Dad’s Rules: Little Pleasures

(This is the newest feature in “Dad’s Rules”, a recurring series at SeeyaBub.com. To learn more about the “Dad’s Rules” series, check out my first installment.)

Dad’s Rule #55: Enjoy life’s little pleasures.

“I’m telling you—they have the absolute best salads here,” Dad would say as we sat in a booth at LaRosa’s while Mom was working or busy for the evening. As I’ve written before, LaRosa’s was always our go-to spot when we were “bach-ing it” for the evening because Dad’s only skill in cooking was blackening (A.K.A. burning the living bajeezus out of everything). I think he misinterpreted the phrase “grilling a steak” as “sacrificing a calf to Hephaestus the god of fire” somewhere along his culinary training. Had he tried to make the salad at home, he probably would have burned that, too.

“You’re telling me again because that has to be about the 476th time you’ve mentioned this to me. You say it every time we eat here,” I’d respond in adolescent-frustration that, in retrospect, now sickens me.

“Well, I keep saying it because they’re still good!” Dad would say with a smile—and then he’d mention it at least 475 more times during our dinner just to try and get me to laugh.

Eventually I would laugh—because it was amusing to think that any person could get this much pleasure out of a bowl of lettuce with some toppings.

But my Dad did—because he loved life’s little pleasures and he found them at every turn.

This salad-banter would not have been an atypical exchange between me—an annoying know it all—and my Dad—a yogi in the school of appreciating simple things, and my annoyance was largely born out of that fact that I had a tremendous childhood. As a youngster who grew up in a world where, largely, all of my immediate needs were met and exceeded by two loving parents, I could lose sight of what I was given because I was always (sickeningly) focused on what was coming next. When you’re a kid in the first-world, you run from pleasure to pleasure because the world tells you you should. I’m thankful that I had parents who constantly reminded me that I should live life for the moment. My Dad, unlike me, was really never focused on that next thing. He was always deeply immersed in the moment he was living in—that exact moment and whatever he was experiencing.

My Dad, you see, was the king of little pleasures.

In my life I’ve met lots of interesting people, and nearly everyone has a skill or character trait that I find myself wanting to emulate. I think we all have those people in our life who, in their own loving way, frustrate us as a result of our own incompetence or shortcomings. “Gosh, if I could just be a little bit more generous, like Bill.” Or “Jan is so fun-loving. I wish I could get outside my comfort zone and just let my guard down like her.”

When it comes to my Dad, I have a long list of attributes that I hope I can live up to by the time I reach life’s finish line. Whenever I look at my Dad and think back on his life, however, it’s the appreciation of those little pleasures that I wish to emulate most.

My Dad was a guy who could soak up the beautiful simplicity and grace of any given moment. Absolutely any moment. He didn’t need frills, a fancy production, or something that cost a lot of money to appreciate life. He appreciated life for the little things. It was those little pleasures that he loved so much—and it’s those little pleasures that I still find myself taking for granted more than anything else.

I think about the times my Dad would take an evening bike ride in nearby Rentschler Park at our family home. Dad would come home an hour and a half or two hours later with beads of sweat rolling down his bald head, talking about a cool bird he had observed, or a running stream of water, or a deer off in the distance. As he would habitually remove his glasses and use his elbow to wipe the sweat from his forehead, Dad would talk about the things he had observed on his bike ride as if he had just pedaled through the most gorgeous rainforest in the Amazon or the depths of the Grand Canyon. You would think that he had witnessed one of the wonders of the world on a 10 mile bike ride. And as a kid, I’d marvel at how someone could find such pleasure in a park around the corner from our house. I had been there. It was nice. But it was almost as if my Dad was seeing a different park than everyone else.

But it was real. My Dad soaked up the little pleasure of that moment.

When I got my first announcing gig at Miami University Hamilton, my Mom and Dad came to every single game. I joked that I was the only announcer at any level whose parents came to every game. Maybe it was because I was such a horrible athlete as a kid and they were simply making up for lost opportunities. My first gig wasn’t glamorous by any means. There were only about 75 or 100 people at each game in a gymnasium that was smaller than the arena at my high school with hard wooden bleachers and modest concessions. The sound system wasn’t that great, and the games weren’t always that entertaining; but my Dad acted as if he were at an NBA game every single time he walked in. He was happy to be there. Happy to be talking with people he came to know and grew close to. Happy to be there with his family. Happy to be watching a basketball game—a game he really loved to play. I don’t know if I ever saw anyone enjoy a small town basketball game more than my Dad.

But that was who he was. A man who enjoyed pleasure in everything, but especially the small, everyday, unsuspecting moments.

My Dad could find joy—real, authentic, unadulterated joy—in just about any situation. I think that’s why I had such a hard time comprehending how he could suffer from depression. It was hard to reconcile Dad’s happiness—which was so frequent that it could be a bit annoying to those of us who didn’t have that natural buoyancy—with a despair so deep and unending that life felt unlivable. The two mental states just didn’t compute with one another, but that was before I understood depression for what it truly was. That was before I saw depression as a mental illness that could plague anyone regardless of their status in life or their outward-facing emotions.

At the same time, I often think that is how my Dad coped with his depression. I think, when times got tough and when his depression began to overtake him, he would focus on the little pleasures in life and constantly train his mind to seek out joy and happiness. I think it was his way of dealing with the extreme sadness and shame he felt, and even though it may not have been enough to save his life in the end, it did keep him healthy for the majority of his adult life.

Little pleasures. My Dad’s joy. I’m glad I’m at a point where, when I think of him, I don’t think of the heartache and the way he died. I think about how he was vigilant in seeking out those little pleasures. And it makes me think of how my Dad’s example can help all of us in times like this when life seems to be so very, very difficult.

Life has looked very different for all of us over these past two months, and some have been hit harder than others. But we’ve all been inconvenienced and disrupted and put into a lifestyle that we likely wouldn’t choose. The pleasures that we’ve come to know have suddenly disappeared for many. When many of the big pleasures of this life have been ripped away suddenly, it’s easier to focus our attention on those little pleasures—and to also realize that we’ve been taking them for granted all along. Those little pleasures have always been there; but sometimes, we are so focused on the “next big thing” on the horizon that we are blinded to their existence. It’s time for a bit of a refocusing.

That’s what my Dad would have done if he were here in this moment.

When you lose a loved one and the world continues to turn, it’s only natural to wonder how that loved one would have dealt with the current episodes of life. I often find myself daydreaming and wondering how my Dad would have handled having a smartphone—he never owned one but talked about it in the last few months of his life. Or how he would have enjoyed certain restaurants he never got to try (my verdict is that he would have loved Chuy’s and eaten there enough to help the manager buy a new speedboat). But I also find myself pondering how he would have reacted to big life moments and changes. I would have absolutely loved to have seen his face and taken pictures with him on the day I married my stunning and strong wife, Paige (while burying my head in my hands at their dance moves during the reception). And as painful as it would have been, I imagined my Dad at his Father’s funeral, recounting stories of a man with a bitingly sharp wit coupled with a loving appreciation for those good things in life.

Even when life’s moments are hard, you still want that lost loved one there with you to experience them and walk alongside you.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s only natural for me to think about how my Dad would have handled this entire situation. Yes, I’m glad that he is in a place—an Eternal place—that knows no pain and records no hurt. But I still wonder how he would have responded to the uniqueness of this pandemic, the shutdown, and all its other challenges; and selfishly, I wish he was here because we would have been such a good pillar of strength for my family during this unpredictable age.

Although, in some respects, my Dad also would have been completely wigged out by the Coronavirus. A bit of a fun fact for those of you who did not know my Dad—and even some of you who knew him in his life might not have known this. My Dad was a complete germophobe. We are talking off the deep end anti-germ. In all the years that he and my Mom shared a loving marriage, they never once shared a drink. My Dad absolutely refused to drink after anyone, no matter how desperately thirsty he was. When we would go out to restaurants, he would inspect the silverware with the finely-tuned eye of an expensive jewelry dealer, looking for the most infinitesimal speck of unwashed substance that would allow him to send back the silverware for a chemical cleaning. And amidst all of the rugged tools and construction items that he always kept in his truck, there was always a bottle or seven of hand sanitizer in the main console.

Dad would have been very, very concerned about how quickly this virus spreads. He would have used this quick spread as a reason to scold my Mom and I for not taking seventy-two thousand milligrams of Vitamin C like he did every day (even though he got sick more than any of us). He would have washed his hands more than he already did, and I know he would have obeyed the six-foot rule as often as he could.

There is a part of me, deep down, that knows Dad would have also found a way to bring a smile and a laugh to peoples’ masked faces. Always the jokester, I know that my Dad would have been the guy to go viral—not the scary viral but the YouTube variety—for wearing a full welder’s mask and coveralls into the grocery store. He would have looked like The Mandalorian as he grabbed a gallon of milk from the dairy case, and he would have loved every moment of it. I think my Dad would have known that now, more than ever, people needed and deserved a good laugh (while simultaneously appreciating the fact that no cough is getting through a welder’s mask). It makes me cringe, but I could totally see him making “I’ll have a Corona—hold the virus” jokes to waiters, even though the man never drank (and then he would quickly correct and say he’d just have a Coke).

Aside from the new comedic opportunities, the best of my Dad would have shone through in the ways he would have served other people. I know that my Dad would have been constantly checking in with people over the phone and doing anything he could to help them in their troubles (with plenty of hand sanitizer in his back pocket). He would have been making repeated trips to the grocery store to pick up supplies for my grandparents, our neighbors, and those other individuals in our lives who needed him. He would have been calling, constantly, to check in on people he loved (I can hear his hearty chuckle during hour-long phone conversations from the recliner in our family room). And he would have gone above and beyond to help his friends and family who were financially impacted by this awful situation because my Dad was never greedy, never self-centered. I know that’s what my Dad would have done, because that’s what he always did. He was the helper that we should all strive to be in this life, and he would have been now.

There are elements of this pandemic, however, that would not have suited my Dad’s strengths, namely the idea of quarantine and staying away from others. My Dad would have struggled mightily with any type of isolation or separation from people because he thrived on friendship, connection, and love. He would have missed his daily lunches with his coworker, Brian, and the meal and laughs they always shared together. He would have missed going out on Saturday nights to watch UFC fights with his friends—and much to my chagrin, he would have watched the reruns of those ridiculous matches on our family room TV with the volume on 63 and the surround sound rocking. But he would have deeply, deeply missed being around people. Talking with them at church. Giving family members a hug. Playing in softball games. Going to family reunions. This would have been very difficult for my Dad to overcome because he was at his best when he was with others—and he was always fully present.

But in those difficult and trying moments, I know that my Dad would have found a way to focus on the little pleasures that were still there—and he would have reminded people like me how much we still have to appreciate.

Opening DayAnd just like he did when life was “normal,” I think my Dad would have loved the little things even more in the midst of this pandemic. My Dad would have taken this opportunity to go on more bike rides, to watch more sunsets, to sit in front of more bonfires, to watch more (stupid and idiotic) UFC reruns, and to spend more time appreciating what he did have rather than focusing on what he would have lost. He would have created beautiful things around the house with his talented hands, likely transforming our entire home with only a few Tim-Allen-Home-Improvement-esque explosions along the way. He would have gotten creative and used his downtime for even more phone calls to friends and families that he missed, and he would have constantly told them how much he appreciated them and that he was always there to help.

Essentially, Dad would have used a bad time to make good things happen. That’s the guy he was. It was the rule he lived by.

It’s the reminder I’ve needed in this moment for sure, and the rule I need to do a better job of living by, too.

So, in the midst of this pandemic, when life frustrates me, I try to step back and live by Dad’s rule. I try to remind myself that I am healthy, that I am employed, that my family is protected, and—most importantly—that my God is still on the throne. I remind myself that, for all that may have been temporarily taken away, there are so many more good things that are still here and ready for me to appreciate. And in those moments, I remind myself of all those little things that I still have that my Dad would have appreciated beyond belief.

I think my Dad was able to focus on those little pleasures because he never got obsessed with the “big” pleasures that our world tells us we should be concerned with. My Dad never craved money or fame or recognition or power. That freedom that comes from being controlled by God and not the things and experiences of this world gave my Dad a different focus in this life, and in every moment, I saw him appreciating God’s creation and His gifts to all of us.

May 21 just passed on the calendar—a painful reminder that, on this past May 21, my Dad would have turned 57 years old. As I do every year, I think about all the things we would have done had Dad been around, and I can guarantee you that our celebration would have been simple—and that’s exactly how Dad would have wanted it. We would have gathered for a home-cooked meal by my Mom and ate on the back patio as we admired nature and Dad threw down a couple Coca-Colas. Then, we would have enjoyed a Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream cake and exchanged a few presents before Dad started a bonfire in the backyard that he would watch burn slowly into the evening with all of us at his side. There would have been an ever-present smile on his face, and he wouldn’t have needed to leave his house to find it.

Dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, and I’ll always cherish my Dad’s appreciation of those little pleasures.

I’m thankful that my Dad taught me this lesson each and every day that he was here with us; and I’m thankful that nearly seven years after his death in the midst of a global pandemic, he’s still my greatest teacher.

And I’m especially thankful that my Dad taught me to bathe my extremities in hand sanitizer at regular intervals throughout the day. The man truly was a visionary before his day!

Dad Mom and Lucy Walking with SB LogoDad, I don’t know that you’d believe the world right now if you saw it firsthand because it’s so unlike the one you lived in. I’m thankful that you’re in heaven and away from much of the pain we are watching, but selfishly I wish you were here to give me the advice and guidance that you always offered. You were a rock for me and for so many people, Dad. You were that smile on a dark day—that laugh at just the right moment. You were that reliable, dependable friend and confidant to so many, and there are so many people hurting that need your help and companionship more than ever. But Dad, in the midst of our heartache over losing you, I feel you still teaching and guiding me in every moment. I’m thankful that for 26 years I had a Father here on this Earth who was more than my friend—you were my teacher. You taught me what to value in life, what to prioritize, what to cherish, and what to stray away from. Although you’re not here and I wish you were, your memory and legacy continue to teach me and give me peace in the midst of the storms of this life. Thank you, Dad, for always enjoying the little pleasures afforded in this life. Thank you for teaching me that there’s more value in a beautiful sunset, a good meal, or a conversation with a family member than there ever will be in those false gods that tempt us. Thank you, Dad, for always showing me what joy was truly rooted in. I can’t wait to thank you in person, but until that day, seeya Bub.

“Don’t be obsessed with getting more materials things. Be relaxed with what you have. Since God assured us ‘I’ll never let you down, never walk off and leave you,’ we can boldly quote, ‘God is there, ready to help; I’m fearless no matter what. Who or what can get to me?’” Hebrews 13:5-6 (MSG)

Working Through Grief: Guest Blog by Christina Grote

Tyler: “The people that you work with are just, when you get down to it, your very best friends. They say on your deathbed, you never wish you spent more time at the office; but I will. Gotta be a lot better than a deathbed. I actually don’t understand deathbeds. I mean, who would buy that?” Michael Scott (The Office, Season 7, Episode 22: Goodbye, Michael)

The Office OlympicsOh, how I appreciate the wisdom of a good quote from the philosophical guru of our times, Michael Scott. I’ve watched The Office on a loop for years and years, doing my best to avoid Season 8 (talk about a long, national nightmare), and knowing that the show speaks truth in its simple humor. Let’s be honest—we’ve all had that moment where we’ve noticed a striking and deeply unsettling parallel between our work lives and the lives of those inhabiting the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve likely thought of yourself as a Jim-figure when, in reality, you’re more of a Michael. And maybe a Dwight at times. And possibly a bit of a Kevin. But never, ever a Toby. I mean, come on….that guy?

For a long time, The Office was a show that my coworkers and I could all relate to and share a laugh over. It brought us all together because, when something frustrating would happen at work or someone would act like a complete Dwight or a Toby, we could find humor in it. I’ve shared that camaraderie with many wonderful colleagues throughout the years, and I’m amazed when I think of the time I’ve spend with all of those people who have become some of my best friends.

In normal, non-COVID-19, American society, the average person likely spends just as much time with their coworkers as they do with their family and friends—sometimes, they spend even more time with coworkers than anyone else in their immediate circle.

I’m thankful that, for many years, I got to spend those hours with Christina Grote.

Christina Grote and Tyler Bradshaw 2During my time as an Admission Counselor at Miami University’s Regional Campuses, Christina blessed my life with her thoughtfulness, dedication, and fun-loving attitude. Christina joined our team about a year into my tenure there, and we worked closely with one another on about every project imaginable from campus visits, to coordinating tour guide efforts, and yes, those many, many visits to high schools all across the region. To this day, she is one of the most dependable, loyal coworkers that I’ve ever worked with.

And more than that, she was there for me as a dear and compassionate friend when I lost my Father to suicide. I know that I couldn’t have navigated his death without her kindness every Monday through Friday from 8:04-4:57 (I may not always be on time, but at least I’m precise).

Years removed from my Father’s death, I often find myself looking in the rearview mirror for those folks that I’ve deemed “position people.” These are people that came into my life for, at the time, unbeknownst reasons to me; but looking in the rearview mirror, I can see that God was perfectly positioning a village of caring, loving people around me to provide a hedge of protection and walk alongside me, arm in arm, as I grieved. Neither Christina nor I could see the tragedies on the horizon in either of our lives, but I believe that our Creator did and knew having one another to navigate those moments and learn from one another would be so vital to our healing.

From the moment that I met her in her interview, I could tell that Christina Grote had a heart for helping people, which I knew would be a great asset in her role as an admission counselor. I just didn’t know that the person she would help most would be me. I’m thankful that during my greatest tragedy, Christina was there for me—and I hope I’ve been able to show my appreciation for her by being there through hers.

I am elated that Christina decided to help even more people by sharing her story here at Seeya Bub because it’s one that teaches all of us how we can all do a better job of supporting our coworkers who are grieving. Unfortunately, Christina has experienced this process from both roles—that of supporter, and that of the person grieving. Because of that trial by fire, Christina has learned important lessons about literally working through your grief, which she shares with us here.


Christina: My name is Christina and I’m thankful to Tyler for inviting me to contribute to his impactful and important blog. This post has been years in the making – the timing just hasn’t been right to share my story, until now.

Christina Grote and Tyler Bradshaw 1A brief history and context — I met Tyler in the spring of 2012 when interviewing for my first full-time job at Miami University’s regional campus in Middletown. I was excited to be interviewing for a position that combined many of my interests and talents, and was over-the-moon to be offered a role as an Admission Counselor prior to finishing my Master’s degree. Right away, I knew I had made a great decision – the campus was friendly, our work with prospective college students made a difference, and I got to be closer to home after grad school. And, frankly, it was just a lot of fun to visit high schools and talk about going to college. Tyler and I went to many of the high schools in southwestern Ohio together to give presentations about the college application process, financial aid, finding a major and career readiness. We would be at schools all day, giving the same presentation six or seven times – it got to the point where we had timed down our jokes and one-liners to the second. We made connections with students through games and made a great team in the classroom.  We also became good friends in the process, enjoying many lunches at Frisch’s (seriously, so much Frisch’s…) and shared many inside jokes from the road.

Fast forward to July 24, 2013. I received a text from Tyler that was short – Family emergency, I won’t be in today. I assumed something bad had happened, but truthfully had no idea that this day would change everything. I had been in the office, and when I returned from lunch everyone was congregated in our lobby area.

Tyler’s dad passed away.

When you work in an office as small as ours (around 10-15 people in total), and spend as much time together as Tyler and I had, it’s impossible not to be impacted by this news. It wasn’t until later that I had learned that Scott had lost his life from suicide. This information only compounded my feelings – I felt sadness for Tyler’s loss, and also felt helpless in the situation for my friend and coworker and unsure of what I could do to make this unbearable situation better.

Had I written this blog two years ago (you know, around the first or second time Tyler asked me to…), I would have jumped right into my reflection of how to successfully support your coworker when they return to work after a significant loss. But instead, on February 25, 2018, my own personal hell became reality — my dad had died, just one month after I lost my aunt to a short battle with cancer.

My mom came to my apartment and told me the news early that morning. She and I had been out the night before to see a live performance of The Price is Right downtown, and we both stayed out later than usual. I drove home to my apartment in Fairfield, and my mom went home. We believe my dad died from a health event, like a heart attack, but to this day we’re not sure. The next few weeks were a blur. The visitation was a long blur. The funeral was an emotional, somber blur. In the same church where I had married my husband, Brian, just 14 months earlier, we were now saying our final goodbyes to my dad. I went back to work after the first week, just to go through the motions of what I thought I needed to be doing, but I was a shell of a person for a long time.

Everything I was doing felt wrong — being at home felt wrong, shopping for dresses to wear to the funeral felt wrong, crying felt wrong, sleeping felt wrong, eating felt wrong. Going to work felt wrong, but also felt kind of right – my dad was a hard-worker and would have probably gone back the following Monday too. So I went through the motions and drove to work, 8 days after my world shattered. I think it was an unexpected gift to be at work — sure, there were still a lot of crying episodes and emotional moments, but there was also this fake sense of normalcy that I was clinging to. It also helped, too, that I worked with incredibly supportive folks who let me just be that day (and many other days since then). Was I productive that day? Absolutely not. Was it what I needed? Yes.

Which brings me to the whole point of this blog post — what can you do when your coworker is experiencing grief? These are just a few thoughts and suggestions that I hope have helped others and that certainly helped me during my grief journey.

Say something – even if it’s not perfect. There are definitely some things that are not ideal to say to someone who is dealing with loss or grief — that’s not really what this blog post is about (if you’re really unsure, a quick Google search will enlighten some cringe-worthy things to avoid). The worst thing that you can do is to pretend that nothing has happened and say nothing to your coworker. Even just a simple, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” goes a long way to show empathy and caring.

I’ll never forget when Tyler came back to work after taking time following Scott’s passing. I’ll admit I was nervous and certainly walking on eggshells for the first few days, uncertain of how Tyler would do and being extra cautious to check in but give him space. A few days had passed, and we were talking about some upcoming meeting or event that we weren’t necessarily looking forward to. Without thinking, I said a phrase that was part of my everyday vernacular and normally wouldn’t have thought twice about — “ugh, kill me now.” How many times have we said this in the past about something without thinking twice? As soon as the words were travelling out of my mouth, I wanted to hurriedly smoosh them right back in but couldn’t. Tyler didn’t even realize I had said this, but I felt all the blood rush out of my face and found some fake excuse to end the conversation and close my office door. I lost it right there – how could I be so insensitive? How could I have said something so stupid in front of my coworker and friend who just lost his dad to suicide?

It took some time for me to share this with Tyler (again, he didn’t even realize that I had even said this! It was weighing on my heart and he had no idea.). In that moment, an ordinary conversation turned into a moment of panic and anxiety. But that’s what it was, an ordinary conversation with a coworker. You can’t ignore that life has changed for the person grieving, but sometimes when you’re grieving, mindless ordinary conversations can help break up the overwhelming emotions that you are experiencing. When you ask “Hey, how are you?” to your coworker, they might just say, “Fine,” or they might let you know exactly how they’re feeling. Both are okay, and checking in is so important for the person grieving and for you as the supportive co-worker.

Show up when your coworker cannot. Some days, the person grieving just cannot — cannot get out of bed, cannot show up to work, cannot even try to do the normal things with their former level of enthusiasm or dedication or productivity. That’s the reality. If you’re lucky, you work somewhere that allows and encourages mental health days for this very reason to allow the person to be away from work to experience their emotions and process them in their own time and way. When I say to “show up when your coworker cannot,” I don’t mean to give permission to just “take over” work responsibilities for your grieving colleague without input or notice — respect that the person grieving is trying as hard as they can to return to or create some sense of this “new normal.” However, there are some days when it is just too much to deal with and your colleague might just need some help, whether they ask for it or not.

Check in with your coworker and let them know that you are there for them. Give specific ways that you can help (i.e. returning a phone call to someone, leading a group meeting that week, or other ways that are relevant to your workplace). This is also good advice for connecting with friends who are grieving – specific ways to help are often met with warmer welcomes than just the generic “Let me know what I can do’s” — it shows thoughtfulness and doesn’t place the burden on the grieving person to tell you what they need.

Don’t ignore the grief your coworker is experiencing. Grief is uncomfortable — it’s not a desired human emotion, especially in our American “Do anything to be happy” culture. There’s no rulebook for grief, the “5 stages” are not often linear, and even as time passes there are triggers that set off a grieving person. A person grieving can rarely plan for these unexpected moments of emotions — they happen sometimes when you expect them like holidays, birthdays and the anniversary of their passing; but sometimes it happens when they hear a song on the radio, smell a familiar scent that reminds them of a memory, or just hearing a phrase spoken their loved one used to say. Prior to losing my dad, I didn’t realize just how unpredictable grief can be — I assumed there was this time frame that everyone gave themselves, then moved on. This misconception was challenging for me to work through in the first year after my dad passed because I was striving to be happy and not be in pain, when the reality was that things were permanently different now and I needed to be uncomfortable to adjust.

Your coworker (or friend, or workout buddy — really, this is relevant to anyone) is trying to make sense of this new reality, while trying to appear that they are making their way “back to normal.” There is no time limit or timeline for grief and there will be days of inexplicable emotions. Just a few months ago, my coworker (who also lost her dad several years ago) came to my office visibly upset. She had just met with a student who lost her dad and was trying to figure out what her academic options were. In that moment, she allowed herself to be vulnerable and provide caring support to the student, to share emotions together, and also give genuine support through the avenues and resources available through the university. When she came to tell me about this meeting afterward, we both took some time to grieve together and recognize that regardless of how much time had passed, we both missed our dads and both could empathize with this student’s circumstances.

You don’t have to have first-hand experience to be supportive. When Tyler’s dad passed away, I had been very fortunate to not know grief very well — I think at that point I had only lost distant relatives and their losses, although tragic, brought brief and temporary sadness but not life-altering grief. I didn’t have the perspective to fully understand what Tyler was going through in those days and months after Scott passed, but that didn’t keep me from trying my best to be a supportive coworker and friend by listening, being there and stepping up where I could. It shouldn’t take experience to be a better supporter of grieving friends and coworkers, but I know I owe apologies to friends and coworkers who I wasn’t as great of a supporter to before I experienced such profound grief and loss myself. Since my dad passed, I’ve been able to show up for coworkers and friends who are also dealing with loss, this time with the unfortunate but inevitable lesson of having gone through it myself. Ultimately, there’s no right way to do any of this, so give yourself some grace and just try to do the best you can in each moment of supporting your coworker through their grief journey.

I’ve worked with some pretty incredible people in my career so far and for that I’m very blessed. This has been evident in how we’ve been able to support each other during happy times in life, but also in those times of loss and sadness. We often know how to be supportive in our families and close friendships, but our work lives are grounded in relationships with colleagues that are incredibly valuable and important. I hope this reflection is a helpful perspective for anyone who is struggling with loss and grief, whether your own or for a friend or someone in your work life. Anything you can do to show up and be there will make a positive impact for someone in their darkest hour.


Tyler: A few months after losing my Dad, Christina and I found ourselves immersed, yet again, in our seemingly never-ending world tour of high school presentations, going into classrooms and talking about college readiness topics. On this particular day, the day after an Election Day in November, I found myself driving the hour-or-so trek to Oakwood High School near Dayton. As I did most mornings, I was listening to the talk radio news reports about the election results and the endless, partisan, back-and-forth bickering and fear-mongering between two political sides of the coin—neither concerned with actually solving challenging problems but more concerned with protecting their own power and getting re-elected the next time.

And like grief unexpectedly does, it hit me. Just as Christina wrote about, out of nowhere, a wave of emotion washed over me because I had once been so consumed by national politics but now, in light of loss, it all felt so meaningless. In that moment, I could think only one thought:

Dad couldn’t have cared less about any of this. And in the end, it wasn’t all that important. And I’m a horrible person for thinking it was ever important.

And there, the spiral began.

It probably wasn’t logical to extrapolate the results of a national election into the pain I was feeling after losing my Dad, but as Christina reminded us, grief isn’t all that logical. I cried for the last few minutes of that drive, and when I pulled into the parking lot, I dashed off a quick message on social media about how I was feeling. I tried to compose myself—to pull it together—before Christina arrived because we had a full day of presentations ahead of us and I knew I’d need to be on my game—“stage ready.”

Christina pulled up into the parking lot and as we got out of our cars to start unloading our materials, she could tell I was upset. Without saying a word, she just tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a hug and said she was sorry that I was hurting.

I’ll never, ever forget that moment as long as I live.

I tried to explain why I was feeling what I was feeling to Christina; but the beauty was I didn’t have to. She wasn’t expecting me to reason through my feelings. She just told me that she was there, and if I couldn’t present my part of the presentation that day, she was ready to jump right in and help (I’m sure she was hoping we weren’t giving the presentation where I used to sing a small stanza from a Sesame Street song…).

She was there. More than anything, Christina was there.

I’d like to think it’s qualities like these that Christina exhibited—trusting your intuition and showing an unyielding sense of care for your fellow human—that are those intangible qualities required for the “other duties as assigned” bullets I see in so many job descriptions.

It’s easy to take good colleagues who become friends for granted. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all that. Yes, there’s the grace that God has provided for us to socially distance ourselves from the “Dwights” we don’t like (yes, we all have them); but on the flip side of the coin, I’m sure that many of us have grown to miss those coworkers whom we laugh with, share coffee or (Frisch’s) lunch with, and genuinely enjoy being around.

Grotes at WeddingChristina’s post reminded me how fortunate I was to have to her in my life at a time when God desperately knew I was going to need her friendship. It also reminds me that, when it comes to supporting my coworkers and colleagues in their own emotional struggles, I still have a lot to learn. It reminds me that even an imperfect attempt to help someone who is hurting and healing is better than no attempt at all. And it reminds me of the bravery it takes (which Christina showed on so many occasions) to take that step to help, even when you don’t quite know what to do. We have to help others who are grieving, but we can’t help them if we don’t first try.

Because, in the words of Wayne Gretzky in the words of Michael Scott, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Dad Smiling Against StairsDad, Although it’s been so difficult to live life here without you, I know that you’ve been watching over me—over all of us. I also find peace knowing that God positioned people in my life, like Christina Grote, to help me grieve in a way that was healthy. There have been days when I’ve been so unexpectedly sad since your death, but it always seems that there have been loving people who know exactly what to say in just the right moment. I know that’s no coincidence. I know that it’s all part of a perfect plan to heal an imperfect world. Dad, I’m thankful that you were always such a blessing to your coworkers. I think of the countless people who loved spending time with you at work. I know that you enjoyed your job because you liked working with machines and getting your hands dirty, but I also know that you really loved your job because of the people who brought a smile to your face. Dad, I hope you know that you brought that smile to the faces of so many people during your all-too-short life here on Earth. You were a constant source of encouragement and joy for those who called you a friend or colleague, and we miss that brightness in our lives because you aren’t here. You were gone too soon, but I’m thankful that you made the most of the time you got to spend with people. It’s an important reminder to me when things get busy, and I’m grateful that your life lessons are still teaching me. You were the best Father a boy could ask for, and I can’t wait to remind you of that face to face. Until that day, seeya Bub.

“Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed, Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.” Galatians 6:2 (MSG)

Christina WerneryAuthor Bio: Christina Grote

Christina is a higher education professional who has worked at Miami University’s Regional Campuses for almost 8 years. She’s a Cincinnati native & alumna of The Ohio State University (Go Buckeyes!) and Wright State University. She is currently working on her doctorate in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Miami. In her spare time, she enjoys being outdoors & golfing with her husband Brian, cooking new recipes, and seeing the world through the eyes of her cat, Sophia.

Shine a Light

On most evenings (and much to my own personal dread on the cold ones), I take our golden retriever puppy, Penelope, for a walk around our neighborhood. Slowly but surely, Penny is figuring out how to walk like a respectable dog.

Let me rephrase that—very slowly, but surely nonetheless.

Penny
Penny Bradshaw (Don’t be fooled by the cuteness.)

More and more, Penny is growing to like her walks. At first, she was always a bit too anxious and couldn’t enjoy the walks because of her nervousness. Paige and I didn’t give up, and after many failed attempts and one fantastic puppy training camp later (thanks Rhino Kennels!), Penny is getting more and more accustomed to her nighttime strolls around our corner of suburbia. She usually gives me a few excited jumps as we begin our walks together (even though I’m pretty sure our dog trainer told us not to let her do this but it really is pretty adorable—sorry Rhino Kennels!). She’s growing more interested in sniffing cars and flowers and fire hydrants along the way. And she has really enjoyed stopping at either of the ponds in our neighborhood if there happens to be a pack of geese or ducks that she can watch intently.

But even with all her progress, Penny still gets a bit nervous. Paige and I laugh about Penny’s nervous “head dip” that she does when she sees something she doesn’t recognize approaching in the distance. I can always tell when she’s spotted something coming her way. If she sees an approaching person, dog, or UWO (unidentified walking object), Penny’s pace slows ever so slightly. Her walking becomes much more deliberate and controlled. Locked in on the figure in the distance, Penny lowers her head slightly and hunches her little puppy shoulders (do puppies have shoulders?!). As we get closer and closer, Penny’s hunch gets lower and lower. Her walking slows even more until, finally, we reach the object. She either lowers her hunch all the way to the ground and stays in a submissive position, or if she’s feeling friendly, she investigates, jumps, and wags her tail.

Most of the time, I laugh at Penny—that is, until I spot something that I can’t identify on the horizon and get a little nervous myself.

My work schedule typically requires that I walk Penny in the evening, and the fantastic winter weather and daily 37-minutes of sunshine that we seem to get in southwestern Ohio at this time of year often require that I walk Penny in the dark. For the most part, our neighborhood is very well lit, but there are some stretches that tend to be a bit darker than others.

A few evenings ago, Penny and I were walking together in the cold when I noticed the familiar hunching behavior of my four-legged companion. Realizing that she had spotted something up ahead, I looked up and spotted something in the distance. I spotted it too, and after a few seconds of quick mental processing, I had identified three possible things that the darkened object on the sidewalk up ahead could have been:

  1. A small, toothy-little creature that was prepared to chew all of our ankles off,
  2. A carnivorous, vicious, prehistoric-style bird that would peck through my ribcage and ravage all of my internal organs, or
  3. A piece of trash.

Naturally, I chose the most realistic option of the three.

It was definitely the bird.

If you know me, you know that I have a particularly strong fear of any creature from the avian realm. I’ve got this whole ornithophobia thing down to a fear-inducing science of pure terror. When I was a child, my Dad used to torment me at the county fair by gleefully dragging me through the chicken barn as I shrieked, bawled, and prayed to my God and any others who might be listening that none of these foul fowls would decide to jump on me and peck my eyes out. When I visit Home Depot, I am that guy who ducks (no pun intended) anytime a bird flies down from the warehouse-style ceiling (WE ARE INSIDE! WHY IS A BIRD INSIDE?!). And one time while on vacation with our closest friends a few years ago, a seagull attacked me and stole the last bite of my delicious Cuban sandwich as I screamed for intervention from the Almighty. I still can’t eat a Cuban sandwich without feeling my heart rate increase. Thanks, bird.

On the night in question, as Penny and I both crept towards the vulture-like bird on the sidewalk in front of us, we each grew a bit more anxious. I could see Penny’s head go lower and lower and lower towards the ground as she slowed her walk, and I felt myself preparing for a bit of a run in the event that this bird did what I knew it was going to do (namely, kill me and my dog in a violent flurry of feathers and squawking).

A light in the distance flickered, and as we got closer and closer I decided to take out my phone and turn on the flashlight so I could look into the devilish eyes of the murderous beast. And once I cast the light up ahead of us, I had a clear vision of our dreaded enemy.

A mangled pizza box.

(But wait….there could still be a bird inside the pizza box ready to fly out and peck our eyeballs out, right?!)

That’s right. The fear-inducing figure in the distance turned out to be nothing more than someone’s old, empty pizza box that had likely blown from a garbage can down the street.

I was relieved, and so was Penny—although she really wishes there would have been a slice of pepperoni with extra cheese left for her. But it wasn’t until we were able to shine a light on the shadow in the distance and realize what it was before we could be free from our anxiety and fear.

And in many ways, I think that mental illness works the same way.

I firmly believe that mental illness is an enemy that, when left in the dark, grows stronger, more powerful, and more all-encompassing day by day. I also believe that, when talked about and brought out into the light, we diminish the stronghold that mental illness can have on our minds and on our lives. With each confession that we are struggling or hurting, we slowly strip mental illness of its power and fight against the culture of silence where it finds its control.

When I reflect and think back on my Dad’s struggle, I can see this playing out in the rearview mirror as I desperately wish I had paid more attention to it. For the longest time, my Dad refused to shine a light on his own depression, but instead chose to bury it deep below the surface—but his motivations weren’t egocentric in the slightest. My Dad was not a man who cared about image or his own ego, and I am confident that the reasons that my Dad felt he couldn’t talk about his depression were motivated by a fear of disappointment—more than most, he was afraid he would let people down.

My Dad was a fixer. A builder. A carpenter, electrician, and maintenance technician by both trade and pure interest, and there was rarely a thing my Dad couldn’t do. My Dad was the guy that everyone called. If you needed a ceiling fan fixed or a shower tiled or a deck built, my Dad was the first call for many. His talents, as I’ve written about before, were abundant, and now that he’s gone, I think I’m even more in awe of what he could do. He was an artist, a craftsman of the highest order, obsessed with detail, quality, and perfection. But above all, he loved being able to make others happy with his talent. And by golly, it was genuine.

Above all, I know the motive for why my Dad helped people. It wasn’t about showing off those talents. It was never about boasting. It was because he had a fixer’s heart, and he liked being able to help others. More than anything, I think my Dad had a deep fear of disappointing people.

This fear of disappointing people was one of his most admirable qualities—but it was also the same fear that, left unchecked, led to him into periods of suffering in isolation and loneliness. Among his many great qualities, my Dad was also dependable beyond belief. If he told you he would be somewhere, he was there. If he told you he was going to fix something, it would be fixed. He held himself to a higher standard than anyone else, and that higher standard could create pressure that was difficult to reckon with. I believe that my Dad had an irrational fear that admitting he had depression and that he was suffering would cause people to think they couldn’t depend on him any longer—and I’m confident that it was that fear, more than anything, that kept him from talking about his illness.

It’s a fear that wasn’t unique to my Dad. It’s a mindset of silence that, unfortunately, is all too pervasive for those who are hurting, suffering, and struggling with mental illness.

When I reflect on my Dad’s story and think deeply about the moments when his depression controlled him most severely, it’s hard not to think of the scary and frightening moments. Those moments when, fueled by his depression, he would inexplicably leave without a trace and runaway, abandoning the home where all the comfort he ever needed lived.

But time gives the benefit of great perspective and holism, and I can simultaneously reflect on the moments immediately thereafter when he would come home, admit his defeat, and seek help. Those moments when Dad would return and when we would talk about his depression, dragging the monster that scared him out into the light to recognize it for what it was and to emphasize, strongly, that there was a path forward—to encourage and show Dad that he could manage and control this—were moments of unbelievable growth. We would recognize Dad’s depression and not deny the fact that it existed. He would visit the doctor, and be vulnerable about what was going on, and chart a path forward through medication and other treatments.

And then, with his depression called out into the open, Dad would get better. It wasn’t easy. It was never a “snap your fingers” type of treatment. It took weeks, sometimes months, for Dad to get better—but in nearly every situation, Dad did get better. And for a while (sometimes a long, long while), things would be at their best. And Dad would be at his best—a conquering fighter who would refuse to let his life be controlled by a powerful, dangerous illness.

It would be those moments when Dad’s depression was out in the open amongst our family in which he would feel most at ease—most comfortable with who he was at his core. During the times when Dad felt he could admit that he was struggling and he could avoid the shame of feeling like he needed to hide his illness, I think my Dad was truly at his happiest, his most content, and his most peaceful state.

Doesn’t it work that way for so many out there who are hurting and suffering from mental illness?

We all harbor different fears. Some of us are afraid of heights. Others are afraid of social situations. The smart people are afraid of birds. But then there are those deeper, emotionally-laden fears that are hard, even embarrassing, to talk about. Our fears of rejection. Our fears of solitude. Of financial inadequacy. Of pain and abuse. Of insecurity. And yes, of disappointment.

When we grow fearful, we often feel we have to wear a mask. And when we wear a mask, we are unnecessarily burdened by the shame of feeling that we have to hide how we feel. We shy away from honestly sharing our fears and insecurities, and as we do, those same fears and insecurities grow and grow and grow, eventually growing to a point that they take over our ability to function regularly.

But it’s the immediate relief that any of us who have suffered from mental illness can all relate to—the “shine a light” moment. That moment when we admit we are struggling while simultaneously taking a deep sigh of relief, knowing that we’ve identified the culprit—mental illness—and realizing that the enemy is exposed. There’s a physical response when we admit we are hurting—our shoulders relax, the tightness in our chest disappears, and it literally feels as if a weight has been lifted from our bodies. Think of it like a pressure valve or a cork in a bottle of champagne. All the pressure continues to build and build and build, and the moment that cork goes pop!, we feel an immediate relief of the pressure. Everything bubbles out and—if you’ve got a good bottle—life tastes really, really good in those first, fresh moments after you’ve opened the bottle.

I think we feel the most relief in those moments immediately after we shed the mask of shame and honestly talk about our fears, insecurities, and feelings. But for many who suffer and especially my Dad, as time wears on, we tend to slowly but surely put that mask back on. Over time, when we aren’t making our mental health a priority, we fall back into the old, comfortable patterns that led us down the wrong road in the first place. The less we talk about how we feel, the less light we shine on the enemy—and the less light we shine on the enemy, the more powerful it grows. And then, before we know it, the goodness that we felt in those immediate moments of relief completely retreats into the shadows. There we are again, stuck in the same place of guilt and inexplicable darkness that we were in before. The mask becomes comfortable again and seems to be a better alternative to being vulnerable.

Dear readers, I lost my Dad to suicide because of this, and I can promise you, there is nothing comfortable about not talking about our fears and feelings. It is a dead-end road, and one we must not pursue.

That’s why we have to talk, and we have to talk regularly. Yes, we must talk in the midst of our illness and in the immediate aftermath, but we also need to keep that conversation going as we begin to feel better, and yes, as we may begin to feel worse. We need to make vulnerability an everyday practice that’s as regular and accepted as brushing our teeth, washing our hands, or combing our hair. I confidently believe that so many of our real problems associated with mental illness are amplified and worsened when we don’t discuss them with others. I wish my Dad had felt comfortable enough to do more of that—and I wish that you would do more of it, too.

If you’re reading this post and you find yourself suffering from mental illness or suicidal ideations, I know that it can feel daunting and inescapable—but I promise you that the power mental illness holds over your life will dissipate when you shine a light on it and when you talk. You don’t have to talk to everyone. You don’t have to broadcast it on social media or in front of a crowd of thousands. But talk to someone, anyone. Shine a light by finding the people you trust most in your life and sharing your fear and worries with them. You’ll be shocked at how good it feels to shine the light on your mental illness—how good it feels to relieve the pressure, pop the cork, and let the feelings bubble out. And you’ll be amazed at how quickly the grip of mental illness is loosened.

It is no secret that, as I write this post, we are living in scary, confusing, fear-laden, and intensely unpredictable times. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak has taken a society that was already smoldering with fear and poured gasoline on that fire. If we were fearful a month ago, it’s likely that those feelings have grown much, much worse in the past days as we scramble to understand what is happening across the globe. As I pray for those who are hurting, there has been a heavy weight on my heart recently. It’s a heavy weight for those who are hurting and suffering from mental illness. It’s a worry that the mental illness they suffer from will grow even more powerful because of the unintentional effects of our needed physical isolation. Everyone is hurting, but those who suffer from mental illness may feel even less in control of their lives than they normally do.

In my heart of hearts, I’m convinced that there will be good that comes from this crisis. No, I don’t want it to happen, but yes, I believe that the Gospel is meant to invade dark places. Yes, there has been so much good happening in the midst of this difficult chapter. Individuals are more cognizant of the impact of their actions upon their communities and the world. Moments of generosity, I believe, are more abundant than they were previously. Without the convenience of a meal at a restaurant, a workout at the gym, or a movie with friends, I believe we’ve all grown to appreciate the little things that, for so long, we’ve taken for granted. Maybe we all needed a bit of a reminder that, above all and even with its many difficulties, life is grand and beautiful, complex yet lovingly simple.

At the same time, however, our worst fears and our primal instincts for self-preservation have amplified in ways we never imagined. Although outnumbered by the good, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake the image of two grown adults in a fisticuffs over a pack of Charmin at a Walmart as long as I live. When I go to the grocery store, I see the panic in people’s eyes that, when the world is right, just shouldn’t be there—and, unfortunately, I’ve felt it in my own heart. And I can’t help but think that, as much fear as we are seeing exhibited outwardly by so many people, the fear that people aren’t exhibiting is even worse, even greater, and even more destructive if it ever bubbles to the surface.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline TileSo if you are hurting or struggling from mental illness that you can’t explain, I beg you to not let these times of isolation prevent you from talking with someone. Find that trusted loved one or friend, call them, and just ask them if you can share your heart. Talk with them about your fears. Not everyone will be receptive, but I promise you that someone will. More than ever before, reach out to a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist who can help bring those feelings to the surface in a way that is redemptive. And if the thought of suicide has crossed your mind, I beg you to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK. Never, never let those thoughts linger. Never underestimate their power. Do something, in this moment, that will protect you, your families, and the generations to come. The world is better because you’re in it—promise me you’ll be here.

And lastly, for those fellow believers, I beg you to talk with God. Yes, He knows all, but there is great power in shining a light on our biggest fears and concerns and letting God know that we need help. Reveal the depths of your heart to the One who can reach down, provide solace, and restore peace. And find comfort in talking with him regularly because, the more we talk, the more comfortable and easy it becomes to be vulnerable—which, after all, is how God created us to be.

Together, we can create a culture of light-shiners who refuse to let our hurts grow and gain power in the dark. Now, more than ever, it’s time for all of us to start shining a light.

And please, dear neighbors, pick up your pizza boxes. Poor Penny and I can’t take it any longer.

Dad with Dinosaur and SB LogoDad, My heart hurts deeply when I think about how fearful you likely felt throughout your life. It breaks my heart to know that you experienced such shame which prevented you from reaching out and talking to those of us who loved you. Dad, I just want you to know that we were never, ever disappointed in you. No matter how sick you might have been, and even during the times when your mental illness led you to leave us, we were never disappointed in the man you were. And now, I hope you are resting in the peace of Heaven and allowing God to remind you, daily, that He was never disappointed either. Your life continues to guide me and remind me of the importance of sharing my feelings with others, and although I don’t always do it perfectly, I’m grateful that you’re still parenting me and teaching me daily. I carry you with me every single day, Dad. Thank you, Dad, for showing courage in all those moments that matter most. I can’t wait to tell you, face to face, how proud I am of you for fighting the way you did. Until that glorious reunion, seeya Bub.

 “Help carry each other’s burdens. In this way you will follow Christ’s teachings.” Galatians 6:2 (GW)

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

Wondering

My Dad’s death from suicide has left me in a constant state of wondering.

On Father’s Day, Paige and I found ourselves enjoying lunch at one of our favorite spots: Chuy’s. As I’ve written about previously, Father’s Day is an extremely difficult day for me to navigate. Every Father’s Day leaves me wishing I had just one more to celebrate with my Dad. He deserved a bigger celebration than any I ever gave him on this Earth, and each year that passes brings its own unique challenge and struggle within my emotions. Some years, it’s a tremendous sense of loss and grief that overwhelms me. Other years, its anger and frustration that mental illness stole my Father away from a world that loved him beyond words.

But this year, it was a sense of wondering—constant, ever-present, answerless wondering—that overtook my capacities.

While I plowed down a basket of chips and salsa (and then another…and maybe one more), I noticed a table nearby with about ten family members around it. There were mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, and one very adorable baby who smiled at me every now and then as she rested her head on her Mom’s shoulder. There were a number of young adolescent boys who all seemed to be extremely respectful of their parents, aunts, and uncles, which always warms my heart—especially when I see children who talk to their parents and adults in their lives over a meal instead of staring aimlessly into an iPad. I’ve always enjoyed people watching, and this was a fun family to watch. From the outside looking in, they looked like a near-perfect family in many respects.

My interest during most of the lunch, however, was drawn to the head of the table. Sitting there was an elderly man in a wheelchair. He had mostly-graying hair, glasses, a cheerful smile, and a hearty laugh that would bellow out every few minutes. Wearing a bright orange short that appeared to reflect his happy personality, the man was intensely present with every one of his family members sitting around the table. Although he seemed to be enjoying the chips and salsa just as much as I was, he listened to the stories of his family members, responded, asked them questions, and listened some more. In every moment, he seemed extremely invested in the conversation and the people he was talking with, and generally, he appeared to be so happy to be at the table with all of them.

I don’t know how the man got to the table that day, or the story of his family, but I could tell that he was a man who had earned the respect of those who were sitting near him. He was a patriarch who had clearly established a family built on love, trust, and loyalty.

I was extremely distracted during that lunch, and as much as I tried to look away from this man and his family, I was transfixed. I found myself struggling to focus on anything else but watching this man, the way he behaved, and the way his family treated him. I kept trying to imagine the years and decades full of wonderful life experiences that had brought them all together—both the moments of joy and the sadness of defeat or tragedy that they had likely experienced as a family.

And all throughout, I wondered.

I wondered what could have been within my own family, and I saw it pictured with the family in front of me.

From the moment that I heard my Dad was dead, my mind immediately had to make an important shift. Unfortunately, all the things that were “want to’s” with Dad—the bucket list of things we had always planned and wanted to do together—became “should haves.” Instantaneously, thoughts of how I had squandered or ignored precious time with the man who meant everything to me flooded to the forefront of my grieving mind. Because my Father had passed away so suddenly at the age of 50 without any prior warning that his final days were nearing, there was a feeling of the rug being pulled out from underneath me in a horrible, violent, life-altering way. I felt as if I had been robbed of a treasure that I didn’t even know I had. All of a sudden, that “thief in the night” scripture in 1 Thessalonians held a whole new, all-too-real significance.

And from that moment on, I began wondering.

A permanent sense of questioning and fruitless speculation began to take over my life on that July day in 2013, and it continues to manifest itself in so many different facets of my life; but it’s especially present on Father’s Day. Father’s Day is the day that I reflect on all the great moments that I shared with my Dad and all the lessons that he taught me; but it’s also the day in which I wonder about the rest of his life that he deserved to live. The life he should have had but never did.

As I looked at the grandfather sitting nearby our table, I wondered what it would have been like to watch my Dad grow old. It was clear that the man at the table next to me had suffered some type of difficulty that required him to use a wheelchair, but he also had remarkable, quick movements as he ate—I think at one point he even surpassed my chip/salsa intake! Clearly, some of the effects of aging had taken away a few of the liberties that he had once enjoyed, but he seemed to not let those obstacles get in his way.

It was stupendous to watch, and I wondered, silently, if my Dad would have aged with the same grace and determination that this man embodied. I have no doubt that my Dad would have aged well, as he rarely found himself in a situation where negative health effects overtook him. Yes, he likely would have gotten a few more wrinkles. Yes, his vision would have likely gotten a bit worse. But I knew that I would always be able to tease him about not being able to lose any more hair than he already had!

I’m sure the aging process wouldn’t have been all fun and games for Dad, but it would have been fun for me to watch the man that I had first known in his late-20’s and early-30’s grow and age into an elderly man—a patriarch. Sitting at the table that day, I wondered what Dad would have looked like. I wondered what clothes he would have worn. I wondered if his beard would have grayed entirely. I wondered about every seemingly simple and stupid detail of his life. And I grew frustrated knowing I would never have those answers.

I also wondered about the more profound things. How long would Dad have lived had mental illness and suicide not robbed him of the life he deserved to experience? I don’t have much evidence to back up my assertion, but I always believed my Dad would have lived into his nineties or hundreds, and I believe he would have been largely independent and self-functioning the entire time. That’s just the way he was. Dad had a zest and an appetite for life that led me to believe he would have wanted to hold onto every ounce of it for as long as he could—which is what makes his untimely death from suicide all the more perplexing. On this day, and on many others, I found myself drifting into a daze where I pictured my already-bald, wrinkled, bespectacled Father sitting across from me with his familiar laugh and twinkling smile shining through the weariness of time. It hurt me deeply to know that the vision I had imagined would be as close as I would ever get to seeing my elderly Father in front of me.

But as I watched this man at the restaurant, I began to wonder about more than encroaching wrinkles and receding hairlines. As the meal wore on, this Father/Grandfather took a keen interest in his family members who were sitting around the table. He listened and laughed as his sons and daughters told stories, just as my Dad had always done when I talked with him. He lowered his gaze and leaned low to meet the eyeline of his handsome, well-behaved grandsons, asking them questions about the sports they played, their schooling, and their friends and classmates. He made silly faces at his newborn granddaughter, and his entire face melted into a deep smile every time she clapped at him, reached for his arm, or offered a newborn giggle or coo.

You could tell that this man wasn’t here for a sympathy lunch or a meal born of obligation. This man was sitting at the head of the table because, in the eyes of those who loved him, he had completely earned that head spot and they wanted to celebrate him. Each family member assembled at the table had a sense of reverence for the man they were likely honoring at lunch, and it was heartwarming to watch their actions in a world where these types of selfless behaviors are all-too-infrequent.

I couldn’t help but picture my Dad in that man’s seat. I couldn’t help but flash-forward to a world that will never exist, wondering what life would have been like for my Dad as a Father, Grandfather, and patriarch of his family. As I enter a new chapter of my life with an impending wedding date on the calendar, I often wish that Dad and Paige could have met to share life with one another. In so many ways, they would have been peas in a pod. They would have appreciated one another’s humor—especially humor at my expense. He and Mom together would have treated Paige like the daughter they never had, and although it’s been a true blessing to watch my Mom enjoy welcoming Paige into our family, I also wish that my Dad could have experienced that same blessing. I know that Dad would have taken an interest in everything Paige did, and he would have been amazed by her talent, knowledge, and determination. On many days, I find myself wondering how they would have enjoyed growing together as father and daughter-in-law, and I constantly wonder what their relationship would have looked like. And it pains my soul to know they never had a chance to experience life with one another.

And although I joke about the nervousness I feel at the thought of becoming a Father myself someday, I know that God has a plan for me to raise children; and I know with more certainty than anything else that my Dad would have been an outstanding Grandfather. Even with this certainty, however, I wonder about the things I’ll never know. What would Dad have wanted to be called? Grandpa? Grandad? Papaw? Pops? Just wondering about the nickname his future-grandchildren would have bestowed upon him brings tears to my eyes. I wonder about all of the fun moments he would have been able to share with them—likely doing things that Paige and I would have told him they were not allowed to do. Candy consumption would have been at an all-time-high. Punishments would have been nonexistent with Grandpa. Trips to the amusement park and trick dives from the deck into the swimming pool would have been everyday occurrences. My Dad would have taken the charge for grandfathers to spoil their grandchildren to heart as his personal life mission. I have no doubt that he would have showered them with gifts and treats and experiences, but more than anything, he would have given them every ounce of love he had. He would have loved them, and I have no doubt that they would have loved him just as much.

And unfortunately for me, and for those future grandchildren of his, we will never, ever get to see him fulfill that duty. And it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Suicide (or any tragic, untimely death for that matter) creates many unique grief-related emotions within those who are left behind, but most prevalently it creates the sensation that the victim and their loved ones have been robbed—robbed of time and of a future together. After losing Dad to suicide, I remember telling people that I felt like the victim of a theft. It may have been a strange analogy, but it accurately conveyed the grief better than any other example. One day, I had a loving Father with the promise of having him in my life for a very long time, and the next day all I had to cling to were memories and the broken pieces left behind.

That unnatural feeling of being robbed, at least in my life, likely occurs because suicide in and of itself is unnatural. As a Christian, I firmly believe that suicide runs counter to God’s desire for our life. In no way do I believe it is an unforgivable sin (a common myth which I’ve addressed previously and will continue to address in posts to come), but I do believe that God’s heart breaks when one of his children loses a battle to depression. Although God can redeem bad things, like suicide, I think he also had grander plans for my Dad. I believe God wanted to see him grow old. I believe God wanted to see him become the patriarch of our larger family and become a grandfather. I believe God wanted to see my Dad enjoy retirement and many more years of marriage to my Mom. I wanted these things. We all did. I believe God wanted these things.

And I know, deep down in the innermost parts of his being, my Dad wanted them too.

My Father’s death from suicide prevented him from ever experiencing a whole new phase of joy and prosperity that he so unbelievably deserved, and my heart breaks for him because he was robbed unfairly. I know that we don’t earn God’s blessings because He freely gives them; but if there was a way to earn them, my Dad had done everything in his life necessary to fulfill his end of the bargain.

Instead, suicide and mental illness stole those opportunities away from my Father; and they stole the joy of knowing and experiencing life with him away from all of us who loved him so deeply. It’s left all of us, including me, in a constant state of wondering that will never, ever be satisfied on this side of Eternity. I’m thankful that I know, one day, I’ll be able to see my Dad again and the pain of his absence will be a memory that is long and forever forgotten. That promise keeps me moving ever-forward; but it doesn’t diminish the pain I feel in this moment. It never fully eradicates the confusion, guilt, and loss that pervades every minute of my existence.

I continued to watch the family on this last Father’s Day at the restaurant, and my attempts to avoid the pain of Father’s Day were futile. Although it was painful to think about what I had lost as I watched this family, there was also beauty in the reassurance of God’s promise that I will, someday, greet my Father again. I will, someday, run to the arms that cradled me as a baby and tell my Dad how much I’ve missed him. Like that family, I’ll enjoy a meal with my Dad that will be grander and greater than any we ever shared together on this Earth. We will laugh together again. We will bond together again. We will experience a love stronger than this world could ever provide, together as Father and son.

And in that moment, a moment I’m patiently yet desperately longing for, I’ll wonder no more.

Dad HS Yearbook Photo with SB LogoDad, You lived a big and vibrant life while you were here with all of us, and your absence is even more noticeable and painful because the void left behind is so great. You deserved to live a fuller life than the one you experienced, and I’m sorry I didn’t do more to make that dream reality. Dad, I would have loved watching you grow old—even though it might not have been as much fun for you as it would have been for me. I would have loved seeing you on my wedding day, and you have no idea how much I would have appreciated your wisdom about navigating this new chapter in my life because you were such an amazing husband for Mom. And yes, I would have loved watching you become a grandpa more than anything else. I know you would have been silly and goofy and ridiculous—and completely adored by your grandchildren. But Dad, as much as I wanted to watch those things for myself, I’m ultimately saddened because you earned the right to experience all of those wonderful things. I hate mental illness and suicide for robbing you of these life chapters. Mental illness separated you from us and from many wonderful, beautiful moments that awaited your future. And although I won’t get to watch you enjoy life, and although I’ll always have questions about why this happened to you, I do find peace knowing that you’re not suffering any longer. I find a sense of comfort knowing that the unjustified feelings of shame and embarrassment that you experienced in this world are completely gone and fully redeemed. And I know that as great as any experience you could have had here with us might have been, you’re experiencing a joy and beauty beyond any other as you bask in the glory of Heaven and God’s everlasting love and paradise. Dad, keep watching over me, and keep reassuring me that you were called Home for a reason. I love you, and I wish we could have experienced more of this life together; but I know there’s a greater reward and an unbelievable reunion awaiting us. Thank you Dad, and until the day when we are reunited forever, seeya Bub.

“Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)

Jealous

A few days after my Dad’s death, I found myself roaming around a clothing store at the outlet malls. It sounds like a rather trivial thing to do after a traumatic loss, but I needed something, anything to find temporary relief from the sadness I felt. Attempting to escape from my grief, I was doing anything and everything to just keep my mind off of the horror that had filled the past week. I was trying to do little things, step by step, that I had done in my life before losing Dad, even though I experienced unrelenting guilt anytime I engaged in an activity that felt like I was “moving on.” Life was moving on to a new, emptier normal as much as I didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop it.

As I walked around the clothing store attempting to distract myself with shirts and hats and things that felt absolutely pointless now, I realized that my mind was super attuned to the many fathers and sons inside the store. They had always been there, but my mind had never had a reason to pay much attention to them before. Today, however, was different. Today, there were fathers and sons seemingly everywhere inside the store, and I was fatherless for the first time in my life. No matter which way I turned, they were constantly in my face.

I watched them all—closely and intently. I noticed how they interacted with one another. I watched as they showed one another different pieces of apparel. I saw how they joked together. I listened to their conversations, from the seemingly mundane to the more serious and complicated.

Realizing that I was without my Father in a public setting for one of the first times in my life, I did my best to try and get away from the different groups of fathers and sons that I saw throughout the store; but no matter where I moved, I couldn’t escape them. Everywhere I went, I seemed to encounter another father and son.

After a few unsuccessful dodging attempts, I found myself standing at a t-shirt rack with a father and his teenage son nearby, and I began to listen to their conversation back and forth, as much as I really didn’t want to. I knew, immediately upon looking at them, that his son was extremely disinterested—in both the activity of shopping, but more painfully, disinterested in his father.

To his credit, this particular father was doing everything he could to engage his son in a conversation; and his son, as some teenagers are prone to do, looked like he wanted to be hanging out with anyone else but his dad in that moment. Although he was trying to mask it, I could tell that this father was deeply hurt by the way his son was acting. I could see a level of longing for a previous chapter in life—a chapter during which his son had once adored him. There was a longing to be a father of a young, innocent boy again—a longing that would never be resolved. I could tell that this father, as unsuccessful as his efforts might have been, refused to give up on recapturing his son’s love and adoration. His efforts, however, were largely fruitless, and his son did everything he could to escape his dad’s presence.

I kept watching, and as the dad attempted to engage his son more and more, the son grew angrier and more hurtful. He began rolling his eyes at his dad behind his back. He snapped at his dad whenever he was asked a question that he perceived to be ridiculous—which just happened to be every question that his dad asked. Eventually, the young man started disrespecting his father at a level that was unconscionable and uncomfortable for those of us standing nearby—especially me.

And I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Without even realizing what was happening, I found myself getting emotional. My face was red and hot, and tears were forming at the corners of my eyes. I wanted to get away from them, but I also couldn’t stop watching them and wishing that this young boy would just shut up. I was anxious and uncomfortable and angry all at the same time.

I hung the shirt I was holding back on the rack and briskly walked out of the store, leaving the disrespected father and his disrespectful son in the rearview mirror.

I walked quickly through the parking lot, making a beeline towards my car as I felt more tears coming on. Within a few seconds, I got in the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut, and I began sobbing hysterically and pathetically. I sat there, slamming my fist against the steering wheel multiple times and letting out more than one anger-laced yells. It was embarrassing and humiliating, but these were raw emotions that I just couldn’t hide in that moment, just a few days removed from my Father’s tragic death. I was furious. I was deeply saddened.

More than anything, I was jealous.

After losing Dad, jealously was not one of the emotions I expected to struggle with, but it had hit me hard just a few days after Dad’s death. I didn’t realize how cognizant I would be of all the fathers and sons in the world around me. I didn’t expect that every single time I saw a father and son walking around a mall doing something as simple as shopping could well up deep-rooted feelings of grief-induced jealousy—but it did. I was going to the mall that day to try to escape from my grief, and the mere sight of a father and his son together made that impossible. I wondered when this would start to fade, but I knew that although the frequency might lessen, the feelings themselves would likely never entirely disappear.

My Dad was gone. It was a new, horrible reality that hadn’t yet sunk in, but I kept saying it to myself that day in the car, as if repeating it over and over again would make the reality of my new life less emotional. “Dad is gone. Dad is gone.” Over and over again, I found myself repeating what I had lost in my life—my Father, my mentor, my friend. My heart filled with despair as I thought about all of the great times that we had together during his life—times that would never, ever be repeated.

And I admit it—I was extremely jealous of those young men I had seen throughout the mall that day. Many of the fathers and sons I saw in the mall that day were happy. I saw young children laughing as their fathers chased them between stores or made funny noises. In the food court, I saw dads sharing meals with their children just like Dad and I had done so many times before. I saw fathers with their adolescent children talking and chatting and carrying on good conversations. I saw older fathers with their adult children (and even grandchildren) just appreciating one another’s company.

And I was really, really jealous of those families and what they had together.

I was longing for moments that I felt were stolen from me. My Dad was a loving Father, and we deserved to have more time with one another. True, no amount of time with a man like my Dad would ever be enough, but I just knew that I wanted—and deserved—more. We deserved to be able to enjoy different phases of life together that were still to come. I wanted to see him on my wedding day (and the look of disbelief that would be on his face when I would tell him that I was getting married). I wanted to be able to, someday, tell him that he was going to be a grandfather. I wanted to watch his childlike antics as a grandfather, and I would have appreciated everything he would have done to be silly and goofy and funny with little ones running around him. I wanted to be able to see him get a promotion—which he so desperately deserved—at work, and I wanted to be able to honor him when he eventually celebrated his retirement. And yes, I wanted to watch him grow old.

That day at the mall was like a flash-forward into the life I could have had, the life that would never be but should have. With every father and son I observed, I was reminded of those moments of life that had either passed too quickly or were stolen from us too hastily. With every father and son, I saw a vignette into the world that, for some reason, I would not be blessed with.

I sat in the car trying to process my feelings. It was tough to admit, but in those moments, some of the nastiest emotions of jealousy bubbled to the surface, and I wondered why an undeserving brat like the young man I had witnessed was still allowed to have his father while mine was buried just a few days earlier. I found myself wanting to say something to that young man. I wanted to walk up to him and tell him to quit acting like such a little jerk, because he had no idea how lucky he was to still have his father in his life. I wanted to tell him that he should think twice about being so disrespectful to a man he had likely once idolized and would someday miss. I wanted him to feel a sense of regret for his despicable, thoughtless, self-centered behavior.

I also wanted to tell him that I spoke from experience, because I now found myself regretting all of the moments when I had treated my Dad similarly; and in that moment, I realized that I wasn’t as angry at that young man as I was angry at myself for not always giving my own Father the respect he rightfully earned.

I was a largely respectful kid, but I was also a teenager. As most teenagers do, I went through my “too cool for parents” phase. Although my Dad was fairly non-intrusive compared to most parents I had seen, he definitely enjoyed being around me and my friends, even when I didn’t always enjoy or appreciate his company. There were times when my Dad would be around, innocently and joyfully, and I just wanted to be with my friends—not him. It’s so painful to admit this; especially considering the fact that, now that he’s gone, I would give up just about anything to have a few more precious minutes and moments with him.

Time teaches us important and sometimes painful lessons, and it took losing my Dad to realize the true gifts of life, albeit too late to appreciate it with him. Losing my Dad has taught me to appreciate those who are in our lives while they are here. It’s a simple lesson, and I’m definitely not the first person who had to learn it the hard way. Unfortunately, it is a life lesson that many of us learn entirely too late because we don’t often learn it until the pain of loss sets in.

Although I’ve grown in many ways since losing Dad, those feelings of jealousy are still just as real almost six years removed from his death. I still have moments similar to that day at the outlet mall when I will spot a father and son and those feelings of jealousy will creep to the surface. I still observe interactions—mostly beautiful ones—between fathers and sons that will bring me to inexplicable tears. I want what they have, and I don’t understand why God felt that calling my Dad home to heaven so prematurely was necessary. There are many days when I long to be a little boy again. I wish desperately for those moments when I could swim in the backyard pool with my Dad, or ride bikes with him, or laugh at television shows with him, or just be with him.

But I know that whatever that ultimate plan may be, and no matter how jealous I might feel of other fathers and sons at times, I cannot lose sight of the fact that I spent 26 wonderful years with a simply amazing Father in my life.

I remember talking with one of my Pastors, Dave Hicks, shortly after losing Dad. At the time of our phone conversation, I was worried about going back to work. My job requires me to meet with lots of students and families who come to campus. Oftentimes, those meetings are pleasant, but on occasion, there will be instances where students grow visibly frustrated with their parents asking embarrassing questions—as all parents are prone to do in the college admission process. Students will roll their eyes, or sometimes even admonish their parents when they grow extremely frustrated with their actions. In my early career, I became rather accustomed to these types of meetings; but now, things were different. I had lost my Father, and I knew that I would likely react differently when I observed these interactions. I was worried that I might start to get inside my own head when I saw students treating their fathers with disrespect, and I was afraid that these scenarios would trigger unpleasant memories, making it hard for me to do my job. On the flip side, it was also difficult for me to watch parents who might come in and are disinterested in their children, because I lost a Father who was always, always interested in my life.

I was sharing these concerns with Dave, and I finally broke down and told him what was at the heart of my worry and anxiety.

“What am I going to do when I interact with a student being mean to their Dad? I know that I’m going to be jealous and it’s really going to upset me,” I said.

“You’re going to rejoice in the fact that, for 26 fantastic years, you had the best Father the world has ever seen—and no one, not even death, can take that away,” Dave responded.

That comment shifted my perspective on that day, and it’s been an important reminder in the years of recovery after his death. Although jealousy is a natural feeling when losing a loved one, we also can’t lose sight of what we were fortunate enough to have. Although natural, I also realize how selfish my primal feelings of jealousy were after losing Dad. It was true—I didn’t deserve to lose my Dad at such a young age. But Dad didn’t deserve to die the way he did. And the father I saw in the store didn’t deserve to be treated the way he was. And, in most every situation of life, none of us deserve the pain we are subjected to.

But we also don’t deserve God’s love—yet He still continues to love us anyway. Our actions often run counter to the life He designed and taught us about through his Son, Jesus Christ. No matter how undeserving we might be, God continues to pursue us—and I will always be thankful for that message. When it comes to loving God, there have been sinful times in my life when I’ve been absolutely no different than that punk in the clothing store. In spite of all my transgressions and selfish attitudes, God has kept loving me; and it’s a reminder that not time, not space, and not even death by suicide can separate me from the love my Father gave me while he was here on earth.

I’m thankful that, albeit shorter than I would have liked, I had a Dad who loved me unconditionally each and every day of his life. I’m fortunate that I had a Father who took an active interest in everything I did, even though there were times when I didn’t give him the respect that he deserved. And I’m thankful, more than anything, that my Father’s memory and legacy continue to guide and teach me each and every day of my life. My heart is hurt, and it’s still hurting years removed from the day that the pain of losing him was inflicted; but my heart is only full of jealousy because of the magnitude of my loss. I lost my Father on that day, but I’ll never, ever lose my love for him.

Dad and Me Stump Picture with SB LogoDad, Of all the difficult things that have happened since losing you, watching other fathers and sons has likely been the hardest. I still get jealous when I see other fathers and sons enjoying life together, because deep down I feel that you and I were robbed of precious time spent with one another. I don’t always know how to deal with these feelings, but you taught me to appreciate what we have in life more than longing for what we don’t have. And for all the experiences and moments that we might not have been able to share with one another, the 26 years that we did spend together as Father and Son here on earth were always filled with life, adventure, appreciation, and love. You taught me that it’s okay to be hurt and to not know all of the answers, but that in spite of that hurt, we should strive to love others at all times. And Dad, in spite of the pain I still feel to this day, I often ask God to teach me how to love others like you did. Although I still experience jealousy, it’s always coupled with an unfailing sense of longing for what is to come—a heavenly reunion in which I’ll be able to tell you, again, how much I loved you. Thank you, Dad, for always modeling hope. Thank you for giving me indelible memories that will never, ever be erased by the pain of jealousy. And thank you for loving me and everyone in your life with gusto. I love you, Dad, and until we can enjoy the gift of being near one another again, seeya Bub.

“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Proverbs 14:30 (NIV)

A Pat On The Head

Life’s treasures are held in the simplest moments, the everyday routines of uncomplicated love. I miss those expressions of love from my Dad the most, and I’d give anything to find those treasures again, because there is indescribable joy wrapped up in those moments.

My Dad was not a man driven by routine—but there was one routine that drove his mornings, and it’s a routine that I dearly, deeply miss.

Out of necessity, my Dad was mostly an early riser on work days. Working as a maintenance technician in a few different steel plants throughout his career, Dad was always required to get up and get going at often odd hours of the day. If he found himself working a first shift job (which he always appreciated), he was often at work by 7, leaving the house around 6:30 or so. During those horrible second or third shift years, he found himself sleeping and rising at very odd hours. As a maintenance technician, however, the hours weren’t always so predictable. Machines often choose to break at the worst time of the day or night, and there were many times when Dad’s cell phone would ring at 2 or 3 in the morning, beckoning him to work for a long shift to make a repair. I really hated the moments when Dad’s phone would ring shortly after he had gone to bed. I knew how tired he must’ve been, and I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to get a phone call only fifteen minutes into your slumber that you have to come into work.

Those odd hours often put us on opposite sleep schedules. Whether he was on day shift or night shift, it always seemed that he would have to rise and shine at a time when I was sound asleep. If he went in during the morning hours, it was too early for me to get up; and if he worked a third shift, his departure usually occurred long after my bedtime. While Dad was ready to work, I was already asleep—or at least he thought I was.

I was a fairly light sleeper as a child, and there were occasions when my Dad’s relatively simple and rapid pre-work routine would disrupt my sweet dreams. It didn’t take Dad long to get ready, as he would always lay out the familiar navy coveralls with his stitched name that he wore the night before. He would dress, brush his teeth, rub his hand across the now shiny head where his thick hair used to be, eat a small breakfast, grab his keys, and lumber out the door. It was a rather simple routine that reflected the life of a beautifully simple man.

But before he left the house, there was always one part of his routine that was my absolute favorite. Every morning, after he was dressed and right before he left to get into his truck, Dad would quietly make his way into my room. Never turning on the light, Dad would delicately tread across my royal blue carpet, attempting to dodge any stray toys I might have left out from the night before. Finding my bed, Dad would reach down, rub my hair from side to side, and quietly whisper “Seeya, bub.”

Even though I was a light sleeper, I’m sure there were many days in which Dad said goodbye to me this way that I didn’t notice. But some mornings, if he had made a little extra noise downstairs in our kitchen, or maybe dropped something on the floor in the bathroom down the hall, I was awake for the daily hair tussling, even if still dozing in and out. Some mornings, I would return the greeting with a simple “Seeya, Daddy” or “Bye Dad” just to let him know that I loved him and appreciated him saying goodbye to me. But other mornings, being the only little boy who loved attention from his parents, I would close my eyes, pretend I was asleep, and let Dad go on with his routine without letting him know I knew it was happening. There was something pleasant about pretending to be asleep, because it showed me that Dad wasn’t doing this for my approval—he was truly saying “Seeya, bub” to me every morning because he loved me, whether I was able to reciprocate that love or not.

I craved this greeting, even if I didn’t know how much I craved it at the time. On the mornings that I was awake, I would often lay calmly in my bed and wait for it to happen, knowing Dad would leave the house about 25 minutes before his shift was to begin. As a kid, the morning minutes felt like an eternity. But finally, like I knew he would, Dad always made sure he came to say goodbye to me. And it was so special, and so full of love. I used to jokingly think he only came in to rub his hand through my hair because his own hair had disappeared so many years before, but I knew better. It had nothing to do with my healthy head of hair, but everything to do with his overflowing heart.

And then, one day, it didn’t happen.

Every now and then, we all slip from our routines. We forget to floss one morning, or we forget to take a multi-vitamin. We forget to grab our lunchbox, or we leave the garage door open. It happens to the best of us. But there was one day that Dad faltered in his routine that I never let him live down. And to my knowledge, he never did it again after that.

Around the time I started high school, Dad’s morning routine had to be slightly adjusted when we welcomed our new dog into the household. Willow was an Airedale Terrier given to us by our neighbors. They were moving to a condominium in Florida, and knew a nearly 90-pound pooch wouldn’t be happy cooped up in a crowded space. So as much as it broke their hearts to leave their dog behind, it made ours soar because we were able to have a new family member.

Willow brought a lot of joy to our house. She was a lively dog—curious and intelligent, loving but mischievous. I called her “Honey Bear” and she answered to that nickname just as much as her actual name. Oftentimes, I was the first one home each day to greet her after an afternoon of lonely solitude. As I would go to unlock the door, I’d jiggle the handle and wait for a response. Willow, wagging uncontrollably on the other side of the door, would bang her nose into the handle so it would jiggle back on the other side. The clunk-clunk of that golden handle still plays in my mind anytime I open the front door, even though she hasn’t jiggled back for many years. I loved that dog.

But she loved my Dad more. No question about it. I’m almost positive the word “slobbering love affair” was created after watching how the two of them loved one another. Yes, I was the one who let Willow outside after a long, boring day inside the house. Yes, I was the one who fed her every night around 5 ‘o clock, trying not to gag as I dumped horrible, reeking canned dog food into her bowl. She loved me well-enough for those things, but when my Dad came home, it was like I never even existed.

My Mom and I would always comment about how horrible it was to not be the favorite of your family pet. No matter how much we tried to hide it, it hurt deep down when my Dad would get home, because Willow wanted nothing to do with us. Like I often did as a child, Willow would run to the door, wagging more than she ever did with me, jiggling the door knob so viciously that I thought her wet dog nose would be permanently damaged. Dad would throw open the door and go crazy petting her, laying down on the floor so Willow could place her two paws right above my Dad’s shoulder. Then, in something I’ve rarely seen a dog do, she would bend down, nuzzle her long snout underneath his neck, and lay there in her own version of a doggy hug. She showed him such wonderful affection, and he never failed to give it right back.

For the rest of any evening after Dad had arrived home, Willow’s entire attention was focused solely on my Dad. If he moved, she moved with him. If he laid down, so did she. If he went into the restroom, she waited patiently outside the door. And if he went into the garage or outside, there was a form of doggy depression that would set over her entire body. I had never seen a dog worship its owner the way she did. Remember—I was the one who fed her!

My Dad loved to joke that Willow was the favorite child. And one morning, I seriously questioned if he was joking. Willow’s bed was positioned right outside my door and right in front of my parents’ bedroom. A watchdog at heart, it was a perfect watch tower. She could keep an eye on my Mom and me, but most importantly, she could be alerted the second my Dad would wake up in the morning.

In most cases, no matter how early his alarm clock sounded, Willow would follow my Dad around. She became a part of his morning routine. He would let her outside while he ate a small breakfast in the kitchen, and she would come bounding in the house shortly after, often the recipient of his leftovers. Eventually, as he continued to ready himself for the day, Willow would make her way back to her bed, still watching my Dad’s every move.

When Willow joined the family and became my four-legged, Father-adoring sister, she also got a “head pat” in the morning before Dad left for work. He would crouch over her as she lay on her bed in the hallway, rub her head a few times, and say “Bye, pretty girl” or “Bye, honey” or “Bye, favorite child” (okay, that last one was probably made up). Then, as he’d always done, he would make his way into my room, toss my hair around, and give me the familiar “Seeya, bub.”

I loved this routine because it was steady, reliable, predictable.

Until the day it wasn’t, that is.

On the morning in question, Dad’s routine was a little louder than it had been normally. I think the favorite child got distracted by a squirrel in the backyard a few minutes earlier, waking me from deep sleep before I left for school. I heard Dad continuing his routine downstairs as I feigned sleep in my upstairs bedroom. I heard the familiar clang-clang of dishes as he pulled a cereal bowl out of our jam-packed kitchen cabinets. I heard the shoosh-shoosh-shoosh-shoosh of his toothbrushing in the bathroom down the hall. I heard the rustling of denim as he pulled on his coveralls, and the jingle-jangle of keys as he neared the end of his morning rituals. All the while, I laid in my bed, eyes closed but fully conscious, pretending I heard none of his early-morning antics and eagerly waiting for his visit.

The finale was coming—the familiar Head Rubbing of the Children ceremony where the village chief blessed his offspring (human and canine alike). Eyes still closed but mind wide awake, I heard the floorboards creek as Dad crouched down to pet Willow’s head and bid her adieu. Then, pretending to be asleep with the acumen of a seasoned actor, I heard a noise from the routine that was unfamiliar, out of place, and in the wrong sequence. It was the thud/creak, thud/creak, thud/creak, thud/creak of Dad going down the stairs. My eyes flew open and I stared at the red ambient glow of the alarm clock in horror.

“Wait a second!” my mind screamed. “Where’s my hair tousle? Where’s my ‘Seeya, bub’? Where’s my morning goodbye?” I couldn’t go back to sleep! For the first time that I had ever noticed, Dad had forgotten about his only son, and his only child with opposable thumbs at that! I was starting to think this whole favorite child thing might be more than a joke…

I obsessed over it at school, thinking of ways I could get back at him. After getting home from school that day, I stewed a little bit, thinking of how I would bring up this egregious treason with my Dad when the workday concluded. “Stewing” might be a bit of an exaggeration, as I wasn’t really mad. But my Dad and I had playfully teased each other for years about Willow being the preferred child, and I knew that I would have the upper hand for quite some time with this story.

Dad and I loved picking on one another, and this opportunity was too perfect to pass up!

In the midst of my scheming that evening, I heard the familiar click-click-creeeek of the front door. All Willow had to do was hear the first click, and she was off. Her ears would perk up, her head would snap forward, and suddenly she would explode from whatever resting position she had been in, lunge up the stairs, and attack my Dad at the front door. I followed her this time, and stood right around the corner from our front door. I heard him loving all over Willow. “Hi puppy! Are you excited to see me? Yeah? Are you excited to see me? Oh that’s a good girl! Goooooood girl!”

He came around the corner, with Willow tagging along at his feet, and when he saw me he instinctively said “Hey, bub” as he continued to roll through his after-work rituals—sitting his keys on the bench, unlacing his steel-toed work boots, emptying his pockets, and of course, continuing his love fest with Willow.

“Oh, you’ve got time to say that now, do you?” I said with feigned anger. My arms were crossed as I stared at him, doing everything I could not to break character. I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t let my face show it.

“Do what?” he said, realizing it wasn’t our typical exchange.

“You heard me” I said, with the severity of a Wild West standoff.

“What are you talking about, boy?”

“You forget to do anything this morning before you left for work?”

“Shampoo my hair?” he said with a smile. I had to admit, this was a solid comeback. He had gone bald at least ten years before.

“Don’t try to be cute. You know what you did.” I was playing my part really, really well.

“I honestly don’t,” he said, “but it must have been pretty bad.”

I turned up the heat. “You honestly don’t remember forgetting to do anything this morning?”

“No! What are you talking about?” I could tell he was starting to get really confused. I had him right where I wanted him. Vengeance was mine, and it was going to be sweet. And unrelenting.

“Well you remembered to tell some of us goodbye, but that must be reserved for favorite children only.”

He was starting to connect the dots, but I could tell the moment of realization was still a few steps away. His mouth was agape, and he just stared at me.

“This morning, I’m laying in my bed as you’re getting ready for work. You came down the hallway, and told Willow goodbye, and patted her head, and probably kissed her, maybe even on the mouth because you two are sick like that. And then, while the least favorite child is waiting patiently in his bed for a little goodbye, you just take off down the hallway like I didn’t even exist. You said goodbye to the dog and not me!” Boom.

He threw his shiny head back and laughed hysterically. When Dad was really amused, he got a higher pitch to his laugh. It was something I had to work hard to earn—only the funniest of jokes would bring out the high-pitch laugh, and I had just done it in record time. I couldn’t help but crack a smile, while still continuing in my role as the offended and overlooked child.

“Are you sure I didn’t say goodbye? I thought you were asleep!” he said, trying to outrun his forgetfulness.

“Oh, so now you want to try and deny your treason? I can’t believe this!” I threw my hands into the air in an exasperated fashion and stormed into the kitchen while his laughter still filled our living room. “You’re not even trying to deny that she’s your favorite! You’re just trying to get off the hook! Not this time, buddy boy. I’m gonna remember this for a long, long time. The first chance I get, you’re going in one of those bad nursing homes. I’m never letting you live this down.”

“Well, she is a lot cuter than you are” he said, and I couldn’t help but laugh back.

It became a recurring joke between Dad and I, the infamous day when he patted the pet and circumvented the son. I even started telling the story at big family events to try and embarrass him, and the high-pitched laugh never dissipated. He laughed with the same intensity each and every time. It was one of my absolute favorite moments, even if there was a kernel of envy rooted deep within me that was jealous of my “baby sister.”

The next morning, Dad returned to my room with a “Seeya, bub” and an added chuckle, and I made it a point to be awake for that one. I acted as if I was asleep, but right after Dad offered his familiar farewell, I kept my eyes closed and grumbled under my breath “Glad to see you remembered I exist today.” He laughed again, rubbed my hair with a little more vigor than usual, and left my room. As long as I lived in their house, which was longer than most kids, Dad never forgot to come say goodbye to me in the morning. And as difficult as it was for me to wake up early, I loved hearing him call me “Bub” and say goodbye to me because I knew it was love in its purest form.

For years, this became a running joke in the Bradshaw home. I never let Dad live down the fact that he had said goodbye to the dog and not me on that morning, even though he never failed again. We would still joke about it and laugh together thinking about that morning, and I’m glad that we found humor in that moment. We only found humor in it, however, because I never, ever questioned how much my Dad loved me.

As life moves on and tragedies, like my Dad’s death, inevitably happen, you start to appreciate all of the little things you took for granted in life. The simple dinners. The afternoon truck rides. The arguments over television shows. The moments of laughter. The hugs. The head pats. The morning goodbyes. At the time, these things don’t seem as valuable; but as life changes and loss occurs, you realize that life’s true treasures lie in those very moments, those simple interactions.

I desperately miss those morning goodbyes. I think about how impatient I was as an adolescent. I think about all the times that I wished life would move faster. I wanted the wheel to turn faster towards graduation, and then another graduation, and the next job, and the next fun moment; and in those moments, I see now that I was so often looking forward to the “next” moment instead of appreciating the “now” moments for what they were. I’m trying to learn from my Dad’s death, and I’m trying to find ways to give those little expressions of love to others because I know how much they mean—and how much I miss them once they’re gone. I’ll spend a lot more time cherishing the treasures wrapped up in those everyday expressions of love, all the while wishing for just another pat on the head and a “Seeya, Bub” from the man who continues to teach me about life, even in his death.

Sitting in Dad's Lap with SB LogoDad, I know you were a busy man, but it meant so much to me that you would come into my room each and every morning to say goodbye before you went off to work. I don’t know if I told you at the time, but I look back on those moments and realize how lucky I was to be able to start each and every morning knowing that I was loved. I’m so glad that we can laugh about the time that you forgot about me (I’m going to tease you about this on the other side, too), but more importantly I’m glad that the absence of a morning goodbye wasn’t routine for you. Dad, your life routines were based in love for other people. Your interactions with those around you were always rooted in care, grace, and a desire to let people know how you felt about them. I know that I don’t always live this lesson out, Dad, and I’m thankful that I have your life and plenty of those little moments to continue teaching me how to live in love with others. Dad, I pray that you never stop teaching me through your example. I pray that your life is a beacon to me and the multitude of people who knew you, and I hope that we never forget the ways in which you showed love to others. More importantly, I pray that we have a greeting rooted in love when Eternity calls, because I’ve missed you so very much. Thank you, Dad, for living a life led by love. Until I can get another pat on the head (after Willow, of course), seeya Bub.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV)

The Should Haves

I live my life with a perpetual and terribly unrelenting case of The Should Haves.

It’s been over five years since my Dad’s death, but I was fortunate enough to spend 26 amazing years with him on this Earth. In those 26 years, I’m blessed to say that we experienced lots of wonderful, amazing moments together as Father and Son. We swam in our backyard pool nearly every evening during the summer, jumping and diving and splashing late into the night. We wore our arms out tossing a baseball on the sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama while the sun browned our shoulders. We went to Reds Opening Day together and weathered the cold that always accompanies the early-April debut, and he was right by my side as we suffered through the agony of watching our Redlegs get their hindquarters handed to them in a playoff sweep by the Phillies. We watched movies together, biked together, went to church together, and rode in trucks together.

But no matter how much time we spent together, and no matter how many memories we made, I’m still left wanting more. I’m left with a case of The Should Haves—a nagging voice that constantly reminds me that although our story as Father and Son was vibrant and full, there was more story left to be written. There was more to do together that we never got the chance to do because of his premature and avoidable death.

I rarely live a day in this life without thinking of something we could have done together had he not died on that July morning in 2013. It’s hard for me to experience the beauty of my own life without recognizing that Dad should still be experiencing it as well.

There are always the things that we didn’t have the chance to do—things that only exist with the passing of time, and things that weren’t available to Dad and I when he was alive. New restaurants always evoke this feeling. I’m a self-identified foodie, and I definitely inherited this love for food from my Dad. Dad always enjoyed a great meal, and he and I shared a lot of them together. Since his death, new restaurants have opened and I’ve discovered more great places to gradually expand my waistline. There are countless burger places and barbecue joints and other hole-in-the-wall dives that I know Dad would have enjoyed, and when I’m savoring a great meal, there’s usually an endless thought that loops through my head: “Boy, Dad really would have loved this place…” Each and every time, it pains me to know I can’t enjoy it with him.

And then, there are roller coasters. My Dad loved roller coasters—the wilder and more insane, the better. Even though it took me longer than I’d like to admit to overcome my fear of thrill rides, I eventually did and got to ride a lot of them alongside my Dad. Our extended family always spent a summer day at King’s Island, and I always looked forward to that day of the year. Together, Dad and I got to experience the weightlessness of the first drop on Diamondback, the seemingly-incomprehensible height of Delirium, and I can’t even begin to count the number of nighttime shrieks of excitement we let out as The Beast tore through the woods.

But new coasters have popped up since he died. There are new adventures to be had, and new memories to be made at Kings Island and lots of other theme parks across the country. I remember riding Banshee for the first time and thinking how much Dad would have loved the seemingly never-ending loops and twists. After riding Mystic Timbers, I wondered what Dad would have thought of the surprise in The Shed (I hear you’re not supposed to go in there, by the way…). I can still envision his huge smile at the end of a great ride. I can still hear his laugh, yells of “YEEHAW!”, and jokes about how the wind of the ride had thoroughly ruined his hairdo. I miss those moments. I miss those memories.

These moments, these desires to keep living life with Dad, are painful. But these aren’t really “Should Haves” when it comes down to it; these are “Wish I Could Have” moments. It’s inevitable that life will go on and the Earth will continue to spin after a loved one leaves us. There was more life for us to live together, and things were naturally going to happen that I wished I could have done alongside my Dad. My Dad was a victim of suicide at only age 50, and regardless of the mechanism of death, leaving this Earth unnaturally with (likely) many, many more years to live leaves many chapters unfinished. But deeper than the truth of life continuing to go on, there is a reality that haunts me night in and night out. There is a nagging feeling of guilt that will likely follow me to my grave—a feeling that hinges on the things we could have done while he was alive but we failed to do. It is the idea that I took time with my Dad for granted. It is the belief that there were things I should have done with my Dad while he was still here. Things that I likely told myself I would get around to. Things that, had I known then what I know now about the fragility of life, I should have done with my Dad. It feels awful to think that I squandered time with my Dad, but I know

The “Wish I Could Haves” are painful; but the “Should Haves” are much, much worse.

If Dad had a bucket list, I never knew about it. I often attribute this to the fact that he lived life to the fullest every chance he had, so there was no need to keep a list of things he wanted to do—he just did them. But I do know there were things that Dad mentioned to me that he hoped, someday, we’d have the chance to do together. He wanted to go to a Luke Bryan concert together (please note, this was when Luke Bryan sang actual country music and before he became a complete sellout). There were other beaches I’m sure he wanted to see. There were other air shows I’m sure he wanted to attend. But for the most part, Dad lived his life free of any regrets.

However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t live with many, many regrets now that he’s gone.

For his entire life, Dad was a nature lover. He was constantly hiking and biking and traversing the woods of nearby Rentschler Forest Preserve, and he didn’t need headphones or even the company of others to keep him entertained. He didn’t just love nature—he was in awe of it, bewildered by it. His sense of adventure was something I was always envious of, and for the last few years of his life, he always talked about another adventure he wanted to take up: kayaking. Dad knew of a number of waterways that were nearby our house, and he would often talk to me about wanting to grab a kayak and a paddle to see how far he could take himself. Dad often talked about this desire around me, mostly in the hopes that I might reciprocate his excitement. I’m ashamed to say I never did, and there were many times when Dad asked me to spend time outdoors with him and I declined his invitation. I hate to think of the times when I could have taken a bike ride with him but decided to stay on the couch watching yet another mindless sitcom rerun. I think of all the nights that he asked me to sit with him near a backyard bonfire and I decided to stay inside for no reason while Dad sat there by himself, likely a bit lonely but still happy to be outside. I had many opportunities to appreciate nature and my Dad together that I didn’t take him up on. But I should have.

Then there were the chances to share my feelings with Dad that I failed to lean into. I think of the song we played at Dad’s funeral, a deeply-powerful country song by Will Hoge called “Strong.” It was the perfect song to play at Dad’s funeral—a testament to a life well lived—but it was a song I discovered well before his death. Although it provided a lot of healing to those of us who heard it at Dad’s service, I desperately wish I had played that song for Dad while he was alive. I should have played it for him and told him how the lyrics about a loving, devoted, hardworking, and strong father made me think of him every time. I often wonder if it would have made a difference. Would hearing that song and the way I felt helped to heal his feelings of depression and inadequacy? I should have played the song when it could have warmed his heart, but my desire to avoid emotional vulnerability kept me from doing this until he was already gone. I didn’t share my feelings with him. But I should have.

The moments when purely stupid pride and arrogance kept me from just being around him, however, are the most sickening. I think of all the times, especially as a teenager, when I avoided spending time with my Dad. I’m disgusted by the lame excuses I fabricated, and I wish I could take each and every one of them back. There were so many times when Dad would ask me to hangout or do something that I didn’t want to do. Being a typical, moody teenager, I found lots of reasons to close my Dad out of my life. Too tired, too busy, perceived to be too-cool. And yes, those times when I thought I was too cool to hang out with my Pops haunt me most. I should have spent more time being with him. I should have spent more time realizing that my Dad deserved my time more than anyone else. I didn’t do that, but I should have.

The should haves plague my soul. I remember sitting awake one night after Dad’s death. It was rare for me to find sleep in those immediate nights after losing him, and my mind would race with doubts; concerns that I had missed easily-perceptible signs about Dad’s illness and the feelings that were high jacking his mind. On one of those nights when I couldn’t get the thought of losing Dad out of my mind, I began to think back to all the moments when I had failed to spend time with him. I thought of all the dinner invites I had declined. All the phone calls I had ignored. I even thought of all the times over the past year when Dad had stayed at my house later than expected, and I, being so selfishly-consumed with my own schedule and routine, had silently wished that he would leave.

And on that night, a few nights after losing him, I sobbed and said “I’m sorry, Dad,” in the hopes that my apologies and grief could carry themselves up through the clouds to Heaven.

I stood at Dad’s casket just a few nights later and tried my best to express my love to the people who had loved my Dad in this life, and among many wonderful condolences I heard from those who came to grieve and show their support to Mom and I, I heard “Don’t feel guilty, Tyler,” over and over again. I listened intently to those family members, friends, and loved ones, and I assured them that I wouldn’t feel guilty. I assured them that I wouldn’t let regrets take my mind captive.

But I didn’t for a second believe I would actually be able to live free of guilt; and now that Dad has been gone for over five years, I’ve begun to understand how the Should Haves can actually be a confirmation that my grief is justified and natural.

Even though it ended prematurely, my Dad lived a big, full, exciting life. He treated each day as a gift as best he could, just as God directs all of us to do. As I’ve experienced my own grief and suffering, I’ve realized that the gaping hole my Dad left behind in this world could only be filled by his big heart; and although I’m in severe pain because of this loss, I would take the pain for a hundred eternities to spare the alternative. Had Dad invested minimally in the people that he loved and life in general, his loss would have been easier to overcome. But that isn’t my Dad, and that wouldn’t have been an authentic life. I feel my Dad’s loss more because he made life that much better while he was in it. I would rather experience the pain of losing him knowing that he lived a life that made a difference. The pain is worth the love I experienced for 26 years while he was here. I’d much rather have that love, even if only for a short time, and experience the pain of losing it than the alternative of never having him at all.

Although it’s difficult, I’m also learning to cope with the Should Haves better because they are showing me that I’ve learned something from my Dad’s death. They are showing me that, although he shouldn’t have died, his death was not in vain. They show me that, even in death, my Dad is still my greatest teacher. Dad’s absence has taught me the importance of never taking time for granted. Dad’s death has taught me that time is my most valuable resource. It is the only resource in this live that can never regenerate. Dad’s death has taught me an important lesson: By the time I get to the end of my own life (which will be a very, very long time from now), I want to be able to look back and say that I made a wise investment with the days God gave me. I want to be left with very few instances of things I should have done.

In my grief, I decided that one of the best ways to fight back against the Should Haves was to go out and do the things I should have done with Dad, even if he’s not around to do them with me. A summer or two after losing Dad, I decided to do something that I likely wouldn’t have done while he was alive. With my friend, Steve, I went out and bought a kayak. We each bought one, and shortly after buying them we decided to take them out on the water. We dipped the kayaks into the Great Miami River at Rentschler Park—the same exact spot my Dad had vowed to kayak but never got the chance to.

The kayaking excursion was filled with lots of things that Dad would have appreciated. Namely, he would have really enjoyed the fact that my kayak tipped and tossed me into the water the exact second I stepped into it (Note to self: always step into the middle of the kayak, not the side). I flopped around in the mud and water while Steve laughed, and all I could see was an image of my Dad laughing hysterically as I tried to regroup. After I recovered from the capsizing, we paddled up the beautiful, wooded shoreline and soaked up the rays of sun as they beat down upon our shoulders. After paddling upstream for an hour or so, we turned around, kicked our feet up, and floated back to our drop in location. All the while, tears streamed out slowly underneath my sunglasses as I wished, deeply, that I had had the opportunity to enjoy this moment alongside my Dad. I should have done this with him. In the actual moment, he wasn’t there; but in a spiritual sense, he was right by my side.

I know that the Should Haves are a natural part of grief, which is why I try not to avoid them. No matter when my Dad would have died, I would have always been left wanting more time with him. More experience, more adventure was what I always would have wanted and what he always deserved. Had he died at 117, I would have wanted him to be around for another 117 years. And in my mind, that overcompensates for any guilt I might feel. In my mind, a life that feels too short and a life that induces “should haves” is the sign of a life well lived.

Dad, Jeff and I at Kings Island with SB LogoDad, I’m sorry for all of those moments that we should have spent together. I’m sorry for all of those times that I wasted when we had the opportunity to just be together, but I didn’t realize the value of those moments. Ultimately, I’m just sorry we didn’t have more time. Dad, you brought such joy to my life—and to everyone’s life that you interacted with. Any amount of time with you would have failed to be enough. There are so many things we should have done together, and I’m sorry I didn’t make a more genuine effort to make those things happen. Dad, I hope that I’m still learning from your life. I hope that I am taking the time that God has given me and using it more wisely than I did before you died. It still doesn’t erase the pain of losing you and the desire to have more of you in my life, but I hope that I’m realizing the fragility of life and the need to invest my time in the things that matter—the things associated with loving God and loving other people. Dad, please continue teaching me. Thank you for living a vivid life that still feels important each and every day. And Dad, I’m keeping a list of all those things we should have done. Someday, we will have the opportunity to do them all, and I can’t wait. Until that day and the glorious reunion that awaits, seeya Bub.

“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4:14 (NIV)

Waiting

If you’re an impatient kid, the wait for Christmas can always be a bit of a struggle. If you have a parent who is slow to get out of bed on Christmas morning, however, that struggle escalates to an epic, herculean test of the human will.

For as long as I can remember, Christmas morning in our family home was always tremendously special. As an only child, Christmas was particularly fun because…I didn’t have to share it with anyone else! Nothing says “Season of Giving” like relishing in the fact that you get to keep everything for yourself, am I right?! As an only child, there was never that moment of frantically grabbing a package only to have the smile fade from my face after seeing a sibling’s name. On occasion, our family dogs might have got an interesting package, but because my parents wanted to make Christmas so special, they always had plenty of gifts around the tree for me. I felt like a little prince on Christmas, but in all honesty, my parents made me feel loved and valued every day.

In my childhood, I was always a bit of an early riser. I would often wake around 6:30 or 7 on most days—what I wouldn’t give to rise with that same ease and energy as I had as a child. Nonetheless, I learned early on that it was always best to let my parents—both of whom had jobs and worked hard—sleep in a little later if they wanted to, especially on those precious Saturday mornings. Being an only child often teaches you how to entertain yourself, and I got pretty good at that on those early Saturdays. I would turn on the TV and watch Saturday morning cartoons, play with toys, draw and color, or entertain myself with any other activity that was quiet enough to not disrupt my slumbering parents. I was a good kid, and I knew my parents worked hard and deserved as much time to rest as they wanted, so I tried my best to make as little noise as possible.

On Christmas morning, however, there was no chance I would ever sleep in to a reasonable hour, and there was an even lesser chance that I would let my parents sleep in either. The excitement and nervous anticipation would wake me up long before the sun would rise in the hopes I might catch a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh has he scurried to the next home. Sometimes, I’d lay in bed and try to force myself to go back to sleep so the hours wouldn’t drag on at a soul-crushingly slow pace. On most Christmas mornings, I would give up and head downstairs immediately. I would turn on the TV and watch Christmas shows and movies until I heard movement from my parents.

Let me rephrase that: I stayed out of their hair (or the spot where Dad’s hair should have been) until I heard the slightest movement from my parents, and that would serve as excuse enough to wake them up. If I heard a cough, a tussle, or a snore that I could mistake for a parental foot stepping out of the bed, I would bounce up the stairs, stand in the doorway, and stare at my parents as they lay there, still sleeping. Then, after a few minutes of realizing they were still asleep, I would make some type of innocuous noise that I thought might be enough to wake them up. Oftentimes, a repeated heavy sigh was my course of action. I’d fake a cough, or a sneeze if I was feeling particularly ambitious. I might be able to get a door or floorboard to creak loudly to create enough noise that I couldn’t be blamed for.

No matter what mechanism of noise-creation I used, Mom was always the first to wake up. She would always come down the stairs, wish me a Merry Christmas, and kiss me on the forehead or on the cheek as I played in the family room and pretended not to know where all those disruptive noises had come from. For as long as I can remember, Mom would usually head straight to the kitchen on Christmas mornings to whip up a special breakfast for all of us. Her famous breakfast quiche was always a tradition, with a nice big glass of sparkling cider poured into our family Christmas glasses that were decorated with red and green holly berry. Meals which are that good always leave an impression, and those flavors will always taste like Christmas morning to me.

But after she got a good start on breakfast, the waiting game would often continue because Dad was always the last one up on Christmas morning. Always. I can’t think of a single Christmas when my Dad was the first person to wake up. Don’t get me wrong—my Dad wasn’t lazy, and he wasn’t usually a late sleeper. When it came to work, my Dad worked very difficult schedules his entire life, laboring as a steel plant maintenance technician. His shifts would change from first to third and back again, yet he never complained about having to rise or fall at these different hours. But when Dad did have the opportunity to sleep, he savored it—just like he savored everything in his life. He enjoyed sleep, and if he had the opportunity to sleep a little later, he was going to enjoy it, Christmas morning or not.

The mind of a child, however, doesn’t recognize that perspective on Christmas morning. The mind of a six-year-old child is screaming “Why are you not waking up?! There are presents to be torn apart and insanely complex toys that need to be put together and broken within minutes of receiving them!” Dad’s leisurely pace on Christmas was infuriating for a child who enjoyed opening presents.

On Christmas, and in life generally though, Dad operated on his own clock. Dad reserved speed for the times when he was behind the wheel in his truck; in most other segments of life, Dad rarely sped things along. He took his time doing the things he loved, because why rush happiness to simply get on to something else? If Dad ate a good meal, he ate it slowly and drank a second can of Coke so he could linger a bit longer. If Dad was at a family get-together, he was always one of the last ones to leave the company of a family he loved. If Dad was at a baseball game, there was rarely a time when he left before the last pitch was thrown. And especially when wrapping Christmas gifts, Dad took all the time he needed to make sure the gifts were intricately wrapped, creatively inspired, and adorned with just the right mix of bows, ribbons, and other decorative elements. In all things, Dad took his time—and on Christmas morning, he took his time to make his way down to the tree, which drove me absolutely bonkers.

Dad would sleep in for a bit on Christmas morning. Looking back, I realize just how few days he had to actually sleep in, but Christmas creates an unbridled impatience within the heart of a child that is difficult to squelch. On those Christmas mornings when he slept in past 8:00, I would sit on the couch with my arms folded, huffing and puffing as loud as my young lungs would allow, hoping my sighs of frustration would drift up the stairs and cause such guilt that my Dad would immediately come downstairs and encourage me to rip open every gift and a few of his while I was at it. When the aggressive breathing technique failed to work, I’d simply yell up the stairs. “Dad! Are you ever going to come down here?”

“Maybe by next Christmas,” he’d joke back, turning over to see if he could squeeze out another few minutes of rest.

As the minutes ticked on, each one seemingly more painful than the one before, I would roll my eyes and shake my head with fury, channeling the impatience of a man 80 years my senior. Even as a child, I was a bit of an old soul—an old, cranky, impatient little soul.

Eventually, after much pestering that didn’t affect him whatsoever, Dad would eventually come down the stairs. Every year, regardless of how much pestering I had done, it was largely the same image. Same dark, matching sweatsuit. Same thick, woolly socks. Same oval-rimmed glasses. Same wide smile when he saw the tree, his wife, his dog, and his red-faced, annoyed son eager to become a human gift-paper shredder. Dad would hug us, and he would keep smiling, and he would soak up every single moment of time we spent together on Christmas morning.

And then, after all of those presents were open, I’d start waiting for the next Christmas.

And now, here I am, many years removed from those Christmases of my childhood, and I’m still waiting. I’m waiting on something I know I’ll never have on this Earth again.

It’s strange to wait on a Christmas that I know will never come. I’m waiting on a Christmas when my Dad comes down the stairs in his elastic-ankled sweatpants and takes way too many pictures on his camera. I’m waiting on a Christmas that occurred so many years ago—a Christmas I likely took for granted as a child. A Christmas that I likely thought would occur forever and ever and ever, but was suddenly and unfairly ripped from my life forever. It’s absolutely maddening to know that, when we are young, we beg for time to move on; but once we age and lose the things that really matter in this world, we beg for God to turn back the clock.

That guilt of taking those Christmases for granted tears my heart into pieces every time I think about it. I think of all those Christmas mornings where I would get annoyed with Dad’s extra 15 minutes of sleep, or his obnoxious obsession with taking pictures of our family dog opening gifts. I would give just about anything to spend another Christmas with him, and even though we had 26 wonderful holiday mornings together, I desperately yearn for 26 more.

This will be my sixth Christmas without my Dad. I keep thinking that Christmas without him will get easier, and more normal, but it never does. There’s always an awkward absence when he doesn’t come down the stairs. There’s always a longing to give him another gift, to share another laugh, to just be in his presence once more. On certain years, that sadness and waiting for Christmas with him again has completely overtaken and overwhelmed me to the point when I couldn’t enjoy the things that were right in front of me. During certain years, those moments of sadness have paralyzed me.

But there are also beautiful, loving moments when I’m able to remember him again and smile happily as I think back on those splendid Christmas mornings we spent together. Mom still uses tags that my Dad wrote out in his precise, all-capital print, so I still get a gift labeled from my Dad every Christmas. Just seeing his handwriting soothes my soul in ways that are hard to describe because it reminds me how real he was. I’ll look around the tree and see ornaments that he always hung, like the Elf Carpenter, and it reminds me how much humor and personality he brought to all of our lives. I’ll hear a song from the Christina Aguilera Christmas album—yes, you read that right—and I’ll laugh thinking about how much he enjoyed listening to that while he decorated the tree (he said he just listened to it because Mom liked it, but somehow he mysteriously knew all the words and ridiculous runs in every single song). There are lots of wonderful memories around this time of the year that, fortunately for me, have yet to fade.

Coupled with those happy recollections, however, is an extreme pain. There is a pain every time I look at the staircase leading to my parents’ bedroom, knowing that he won’t come bouncing down the stairs on this morning or any other. There is a pain knowing that I won’t be able to watch A Christmas Story six or seven times with him, and knowing I won’t hear his bellowing laughter every time Flick sticks his tongue to the flagpole. There’s a pain knowing that I won’t be able to see him unwrap gifts and eat Christmas cookies and nap on the couch. There’s a pain knowing that, no matter how many gifts might be under the tree, the only gift I really want is one that I’ll never have in this life.

There’s joy, however, in knowing that we will celebrate a more perfect Christmas once this life is over. That day is a long, long time away, and I won’t let the anticipation of a Christmas to come completely overtake my desire to experience the life I’m living. My Dad’s death has taught me that I can live in the moment, simultaneously experiencing happiness with the people I have in my life and sadness with he ones who are gone. I can know that there is a joy to be experienced in the life to come and joy in the here and now. Life is not divided into purely happy and purely sad—and neither is Christmas. Life after losing a loved one is perpetually characterized by that dichotomy: a happiness rooted in the memories that fill our hearts, and a sadness that those same memories will fail to come to life again. That balance between legitimate joy and deep despair has been difficult for me to navigate in the years since losing my Dad, but it’s especially tough on Christmas morning.

For these past six Christmases, I’ve tried to slow down. Partly to honor my Dad, and partly to give myself the time to experience Christmas in the moment, just like my Dad always did. I know that Dad wouldn’t want Christmas to be less enjoyable for his family, but the reality is, he lived a life that was so big that it inevitably leaves a gaping hole now that he’s gone. There will always be a tremendous sadness in a season known for joy, but joy will always prevail. And joy will prevail because, although I’m waiting for a Christmas with my Dad now, there is a promise in Heaven that, someday, I’ll never have to wait again.

Dad Lucy and Me at Christmas with SB LogoDad, I really miss Christmas with you. I miss so many things about the Christmas mornings and holiday seasons we spent together. I miss seeing your smile as you opened tools and other gifts that Mom and I bought you. I miss watching you laugh at and take videos of Willow or Lucy as they tore open dog bones and puppy toys wrapped in shiny paper. I miss the elaborate and precise details of your gift wrapping, and I really miss watching you try to explain why you bought Mom certain gifts that puzzled us all. You showed all of us how to find joy on Christmas, and you never took a moment for granted on those special holiday celebrations. For that matter, you never took any moment in life for granted, and I’m trying to do that more and more each day. Thank you for teaching me, in the way you lived your life, how I should live my own. Thank you for helping me remember, even in your death, that the moments we have in this life are meant to be savored and enjoyed. Dad, I’m really looking forward to that first Christmas that we will have together in the life after. I’m looking forward to a reunion unlike any other. And I’m so excited to see you again, that I might even let you sleep in an extra fifteen minutes. Thank you for being a great Dad on Christmas, and a great Dad every single day of the year. Thank you for continuing to watch over me, and thank you for always reminding me what matters most. Love for God, love for family, and love for life are lessons you’ll never let me forget. One of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received is having a Father who made life count each and every day. I love you, Dad. Merry Christmas, and until we can celebrate again, seeya Bub.

“As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. ‘Let’s get over toe Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.’ They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby living in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed. But Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.” Luke 2:15-19 (MSG)

Dad’s Rules: Socks

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(This is the newest feature in “Dad’s Rules”, a recurring series at SeeyaBub.com. To learn more about the “Dad’s Rules” series, check out my first installment.)

Dad’s Rule #119: Socks are part of a specific pair. Therefore, they shall be numbered.

“Dad, I’m seriously afraid to even ask you this question, but…why do you have 5’s written on the bottom of your socks?”

I don’t remember when the craziness started, but my memory tells me I was in college or had just recently graduated when I noticed Dad’s newest quirk. I was sitting on the couch watching television when Dad came bouncing down the steps in his usual, peppy way.

“Hey, Bub!” he said with his familiar smile and sparkling personality. I returned his greeting as he moved towards the recliner that sat in the corner of our family room. Dad loved kicking his feet up in that recliner, but this time, there was something noticeably different once his legs were kicked up.

For as long as I could remember, my Dad had mostly worn big, thick, fuzzy, wool-type socks around the house. Yes, on occasion he would wear typical white, athletic socks made by Nike or Under Armour; but mostly, the big woolly types were his favorite. Maybe it was a function of his years working outside in carpentry settings accompanied by frigid temperatures. Maybe it was a function of him just trying to embody the whole “Dad’s Wear Weird Clothes” stereotype. Regardless of the origin or motive, he wore them most of the time—especially during those unpredictable Ohio winters. He would pick up new pairs at Bass Pro Shops, Quality Farm & Fleet, or other outdoorsy stores that he frequented (mostly outside of Mom’s purview). Some of the socks were white, and others came in different colors, usually with a gold or other-colored toe and ankle patch complete with a colored ring around the top of the sock. I can picture them as clear as I saw them on that day when he popped his feet up on the recliner; but on that day, there was something drastically different about the socks he wore.

Written on the bottom of each sock in black, permanent ink in Dad’s familiar, precise script, was a huge “5” for no apparent reason.

This had to be good. Or extremely embarrassing.

“Dad, I’m seriously afraid to even ask you this question, but…why do you have 5’s written on the bottom of your socks?”

socks.jpgLike Sherlock Holmes getting ready to divulge the certain facts of a case that only he could divulge, Dad took a deep breath with a smug look on his face and launched into his explanation. “Because socks wear differently. Over time, the heels and toes start to get worn thin, and you can’t be comfortable in one thick sock that’s brand new and one thin sock that’s about to get a hole. So, I number them, and I don’t have to worry about that problem any longer.”

For one of only a few times in my life, I was literally at a loss for words.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I sat up calmly on the couch and began to ask Dad about his day at work. Had he inhaled any fumes in high doses? Had he excessively sniffed the permanent marker that he had used to write on the bottom of his woolly socks? Blunt force trauma to the head? Did he have a new side-job working with fashion line whose goal it was to create clothes for Dad’s that would absolutely mortify their children?

No matter how hard I pushed, Dad continued to act like he had a legitimate reason for writing these numbers on the bottom of his socks. As I began to howl like a hyena on laughing gas, convulsing at the completely ludicrous nature of his newest fashion choice, Dad kept trying to explain his line of insanity.

“I’m not making this up!” he said through a wide, mischievous smile. “You mean to tell me you’ve never had discomfort from wearing two socks that weren’t from the same original pair?”

“Dad, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that’s never once happened to me,” I answered, still in shock. “I really feel like there are bigger problems in the world right now than uneven socks.”

With his usual sense of expertise in all matters, Dad kept pushing and told me why it made sense to number your socks. In response, I continued to tell him that he was crazy and that he was closer to the nursing home than I had originally thought. Then, to my disbelief, Dad went into his dresser and pulled out the other socks that he had numbered. I laughed hysterically when I realized this wasn’t just a one-pair-trial. Dad had gone into his extensive sock collection and meticulously numbered each pair with thick, black numbers.

There was just no way any of this could be real.

I laughed for hours. And after the laughter, I prayed with every fiber in my being that my friends did not come over and see these numbers on the bottoms of Dad’s socks. I had a hard enough time making friends. I didn’t need my Dad running around explaining the physics of sock fabric to make my social interactions even more infrequent than they already were.

Over the next few years, and to my explicit frustration, Dad’s sock numbering became a ritual as steady as the ocean waves. Every time Dad bought a new pair of socks, he would sit down and number them with a thick, black permanent marker, picking up with the number right where he had left off with his last addition. As more socks were added to the drawer, the number grew and grew. And the more I protested and ridiculed, the bigger the numbers became. Before he knew it, his sock pairs grew into the thirties and forties.

And as the numbers grew, so did my utter confusion. Every time Dad would kick his feet up onto the recliner, I would be staring at a set of “17’s” or “6’s” in my face. I never, ever let it go unnoticed.

“Ah, I see you’ve got the 8’s on tonight,” I’d joke. “Solid choice.” Or “Oh, you going with the 14’s today? Must be feelin’ lucky.”

“Joke all you want,” he’d smugly respond, “but when you’ve got a sweaty left foot and a right foot with frostbite on the same night, you won’t be laughing then.”

“I’ll be sure to let the pigs I’m flying next to know they should be numbering their hoof covers, too,” I’d shoot back.

No matter how much I ridiculed him (which was frequently), and no matter how often Mom would protest about how frustrating it was to have to sort through the laundry while folding to find two 12’s to match up into a ball, Dad continued to fight the good sock fight. He never let our teasing deter him from his battle to eradicate uneven socks from the face of the Earth.

And then, one day, his line of defense hit an all-time low.

Dad and I often found ourselves sitting together in the family room watching episodes of comedic sitcoms like Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, and The Office on an endless loop—a tradition I’ve carried on in his absence quite well, if I say so myself. On this particular night, our show of choice was The King of Queens, a recurring favorite in the family room of our humble home. One of our favorite characters on the show was Arthur—the nearly-senile father/father-in-law of Carrie and Doug, who lived in the basement and caused more problems than any one human should. For those who haven’t ever seen the show, Arthur is…completely crazy. He burns down his house using a hot plate and has to move into Doug and Carrie’s home. He screams about…well, absolutely anything. He is “walked” by a neighborhood dog walker, and he creates altercations with anyone who doesn’t give into his ridiculous demands. He completely infuriates Doug with his random obsessions and eccentricities. And in the cold open of the episode Dad and I were watching that night, Arthur walks into the room, sits in the chair, and throws his feet up on the coffee table. Emblazoned upon the bottom of each of his white socks? Bright, flaming-red 4’s.

“Shut up,” I said in complete bewilderment as I stared at the television. Dad began gesticulating towards the screen as he let out a victory shriek that sounded like it came from an other-worldly language.

With the same look of confusion I had the first time I saw it, Doug begins to question Arthur about why his socks have huge numbers on the bottom.

“It’s my new system,” Arthur responds in his usually odd diction. “I label them so I don’t mix them up with my other sets of socks,” as he points to his head to show what a brilliant idea he’s had.

“I TOLD YOU THIS WAS REAL!” Dad had jumped up from the recliner, legitimately shrieking and cackling with excitement. “I’M VINDICATED!”

“Dad,” I said, still feeling like I was living in an episode of The Twilight Zone, “you realize you’re identifying with the crazy guy on a television sitcom, right? That’s probably not a good thing!”

He didn’t care, because just seeing that he wasn’t the only person in the world—real or fictitious—who thought numbering socks was a brilliant idea gave him all the security he needed to keep on keeping on. He had proved the naysayers wrong with the opening minute of a family sitcom.

Still confused, Doug begins to ask Arthur why he’s doing this, which opens up a whole new line of ridiculous reasoning Arthur describes as “Toe Memory.” He explains that over time, a sock either evolves into a left sock or a right sock, taking on the unique shape and curvature of each respective foot. Wearing a sock that has evolved into a left sock on your right foot is enough to drive you mad, Arthur argues. All the while, Dad is nodding along as Arthur explains the method behind his madness. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing.

“How do the 4’s tell you which one is a right and which one is a left?” Doug says.

“Look, Douglas,” Arthur responds as he raises his voice, “my system has its flaws. But I’ve come at this from every angle and believe me, there is no better way!”

“Mhmm, mhmm…” Doug says as he falls back into the couch, getting ready to drop a bombshell on Arthur. “Or you could just label every sock with an L or an R.”

“Well, THERE GOES MY FUNDAY!” Arthur shrieks as he jumps up from the chair and retreats to his basement dwelling.

“Again, Dad,” I said as we laughed at what we were watching, “you want Arthur Spooner to be your co-defendant on this one?!”

Dad and I laughed about that moment for a long, long time; but something even scarier happened. Dad actually began to realize that his system, like Arthur’s, was also flawed! Like Arthur, although the socks were numbered, he hadn’t been able to crack the whole left/right conundrum.

That’s when the two-component sock labeling system was born, adding fuel to my critical fire.

If my shock could’ve grown more, it did. Now, not only was Dad labeling each pair of socks with a number; each sock within the pair was also being labeled with an “L” or “R” after the number. From this point forward, within the set of 15’s (for example), there would be a “15L” and a “15R”.

Insanity had reached a new peak, and it was the two-component sock labeling system.

For the rest of his life, any time I saw those black, hand-drawn number/letter combos on the bottoms of his socks, I made fun of Dad. And every time I made fun of him, he would always shoot back with a witty (and completely insane) retort. No matter how much teasing occurred, he never quit. His resolve was steeled with every insult, every jab. Until the day he died, every sock he bought was appropriately paired and labeled, much to my chagrin.

His feet were always warm, and my heart was always full of laughter. In the end, I guess it was a win-win.

My Dad had a lot of those quirky little idiosyncrasies: numbering his socks, weaving his extension cords into perfect chains to prevent tangling, writing on graph paper to make his already-precise, all-capital printing even more precise than it already was. When he was alive, those peculiar behaviors were sometimes perplexing, sometimes endearing, sometimes annoying, but always seemingly mundane. Now that he is gone, I miss those little ticks in his behaviors and personalities. I miss how way he always cut apples into two large halves while still extracting the core and preserving all of the fruit. I miss the way he’d organize tools or clean his truck. And yes, I even miss his sock numbering, ridiculous as it may have been. I miss every single thing about my Dad, but as much as I miss the big and memorable moments, I think I miss the little quirks more because I took them for granted while he was alive.

And sadly, but also beautifully and completely against my will, I realize how I’m becoming more and more like him—no matter how hard I might fight against those quirks.

The other day, a crazy thing happened that reminded me how much I missed him while completely terrifying me. I was putting on one of my black ankle-cut socks to head to the gym. (I’m a bit ashamed to admit that during the winters, I’ve started wearing those hideous, wool socks that Dad used to wear—he really was on to something with his choice in foot coverings.) Nonetheless, on this day, as I was putting on my gym socks, I was running through what clothes I was going to wear to the gym in my head. I put the left sock on, and before I could even stop my internal dialogue from churning, I felt the phrase cross into my line of thought:

“This sock feels kind of weird. Maybe I should put it on my right foot instead.”

The shock of what I just thought hit me hard. My eyes were as big as the 2’s that had once been written on the bottom of my Dad’s socks. I had to stop getting dressed and collect my thoughts before I started hyperventilating. There was no way, no way Dad could be right about this one. It just wasn’t possible. And as I sat there on the edge of the bed freaking out and questioning everything I’ve ever believed about socks, I could hear Dad’s laugh. I could see him looking down from heaven and laughing hysterically, pointing and shouting, “I told you, Bub!”

And after the shock wore off, I laughed through a few tears as I realized how much I missed his weirdness and everything else that made him so real and so special.

I’m glad that the nature of my Dad’s death from suicide has not prevented my ability to appreciate those happier moments. I’m glad that the questions I have about why Dad died on that July morning in 2013 haven’t completely darkened the beautiful, vivid intricacies of his personality that made him so exceptional and unique. I’m glad that I can still remember the good days and moments in spite of the one bad day that ended his life. I’m glad that I can look back on numbered socks and laugh, because his death has taken enough from me and from all of us who loved him. I’m glad that I can look back at my Dad and remember him for the man he was for 50 years, not just the man he was on that last, painful day. I’m glad that I can still laugh with him and reminisce on those mundane yet elegant memories. I am really looking forward to the day when I can laugh with him about those moments again.

And along with those streets paved with gold, I hope that Heaven is home to socks that no longer wear thin unequally.

dad-lucy-and-me-with-seeya-bub-logoDad, I still laugh when I think about your sock-numbering-insanity. I still smile when I think about all of the times I would rib you about putting numbers and letters on all your socks, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I really miss seeing those numbers. More importantly, I miss seeing you kick your feet up on the recliner in our family room. I miss laughing with you while we watched television together. I miss hearing you snore as you napped in the recliner wearing your lucky pair of 14’s, and I miss those moments of levity and peace that we were able to build in our family home. Your personality was a force for good in our family, Dad. Through the big moments and the little, everyday behaviors, you made our home a better place. You made all of us better people—even though you couldn’t get anyone to join in on your sock-numbering. Those beautiful little moments gave life vivid color. You gave us entertainment and joy in seemingly simple ways, and I’m glad that I remember the quirks of your personality. I’m glad that I can focus on the simplistic beauty of your life without obsessing over its tragic end. Dad, thank you for always making life more beautiful. Thank you for giving to all of us more than we could have ever given you in return. I miss you tremendously. I miss you each and every day. And if I get to Heaven and you have numbered socks on, I seriously don’t know what I’m going to say to you. I’m sure you’ll keep me on my non-numbered toes. But until I can tease you again, seeya Bub.

“Even in laughter a heart may be sad, and joy may end in grief.” Proverbs 14:13 (HCSB)