Three months after my father’s suicide
To this day I wish I could have helped him back to shore
All I can seem to think about are triggers.
Of course, there are the subtle ones.
A red-brick BBQ joint with a bar full of bourbons that he would have loved. A long drive home down a Texas highway we took a million times together. Dancing in the Moonlight starting to play in the middle of an affair on a Friday night, stealing my attention from the rest of the world as it bids me to confront the enduring wound in my heart. I close my eyes and for that moment, he is dancing along with me. It was our song, you know.
But then there is the real trigger.
The jagged, hard, black piece of metal that gives a rifle jurisdiction. A little lever that lets mortals play God and rips the fabric of our universe at the flicker of a reckless thought. It was so easy, wasn’t it?
This one I can’t seem to get out of my mind.
I lost my father to suicide on April 14, 2016.
It took me twenty-four hours after receiving the news to properly digest his death. When the first tear finally escaped and traveled down my numb face, I looked to my brother and said, “You’re going to have to walk me down the aisle, huh.” He nodded back solemnly.
What came after was weeks of conflicting emotions, questions, and agony.
To put my agony in perspective, my father was my platonic soulmate. A perfect match the universe deemed fit for a freckled-faced, five year old kid who wanted to play catch in the front yard all day and eat ice cream for breakfast. Genuinely. He was my best friend. My confidant, my right-hand-man, my throwing buddy, my car-ride-karaoke partner, my biggest fan, my Superman. The list goes on and on. When I lost him, I lost everything, all at once. One-million birds, one stone.
There is an endless amount of triggers because there is an endless amount of memories I’m left to replay, and so many memories that I will be robbed of. I can hardly tolerate the thought of playing my last season of softball and not seeing my father cheering me on from the stands, or my children one day not having the privilege of knowing the sound of his laugh or the warmth of his hugs.
In the days following his suicide, I received many gestures and words of love and support from friends. However, I also received comments such as this:
“Don’t worry, honey, his choice doesn’t reflect on you or your family.”
This type of rhetoric, though used with good intent, revealed to me that many people do not understand those who struggle with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues.
Many people, I realized, innately expected me to be angry with or ashamed of my dad and his decision to end his life. To think that what he did was selfish. Unforgivable. That fifty-three years of a wonderful lifetime dedicated to loving others and hard work could be tarnished by a single, socially taboo act.
And, though I’ve taken my own time to understand my father’s suicide and the decision that he ultimately made, I would like to take this moment to politely disagree with a metaphor.
Imagine for a moment that you are on a boat, stranded alone in open ocean. You are starving. Your skin is festering with blisters from sun poisoning. Sharks circle your boat. You cannot see any signs of shore. But even if you made it back, who would be left waiting for you? You are miserable. Hopeless. You have two choices: stay and rot on that boat in a slow, painful death. Or jump to the sharks. Put an end to the agony.
No one could blame you for this. You couldn’t blame yourself for this. Jumping was your only option, correct?
This is exactly what goes on inside the head of someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. The boat is their prison and the sharks are their demons. They feel stranded. They feel hopeless. And they feel there is no other way out. And just because it’s all happening in their head, doesn’t mean the illusion is any less real.
Mental anguish is just as real as physical anguish.
It pains me to know this is how my father must have felt in his final moments. It keeps me up at night – wishing I could have been there to help him off that boat and take him safely to shore to all the people who love him dearly.
I share this metaphor and my story to say that we need to change the stigma surrounding suicide in order to prevent more suicide cases from happening. I believe we need to start looking at people who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts in a more compassionate and understanding way, rather than with apathy and anger.
We need to understand that everyone at times finds themselves trapped on this boat – stranded, alone and frightened – and the only way to encourage ourselves to ask for help in those scenarios is to make this world a more accepting, understanding, and knowledgable place. A place that is open to dialogue regarding mental health issues instead of a place that is scared to acknowledge that depression and suicide are normal, universal experiences. A place where you don’t have to feel ashamed of these thoughts and feelings.
My father’s death was shocking. He was the king of deflecting negative energy away from himself. He was always smiling, laughing with his whole body, turning bad situations into tolerable ones, making jokes to ease the tension, always the optimist. I would give a limb to go back in time and try to see and help the struggle that was there brewing beneath the surface. Maybe I’d still have him.
There is nothing I can do to change how his story ended. But, I can help change the way people perceive mental health issues and suicide by practicing compassion to uproot the stigmas that have been in place for too long and that have allowed for too many deaths.
This is the only way I know how to honor my father’s life.
As for now, my family is trying to establish a new normal. A new family unit: one that is just made up of four. Physically whole, but always missing one in spirit. Picking up the pieces ten miles from a beach in California. We would have never left Texas if it was not for the tragedy, but we’ve learned when establishing a new normal, a change of scenery is wise.
It doesn’t quite feel like home yet, but when I look out at the Pacific, I know my father is happy we made it out West to find our new happy place.
There aren’t as many triggers here.