extremely tragic as well as a valid option for someone to end their life. If I read of a teenager that has taken their own life because they were bullied or severely abused, it always seems very tragic as there could have been a way out with the right help. But I understand someone might see this as the only solution. I will never judge this, as I don’t know how bad it was; I don’t know their desperation. To a person who is in a lot of pain with no end in sight, suicide might seem like a celebration. Of course, you would rather not have pain at all, but this is not an option to choose from. Instead, you take matters into your own hand and end it where you want it to end. At the end of pain.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about euthanasia and I find it a difficult subject. Free will, in life as well as in death is really important for me. If you are done, you should be able to step out of life.
However, I understand that this is not a valid enough reason to apply for euthanasia. There needs to be a clear reason to want to die, like unbearable pain. The problem is that the lines are very blurry when it comes to pain – physical pain, but especially mental pain. There is no way to measure it, but the doctor performing the euthanasia has to be able to justify it.
“I remember sitting in the window of my attic bedroom when I was little, thinking of how I would die if I would jump. I guess I have always had an awareness of how fragile life is.”
In your experience, is there a big stigma on the subject of mental illness and suicide, or do you find it is a subject you can easily talk about with others?
I do think there is still a stigma, I even notice it in myself. When I released Atropos, I did this with a live stream online. Before I performed two new pieces of music, I had a short talk about Atropos. I mentioned that my father had died and that the EP is an account of his illness and death. But I refrained from mentioning it was suicide. I wanted to say it, but the moment I opened my mouth I stopped myself. If he would have died from a car accident or the physical results of an illness, I would have pointed that out easily. I think I was hesitant as to not hurt other people’s feelings.
Suicide makes people uncomfortable as there is not just grief and feelings of sadness and missing. But someone wanted this, someone consciously wanted to die, which adds an extra dimension to it. I was upset afterwards for keeping it silent. My father’s suicide is not a secret. By hiding it, I only contribute to this stigma. And that is one of the reasons I wanted to do this interview.
People’s reactions can really differ, but everybody has an opinion on suicide. Whenever someone asks me about my father’s death, I am prepared for their reaction, which is usually a mix of shock and pity. This is also usually where the conversation ends – I can see that they sometimes want to ask more, but there seems to be something inappropriate about asking about things like the method of suicide, or why someone wanted to end their life.
Sometimes I want to talk about it, but I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable by going into detail. With my close friends and family I have no problem talking about it and I am always open to talk with anyone who wants to. I just don’t want to scare people away.
What are your personal beliefs on death and the afterlife?
I think the idea that when I die my body will become one with the physical world, is quite beautiful. My body will decompose, mix with the soil and make it more fertile, feeding other life forms. The energy that is me, that used my body as a vessel can’t be destroyed and will find another purpose somewhere. It will convert to another form of energy. I don’t think I will consciously experience this and I do not see it as reincarnation or an ascend to heaven. I just see it as energy converting.
How do you envision your own funeral?
I would like to plan as much as I can, which depends on how I will die. I sometimes think of whether I want to be buried in Toronto or in The Netherlands. If it is in the Netherlands, preferably at the Gemeentelijk Begraafplaats in Zeist. My father is buried here as well. It is a beautiful cemetery with lots of trees. When the light shines through the leaves it looks absolutely stunning.
I hope people can say goodbye to me in a way that is meaningful to them. I like the idea of people sitting through half an hour of music that I have decided on. No one can turn it off, no one can comment on it. Sitting in peace and listening, that is what I wish for everybody who attends my funeral. Thirty minutes of just being, with music that will hopefully speak as much to them as it did to me, so that they can feel my presence through the sound. That will be my goodbye to the world and to the people I love.