Eyes Wide Open

Tonight, I’ll hold a candle in my hand. A candle that represents my Father. A candle that reminds me that, although he’s gone, his memory will never, ever die out.

All the while, I’ll be surrounded by other hurting individuals, holding candles, asking the same questions as I am, experiencing the same sadness and despair that I’ve felt for the past six years.

Together, we will encourage one another. Together, we will remind one another that we are never, ever alone, no matter how isolating the world and our grief might feel.

But together, we will also serve as a powerful and uncomfortable reminder—a reminder that suicide is all-too-real, all-too-frequent, and all-to-preventable.

And together, I hope we can help open everyone’s eyes to the pain around us, just our own have been opened as well.


I never, never thought that suicide would impact my family. It wasn’t a possibility. Maybe in other people’s families; but definitely not mine.

And when it did, it opened my eyes; and they’ve been opening wider and wider ever since.

I remember the first time that it ever felt as if suicide hit close to home. A family that was very close with mine through some announcing work I had done had lost an adult brother to suicide in the middle of the baseball season. It shocked me because suicide seemed so irregular and so distant from the seemingly-perfect little world I lived in. Talking with the family at their first game back was heartbreaking. I remember leaning against the rail of the grandstand while the team was taking BP, and I didn’t quite know what to say to them; maybe because I didn’t quite know what to say about suicide in general. I likely asked questions that were nosey, pointless, and insensitive. Trying to understand their pain and anguish made me feel so unbelievably helpless. I was struggling to understand how suicide could have impacted a family that had so many wonderful people in it, but from a grander perspective, I was really struggling to understand the concept of suicide in general.

And after talking with them, heartbroken for the reality that had become their lives, I still believed that suicide was their story; not mine, and definitely not my family’s. I still believed that suicide was something so small, so random, and so seemingly disconnected from the reality that was my life that it could never, ever occur in my world—even though, by happening to them, it already had.

It wasn’t until the reality of suicide unexpectedly invaded the Bradshaw home that my eyes were truly opened wide to the reality, the prevalence, the pain, and the all-too-frequent occurrence of suicide in our country and in our own individual neighborhoods. It took a death from suicide invading my own front door for the pain to truly set in.

After the destruction of my Dad’s death and funeral had settled a bit, I found myself obsessively researching suicide and mental illness in the corner office of my small home in an effort to try to make sense of what had happened to my Dad. I knew that I’d never be able to answer most of the questions I had, because suicide at its core is an inexplicable phenomenon that doesn’t usually have a single indicator, trigger, or catalyst. In all likelihood, it’s a terrible confluence of environmental, biological, contextual, and spiritual factors that leads one to think that suicide is the only option.

Nonetheless, I looked for answers; and I found number after number, statistic after statistic, that shocked and amazed me. I had likely heard all of the numbers before, but none of them had ever carried the horribly painful weight that they now did. Now, my Dad represented one of those numbers. Now, a seemingly minor statistic had become the largest, most painful reality for my Dad and those who loved him. Those numbers surprised me, but they shouldn’t have. Those numbers shocked me, but I shouldn’t have been so numb to reality.

The reality was that these numbers had always existed and had always impacted the people in the world around me; I was just too busy, too self-focused, and too ignorant to pay any attention to them.

But everything I saw confirmed the reality. Everything I read showed me that mental illness and suicide by the numbers alone were all-too-likely to happen to those I loved. And I was ashamed to think that, for so long, I just pretended it wasn’t happening or was simply oblivious to the hurt existing in the world around me.

I was ashamed to see that, according to most every medical and research report I read, nearly one in five individuals in the United States suffers from some form of mental illness[1]. Continuing to read, I learned that there were so many people who were hurting and suffering but simply couldn’t or wouldn’t get the help they needed and deserved. Nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness didn’t receive mental health services in the past year.[2] I hated thinking that people who were hurting, like my Dad, felt ashamed of going to seek professional help.

I remember when I first learned that my Dad suffered from depression, and I recall thinking how unusual it had seemed—not just for my Dad, but for people in general. On the day I learned that my Dad couldn’t explain his despair, it felt like he was the only person in the world who was suffering and struggling. It felt as if his unexplainable sadness was something that only he dealt with. It felt as if the solution—counseling, medication, and other treatments—were so obvious.

But the life behind these numbers is much more complicated and messy. The numbers show—and now we all know—that many more people are hurting than we ever thought were. And we all know that treatment isn’t easy, often because admitting you are hurting isn’t easy.

Over those many sleepless nights after losing Dad, I kept reading and I kept researching, hoping I would be able to find a report that gave a more optimistic prognosis of the situation; but reality was much more important to me in that moment than optimism. After losing my Dad to suicide, it was more important that I had an accurate depiction of the state of affairs related to mental illness and suicide, not a pretty one. The numbers that shocked me more than the seemingly regular occurrence of mental illness, however, were those statistics related to how many individuals eventually died as a result of suicide.

I was dumbfounded to read numbers that represented real, broken, and unnecessarily-shortened lives, and those statistics related to suicide were the most heartbreaking:

  • Around 123 individuals in the United States each day died from suicide.[3]
  • That number translates to a death by suicide occurring every 12 minutes on average.[4]
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.[5]

I still remember the horror I felt when I read these numbers after losing Dad: horror at the situation, and horror at my own ignorance to the suffering of my fellow man. It wasn’t like these deaths were occurring in a far-off world; they were occurring all around me, right in my own backyard. Mental illness shouldn’t have been a foreign concept to me.

But it was; and I was ashamed.

It wasn’t until I lost my Father that I began to see the faces and lives behind these numbers. It took the cloud of suicide rolling over my own family and my own life to realize just how bad the storm really was. It shouldn’t have had to happen that way. It shouldn’t take going through unbelievable pain and hurt to be cognizant of an epidemic that steals lives, destroys families, and creates a generational grief that is nearly impossible to escape.

My Dad saw it, too.

Every year at Christmas, my Mom does a wonderful job of giving me a special gift that will help me remember my Dad. These gifts are focused on his life—not his death—and they’ve always helped take off some of the painful edge that surrounds every holiday without the man who raised me. Most of the time, her gifts are something created anew out of his things and possessions, giving them fresh life and meaning for me in his absence. A few years ago, however, she gave me something completely untouched and unbelievably meaningful—she gave me my Dad’s Bible. The Bible was completely undisturbed—exactly as it had been left on the last day of his life. It was a treasure I can’t put into words.

Like me, my Dad kept a few small, flat mementos in the front of his Bible. I leafed through them, one by one, wondering why they were there and what they meant to him. Some I could explain; others I could not. As I leafed through the items, there were a number of small funeral cards and programs that Dad had saved from services that he attended. I always respected my Dad for making a point to go to funerals to support those he loved, even if it made him uncomfortable.

Amongst the three or four funeral cards inside of his Bible cover, I couldn’t help but notice the program from our family friend’s funeral—the man who had also died from suicide. My jaw hung open when I saw it and thought about the unfortunate connectedness between this poor man and my Father. Almost a year and a month from the date of our family friend’s funeral, my Dad would die from the same exact mechanism of death. My family would be scarred by the same ugly, unfortunate fate that had affected a family that meant so much to us.

My Dad saw all of this. He saw the way it influenced this other family. But even with that perspective, he couldn’t avoid the same pain being inflicted upon our own household. It shows how powerful and dangerous mental illness can become when left unchecked. It shows how suicidal ideations can ensnare and completely distort our logical thought processes. Where mental illness distorts, reality is paralyzed; and making the right decision often takes a backseat to making an emotional one.

And it shows that we can’t wait until something bad happens in our own lives to open our eyes to the hurt that exists within the hearts and minds of those we love.

Even with my eyes wide open, it’s extremely difficult to make sense of my Father dying from suicide having attended a funeral for another suicide victim just one year earlier. It’s hard to fathom how a man who loved his God, loved his family, and loved the life that he had been given could feel so sick and so full of despair that life felt unlivable.

But mental illness and depression incapacitated my Father’s ability to think about how unnecessary his death by suicide was and how it might permanently inflict, wound, and hurt those who loved him most. My Dad couldn’t turn the tide on the statistics related to suicide, even though his own personal experience in this life should have helped him do that.

But now, we are all left behind, refusing to let those numbers increase as a way to redeem my Dad’s death.

In order to really turn the tide on the horrible statistics surrounding suicide, it’s time that we open our eyes. It’s time that we start to see more than numbers, but faces and lives and stories cut short by unnecessary pain and heartache.

This evening (September 10, 2019), I plan to join a group of fellow suicide survivors (a term that describes family and friends of someone who has died from suicide) at a support and prevention event called “A Walk to Remember” at the Voice of America Park in West Chester, Ohio. I’ve been invited to say a few words to that group before we all walk together and remember our loved ones, the joy they brought to our lives, and the pain we’ve felt in losing them. After I say a few words about my Dad at the beginning of the event, I’ll join hands with those who are also hurting and struggling as we make our way through a remembrance walk, channeling positive memories of our loved ones, and wishing, more than anything, that we could have our loved ones back.

There is peace in knowing that, tonight, I’ll be surrounded by so many individuals who understand the pain that my family and I have experienced. They’ll know what it feels like to get that awful phone call. They’ll know what it feels like to have questions that will never be answered. They’ll know what it feels like to feel guilty and sad and helpless and angry all at the same time. They’ll know what it feels like to be robbed of someone you love without reason or explanation.

But as much peace as I’ll find being with that group of fellow suicide survivors tonight, there will also be something deep and troubling about the entire experience. There will be a sense of frustration in wondering how suicide can continue to impact so many lives unnecessarily. There will be a sense of anger knowing that the average number of suicides per day in the United States has actually increased since losing my Dad, not decreased. I will walk around the lake at VOA Park contemplating why our unfortunate group of suicide survivors continues to add new members in an age where the statistics are widely known.

I don’t ever want families to have to be impacted by suicide first-hand to simply become aware. We shouldn’t need to lose those we love to learn or take action, especially when it comes to deaths that are entirely preventable. I shouldn’t have had to go through what I did to become more empathetic to those who were suffering and those who were grieving. But I’m here and you’re here knowing that we must do something to make sure that suicide is stopped dead in its tracks. I’m not talking about pushing back that average time by a minute or two minutes. I’m talking about radical change. I’m talking about each and every one of us having a deep and unyielding desire to make sure that no one ever becomes a victim of suicide again. If it’s a pipe dream to want to live in a society where people don’t feel the need, desire, or unnecessary compulsion to die prematurely, I’ll live in that idealistic world each and every day.

I ask you, in this moment, wherever you are and no matter what baggage you might carry along with you every day, to make sure this dream becomes a reality; to make sure that our awareness is more than just knowing, but becomes doing.

If you are hurting and contemplating suicide, I beg you in this moment and every single moment that follows to remember that you are loved, and that you matter, and that you deserve health, love, grace, and most importantly, life. I beg you to reach out and ask for the help that you need, that you deserve, and that is available.

And if you are reading this post because you know and love someone who is hurting, I implore you to show that individual forgiveness and patience, kindness and love. I ask you to do everything you can to help those you love in any way you can. Maybe it’s a difficult but necessary conversation. Maybe it’s opening up to that person, being vulnerable, and finding comfort in your mutual pains and struggles. Maybe it’s finding the bravery to accompany that person to a therapist or counseling appointment. You can be the person that helps reverse the statistical trends.

And more than anything, I am speaking to those of you who are reading who don’t struggle or know of anyone who is struggling. The reality is that we shouldn’t have to be someone or know someone who is hurting in order to feel empathy for a broken world. Don’t embrace inaction because the battle has yet to hit your doorstep. We can all do more to make sure that suicide is an anomaly, not an every-12-minute-occurrence.  And it starts with making sure all of us have eyes that are wide open to the mental illness epidemic occurring in our country.

Tonight I’ll hold a candle. I’ll hold a candle and remember my Father. I’ll hold a candle and remember all of those who died the same way he did.

But I’ll hold that candle knowing that, together, we can create a world where every man and woman walks around with eyes wide open—and more importantly, hearts that are wide open as well.

Dad Smiling on Train with SB LogoDad, my heart breaks each day when I think about losing you, and the past six years have been unbelievably difficult. I don’t want to have to navigate life without you because you had so much more to live for. Life was simply better when you were in it, Dad. You brought joy and laughter and security to the world around you, and we’ve all felt your absence every day. I also feel tremendous guilt because I wish it wouldn’t have taken your death for me to realize just how bad you were hurting. Dad, I should have been more patient and understanding. I should have shown you more empathy and grace because you were suffering from a disease that you couldn’t explain, identify, or even put into words. There are so many moments that I wish I could redo—days in which I treated you unfairly or without compassion. Although I can’t replay and fix those moments, I want to spend every day here on Earth trying to redeem your death. I want to make sure that everyone who reads my words and hears my voice knows your story, learns from it, and chooses a different path forward because of it. Dad, you gave me the courage to carry on in the face of your death, and although I’d do just about anything to have you back, I’m so grateful that you taught me to do everything I can to help others who are hurting. Thank you for always loving me. Thank you for always teaching me, even in your death. Thank you for all you gave to me, even on days when you couldn’t even take care of yourself. I love you, Dad, and I miss you tremendously. I can’t wait to be reunited forever in the glory of God’s eternal kingdom. Until that day, seeya Bub.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15 (ESV)

*Authors Note: For clarity and accuracy in writing, please note that all statistics have been updated to reflect recent research that is published at the time of writing/publication of this post (Fall 2019). Unfortunately, many statistics related to the prevalence of mental illness and suicide have continued to grow since my Father’s death in 2013.


References:

[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#part_154785

[2] https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/GeneralMHFacts.pdf

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/fastfact.html

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/fastfact.html

[5] https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/GeneralMHFacts.pdf

“Selfish”

As I was driving into work this morning (I began writing this post on June 8), I received an alert from my phone from CNN. Just a day prior, I had received a similar alert regarding the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent study release, which found that suicide rates have increased by 25% over the past two decades in the United States.[1] It hit home in ways I never predicted it would.

On that next morning, I looked down at my phone, and I really couldn’t believe what I saw. Television star Anthony Bourdain was dead at the age of 61 from an apparent suicide. Just earlier in the week, fashion designer Kate Spade also died from an apparent suicide.

Before I write any further, I want to first say a few things about my context in regards to these two situations. During his life, I don’t want to claim I was a fan of Bourdain’s work. I never watched his shows (not out of hostility, more just a lack of interest). In the same vein, I don’t want to portend that I was a huge fan of Kate Spade either. I’ve never carried a Kate Spade bag…or any bag for that matter. I don’t want to posthumously conflate any feelings I had towards these two individuals while they were alive. I also don’t claim to know much about their lives (other than the few things I’ve seen in the news), and I don’t claim to know all of the things they were dealing with in their lives. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about either of their lives, other than the sad, untimely ways in which they ended.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t lessen the sadness I feel when I read about these two talented individuals who are gone too soon and unnecessarily. Just because Bourdain and Spade were celebrities doesn’t make their death any more tragic than anyone else who dies from suicide. It also doesn’t make it less tragic. Behind the celebrity façade are family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors that are left behind with questions—questions they will have for their entire lives.

What I’m writing about, however, is not Bourdain’s death, but a reaction to it. An unfortunate reaction that I think pervades most of our society when issues related to suicide arise. A reaction that is all too common. And a reaction that we must discourage in order to remove the stigma behind mental illness and suicide. Let me tell you the story.

A local radio personality in Cincinnati who I follow on Facebook (and won’t name here) reacted to the news. This individual posted the news of Bourdain’s death along with a short comment:

“So sad. Such a talent. We all have our demons. #anthonybourdain”

Shortly thereafter, a woman I’ll call Jean responded:

“I agree, but I am also ragingly ANGRY. He leaves a daughter. HOW SELFISH can someone be?!? I hope she [his daughter] is shielded from the publicity…”

And, the radio personality wrote back:

“I can’t disagree.”

He can, and he should. He should disagree. Dear friends, we need to talk about this type of reaction because it’s ill-informed, harmful, and ignorant.

First, let me say this. Although social media has many wonderful benefits, I largely despise it for what it has created in our lives. It creates an unbelievable sense of competition because it falsely projects the image that “everyone but me is living the perfect life.” In fact, I have no doubt that the increase in suicide rates in our country is largely influenced by the prevalence of social media in our lives. In many cases, I think social media disconnects people more than it actually connects them.

Along those same lines, I don’t often see the value of litigating every single comment made on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or any other network. I sure hope that every single comment I ever made on Facebook isn’t brought back to vilify me years after I wrote it. I’m not writing this post to vilify the radio host or Jean (neither of whom I’ve ever met) or anyone else. I’m writing this post as a contemplation on the larger societal attitudes towards suicide as a “selfish” act.

However, I do think it’s important to recognize that this type of attitude and speech surrounding suicide is common. I hear it often—mostly from people who don’t yet know that my own life has been darkly wounded by suicide.

Search the web for “suicide is selfish” and you’ll find any host of authors or commentators who agree with this sentiment. You’ll find articles written by people like Lesly Salazar that read “I still think suicide is selfish and no, I’m not ignorant for believing so.”

Again, my goal is not to vilify these individuals. I vehemently disagree with them. I disagree with everything they believe about suicide and mental illness. I think their positions and their statements are ill-founded, ill-conceived, hurtful, damaging, and dangerous. I think that, had their lives been touched by suicide like mine was (and I’m glad theirs hasn’t been), they might think differently and more compassionately. I write this not to tear them down as human beings. I write this to hopefully educate them. I write this post to hopefully share with them a different understanding of suicide—from an individual who lives with the pain it creates each and every day.

Suicide is not selfish, because mental illness is not selfish. It’s as simple as that.

Those of us who have lived with and loved individuals who suffer from mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other host of illnesses know that those individuals do not consciously choose their illness. People do not choose to be depressed. People do not choose to be anxious. People do not choose to hear voices in their head that tell them they aren’t enough and never will be. People do not choose to be mentally ill.

We know that we don’t choose to be mentally ill because we can’t explain why we feel the way we do in regards to mental illnesses. And although we don’t have an extremely thorough understanding of the physical factors and mechanisms behind mental illness, we do know that there are often biological mechanisms at play. We know that there are regulating chemicals within our brain that can change over time, and the incorrect balance of those neurochemicals and transmitters can create or prolong a mental illness. And if we know that mental illnesses can have a biological root, why in God’s name would we ever, ever accuse someone of being selfish if they die as a result of their illness?

If you’ve ever had a family member die from cancer, would you ever call that person’s death “selfish”? If you’ve ever had a friend die from heart failure, would you ever call them “selfish” for their weak heart? If you have ever had anyone in your life die from an inexplicable physical illness, would you ever dare insult that person’s memory by calling their death “selfish”?

No, you wouldn’t.

And no, we shouldn’t.

I can already anticipate the retort from individuals who disagree with me: “But if we don’t say that suicide is a selfish act, it will encourage other people to do it. There will be no penalty against it. The belief that suicide is selfish actually keeps people from attempting suicide.”

Tell that to the CDC. If that’s the case, why hasn’t the stigma worked up to this point? If most of society thinks this way (and I believe they do), why have suicide rates risen by 25% in just two decades? The belief that suicide is selfish doesn’t discourage people from attempting suicide; it actually exacerbates their feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and unworthiness.

Dad and Grandma Bradshaw
My Dad with my Great-Grandma Lucille Bradshaw.

My Dad’s story is the perfect example. My father was the most selfless man who ever walked the planet. He did nothing for personal gain, notoriety, or ambition. My Dad was a giver. My Dad was the man who would take an entire Saturday to help someone build a porch on their back deck. When my Grandfather had a stroke that left him largely immobile, my Dad was the man who spent weeks completely redesigning his home bathroom so my Grandpa could easily navigate his wheelchair into the shower. My Dad drove a truck, and I can’t even begin to count the multitude of times that people would need my Dad’s truck to haul something. And every single time, they got the truck—and they got my Dad to help. He gave money to those in his life who needed it, even when prudence likely told him he would never see a dime of that money again. But more than anything, my Dad gave of his most precious resource—time. There was no such thing as a conversation going too long. My Dad could (and did) talk with anyone he came in contact with. His conversations were never about him, but making others around him feel loved.

Dad Mom and I After All Star GameAnd my Dad was a completely selfless Father. As a child, he spent every minute he had making sure I was entertained and happy in life, even on days when he was likely tired and exhausted from work. When I was in high school, my Mom and Dad took an entire weekend to redo my bedroom to make it more appropriate for a young man in adolescence (the motif went from childhood baseball to vintage baseball—and I loved it!). If my truck broke down in high school (which was a semi-regular occurrence), my Dad was the first person there to help me. And although I’m sure there were many other exciting places he would have rather been, he was always in the stands anytime I announced a basketball or baseball game.

He was selfless. Not selfish. And the mechanism of his death doesn’t change this.

It wouldn’t make sense for someone who has lived their entire life with a code of honor that embodies selflessness to all of a sudden abandon that. My Dad’s death was out of character because, on that morning, he was not himself. His depression had so deeply overtaken his mind that his proper thought processes were disabled. I was there that morning. I saw my Dad before he died. And I can tell you, he wasn’t acting selfish. He was acting hurt, and scared, and completely debilitated.

And here’s the key. As crazy as this may sound, the truth is that it was actually my Dad’s misguided selflessness, not selfishness, that ended his life.

Let me be clear: None of this makes my Dad’s death right, acceptable, or just. None of it. It also doesn’t make it selfish.

My Dad was such a giver that he couldn’t imagine letting those around him down. He couldn’t imagine admitting failure to those he loved and took care of. He couldn’t imagine not being able to help himself after his entire life had been dedicated to helping others. Again, none of this is an excuse. None of this justifies his death. None of this makes his death right because his death isn’t right. It was unnecessary, and premature, and unwanted.

But it wasn’t selfish.

I don’t place the blame at my Dad’s feet—nor should anyone else. Are there things I would do differently? Yes. Are there things I wish my Dad had done differently? Absolutely. Do I wish my Dad’s story wouldn’t have ended on that fateful July morning? I pray this every single night.

But his death wasn’t selfish. And no one has the right to condemn his character (or anyone else’s) with such unjustifiable certainty. They do damage to that person’s legacy; but they also do significant damage to all of those left behind.

It’s not just the person who dies from suicide that is disgraced and discouraged by a “suicide is selfish” attitude—it’s the survivors left behind to grapple with their grief that are just as negatively impacted by this type of attitude.

I want you to imagine this scenario as you read and feel the intensity of the moment I’m describing. Your Father, the man you loved with every fiber of your being, has just died. From suicide. A vibrant, enthusiastic life has just been ripped away without warning. One minute, you’re hugging the broad shoulders that have carried the burdens of your entire family for a generation, and the next you’re standing next to his casket. You look down at that casket and the hundreds of people who have gathered to say goodbye, and you wish more than anything that your Dad would just get up—but he won’t. He’ll never come home again. You’ve cried more tears in a few days than you ever have in your entire life combined, and your pain and grief are inexplicable and inescapable. You’ve had many sleepless nights, and you’ll continue to have them for as long as you live. Just when you think life is establishing a new normal, you’ll wake up in the middle of the night screaming in terror as the horror of those moments replays over and over and over again. All of this is ahead of you as you stand at that funeral, and the weight is crushing.

And then, someone comes up to the casket. They shake your hand, express their condolences, and then say this:

“What a selfish act.”

How do you feel? Did it help?

No, it doesn’t—and it never will.

I’m thankful that this type of reaction never happened to me directly, but reading comments filled with a self-righteous fervor that accuse a suicide victim of being selfish from people I don’t even know is just as hurtful. I’ll return to Jean’s comment and ask you this: If she was so concerned with the well-being of Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, why would she immediately castigate his memory by completely minimizing his suffering? If Jean was so concerned about Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, why would she make a comment that will do absolutely nothing to help this young woman grieve? I have no doubt that Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, like me, loved her Father. By calling his unfortunate death “selfish,” Jean’s comment doesn’t help the grieving—it hurts and wounds them.

I go to bed every single night wishing that my Dad was still around. If people, like Jean, think that somehow letting me know that my Dad’s death was selfish will heal me from my grief, I’m here to tell them it won’t.

Suicide is not selfish, but that doesn’t automatically make it selfless either. An act can be neither selfless or selfish, and we shouldn’t be tricked into the fallacy of outright-certainty in an area as delicate as this.

But suicide is devastating. And it’s life-altering. Suicide is debilitating. It’s irreversible. It’s awful. And terrible. And it’s never, ever okay.

But it’s not selfish. And it’s not selfless. It’s just awful.

I don’t believe individuals who die from suicide are selfish at their core. They are suffering. Suffering from a disease that is awful and confusing. A disease we don’t understand.

So, when we don’t understand the complexities of this life, we shouldn’t self-righteously claim that we do.

I don’t know Jean’s story, but based on her attitude, I highly doubt that her life has ever been touched by suicide. And guess what? I’m really, really thankful for that. I don’t want anyone to ever have to live through the pain my family has endured after losing my Dad. But because we’ve lived through it, and because we knew the man my Dad was, we don’t talk about suicide like she does. We don’t say my Dad’s death was selfish because it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong—we pray and wish every single day that it hadn’t happened. But it wasn’t selfish.

I’ve written this before, but I’ll say it again: Your words matter. The words you choose each and every day have tremendous power—power to heal pain, but also to inflict it. But words are more than just words. They reveal an attitude. They reveal beliefs. They reveal core values. When self-righteous individuals scream with certainty that suicide is selfish, it causes the survivors of suicide to question everything about our loved ones. Did they really love us? Did they really mean it when they said they cared? Were they selfish?

Survivors of suicide have enough to deal with when it comes to grief. We don’t need the haughty judgement of individuals who claim to have all the answers to explain why our loved ones are no longer here. We feel that pain every single day, and it’s actually selfish for others to minimize our loved ones’ suffering.

My faith in Jesus Christ teaches me that I’m not meant to have all the answers in this life. I shouldn’t claim to be all-knowing, because when I do, I’m claiming to be God. I don’t know why suicide happens. I don’t know why God allows mental illness to persist. So, I don’t claim to have all the answers. Corrie ten Boom said it best: “A religion that is small enough for our understanding would not be big enough for our needs.” 

So, unlike all the people shouting about the selfishness of suicide, I won’t stand on the mountaintop and claim to completely understand the suffering in the world around me. Instead, I’ll attempt to be compassionate. Instead, I’ll try and realize that individuals—selfless individuals—are hurting without being able to explain why.

And as hard as it might be, I won’t give up on people like Jean. Or anyone who currently believes that suicide is selfish. Even though their words cut through my heart like a knife, I’ll still believe that they can learn and grow. Because as hard as it is for me to admit, there was probably a time in my life before my Dad died from suicide where I thought just like they did. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve changed and I’ve grown—and they can, too. I’ll still believe that Jesus is not quite done with them yet, just as he’s not yet done with me. I’ll still believe that they will someday realize that suicide isn’t a willing act, but one that occurs when the body and mind are in a frenetic, uncontrollable, irrational state. Because I’m still a work in progress, I’ll believe they are too.

But more than anything, I’ll just keep loving my Dad because he selflessly loved me.

Dad and I on Scrambler at Kings Island with SB LogoDad, It hurts my heart tremendously when I think that there are people out there who think your death is selfish. It pains me when I hear individuals say that death from suicide is selfish because they didn’t understand your pain. They didn’t see the despair in your eyes on that last day. They didn’t see the years that you suffered. They didn’t see how badly you wanted to be healthy. They didn’t live with the unnecessary shame that you lived with for so long. Dad, none of this makes your death and absence any easier. None of this makes the pain of losing you any less real. And yes, I wish things had gone differently on the morning of July 24, 2013—for you, for me, and for all of us. But you suffered from a disease that you didn’t understand. A disease that not even medical professionals completely understand. You died because this disease took over your brain, and I hope you know that I understand this. It doesn’t make your death right, and more than anything I wish you were still here, living the life you always lived to the fullest. But I’ve never been angry with you for your death. I’ve never loved you any less—and I never will. Dad, you are not defined by your death, but by the tremendously selfless life you led. I’m so sorry if you ever felt like you weren’t enough for us, Dad. You were always enough. You lived a completely selfless life, and I wish I was able to remind you of that. Until that day, I’ll keep fighting for your legacy. I’ll keep fighting, alongside God, to redeem the pain of losing you in an effort to try and prevent this pain in the lives of others. And until that day when I can tell you just how selfless you were, seeya Bub.

“Those who think they know something still have a lot to learn.” 1 Corinthians 8:2 (GW)

[1]https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/

Masks

“We had no idea.”

When you’re standing next to a casket at a visitation, you hear lots of comments over and over again. “We will be praying for you.” “Is there anything we can do?” “If you need anything at all, please let us know.” “You’ll be in our thoughts and prayers.”

In reality, who knows what to say? Is there anything you can actually say to take the pain of losing a loved one away? I find myself saying the same things to grieving friends when I attend funerals or visitations. I don’t like that I say it, but I don’t know what else I could possibly say in its place. It’s what we do to show that we love.

My Dad’s visitation, however, was a bit different. My Dad had passed from suicide, and there was a certain shock of losing someone suddenly who, just a few days prior, had seemed completely healthy. I heard one particular comment more than any other from the more than 1,000 people who came to pay their respects to my Dad.

“We had no idea.”

Over and over and over again, friends and loved ones and coworkers and neighbors and childhood acquaintances made their way through the line, some waiting upwards of a few hours (which still touches my heart in ways I can’t possibly describe). Just a few minutes after the service had started, I remember looking up and being completely overwhelmed by what I saw. Our extremely spacious sanctuary had a line that clung to the entirety of the wall, streaming through the back doors and into the foyer. Who knows how far it went from that point, which was beyond my vision. There were folks sitting in the pews, catching up with one another but I’m sure also trying to figure out why this gathering had even needed to occur.

I tried sincerely to look into the faces of those who came. I tried to assess how people were feeling. I looked out at the other people who had known my Dad—other people who were hurting, too—and I saw the same look on their eyes. Shock. Confusion. Pain. Bewilderment.

My Father had died from suicide, and the flabbergasted looks I saw the night of my Dad’s visitation were justified. Although my Mother and I (along with a close circle of family members) had known of my Dad’s struggle with depression, neither of us thought it would ever get this bad. Neither of us believed that my Dad was hurting as bad as he was. Neither of us believed that the depression could create a stranglehold strong enough to make my Dad feel that life wasn’t livable.

Unlike those folks, we knew; but like those folks, we didn’t.

Many of the people who loved my Dad didn’t know because my Dad wore a mask. I’ve heard that phrase used so many times to describe the coping mechanism that individuals suffering from mental illness will use. They hide their true feelings. They bury the anguish down deep below the surface. They put on a happy face when happiness eludes their heart. That mask metaphor has helped me understand how my Dad was able to hide his depression from those he loved. But more importantly, it’s helped me understand why he would feel the need to hide his depression in the first place.

I anticipated the shock of my Dad’s death in the hearts of those who knew him because so many people knew my Dad as a happy, jovial man. That’s how I knew him, too, even though I would occasionally see into the dark egresses of his depression. Those were usually brief moments confined to a short amount of time. Eventually, that depression would pass—or at least I thought it did. As I reflect on those moments, I am beginning to understand that the depression never truly disappeared. My Dad just got better at coping with it at times. And sometimes, unfortunately, he got better at hiding it.

But most of the time, he was happy.

It’s more than that though. My Dad wasn’t just happy. He was one of the happiest men I’ve ever known. Happy to the point where, as a kid, I just wanted to see him get mad about things to know that he could. My Dad was the guy who could keep a smile on his face in any situation. The man who, in the most difficult moments, could tell the perfectly timed joked to make people laugh. In every circumstance, dark or light, my Dad was cheerful when he interacted with those around him. He had a bright smile, a twinkling eye, and a glistening personality that could instantly comfort other individuals and cheer them up.

Which is why depression confuses me so much. How could a man who could so instantly and effortlessly encourage and lift up others not do it for himself?

His entire life, my Dad worked in labor-intensive jobs. He worked in plants that were often entirely too hot during the summer and entirely too cold during the winter. He built things, and he fixed complex machines, and he worked long hours (a gene for which I have yet to inherit). And no matter the job, my Dad was always happy. He always had a smile on his face. His coworkers absolutely adored him. He was the guy you hoped would join you on a project because you knew you would not only get the job done but have fun while doing it. I wish I could tell him how much he meant to those he worked with.

Then, he would come home. And although he would find ways to relax, he would also find work to do there. He would spend hours sweating in the yard planting flowers and repairing the house. He loved gardening and outdoor work (once again, a gene I have not inherited). He would remodel bathrooms and fix electrical issues. And all the while, Dad would have a smile on his face. All the while, Dad would tell you that he was good, and that he was enjoying life. I wish I could tell him how much that meant to Mom and I. I wish I could go back and tell him that he didn’t have to work so hard.

And it wasn’t just work—his happiness invaded every corner of his life and his soul. Dad would go to church, and he would have a smile on his face while he stood around and chatted with folks for 45 minutes after the service as I rolled my eyes and tugged on his sleeve in an impatient effort to beat the Baptists to Frisch’s for lunch. He would go to my soccer games, which offered very few opportunities for smiles during my short-lived athletic career; but he would smile, and cheer, and even admit to other people that the horrible right fullback was actually his son. When we would go out to dinner and the food or service left something to be desired, Dad would smile and find ways to enjoy the time with his family. It was a contagious happiness that my Dad embodied. And it’s that contagious happiness of his that I miss every single day.

I don’t doubt that in many cases my Dad was simply happier than other people. I think he just had an appreciation for life and the simple things that make it wonderful which few of us are able to truly appreciate. This may sound strange considering that he eventually died from suicide, but my Dad found ways to appreciate life that I’ve yet to tap into.

However, I am also confident that there were likely times in my Dad’s life when he was extremely unhappy underneath the surface but felt as if he couldn’t let people see him in a state of weakness. I know that in the midst of his own personal turmoil, Dad was probably afraid to let people know that he just didn’t feel like himself. He was afraid to let them know that his depression was getting the best of him. He wanted to be a happy, smiling Superman to everyone at all times…and that is an unattainable expectation for anyone, even for my Dad, as great a man as he was.

My Dad was the man who was able to bring joy to other peoples’ lives whenever they needed it most. After his death, I heard countless stories of my Dad’s ability to help others find happiness. I heard stories about times when my Dad would take time out of his day to visit people, to talk with them, and to generally make them feel like someone cared. I heard stories about lunches that he bought for folks, repairs that he made at their homes, and silly things he had done to just get others to laugh a little.

I heard those stories and I believed them. Every single one. I believed them because he did the same thing with me in my life each and every day. There were so many times when I would feel down and my Dad would pick me up. Oftentimes, he didn’t even have to know I was down. I think he could simply sense it. Dad never made me feel ashamed or weak if I wasn’t feeling happy. Dad never judged me or told me to “snap out of it.” Dad gave me compassion. My Dad gave me unconditional and unabated love every single day.

More than anything, I think this is why I hated the fact that my Dad felt as if he couldn’t share his mental illness with the folks around him who loved him. Those folks loved him deeply, and had he shared his struggles, I’m confident that they still would have loved him. And they would have helped him. And they never, ever would have given up on him.

Instead, my Dad felt it was necessary to wear a mask. My Dad felt that he should hide the feelings he couldn’t explain from those he loved most. My Dad wore that mask because he couldn’t bear to let people see the depths of his depression, which he perceived as a personal weakness.

I wish I could tell him that he wasn’t weak. I wish I could tell them that he had no reason to be ashamed. And I wish, more than anything, I could tell him that he didn’t have to wear that mask anymore.

The mask, however, is not a tool of deception; it’s a weapon against embarrassment and shame. My Dad was not a deceitful man, and that’s the point I try to get across to individuals when I talk about depression or mental illness. He didn’t hide his depression because he was attempting to lie or mislead people. He hid his depression because he loved them. He masked his depression because he didn’t want others to worry about them. He buried his depression because he was ashamed of it. And unfortunately, it’s that very shame that led us to bury him.

Dear people, we must arrive at a point in this world where there is no shame surrounding depression and mental illness. And we should do this because…there is no reason for those individuals to feel ashamed. There is no reason for us to wear those masks, and there are other survival mechanisms that actually lead to true healing.

When I think of my Dad on the morning of July 24, 2013 (his last day on this Earth), my heart breaks when I picture how broken he was. He stared at the floor, unable to make eye contact with me. He looked disconnected and detached from everything around him. When I asked him about all of the pressures he was dealing with in life—and boy did he have a lot to deal with—he was even ashamed to admit he couldn’t handle all of those things. At one point, he even said to me, “Yeah, but I should be able to deal with this.”

No, Dad. You shouldn’t have been expected to deal with everything easily. You shouldn’t have been expected to be Superman in every moment of every day.

As much as it tears me apart to think of my Dad on that last day, it also causes me deep pain to think of the weight that must have burdened my Dad’s life from wearing that mask each and every day. This is a heavy mask that those with mental illness are wearing. This is a difficult load that they carry. That mask may hide fear and shame, but it doesn’t eradicate it.

I also know this from personal experience. Although much less severe than my Father’s struggle, my own struggles with anxiety have helped me understand this principle. Dealing with anxiety (or any mental illness) on its own is difficult enough; feeling like you have to lie and convince everyone around you that you’re fine when you’re really not takes that exhaustion to a whole new level. And that exhaustion just continues to fuel the mental illness in a vicious cycle, and before you know it the mask is not merely a coping tactic but a necessary tool for survival.

My Dad’s life may be finished, but his story is not. And what can we do about it? What can I do? What can you do? What can all of those shocked, hurting people who attended my Father’s visitation and funeral do to redeem his story?

Let people know that it’s okay to take off their mask. When individuals are suffering from mental illness, we have to let them know that it’s okay to let down their defenses. We have to let them know that taking off their mask is an act of bravery, not an admission of weakness. We have to let them know that their inexplicable feelings of sadness, despair, nervousness, or guilt are real but remediable. We have to make them feel that there are so, so many more solutions to ease their pain than suicide. Simply, we have to make people feel loved—and not just loved, but unconditionally loved. Loved regardless of their feelings. Loved regardless of their circumstances. Loved regardless of the things they can’t control or fix. Unconditional love is the true mask destroyer.

In order to love others, however, we have to make sure we love ourselves.

That’s why it’s ridiculously important to take off your own mask, too. We can’t tell people to take off their masks if we aren’t willing to take off our own. The best way to promote mental health is to model it. Removing our own mask requires courage and bravery, but it takes the most dangerous weapon mental illness wields—the unjustified humiliation—and completely removes its power. We show others who aren’t okay, in those instances, that we aren’t always okay either.

And we teach them, more than anything, that it’s okay to not be okay…but that it’s never okay to stay that way.

As time moves on from my Dad’s death, I am beginning to see his mask in a new light. I see it as a coping mechanism, not an act of deceit. I see it as an act of love. Yes, an act of love that I wish we could have redirected. But even though he wore that mask, I know that love existed underneath. I know it’s there. I feel it every day—and I’ll never forget it.

Mom and Dad at Church with SB LogoDad, You didn’t have to wear a mask. I think I know why you did. You wore a mask because you loved me and you loved all of us. And you couldn’t bear the thought of letting us down. Dad, you never would have let any of us down. Even in your death, you aren’t letting me down. You could never disappoint me. I would never be ashamed of you, no matter how sick you felt. Dad, you were courageous. You were brave. And you always had a huge smile on your face because you wanted others to smile, too. I know you were trying to be brave, but I wish I could have told you that being vulnerable and getting help was one of the bravest things you ever could have done. Thank you, Dad, for making my life happier. Thank you for teaching me how to enjoy life. And Dad, thank you for being the fighter that you were. Your story is teaching us all so much. Thanks for teaching me how to share it. Until I can say that I love you in person, seeya Bub.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV)

Grape Heart

As my family walked into church, we were each handed a snack-size Ziploc bag containing two items: one raisin, and one grape. The greeter smiled at us as he handed them out. Dad and I looked at each other and wondered….had our church converted to a different fruit-worshiping denomination since last week? Should we run?

For what seemed like an eternity, the morning announcements were given, the worship team sang, and the offering was collected. And the entire time, no one said a word about the bags of grapes and raisins. Did these people really understand the weirdness of what had happened when they came into the sanctuary this morning?!

Or wait…we did actually arrive on time to church that morning (a rarity in my family). Maybe they had been handing out grapes and raisins to the folks who showed up on time my entire life?! Maybe we had been missing out on the rewards for my entire life!

If all you get for showing up early is a grape and a raisin…I’ll take my extra 30 minutes of alarm-snooze—repeat. Wake me when they start giving out tacos and twenties.

If curiosity killed the cat, there was a vicious feline slaughter going on inside my brain during the beginning of the worship service. It just didn’t make any sense.

Finally, when our Pastor (Ted Herold) took the stage, he referenced the bag and its contents. And even though my Dad never explicitly told me this, the sermon that followed was my Dad’s favorite sermon that he ever heard. I’m positive of that. Dad always enjoyed Pastor Ted’s sermons, but I know how much he enjoyed this one, and I’m thankful for it.

I don’t remember the specific Scripture that Pastor Ted used that morning, but I do remember the message and I do remember the illustration (job well done, Pastor Ted!). It’s been stuck in my mind and my heart ever since that morning.

Pastor Ted instructed us to open our baggies and pull out the two contents: a red grape, and a wrinkled raisin. For the next few minutes, he actually had us compare and contrast the two items as a congregation. Dad rolled the grape and raisin around in his work-worn hands, and I looked on still wondering what was going on.

The raisin, the congregation agreed, was pretty lifeless. It was shrunken and wrinkled and shriveled. Pastor Ted asked the group “Does anyone here even like eating raisins anyway?!” A few of us raised our hands (I didn’t seek them out, but I didn’t hate them either), and Pastor Ted laughed. He then asked us to eat the raisins and react, as he feigned disgust from the front of the sanctuary.

Tasty? Maybe. But not as tasty as a grape.

Then, Pastor Ted went on to have us describe the grape we had in our hands. The grape was robust, especially compared to the raisin. The grape was full of life. The grape was colorful. The grape was bright. Essentially, the grape (although technically the same fruit) was everything that the raisin was not. Pastor Ted asked us to eat the grapes, and then describe it. They were tasty. They burst when you chewed them. They were juicy. Once again, all the things that the raisin we had previously ingested could not be.

That’s when the teaching began.

Pastor Ted asked us to think about the raisin and the grapes as metaphors. Metaphors for our heart. And he asked a simple question: “Do you have a grape heart? Or a raisin heart?”

If you had a raisin heart, your heart had lost its life. Your heart had shriveled into a fraction of what it used to be. Your raisin heart was lifeless, even dead. Your raisin heart had no brightness to it, no vividness. A raisin heart was empty. A raisin heart had nothing to give. It had been disconnected from the vine for too long.

A grape heart, on the other hand, was much different. A grape heart had life. A grape heart had energy. A grape heart had robustness, nearly bursting from the contents inside of it. A grape heart was so full of love that everything about its character was noticeably different from a heart that was empty, both inside and out.

And he continued to pose the question: “Do you have a raisin heart? Or a grape heart?” Do you have a heart that is shriveled and lifeless? Or do you have a heart that is bursting from all the love it contains? The message was simple. Jesus wanted His followers to live with grape hearts, not raisin hearts.

I’m sure we talked about that sermon on the way home and over lunch, because Dad would continue to bring it up throughout the years. And he would bring it up in typical Dad fashion.

Any teenager can get a bit….annoying; and I was no exception to that rule. At the top of all my annoyances? My impatience. I’ve always had trouble waiting for things, and I’ve never liked having to slow down.

My Dad, however, was different. He never, ever let the pace of life get the best of him, and I’ll always admire him for this. In fact, I strive to be like him in this way (and many others) more and more each day. Yes, his slower pace of life frustrated me beyond belief at times, but as I look back on his life, I am deeply envious of his ability to actually sit back, enjoy the moment, and escape from worry. I wish I had more of that in me.

I remember one time specifically when something had gone wrong with my car—which was not unusual. My brakes were squealing like a toddler on the playground with a pulled-pigtail, and I had been telling my Dad about it for what seemed like a month. Alas, there was still no repair, as my Dad was the family mechanic. Finally, with all of the teenage dramatics I could muster up, I went off on my Dad. I told him that I really needed him to fix the issue with my car. I told him that he always put things off. I told him that the squealing brakes were a safety issue. It was likely that I might slam into a tree or pedestrian because they wouldn’t function properly. Was he really this careless when it came to the safety of his only son? I told him the brakes were hurting my social life, which was already difficult enough to navigate with a silent vehicle. Girls wouldn’t even look at me if I had squeaky brakes. And if they didn’t look at me, I could never find someone to be with. Did he really want grandchildren? Well if he did, he better get to fixing those brakes!

After my tirade of nauseating complaints, my Dad just looked at me, months removed from that sermon, and delivered the ultimate comeback:

“You’ve got a little raisin heart,” he said. “You need a grape heart.”

Good luck coming up with a witty retort for that one. I had nothing.

I wasn’t the only victim of the “raisin heart” accusation. As all husbands and wives do, my Mom and Dad would occasionally bicker about things that needed to be done around the house. Mom, the keeper of the most immaculate and well-cleaned house I’ve ever seen, would grow frustrated with projects that would pile up around the house that my Dad had promised to take care of. He had promised to repair the holes in the wall from our fallen Christmas tree, but there were still two huge bolts in the living room from many, many years ago. He promised to clean up the garage and organize his tools (by the way, how much did he spend on that new Dewalt accessory?!), but there was still only room for one car in a two in a half car garage. And don’t you even get her started on that breaker that keeps shutting off every time we used the microwave and space heater at the same time! (My Dad has been gone for nearly five years, and that one still isn’t fixed…)

Dad, with all the sincerity and coolness that he brought to every situation, would simply look at my Mom with a loving smile and say “You’ve got a little raisin heart. You need a grape heart.”

Her comebacks to that were as nonexistent as mine.

Dad would use that refrain many, many times throughout the years to shut down arguments. And the sad part is—it always worked! We always, always let him get away with it! For all the times he used that line, we were never able to come up with a legitimate response.

Probably because we knew, deep down, that he was right. And also because my Dad lived with a grape heart each and every day of his life.

It’s easy to say this after someone is gone, but I would have said it when he was alive too. My Dad lived his life with more love than anyone I have ever known. My Dad lived his life so that others around him knew he loved them. In essence, my Dad lived with a grape heart, just like Pastor Ted had encouraged us to do many years ago. Dad lived with so much love that his heart was bursting at the seams. He lived with so much love that his heart was constantly overflowing with the love he felt for others and the world around him.

In true grape heart fashion, my Dad did more than tell people he loved them (which he often did). My Dad showed people that he loved them. I can’t even begin to recount all of the times that my Dad would show up at someone’s house who needed a repair. From installing ceiling fans to electrical repairs, my Dad was “that guy”. He was that guy that you knew would show up if you needed help with something. He was that guy who would show up to help you not out of obligation, but because he legitimately wanted to help. He didn’t do this for the gratitude. He didn’t do this out of any self-righteous desire to show how smart and talented he was. He did this because he had a grape heart—a heart bursting at the seams from all the love that it contained.

My Dad embodied the grape heart message long before he heard it, but I know that sermon left a lasting impact on him and the way he lived his life. Months and years after he heard that message, Dad still talked about it and made references to it. When it came to sermons, my Dad was a simple guy. He didn’t need complex theology. He didn’t need complicated or fanciful rhetoric. All he needed was the Scripture. All he needed was a bag with a grape and a raisin.

All he needed was a message of love.

Maybe you’re confused like I am. Maybe you’re reading and wondering how someone with this grape heart could succumb to a death from suicide. How could a person with a grape heart feel like life was unlivable?

As confused as I was at first by my Dad’s death, and on many days I still am, I think that his grape heart was precisely the reason why his depression could so severely manipulate his mind. Dad loved people, and he didn’t want to let them down. He never wanted to disappoint those he loved. Being “that guy” with a grape-heart attitude towards life, my Dad couldn’t bear to admit when he needed help and when he needed saving. Dad relied on that love for life, and when his depression got particularly strong, it preyed on his heart. His depression preyed on a misconception that if he let people down, they would think he didn’t love them.

I wish I could tell him we could never, ever be disappointed in him. I wish I could tell him that we would never stop loving him.

Above all, I wish that I had loved my Dad with more of a grape heart.

My Dad taught me how to love people. He taught me that grape-hearted people need to put hands and feet to the idea of love. Saying you love is one thing, but showing is confirmation of that love’s reality. I am learning day by day because of the example my Dad gave me. I don’t always do it perfectly, and the many times that I failed to show my Dad I loved him are examples of that. In spite of all my regrets, however, I’m thankful that on that fateful day when I saw him for the last time, I told him that I loved him. I told him how much he meant to me. I told him that we needed him in this life—not for what he did, but for who he was.

And now, almost five years removed from his death, I still need him. I still need his grape heart to love me and lead me. I still need the example that he set. I will never stop needing my Dad. Even though he can’t be here with me, I feel him near on so many days. Nearly every day in a different way, I’m reminded that his grape heart beats on.

Every now and then, usually right when I need it most, I hear a new story about my Dad that I hadn’t previously heard. I love hearing those stories. When I learn something new about my Dad, it’s like he’s still alive. If his new stories live on, so will he. And usually, those stories are always centered around the love he showed to someone. It’s the lunch he bought for someone he saw at a local restaurant. It’s the tool he leant to a neighbor or the well he helped install when a neighbor’s water went out. It’s the lengthy conversation he had with someone who was hurting deep down. It’s the car engines he fixed, the funny cards he gave, the jokes he told, the hospital visits, and so many more wonderful examples of grape-hearted love.

I’ll always remember that sermon and the way my Dad reacted to it. He didn’t just listen. He learned, and he lived differently as a result. He did more than eat a raisin and a grape. He let that grape heart of his change the world around him.

And I’ll always love my grape-hearted Dad.

Dad Holding Me as a Baby with SB LogoDad, I can still go back to that specific Sunday morning and remember the quizzical look on your face when we were handed that baggie with a grape and a raisin. I can remember and picture the way you engaged in that illustration. I can remember you always reminding me many Sundays after that about how I needed to live with a grape heart. But more than all of those memories, I remember the way you lived. I remember the way you loved others. I remember the way you lived and loved with a grape heart every single day. I’m trying to live more like you because you always showed people that your love was more than a sentiment. It meant something and it made a difference. It’s hard to find people who love others the way you did—and the way you still do from above. I still feel your love each and every day. I still feel your love guiding me through all the good times and the difficult times, and I’m thankful that your grape heart lives on. I wish I could tell you this in person. I wish I could give you the praise that you deserved. Until I can see you again and give you a big hug, seeya Bub.

“Let all that you do be done in love.” 1 Corinthians 16:14 (ESV)

16 Minutes

16 minutes. Imagine how much (or how little) you can get done in 16 minutes. Imagine how quickly 16 minutes passes you by. Personally, I’m guilty of taking time for granted. I spend more time wasting time than I’d like to admit, but on some days I rush too much. 16 minutes is fast. It’s not even enough time for me to get through a full episode of my favorite game show, read a chapter of a book, take a walk through my neighborhood, or get ready in the morning.

A few days ago, I did something that I’m going to ask all of you to do for a day when you finish reading this post. I downloaded a timer on my phone that I could put on a loop for 16 minute intervals. Every 16 minutes, the timer would buzz and start over again, buzzing 16 minutes later. Then, it would keep a count of how many times that 16 minute interval had passed.

I did this for a very specific reason. I did this for an important reminder. I did this to remind myself of a statistic I wrote about in my very first post.

I wanted to remind myself that every 16 minutes, another American loses his or her life to suicide. (You can learn more by visiting DoSomething.org or through the World Health Organization.)

And I wanted to remind myself why I’m not okay with that.

16 minutes. 16 precious minutes.

That’s 90 people every day. That’s 90 individuals whose lives are ended prematurely. That’s 90 families torn apart from sorrow and grief, just like mine. That’s 90 individual circles of family members and friends and coworkers and neighbors left behind with unbelievable guilt and plaguing, persistent questions, constantly curious if they could have done more.

That’s 630 victims of suicide each week.

That’s 32,850 victims of suicide each and every year.

And I will never, ever be okay with that.

Say those numbers out loud to yourself. Try to visualize them. Try to imagine faces and families. Try to picture the hurt and experience the pain. Try, if only for a moment, to understand how in just 16 short minutes lives have been altered forever.

Try to quantify this in your own life. In the time it takes me to watch a rerun of The Office and think about the good times my Dad and I enjoyed watching it together, two other individuals lose their lives to suicide. In the time it took you to watch the Cincinnati Bengals lose a football game this past season (you had plenty of opportunities…), 12 other families will have lost a loved one when they didn’t have to. You slept for 8 hours last night? While you were asleep, roughly 32 lives were cut short unnecessarily.

Every 16 minutes, someone feels as if their life is unlivable. Every 16 minutes, someone feels as if their circumstances are so dire and so impossible to escape that suicide is the only escape. Every 16 minutes, someone who could get help doesn’t. Someone who deserves help and healing fails to find it. Every 16 minutes, a repairable situation ends irreparably.

Someone like my Dad.

If you’re feeling guilty because you didn’t know that a suicide occurred every 16 minutes in our country, don’t; because I didn’t know either. I’m not writing this post to make you feel guilty at all. I’m writing this post because I wish I would have read it before losing my Father.

Before suicide affected my family, I never would have guessed that someone lost their life to suicide every 16 minutes. In fact, I would have guessed that there was one or maybe two suicides a day in our country—which is still not okay, but my innocent mind would have found a way to minimize the pain. Any unnecessary death is a death we should aim to avoid in the future. But in the world I lived in—one that I thought was safe and secure—I could never have imagined suicide was as prevalent as it is.

That is, until it hit home. My home. My family.

A few months after my Dad died, I did what anyone who is blindsided by an enemy they didn’t know existed probably does: I tried to figure it out. I tried to learn as much as I could about mental illness and suicide. I read books, I located articles, and I listened to videos and lectures online from suicide survivors. I tried to figure out why my Dad, a fun-loving father, honest husband, caring coworker, and faithful friend to everyone he encountered could feel the way he felt. It didn’t make sense.

And the more I learned, the more baffled I became.

I distinctly remember the night when I first saw the statistic about suicide prevalence. I was sitting at home, reading information online, and I saw the number. I didn’t believe it. It couldn’t be true. There was just no way that individuals were dying from suicide at this rate. I went from site to site to site and saw roughly the same number. There might have been a little variance in the math, but the numbers were largely the same. Nearly 100 individuals each day dying from suicide.

I was mad. Mad at an illness that had robbed me of my Dad. Mad at the pressures my Dad had dealt with.

And I was mad at myself for not knowing that this was happening in the world around me.

The more I learned, the angrier I got. I couldn’t believe how naïve I had been. If suicides were occurring at this rate, it was nearly certain that there were people in my own life who had died from suicide or family members or friends who had known someone who was a victim. But I don’t remember seeing them. I don’t remember hearing their stories.

But they were there. The reality was I just wasn’t looking. I just wasn’t listening.

After my Dad passed away, however, the blinders were gone. My cloak of naivete had been removed. For the months that followed my Dad’s death, each and every day, I found myself meeting with or interacting with someone new who had been impacted by suicide. Sisters who had lost brothers. Parents who had lost children. Children who had lost parents. Individuals who had contemplated suicide themselves. Now, I find myself wanting to fight for those individuals. I find myself wanting to do something to help them. Even if by the time my life is over I am only able to push that time interval to 17 minutes or 18 minutes, it will have all been worth it. Because those are hundreds and thousands of families, over time, that won’t suffer the same heartache that mine has.

And I hope you want to do something about it to. Because allowing someone to die unnecessarily every 16 minutes is unacceptable.

Lately, I’ve been speaking publicly in classrooms and community events about suicide, and although I always share this statistic with those in the room, there is one other thing that I always do. I always, always have a picture of my Dad on the screen behind me when I speak. He will always be there with me, smiling and looking on that way; but he’s also there because my Dad is more than a statistic. My Dad was a living, breathing person who lives no more because of the mental illness that attacked him.

I am in a club that, unfortunately, continues to grow against the will of those who already belong. Each day, 90 other families come into this club of individuals impacted by suicide. We get a new member every 16 minutes. And for the first time in my life, I’m in a club that I’m trying to keep members out of. I’m trying to do what I wish had been done for me before my Dad died. I’m trying to make people aware that suicide might seem distant, but it’s real and it’s pervasive. And we are at a critical juncture where every bit of awareness could help someone who needs it.

So, I simply ask you to do what I did to help this message sink in. What do 16 minutes mean to you? Get a timer on your phone or use a kitchen timer. Set it for sixteen minutes. And when it expires, say a prayer for an individual and family impacted by suicide. Try to understand that each and every time that buzzer or timer sounds, there is one more victim of suicide in our country. Another family and circle of individuals has entered a new chapter of their life filled with pain, agony, and questioning—just like the one my family finds itself in.

Then, set the timer again. Because mental illness is relentless. And until we start to fight against it, that timer will continue to reset at the same interval.

Unless, like me, you’re not okay with it any longer.

The more we understand our enemy, the better chance we have of defeating it. I know that I’ll never take those 16 minutes for granted ever again. And for the rest of my life, I’ll do everything I can to push that clock back. My Dad would have wanted that. My Dad deserved that.

His 16 minutes will count for something. I’m sure of that.

Family Easter Photo with SB LogoDad, I wish I had known. In spite of all your struggles that you dealt with each and every day, I never, ever thought that suicide would attack you and our family. I never believed for one moment that your life was in danger, probably because you shielded us from so much of your heartache in an effort to protect us. Dad, I wish I could have done more to help you. I don’t blame myself for what happened, but I would do anything to replay those moments when I should have done something. But in your memory and because you always taught me to help people, I’m trying to keep others from suffering like you did. I’m trying to make people aware of something that I wasn’t aware of until it stole you away from us. Dad, I miss you every single day. I wish I had many more minutes to spend with you. Someday, we will have those minutes and many more. Someday, we will be able to enjoy being together again. Until then, seeya Bub.

“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles.” Psalm 34:17 (NIV)

Why I Fight

“Why do I want to do this? Why do I want to do this?”

I sat at the desk in my office at home asking myself this question over and over and over again. My Dad’s death had been weighing heavy on my heart (as it does nearly every day), but there was something that felt different at this moment of my grief. In the immediate aftermath of losing my Dad, I was just trying to survive. I was just trying to make it through the different and unexpected challenges that accompanied each day. I didn’t know how to do it, and I simply took things one day at a time.

But a few years after losing him, I wanted to do something with my grief. I wanted to make sure my Dad didn’t die in vain. I wanted to help other people.

I wanted to fight.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, September is Suicide Prevention Month, which has caused me to think more and more about the larger fight against mental illness and suicide, along with the personal implications for my own journey. Suicide Prevention Month forces me to think about my own motivations for writing and speaking and advocating for a more open and honest discourse about mental illness.

So why do I fight?

I fight because my Dad didn’t take his own life, but because his life was stolen from him. My Dad was a victim of suicide, and in an earlier post, I’ve written about why that phrasing matters. My Dad didn’t take his own life. Depression and mental illness robbed him of joy, and eventually, his existence as well.

I fight because my Dad was robbed. He was robbed of the experiences he deserved to have. He deserved to enjoy retirement. He deserved more beach vacations. He deserved to be a Grandpa and play with his children (and probably feed them way too much candy before turning them back over to their Dad). He deserved more walks with my Mom and our dog. He deserved more bike rides and miles on his truck and chances to embarrass his son with his ridiculous Dad humor.

But depression stole all of this from him, and from my family. Depression told my Dad, falsely, that he didn’t deserve these things. I wish I could have told him more that he did.

I fight because I feel robbed. There are so many things I wanted to see and do with my Dad. Naively, I thought that I had so many years to check items off of our bucket list. In the blink of an eye, all of those moments were gone. We never got to go to a country concert together. We never got to go on a kayaking trip. We never hiked the mountains like we wanted to. We never went on a diet and started working out together like we said we would (Okay, let’s be honest…that one probably wasn’t going to happen anyway). There are so many “would-be” moments that are now gone forever. My heart longs to have those days back. I wish for nothing more than the opportunity to be next to Dad. To hear his laugh. To tell him how loved he was and always will be.

I fight against mental illness because it’s mental illness that stole all these moments away.

I fight because I’m angry at the true enemy. I don’t understand the ins and outs of depression and mental illness, and although I’m trying to learn, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the nuances, causes, and neurological forces that cause people to sink into such horrible and inescapable periods of darkness.

But I can name the enemy. And I can use the talents God has given me to advocate for those who are much better equipped to research and study and develop treatments.

And I can help expose the enemy by pulling back the curtain.

People who lose their loved ones to cancer don’t get mad at their loved ones. They get mad at cancer.

People who lose their loved ones as victim of violent crimes aren’t mad at their loved ones. They get mad at the murderer.

Therefore, I get mad at depression. I get mad at mental illness. I get mad at the pressures of our society that caused my Dad to hide his hurt.

And it makes me want to fight. And to deliver a knock-out punch.

I fight because, unfortunately, my Dad’s story is only one story in a host of others that have a terrible ending. As much as I’m fighting to remember my Dad, I’m also fighting because I want to live in a world where no one else ever has to experience the heartache that I have. I’m fighting because I live in a country where 30,000 Americans lose their life to suicide each year[1]. I’m fighting because I live in a country where someone becomes a victim of suicide every 16 minutes[2]. One death by suicide is one too many. And I’ll keep fighting because these victims, like my Dad, deserved better.

I fight because I have a printed copy of an article from CNN on my desk from December 2016, and I fight because it’s the story of Brandy Vela. Brandy was an 18-year old high school student in Texas with beautiful blue eyes and a bright smile. As all too many high schoolers know, bullying can be harsh. So much so that it forced Brandy to believe that her life was unlivable.

Brandy VelaBrandy’s classmates would make up fake Facebook accounts and message her and taunt her. The teasing was relentless. With maturity far beyond her years, Brandy chose not to respond, but her classmates were relentless. Brandy even went so far as to change her phone number and report the bullying to local police, but the authorities weren’t able to help because the perpetrators used an app that couldn’t be traced. The police told Brandy and her family that they couldn’t do anything until there was an actual fight or physical altercation.

On a seemingly usual Tuesday, Brandy sent a very unusual text to her family members from the bedroom of her home. “I love you so much,” the text read. “Please remember that, and I’m sorry for everything.”

Her family rushed to her bedroom and found Brandy with a gun to her chest. They begged and pleaded for Brandy to see that her life mattered. That her life was worth living.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Brandy responded. “I’m tired. I’ve come too far not to do it.”

Brandy’s life ended in front of the family members that loved her most.

Fortunately, two individuals have been arrested in connection with Brandy’s death. I can only hope that the individuals who invested their time in tormenting a fellow classmate will receive swift justice, but I hope the guilt for their actions feels worse than any punishment.

This is not normal. This is not acceptable. This is not an acceptable end for any man, woman, or child, period. If we value life, we will do everything we can to eliminate the forces that cause individuals to think that life isn’t worth living.

Our world and our society are both full of unbelievable and unnecessary pressures. These are pressures that drive people to think they aren’t enough. Pressures that drive people to think that the hurt and pain they feel will last forever.

Every death by suicide is unique and completely different, and there are contributing factors that make each case unique. The pressures facing Brandy Vela and her feelings were very different from those that hastened my Dad’s death, but there is one unfortunate commonality: left behind is a family full of grief, questions, and unending pain.

Like Brandy Vela’s family, I am left wondering “what if.” What if I had done more to try and help my Dad? What if I had forced him to seek medical attention? What if I would have stayed with him the entire day instead of leaving the house? What if my Dad was still here?

Suicide isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to those whose lives are cut unnecessarily short. It isn’t fair to the families who are left behind. Those victims and those families deserve the strength of an army to take down this enemy once and for all.

For my Dad and for every single family affected by this horrible epidemic, I ask you to join the fight.

Just Like Dad Picture with SB LogoDad, I miss you every single day. I replay our last conversation, the hurt I saw in your eyes, and our last words to one another. I also replay all the moments throughout life when I knew you were hurting, and although I can’t help you any longer, I want to help other people. I don’t want any individual to experience the pain you felt. I don’t want any family to experience the loss that ours has felt without you. Dad, I hope you will continue to be my guardian angel, watching over me as I do my best to honor your memory and your story. Thank you for always teaching me that it’s important to help those who can’t help themselves. Thank you for always showing me that love can heal all wounds. I hope your story reaches those who are hurting and causes them to get the help they deserve. I promise I’ll make you proud. Until the race is done, seeya Bub.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV)

[1] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-suicide

[2] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-suicide

A Call

I can still dial those seven digits by heart, and often times, I still do.

I don’t do it intentionally. It’s habit, because for so many years I called my Dad every single day.

I really miss dialing my Dad’s number. When I was little and my Dad worked second shifts at the steel plant, I missed seeing him when I got home from school. So, my Mom always kept Dad’s number written down for me near our household phone. I would call the plant and the receptionists always recognized my voice. They would call for my Dad over the public-address system, he would eventually find a phone, and he would talk to his boy. Sometimes just for a few minutes, and other times for a little longer.

I don’t think I ever realized what an inconvenient interruption this probably was for my Dad. He worked in a large steel plant in the age before everyone had a cell phone in their pocket, so every time his little boy called, he would have to stop whatever complex project he was working on, find a phone in a quiet spot in the plant (which was hard to find), and chat with me. I’m sure this wasn’t good for his productivity, but it was good for his family. And when it came to my Dad, family was always more important.

Eventually, Dad got a cell phone and from that point on, it was always very easy to get in touch with him. I used to be able to call Dad for anything…and I really didn’t even have to have anything in mind to talk about! Sometimes, I would just call to talk, to hear his voice, and to see what he was up to. He had the same cell phone number for as long as I can remember, and dialing his number or my Mom’s number was as natural as breathing. Mom and Dad were (and still are) my lifelines.

Whenever something good would happen to me at work or school, I knew that I could always call my Mom and my Dad first to hear their congratulations. Whenever I was hurting or down, I could call Mom and Dad and they would always lend a listening ear. Whenever my car would break down (which was often), I could call Dad and he would tell me what to do to fix it. And then, when I inevitably had no idea what he was talking about, I could call him back and tell him I needed a ride. I could call him anytime and tell him about something funny that had happened, and I knew he would always be there to listen. No matter the time or the purpose (or lack of one entirely), Dad’s line was always open when I needed it.

And now, I would do anything to be able to dial those numbers again, hear his warm greeting, and talk with him about anything. And everything.

Recently, I’ve had a string of accomplishments and great things that have happened in my life. Things have gone well and I’ve had a positive and optimistic outlook, and there have been instances when I hop in my truck and think about folks I could call to share my good news with. Inevitably, Dad is one of the first people to come to mind. And when I can’t talk to him, it hurts.

I’ve also had some moments recently when I’ve doubted my ability. I’ve lacked confidence in my own capacities, and I’ve had moments where I needed support, love, and a pat on the back. Whenever I start doubting, I will naturally begin to say to myself “I sure wish I could call Dad and talk to him about this.” I know that my Dad would have given me the “atta boy” I needed to weather the storm. I know that my Dad would have bolstered my spirits and told me that he believed in me and that I should too.

More than anything, I’ve wanted to call my Dad for guidance. Over the past year, I’ve gone through tremendous change in many areas of my life. I’ve gone through questions and trials regarding my career, my life’s calling, and my life in general. There are no road maps in this life, but in lieu of roadmaps I always had my Dad to give me the sound advice I needed to navigate the bumps and curves. There have been so many times when I sit in the desperation of my own indecisiveness and wish I could call him one more time. There have been so many nights where I’ve cried in my truck and will simply cry out in frustration, “Dad, what should I do?” And yes, there have been many nights where the trauma of my life fades from my line of sight and I pull my phone out of my pocket and dial those seven numbers before I even realize what I’m doing.

And it’s those nights that are the absolute worst.

I get a sinking pit in my stomach each time this happens, and it happens every few months. Part of me feels so very guilty when this happens. When I dial my Dad’s number four years after his death before I realize what I’m doing, I often wonder how I could ever behave as if life hasn’t changed when it’s been altered forever. I feel guilty for not calling him more when I had the opportunity to do it. I feel sadness that, even if I did go through with it and dial those numbers, I wouldn’t hear his voice. I feel loss because something as simple as an everyday phone call has been taken away from me forever.

More than anything, the nights where I accidentally begin to dial my Dad’s number are extremely painful because they reignite the intensity of my grief in a way that few other things can. When I accidentally dial my Dad’s number, it takes me back to what life used to be. It makes me think of all the times I would call Dad when he was working or away from the house. It reminds me that he was never, ever too busy to pick up the phone when I called him. It forces me to remember that for so many years, whether I appreciated it or not, my Dad was just a phone call away.

And it reminds me that all those things are gone. And there is a deeply difficult longing that ensues for just one more phone call, even though I know that one more phone call would never be enough.

Look, I know that this isn’t an earth-shattering revelation in the field of grief. Many, many people who have suffered loss on any scale will often write or talk about how they miss having phone calls with their loved ones. How they will habitually dial a loved one’s phone number years after they are gone, only to realize later on what they were doing.

But I’m choosing to write about it anyway to show those who are grieving that we are not alone. In the midst of our grief, it’s okay to do things that we don’t understand. We resort to habits of love because we long to have our loved ones back. It’s okay to experience those moments of relapse because it shows how wonderfully natural it was for us to have those individuals as part of our daily lives. And, particularly, those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide wish that a phone call might have changed something.

September is Suicide Prevention Month. It’s a month that uniquely reminds me what I’ve lost while also confirming my passion to prevent that loss in the lives of others.

So, if you are hurting like my Dad was hurting, I encourage you to make a call. I encourage you to reach out to family and friends and loved ones and anyone who will listen to share your pain.

If you are so full of despair that you can’t imagine going on, please know this: Your life matters. You matter. And your pain, although severe, is temporary if you can find the help. Your pain will subside if you can find the right treatment. You deserve to be healthy, and there are people who are committed to helping you find that.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline LogoAnd if you want that help, I encourage you to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (or 1-800-273-8255). 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are individuals from local crisis centers who will provide free and confidential emotional support. They will help you gain perspective on your life and connect you with resources that can save it. You can learn more at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

I once took part in a mental health first aid training course (which I’ll write about in future posts), and I remember the instructor giving us the number for this line. She encouraged us to program the number in our phones in case we ever needed it or needed to give it to someone we thought was in danger. I probably followed her orders because I’m a rule follower, but I don’t think I honestly believed that I would ever need to use that number.

Then, almost a year later, my Father lost his life to suicide.

I wish I would have known. I wish I would have sat down with him, called the number, placed it on speakerphone, and had one of my most important phone calls with Dad. So in this month and in all the months that will follow, let’s all commit ourselves to making a call when we need it—because as much as we might need that call, maybe the person on the other end of the line needs it just as much.

Make a call because I can’t. Make a call because you matter. Make this call so your loved ones can continue calling you.

Make the call because you deserve love.

Dad with Baby Lucy and SB LogoDad, There have been so many times when I’ve wanted to pick up the phone to call you, and there have been so many times I’ve done it only to realize you won’t be able to answer. In the four years that you’ve been gone, there have been so many momentous occasions—both good and bad. In each of those moments, I’ve wanted to call you to tell you all about them, to get your advice, and to hear your positive encouragement. But it’s the little moments that I miss just as much. The days when I would call just to ask you what you were doing. The days where I would call to hear you tell a stupid joke. The days when I would call just to hear your voice and remind myself how lucky I am. My heart hurts each and every time that I realize I can’t call you, and I wish I had been able to do more to keep you around for more phone calls. Dad, I’ll always remember how even in the most mundane phone calls you made me feel loved. I’ll carry that in my heart forever. I’m longing for a day where this long distance is no longer. I’m yearning for a day when I can talk to you face to face, forever and ever. Until that day, seeya Bub.

“I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” Psalm 61:4 (NIV)

Words Matter

“How do you tell people…how your Dad died?”

I sat across the table at a Panera from a good friend of mine. Unfortunately, we sat at that table together as victims of a similar tragedy, having each lost a parent to suicide. We talked that night about many things, especially the difficulties we encountered as grief stayed constant while life moved on.

I closed my eyes and nodded my head, because I remember asking myself this same question. I remember struggling to find the words when people asked why my Dad died so young. When I looked across that table, I saw a man walking through the same horrible questions and doubt that I had been dealing with. I would have done anything in that moment to take his pain away, because living a life after suicide makes even the most simple moments ridiculously complex. It’s hard to find the words to describe the death of a loved one when suicide enters the picture.

I thank God that, although eventually and painfully, I found the words I needed.


“My Dad committed suicide.”

“My Dad took his own life.”

“My Dad died from a suicide.”

I just didn’t know how to say it.

In the week or so after my Dad died, as crazy as this might sound, I would stand in front of my mirror at home and I would practice saying these things aloud. I would look at my own eyes, often swollen and tear-stained, and say these words to myself. Each and every time, they would break my heart.

No matter what variation I came up with, however, I just couldn’t find a way to do this. I couldn’t bring myself to say these words, mainly because they felt so unnatural. I never, never convicted my Dad of his death. I never, at any moment, held my Dad responsible for what happened to him in his battle with depression. I know that every survivor of suicide can’t say this (and that’s completely okay), but I was never at any moment mad at my Dad for what happened to him. He was not responsible for his death—depression was. Depression, a horrible and difficult to comprehend illness, stole him from his family and everything he loved. My Dad didn’t “commit” anything.

During my years in graduate school, I learned many things about life that extended far beyond the training I was receiving for a career as a college educator. One of the lessons that our faculty members constantly tried to drive home is a rather simple one: words matter. The words we choose to use each day matter. The words we use to define other people and their identities are important. It seems like a simple lesson, but I don’t think I realized just how meaningful this truth was until it hit home with my Dad’s death.

Now, in the midst of the greatest turmoil of my life, I found myself struggling each and every day to tell people how my Dad died.

I didn’t want people who didn’t know my Dad to have a wrong impression of the man he was. I didn’t want all the negative stereotypes and stigmas typically associated with suicide to discolor my Dad’s memory and legacy. If anything, I wanted people to know that even the strongest amongst our midst still suffer and still succumb. I wanted to convey this in a simple phrase—and like I do in so many areas of my life, I turned to a good book to help.

The gift of a good book is one of the most precious things you can give someone, in my opinion. I’m thankful that members of my family feel the same way. My grandmother, Pat, is an avid reader like me, and a thoughtful reader at that. Pat was my Dad’s step-mother, and in the aftermath of my Dad’s passing, Pat was extremely gracious and loving as my Mom and I continued to grieve. At the same time that she was suffering, she made sure to watch over my Mom and I, helping any way she could.

Grieving a Suicide BookOne of her most thoughtful gestures during that time came in the form of a book that has helped me in more ways than I’ll ever be able to thank her for. In an attempt to cope with her own sadness after losing my Dad, Pat came across an amazing book written by Albert Y. Hsu called Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers & Hope. Pat was kind enough to read the book and recognize how helpful it was, and she bought two more copies: one for me, and one for my Mom. (For this book and others that helped me cope with my Dad’s death, visit the “Library” section of Seeya Bub.)

As soon as I received the book, I stopped reading what I currently had on the docket and made this my priority—and I’m so thankful that I did. This book was sent from Pat, but I know that it was also sent from God. I received the book from Grandma Pat right in the midst of my struggle to verbalize my Dad’s death. Like all good books, it came at just the right time.

In the understatement of the century, I’ll say this: Albert Hsu’s book is a real blessing and an inspiration—especially for everything I do on this blog. Hsu lost his father, Terry, to suicide. On an everyday Thursday morning, Albert received a call from his mother that is all too familiar for so many families in our country. Albert’s Mom had discovered Terry’s body, cold and lifeless, in their family home. In such a perfect way in the pages that follow, Albert describes each and every emotion that he felt and still feels and all the unique struggles he encounters as a survivor of suicide. His story is one of the most helpful things I encountered in the aftermath of my Dad’s death, for so many reasons.

And just as I was struggling with how to describe my Dad’s death, I came across a section in the book titled “How To Talk About Suicide”. It was like a message sent directly from God through another loyal follower. It was exactly, exactly what I needed in that exact moment.

Forgive the long passage, but understand how vitally important these words were for me in my struggle to grieve. Hsu wrote:

Survivors are hypersensitive to the topic of suicide. It punches us in the gut if someone jokes, “If this doesn’t work out, I’m going to kill myself!” One survivor told me that she challenges coworkers who say things like that, asking them if they’ve ever considered how painful those flip comments might be to others. Suicide is no laughing matter.

How should people describe the act of suicide? This has been an ongoing debate for some years. The traditional phrase has been to say that someone “committed suicide.” Survivors reacted against this, saying that it implies criminality, as one would commit murder. Is suicide a crime that is committed, like a burglary? In some cases, perhaps, but in many cases, no.

In the past few decades, psychologists and suicide survivor groups have moved toward saying that someone “completed suicide.” In this parlance, suicide is not a single act but the final episode in what may have been a period of self-destructive tendencies.

The problem is that in many cases, suicide is a single act, not one of a series of attempts or part of a larger pattern. Furthermore, to say that someone “completed” suicide sounds like noting a laudatory accomplishment, like completing a term paper or college degree. It also comes across as somewhat clinical and cold.

So more recently, grief organizations and counselors have suggested that we use more neutral terms: for example, someone “died of suicide” or “died by suicide.” The Compassionate Friends, an organization dedicated to helping families who have lost children, officially changed its language in 199 so that all its materials reflect this. Executive Director Diana Cunningham said, “Both expressions [‘committed suicide’ and ‘completed suicide’] perpetuate a stigma that is neither accurate nor relevant in today’s society.”

I resonate with this. I find it difficult to form the phrase “My dad committed suicide.” And it seems wholly unnatural to say that “my dad completed suicide.” It is somewhat easier to tell someone that “my dad died from suicide”… (Hsu, 2002, pp. 145-146)

I put the book down, and in that very moment I knew that I would never say the phrase “committed suicide” when describing my Dad or other people who suffered the same fate he did. I just couldn’t do it, because it didn’t accurately describe what happened to my Dad. “Committed” gave the impression that my Dad did what he did willingly and with a sound mind. That he welcomed death, even though I knew he fought against it each and every day of his life. Even though I have many questions about his death, I knew this was not the case.

I wanted to find language that reflected the fact that my Dad’s life was stolen. Stolen by a terrible disease that attacked his mind and his well-being. People don’t commit death by cancer. They don’t commit death via car accidents or strange and inexplicable illnesses. And they don’t commit suicide either. They suffer, and there’s no guilt to be felt by those who suffer from diseases that we don’t quite understand—whether physical or mental. I liked these phrases that Hsu suggested, but I still found myself searching for the perfect phrase.

And then, in the midst of all these thoughts, I heard someone say it for the first time. I don’t remember where, and I don’t even remember who said, but I heard someone refer to their loved one as a “victim of suicide.” Their loved one was a victim. A victim of a horrible illness that attacks and hijacks our thought processes to make life appear unlivable.

I knew, in that moment, that would be the phrase I used to describe my Dad’s death. I knew that that particular phrase captured the way I felt about my Dad’s death. It would send the most accurate message about my Dad’s death—that his life was cut short by a terrible disease and illness that stole his life prematurely. That I didn’t hold him responsible for that July morning in 2013. That I never, in any moment, blamed him for what happened.

So, whenever I would speak publicly about my Dad or talk to someone who asked why he died, my phrasing was always consistent and purposeful. My Dad, a strong, sturdy, and stable man was a victim. A victim of suicide. It didn’t remove the tears or the hurt, but using that phrase helped me honor my Dad each time I shared his story.


Sitting in Panera a few years after my Dad’s death, I found myself speaking passionately and purposefully to another young suicide survivor about this very topic. And I realized, in that moment, that God led me down that journey to describe my Dad’s death for a reason. I realized that words, no matter how innocuous or mundane, matter more than anything.

I admit, both selfishly and with regret, that before suicide impacted my life I never gave a second thought to how this language might bother or hurt those who were suffering. Before Dad’s death, I had a very different understanding of suicide. I would have willingly and readily used the phrase “commit suicide” without giving it a second thought.

But now, in this new life of mine, just hearing the word “suicide” causes me to stop dead in my tracks. I get goosebumps, still, every time I hear it. Because suicide has touched my life. And now, those words are personal.

To some people, this is nothing more than semantics and mental gymnastics. A meaningless attempt for someone who is hurting to cover their wounds with a bandage until the next wound surfaces. But to me, it’s everything. I believe words hold a unique power, because both the richest and poorest people in our world, separated by miles of inequality, still have stories and still have words to describe them. The psychologist Sigmund Freud said “Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men’s actions.”

And I hope, with the words I choose, that I can sway someone else from meeting the same unfortunate end that my Dad found. I hope that the words I use, even those so seemingly simple as the way in which I describe his death, will cause someone to think differently about suicide, mental illness, and the need to fight against depression with everything we have.

This may sound simple, but the fight begins with the words we choose regarding suicide and mental illness. Our biggest obstacle in this battle, one that I hope you’ll join me in, is helping fight the shame and stigma of mental illness—and in order to get people to talk about how they feel, we have to make them feel that it’s okay to talk.

My words, your words, the words of hurting people—our words matter.

Dad and Lucy at Pumpkin PatchDad, Each day I wrestle with telling your story and making sure people who never knew you know the type of man you were. I want them to know you were strong. I want them to know you were thoughtful. I want them to know you were caring and loving and everything a Father should be. I hope that the words I choose to use convey the love I have for you and the love you gave to all of us each and every day here on Earth. You never inflicted pain with the words you chose. You built people up by telling them and showing them how important they were to you. You and I had many wonderful conversations together, and we shared so many words. I’m sorry for the moments that my words may have hurt you. I wish I had spent more time telling you the words you deserved to hear—that I loved you, that I was proud of you, and that I was always there to listen when you were hurting. I know that we will have these conversations again. I wait longingly for that day. But until our words meet each other’s ears again, seeya Bub.

“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14 (NIV)

23 Pushups

You wouldn’t know it from looking at me, but I actually go the gym four to five times a week. And I know what you’re thinking… “Man, you should really demand a refund.”

I joined the LA Fitness in my neighborhood many, many years ago with grandiose dreams. I was hoping to go from chubby to Channing Tatum in about six weeks. I could feel a six pack just lurking underneath the surface of the five or six Frisch’s Big Boys I ate every week. I planned to put in a few hours at the treadmill each week, a little bit of time throwing some weights around and grunting, and before you’d know it I would have to buy all new shirts because my biceps would tear holes in the old ones.

In what is an inexplicable physical anomaly, I can guarantee you that my muscles haven’t even come close to warranting a new wardrobe. Oftentimes, I find myself embarrassingly being outlifted by nearly everyone in the gym, including one hilariously painful endeavor where I dislocated a rib doing dumbbell flys with…well, not much weight. I’ve blacked out on treadmills, slipped from pull up bars, skipped nearly every leg day, and taken it upon myself to provide a nightly comedic act for the other patrons of LA Fitness.

But since Dad died, I don’t go to the gym for the same reasons I used to. Don’t get me wrong—if God wants to bless me with a Herculean physique, I’ll be grateful and gladly accepting of this gift. But if that doesn’t happen (and let me assure you, it really will take a miracle of God), I’ll still keep at it because there’s more at stake than muscle.


After Dad died, I knew that I would need to take some time off from work and my usual routine to get some clarity on the entire situation. I ended up being away from work for about four weeks, which was a blessing that I’ll always be thankful for. My supervisors at Miami made it possible for me to take all the time I needed to recollect and regroup before I got back into my new normal, and I did my best to heed the advice of so many others I had talked to about grief when they told me “Don’t try and rush things.”

The unintended consequence of all this time off, however, was that it gave me more time to sit and think about everything that had happened. As people started to return to the routine of their own lives, I began to have more and more time to myself. And for someone who can easily get lost in the drama and intensity of my own thoughts, this wasn’t always a good thing.

So, by week two I knew that I was going to have to start filling my time with things that were more productive and would occupy both my schedule and my mind. Summer was nearing its end, which gave me plenty of options. I could attend baseball games, or go to the movies, or visit the park and spend some time outdoors.

“Or,” I thought one morning, “I could start going to the gym again.”

Because things had been so busy earlier that summer, the gym had become more of an inconvenience than an opportunity for stress release. Every night, I found myself coming home and reading and working on assignments, so the gym just wasn’t an option on a regular basis.

So to try and get my mind off of all the trauma it had experienced, I promised myself I would go to the gym every day I could. I would show up for a few hours each day and do my best to get active. Instead of obsessing over the tragedy that had occurred, I would go there and challenge my mind instead.

I’m not going to tell you anything new that you haven’t heard from the fitness addicts in your own life, but it’s another voice to add to the chorus: When I went to the gym, I felt better. It was hard to explain because I didn’t know how to feel better having just lost my Dad so suddenly and unexpectedly, but my body and my mind felt better during those hours at the gym than trapping myself in the solitude and emptiness of my house.


A few months later, I would get some clarity on why I felt so much better. I had the privilege of joining my mentor and friend, Dr. Bob Rusbosin, and a few Miami undergraduates for a research presentation at a conference at Florida State University. The conference was on college student values and the concept of wellness, and we submitted a presentation on the research we had been doing on television icon Fred Rogers. As I perused the conference booklet, I noticed an interesting keynote that would take place later in the week. A psychiatrist and M.D. from Harvard, Dr. John Ratey, would be speaking about wellness and health from a medical doctor’s standpoint.

Dr. Ratey is the author of a book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science Exercise and the Brain (visit the “Library” section of this page for a description and link). At about 9am midway through the conference week, Dr. Ratey engaged in a heavily scientific explanation using phrases related to brain anatomy, neurotransmitters, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, and a million other scientific terms and processes that were completely foreign for this particular audience member.

And I was completely and utterly fascinated.

Dr. Ratey says it much more intelligently than I ever could, but the premise of his argument is this: physical exercise benefits the brain just as much as it does the rest of the body.

And for my particular life situation, Dr. Ratey gave an explanation that really hit home—that physical fitness could lead to the prevention of mental illness like depression, thereby also diminishing the likelihood of suicide.

The introduction to Dr. Ratey’s book says it all. It’s a quote from Plato that reads “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”

Let me give you the best explanation I can of the research Dr. Ratey has done (please keep your author in mind, as there have been episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy that have tripped me up before). And forgive me for the technical description, but please understand–this disease killed my Father. I want to know everything I can about it so I can prevent it from happening to anyone else.

Brain signals are sent via neurotransmitters, or chemicals that send messages from one brain cell to another. Psychiatry has identified three primary brain transmitters that regulate everything the brain does: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. When the levels of these neurotransmitters are unbalanced, mental illnesses can occur. Most medications target one or two of these neurotransmitters, but exercise has a different effect. Exercise and physical activity actually have the capacity to elevate and regulate all three of these neurotransmitters simultaneously.  Exercise also increases the presence of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF), a crucial protein that can help our brains maintain and create healthy neurons. Dr. Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain” (I’ll reiterate, he explains this all much better than I ever could, and I would really encourage you to grab his book).

Here’s what all this talk of neurotransmitters and brain chemicals equates to:

  • Exercise helps our cognitive functioning and ability to learn
  • Exercise can help us relieve stress
  • Exercise can be an effective in the prevention or treatment of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and attention deficit (or can help in conjunction with other treatments)
  • Exercise can change the way our brains react to addiction
  • Exercise can help fight off brain-related aging diseases, like Alzheimer’s

Even though there were many factors at work in my Dad’s death, and even though he still had many more years to live, I constantly remind myself that my Dad fought successfully against this demon for decades of his life. I can’t help but think that the extremely complex concepts Dr. Ratey so beautifully articulated were playing out behind the scenes of my Dad’s own brain chemistry, helping him fight off his own periods of darkness for many, many years.


Although he didn’t do a very good job of passing the athletic genes on to his only son, my Dad was often the epitome of an active lifestyle.

My Dad was always an extremely energetic and “on the move” type guy. He was the Father who never got burdened by his son asking if they could go outside and play together—because he was usually the one doing the asking.

“Hey boy, you want to go for a bike ride?” was his common refrain after our family dinners. My Dad loved riding his bike. My family was fortunate enough to live close to a beautiful local park, and my Dad loved riding his bike back through the woods and the trails on a warm summer night. Much more adventurous than me, Dad would fly through the trails on his 21-speed mountain bike, never allowing fear to outweigh his desire to have fun.

Summer nights after dinner were always full of some kind of physical activity, even on days where I knew Dad was tired from a long day at work. Tossing a baseball, swimming in our backyard pool, or taking our family dog for a walk—Dad always found a way to get up off the couch and get moving. But more important than the movement was the smile on his face the entire time.

And Dad, a man who loved people, usually found a way to stay moving in the company of others. For as long as I could remember, my Dad had always played weekly pick-up basketball games with the guys from our church. He loved the competition, and he definitely loved showing the younger players a thing or two as he’d easily outsmart them as he cut to the rim for bucket after bucket.

A true renaissance athlete, Dad was also a tremendous softball player—in fact, the best season I ever saw him play was cut short by his own untimely death. He never hit for power. Actually, in all the years he played softball (over 30), he never hit a single home run (the critical sports announcer in me always reminded him of this weakness). But he was fast, and that gave him an advantage at any church softball league where most of the players had partaken in far too many Sunday potlucks. He could cover ground in the outfield better than anyone. He could turn a lazy single into a double, and usually a triple if the fielder had a poor arm. He would play any position he could, and could usually do it with ease. I was always in awe of his contributions to the team and the seamless ease with which he performed.

Unlike me, my Dad’s mind seemed to clear when he was playing a sport. If you aren’t familiar with my lack of athletic prowess, read….well, pretty much any other post I’ve ever written. Everything just seemed to click when my Dad was active—life was in harmony, completely balanced. He found happiness in the activity, and joy in the camaraderie.

When Dad was happiest, he never wanted to sit still. I was just never sure whether the happiness caused the activity, or the activity caused the happiness. And because I now know how happiness and being active were so intricately intertwined in my Dad’s life, I’ll try and do the same.


Every day, I do at least 23 pushups. I do them with strained effort, and probably incorrect form, but I make sure I do those 23 pushups. The 23 reps are not a random number—there’s a method to my madness.

At one time in this country, it was reported that 22 veterans of the United States Military (particularly the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) were victims of suicide. This led to the creation of great military support organizations, like Mission 22[1], which provide resources and support for veterans struggling with mental illness. Recent numbers have shown the number is probably closer to 20[2], but even if the number was 1, it would be entirely too high.

I added that last pushup in for my Dad. No, my Dad was not a veteran, but mental illness is the enemy we all fight against, service member or not. Military family or not, anyone who loses a family member or loved one to suicide suffers a similar heartache when those we love leave us earlier than they should. When I do those 23 pushups, I’m simultaneously honoring the people that suicide touches and making sure that it never ever impacts my life in the same way it has theirs.

I’m very aware of my need to go to the gym, because I know that every time I step foot on a treadmill or lift a weight, I’m fighting back against the same depression and anxiety that took my Dad away from me. People say that depression and mental illness are so difficult to fight against because they are invisible—and I agree with this claim. But the things we can do to fight against these unseen enemies are often very visible, and very tangible. Staying active is just one of the many tools I’ll use to fight back against the darkness.

I’ve also found that going to the gym allows me to work through my grief. I’ve made great friends at the gym, Godly men who have listened to my pain and helped me work through it. There have been days where instead of lifting, we’ve stood near a machine together and talked about our lives and how God loves us in spite of our circumstances. I have been able to share things with my friends at the gym and connect with them on a brotherly level that I never would have been able to articulate in any other environment. In the same way that a therapy session clears my brain, I’ve found the same peace and sense of calm after spending a few hours at the gym with my friends.

There are plenty of days where I just don’t feel like going to the gym—and my body is probably a reflection of giving in to that impulse for far too long. But the fact that I don’t feel like going to the gym is exactly why I need to go. As Dr. Ratey has found, every time I choose activity over laziness, I’m boosting my brain’s capability to fire on all cylinders. I’m re-wiring my brain to choose action of victim-hood, bravery over surrender.

Don’t confuse what I’m saying—if you are suffering from mental illness or suicidal thoughts, a 15 minute sprint on a treadmill alone might not save your life. You should still seek treatment on all fronts, including medical or psychiatric care. You should still seek professional help. You should still talk to someone who can help you in your fight. But physical activity is one “tool in the toolbox” that can help in that fight, and combined with other forms of treatment, it can be a very powerful remedy.

Whether grieving from a loss or trying to prevent your own mental illness, exercise and physical activity can play an unbelievable role in the road to recovery. No matter how pathetic my physique might appear, I’ll always be a staunch advocate that those dealing with mental illness or those fighting through grief should try and find relief by getting up and getting going.

And if all that activity and brain boosting just happens to lead to six pack abs along the way…even better.

dad-mom-and-lucy-walking-with-sb-logoDad, I always admired your energy and vitality. You attacked life and took on new challenges, and you were never that Dad who loved the couch more than he loved spending time with his family. In your life, you always seemed to be able to find a good balance between rest and being active, but when you were active, you always made the most of it and there was always a huge smile on your face. Whether it was riding bikes, walking the dog, playing softball, schooling a bunch of youngsters in basketball, or simply goofing around in the backyard swimming pool, you realized that life was designed to be lived. Even though I didn’t always listen (and boy do I wish I would have), you always encouraged me to get up and get going. You always encouraged me to believe there was life outside of a TV set or computer screen, and since you left I’ve tried to live this out. I’m looking forward to many bike rides together on the other side of Eternity. And if you could talk to the Big Guy upstairs and have him send me a little more muscle mass, I’d be appreciative. Until then, seeya Bub.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Romans 12:1 (NIV)

References:

[1] Mission 22 Website: http://www.mission22.com/#ourcause

[2] http://www.militarytimes.com/story/veterans/2016/07/07/va-suicide-20-daily-research/86788332/