“We had no idea.”
It was a constant refrain in the days and weeks after my Dad’s death. People had no idea he was suffering. People had no idea how much he was hurting. People had no idea that my Dad was so sick that his life could be in danger.
I was one of those people, too.
Families that are unfamiliar or untouched by suicide often have misconceptions about depression and mental illness—I know that I did before it hit home for me.
Those who are unfamiliar with suicide often believe that there are unmistakable warning signs. They believe that family members must have missed something along the way, or that they weren’t paying attention to the needs of their loved one. Wrongly, they believe that in circumstances involving suicide, there are always major and apparent signals that should send up a red flag.
Well I’ve been there, and I can say this with the utmost certainty. There may be instances where warning signs are there, but in my scenario, there were none. There was no red flag. There were no sirens and flashing lights saying “Save your loved one before something terrible happens.”
And this might be hard to understand, but I firmly believe this: my Dad didn’t see them either.
When I bought my home at the age of 25 (there’s more stories about this experience in earlier posts here and here), I knew that there would be some significant do-it-yourself projects that I would need to take care of. Virtually every room needed to be painted. Television sets needed to be hung. Furniture needed to be assembled. The pond needed to be cleaned out and the pumps needed to be repaired.
There was one problem (big is an understatement). You see, I bought the house knowing that these things needed to be done…but I didn’t know how to do any of these things. I didn’t know how to paint rooms. I didn’t know how to hang television sets. I didn’t know how to assemble furniture. And I wasn’t crazy about the idea of cleaning out a pond that hadn’t been touched in nine years.
But I bought the house knowing this because I had an ace in the hole: my Dad. My Dad knew how to do all these things—and a whole lot more. I’m confident that I’m a terrible do-it-yourselfer because my Dad inherited all the genes necessary for home repair and a builder’s mindset, leaving none of those genes left for his only son. My Dad could do anything—and I really mean anything. Small projects were easy for him, like hanging a shelf or assembling a piece of furniture. The shelves in my room as a child that hung on the walls were actually handcrafted and built by him. No childhood toy was victim to complete destruction, because Dad always had a way to repair them. Christmas morning was always a joy because the “some assembly required” warning that frustrates and frightens so many Dads was a welcome challenge to mine.
But he made the big projects look easy too. He constructed a beautiful deck that entirely surrounded our backyard swimming pool that was the envy of our neighborhood. The deck had a beautiful grand staircase and meticulously-arranged spindles all around it. He built a garage and foyer addition onto our house, completely changing the look, feel, and functionality of my childhood home. From drawing plans and pouring concrete, to constructing frames and roofing the addition, Dad knew how to do it all. When it came to building and repairing, my Dad was a true Renaissance man.
For my entire life, I had really relied on my Dad (sometimes unfairly) to just take care of all these things for me. I took for granted that I had a live-in Bob Vila at my home who could fix anything I needed. But when I bought my own home, something in my soul changed that told me I needed to start taking some responsibility. No, I didn’t know how to do…well, anything. But my Dad did. And I could learn from him.
Upon a closer review of the house after I took ownership of it, more and more problems began to appear. One day, I noticed a rather large crack down the wall above the sliding glass door in my family room. I called Dad one day to tell him about the crack, and he used a bunch of words that I didn’t understand to basically tell me that he could fix it. He said he would come over later that night to fix everything. Not only was Dad talented, but he was always reliable.
Dad came over later that night with his toolbelt on—it was a look that he wore well and had been wearing for as long as he’d been my Dad. Whenever I picture my Dad, I usually picture him in that outfit—a dark blue work t-shirt with his name above the pocket, light and worn carpenter’s jeans, steel toed work boots, and a rugged brown toolbelt. That toolbelt had everything he needed—and if he needed something else, he could easily buy another pouch to fasten onto the belt.
Dad looked at the crack, ran his hands over it a few times, and then ran back to his truck to get all the additional items he would need to fix it. He came back with a ladder, a jar of drywall patch, and a smile on his face—“This is an easy one. I’ll have it fixed in no time.”
Dad climbed up on the ladder and began to work, and I sat behind him watching intensely. I watched him work in a way that I never had before. I wanted to watch him closely, because I knew there were going to be other drywall cracks in the years to come, and I wanted to be able to fix them on my own.
After a while, Dad could feel the glare of my stare, and he looked over his shoulder hesitantly. I think he was a bit surprised because, and I’m ashamed to admit this, I had never really taken a big interest in his work and any type of physical labor before this. I just smiled at him, and Dad just kept on working.
He sanded the portions of the wall that were near the crack, and then he took out a netting material to…well, I really don’t know what he was going to do with it. So, I asked him.
“So, what are you going to do with that netting stuff you’ve got there?”
At that point, Dad must have thought I had been drinking or that his son had been abducted by aliens and replaced with a Tyler-twin who was actually interested in carpentry and home repair.
He told me what he was going to do, as my Dad was always a great teacher. But then, his curiosity got the best of him.
“Why are you asking me that?”
“Well, I want to know how to fix it on my own, you know…in case you’re not here.”
Dad smirked, shook his head, and turned around and went back to his work. As he resumed the job at hand, I’ll always remember his response:
“I’ll always be here to help with stuff like this.”
That moment stands out to me for so many reasons, but I always think about this simple fact: When my Dad promised made that statement, it was less than one year from the day that his life would end from suicide. Less than a year.
You see, people might think there are warning signs for loved ones and close friends to observe, and in some cases those signs may be there. But they aren’t there in every case. Even the person at the heart of the storm can believe that suicide will never affect them. Even the person who is suffering most might not see the warning signs. Even the victim of suicide believes with all their heart that suicide will never be their end.
I firmly believe that my Dad honestly believed he would always be here. My Dad had plans for his life that stretched long after July 24, 2013. This wasn’t something that he put on a calendar or contemplated. This was something that, I’m sure, shocked him as much as it shocked everyone who loved him.
We must start realizing that suicide is a decision made when the mind is in a malfunctioning state. Those who die from suicide do not make this decision in the right frame of mind. They want to be here with us forever, but something in their mind tells them that being here forever will bring tremendous pain—not just for themselves, but for the loved ones they feel they will be a burden to. There is a malfunction at the brain level that warps the thought process so severely that rational thought seems irrational.
Had we known my Dad was hurting so severely that it would threaten his life, we would have moved heaven and earth to save him. My Mom and I would have done anything we could to help him weather that storm and the ones that might have followed. We never would have left him alone at the house that day. But we never would have thought that suicide was within the realm of possibility for my Dad.
And I believe this: Had my Dad thought that his life was seriously in danger, he would have done everything he could to save it. For himself. For me. For my Mom. For everyone he loved.
That’s why I can’t, and I never will, hold my Dad responsible for his death. I know his true heart. I know where he wanted to be. I know he wanted to be here with all of us. He told me that he would. And my Dad never lied to me. He told me on that night, and so many others, that he would always be there to help me when I needed him. He told me how much he was looking forward to me finding someone to spend the rest of my life with…and how much he wanted to be a Grandpa. He had plans for things he was going to do to our house and for things he wanted to do, like going to certain concerts or going on unique trips. Do these sound like the plans of a man who welcome death? No, they don’t. Because my Dad didn’t want to die. He wanted to be here for as long as God would allow him too.
Even though I strongly believe that my Dad gave no indication that he was suffering so severely that it could lead to suicide, I still feel tremendous guilt. Guilt for not knowing what could happen. Guilt for not seeing what was happening in his mind and heart. Guilt for not doing more to protect the man who had always been my protector.
I know this “survivor’s guilt” is irrational, but it’s there and it’s real. There are days when it weighs me down so severely that I can’t function. It hurts me that I couldn’t do more.
But maybe, just like the crack in the wall and the other home repairs, I wasn’t equipped to fix that problem. I wasn’t prepared to heal the hurt and illness my Dad suffered from. Either way, I’ve struggled to come to terms with the fact that my Dad is no longer here, even though he should be. The tremendous guilt and the overwhelming sorrow are a hallmark of the survivor’s life, and I never quite understood just how intense this was until it affected my life. It’s expanded my heart to be more empathetic to others. It’s made me feel better prepared to help other people.
And even though I still can’t fix any cracks that appear in my wall, I’ve got the memory of an inspiration and a great Father that will motivate me to pay attention to my own emotions.
Dad, I never thought I’d have to experience life without you so soon. I had images of you growing old, and I was excited to see you enter new chapters of your life, because you always had a sense of adventure. There are days, many days, when I feel helplessly lost without you. It always feels like something is missing when you aren’t around—it’s like there’s a gaping hole that can never be filled perfectly, even though good things are happening all around me. You brought such life to my life, and now I try to use your memory to fulfill that. I look forward to life in Eternity when the “you aren’t here” times are simply a thing of the past. Until that day, I’ll continue honoring your memory and loving you with all my heart. Seeya, Bub.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)