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.
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.
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.
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.”