The Gift of my Father’s Suicide

16 Jun

So, it’s Father’s Day — a challenging holiday for people who don’t have dads. In prior years, I’ve largely been able to dodge the “celebrations” and not really even think about what I’m missing. But this year, WAY more so than any other year, I can’t seem to avoid it.

My Facebook Newsfeed is chock-a-block with charming pictures and heartwarming sentiments, none of which quite match up to my own cruelly truncated tale. Sure, some folks have posted about missing their deceased dads (cancer seems to be a big cause of fatherly mortality) and a few folks have acknowledged long-standing paternal absences by sharing credit and salutations with those who stepped in to fill the breech — single moms, grandparents, step-fathers, etc. But I’ve not yet seen anything about a father who committed suicide.

Maybe that topic is verboten on Facebook. Suicide’s a downer. No one likes a downer on a day reserved for celebration, right?

But what if I told you that my father’s suicide was the greatest gift he ever gave me?

What if I told you that a small part of me gives thanks every day that he killed himself (although a large part of me remains angry, and confused, and betrayed)?

What if I told you that my father’s death is what has allowed me to fully live?

That would be something to celebrate, right?

And so, here’s the tale. Of course, this tale is wildly different from the one I would have told 15, or 10, or 2 years ago. And I’m sure the narrative will shift again 2, 10, and 15 years hence. But here’s where we are today.

Here is why (and how) I celebrate Father’s Day in 2013:

My dad killed himself 18 years ago. He didn’t leave a note. There were no classic “warning” signs. In fact, if anything, he seemed to be rediscovering his happiness and strength and connectedness after a long, dark period where alcohol was his sole companion.

They found his body right after I finished exams at the end of my first year of law school, a few days before my baby sister was set to graduate from High School. My mom called me in Williamsburg to ask if I could “come home a little early for Karen’s graduation.” I told her that it would cost another $125 that I didn’t really have as a poor student. She said: “Pay whatever it takes. We need you to come home. Your father’s dead.”

Your father’s dead.

My head turned into an echo chamber. She shared various details and instructions and requests (I think), but all I could hear was: Your father’s dead. Your father’s dead. Your father’s dead.

It made no sense. How could he be dead? He was 48 years old. His youngest daughter was about to graduate high school. His oldest daughter was in law school. He middle daughter was tearing up the Lacrosse fields in college. We were his life. His pride and joy. How could he not be there to watch us grow up? At the time mom called, we didn’t even know how he died. He was just dead and I needed to come home.

During the two weeks that I was home I: went to my father’s funeral, attended my baby sister’s high school graduation, went to the Naval commissioning ceremony for my high school boyfriend, fell head-over-heels in love with some boy who lived in Sonoma county and therefore went to visit him and meet his family, found out while I was up there that dad’s death was –definitively– a suicide, returned to the OC, attended a baptism and a wedding and went to a “family therapy” session with a woman who will forever be the person I revile more than any other person on the planet.

[that’s a lot of crazy in 2 weeks, huh?]

What did the therapist say that caused me to loath her so much?

You know, you are EXACTLY like your father.

F*ck you, b*tch. I might be a touch on the perfectionistic/narcissistic, success-driven side, but I am NOTHING like my father. I will not EVER kill myself or abandon the people I profess to love. Whatever attributes we share, I can assure you that The Attribute that now and forever will define him and outshine every other aspect of his existence will not ever be something that we have in common. My dad was funny and smart and charming and determined and adventurous and stubborn and I love that I inherited all of those genes from him. But he is also, and forevermore will be known as, a quitter and a coward.

No thanks. Not me. And F*ck you again for saying that I might be.

And here is where the gift of my father’s suicide comes in.

There have, indeed, been times when I have given more than passing thought to following in my father’s footsteps. When that perfectionistic/narcissistic, success-driven side of my personality is shattered by events or circumstances (like the brain bashing and so many of its attendant challenges, or the exam failing, or the time when I was rendered homeless due to flooding, etc.) I think about it.

I think about it for maybe 5 minutes. Maybe even a few 5-minute sessions over a few days. But, much like “broken nose” can reliably restore my happiness, so can the idea that “I am NOT like him” reliably and definitively, for always and forever, ensure that I will, in fact, not ever be like him.

I don’t believe in heaven or the afterlife, so I don’t think that “dad” has any idea about what’s gone on in my life over the past 18 years, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not with me.

In fact, when the going gets rough, he’s usually the first person I think about and whenever I think of him, I thank him for showing me what path to take — It’s always the one that he didn’t take.

It’s always the one that says: Keep going.

So, Thank you, Dad.

I will keep going. For you and forever, or until nature takes its own course.

19873_305456096392_8210582_nUPDATE: In May 2015, I had an opportunity to revisit this post and I realized that my prediction was correct. Two years had passed and my narrative had, indeed, changed. I think differently about my father’s suicide now. And I think this difference is important and influential — for myself and for others. Please read THIS POST to see where my thinking has lead me to, today.

16 Responses to “The Gift of my Father’s Suicide”

  1. Tiela Chalmers June 17, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    Wow. Thanks, Z. You have, always, my admiration.

  2. sonya November 29, 2013 at 4:14 am #

    Thank you so much for that. My dad to killed himself when I was 6.No note no nothing growing up my mom used to tell me it was my fault that he did it. I ve grown up a confused little girl. Iam now 34 years old and know it wasn’t no fault. I was 6 years old. I’m sure he loved me. I’m still angry and mad that I was cheated out of life. My mom has been on drugs my entire life I will not follow there footsteps…I WOULD NEVER DO THAT TO MY 2 thank u

    • justadventures November 29, 2013 at 7:05 am #

      I am sorry to hear about our common history, but am glad that we seem to share a current outlook on life. Your kids are lucky to have a mom who has become resilient, strong, and wise.

  3. Anonymous December 12, 2013 at 2:07 am #

    What a great post. My dad killed himself just under 2 years ago. I was 24 and had just started my dream career and then I get a phone call from my brother saying that dad had gone missing. I flew home the next morning on the very first flight out. I got home and found my mother wandering around the house aimlessly making half a tea then getting lost in half done housework. The policewoman knocked on the door at 9:00am and told mum and I that dad had walked to a public toilet by the beach and killed himself. So what has this taught me? Not sure to be honest I am still in a daze because he was an amazing man and a wonderful father.

    People have always said I am my father’s daughter. What does that mean? It means I am creative, smart, ambitious, and generous and suffer from crippling anxiety. Do I think about killing myself? Sometimes I do when life gets rough I think about the easy way out.

    Thank you so much for sharing that you think this way too. I never open up about it to anyone because I know that they will freak out lock me up and throw away the key. But to me it is not a crippling condition I just acknowledge that is how I feel dust myself off and say you know what dad I am going to keep trying.

    One day my husband and I will start a family. I hope I am as strong as you so that I can be a great role model to my children.

    • justadventures December 12, 2013 at 6:44 am #

      Thank you for your kind words about my post and for trusting me with your story. It can be hard to share such things with others but now that you’ve done so, here, I hope you can/will do so with your most trusted allies. Sometimes we just need to express ourselves honestly and be accepted wholly and without judgment so that we can keep on keeping on. Stay strong when you can and stay true always.

  4. Brad January 7, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your story. As a father of 3 amazing kids, and someone who at times does not cope as well as he would like with life’s ups and downs, this has been a sobering reminder of the implications of these decisions.

    We don’t hear enough of these stories and should look to encourage those impacted by suicide to share their experience. This perspective is extremely powerful to others considering similar actions.

    The unfortunate reality is that those that suffer from depression are unable to understand and appreciate their value to others – even close family members. Stories such as yours will help.

    (I am not assuming your father suffered from depression – just making a general comment in response to your article).

    Thanks again. Good luck to you.

    • justadventures January 7, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

      Thank you for this very thoughtful comment and for the care shown in its composition. Your daughters are lucky to have a father who appears capable of expressing himself fully & honestly — perhaps not all the time (we all struggle with that, right?), but with great capacity on the main.

      Carry on. Remain true. And thank you again for your comment.

  5. colinxmoore February 10, 2014 at 6:26 am #

    I think you just saved a family. I’m a father of 2 beautiful young girls 6 and 3 but recently lost employment so we lost our home car, and so much more. Its been so hard on my girls to go from home to home while I try to establish my career again. It’s been horrible to watch them struggle because of my lack of provision. My wife and I have always been best friends but lately I can see it in her eyes. This uphill battle were fighting to survive has just gotten to her. I know she resents me for this…. She doesn’t say it, but can she not? I resent me for this. Well I think you get the gist of it. I think you just made a huge impact on a complete stranger and family. Thank you!

    • justadventures February 11, 2014 at 8:42 am #

      I am humbled and honored by this comment. I also am so very glad that you can appreciate that the world, and especially your family, works better with you engaged in it. You may be struggling to find your professional/economic footing, but the greatest value comes from your presence and perseverance in the face of challenge and doubt. Keep going.

      I’m not sure where you live but in L.A., we have a “2-1-1” hotline which provides a wealth of social service support options and connections. Reach out. Support is available. Your daughters will thank you.

  6. la mouche April 29, 2014 at 3:35 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, I had the shivers reading it… I feel the very same about my father who killed himself (11 years ago)… my mom and his friends always compare me to him but exactly, we have to keep going!;) Wish you the best! (sorry for my English, I’m European)

    • justadventures April 29, 2014 at 7:29 am #

      Your English is lovely (I would not have guessed it wasn’t your native tongue) and your sentiments are even more lovely. Thank you for stopping by and for taking the time to comment. II’m touched that this post resonates with you. All the best…


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