My Father's Suicide Shattered My Assumptions About Mental Illness
On July 9, 1999, I was at my apartment in Yankton, South Dakota. There was a knock on my door, and on the other side was my mother. She looked like she’d seen a ghost. Just by her demeanor, I knew something was terribly wrong. I didn’t know if she didn’t feel well or if it was something worse.
My mother directed me to my couch. She sat next to me, and as soon as she placed her hand on my knee, I knew something tragic had happened.
Then she said it: “Brian, your father has taken his life.”
I could tell she was heartbroken and shaken up. My mother and my father had been divorced for decades, but it was no secret how much they still loved and cared for one another. That was proven by how often they would see each other throughout those decades… on-again and off-again.
In the past, my mother told me and my siblings that my father had always mentioned the option of suicide.
“This time he followed through on his threat, Brian.”
Anyone who didn’t know my mother and who didn’t know how often my father thought of suicide might have thought my mother was being insensitive. But that wasn’t the case. That was just the hard reality of the truth — my father had always threatened to take his own life.
I thought my father was too selfish to do such a thing. I thought he was too narcissistic to take his own life. I couldn’t believe he’d follow through on his threats. No way, not suicide.
In the coming years, I’d realize how my assumptions about suicide stemmed from my own arrogance and how I had no idea about suicide’s reach and devastation.
I figured I could handle this tragedy; I could help my siblings and my father’s siblings plan and make the funeral arrangements. I would ensure my siblings, my cousins and my father’s siblings were all comfortable and doing OK. I was tough, overconfident and completely unprepared for the long and painful road ahead of us.
What really broke me were the uncontrollable, wailing cries of my father’s three sisters and from my own older sister. They clawed at my soul. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) for more than 15 years to forget those sounds. They mark a loss so deep and profound; words cannot describe it.
I remember looking over the Gulf of Mexico on the way home, that huge and long bridge we had to drive over with only the ocean water surrounding us. I was holding my father’s ashes in the complete darkness. Then it finally happened: a tear rolled down the side of my face. I hadn’t cried at all until that moment.
Suicide doesn’t discriminate. It promises a grand lie — an immediate peace for a soul in pain who will easily be forgotten. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The years of hurt, suffering, second-guessing, the nonstop questions, why there was no note or explanation for us about his death, and doubt that stemmed from my father’s decision are not the legacy he would have wanted or wished upon his children.
The irony is that so many people who have suffered through the pain of someone else’s suicide or have thought about it themselves have stifled their stories the same way.
I miss my father. Even 15 years later I think about him. I used to think those who died by suicide were selfish, were fakes, that they were weak. They gave up on life. They took the easy way out. Again, I was arrogant, and I don’t believe that 15 years later. Working through the pain of my father’s suicide has shown me how little I know and that assumptions are frequently wrong. I’ll never presume to understand the mindset of someone capable of making such a decision, nor will I ever judge that person.
If there’s a possible silver lining of losing my father, it’s that I’ve gained tremendous empathy for people walking through dark times in their lives, for people who experience mental illness like depression, post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or anxiety.
I’ve always wondered what would’ve happened if just one sibling of my father’s, if just one friend of my father’s, if just one of my own siblings, or even if I had been able to reach out to my father in his darkest of times.
The bottom line is that in a world more connected than ever, far too many of those we call our friends, coworkers, congregation members, community leaders, neighbors and colleagues are alone and having trouble. Real relationships are messy, difficult and time-consuming, but they give life so much of its value.
I can’t undo my father’s suicide, but I also won’t allow the stigma of suicide to thrive on my silence. The issues of mental illness and suicide need my continued response, not my continued silence.
If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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