The Church Must Speak (Part 2): Stigmas

This is Part 2 in a special three-part series on the Christian church and mental illness. Please make sure you check out Part 1: Silence.

Unspoken prayer requests are unspoken for a reason.

I know that not every unspoken prayer request is related to mental illness; but I do think that a large majority of those who suffer from mental illness are afraid to make it known.

And the last place they should be afraid is the Christian church.

But they are.

When I started this series, the easy part was realizing that the Christian church largely stays silent on the topic of mental illness. The difficult part was understanding why. Why would a caring, loving church stay silent on a topic that affects so many parishioners who sit in the pews week in and week out? Why would the church choose to stay silent when people are broken and hurting? When lives are being lost? When families are being torn apart?

There’s a reason why those unspoken requests continue to remain unspoken.

The stigmas that surround mental illness, although mostly untrue, are just as pervasive in the church as they are in any other institution in our society. And these stigmas are preventing people from finding the peace they deserve—and the love that Christ wants them to experience.


So what are these stigmas? What are these faulty thoughts surrounding mental illness and suicide? Why are they still alive in the modern church? How foolish are they? And what can we do to counter them? I have my ideas.

To prevent these stigmas from spreading, we’ve got to understand just how faulty they actually are. So, for the rest of this post, I’m going to ask you to engage in a bit of a metaphor with me.

I want you to imagine that a man comes to your church with a broken leg. He hobbles in on crutches. A huge, fiberglass cast holds his shattered bones into place. After some uncomfortable shuffling, he eventually finds a pew near the back of the church in an attempt to avoid the eyes of his fellow worshipers.

Now, imagine that you notice this man. And imagine that you immediately judge him negatively because of his broken leg. Or you question his walk with God. Or worse…you completely ignore him and his pain.

Crazy, right?

If someone has a broken leg in the church, we don’t ask any questions about why their leg is broken, but we offer to help. In any way we can.

If someone in the church has a brain function or thought process that is broken, however, our reaction is very, very different. And this differentiation is at the heart of the stigmas that prevent the Christian church, largely, from serving the mentally ill.

That, my friends, is the heart of my argument. Although the response and treatment for an injured leg and an injured brain are vastly different, our Christian response to each of those injuries should operate from the same exact place of love and compassion, not judgement. We must counter the stigmas; but to counter them, we have to call them out, one by one. Although there are many stigmas about mental illness that run rampant in both the church and everyday American society, I believe these three are the most particularly dangerous and damaging.

STIGMA 1: If you suffer from mental illness, your spirit is weak, your faith is low, or you are distant from God. Situate this stigma in the context of the conversation we had just a moment ago. Imagine if I had the audacity to question the physical or spiritual fortitude of the man with the broken leg. “Man, you must have some pretty weak bones there fella,” I would say to him. Or “That’s what you get for not drinking enough milk!” Or worse, imagine if I said, “Wow, what did you do to make God so mad that he broke your leg?!” If I ever responded to anyone with a broken leg with an attitude like that, everyone in the church would immediately call me a hypocrite. They would call out my lack of compassion—rightly so!

But there are believers in the Christian church each and every day who make those same judgments about their brothers and sisters who suffer from mental illness. They secretly call them crazy. They avoid interaction with these people. They question whether or not they actually believe in God at all.

This type of thinking is completely unacceptable.

I can’t speak to the root of each and every person’s own individual struggle with mental illness. I can’t say with 100% certainty that all cases of mental illness have nothing to do with a larger spiritual battle. But I can say that believing every case of mental illness stems from a person’s personal walk with Christ is foolish.

And I can also say I’ve encountered this stigma.

No, I’ve never interacted with someone after my Dad’s death who comes right out and says, “Your Father must have been mad at or distant from God,” but they don’t have to come right out and say it. I can see it in their eyes. I can tell that they don’t want to engage because they think of my Father as someone who must have had little faith in God.

But I can tell you that my Dad believed in God. He believed in the power of the Cross. He loved Jesus—and more importantly lived his life in a way that showed people how much he loved Jesus. But my Father’s mind was highjacked by a horrible, complex, and devastating disease. Just like someone who loses a family member to cancer or heart disease, I lost my Father to suicide. Suicide, a debilitating disease that clouds the mind and warps the senses stole my Father. In fact, I think my Father’s faith is probably the thing that allowed him to fight as successfully as he did for so long.

I think one of the most Christ-like things we can do is admit that sometimes, we just don’t know why certain things happen. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always understand depression and mental illness. It could be spiritual, for some. It could be neurochemical and physiological for others. It could be brought on by dire circumstances or a whole host of other influences. But, like Jesus, I want to listen to people who are hurting. I want to listen to people who are suffering, hear their stories, and help them find comfort in the arms of Christ. And if I automatically assume that every battle with depression is entirely spiritual in nature, I’m missing the point of Jesus’ ministry—and so is His church.

STIGMA 2: Suicide is the unforgivable sin, and if you’ve ever entertained it or had suicidal ideations, you’ll never be forgiven. As a Christian, you should just know this isn’t an option. Somehow, we’ve come to believe in the church that suicide is a sin that is elevated above any other—and, unfortunately, we lump mental illness into this bucket of “unforgivable sins” that don’t actually exist.

Go back to the poor man I described in the previous section with a bum leg. Put yourself in his shoes (and cast). Imagine if someone told you that your struggle to stay healthy must be a punishment from God for some sin you had committed. Would it make you want to serve Him? Or would it scare you?

I don’t know about you, but I serve a loving God. I serve a compassionate, forgiving God. And I serve a God who says I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22, NIV).

Unfortunately, there are a whole host of people in the larger Christian church who, whether consciously or underneath the surface, believe that there is something unforgivable about mental illness and suicide. I don’t understand this, and I never will.

Charles Stanley is one of the most knowledgeable Christian speakers and scholars of our time, and I remember being given a copy of his book Emotions by my pastor, Harville, after my Dad’s death. I tore through page after page because I loved Stanley’s approach to dealing with our emotions (more on Stanley’s book in the Library section), but then my heart froze when I got to page 243 in a chapter entitled “Despair.” My eyes fixed on the word “suicide”, and I began to panic. My palms began to sweat because I was afraid of what might come next. Stanley is a Baptist minister who started his career behind the pulpit in the 1970’s, and I made assumptions about his beliefs on suicide. I worried that a man like Stanley—a studied and learned man—was going to tell me something about my Father’s eternity that my heart couldn’t bear to hear.

And then, with the tenderness I needed in just that moment, Stanley penned the words that my broken heart needed to hear. He wrote:

“Now, before we move on, let me clear up a misconception I frequently hear repeated. If you or someone you love has attempted suicide, please be assured that it is not the unpardonable sin. Some believe it is because the person does not have the opportunity to repent, but nothing in God’s Word suggests suicide will not be forgiven” (p. 246).

I put down the book, and I began crying. God knows my heart, and He knows I’m a natural skeptic, and he knew that I would need the perspective of a Biblical scholar like Charles Stanley to convince me that my Dad’s heart—and his Eternity—belonged to the Lord and Savior he served.

And it’s not just Stanley. After reading his book, I sought out more and more perspectives. And everywhere I looked I found the same thing from Christian scholars I knew I could trust—mental illness and suicide are not the unpardonable sin.

But the words of men shouldn’t be enough to convince us. Those of us in the Church should let everything we do be dictated by the Word of God, and nowhere in the Bible am I able to find evidence that those who suffer from mental illness or suicidal ideations are not welcome at the foot of the Cross.

In fact, I find example after example of broken, hurting people finding comfort in the arms of Jesus Christ.

Don’t miss what I’m saying—I don’t want to minimize the devastating impact of suicide. It’s horrible and it’s irreversible. It leaves a chaotic imprint on the hearts and minds of those who are left behind to deal with the trauma, anguish, and confusion. My Dad’s death has put questions on my heart that I know I’ll never have answers to on this side of Eternity. This one isn’t easy. We have to find a way to talk about mental illness and suicide in the Church without encouraging emotionally vulnerable and hurting people to do something they might regret. We have to let them know that even though all of our sins are forgiven, it doesn’t erase the collateral damage that a suicide might inflict. In showing God’s love, the suffering and potentially suicidal person will hopefully see the love of a fellow Christian that will encourage them to find help.

But in order to even bring those people into the conversation, we have to make them feel loved. And sending them the signal that their pain is unforgivable will immediately close off their path to the Cross.

STIGMA 3: I want to help you, but I don’t know how. In the Lifeway study that I shared last week, a large number of pastors who said they don’t regularly talk about the topic of mental health in their churches brought up a common reason for avoiding the subject: they said they aren’t prepared to help those people who are suffering. They worried that they didn’t have the knowledge or academic background or expertise to aid the mentally ill and potentially suicidal, so they avoided the topic all together.

Guess what? You’re more equipped than you think you are. We all are.

Let’s jump back to my metaphor once more. Imagine going up to the person with the broken leg in your church and saying “I would love to help you, but I’m not a doctor and I don’t know anything about how to mend bones. So best of luck!” It’s ludicrous, but it’s also what we are doing with mental health.

Pastors and church leaders, you are right. I don’t expect you to have the same knowledge as a trained clinical professional in the field of psychology. I also don’t expect you to have the medical knowledge of a physician, but I do expect you to talk about dealing with tragic illnesses. I don’t expect you to have the training and knowledge of a financial planner, but I do expect you to talk to Christians about their finances and God’s perspective on money and wealth. I don’t expect you to have the scientific background of Einstein, but I do expect you to talk about how Christians should treat the gift of God’s Creation.

So yes, I expect you to talk about mental illness, even if you don’t have all the answers.

You may not have the academic training or credentials, but you do have the wherewithal and perspective on the power of the Holy Spirit to direct hurting and broken people to the resources they need. No, you may not be able to fix the problem yourself—but isn’t that the point? Isn’t the true message of following Christ a desire to let the Holy Spirit work in our lives to pick us up when we can stand no longer? Isn’t the point of the Church to bring together people with different talents and functions and backgrounds to serve God and serve one another? You might not be able to solve the problem for that person, but you can pray for a solution. You can pray over their problem with them and pray for answers from above. Those answers may come in the form of a Christian counselor, a medical physician, or a clinical psychologist or therapist who can help that suffering person find the treatment they deserve.

I’ll say it as clearly as I know how: A lack of knowledge is not an excuse for a lack of empathy.

And that help is exactly why I write. I don’t point out the faults of the Christian church’s approach to mental illness purely as a critic. I come to the table desperately seeking solutions. I come to this conversation with a positive and optimistic belief that, together, God’s people can unite as a strong army in the fight against mental illness, depression, and suicide. I believe that we can counter these stigmas head on in our congregations and communities, and I believe we can change the world, just like our Father calls us to do.

I recognize the silence. I know there are stigmas.

What do we to counter all of this?

I’ll offer those solutions in next week’s conclusion.

Dad, I’m ashamed to say that it took your struggle and your death for me to realize just how hard the struggle to overcome mental illness really is. And it took losing you to soften my heart for other people who are hurting. It took watching you suffer to realize that mental illness is complex and hard to understand. It took your hurt for me to understand that mental illness is unpredictable and so very difficult to counter. It took losing you for me to understand how the judgement of mental illness weighs on an already heavy heart. It took losing you for me to realize that there are simple ways to help hurting people that might make all the difference. Dad, I think about you each and every day, and I think what more I could have done as a son and as a fellow follower of Jesus Christ to help you find the comfort and peace that you deserved. But I know, deep down, you’ve found an abundant and everlasting peace in Heaven. I would do anything I could to have you back here with me, but for now I’ll fight to help others who, like you, are hurting and fearful that they will never find acceptance. I love you, Dad, and I miss you dearly. Until my fight is complete, seeya Bub.

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18 (NIV)

The Church Must Speak (Part 1): Silence

From the time I was little, I grew up in churches where the pastor would beckon for prayer requests from the pulpit. Over those next few minutes, the pastor would look out over the congregation and field requests from the flock. Physical ailments, family struggles, and difficult job situations always prevailed.

Usually, about halfway through the list of prayer requests, someone would raise their hand and ask for prayer for an “unspoken request.” Then, the pastor would ask the congregation if there was anyone else with an unspoken request, and a spattering of hands would shoot towards the rafters.

I remember people asking for prayer for sick family members and neighbors. I remember prayer requests for job situations. But in the litany of prayer requests that were offered, I can’t remember a time in my life in the church where someone asked God to heal their particular struggles with mental illness, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicidal ideations, or any of the other brain illnesses that plague our society.

But I heard and saw the requests for prayer regarding unspoken (and apparently unspeakable) issues. And it wasn’t until my Dad died from suicide that I began to connect the dots between mental illness and unspoken prayer requests.

The Christian church must speak.

God’s people need to hear it.

I need to hear it.

And God wants His Church to speak—I’m confident of that.


I grew up in the Christian church and I am still a proud member of the Christian church, and I’ll be the first one to admit this unfortunate fact: Largely, the Christian church in America remains silent when it comes to the issue of mental illness.

My accusation is not an original one. Listen to Perry Noble, the former pastor of NewSpring church and author of the book Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry. Noble has had his own struggles with depression, and the church wasn’t a place that was equipped to heal his suffering:

“In late 2008, I sank into a black hole that I now know was depression. It was the darkest time of my life, and I honestly wanted to die. I was so desperate to find relief that I seriously thought about ending my own life. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love Jesus, but rather because I had allowed my life to get out of control.

Believe it or not, people [who belong to the church] on the right side of the cross struggle with depression.

The sad thing is that in all my years of church work, I can’t recall hearing a single message on the subject of depression. I’ve even heard church leaders say that if a person is dealing with depression, it’s because of some unconfessed sin that needs to be dealt with.”[1]

Listen to Dr. Frank Page. Page is the president and CEO of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a pastor for more than three decades. Personally, Page knows the pain of depression in a way few others could understand, as his daughter Melissa tragically lost her life to mental illness and suicide. In a special study I taught at my church, Paige writes:

“We readily pray for one another when we’re dealing with sickness, surgeries, cancer, or some chronic illness. Mental illness, on the other hand, is not often mentioned. Mental illness can take many forms, and it is estimated that 1 in 10 people suffer from depression. People suffering from mental illness are all around us, including the church. Instead of ignoring the issue, let’s consider a far more positive approach.”[2]

(Both of these authors have amazing books that I’ve listed in the Library section of Seeya Bub if you’d like to check them out and read more.)

Listen to nearly any pastor in the Christian church today, and I think that if they’re being honest they will readily admit that mental illness is often something that is either ignored or could be discussed more within their own congregation…until it’s usually too late for someone.

Listen to the numbers. Lifeway Research conducted a comprehensive survey in 2014 where they talked to pastors about mental illness and the response of the church to these issues. In that survey, Lifeway asked how often pastors speak to the church in sermons or large group messages about mental illness.

  • 3% of the pastors surveyed said that they spoke about the topic of mental illness several times a month.
  • 4% said they spoke about mental illness at least once a month.
  • 26% said they spoke about mental illness several times a year. And an overwhelming 66% of the pastors surveyed said that they spoke about mental illness once a year, rarely, or never at all.[3]

So…7% of pastors are speaking about mental illness regularly, and 92% either infrequently or never discuss a topic plaguing a large number of Americans and certainly congregation members.

The reality is this: People who sit in the pews week in and week out are suffering from these issues. I’ve suffered, my Dad suffered, and countless Christians that I’ve had conversations with have had these same struggles. But for some reason, the church doesn’t speak to them.

And I believe people all throughout Biblical history have suffered from depression, even if they didn’t have a formal name to put to it. In the book of Psalms, David swings back and forth from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. And boy, are those lows really, really low. Take a look at Psalm 6 where David says:

Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long? Turn, O LORD, and deliver me;
…I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. (v. 2-7, NIV)

Sounds a lot like some stories I’ve read from those suffering from mental illness…

The Apostle Paul accomplished more than any man in the church after Jesus Christ, in my opinion. He had more to boast about and be happy in than anyone, but some propose that even he suffered from a period or bout of mental illness. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 shines some light on this claim:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (NIV)

And don’t even make me get started on that poor Job fella…

I’m confident that God included these Biblical examples in our history to offer comfort to those who are suffering centuries later. If men like Paul and Moses and David and Job and Noah could suffer and still be loved and used by God, so can I. So can you. So could men like my Dad. I think God is telling us that it’s okay to not be okay…but that it’s not okay to stay that way. That’s where the church should come in.

Whether they are talking about mental illness or not, our churches are all sending a message about mental illness; unfortunately, the signal sent through silence is not the one that I believe Jesus wants us to send. When the church is silent on the topic of mental illness, it sends the message that the church doesn’t care. Or worse, that the church knows people are suffering but refuses to do anything about it.

This all comes back to my belief (not my original words) that the Christian church should be a hospital for broken people, not a museum for perfect people. If there is anywhere that people with mental illnesses should feel free to talk about their struggles, it should be the church. If there are any people that should be trusted confidants and judgement-free sources of help and support, they should be God’s people. If there is anyone that should be able to tell those with mental illness that God loves them and wants to see them healed, it should be God’s mouthpieces here on Earth doing the encouraging.

Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (GW). I know my Dad and the millions of others who suffered from mental illness felt tired. I know they felt weary. Jesus didn’t tell them to take their problems somewhere else because the church isn’t equipped. He said to bring those troubles to His feet.

We can’t be silent anymore. Jesus doesn’t want us to be silent. He wants His church to speak. And speak we must.


In the next few weeks, I am going to embark on a journey through this blog to encourage the Christian church and all believers to reflect on what they can do in the fight against mental illness, depression, and suicide. This is an important fight. It’s a fight for our lives and the lives of those we love.

In the next part of this three-part series, I will talk about the faulty thinking that I feel is at the root of the church’s silence. I will dig deep into the myths of mental illness that have paralyzed the church’s progress in this fight.

I’ll conclude this series by talking about solutions. I think Jesus commands His church to serve those who are suffering, including the mentally ill. I’ll talk about the practical solutions that will make the church relevant in this battle, and the need for all churches to stand up and speak out.

Above anything I write, I ask in this moment and in the weeks to follow for your prayers. I am not trained or educated in theology. I am not a pastor. I am, however, a hopefully-humble servant of Jesus Christ, and a grieving son who longs to protect others from the fate that found my Father. I ask that you pray for me in the days and weeks to come as I write, share, and engage. I hope you will ask God to direct my hand in everything that I do through this series. I’m speaking because I wish the church had spoken to my Dad. I speak because I want the church that I love dearly to speak, too.

I speak with the hope that some other boy will be able to sit in the pew next to his Dad longer than I did.

Family Easter Photo with SB LogoDad, Since the time I was a little boy, you always taught me the importance of my relationship with Jesus. But you always taught me that my relationship with Jesus always needed to be reflected in my relationship with other people. I can’t imagine how many times we must have went to church together when you were hurting more than I ever knew. I wish I knew what to do then. I hope that I know what to do now. I’m trying my hardest to change the world around me, to make it a better place for those who are suffering like you did. Thank you for giving me a lifetime of inspiration, Dad. I’ll never get over losing you, but until we are together again, seeya Bub.

“Come to me, all who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28 (GW)

References:

[1]Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry by Perry Noble (2014), p. 35.

[2] Bible Studies for Life, Fall 2014 Leader Guide: Ministry in the Face of Mental Illness by Frank Page (2014), p. 161.

[3] http://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Acute-Mental-Illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-Report-1.pdf

Regrets

“Tyler, you can’t blame yourself for what happened to your Dad. You can’t live with any regrets. Your Dad loved you so much.”

In some variation, I probably heard this hundreds of times in the days and weeks and months following my Dad’s death. As friends and family members poured through the visitation line, most of them said something to this effect. When I would talk with fellow Christians in deep conversation about my sorrow, they would always reassure me with this truth. Over and over again, whether from those who had lived close to grief’s shadow or those who were far away, I heard the same encouragement to press on and to live without regret.

And I’m glad I heard this, because the regret and the questioning entered my thoughts moments after hearing that horrible news of my Dad’s death. I immediately started to second-guess myself. I panicked that I had not done enough to save my Dad from the darkness that invaded his mind. I quickly grew nauseous over the thought of all the missed opportunities to spend time with my Dad, knowing that these would likely haunt me for the rest of my earthly existence.

I tried to convince myself, deep down, that I had done all I could. That I had lived life, in every moment, to the fullest when my Dad was around.

But it’s only natural to have regrets. Yes, regrets are natural, and I think that although it may not be easy to think about your regrets when you’re grieving, it’s completely okay to do it when you’re ready. In a perfect world, we would all live lives without regrets, but everyone who reads this blog knows that life isn’t perfect. It’s messy, and complicated, and extremely difficult at times. As a result, we don’t always do things perfectly, which makes regret natural in the aftermath.

I think that the intensity of our regrets are often amplified in the immediate aftermath of a tragic loss. Naturally, we begin to ponder a desired alternative—and in order for that desired alternative to come true, we often envision ourselves making different choices.

Suicide amplifies these regrets to another level. Suicide, above so many death mechanisms, is preventable. It is unnecessary. I’m not saying it’s any more or less tragic than any other type of death, but I do think suicide is unique in that it brings with it an entirely unique set of circumstances.

I live with these regrets, each and every day. I live with the questions of what I could have done differently. And I pray that both God and my Dad might forgive me, in the hopes that I will, someday, be able to forgive myself.

I regret not doing more to let my Dad know that I didn’t blame him for his depression. I know that my Dad was ashamed of his depression. I know that it made him feel weak. I know that he didn’t want to admit that it was getting the best of him. And although I grew to have a more mature understanding of mental health and depression as I aged, there were many times when I, whether consciously or not, failed to recognize the severity of Dad’s depression or the lack of control he had over it. I expected him, as he did with so many things in his life, to find a way to control the way he felt. I didn’t always understand that, of course, if my Dad had the ability to change the way he felt, he would have done it in an instant.

I think back to the times that my Dad’s depression would get the best of him. I’m thankful that there were moments when I let him know that I cared deeply for him. That I understood the nature of his depression was intense, and entirely not his fault.

But there were other times, like the first time I learned of my Dad’s depression, where I was ruthless, unforgiving, and even cruel. I expected him, unwisely, to find a way to “snap out of it.” I regret that I ever considered my Dad weak because of his depression, because I know looking back that he showed tremendous, unbelievable courage to fight for as long as he did. He was unbelievably strong—and definitely stronger than me.

Eventually, I found the proper lens to view my Dad’s depression through. I realized that someone with depression, just like a victim of a physical illness like cancer, should never be blamed for the problems they are plagued with. But I regret those moments, in my immaturity and stubbornness, that I wasn’t more compassionate to a Father who was nothing but compassionate to me whenever I needed it—even though I didn’t always deserve it.

I regret not being more forceful in my plea for Dad to find help. My Dad was a fixer. He was a man who built things with his hands, and as a maintenance technician at a local steel plant, his job was to fix things—huge machines, specifically. Big, complex, very complicated machines. Most people would look at those machines and be immediately overwhelmed and intimidated—but not my Dad. He could take the most complicated problem and break it down, piece by piece, arriving at a solution quicker than most. Dad was smart, intelligent, and very talented. There were very few problems that could whip my Dad.

And I think it was exactly that fixer’s mindset that made depression so difficult for my Father to cope with. If he could fix huge, multifaceted, million-dollar machines with nothing more than his brain and his own two hands, I’m sure he wondered, then why couldn’t he figure out the solution to his own depression?

Of all the regrets I live with, I think what I regret most is failing to encourage my Dad to seek appropriate medical attention from a counselor to help him cope with his mental illness. As I’ve written about before, the one thing my Dad always resisted was going to speak to a mental illness counselor or therapist. I think that his resistance was part pride, part embarrassment, and part a lack of knowledge for what a therapist actually is and the difference this person could have made in his life and thinking.

The first time I really encouraged my Dad to go speak with someone and shared my own experiences with my counselor was, unfortunately, on the last day of his life. I wish that my Dad and I could have had more honest, deep, and heartfelt conversations about our struggles with mental illness. This would have given me the opportunity to share with him how helpful my therapist, Jeff, had been to me. And maybe, just maybe, it would have encouraged Dad to find a counselor. And maybe that counselor would have helped my Dad avoid his untimely death.

I regret not asking my Dad if he was feeling suicidal tendencies. In our final conversation together, I asked my Dad a lot of questions about how he was feeling and why he might be feeling the way he did. Some he could answer, but others he couldn’t.

But there’s one question that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him—partly because I didn’t want to know the answer, and partly because I already thought I knew. But I was wrong on both accounts.

I regret not asking my Dad whether or not he was feeling so depressed that it might lead to suicide.

It’s so tough to even write that question because of the regret I feel. As much courage as I might have been able to muster on that morning, I don’t think I could have ever have built up enough strength to ask him that question—but it doesn’t change the fact that I wish I would have. And now that I know how he died, I definitely would have asked him.

Yes, so much of this is Monday-morning quarterbacking, because in all of my Dad’s struggles with depression, he had never once attempted suicide or led us to believe that suicide would enter his mind. So many people who knew my Dad were utterly shocked at his funeral because they never suspected he might succumb to something so tragic. Those who lived closest to him, like me, were just as shocked.

I wonder if I would have behaved differently that morning had I asked that question. I wonder how Dad would have responded. Would he break down and confess that, indeed, he was feeling suicidal? And would I have been able to save him? Call a doctor? An ambulance? Anything? Or would he have masked his inner sadness as he had done so many times before, unable to tell his son the true answer? Would me asking that question have opened up a new avenue for our conversation on that day? Would I have been able to convey to my Dad that life would be almost unbearable without him? And whether it was guilt or responsibility, would either of those emotions or thoughts been enough to deter him in those final moments?

I live with regret because I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. And, unfortunately, I never will. But I know, given the opportunity to live my life over again, I would have at least asked. Yes, it would have been the toughest question I would have ever asked my Dad—but it would have also been the most important.

I regret not living life more with my Dad. I am fortunate to live in a country of surplus, but no matter what tangible blessings I might accumulate in my life, I will never, ever be able to accumulate more time. And more than anything, I regret all those moments where I chose less meaningful things over precious time with my Father.

There were so many things that Dad wanted to do with me, and that I wanted to do with him, that we never got a chance to do. Dad wanted to go to a country concert together, but we never got the chance to make that happen. Dad had always wanted to go on a kayaking trip together, but we never got that opportunity. Dad would often beg me to go watch UFC fights with him. I would stop dead in my tracks, roll my eyes, and then tell him how much I hated UFC fights more than…anything else in this life (that’s right UFC fans, you heard me). There were so many times when my Dad would ask me to do something with him, and I would be too busy or too preoccupied to make it happen. And boy, do I regret ever saying no to him.

Now, instead of doing those things with my Dad, I do them in his memory. I do them because I know he would have wanted me to do them. I had never kayaked before Dad died, but about a year after his death, I bought a kayak and I’ve fallen in love with being on the water. The rowing calms my mind and the beauty of the surrounding nature soothes my soul, but all the while I usually think about my Dad. I think about how much he would have enjoyed being out on the water with me. I think about all the great laughs we would have enjoyed together, especially the first time I ever got in my kayak and abruptly tumbled into the water on the riverbank and flopped around like an idiot for a few seconds. I laugh about how many times he would have pointed out a certain type of tree on the riverbank or a bird that would fly overhead. I wish I was doing things like this with Dad, not in his memory. I regret that we never had the opportunity to do it together in this life, but I’m hopeful for an Eternity where we can do them together, forever.

But this regret, as powerful as it is, would be there no matter how fully I had lived life with Dad. As much as I regret these specific things, I know that there were so many times when I did live life to the max with my Dad. When death strikes, the one thing we all wish we had was more time with our loved one—even if we had spent every single waking hour with that person. Coupled with this regret is an appreciation for all the dinners we had at LaRosa’s, all the hours we spent in the truck together singing country music, the trips to the beach, the zip-lining excursion together for Father’s Day, and all the episodes of The Office we watched together on our family room couch. Yes, there would have always been other times I could have spent with Dad, but I’m thankful that looking back on our lives together, we were there for each other more often than not. I don’t necessarily regret the opportunities which I said no as much as I long for more of the opportunities when I did say yes.

I think that regret can only be natural if a deep, abiding love was there at one time—and I’m tremendously grateful for that. I’m thankful that life with my Father was so good and so amazing for 26 years that it made me desperately yearn for more and more of it. Yes, when we look back on our lives we would all make changes—some minor, and some significant. And although I try my best to live without regret, it’s a natural part of the grieving process brought on, only naturally, by the love I have for my Father.

And as much as I may do in his memory…I think I’ll still pass on those UFC fights.

Dad in Hoodie with SB LogoDad, Even though I know you would tell me not to feel regret, I do wish that I had the chance to hit the “do-over” button on so many things in my life. I wish I had been more of a support to you when you needed me. I wish that I had spent more time with you doing the things you loved to do. I wish that I could have done more to help you find peace and solace in the tumult of your depression. I don’t know the answer to why this terrible tragedy happened, but I do know that God has a plan to make something good out of it. I often wonder what could possibly be better than more time with you, but I know that although I feel a horrible separation from you in these moments, there will come a day when you and I can both live completely free of regret and goodbyes. I long for that day, but until then, seeya Bub.

“No, dear brothers, I am still not all I should be, but I am brining all my energies to bear on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.” Philippians 3:13 (TLB)

Years Go By

Four years.

Four years today.

It’s been four years since that really painful day. Four years since I saw my Dad for the last time. Four years since I heard the fateful words that my Dad was gone forever.

I was recently having a conversation about losing my Dad and I was asked “Does it feel like it’s been four years since he died?”

Yes it does. And no, it doesn’t.

Feelings are complex. And they feel even more complicated in the aftermath of losing my Dad. Questions that I could have once answered easily are so much more difficult now.

I responded to that complex question with a complex answer—the only way I knew how. The only way I honestly felt.

In some ways, it feels like the hours and days drag on, especially during that first year that Dad was gone. Immediately after Dad died, it felt like the hands on the clock had stalled. Days would drag on because my heart hurt so bad. There were times when life felt like a life sentence. I felt like I couldn’t escape the heartbreak of losing my Dad, and there were days when I felt like I was just living to run out the clock. So, yes, I feel the pain of those four years in each and every moment.

In these four years, I’ve had many sleepless nights. Many nights where I lay in bed and stare at the ceiling wondering, questioning, and obsessing over the fact that my Dad is no longer here with me. The pain of those moments is all too real.

But on other days, it feels like the trauma of losing my Dad happened just yesterday. At any given moment—sometimes in conscious wake and other times interrupted with the terror of a bad dream—I can be right back in that moment. I can remember walking towards my parents’ and seeing the police lights. I can hear the sirens. I can see the EMT’s and paramedics rushing around the yard and into my childhood home. I can still hear the terror of my Mom’s cry when we heard the news. I can feel the grass when I fell into the yard. I can remember the sights and sounds of that moment as if it just happened.

I wish I could escape it.

That trauma will be with me for as long as I live, and even though it’s been four long years since losing my Dad, the vividness of that tragedy is still just as sharp as it’s ever been. I expected the vivid feel of those immediate moments to fade and numb with time…but they haven’t. At all.

And then again, I feel like my Dad has been gone for so, so long. I haven’t had a conversation with my Dad in four years, but it feels like it’s been ages since I’ve seen his smile. It feels like it’s been forever since I’ve felt the strong embrace of one of his hugs and his beard would brush against my neck. It feels like its been a lifetime since I’ve felt the calloused skin of his hands as he would rub my hair when he saw me. It feels like eternity since I’ve heard him say “Seeya, bub” to me as he left for work or hung up the phone.

And when I think about that, it causes me tremendous pain because it’s only been four years. Four brutally painful years have felt like an eternity of separation, and that worries me. I have a long life to live on this Earth, God willing, and if the pain of losing my Dad is already this intense, how will it feel in eight years? Or twenty? Or fifty?

How will that pain feel when I get married? How will that pain feel when I have children of my own? How will that pain feel when those children are old enough to ask me about my Dad, their Grandpa? How will that pain feel in all those moments, big or small, when I need my Dad the most?

I can’t answer, because I just don’t know. But I know that the common denominator in all of this is a feeling of loss. A feeling of being robbed from a life taken too soon.

I know this truth: You can only feel tremendous pain if you’ve lived in tremendous love. You can only feel this absence if there’s love that is missing. You can only feel loss because of love. And my Dad loved me. And I loved him.

Yes it’s been four years, but I was fortunate to know that for 26 beautiful years, I lived on this Earth with the shining example of what a Father should be. And I’m thankful that I didn’t just have him here for those 26 years, but that I truly lived life with him for those 26 years. He was more than a Father. He was a Dad.

When I think back over those 26 years, I can’t think of a time where I went for more than a week without seeing him or talking to him. I went to college locally and stayed in my hometown after graduation, so I’ve had a privilege that I know not everyone has in this life.

But there was always one constant when you saw my Dad after a period of absence, be it short or long: a warm welcome home. A smile. A hug. A tender greeting delivered straight from his ridiculously caring heart.

It brings tears to my eyes to think that I might not have always appreciated those welcomes. It hurts my heart to know that I haven’t had one of Dad’s greetings in four years.

But it renews my soul and gives me unbelievable hope to know that the greatest greeting is yet to come.

Yes, I believe that my Dad will be waiting there for me when I eventually reach the paradise that God has promised me in Eternity. I’ll recognize my Dad, but he will be perfect in every way, even though he already seemed perfect to me when he was here on Earth. God promises the miraculous on the other side, so who knows…maybe my Dad will even have a full head of hair?! Selfishly, I hope he’s still bald when I get there. Because that’s how I remember him. I’m sure we will have a good laugh about his head either way.

I look forward to that good laugh. I look forward to seeing my Dad again, and I have each and every day over these past four years.

And I look forward to never, ever having to say goodbye to him again.

When I visualize the journey over these last four years as a physical terrain, I see what God means when he talks about life being full of hills and valleys. The valleys have been numerous and they have been deep since that awful July morning. They have been full of darkness and doubt and anger. And yes, as hard as it may be to imagine, there has been wonderful mountaintops where life has seemed happy again. Of course these moments have been tinged with sadness, but to think that life after loss is always hopeless just isn’t true. Life still has tremendous moments of beauty, thanks to the God I serve.

But there is a common theme in all these four years, whether I slogged through the valley or stood at the peak: God rules over both.

It’s no coincidence that God knew I would need this message on this anniversary. Today, when I got in my truck (always Dad’s truck), I made the decision to abandon my usual morning-news routine and listen to some music. And a song given to me by a friend a few weeks ago came through just when I needed it to remind me that God is always with me, both at the foot of the mountain and at its peak.

The song is Hills and Valleys by Tauren Wells, and I’ve included the video here. Would you take a moment this morning, on this anniversary of my Dad’s death, to honor his memory by listening to this song? It would mean the world to me, to my family, and to all those who loved my Dad.

The reality for me is that God has been with me through these four years. And He will be there with me for all the years to come. And I’m thankful that my Dad is with him, and that all the pain he felt on this Earth is completely gone. My Dad is on the hilltop, and he will be there forever and ever.

So yes, it’s been four years. There are days when it’s felt like four days, and there are days where it’s felt like forty years. But the time here on Earth pales in comparison to the eternity I will spend with my Dad. I will never stop living the life he would want me to live for as long as God wants me to live it, but I know that all the pain of these past four years will wash away when I see that smile again.

Dad and Lucy in Pool with SB LogoDad, I hate that I ever had to say goodbye to you. It’s been four years since I said goodbye to you for the last time here on this Earth. I feel the pain of losing you each and every day. I would give absolutely anything to have you back, even if only for a day. For 26 years, you were always here for me, and now that you aren’t I feel the awful heartache of losing you. But I know that I could only feel that heartache because you touched my heart in ways no one else could. You taught me so many important lessons in this life, but more than anything you taught me that love matters above all else. In every moment of every day, I never doubted your love for me, for my Mom, for our family, and to all who mattered to you. You didn’t just tell people that you loved them, you showed them. And I’m thankful for that. The days stretch on without you, Dad. There are days, like today, when it’s all I can do to get out of bed at the thought of losing you. But I know that all of the wonderful moments we shared in our time together here will be completely outshined by the life we will live together in the glory of God’s grace. Thank you, Dad, for everything. I’ll never be able to tell you how much I loved you, but until that day when I try, seeya Bub.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1-2 (NIV)

Killing a Snake

I believe that in our darkest hours, when despair surrounds us, we are put in situations that show us how courageous and brave we truly are. Even if those situations are not fun or easy to deal with.

I believe this because God has shown me that it’s true.

It was hot and I was tired. It had only been 3 days after Dad’s funeral when I set out to cut the lawns for the first time. I did not enjoy cutting the lawn as a general rule of thumb, but the idea of cutting two lawns was very, very tiring. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I live next to my parent’s house, our yards adjacent to one another. Compared to the newer subdivisions that offer a backyard the size of a postage stamp, our neighborhood offered very spacious and comfortable yards for each resident. But with a bigger yard comes bigger responsibility…and on a hot day comes a bigger pain in the rear end when you have to cut your grass in the stifling July heat and humidity.

My Dad did a great job of taking care of the lawn. In fact, unlike his son, he actually enjoyed yardwork (there are so many better things to enjoy in this life, but I digress…). My Dad was always planting new trees, adding new pots of flowers, building patios and firepits, and doing something to improve the essence of our backyard at my childhood home. It was a backyard paradise, and I think I often took it for granted when he was around. When I bought my own home, I definitely had a greater appreciation for his green thumb.

But now, the thought of increased yardwork combined with the trauma I felt in my heart after Dad died was difficult to bear. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that my Dad had finally lost his battle with depression, a victim of suicide, and the reality and weight of that truth was still setting in. I was exhausted, emotionally spent, and questioning everything—including my ability to be successful in this new chapter of my life.

I was feeling overwhelmed and very scared—how was I going to manage not one, but two huge lawns all by myself? And would I have to do it forever? It might sound like a trivial concern in the context of the larger loss we were suffering, but when you are in the midst of a family crisis, you tend to amplify all of the minor obstacles into major challenges. Life seems unbearable without your loved one, so molehills always look like mountains in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic loss.

Fortunately, some friends from our old church were buzzing around my lawn and my Mom’s lawn. They had shown up on that day to help me take care of the lawns, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been more grateful. I remember feeling so relieved when they all showed up with a trailer that hauled three riding lawnmowers. I had dispatched them to different areas of our yards, and I had taken on the unpleasant task of trimming with a weedeater.

Let me preface the rest of this story by saying this: If I hate mowing the lawn, I utterly loathe and despise trimming with a string trimmer. It is probably my least favorite lawn chore of all. I’m constantly being pelted with rocks and sticks that get caught in the whipping strings. My shins get whacked over and over again, and I usually mumble unsavory words under my breath and curse Mother Nature. And I am in a constant, ongoing battle with how to properly load string onto the head of the string trimmer without it getting tangled (I’ll gladly take any suggestions from my green-thumbed readers).

Reluctantly I took on the trimming, starting with my yard first. As I was walking through the yard, my mind would not stop racing. I felt overwhelmed without my Dad. I had cut my yard many times, but there was something about doing it knowing that I wouldn’t see my Dad smiling and waving from the yard next door. I wouldn’t get to see him stop over and chat about things I could do to improve the landscaping. My face was streaked with both sweat and tears. He had taught me how to mow the grass and how to maintain the yard, and now I had have to do it without him. I didn’t like this new reality.

Then, as I was getting ready to trim around a large boulder in my side yard, I looked down at my feet and nearly fainted.

A snake slithered its way between my feet. Right in between my legs.

I hate snakes. I hate them. I hate snakes more than string trimmers. I hate snakes more than anything. Folks, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it was a snake that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden causing the subsequent Fall of Man. Those animals are pure evil, and they have been since the day God created them. I haven’t liked them since I was a kid and that one snake, Kaa, tried to hypnotize poor Mowgli in The Jungle Book. I used to be attracted to Britney Spears. Then she did that thing with the snake at the MTV awards, and I could never look at her with the same admiration that I once did. They are corrupt, vile, sneaky, horrible creatures, and in my opinion are the embodiment of the devil on earth.

The snake that slithered through my legs on that day was a massive, hulking, likely-venomous son-of-a-gun that could probably swallow a small child with one gigantic gulp. Okay, I’m embellishing slightly because I think it was a common black garden snake…but that’s how they get you! They look all small and get you to let your guard down and before you know it….BAM! They’ve got their fangs in your neck and you’re a goner. I had no doubt this snake was out for the kill.

I needed a plan. I had nearly dropped the string trimmer when I saw the snake, and I was frozen, unable to move as I watched it raise its sneaky little snake head off of the grass. Suddenly, panic set in. When I thought to myself “What do I do?” the first thing that came to my mind was “Go get Dad!”

In the past, anytime I had encountered a snake, I would run to my Dad and have him catch (and hopefully kill) it. He would laugh at my fear of snakes and tell me that it wasn’t going to harm me. I would then tell him that he was not a snake mind reader and he had no idea what it was going to do to me. In most cases, my Dad would catch the snake and release it in the canal by our house, laughing and shaking his head the entire way.

But in that moment, the gravity of the situation suddenly washed over me. My Dad wasn’t going to be there to catch that snake. He would never be there again to catch that snake. To help me with anything. My Dad was gone, and he was gone forever.

I wanted to collapse. I really wanted to give up. I felt a pit in my stomach that is very hard to describe. The weight of all of my emotions was triggered by a seemingly mundane situation in the yard. If I couldn’t handle this, I thought, how would I handle all of the challenges that would face me in the aftermath of losing my Dad?

As scared as I was, I wasn’t about to let my Dad’s death defeat me. I knew that I had to use that moment to start taking a step up the mountain. I knew what Dad would want me to do.

*Note: If you are a snake lover, you might want to skip this next part of the story because it gets a little graphic.

**Note About the Note: If you are a snake lover, you should also have a psychological evaluation or an exorcism to take care of that problem.

I found an untapped source of fury and an anger that bubbled up from deep within me, and I found a courage to face my fear. Rather than run from the snake, I ran towards it. I took the string trimmer, gave it some gas, and got the strings spinning at full speed.

I hit the snake with the string trimmer. And then I hit it again. And again. And one more time, just to make sure the strings were doing their job. #MowglisRevenge

After that, I threw the string trimmer down onto the ground, and I sprinted into the greenhouse in my backyard. I grabbed a shovel and returned to the area of the attack, and just to make sure that snake was good and gone, I gave him a few nice little love taps with the shovel. His slithering days were done. His reign of terror had ended. Our long national nightmare was over.

I sat on the boulder nearby, and cried from exhaustion. For some reason, I just fell apart. There was something about not having my Dad by me to help me face one of my fears that made the situation very overwhelming.

Then, I looked to the Heavens, and I cried out with a decent sense of anger and frustration. All I could think in that moment was “God, why are you doing this to me? In my darkest hour, why would you let me see this snake which you know I fear?” I’ll admit that I felt anger towards God in that moment. “Isn’t it enough that my Dad is dead?!” I remember yelling. “Isn’t it enough that I’m hurting? Now you have to scare me, too?” It felt like God was kicking me when I was down. When everything already seemed so scary and so hard to deal with, God threw a snake into the mix.

But I sat there and thought, and I began to pray and talk with God as I tried to collect myself. In the conversation that ensued, I started to see my encounter with the snake in a new light. I started to understand that God was showing me that I was stronger than I thought. By bringing that snake into my yard, God was showing me that I could face my fears, and that I underestimate my abilities. God was showing me that I will be able to survive without my Dad. And there were many days after his passing where I thought I wouldn’t be able to. Satan wanted me to be afraid of that snake, throw in my cards, and give up in that moment. But God was helping me place a foothold on the mountain. God knew my breaking point, and he wanted me to overcome it.

By allowing me to go after that snake, I think God was not kicking me when I was down, but that He was allowing me to experience a victory when I needed it most. He was showing me that, yes, life was going to be difficult in the days and weeks and years to come. There were going to be snakes that slithered into my life and moments that seemed completely unbearable. But God was showing me that he would always be there to give me the courage and strength I needed to kill those snakes and tackle my fears.

I think God was also showing me that it’s okay to release my emotions when I feel them. I had heard so many people tell me during the funeral that I needed to “stay strong” for my Mom and my family. But I just didn’t feel strong. I wanted to cry and I wanted to yell and I wanted to throw things. God knew these emotions were real, and he knew I needed an outlet to let them escape. I think God was showing me that it’s okay to grieve, and that in my moments of desperation he actually wants me to cry out to him. I did on that day, and I’ve been doing it many days since then.

I needed God to push me to the limits so I would realize that all my weaknesses and emptiness would be completely fulfilled through Him. I am stubborn, and God has to work a little harder with me than He should have to in order to get the truth to set in. God was telling me all throughout my Dad’s death that I would get through it, and I refused to believe Him. So He showed me, in a small, seemingly simple encounter with a snake, that I would do more than just get through it. I would thrive. I would conquer. And I would win.

I sat on that rock in the yard, and the defeat I felt began to give way to a new sense of empowerment and inspiration. I began to feel a wave of bravery wash over my heart—not because of my own strength, but because of the strength of the God I believed in. When I was too afraid to chase after the snakes, God would give me the courage (and momentary insanity) to do it anyway.

As days gave way to weeks and weeks gave way to months, I continued to experience those little victories. I found little victories when I least expected them, and in moments of darkness and despair, I would find ways to put on the armor of God and fight on through the storm when I never thought I could. I constantly thought about that day after Dad’s death and my battle with the evil snake. I remembered that when I am weak, my God is strong, and that when I ask for the courage to overcome the heartache I felt, God would provide. In my Dad’s absence, my Heavenly Father would always provide. I’m still reminding myself of that each and every day. And I think I’ve been able to chase the devil away. And I’ll point out…I haven’t had a single snake in my yard since (that I know of…).

I imagine that God and my Dad are in heaven having a good laugh watching me pound on this snake with a shovel more times than I needed to. But after their laughter, I also imagine that they look at each other and say how proud they are of their son—and that gives me a really, really good feeling. I am thankful to have a Father on Earth who fought the snakes when I couldn’t, and I’m glad to have a Father in heaven who reminds me that I can.

Dad on Porch with SB LogoDad, There have been so many days when life has seemed unlivable without you in it. There have been moments when I’ve completely collapsed under the weight of my own worry and troubles, and I wish more than anything that you were here to encourage me in those moments of doubt and frustration. But in a sense, you are here with me. The lessons you taught me throughout my life were always lessons of empowerment. You taught me that I am always stronger than I think I am, and that when I am weak God is strong. You also showed me that it’s okay to have feelings and emotions and that I can express those when I feel them. You showed such bravery in your life, and I hate that in your final moments you doubted your own courage. Dad, you were the most courageous man I’ve ever known. You fought so hard for so long, and I’m glad you’re not fighting anymore because that enemy that you faced is defeated once and for all. I’m so thankful that you are completely at peace, completely healed, and completely perfected in God’s love and image. Dad, you deserve eternal rest in paradise (hopefully free of snakes), but boy do I wish you were still here with me to help me in this imperfect world. Keep giving me that courage when I need it most. And until I can thank you in person, seeya Bub.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Ephesians 6:10-11 (NIV)

A Letter From Dad

A good teacher will teach you something that you didn’t previously know. A great teacher will teach you how that knowledge can make your life better.

And a spectacular teacher will change your life in ways you might not immediately recognize.

I’m thankful that in my many years as a student, I’ve had some pretty spectacular teachers—and one absolutely spectacular teacher who gave me an assignment that has helped me hold onto my Dad, even after I can’t hold on to him in person.

Of all the nicknames my Dad enjoyed giving to me over the years, I think he probably enjoyed my 9th grade school year more than any other because for an entire year, he was able to call me “Freshie.” Nearly every day when I was getting ready for school, I can remember Dad calling me “Freshie.” He loved it, mostly because I hated it. He could see the annoyance on my face every time he said it…which basically encouraged him to keep saying it. My Dad had a thing for nicknames.

I have many memories of that year as a Freshie. My first struggles with Algebra and Spanish happened that year. I met friends that would last far beyond my high school graduation. That was the year I started playing golf, and also the year that I would learn some fancy new adult words on the golf course that I would never use around my Mom! My freshman year of high school started in 2001, and I remember being in Art class when another teacher ran in and turned on our television, and for the rest of the day in every class we watched as the horror of September 11, 2001 unfolded before our very eyes. I knew on that day that my world would change, and it was probably the first time I really felt the pain of death, even though I didn’t personally know any of the people who died. My year as a freshie, in many respects, was extremely monumental.

But of all the things I remember from that freshman year, I remember and am eternally grateful for an assignment in my Work & Family Life Class.

My third block of first semester was Work & Family Life with Ms. Schultheiss. Ms. Schultheiss was a caring, personable, and relatable teacher who I immediately knew that I would like right away. She taught with a simple kindness and a sense of humor that made her immediately endearing. Having been pretty nervous about my first semester in high school, I was so appreciative that I would have a teacher who could help calm my nerves and validate me when I needed it most. Over the semester, Ms. Schultheiss would help me learn many things: how to cook, how to sew (I made my own stuffed lizard), and how to prepare for my journey after high school. These were all extremely valuable skills that I draw on quite often…well, maybe not the sewing as much as she would have hoped. But I remember walking away from that class with a feeling that I had grown tremendously as a student and as a person.

As the summer before that year drew to a close, I was extremely nervous about the anticipated academic difficulty of life as a high schooler. Not having an older sibling or any older friends, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had heard horror stories about hours and hours of homework, papers that stretched on for pages, and material that was difficult to grasp and comprehend. And then there was that whole Shakespeare guy. As a naturally nervous and neurotic little freshie, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectations of my teachers and parents.

That’s why I was surprised when Ms. Schultheiss shared our first assignment in Work & Family Life. It was not what I had expected high school work would be.

And I was thankful because…I really didn’t have to do much!

Ms. Schultheiss gave us a simple handout that explained our assignment. We were to ask a few adults in our life to write us a letter. Simple as that. These loved ones were to write us a letter that would share why they loved us. They would highlight our character, our good qualities, and why they thought we were special. Our loved ones would put the letters in an envelope, seal them, and give them to us. We would then bring the letters into class, show them to Ms. Schultheiss, and the assignment was complete. She wouldn’t even read the letters—we just had to show her that we received them.

I immediately knew who I would ask to write me a letter. I asked my Grandpa Vern and Grandma Sharon to each write a letter, which they readily agreed to. I also asked our neighbors and close family friends Shawn and America to write a letter. They both joked about all of the embarrassing things they would share in their letter, and they too agreed to write.

And, of course, I asked my Mom and Dad.

A week or so later, I collected the letters from each of my loved ones, took them into class, and showed them to Ms. Schultheiss. She checked my name off of the list indicating I would receive full credit (score!), and I returned to my desk, probably in my Nike sandals and a shortsleeve plaid button down, with six little envelopes in my hand. Ms. Schultheiss then told us that she was going to give us some quiet time to read our letters to ourselves at our desks.

I opened my Mom’s letter first, and if you know me well, you can probably guess what happened next…I began to cry. Yes, that shouldn’t be a surprise. I’m an emotional guy, and I’ve always been pretty sensitive.

But this was no time to be sensitive! I was a freshman in high school! The cool freshman weren’t sensitive. I could already tell that my sense of style and natural tendency to get lockjaw any time an attractive girl so much as stared at me were already going to make it difficult to make friends. If I started crying in class during my third week of high school, I would need to start lifting weights quickly to fight off all the butt-kickings I would receive over the next four years.

So I did what any mature, wise, and confident high school freshman would do…I became a complete coward. Like I’m sure many of my classmates did, I opened each of the letters, stared at the blank space in the corner of each page and pretended to read, and put the letters in my binder completely void of any tear stains.

But when I got home that afternoon, I could hardly contain the excitement of reopening each letter and reading the words my loved ones had written about me. I went through each letter and let the tears I had successfully contained in the classroom earlier that day pour freely.

I’ll never forget getting to my Dad’s letter. Always the jokester, Dad had even taken the envelope as an opportunity to show off his humor. In his familiar and precise all-caps handwriting, Dad wrote his full name and address in the return corner of the envelope. Then, he addressed the envelope to “Tyler S. Bradshaw (Same Address).” And if this wasn’t enough, in the postage stamp corner of the envelope, Dad wrote “No postage required if mailed to same household.” Typical Dad. #dadjokes

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I opened the letter to find a typed page from my Dad, emblazoned with the header “A Letter to My Son.” I read through his letter, and I cried like a baby at the words he shared with me.

And I still cry today every time I read it.

Yes, I still have all six of those letters that my loved ones wrote to me, but obviously my Dad’s letter took on a whole new meaning after his death. I remember going to the keepsake box where I kept some of my most valuable personal mementos shortly after Dad’s death. In the constant buzz and coming and going of family and friends in the days after Dad died, I knew that I would need to find a moment to myself to uncover that letter and read it before I said goodbye at Dad’s funeral.

So, one evening a few nights after Dad had passed, I locked myself in my home office, threw open the closet door, and took out my box of mementos. I shuffled through cards and drawings and photos, and then my chest tightened when I saw it.

Dad’s writing on the outside of the envelope. His message to me. Right there in my hands.

I cried before I could even get the letter open. Just seeing his handwriting there and knowing that his hands would never write those words ever again on this earth made the pain of his death impossible to comprehend.

There was lots of hysterical crying that night on the floor of my home office, but I was eventually able to collect myself enough to open the envelope and read the words my Dad had written to me.

In the midst of all the heartache and all the loss I felt in that moment, I also felt like my Dad was still there. Like he was still speaking to me. And that he was there telling me that, although my heart was bursting at the seams with pain right now, I would get through this.

Of course, Dad couldn’t just contain his humor to the envelope. He would have to make some jokes inside the letter too, and as I sat there with tears streaming down my face, I also couldn’t help but laugh. He told me that he liked me because two-thirds of my name was also two-thirds of his name. He also pointed out that I had captured many of his physical features and, as a result, had become a “fine-looking young man.” I would point out to him after first reading it that I still had a full head of hair, but that’s not the point…

Dad then went on to share how he admired me for my ability to be compassionate, and how he admired my intelligence. Dad also told me how he admired the fact that I was different from most children of my age.

Dad shared a lot of other things with me in that heartfelt letter. I could tell he had taken a lot of time to think through what he would write and how he would write it. His letter had touched my heart, and now it would continue to do that long after he was gone. I hugged the letter close to my chest, and rocked back and forth as I continued to cry, wishing he was next to me.

When I made the decision to start this blog, I knew that I would have to abandon the nervousness that had plagued me as a young freshie. I knew that I would have to become extremely vulnerable and share pieces of my life that I hadn’t previously shared before; all in an effort to help people who are suffering.

In that midst of that drive for vulnerability, however, I also knew that there would be areas of my life that would be off-limits. There would be things that I would not share. There would be things that were private and stories that would be just between my Dad and I. And to respect the intimacy of the letter he wrote to me, I’m choosing not share the content of that letter (and I hope you can respect my decision). Dad wrote that letter to me, and I’d like to keep it that way. I hope you can respect that.

And I’m also making that decision for this important truth: What matters is not what’s in the letter. What matters is that I have the letter.  

I am so thankful to Ms. Schultheiss for giving us that assignment. I am so appreciative that she found a creative way to teach us a lesson, while at the same time giving us a priceless artifact, a family heirloom that would be much more than a simple assignment. Ms. Schultheiss, you gave us a touchstone that we could come back to when times got tough and when life seemed unlivable. I’m sure that this particular assignment doesn’t satisfy a governmental decree or a requirement of No Child Left Behind, but it’s an assignment that every student should be fortunate enough to complete in their life. I’ve written many papers and essays throughout my life as a student, but I’ve never read and re-read an assignment even close to the amount of times that I’ve read my Dad’s letter and all the other letters I was written on that day. What I got in that assignment was even more important than the self-esteem boost that I’m sure Ms. Schultheiss had intended. I got a piece of my Dad that I could hold onto forever and ever. I’ll never be able to say thank you enough for that gift from a loving, wise, and brilliant teacher.

Even though I’ve chosen not to share the entirety of my Dad’s letter to me, I will share the closing sentences of my Dad’s letter, even though it’s so very, very difficult for me to read those sentences and write about them.

At the end of my Dad’s letter, right before he told me that he loved me, Dad wrote “I hope that sometime you will have to write a letter to your Mother and I for extra credit. It’s nice to see it on paper so that you can read it from time to time.”

Yes, Dad, it certainly is. And I’m sorry that I never wrote you that letter.

I’m ashamed to admit that in the midst of my self-absorbed freshiness, I never got around to writing my Dad a similar letter. It hurts my heart to know that the letter I would write to my Dad was not the one he hoped for, but one to include in his casket at his burial many years later. Amidst many of the regrets I have in my life, I think that not writing my Dad a letter is chief among them.

Nevertheless, and a bit selfishly I might add, I am grateful that my Dad was as mature and compassionate as he was. Compassionate enough to sit down and type a letter, even though I’m sure it took him longer to type it with his “hunting and pecking” approach. I’m thankful that my Dad was loving enough to be emotionally vulnerable to tell me, in words, exactly what I meant to him. I’m unbelievably happy that my Dad encouraged me to be who I was and live a life consistent with my values and faith.

I will cherish that letter for as long as I live. I hope to be able not only to pass that letter on to my future children who will never get to meet there Grandad, but to someday write them a letter—hopefully without the provocation of one of their teachers. I want to write them a letter to make them feel the way I do when I read my Dad’s. I want to be able to give them the words they deserve to hear. It’s amazing how a simple letter can touch one’s heart in such a profound way. Although depression might have taken my Dad, nothing could ever take away his love, his memory, and the words he wrote to me that day.

And in this post, I encourage you to write letters to those you love. Even if you don’t have a teacher who was as awesome as mine was, take the time to write letters to your loved ones. Let them know how much they mean to you…and when it’s in writing, it will be there forever.

I’m thankful for the teacher who assigned the letter, I’m thankful for the Father who wrote it, and I’m thankful that even though he might be gone, I can hear him speaking to me each time I read it.

dad-in-easter-suitDad, In lieu of the letter I should have written to you before you died, I have been writing letters to you ever since. Letters that share my love for you and my sadness that you are no longer here. There isn’t a single day that goes by when I don’t miss you. You writing such an honest and authentic letter to me as a young freshie is just one of the many spectacular gifts you gave me as your son. I read your words, and although they still bring tears to my eyes as they did on the first day I read it, they also bring a sense of gratitude that I had you as a Father here on earth for all the years I did. I wasn’t just lucky to have you as a Dad—I was blessed beyond belief. Your words in that letter are so important to me because I know they aren’t just words. They are reflections of your innermost beliefs, and you lived and loved me in a way that made those words come to life. Thank you for writing that letter, Dad. I’m sorry that I never wrote you the one you deserved to read. It breaks my heart knowing that I never handed you a letter in return, but it gives me hope knowing that I’ll get to tell you exactly how much I love you face to face someday. Until that wonderful day, seeya Bub.

“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13:34-35 (MSG)

When You Aren’t Here

“We had no idea.”

It was a constant refrain in the days and weeks after my Dad’s death. People had no idea he was suffering. People had no idea how much he was hurting. People had no idea that my Dad was so sick that his life could be in danger.

I was one of those people, too.

Families that are unfamiliar or untouched by suicide often have misconceptions about depression and mental illness—I know that I did before it hit home for me.

Those who are unfamiliar with suicide often believe that there are unmistakable warning signs. They believe that family members must have missed something along the way, or that they weren’t paying attention to the needs of their loved one. Wrongly, they believe that in circumstances involving suicide, there are always major and apparent signals that should send up a red flag.

Well I’ve been there, and I can say this with the utmost certainty. There may be instances where warning signs are there, but in my scenario, there were none. There was no red flag. There were no sirens and flashing lights saying “Save your loved one before something terrible happens.”

And this might be hard to understand, but I firmly believe this: my Dad didn’t see them either.


When I bought my home at the age of 25 (there’s more stories about this experience in earlier posts here and here), I knew that there would be some significant do-it-yourself projects that I would need to take care of. Virtually every room needed to be painted. Television sets needed to be hung. Furniture needed to be assembled. The pond needed to be cleaned out and the pumps needed to be repaired.

There was one problem (big is an understatement). You see, I bought the house knowing that these things needed to be done…but I didn’t know how to do any of these things. I didn’t know how to paint rooms. I didn’t know how to hang television sets. I didn’t know how to assemble furniture. And I wasn’t crazy about the idea of cleaning out a pond that hadn’t been touched in nine years.

But I bought the house knowing this because I had an ace in the hole: my Dad. My Dad knew how to do all these things—and a whole lot more. I’m confident that I’m a terrible do-it-yourselfer because my Dad inherited all the genes necessary for home repair and a builder’s mindset, leaving none of those genes left for his only son. My Dad could do anything—and I really mean anything. Small projects were easy for him, like hanging a shelf or assembling a piece of furniture. The shelves in my room as a child that hung on the walls were actually handcrafted and built by him. No childhood toy was victim to complete destruction, because Dad always had a way to repair them. Christmas morning was always a joy because the “some assembly required” warning that frustrates and frightens so many Dads was a welcome challenge to mine.

But he made the big projects look easy too. He constructed a beautiful deck that entirely surrounded our backyard swimming pool that was the envy of our neighborhood. The deck had a beautiful grand staircase and meticulously-arranged spindles all around it. He built a garage and foyer addition onto our house, completely changing the look, feel, and functionality of my childhood home. From drawing plans and pouring concrete, to constructing frames and roofing the addition, Dad knew how to do it all. When it came to building and repairing, my Dad was a true Renaissance man.

For my entire life, I had really relied on my Dad (sometimes unfairly) to just take care of all these things for me. I took for granted that I had a live-in Bob Vila at my home who could fix anything I needed. But when I bought my own home, something in my soul changed that told me I needed to start taking some responsibility. No, I didn’t know how to do…well, anything. But my Dad did. And I could learn from him.

Upon a closer review of the house after I took ownership of it, more and more problems began to appear. One day, I noticed a rather large crack down the wall above the sliding glass door in my family room. I called Dad one day to tell him about the crack, and he used a bunch of words that I didn’t understand to basically tell me that he could fix it. He said he would come over later that night to fix everything. Not only was Dad talented, but he was always reliable.

Dad came over later that night with his toolbelt on—it was a look that he wore well and had been wearing for as long as he’d been my Dad. Whenever I picture my Dad, I usually picture him in that outfit—a dark blue work t-shirt with his name above the pocket, light and worn carpenter’s jeans, steel toed work boots, and a rugged brown toolbelt. That toolbelt had everything he needed—and if he needed something else, he could easily buy another pouch to fasten onto the belt.

Dad looked at the crack, ran his hands over it a few times, and then ran back to his truck to get all the additional items he would need to fix it. He came back with a ladder, a jar of drywall patch, and a smile on his face—“This is an easy one. I’ll have it fixed in no time.”

Dad climbed up on the ladder and began to work, and I sat behind him watching intensely. I watched him work in a way that I never had before. I wanted to watch him closely, because I knew there were going to be other drywall cracks in the years to come, and I wanted to be able to fix them on my own.

After a while, Dad could feel the glare of my stare, and he looked over his shoulder hesitantly. I think he was a bit surprised because, and I’m ashamed to admit this, I had never really taken a big interest in his work and any type of physical labor before this. I just smiled at him, and Dad just kept on working.

He sanded the portions of the wall that were near the crack, and then he took out a netting material to…well, I really don’t know what he was going to do with it. So, I asked him.

“So, what are you going to do with that netting stuff you’ve got there?”

At that point, Dad must have thought I had been drinking or that his son had been abducted by aliens and replaced with a Tyler-twin who was actually interested in carpentry and home repair.

He told me what he was going to do, as my Dad was always a great teacher. But then, his curiosity got the best of him.

“Why are you asking me that?”

“Well, I want to know how to fix it on my own, you know…in case you’re not here.”

Dad smirked, shook his head, and turned around and went back to his work. As he resumed the job at hand, I’ll always remember his response:

“I’ll always be here to help with stuff like this.”

That moment stands out to me for so many reasons, but I always think about this simple fact: When my Dad promised made that statement, it was less than one year from the day that his life would end from suicide. Less than a year.

You see, people might think there are warning signs for loved ones and close friends to observe, and in some cases those signs may be there. But they aren’t there in every case. Even the person at the heart of the storm can believe that suicide will never affect them. Even the person who is suffering most might not see the warning signs. Even the victim of suicide believes with all their heart that suicide will never be their end.

I firmly believe that my Dad honestly believed he would always be here. My Dad had plans for his life that stretched long after July 24, 2013. This wasn’t something that he put on a calendar or contemplated. This was something that, I’m sure, shocked him as much as it shocked everyone who loved him.

We must start realizing that suicide is a decision made when the mind is in a malfunctioning state. Those who die from suicide do not make this decision in the right frame of mind. They want to be here with us forever, but something in their mind tells them that being here forever will bring tremendous pain—not just for themselves, but for the loved ones they feel they will be a burden to. There is a malfunction at the brain level that warps the thought process so severely that rational thought seems irrational.

Had we known my Dad was hurting so severely that it would threaten his life, we would have moved heaven and earth to save him. My Mom and I would have done anything we could to help him weather that storm and the ones that might have followed. We never would have left him alone at the house that day. But we never would have thought that suicide was within the realm of possibility for my Dad.

And I believe this: Had my Dad thought that his life was seriously in danger, he would have done everything he could to save it. For himself. For me. For my Mom. For everyone he loved.

That’s why I can’t, and I never will, hold my Dad responsible for his death. I know his true heart. I know where he wanted to be. I know he wanted to be here with all of us. He told me that he would. And my Dad never lied to me. He told me on that night, and so many others, that he would always be there to help me when I needed him. He told me how much he was looking forward to me finding someone to spend the rest of my life with…and how much he wanted to be a Grandpa. He had plans for things he was going to do to our house and for things he wanted to do, like going to certain concerts or going on unique trips. Do these sound like the plans of a man who welcome death? No, they don’t. Because my Dad didn’t want to die. He wanted to be here for as long as God would allow him too.

Even though I strongly believe that my Dad gave no indication that he was suffering so severely that it could lead to suicide, I still feel tremendous guilt. Guilt for not knowing what could happen. Guilt for not seeing what was happening in his mind and heart. Guilt for not doing more to protect the man who had always been my protector.

I know this “survivor’s guilt” is irrational, but it’s there and it’s real. There are days when it weighs me down so severely that I can’t function. It hurts me that I couldn’t do more.

But maybe, just like the crack in the wall and the other home repairs, I wasn’t equipped to fix that problem. I wasn’t prepared to heal the hurt and illness my Dad suffered from. Either way, I’ve struggled to come to terms with the fact that my Dad is no longer here, even though he should be. The tremendous guilt and the overwhelming sorrow are a hallmark of the survivor’s life, and I never quite understood just how intense this was until it affected my life. It’s expanded my heart to be more empathetic to others. It’s made me feel better prepared to help other people.

And even though I still can’t fix any cracks that appear in my wall, I’ve got the memory of an inspiration and a great Father that will motivate me to pay attention to my own emotions.

Dad with Baby Lucy and SB LogoDad, I never thought I’d have to experience life without you so soon. I had images of you growing old, and I was excited to see you enter new chapters of your life, because you always had a sense of adventure. There are days, many days, when I feel helplessly lost without you. It always feels like something is missing when you aren’t around—it’s like there’s a gaping hole that can never be filled perfectly, even though good things are happening all around me. You brought such life to my life, and now I try to use your memory to fulfill that. I look forward to life in Eternity when the “you aren’t here” times are simply a thing of the past. Until that day, I’ll continue honoring your memory and loving you with all my heart. Seeya, Bub.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)

Yes, He Loves Me

The tiniest, simplest books are often the best books.

Love Is CoverWhen I was a kid, one of my favorite books was one that my Mom bought for me at a library book sale called “Love Is Walking Hand in Hand.” The 1965 book is about as simple as you can get. Written by the famous illustrator Charles Schulz, the book features the Peanuts gang (Charlie Brown and Snoopy and all your other favorites) with simple but practical examples of what love can look like in our everyday lives. Each page features a new example: “Love is walking hand in hand,” “Love is having a special song,” “Love is messing up someone’s hair,” “Love is wishing you had nerve enough to go over and talk with that little girl with the red hair,” “Love is letting him win even though you know you could slaughter him” (There’s more awesome gems from this book at brainpickings.org).

I loved that book because it was easy. I loved that book because it took a complex and nebulous idea, like love, and made it easy for me to see and understand. That book put hands and feet on love for me. That book didn’t just tell me what love was—it taught me how to love other people.

Isn’t it funny how we often come back to those simple little lessons as we age to deal with some of life’s most complex issues?

It’s true, my life after Dad’s death has been vastly more complicated, but the answers to those complicated questions can sometimes be beautifully, wonderfully simple.

Lately, I’ve been reading and revisiting a number of different books and articles written by survivors of suicide. Some of these books resonate really deeply with me, but others describe scenarios that I’m truly unfamiliar with. And it should be that way. The experience of each survivor of suicide is entirely different, and we all struggle with different feelings at different seasons. There’s no manual or “right way” to grieve. There’s no perfect way to do this because each person who suffers is imperfect in their own way.

One thing that we all have in common as survivors of suicide loss, however, is dealing with questions. And one of the worst ramifications of a suicide involves the many unanswered (and sometimes unanswerable) questions it creates in the lives of those left behind.

There is one question in the “life after your loved one” that is particularly haunting. It’s a question that gets to the roots and the motivations of suicide in general.

Oftentimes, whether reasonable or not, suicide survivors often wonder “If my loved one died by suicide, did they ever really love me?”

It’s heartbreaking for me to even write these questions down, mainly because this is a question that I’ve always been able to answer easily. Yes, I know that my Dad loved me. I know that he suffered from a debilitating brain illness that warped his mind and hacked his thought processes. I know that his decision was not a reflection of his love or lack thereof. It was uncontrollable. It was out of his ability to handle. He loved me so much that he couldn’t bear the thought of letting me (and the rest of his friends and family) down.

But even the most rock-solid faith in God and love can be subject to temptation and doubt. No matter how strong my belief, I have to admit…there have been moments in the three-and-more years since Dad passed where Satan has gotten the best of me. There have been moments so sad and heartbreaking that it’s made it hard to function, physically and emotionally. And yes, although I hate to admit it, there have been moments where (even temporarily) the pain of losing my Dad so suddenly and tragically have called into question everything I believe.

Alright, I’ll say it…I’ve always been the guy who rolls my eyes a bit at a wedding whenever the minister says “Our reading is from the 13th chapter of the book of 1st Corinthians…” Mainly, I used to think that people chose this particular passage because it’s the easiest one to understand. It’s easy to reprint on a coffee mug or desk sign. (Don’t act like I’m the only one who’s thought this.)

But suicide changed my life in dramatic ways, and that particular passage of Scripture took on a whole new meaning after Dad died. You’ve heard it before, and just to help you prepare for the Summer wedding season, you’ll hear it again here:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (ESV)

I think people love this verse because, just like my Charlie Brown book from my childhood, it makes love a tangible thing. It puts hands and feet to love. We can look at any scenario in our life, evaluate it against these standards, and judge accurately whether or not love is there.

For this reason, I often go to the version in The Message (MSG) that I think puts a perfect “Charlie Brown” picture with the original text:

“Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies.” 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 (MSG)

So, like I’ve done so many times when the storms have come upon my soul after Dad died, I did just that to help reaffirm and strengthen my beliefs. Did my Dad really, really love me? Of course he did. Did he love me even though he died from suicide? Yes, undoubtedly. Even though life might have seemed unlivable to him, did he still love me?

Yes, yes, yes. I can answer that question with the firmest of faith. And it’s not just a whim or a feeling. It’s a fact. I can evaluate my Dad and his actions as a father against this beautiful, poetic Scripture, and I can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved me…and loves me still.

“Love is patient…” (v. 4) Boy, was my Dad ever patient…with me and with everything in life. All throughout my childhood, my Dad never tired of doing things that I’m sure weren’t all that exciting for him. I think specifically of the hours we used to spend each night wrestling on the floor of our family room. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I would often jump off of the stairs or the arm of a couch and Dad would catch me and body slam me. I think of all the times that Dad would take me to the playground or toss me off the deck of our backyard swimming pool. I’m sure that there were other things he would have rather done as an adult. But he always took the time to let me be a child. He was always patient with my constant pleas for entertainment. He was patient in everything he did, but I never once felt like I was a burden or distraction for my Dad.

“Love is kind.” (v. 4) I remember from a very young age, that my Dad always taught me how to be gentle. He didn’t tell me what being gentle was; he simply showed me in the way he lived his life. My Dad had a heart for other people. In my opinion, kindness is often judged by how you treat people who can’t ever pay you back for your kindness. My Dad had a heart for those people—especially the physically disabled. I remember how special his relationship was with Madelyn, a young girl from our church who suffered from Down’s Syndrome. He loved seeing her and each time, he would bend his neck to let her rub his bald head as she smiled. My Dad also loved pets and animals of all kinds. Dad was never too busy to pet a dog or play fetch with it. He got so much enjoyment giving joy to other people (and many four-legged creatures as well).

Whenever I think of my Dad’s kindness, I think most about the times when I was hurt or injured as a child, and how he could make me feel safe, secure, and steady again. Dad often took me and my friends on bike rides to Rentschler Park when we were kids. My friends and I loved it, because Dad would often take us on the most challenging trails, encouraging us to pop wheelies, ramp small hills, and navigate particularly treacherous trails. One evening, I rode down a very steep hill, and the overgrown grass had concealed a rather large and raised manhole cover. I hit the manhole cover hard, went head over handlebars, and landed on top of the manhole cover on my back as the bike slammed down hard into my chest. I got the wind knocked out of me, and I had a lot of cuts and bruises to show for it. Without blinking, my Dad threw his bike down, came and scooped me up in his arms, and carried me all the way home. He enlisted my friends to help push our bikes so he could carry me. That’s kindness. That’s love. That’s my Dad. I miss feeling the kindness of his hug.

“Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude.” (v. 4) The message translation of this portion says “Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head” (v. 4-5). I love that! My Dad was one of the most humble men I’ve ever met, and his entire life was centered around telling people how proud he was of me—sometimes to the point that it embarrassed me! Although he didn’t have much to brag on when it came to athletic achievements, there were the few miraculous Saturdays where I had a good day in the net as the keeper and he would tell everyone about my achievement. Whether it was a great report card, an award I won at the school, or a particularly strong drawing I had made as a child, I always knew that Dad was my biggest fan. He loved me for who I was, and he loved telling people about the things I was doing. It made me feel important. It made me feel special. My Dad’s love was always, always about other people.

“It does not insist on its own way.” (v. 5) My Dad always gave me the freedom to figure things out on my own. He loved me by letting me make mistakes. Ultimately, he loved me by letting me be me. Dad and I were similar in many ways, but we were also very different. Dad was a stellar athlete. I was…less than stellar. Dad was a builder and knew how to work with his hands. I complained about most physical labor and threatened to call Children’s Protective Services if he forced me to work. Dad enjoyed riding dirtbikes and motorcycles, and although he bought me my own to ride many times, I was often too nervous to ride them well. But Dad, in spite of all these differences, always loved me. He never made me feel inadequate because I enjoyed books or puppet shows or coloring or things that I’m sure he didn’t have an interest in. I think Dad loved that I was like him in many ways, but I know that he also loved me because I wasn’t a carbon copy of him.

“It is not irritable or resentful.” (v. 5) I am a lucky child in that I can’t really remember my Dad ever losing his temper with me. I look back on my life, and yes there were times where he was upset with me, but I never felt unloved. For the most part, I was a pretty good kid—but even the best of kids do something every now and then to send their parents into the stratosphere. Even when I made mistakes, Dad never let those mistakes influence how he felt about me or how he perceived my character. My Dad was the parent who could get his point across just by saying he was disappointed in me and the way I behaved. He loved me, and yes he disciplined me when I needed and deserved it, but he never lost his temper. I strive to be more like him in many ways, but especially in this way. I know I need more of his coolheadedness.

“It does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.” (v. 6) In everything he did and taught me, my Dad encouraged me to be a good person. I know that sounds simple, but because he loved me, he wanted me to love other people and do what was right by them. Dad’s actions were always evaluated in the context of how it might affect other people. It might sound like a minor lesson to some people, but my Dad refused to litter. And he also refused to let his son do the same thing. At the time, I didn’t understand how throwing a gum wrapper out the car window could be a big deal, but Dad cared too much about the planet and other people to make his garbage their problem. And yes, if I threw down a candy wrapper or Coke can behind my Dad’s back, he would make me walk all the way back and pick it up. In even the minor, day-to-day actions of life, my Dad taught me to think about other people. He loved me by helping me love others and care for their well being.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things…” (v. 7) The Message translation from this portion of the passage says that love “always looks for the best” and “never looks back.” My Dad was an eternal optimist, especially when it came to seeing the goodness in other people. I’m thankful that my Dad always saw the best in me, even when I didn’t always show him my best. When it came to emotions and arguments that happen between a father and son, my Dad had an unbelievably short memory. If Dad and I had a disagreement on Friday night, Dad would be completely back to his normal, smiling self by that Saturday morning. He never, ever withheld his love, because he knew love could solve all of our problems. He knew that he could reach me by loving me, not by shunning me. He let love cover every interaction we ever had. I wish I had always done the same.

“Love endures all things.” (v. 7) I can think of few things that could have devastated my life more than losing one of my parents, but strangely enough I still felt that the love my Dad showed me each and every day could carry me through the pain of losing him. Strangely, the love he showed me helped prepare me for eventually losing him. I watched the way my Dad treated me when I was hurting, and in turn I learned how to better comfort my Mom and other family members when they were grieving. My Dad had the uncanny ability to nurture me authentically, and when he died I knew that one of the central callings of my life would be to love people the way he did.

“Love never ends.” (v. 8) My Dad’s life here on Earth might have ended, but I know that his love never has. It’s still with me. I feel it every single day. On certain days, I can still feel him talking to me. I don’t know if it’s Scripturally or theologically sound, but I’ve felt messages of love from my Dad numerous times since he died—especially in the dark moments where I needed them most. I think this is the greatest reflection of a person’s capacity to love—the body may be gone, but the heart and the soul are still here when you need them. When I lack confidence or feel nervous, I can still picture my Dad standing there with a huge smile on his face saying “I’m proud of you, Bub.” That’s all I need. That’s all I’ll ever need.

I’ve often heard that the best way to fight the Devil and the doubt he creates is to attack him with Scripture. This battle tactic isn’t a speculation…it’s directly evidenced when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4 or Luke 4). When Satan tempted Jesus with food or power, and even pushed him to test God’s love for him by jumping from the Temple and calling on Angels to rescue him, Jesus fought back by quoting the word of God. Satan tried to create doubt, but Jesus relied on the unfailing truth of God’s Word to bolster his spirit. And it worked.

Doubt is, unfortunately, natural in the life of a suicide survivor. When something as unthinkable as a suicide happens to someone we love, it’s easy to question everything that previously seemed to be real or true. “If that could happen,” the suicide survivor says, “then how can I trust anything else I’ve ever believed?” It sounds dramatic, but I’ve experienced it myself…as have millions of others who are left behind with this heartache.

I’m so thankful, though, that in the midst of all my heartache and doubt and confusion I can know without question that, yes, my Dad loved me and that, yes, he still loves me.

My Dad’s death from suicide was not a conscious decision, but one that occurred in the middle of a terrible storm and illness that took over his thought processes. If anything, I think my Dad’s love for us might have been so strong that he didn’t want his illness to be a burden to me or Mom or the rest of our family. I wish that I had told him that he would never be a burden, and that one of the greatest gifts in my life was receiving his love.

Why would I ever let one defeat like my Dad’s death erase a lifetime of evidence that proves he was loving and caring and kind? One moment does not define a person’s entirety. Suicide, although permanent and irreversible in this situation, does not tell my Dad’s story. The love he showed is what defines him. The love he gave made him the man he was. It’s making me into a better man even though he’s gone.

So yes, amidst all the doubt and confusion that a suicide creates, I know my Dad loved me. I know that he still loves me. It’s there in the pages of my Bible. It’s reflected in the moments of my life. It’s in everything I do, and it always will be.

Me Dad and Lucy at Picnic with SB LogoDad, I hate that the confusion over your death would even lead to any doubt about whether or not you loved me, but I’m glad that I can quickly rely on the truth of God’s Word and the example you gave me each and every day to reaffirm your love. You were the epitome of a loving Father. I try each day to love people the way you did, and no matter how hard I try I know that I’ll always fall short—that’s how high you set the bar. You made love your mission. You made love your calling. You let God show you how to love, and then you showed God’s people how to love in everything you did. I pray that I’m able to become more and more like you as days go by. As those days pass, I rest assured knowing I will get to see you again. I’ll get to feel your hug and see your smile and know that everything about you is right, even though your circumstances here on Earth weren’t. Keep loving me, Dad. Keep watching over me and pushing me to be a better man. I’ll never stop loving you. Until I can tell you in person, seeya Bub.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV)

Words Matter

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

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

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

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


“My Dad committed suicide.”

“My Dad took his own life.”

“My Dad died from a suicide.”

I just didn’t know how to say it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Dad

On Sunday May 21, 2017, my Dad would have celebrated his 54th birthday.

It tears me up inside to have to say “would have”.

My Dad never made a big deal out of his birthday. He was always happy if Mom made one of his favorite home cooked meals and a tasty dessert. We would all get him a few gifts, and we would usually spend the night at home together. We would usually get one of his favorites—a Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream cake—and he would eat one big piece. And then another. And then usually another before bed. My Dad enjoyed the simple moments in his life, and a birthday didn’t need to have a bunch of extravagance to enjoy the day any more. A good meal, good family, and good cake and ice cream. I love that my Dad loved life’s simplicity. I strive to be more like him in this way.

Now that those moments are gone forever, I would give anything to go back to those days and make a ridiculously big deal out of his birthday. I would give anything to have another birthday to celebrate with him. I don’t know if it’s even what he would have wanted, because he really enjoyed life at a low-key pace and volume. Extravagant to Dad would have been two Graeter’s cakes instead of one. No matter what we did, I would have wished we had a huge blowout on his birthday. Looking back, that’s probably more about me than it is about him, and I’m ashamed to say that, but it’s all about the love I feel for him.

I’m sure this is a common sentiment to anyone who has lost a loved one, and it probably isn’t relegated to just birthdays. Christmas feels emptier. Thanksgiving feels emptier. Mother’s or Father’s days feel emptier. Yes, every day will feel a certain level of emptiness, but that emptiness is really magnified on those “big days”.

Losing a loved one to suicide (or losing a loved one prematurely) also brings on a new layer of feeling: the feeling of being robbed. The feeling of having one of life’s greatest treasures stolen prematurely.

My Dad deserved more birthdays. He deserved birthdays into his eighties and nineties and triple-digits. He deserved to celebrate his birthdays not just with me and Mom, but with his grandkids and maybe even great grandkids. He deserved more.

I experience a whole host of emotions on my Dad’s birthday, and it’s hard to predict what I might feel in any given moment throughout the day.

I feel sadness. Sadness that I can no longer say “Happy Birthday” to my Dad face to face. Or give him a gift or buy him a card. Sadness that I’ll never get to see the smile on his face or hear his familiar chuckle when he opens up a birthday card that I bought to poke fun at his age. Sadness that I’ll never be able to eat another birthday meal with him. Sadness that I’ll never be able to rub his bald head and make a joke about him having nothing else to lose since his hair was already gone years before. There’s so much sadness now on a day that was once all about being happy. It’s difficult to fathom.

I also feel distance. As each year passes by, I feel more and more distance from my Dad—and it scares me. Instead of celebrating his 52nd or 53rd or 54th birthday, I find myself celebrating the second, or third, or fourth birthday since he’s gone. I find myself dividing my life into Before Dad and After Dad, and there’s a pain that invades my heart as I accumulate more birthdays and big days without him. I feel like the further away I get from the last conversation he and I shared, the more of him I’m losing. I feel like the more years that rack up since he’s been gone, the more I will forget. I don’t want my Dad to become a memory, but I’m worried that all I have left of him are memories which I’m bound to someday forget. The distance between then and now scares me tremendously.

I feel guilt. Tremendous guilt. Guilt for all of his birthdays that I took for granted. Guilt for all the birthdays of his that I likely treated as just another day. Guilt for all the birthdays where I scrambled at the last minute for a gift when I should have spent more time being thoughtful and considerate. Guilt for all the birthdays where I had something on my calendar other than spending time with the man who deserved it. I know, I know. It’s easy to be a Monday Morning Quarterback. It’s easy to have these feelings in retrospect, and I’d likely have them regardless of how I acted while he was here. I would always want more. But that doesn’t negate those feelings. That will never erase them. They are there, and they likely always will be.

I feel, oddly enough, like the victim of a robbery. Because my Dad died when he was only 50, I feel like something irreplaceable has been stolen from me. I never, ever, imagined that my Dad would be so overcome by his depression that it would threaten the existence of his life. I never thought that my family would join the unfortunate group of millions of Americans who are affected and impacted by suicide. My Dad’s life and my family’s life were not on course for this. This was not meant for us. But it happened anyway. And now, I’m left dealing with the repercussions of not having him here. I’m not trying to make this about me. It’s about my Dad’s life being stolen by a terrible disease—not mine. And that’s what I feel was stolen.

And yes, I feel anger. Immense anger. Not at my Dad—never at my Dad. I feel anger at the pressures that caused him to think life wasn’t worth living. I’m angry at depression, a disease that stole my Dad. I’m angry at all the things that shortened my Dad’s life unnecessarily. I’ve never felt anger at my Dad—something that not every survivor of suicide can say honestly. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be angry at the victim in their situation—I’m just sharing that I’ve never felt that way. Every situation is just so unique and so different. I’m fortunate that I can say this honestly, but I do have anger. Anger at the things that caused my Dad’s life to end and mine to change so dramatically. But I’ll never, ever be mad at my Dad.

I’ll admit—I haven’t yet found a good way to deal with losing my Dad on his birthday. I’ve tried different things every single year. I’ve tried writing him a letter. I’ve thought about visiting his grave site. I’ve thought about trying to do something he would have enjoyed, like eating a great meal or spending time outdoors in the park. Or eating an entire Graeter’s ice cream cake by myself—I think he would have advocated for this option. I’ve tried to ignore the magnitude of the date entirely (unsuccessfully I might add).

It’s a day on the calendar that will always be there for me, regardless of whether my Dad is here to celebrate or not. And honestly, I don’t know that these emotions that I feel today will ever subside. I will always miss my Dad, and that date will always be there. As a result, I think I’ll always experience all of these emotions—some years more, and other years less. I’ll always long to spend just one more birthday with him—knowing darn well that at the end of that birthday I would have still been asking for more. I’ll always dream of how he would have looked on his 60th, 70th, 80th, and 90th birthday. I’ll always long for the moments that were stolen from our family—the moments he should have had but never will.

But, I guess, there’s an alternative that I don’t wish for either. I could have lived a life without a father like the one I had. I could have been free from the pain of losing him, but that would have meant I would have had to been free of the love and joy that it was to spend 26 years with him here in this world. It’s so hard and so difficult to say goodbye to those we love, but it’s only hard and difficult if those people made a tremendous impact on our lives before they left. And I would choose the pain any day over if it means I can have the joy and love.

And boy, did my Dad do that. Not just on birthdays, but each and every day. He made me feel loved. He told me he was proud of me. He spent time with me when his busy workload and schedule offered him thousands of other alternatives. He did everything a Father should do, each and every day.

I wish I could give him more birthdays. I wish I could go back and redo the birthdays I did give him. I wish I had the perspective then that I do now so I could show my Dad how much he meant to me while he was here to experience it.

But, as I have to remind myself, he is experiencing it—just from a distance. Although I don’t always live this way, I know that my Dad is watching over me in heaven. I know that he knows my heart and that he doesn’t want me to experience any of these feelings I’m feeling on his birthday. I know that he’s watching over me, saying gently, “Bub, we will have plenty more birthdays to celebrate in Eternity—and they’ll be even better than anything we’ve ever had before.”

I don’t know what I’ll do this year. I don’t know how I’ll remember my Dad, and I don’t know what feelings I will feel.

But I can guarantee this. Even if it’s clouded in sadness, I will feel love. And appreciation. Love and appreciation for a Father who deserves it. Love and appreciation for a Father who gave everything he had, each and every day, to make people feel valued. Love and appreciation for a Dad whose absence brings a pain I never thought I could feel.

And love and appreciation for a man who had great taste in ice cream cakes.

Dad Smiling Against StairsDad, It still doesn’t seem right that this is the fourth birthday that’s passed since you left us. It doesn’t feel right that life is going on without you. There are times when my heart feels so much pain that I can’t imagine ever celebrating anything without you again. But, in a weird way, I’m thankful for this pain because it reminds me how special you made life feel while you were here. You brought a vivid color and energy to my life each and every day that I don’t know I’ll ever be able to experience until I see you again. But I will see you again. I’ll make up for all those birthdays that I wished I could do over. You and I will, one day, celebrate our new birthdays in heaven. And fortunately, we will never, ever, see those birthdays come to an end. Happy birthday, Bub. You live on in my heart each and every day. Until I can tell you this face to face once again, seeya Bub.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes has eternal life.” John 6:47 (NLT)