My Father’s Suicide: Making Sense of the Nonsensical

December 2, 2014 — 38 Comments

On November 12th, 2014, I wrote a post titled “How To Talk To Someone Struggling With Depression.” It was about the stigma that still exists around issues of mental health and how we can help each other communicate appropriately. In it I mentioned my Uncle Ed’s suicide from nearly 30 years ago. I didn’t publish the post because I thought I sounded like a jerk and wanted to figure out how to rewrite it with a more encouraging tone.

On November 17th, 2014, my father took his own life.

This post is part of my process, part of my healing. It’s not all-inclusive and I don’t have all the answers.

But, I do have my experience. And maybe my experience can help you. I pray that it would.

I know for me, it was hard to believe that what happened was true. I have never used the word “unbelievable” more literally in my entire life. It’s strange what your brain does when you lose someone unexpectedly. For the first few days there were times I fully expected him to walk in the room and everything would be ok. Even at the visitation when I saw him laying there, I had this feeling he was going to open his eyes and say, “Hey! Why the hell am I in this box??”

But he didn’t. It was true. And it’s still true today.

I have lots of questions. This seems pretty obvious, but my head was spinning with questions. Why did he do it? Could I have done something differently to prevent it? Believe me when I tell you that if I had one million dollars, I would have bet it ALL against my dad ever doing something like this. With zero hesitation. None. At all. As I’ve written about before, my dad’s closest brother took his own life nearly 30 years ago and my dad has been upset about it ever since. He went through the experience of losing a loved one to suicide first-hand. He loved his wife and my brothers and me and my wife and kids. He was a proud father and grandfather. Five days before the incident, he was honored by over 150 people at a retirement party held in his honor. He was to receive a plaque from the city he worked for the night after he did it. He and my step-mom had plans to go to Florida to continue enjoying retirement together.

All of this made it so confusing, so shocking. And it always will be.

Me and dad.

Me and dad.

It’s also the one thing that kind of scares me. If a guy as strong as my dad, who had every conceivable reason in the world to not do this…did it…what about me? I’m telling you now, I will never make this decision, but I know he would have said the same thing. I know this is a scary thing to write, but it’s a reality I’ll have to live with. (Family and friends, please know I’m not dwelling on this or anything, it’s just a fact of the situation and something that will always be a part of the equation.)

And then there’s the second-guessing. Theoretically we know this is unhelpful, but it’s certainly part of the process. What if I had done this? What if I had said that? What if I had called more often or stopped by more often or prayed harder or more specifically or… I’m sure each of us who were impacted by his loss have gone through these same questions and I think that’s normal. It will never change what happened, though.

In July, just after his birthday, dad had major heart surgery. He had an aortic dissection, which is essentially a tear within the walls of the aorta. He was in the hospital for 10 days, which I’d bet is more time than he spent in a hospital in his entire life combined. As a man who had been healthy his entire life, this unexpected life-change and the subsequent recovery was difficult for him. Apparently it was more difficult than he ever told anybody. Every time I asked him how he was doing he’d say, “Doing ok. Gettin’ a little better every day.” He was proud and didn’t want to be a burden on anyone else. Hell, he requested that the ambulance shutoff its lights and sirens when he had to go back into the hospital a couple months later. I wish I had dug deeper and didn’t just accept his answer as the truth.

One thing that always bothered me about my Uncle Ed’s situation was that he didn’t leave a note. It bothered me because it left so many questions unanswered. Well, my dad left a note and…sometimes I feel like it’s worse. It was an informative note in which he told us why he did it and that he loved us and that he was sorry. But, when I read it, it makes me upset and sad. How can you say you’re sorry and still do it? Why weren’t you honest with us about how much pain you were in? I know he loved us, which is what makes it so difficult. It’s what makes us question, “What did we miss??”

I also have lots of emotions. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m confused. It’s difficult to share these emotions, too. To put them into words. See, I’ve written before about my own mental health journey, so part of me feels like I know where my dad’s head was at. At times, I’m still angry that he left us. He and my step-mom literally just started retirement together. He won’t be at my brothers’ weddings. He won’t get to be grandpa to their kids. He won’t be at my kids’…everything. But, I forgive him because I know that he had gotten to a place in his head that wasn’t reality. The last thread slipped from his fingers and it was, in his mind, the only option left. In reality, though, we all know that just isn’t true. So, I get angry and then I get sad right away. I need to feel these feelings and work through them to be healthy.

Like, the night before Julie and I told our kids that Papa was gone, we were praying that things would go well with our conversation and that good would come of it and I suddenly got really angry and said, “No! You don’t get to have that! You don’t get to win. You don’t get to sit up there and say, ‘See? I told you they’d be fine. I told you they’re strong.’ You don’t get to have that. We’re hurting and you need to understand that.” But, as I worked through that anger I remembered the truth and the truth is that he’d be heart-broken to know what his actions caused. Those grandchildren were everything to him and even though you could say he took himself away from them, I believe in a way they were taken from him, too.

My dad and the kiddos

My dad and the kiddos

The only thing that makes sense is that none of this makes any damn sense. That’s the conclusion I keep coming to. I try to think it through, I try to reason it out and I just end up shaking my head. It’s something that happened, it’s horrific, and now we all try to move forward. It will always be a part of our lives, but it will be only a part. It will not define us.

And it will not define him.

He was a good man. He made mistakes, like we all do, but he was a good man. He loved his wife and his kids and his grandkids and his family and friends. He was a hard worker who affected countless young lives in a positive way through his leadership and coaching. And you guys, here’s the thing…if you think I’m funny at all, you would have loved my dad. I get it from him. He always had a joke or a story or some quick-witted jibe to make you laugh. He was a prankster of the highest order.

Just a couple weeks before he passed, I played a prank on the woman who gave me my flu shot. Of course I recorded it and put it up online. My brother told me the other day that when he was at the house, my dad asked him, “Have you seen your brother’s flu shot video yet?” He said no, to which my dad smiled and shook his head and said, “Watch it.”

We weren’t always super close (mostly because of circumstance), but we were kindred spirits.

And I’ll keep doing stupid crap to make people laugh, dad. It’s kind of our thing.

Miss you. Love you. And I’ll see you again someday.

Sam, me, grandpa and my dad, Father's Day 2008

Sam, me, grandpa and my dad, Father’s Day 2008

Throughout the coming months and years I’m sure I’ll share more about my experience and the process of healing I go through. In the meantime, if you or someone you love is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, please get help immediately. Call 911, contact a counselor, contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline, call a friend…I know you might not believe it, but people love you and are there to help. There are other options.

If you’ve experienced loss, you probably already know this, but the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a wonderful resource to help us heal. As my friend Julie said, “You’re part of a club now. It’s a sucky club to be in, but it is one, so…welcome. Hug me.”

Ryan

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I'm a husband, a father, an author, a speaker, a friend...all kinds of things, actually.

38 responses to My Father’s Suicide: Making Sense of the Nonsensical

  1. Ryan, I am so very sorry you are dealing with this. What a mess. Anger is part of grief. Let yourself be angry. However, when my father had a heart attack at age 53, I remember him being VERY depressed for months afterwards. We were told that with heart patients that is fairly normal. When he found out he had cancer he was considering suicide. I think with men, health problems often trigger it, like in Robin Williams’ case.

    You are an inspiration to my son, a RBE amputee, and so many limb difference folks. Hang in there my friend. Praying for healing for you and your family.

  2. Great post Ryan. It is so encouraging to be able to see you process this and mourn well.

  3. Ryan, this is a powerful blog entry. I applaud your courage to write ans share your pain with others. I think it will be a source of deeper healing for you and your family. Facing such pain is difficult, to say the least. Sharing it with others is daunting, but you aren’t afraid, in fact you squarely confront it head on. It takes a certain type of person to do that. I know that you will be shaped by this experience and it will become a source of inspiration for you that you will share with others for the rest of your life.

    I have no advice. Just wanted to let you know that your strength is evident.

  4. Ryan, I know that nothing I can say can make your pain go away, but having gone through depression myself, I feel that I have learned a couple things that are important to share. First, and most important, I have come to realize that God is a loving and forgiving God, and even though we may not understand depression very well, HE does! He knows the pain we all go through and he loves us anyways!

    Second, for anyone reading this that’s struggling with depression, please PLEASE realize that you are not alone! Several years ago I was in an accident that severely broke my body, left me with an amputated arm/shoulder, causing me to be unable to work, care for my wife and kids, etc. etc. The year or two after were the darkest days of my life – I had a hard time convincing myself that I shouldn’t have died. I couldn’t help but feel alone even though I have the best wife ever and a great family. So please understand that there are lots of other people that feel that same hopelessness that you do, and it’s OK to feel this way! The best advise I can give you is to find a good therapist or counselor, or look for an understanding and non-judgmental church/pastor to talk to, but most important – talk with your loved ones! I came to realize that talking to someone you can trust will over time make all the difference in the world – there is always someone that wants to help you and wants you to feel better! But although it is scary – you have to take that first step and be willing to talk to someone, after that things WILL gradually get better! And don’t ever forget that God always loves you know matter how you feel, what you think, or how broken you are!

    Ryan, I love the work you do with your website, please keep it up! And while sharing your story here had to be very difficult, if it helps only one person, it is well worth it! Please remember that even though this horrible thing thing has happened, God has never stopped loving you father! God Bless You!

  5. Ryan,

    I am so sorry for your family’s loss. There aren’t any words I can say to help the way you feel, but I do understand every bit of sadness, anger, disbelief, confusion…and the list goes on. I lost my husband to suicide in 2008. I agree that knowing why (i.e. “the NOTE”) is alot harder than not knowing at all. Thank you for sharing this amazingly difficult experience. Every survivors experience does help.

  6. Sorry for your loss, Ryan. Glad you shared the story though.

  7. Ryan –

    My wife sent me this because still to this day, some 13 years and 3 months later I’m still in a fog about my father’s suicide. Your line “The only thing that makes sense is that none of this makes any damn sense” is spot on even though it has no definition. How could it? The only person that knows what happened is the one committing the act. If I were to die today and see my father at the pearly gates I’m still conflicted if I would hug him or hit him – Perhaps both.

    I lost my dad and was the unlucky person who found him with a self-inflicted gun shot wound to his head 4-days after the September 11th attacks. He was going through a depression and of course like most men of his generation, it was hidden and cloaked. The emotional roller coaster for myself that followed has been a VERY dark journey and still to this day it hurts like it did when it happened. The only difference being is now I’m able to recognize my pain/ptsd a lot better and “sort of” come to grips with it, however it was not always like that.

    I can empathize with my father and yours as to the WHY. The only reason I can is because I was merely hours or perhaps a day away from killing myself only a few years ago. Yes, 10 years of major depression issues from my dad’s death really ate away and I was bottoming out. For about a week a voice inside my head literally started talking to me and the only out I knew was to take my own life. You wouldn’t believe how loud and crystal clear that voice became for the next few days. The odd thing about it was I was at peace with it in my mind on the final morning. I’ll explain in a minute what I mean by that.

    I woke up on my “final” morning ready and prepared. I knew where, when, and how. In a final conscious effort after screaming at the top of my lungs in my car I decided that maybe someone could help, but if nobody was there on the other end of the phone to see me immediately, that would be it. I called a therapist (fortunate to have great health insurance at the time) and she would see me. I found the strength to grasp one last piece of my soul and drove myself to the therapist, and after being there for a minute she called a hospital and away I went. One look into my eyes and she knew what she had to do. Emptiness, loneliness, and worst of all FEAR had taken me over. I abused alcohol, friendships, relationships, drugs, and a whole plethora of other things during this ANGER phase, just because I wanted to find and answer to one question. WHY?!?!?!

    The short answer I can say now is there is no answer just as you described earlier. The expression “take it on the chin” is to put it mildly, but in a sense it’s exactly what we have to do, and quite frankly all we can do. To this day I still have no answers and often wonder, “what would I do if I did have the answer?” I would love to sit here and tell you that it gets better, but in all honesty it doesn’t. It only gets easier to handle to a degree. The acceptance of it is probably the only thing that makes it better. Don’t forgive your dad, forgive yourself for caring so FUCKING much.

    Thank you for reaching people – you’ve reached me.

  8. Thank you for sharing so much and for your honesty. I have enjoyed reading your posts for more than a year and remember vividly your post on depression. I thought at the time, “thanks for the honesty.” It helped me address some of my own issues.

    Anyway, wanted to let you know I am praying for you. This summer public radio (heard it on MPR, maybe talking volumes) had a series on death. One speaker on suicide gave statistics on how much great the chance of one committing suicide is if you know someone who has committed suicide. Although the statistics are startling and depressing, the speaker and callers into the program spoke of hope.

    Thank you again. Praying that God will provide for the needs I cannot understand, praying that Jesus will always give you the strength for one more day, and praying that some day you have peace in a matter that is not understood, the peace that passes all understanding.

  9. Ryan, so sorry to hear of this terrible loss. Our community will be thinking of you and your family.

  10. I’m still so heartbroken for you and your family, Ryan. You’re handling this with so much dignity and compassion and love, though, and I’m so grateful to witness it. You’re in my thoughts and prayers daily. <3

  11. Ryan: I am so sorry. I hope you keep writing about this.

  12. These are the times when we need a strong anchor. The grief, loss, doubt, whys, what ifs, the pain of watching the ones we love suffering through the “unthinkable”. You are being used mightily despite the circumstances. . . or because of them. “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast. . .Jesus!” (Heb. 6:19) Praying for His peace to be a continuing comfort for your soul. Hold on!

  13. Ryan,
    I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. My husband and I also loss a friend in May this year to suicide. It’s still hard to deal with and accept. I’m hoping that your pain subsides and that you find peace with this at some point. I’m really glad that you wrote this article and shared your feelings with everyone. I hope it brought you some healing.

    Thank you always for who you are and what you do and how you share.

    Amie Bliman
    PNNC

  14. I knew your Dad. We both worked at the city and we are neighbors. A nice, funny, kind man. I am heartbroken at his death and the sadness he must have felt. Your strength to tell this story will help others. Holding you and all your family in my thoughts and prayers.

  15. Ryan, I am so sorry to hear this tragic news! Can’t imagine the pain! I lost my brother to suicide 8/19/1984. The wounds have long been scarred over , the pain is gone but he still lives in many ways! Life regains it’s beauty and my journey regained its stride! Everyone has a different grief clock so don’t push things! I would suggest that you continue to journal your thoughts and if your walk is anywhere close to mine, your memories of your fathers love for you and family will take center stage without the pain sooner than later! God speed! John

  16. only those with deep suicidle thoughts know the true insanity of what goes on in our minds! I’m sad to hear about your father.

  17. I am so, so sorry. This breaks my heart. My husband had a heart attack 3 years ago. He was 34. The last 3 years have been filled with much anxiety and depression for him. God has done much healing in his life, but he still struggles some. His own suicidal thoughts during the darkest times have given him so much empathy for others who are dealing with mental illness. Praying for you and your family.

    • Thank you so much, Marla. I’ve heard over and over how common this seems to be after heart surgeries. I don’t know the science of it, but it seems like there’s something there. I’ll keep your husband in my prayers, too!

  18. Dear Ryan-

    I am so sorry for your unimaginably difficult news. Even when it happens in the most normal way, and even if it happens when you are an adult, losing a parent is a terrible thing. Most of us can never have a clue how tough things must be for you and others in your position.

    I ‘m sure I speak for not only myself, but all your other Kickstarter supporters– many of us otherwise strangers— We still support you, we’ll always support you, we’re praying for you in this awful time. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.

    Louis

  19. I am so sorry for your loss. It sounds like your dad had PTSD related to his heart surgery. I think you are kind to not let this be a defining moment for him. PTSD is often missed since it doesn’t manifest until 3-6 months after the event, it’s really difficult to live through-many people don’t. I am sorry it happened.

    I’ve experienced a sudden loss of a loved one in November 2004. Thanksgiving and Christmas went by and I thought we were all dealing with it quite well then sometime in March the full gravity of this person’s death hit me, and I was a mess for a while. I wish I had seen a counselor to help me process what happened and my feelings before the shock wore off. Be prepared for a another shockwave of grief and if you aren’t already, I do recommend seeing a counselor to help you sort it out when you’re ready.

    Thank you for sharing with us!

  20. Ryan, we are so very sorry for your loss. I had not been aware of this tragedy in your lives until I received the Grahmann letter. Our thoughts and prayers are with you as you work through all the emotions attached to such a very sad event in your life.

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