Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The following is a narrative about my friend Hilary’s father’s coping with her completing suicide.
Bill holds me tightly as a tear rolls down his face.
The tear is swiftly wiped away by his gentle white hand. He’s frantically making jokes and helping people navigate around the house.
Three days earlier, he found Hilary.
“I found her there. She had hung herself… right on the dock. I ran to the camp next door. I got a knife from Mrs. Swift and I cut the rope. Called 9-1-1. Then they came.”
Before the sun rose on Lake Winnipesaukee on September 12th, 2007, Hilary Swaffield hanged herself.
Stanley, Bill’s dog, leaps at the numerous friends and strangers walking through the living room into the kitchen. Smells of lasagna and pot roasts rise through the air in an attempt to quell the despair. The smells are greeted by Bills’ composure.
Three weeks pass: Bill sits in a white chair in a cemetery. Hilary’s friends speak at the podium and talk about his daughter.
“She was a brilliant and vivacious individual…”
“…an amazing listener…”
“…the best friend I ever had…”
“…the most innovative agent of positive change for others…”
No tears fall down Bill’s face. His wide eyes look firmly ahead.
Later that week, Bill brings Hilary’s ashes to the top of a mountain they climbed together.
Three years go by: Bill sits in his living room. He is about seven inches apart from his wife, Becky, on the cream-colored couch.
“Where do you want to do this? I figure we can sit right here and you can set the camera up over there.”
Bill’s blue shirt softens his lean frame as he plants his feet on the floor. His eyes look straight ahead.
Becky, Hilary’s mother, begins to speak about Hilary’s childhood.
“Pretending was huge. As a matter of fact, she would say, ‘I don’t want to invite her over, she doesn’t like to pretend.”
Bill chimes in, “Yeah, she actually sold leaves one time in front of the house. She actually had leaves for sale, in the fall. Like anyone was going to buy a leaf . . .”
In front of him, on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, rest pictures of Hilary and her two older siblings, Willie and Whitney, smiling, singing, and playing together.
He glances at Becky as she speaks. He shifts his legs. He rests his left calf on his right knee.
“One day in the car she said to me, ‘Mom, you and Dad are Santa, aren’t you?’ We talked about it, and that night, around the dinner table, I said, ‘Hilary, should we tell everyone what we talked about today?’ I can’t remember if I announced it or if she did: that she didn’t believe in Santa anymore. Willie said, ‘but you still believe in the tooth fairy right?’ and she said ‘Definitely!’”
In 6th grade, she came home and told her mother, “I want to go on a diet.”
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh! my God, this is a threshold moment; I better handle this well.’ . . . I said, ‘Hilary, you don’t need to be on a diet, you just need to eat healthy food, and you exercise all the time, and you’re beautiful.’”
Bill looks down. His brow furrows.
Suzanne Baumann, an adolescent psychologist, has noted, “You can grow up in a family that’s super stable, where people’s behaviors are in a reliable and stable range, and still be susceptible to messages in the culture that say that girls and women aren’t good enough, or they need to be really nice all the time, or they need to not express human emotions . . . They can’t get angry or misbehave. There’s a lot of pressure to do everything right, and we don’t necessarily know what right or perfect is but we know we need to strive for it all the time.”
Hilary strove for perfection.
“By her sophomore year in high school she was all state in three sports: field hockey, lacrosse, and skiing. She also always had straight A’s,” Bill states.
Becky talks of Hilary and her developing mental illness.
“A friend of hers was visiting here, and he convinced her to come down the stairs and tell us that she was planning to kill herself,” recalls Becky.
Bill’s nods once. His eyes stay fixed.
Hilary stayed in the hospital for a month of her junior year. She graduated with her class as salutatorian.
Hilary was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. The diagnosis corresponded with her chaotic relationships with others, and her long-term emotional instability.
Bill’s eyes move down. His thin lips begin to move.
“Seems like they’re just going by rote; just doing what the book says you’re supposed to do. They have to come up with a diagnosis, or you can’t get the insurance money. Then the diagnosis drives the treatment, so, you’re put on meds that turn out to be bad meds.”
Hilary left Brown University during her third year there.
Hilary attempted or very seriously considered killing herself a few times. She was hospitalized many times. She spent months of her life receiving psychodynamic therapy, body psychotherapy, hypo-psychotherapy, family therapy, group therapy, and pharmaceutical therapy.
On September 12, 2007, something was different.
“I drove down on Bay Street, where she was working, and her car wasn’t there,”
Becky remarks, “I told Bill, this morning I feel like I failed. I couldn’t keep my daughter alive.”
Bill looks directly at the camera, “You put one and one together, you get two. You have a kid that commits suicide? You failed. It’s pretty black and white.”
Bill looks out the window.
“Is there anything you said that you prefer I not use?” I ask.
Before I leave, in the kitchen, Bill Swaffield hugs me tightly. No tears roll down his face.
Speak 2 Swatties is Swarthmore’s student-run peer counseling and mental health advocacy organization. Speak 2 Swatties is confidential. Speak to one of our peer counselors in person or call our hotline at 765-727-0555. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call 1-800-784-2433.