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One of the topics in the many presentations I give to outside guests about life inside prison is called “Psychological Prison”; it’s about the process of what happens when an inmate’s loved one dies. 

I tell my audience about the inmate notification process and the possible outcome if he shows any form of sadness: suicide watch in segregation. That’s the worst place to be when one is processing pain — locked up, no sheets, only a smock to wear, no one to talk to, no access to your personal property, and totally alone. 

The truth is, closure most likely will not start until you are released and the death becomes real. We are not permitted to attend funerals like in movies. 

Most inmates on my panel have had a family member die while they have been incarcerated, but in my nine years of incarceration, I have never had to personally experience that scenario until recently. 

When I called my mother that Wednesday morning she sounded ill. When I asked if she was feeling OK, she said, “Dalton drowned.” 

Dalton was my daughter’s new husband.

In disbelief, I asked, “What?” In a flood of tears, she repeated the words. She told me what few details she knew. I was stunned. 

My daughter — the one thing I hold dear to my very existence — got married on a Saturday, flew to Florida on Sunday for her honeymoon, and witnessed the last moments of her new husband’s life on Tuesday. She almost lost her own life attempting to rescue her soulmate, who was taken off this earth just as he was to embark on a new chapter in his life. How much trauma can a 22-year-old newlywed and college student endure? And why?

I was trying to process this on a prison telephone in an open area and doing my best to suppress my tears. Despite the surge of emotions, I still had situational awareness of where I  was. In prison, when others see you sad, they ask questions. I did not want to be pestered in these shark-infested waters, surrounded by swindlers and predators. My tears would be drops of blood in this sea of carnivores. My pain would become another’s gain if I was not careful. 

What should I do? How should I feel? What is my purpose? As a parent, you want to protect your children and comfort them when they hurt. 

Having been a combat veteran, I would do anything to shield my kids from witnessing an unnatural death. 

In my situation, the burning of failure also penetrates my soul. I cannot comfort my daughter due to the wrong choices I made in life. I felt like someone punched me in the stomach. 

The sinister feeling of impending doom began. 

I blamed myself for this horrible event. I was incarcerated for manslaughter. I killed my wife. 

Was this God’s punishment? Was this an “eye for an eye” or “the sins of the father” type of stuff that I have seen on Sunday morning television? Was my daughter’s pain and loss due to my past behavior? Does my daughter blame me? In my current frame of mind and not being able to get a hold of family or leave messages, the answer was yes. 

I found myself trapped in a thick darkness from which there was no escape. My heart feels ripped out and my soul missing. I feel like a zombie, a hollow bag of skin. I hurt in such a way that intense physical pain would be a relief. 

My pain felt unbearable and I knew death could take it all away. 

In a situation where I had no control, I wanted some morsel of control back, and the one thing I had control over was my own life. If I killed myself I would be free of the failure of a father that I was. 

I started brainstorming what resources were available to end my life. It was difficult to commit suicide in a prison setting, but it has been accomplished in the past. I knew what I must do. 

As a former soldier and combat medic, I was used to being called to help, not the one calling for help. The U.S. Army Soldier’s Creed stated, “I will always place the mission first.” If my mission was to end my life, that would be my priority now. I developed tunnel vision as I became consumed with my mission. 

Once I made the decision to kill myself, I started to justify that. I listened to expressions and body language of those I encountered. If I sensed that they didn’t care — a wrong blink, look, word or laugh — that confirmed to me that I was worthless. I actively looked for people to disregard me, not believe that I hurt (“I’ll show them!”) or treat me like a victim (“I’ll be a victim soon enough!”).

When people ask, “Are you okay?” or, “How are you doing?” it’s possible to provide one-word responses. If they ask, “Do you want to harm yourself?” you’ll get a big fat lie. You are not going to lock me up, punish me, pity me or prevent me from killing myself.

However, the question, “How bad are you?” got my attention. My world of pain was acknowledged and respected, and I was challenged to think about an answer. I have to process this question from my dark place because I don’t have an automatic reply for it. 

Still on my mission, though, I sought to rationalize my decision to end my life. I made a few telephone calls to non-family members who would not be biased. I did not tell anyone of my intention to kill myself, but one person educated me on the context of the Bible passage that I had been fixated on as a justification to kill myself. 

I called another person and told them of my daughter’s tragedy. After hearing me out, he expressed empathy and distracted me by talking about a story I recently wrote. 

That confused the heck out of me. That sly individual took my focus off the grave to process one of my accomplishments. 

After these phone conversations, I informed the prison staff that I wanted to see a counselor. 

During my appointment the next day, another thought gave me purpose: I may be the only person with whom my daughter can connect. Now I have synapses firing in parts of my brain that had been shut down. She may need me. Enough said.

I hurt badly, I blamed myself, and this pain wasn’t going away anytime soon. But could my daughter — a 22-year-old widow — handle two funerals in a week? I could not do that to her. Not now, anyway. 

I am a soldier. I needed a purpose, a new mission, so I decided on the following actions:

  1. I would start asking outside organizations, churches, veteran groups, and anyone else if they could send a card or money to support my daughter. 
  2. I would call my daughter and use my experiences battling trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder to be her mentor, friend, and support system.
  3. I would get the best sympathy card I can find. I would go to the chapel and get the word out to other offenders that I will buy one, or I would have someone make me one.
  4. I would write every detail of this experience down to offer insight into my self-destructive thought process. It may save someone’s life and be of use to mental health professionals.

After I complete this mission, that’s when I will revisit the need to end my life.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Shon Pernice

Shon Pernice is a contributing writer, a veteran and a Kansas City native, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a combat medic and came home with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He is incarcerated at Moberly Correctional Center in Missouri, serving a sentence for murder. He hopes everyone can learn from his experience. He has been published in Veterans Voices, The Beat Within and Military Magazine, and he is a contributing author to the book, "Helping Ourselves By Helping Others: An Incarcerated Men's Survival Guide".