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/