10 Things I've Learned in the 10 Years Since My Father's Suicide
On February 27, 2007, my life was forever altered when my father ended his life, setting in motion a cycle of events I never knew I would have to fight for or against.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s suicide. Ultimately, in the 10 years since my father’s death, I have learned a tremendous amount about who I am as a person, about depression and about the fears of mental illness (that we ourselves carry and those carried by society). I felt inclined to write this piece because I was, at one point, in an extremely dark place, and I truly did not know if I could, or would, make it from day to day. But once I slowly started climbing out of that space, I promised that one day I would be open and honest about being there if I could help even one person.
Here are some things I’ve learned:
1. He didn’t abandon me.
One of the initial things I felt after my father’s loss was abandonment. He chose to leave me, I thought. How could he choose to do this? At my father’s funeral, a family member said to me, “I can’t believe your father would just choose to leave you girls like this.” Suicide is more complicated than that. I know that may be hard to understand for those who haven’t been through serious, debilitating depression. But I have. I’ve been through depression I can describe as only being able to see in shades of grey. Struggling to live from day to day was exhausting. I didn’t know if I would make it to the next day or if I would ever see in color again. At that point in my life, I was so low I was incapable of thinking of how my actions would affect anyone else, because all I could think about was the inexplicable pain I was in. It’s hard to understand this type of deep depression unless you have been there. So, I urge you, do not ever use the word “choice” or “coward” when talking about those who have died by suicide.
2. He didn’t “choose” to die.
My father didn’t simply choose to die. He was unable to move out of his depression. Going through my own depression was the scariest thing I’ve ever gone through, and something I have never been more grateful for. If you’re asking yourself why I’d be grateful for something that I almost didn’t make it out of… well, it’s because I experienced the pain my father was going through, and because of that, I was able to forgive him. He wasn’t choosing to die. He was fighting to live. I’ll never forget the comment a co-worker said to me once she learned how my dad had passed. She said, “I can’t believe he chose to do this when there are so many people out there fighting to live.” I have grace and tolerance of others so I bit my tongue. But why is depression treated differently than any other illness? Yes, there are people with cancer fighting to live. Yes, there are people with other ailments fighting to live, and, there are people with depression fighting to live.
3. Depression comes in all forms.
Growing up, my dad was angry, all the time. It wasn’t until after he passed that I learned that anger can be a symptom of depression. As a woman, I experienced crying, oversleeping and extreme anxiety. I always expected that depression would come in the same form for men and women. It doesn’t. Depression can surface in many different ways and we have to be aware of that.
4. I have depression.
I will always have depression, and I’m OK with that. There is a stigma attached to depression within our society. For a long time, I was terrified of that stigma. I’m not anymore. My fears made me question if I was good enough to be a wife, a mom and an educator. I am. I have depression and I will always have depression. I choose to treat and fight against my depression so that I can live a happy and healthy life.
5. I do not have to become my father’s legacy.
Having depression does not have to make me become my father. Statistics put me at a higher risk of dying by suicide because my father died that way. A statistic doesn’t have to become part of my story. For a long time I think I allowed that statistic to become a part of me, almost as if saying that since the odds were higher, I was going to end up taking my life anyways so I might as well get it over with. Statistics are scary and they sometimes can consume us. I no longer allow that statistic to be a part of my life.
6. We need to start talking about depression.
It’s time we open up the dialogue about depression, within our homes, our schools and our communities. We need to teach our sons that showing emotion is OK. We need to teach our teenage daughters that it’s normal to go through a range of emotions, and we need to look for signs of change within our children. We need to not be afraid to ask questions. We need to not be afraid to ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” I’ve actually had to ask that question since my dad passed. My heart was pounding as I asked it, but I knew that if I didn’t ask it, I could potentially regret not asking it later. We need to not be afraid to hear the answers, and to know that depression is normal and in most cases, treatable. Ignoring depression is not OK.
7. The “stages” of grief aren’t immutable.
After my dad died, everyone loved to inform me of the stages of grief and the “appropriate” order in which I would go through each stage. There is no appropriate order to deal with grief and there is no time limit for dealing with a certain stage of loss. Sometimes I would be in a “stage” for months, or maybe just one day. Some people never go through certain stages. Everyone’s loss is different. I was in denial for maybe a year before I started to get angry, and then I was really, really angry for a long time. I was sad for many years. Finally, I was in and out of acceptance for several years, but I have been in acceptance for the past three or four years. However, sadness and anger still creep up in there every once in awhile.
8. It’s OK to have moments, days or even weeks of feeling the loss.
A few years after my dad passed, my friend M got married. During the father/daughter dance, I lost my shit. I ran into the women’s bathroom and locked myself into a stall and cried a big, horrendous cry. How dare she have a father/daughter dance at her own wedding! She is doing this just to hurt me! Of course, these thoughts were completely irrational, but I honestly felt that way in the moment. I was so angry with her for dancing with her father at her own wedding when I would never get the chance to. I still excuse myself during father/daughter dances at weddings. I’ve realized that it’s OK to have moments, days or even weeks of feeling the loss, even when I’ve moved on. There will always be things that trigger the loss and that’s OK. The most important thing I’ve learned is to always be kind to myself. I am human. I allow myself moments if needed without being too hard on myself.
9. It wasn’t my fault.
This one took me years to finally accept. In my head, I knew my dad didn’t die my suicide because of me. But my heart still couldn’t accept it. You see, I’ve lived in LA for many years, but I’m originally from a small town in Indiana — a small town where the word “suicide” was foreign. Before my dad’s loss, the only other time I had heard of a suicide was in elementary school, when a girl’s mom had died that way. I distinctly remember my mom explaining it to me while we were in the Fazoli’s drive-thru and I asked the question, “Did she do it because she (the mom) didn’t love her (the daughter) anymore?” I asked that question because kids at school had been saying that. My mom tried to explain that it had nothing to do with that, but I think when I lost my dad the same way, I felt like that child at my elementary school and instantly realized how horrible she must have felt when kids were saying those terrible things. I’m being 100 percent honest in writing this article and in saying that my dad and I didn’t have the best relationship growing up. We were really similar in personality, which made us butt heads a lot. We had grown closer before he died, but once he passed, I reverted back to, “Was it me?” It took me years of going through my own depression to realize that it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.
10. It’s OK to move on.
At the beginning, I thought I would never move on. I didn’t go through a few minutes without thinking of my dad. Then I didn’t go through a few hours. Eventually, I had a day. At one point, I realized I had gone through something eventful and had not thought about my dad. At first I felt guilt because of this, as if I should allow myself to remain miserable because his presence was no longer here. But I realized I couldn’t live like that. I deserve to have moments. I deserve days, and weeks and events. And I allow that. I’ve realized that it’s OK. It’s OK to move on.
February marked 10 years that my father has been gone, and I want you to know that you’re reading this, and you recently lost a parent to suicide, I know how empty you may be feeling right now. You are not alone.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
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Thinkstock photo via Nadezhda1906