The Should Haves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)