“I just don’t know if I can go back. How I can go back…”
My Dad died in late July, and I was set to go back to classes for the final year of my Master’s program in education—but I just didn’t know how I could do that. Full-time work and part-time school was taxing enough under normal circumstances, and my life was anything but normal after losing my Dad to suicide. On top of that, everything in life that wasn’t related to my Dad just felt sort of trivial. I wondered if it might be wise to take the year off, but I knew the dangers. Take a year off, and it’s easier to turn that into another year, and then another. Deep down, I knew that my Dad would not have wanted me to stall my progress towards my degree, but I felt extremely guilty getting back to the normal things in life because it felt like I was betraying my Dad’s death.
As I was contemplating what to do for this upcoming year, I got an e-mail from Dr. Kathy Goodman, the professor who would be teaching the Foundations of Research course that I had enrolled in. If I was nervous about continuing my studies while grieving, I was terrified of having to do it while learning about research principles and practices. Research was not my strong suit. I felt as if my classmates were all a few standard deviations ahead of me on their knowledge in this area (lame attempt at research humor, I know). On top of that, I had never taken a class with Dr. Goodman before. I didn’t know her teaching style, and I severely doubted my capacity to find success.
Then came Kathy’s e-mail. “I know that we haven’t been in class together yet during your time in the program,” Kathy said, “but I want you to know that I will do whatever I possibly can to help you be successful this semester.” Kathy expressed her condolences for my family’s loss, and she offered to help me with material, be flexible with deadlines, and allow me the space to grieve when it unexpectedly hit me. I just remember mouthing the word “Wow,” as I sat at my computer. This was a teacher who knew me only tangentially but clearly understood the pain that I was feeling.
I stayed in the course. And I completed it. And in May of 2014, I graduated with my Master’s degree. And getting there was partly possible because Kathy Goodman showed me grace.
I took a month off from work after losing my Dad. Unlike so many others who find themselves in my situation, I was fortunate to work for an employer that (a) understood I would need some time off, and (b) had given me the vacation and sick time necessary to do it. After having that month to grieve, spend time with my family, and adjust to a new normal of life after losing my Dad, I went back to work on the Monday before classes were set to resume for the Fall semester. My day was moderately productive, as I would weave in and out of being able to concentrate on my work and finding myself spiraling into my grief while trying my best to hold it all together.
I woke up on Tuesday morning after a largely sleepless night, and I just knew I didn’t have it in me. I knew that I was not going to have the mental energy to go in and slog through the day like I had done the day before. I grabbed my phone, and I texted my boss, Megan. I had known Megan since my undergraduate days at Miami University Regionals, and she had always done so much to support me—especially in the month since losing my Dad. I told Megan that I felt guilty because I had just been off for an entire month, but I didn’t know if I could come into the office today.
“Tyler,” she responded “Take the time you need. And take care of yourself.” Megan shared how much she was thinking of me and our entire family, and told me over and over again that she was willing to help in any way she could. She reinforced that she knew what I was dealing with was not easy, and she didn’t try to minimize my pain. And that level of care and compassion that she and our entire team at Miami’s Regional Campuses shared with me never ceded, even as the months after Dad died wore on. My colleagues were always, always there, and they always gave me the room to do what I needed to do to be okay.
I did take that day off of work. And over time, I found the courage to continue doing my job and taking care of myself. And it was because Megan and so many of my coworkers at Miami showed me grace.
After losing my Dad, Father’s Day has turned into a particularly painful recurrence. I have difficulty being able to celebrate the fathers that make our community special, but in the years after losing Dad, I was also on staff at our church as an outreach and connections pastor. I had responsibilities during every Sunday service to get up and offer the announcements and our opening prayer. I wanted to try and persevere on this particular Father’s Day and celebrate my own Dad by putting on a brave face and being at church that morning, but I knew it was an impossibility. My Dad’s funeral had been held in that same exact sanctuary, and every time I looked to the front of the room near the stage, I didn’t see the pulpit. Just as if it were still there, I still saw my Dad’s casket. I wondered if I’d ever stop seeing it.
I talked with my Mom about being scared to go to church on Father’s Day. I talked with my pastors, Harville and Dave. I talked with my therapist, Jeff. I talked with friends. In every conversation, I shared my concern about not wanting to be in church on Father’s Day, and the guilt I felt for having that feeling. Every person I talked to reassured me and told me that it was absolutely okay to not be there.
All of these people—every single one of them—gave me the freedom to grieve in my own way. And I did grieve, and eventually I did start going to church on Father’s Day again.
And it was all because the world and the people I loved showed me grace.
Grace, in my opinion, is the firm cornerstone of the grieving process, but more importantly than that, it’s the cornerstone of the human experience in general. When I reflect on the healing I went through during my own bouts with mental illness, my Dad’s struggles, and his eventual death from suicide, the common thread that weaves through the tapestry of those moments is grace. It was grace that always redeemed and carried me through—both the grace given to me by those in my life, and ultimately as a result of the grace given to all of us by God.
I’m confident that, in the months and years leading up to the loss of my Father, God positioned people full of grace into my life to serve as a shelter from the storm. I look back on how God moved people into my life that only He knew would need to be there when everything went dark. Those people, all in their own unique ways, let me know that it was okay to be grieving, okay to be hurting, and okay to have questions that would never receive answers. I’m thankful that they were all there to let me make mistakes and experience unpleasant emotions without ever judging me or expecting more of me than I could give. All of these individuals gave me the grace to grieve. The grace to take a moment and breathe. The grace to make mistakes, to cry unexpectedly and uncontrollably, and to do whatever was helpful for me to be well again.
I think especially of Paige. It can’t be easy living with a spouse who is grieving the traumatic and unexpected loss of a Father; but every single day, I know that it will be a bit easier to grieve because Paige will show me the grace I need to do it successfully. She will be there to hold my hand when I can’t explain how I feel. She will help find creative ways to honor my Dad and to celebrate the life he lived, even though she never met him. She is a living example of God’s grace in my life, and I’m thankful he blessed me with her.
My Mom. My grandparents. My cousins. My colleagues. My neighbors. My Dad’s coworkers. My church family. My classmates. The list goes on and on. It feels like I have a grace-inspired team that’s constantly in my corner, and I know I have God to thank for them.
And what makes this grace from God and those in my life even greater is that I had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. I can’t help but see that the same grace that was given and continues to be granted to me throughout the grieving process is the exact same grace that God calls us to embody and live out when we interact with those who are suffering from mental illness—a grace that I was unwilling to extend when it mattered most.
It’s not lost on me that, the first time I had the opportunity to show my Dad that grace when he revealed his mental illness, I failed the test. It’s not lost on me that, on the night my Father came home after being missing for three days while I was in high school, I had an opportunity to extend him grace but instead chose to be judgmental. I chose blame as my weapon. And accusation. And hurtful words and unnecessary threats. And self-righteousness. Instead of offering a hug, I offered a clenched fist. I reacted in anger when I should have responded with compassion. It’s the greatest regret of my entire life, and even though God has forgiven me for that severe misstep, I don’t know that I’ve often forgiven myself.
So, even if I don’t do it well all the time and often do it imperfectly, I’m working harder to realize the role that grace has played in my life, and I’m doing all I can to give it out more freely.
As we’ve unfortunately seen over the past few months and years, we live in a world where grace is a rarity. It’s as rare to find grace as it is a full shelf of toilet paper or hand sanitizer (this joke will make absolutely no sense to people reading this fifty years from now, which makes it even more fun). We live in a world where grace is an exception to the rule rather than the expectation of it. We live in a world where grace towards others that we dislike, disagree with, or even despise is a gift we are simply unwilling to give. We decide to dole out grace in a different way than God directed us to. God gives out grace freely, but we ration it like it’s a resource that only deserving people deserve.
God just doesn’t see it that way.
We are all hurting in our own unique, unrecognizable ways—especially those struggling with mental illness. And if we know that everyone around us is hurting, we have to do more to extend grace their way—even when they don’t ask for it, and especially when they don’t deserve it. God doesn’t unequally administer grace, and I’m grateful for that. He doesn’t only administer grace to rich people, or good-looking people, or people who can tell funny jokes, or people who live in certain countries. No matter your hurts or struggles, no matter your missteps or mishaps, no matter your most sinister and evil thoughts, actions, or desires, God’s gift of grace waits for you each and every day.
When it comes to mental illness, we have to do more to be grace-filled healers to those who are hurting. We have to find ways to let people know that, if they are suffering, it is not their fault. We have to be able to let those who are hurting know that their struggles with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, suicidal ideations, or any other host of mental illness is not a reflection of their character. It’s easy to cognitively believe that this is true, but the way we live our lives must also reflect that we accept it. That’s why, from day one, the motto of this blog has always been “It’s okay for you to not be okay, but it’s not okay for you to stay that way.” It’s a grace-filled mantra, and one that I repeat to myself often on days where I feel inadequate or unworthy. As much as I might be saying that to others, I’m also saying it to myself regularly, even if I imperfectly execute it.
And if you are struggling with mental illness or suicidal ideations, you have to do more than just receive grace from others. You have to be willing to extend grace to yourself. You must be willing to forgive yourself for any mistakes you’ve made, while also understanding that the way you feel is not always a result of what you’ve done or haven’t done. It’s that grace given to oneself that opens up a roadmap to healing—one that might include any regimen of treatments. To go and talk to a therapist or mental health professional, you must give yourself grace to escape the expectation of perfection. To regularly take medication, you must give yourself grace to accept your body and its unique physical/psychological processes. To exercise regularly, you must give yourself grace to realize you don’t have to be chiseled to set foot in a gym for the first time (if that was the case, they wouldn’t even let me set foot in the parking lot). Our ability to pursue any path towards healing requires that we accept that we are doing things to get better because we are worthy of being better.
And perhaps most importantly, if we are in the midst of a grief-filled period of life, grace will be the tool in the toolbox that we must rely on (and give to others) most frequently. Grace got me through my grief. Grace got me through the most difficult days. Grace got me through the days when all I wanted to do was sit in the bed and cry. Grace got me through those seasons of life within which all I could think about was how much I was falling short. Grace got me through all of that. And the only thing that will sustain me in the years to come will be receiving that grace from God over and over and giving it to everyone else in my life in return.
We don’t have to be perfect to receive that grace—I’m thankful for that!—and we also can’t hold back in extending grace to only people who get it right all the time. In fact, if people got life right all the time, there’d be no need for grace at all, and ultimately there would have been no need for a Savior. But because the world is imperfect and the people who inhabit the world are just as broken, we all need to find a way to both give grace and accept it. We have to be able to live with our mistakes and missteps while not keeping a permanent score of the same missteps of others.
I’m thankful that the God I serve is one who doesn’t expect perfection, but instead is in the business of redeeming lost children, like me. If God expected perfection, I would have had to throw in the towel a long, long time ago. Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way. I’m thankful that God has forgiven me for all the things I’ve gotten wrong, because it’s allowed me (over time) to not expect that same perfection of others. My faith has taught me that grace, not perfection, but grace is the key to being loved by God and being able to love one another.
Just like my Dad was, grace has been one of my greatest teachers.
Dad, I’m sorry that I did not extend you more grace when you needed it. I’m really sorry that, on that first bad day when you were hurting and suffering and feeling inadequate, I didn’t do more to make you feel loved. If I’m being truthful, it still haunts me when I think about the way I reacted to you with anger and judgement. It was ugly. It was unbecoming of a son who loved his father. I’m glad that I had other opportunities to be more kind and compassionate to you when you were hurting. Perhaps more than anything, I’m thankful that you were a Dad who didn’t expect perfection out of your son. You were a Father who helped me learn through my failures. You were a Father who taught me because you believed I could learn. Dad, I don’t judge you for your death and the way you left us. I’m not angry at you or bitter because you left too soon. I’m sad, and there are days when I’m devastated, and I miss you like crazy, but I don’t blame you for those things. I blame depression and mental illness and processes that, in our limited human understanding, we can’t make sense of. And that’s why, in your memory, I do my best to extend grace to everyone around me because I know, in their own ways, they are hurting too. Thank you for reminding me why this is important through the way you lived your life. Thank you for always living out grace in your own life. I so desperately wish you had been able to extend that grace to yourself in those last moments, but I know you’ve received it now in the full glory of Eternity. I’m looking forward to the day when we can experience that together. Until that day, seeya Bub.
“Each time He said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NLT)