Interview With, Author Tom Fargnoli
Having been a deacon for almost his entire life, Tom Fargnoli had been in the practice of acting as a consoling source for many who went through personal tragedies and trials. As someone who was a guide for his parish, he had mourned with those who mourned. When Tom, suddenly, found himself traversing through his own dark valley after his wife died by suicide, his world was altered, yet he stood steadfast in his faith.
His first book, “The Deacon: An Unexpected Loss,” first began in the form of journal writings to help
Tom cope with the grief. Shortly after, he recognized that his prose could help others who found themselves in the throes of unspeakable pain. In the interview below, Tom candidly shares about mourning, healing, and never losing sight of hope, while aiming to help spread awareness about suicide and mental health issues. If you could summarize advice from the book about what you tell somebody who finds themselves currently in the throes of grief and doesn't see a way out or doesn't see imminent healing yet, what would you tell them? I would tell them to reach out to people. Not necessarily the people that they traditionally reach out to. Sometimes their friends and their family have heard it all before. And they want to help, but sometimes it's better to reach out to a different group. There are so many groups out there. There are grieving groups. Some that are religious; some that aren't. But when you're in a setting where you're sharing your grief with other people who have grief, it really does facilitate that whole grieving process. Particularly, if it's kind of an esoteric type of grieving like if I lost my wife, it's different from someone losing their child. They have groups that are for people who have lost children, and people who have lost people to suicide groups. In being part of those groups, I think that is when I was suggested. There’s so many other types of programs that exist mostly through the churches. The one group that I have gotten involved in they're called Stephen Ministers, and they're not really one denomination, but they're just laying people who have decided they want to make themselves available to listen more than anything. They're not professionals. Now in some cases, people do need to talk to a professional. I'm not going to undermine that, but sometimes it just helps for someone who's not connected to listen. I'm sure it wasn't easy putting this book out there. What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story, and how did you overcome that? Well, I had two undercurrents, if you will. The grieving was obviously one, but the other one was the rejection that I felt through the church, and how people were really treating me as if my decision to leave was a decision to leave the church and not just to leave the deacon hood. I felt very shunned, even more than the suicide shunning that I mentioned. The hard part for me was to tell this story in a way to say, I just made the decision that I didn't want to be alone. I didn't decide to leave the church. I really strove to show that my faith is still strong. And through anything that you're going through, if you have that relationship with God, or if you have some degree of hope, there's always light. Even with the cover of the book, I have a guy walking down a dark path, very cloudy, but there's a glimmer of light coming through. My main goal, even though it was hard, was trying to concentrate on that glimmer. And then with me, I met someone, and I am married again. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I understand that your book is primarily about dealing with loss, particularly after your former wife suddenly died by suicide. I hope this is a sensitive enough question: can we talk about that? First of all, in hindsight, when people have heard about it, they would think that You must have seen this coming. And, the reason I say that is because my wife Mary Ellen, had two brothers, who took their lives, as well. One, five years before she did, and he was the oldest. She was part of a family of nine. And the oldest son, Michael, was 59 when he took his own life. Now that was a shot for all of us. So, that was our first exposure to suicide. Like most people, you only know what you hear, and there's a lot of misconceptions. We were just dumbfounded by that. And her second brother, about three years later, was becoming rather depressed. My wife was determined to help him because one thing about suicide is that there's a lot of guilt. There's a lot of thinking, well, I should have called that person. I should have said something. It just seems to be that way, because the misconception about suicide, in general, is that someone makes a decision to kill themselves. And, that's really not the case. In most cases, the real factor is that there's so much emotional pain that the person just needed to get away from that pain. So, when the second brother did that, it's like, wow, two siblings in one family … Even though the two have happened like that, and you would think, well, we're going to be extra sensitive if anything happens. And sure enough, my wife started getting symptoms. She had a hard time sleeping and started becoming depressed. We had her to the psychologists and psychiatrists, and the family was all concerned. But none of us ever—and I know this sounds almost totally illogical—even with the two brothers, everyone just thought she's going to get over this. Mary Ellen’s not like her brothers.
When she took her own life, I was only working as a consultant two days a week, and she had made an effort to go to work that day, she cleaned houses. And when my daughter actually found her, I was just devastated. And, I didn't know what to do. I was just shocked. It was around the 15th of December. The house was still decorated for Christmas. So for that immediate month, I would say, I don't know if you'd call it denial. But, I was in a state of shock, really. I tried to just carry on, as usual, business as usual. But, it just wasn't working. What happens with suicide is that people just shut down. When someone finds out that someone that you love took their own life, they really don't confront anything about it, they just sort of shut down. So, in a way, it's kind of like, if you're shunned, friends and family are always there for support, but no one wants to talk about it. That was part of the initial stages of being exposed to that, which was just
I learned that when C.S. Lewis wrote “The Problem of Pain,” a book published after his wife's passing, that he initially had written it for himself for catharsis without any intention of releasing it to the public at first. Do you think because your book also began in a similar manner that it will be more raw for its audience? Yeah, that's exactly what happened. This started out as a cathartic exercise. As I started to write things down, of course, COVID-19 hit, and I had a little more time on my hands. As I was writing this down and decided to come up with the book, my biggest challenge was, how do I put this together? I don't want to just write about my unit, the bad things that have happened to me. Who's going to care about reading that. But the focus moved from the cathartic idea to really continue with what I love most about being a deacon, and what I love most about being a deacon was preaching and helping people understand and seeing things from a simplistic point of view. And namely, trying to understand God better and understand that there can be a relationship with Him, and you're not alone. So, as that cathartic focus shifted, it was actually my current wife, Dorothy, who started reading some of the things I was putting together. She reinforced that. She said, ‘Your book is going to help a lot of people.’ That’s where the shift started to occur, because now I'm telling my story, but I'm telling it in a way that they can relate to it, not necessarily my unexpected events but their unexpected events. What are some ways that you can advise people to react in an effective and empathetic way in response to others' pain and loss? Well, I think the person who lost someone is made the suicide survivor. When most people hear suicide survivor, they think that it was someone who attempted suicide and survived. But suicide survivors are those left behind. So, I would say that one of the things that people love to talk about is that person because that person that took their own life is more than someone who took her own life. In other words, the concentration should be on that person, and all the beautiful memories … but the person is so much more than the person who took their own life. And yeah, I think people are faced with that event as defining that person, and, therefore, they shut down. Whereas the best advice I can give someone to talk to a suicide survivor is to talk about that person, ‘Hey, I remember Mary when she was doing this... Move the focus to the life of that person and not the tragic event. That makes so much sense when you put it like that. I wonder if maybe the reason why people get uncomfortable is they don't want to bring up that person so as to divert your attention away from the pain. But, when you're somebody who's grieving, it's obviously still going to be at the forefront of your mind, right? Exactly. And I think that happens with suicide more than any other. I mean, if someone dies of cancer, you don't find that. It seems like suicide is kind of more so in the case of concentrating on the event than the life of the person. And, of course, when I say suicide, too, there are so many types of suicide. So I do, caution readers that they can't always assume they know why the person took their own life. Oh, was it the result of depression or was it the result of medication? It's so complicated that every situation is different. That's the other thing that you don't want—you don't want to generalize to a survivor that you understand, because every situation is so different. Yeah, absolutely. And, it's interesting to me, because you were a deacon at the time—and I can only assume, as a deacon, you have lots of experience comforting others through various personal tragedies and trials—and then you find yourself, all of a sudden, kind of on the other side, and the church isn't able to be there for you. Yeah, really into two ways they weren't. One, because I was a deacon at the time, I think people just assume that, well, he has a strong faith. And, he probably doesn't need any consolation from me, but all that kind of goes out the window, right? You really do need consolation, and you do need people to talk to you. The other half of that is with a Catholic deacon, you take a vow that if your wife dies, you will not pursue another relationship, certainly one that would lead to marriage. And, I remember in my class, there were like 10 of us, going through the formation classes that really took about five and a half years. It was a fairly involved process. When they brought that rule to our attention, we joked around, because we heard it, but we didn't ever believe that it would happen. So we agreed to it. And, I signed a form that I understood, but I really didn't understand. It was my wife who was against that rule from the beginning. And I looked at her and said, ‘Why are you against this rule? I'm probably going to die before you anyway. That's what a lot of people think. She didn't want me to be lonely. She was pretty clear on that. Now, this was way before she had any symptoms. So, it wasn't anything like that. But the bottom line is that I would say that suicide makes the grieving intense and a little more complicated, based on what I've told you, but the fact that I was a deacon made it even more complex.
Even though I wasn't going to run off and start another relationship or get married again, it was on my mind that I could never do that. Now, Catholic priests, they take that vow from the beginning, right, and I give them all the credit in the world—whether they should be married priests or not, that's another issue. But, the fact of the matter is, they take that vow from the beginning, whereas deacons 99 percent are married, and so they've lived their life. That's all they knew was a relationship. I had a relationship with my wife for 47 years. That's all I ever knew. We were high school sweethearts. As the time went on, after year one, and starting to go into year two really started working on me. I decided that being celibate wasn't for me, as far as not having someone to share my life with, and that was really what I missed. Not so much being alone. I could handle being alone, but the loneliness of not having someone to share things with and being fairly young, you know, mid-60s. So, at the time, I just felt like I wanted to share. Of course. I've noticed that there still seems to be a lot of stigma in many settings, you know, especially religion around mental health, and even the topic of suicide. How can religious bodies such as churches combat the stigma and offer their members the right help and resources? Well, I think they can clarify some of the misconceptions that exist. Namely, in some of the more rigid religions, like Catholicism, there's a misconception that if someone takes their own life, they can't go to heaven, that type of thing. And, that sounds pretty crazy. But that's a misconception. Because, the real truth of the matter is that God is merciful, and mercy outweighs anything that you could have done. Everyone's judged differently … There are other misconceptions. I think that the church, regardless of the denomination, has an obligation to celebrate the goodness of that person. Just like, a person that would die of any illness, is that you celebrate the person's life. Don't concentrate on the event, just like before. I think the church has to do that. And I know, as a deacon, when I did a lot of services—I used to do many services at the funeral homes when they didn't want to hold mass or Christian ceremony—I would go in, and I would try to do just that. I would try to, basically, sit with the family, understand the person who passed and understand some of the things they enjoyed in their life, and what they loved about life and bring that to light. What about in terms of prevention? Do you think that the church needs to do more? I think with prevention people tend to keep quiet and are afraid to say something if they suspect a friend or a family member may be depressed or moving toward a stage where they would consider that. And they keep quiet, because they think, well, they probably won't. I think the church has an obligation to educate people, their parishioners, their flock, if you will, to educate people to learn more about signs. Don't be quiet, because every time someone keeps quiet, and then if someone does pursue it, they wish that they had said something. I can't speak for all of the different ways to prevent, because it is a complex issue, but I feel that the more education that is out there on the topic, the better people can handle it. Just like the way society handled the bully situation, right. Now, we understand that a little better. When you have one person bullying another person, there's a lot of people that just sit back and say nothing. Well, if they were empowered to stand up for the one being bullied, then the bully goes away because he's outnumbered. It's a similar situation with suicide; it takes education to understand and to speak up. That's the whole thing. The church has an obligation to at least help in that regard. And are there any other books you're currently working on? Do you think that you're going to continue writing? Yes, I am, I have a lot of thoughts that I'm collecting now. This book was a true story; I had a touch of fiction to make it flow better. The next book, I think, will be a fiction book, but with a purpose. The purpose will be to let people look at God differently than they have ever looked at him before. What I visualize is a running stream, and this running stream is kind of like a spiritual relationship you can have, and you just have to dip your ladle into this stream. You can obtain this relationship with God, if you will. Essentially, it's going to be fiction about one man's search to know God better and just can't seem to find him in the world today, with everything that's going on. Sounds beautiful. I'll be looking forward to it. Maybe we'll be able to do another interview regarding that book, as well. Tom, thank you for your time today and for sharing your difficult experience. Again, I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for putting this book out there that I know is going to help many.