Shine a Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was definitely the bird.

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

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

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

A mangled pizza box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not Yet”

I knew I wanted to talk—I just didn’t know when I’d be ready.

In addition to my job at Miami University, I’ve been a sports announcer for many years, calling games for local high schools and college teams in my ever-dwindling spare time. It’s a passion I picked up during my freshman year at Miami’s Hamilton Campus when I saw a flyer in the stairwell of Mosler Hall looking for a new “Voice of the Harriers.” Inevitably, the more I announced in my hometown and the surrounding communities, the more requests I received to emcee or host other events that weren’t athletic contests. Sports hall of fames, fundraisers, and talent shows started to pack my Friday and Saturday nights, and no matter where I looked, there always seemed to be a stage and a podium with a microphone awaiting me—and I loved it. God had given me a tremendous platform, and to this day, I’ve always tried to thank Him each and every time I get asked to play a part in these events.

Although the inductees have a tendency to get a little long-winded, sports hall of fames have always been fun events for me to host. I try and land a few jokes out of the gate, get a laugh or two when an inductee forgets to thank his wife during the speech, and most importantly keep everything on time so the event doesn’t run too long (a goal that constantly eludes me). The first hall of fame I ever emceed was a cruel reminder of this truth. Prior to the event, the organizers told all of the inductees that they each had about three minutes to deliver their acceptance speech. The very first inductee applied the liberal interpretation of the word “about” and spoke for 21 minutes. There were nine additional inductees after him. The event started on a Saturday night, and I think I made it home by Wednesday or Thursday of the next week.

Selfishly, my favorite part of emceeing a sports banquet has always been the closing. In the weeks leading up to the event, I’ll scour the headlines, Internet, and plenty a Chicken Soup for the Soul book in an attempt to find an anecdotal tale, story, or illustration that will leave the audience thinking more intentionally about how they treat their fellow man or woman. Usually, these stories have some kind of theme or character trait that I hope we can all learn to exemplify more. Perhaps it’s “purpose” or “sacrifice” (…or “brevity” for that 21-minute inductee who is likely still giving his acceptance speech in a hotel ballroom somewhere).

In the days, weeks, and months after I lost my Dad to suicide, I constantly felt God’s call on my life to share Dad’s story. Frustratingly, I felt the call, but didn’t have a compass. Did God want me to share the story with those in my close inner circle? On a national stage? In the written form? And what parts of the story did He want me to share? I prayed and asked, but unfortunately did not feel His direction. It was maddening at times, but simultaneously reassuring. At least God had given me the call; maybe it was up to me to determine the direction?

A few months after losing Dad, I needed to start preparing for another athletic hall of fame that I had agreed to host. This one, fittingly, was to be held at Miami Hamilton. The event, albeit small, had always held a special place in my heart. This was the place where I had been given my start as a sports announcer with absolutely no experience (it was probably a good thing that there were only 50 people at a game that first year as I learned, experimented, made my share of mistakes, and found my way). Even though it never felt like a “big gig,” Mom and Dad had always attended every single game they could, sitting across from me in the bleachers. I can still picture them to this day. I can still picture Dad walking across the court after every single game to tell me I had done a good job. I often joked that I was the only sports announcer at any level whose parents followed him to nearly every game. Looking back on it, I realize how thankful I was for their presence; and after that chapter of life was gone, I missed it tremendously. Looking across the court into the bleachers after losing Dad, I could still picture him sitting there in a Miami hoodie, smiling, laughing, and of course, talking to everyone. They were good memories—they still are.

As I prepared to host my first hall of fame dinner after losing my Dad, and I thought about how much that campus had meant to me and the family memories I had there, I realized that I had a fitting story to tell at the close of the event without having to do any research whatsoever. I wanted to tell the story of my Dad and me playing catch together in our side yard. I wanted to talk about the indelible memories that the two of us had made together as sweat poured from our brows in the blazing sunset of most humid Cincinnati July evenings. I wanted to talk about how losing my Dad had made me realize that those toss sessions were more than just an opportunity to throw or hear the pop of a leather Rawlings glove. Those were moments when Dad and I grew closer to one another. Where we shared our frustrations, our fears, and a few laughs whenever I jumped to catch a ball that didn’t require jumping (I’ve mentioned my lack of athletic ability a time or thirty here, so this should come as no surprise to anyone).

With Dad’s death still very, very heavy on my heart, I knew it was the story to tell. I knew that I could go up on stage, acknowledge that I was still grieving and in tremendous pain, and maybe, just maybe, give those in attendance an important reminder—a reminder that life is sweet, precious, and terribly fragile.

In the days leading up to the event, I would sit down at my desk and try to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) to hash out the story I wanted to tell. This was well-before I had launched this blog, and writing in my life to that point had been much more academic and stuffy than the story I hoped to tell the night of the ceremony. Each time I sat down, I found my mind and will to write waning. It was unbelievably difficult for me to take the story and memories I had in my head and craft them into an accurate narrative—and it was very disheartening. Night after night I found myself grappling with words, writing whole paragraphs only to delete them, and growing generally more discouraged by the minute.

My Dad’s story—I knew—was worth telling; and I wanted to tell it. I just didn’t know how. And night after night after frustrating night, I just couldn’t write it. This wasn’t writer’s block—this was a writer’s blockade! I simply could not articulate the words I wanted to say. At the time, writing the story felt unnatural, even though I knew I wanted to share it. I tried not to get discouraged, but as the event drew nearer and nearer, I knew that it just wasn’t going to come together as I had wished.

That feeling of uneasiness led me down an interesting path. In my mind, I started to believe that maybe, just maybe, this was a story I didn’t want to craft or script. Maybe God was telling me to go up, and to speak from the heart, and let the story tell itself? After all, the story was in my head. Maybe in the moment it would feel more natural to speak without notes. I’ve always tried to be an authentic and honest speaker, and I began to believe that the best way to share Dad’s story was to do it off the cuff. I’m also very comfortable speaking extemporaneously, and knowing that this story was my own, I wasn’t as concerned with making sure I had every detail scripted in front of me. I knew the details because I had lived them.

Anyone who has seen me in the “backstage” moments before I announce an event knows I’m a meticulous planner, and I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to the script. I request it days in advance so I can edit, add in my own directions, adjust, and rehearse. I format it meticulously and identically every single time: size 18 font for maximum readability, Arial font only, bold titles and headers for different program portions, italicized stage cues, clean paragraph breaks with no sentences spanning multiple pages, no text in the bottom third of the page, and page numbers always formatted as “Page __ of __” in the top right-hand corner to keep me on track for timing. I print two copies in case one is the victim of a spill or abduction, paper clip them, and place them both into my lucky padfolio.

(Insert your joke about “meticulously” being a code word for “OCD” here.)

For the first time in my announcing career, I made an exception in my script. After printing out the 20 pages of scripted material, I added a page to the back—no number, no font and sizing conventions. In fact, the page said absolutely nothing. As I prepared, I took out a red pen and wrote across the top of the page “I LOVE MY DAD.” That would be my cue, my directive, the only motivation I needed to tell the story and tell it properly.

The event went as well as any other I had hosted, but during each acceptance speech from the inductees I found myself growing more and more anxious. I was the only person in the room who knew what I was about to do. I was going to share a story so central to my identity that there was going to be no going back once I told it. Over the past few years, public speaking had become something that I was beyond comfortable doing—so much so that I actually enjoyed it. I rarely got nervous anymore, but on this night, I found myself constantly trying to wipe the sweat from my palms as the closing approached.

When that moment came, I confidently walked up to the podium and congratulated the hall of fame class again on their accomplishment. As I do nearly every time, I set the stage for what I was about to do. On that night, I told the audience that I always tried to leave them with a story that would give us all something to think about as we went our separate ways, but that this year, my story would be a bit more personal because it was my own.

I began to tell the story, and I began to tell the audience about my Dad…and within just a few seconds, I knew that I had made a terrible mistake. I started breaking down in front of a group of loving but justifiably uncomfortable individuals. I couldn’t even string a sentence together. I was sobbing at the podium, unable to speak. I was crying and sweating and felt the need to throw up. Standing in front of a crowd is not a great time to realize that you’ve made a mistake—but there I was.

I don’t even remember what happened or how I transitioned, but I ended the story abruptly. I think I may have mentioned that I just wanted people to know that my Dad was important to me and the memories I had of him at Miami Hamilton would always be special, and I uncomfortably closed the event and left the stage with my standard directive to drive home safely. A few of the attendees who I knew came up and hugged me and encouraged me and told me how important it was that I had shared this story, but I was undeniably disappointed in myself. Not for the impression that anyone had of me; I was disappointed because I hadn’t done my Dad justice. I don’t know that I’ve ever hustled out of an event as quickly as I had done that night.

The car ride home was isolated and brutal. I beat my fist into the steering wheel at multiple red lights, wondering why my first attempt to share my Dad’s story publicly had gone so badly. Dad deserved better.

I admit that Satan crept into my mind on that night and took up a semi-permanent residence there for a while. I could hear his temptations to give up. You’re never going to bounce back from this one.” “You’re never going to get over the humiliation you feel in this moment.” “You’re never going to have a platform to share your Dad’s story.” “You’re never going to get to a point where you can talk about your Dad without being so overcome by grief that it completely defeats you.” “You’re never going to be able to help other people learn from what happened to your Dad.”

Never. Never. Never. I kept hearing it again and again, and the tears got worse every time I heard it.

But in the days after that event, I prayed. Even though I was upset. Even though I was hurting. Even though, yes, I was frustrated with God for giving me a platform and not helping me deliver the message I wanted and that Dad deserved. And with each prayer, I heard two words in response, over and over again, every time I shared my humiliation and fear with God:

“Not yet.”

Not yet. God’s response to all the “nevers” that Satan had put in my head was more powerful—“not yet.” God was taking something that felt irredeemable and He was promising me a way forward. I heard God telling me that He still had work to do. In those simple words, I heard God telling me that His timing was better than my own. And as much as I hated to come to terms with this, I heard God telling me that He was going to teach me something in the failure I had experienced on that evening. He was going to use that moment of failure, pain, and dissapointment to grow and develop something within me.

And little by little, day by day, I felt it.

In the months that followed, even though I kept the phrase “not yet” in my head quite often, I still succumbed to doubt. But the pain of not being able to share my Dad’s story was an important reminder for me to be patient—a skill that God did not innately bless me with. I thought I was ready; but God knew I wasn’t. He knew that I was still grieving and that the pain of my Dad’s death from suicide was more real and raw than I was giving it credit for. God needed me to take care of myself before I could possibly start sharing Dad’s story in an effort to take care of others, and He was using that experience to remind me of the need to not neglect my own needs.

What was most valuable in those moments, and what I still thank God for to this day, was the “yet.” Yes, I had failed during that first attempt, but I heard God telling me that He wanted me to walk, not sprint. I heard God telling me that I needed to heal before I could help; to build a strong foundation first before building the Kingdom.

My experience and growth in those months of struggle taught me important lessons about sharing my Dad’s story—both in public forums but also in my daily conversations with individuals. These have turned into important lessons for me about grief—lessons that I hope can benefit anyone who might be struggling to talk about the pain they are feeling.

Talk when you’re ready. There is no timeline on grief. There is no guideline for when you should be ready to talk to others or share your story, and we shouldn’t try to force our grief into a timetable that doesn’t work for us.

Looking back on my own situation, I can easily realize that I was trying to force myself to talk publicly about my Dad because I thought that I should have been far enough along through my grief to accomplish this—but I wasn’t. It had been a few months since Dad’s death when I gave it that first attempt, and others in similar situations had moved on in a similar timeline—but I hadn’t, and I just wasn’t ready. Even though there had been time to do some healing, Dad’s death still felt as fresh and real in many moments as it did on that first day when I found out that he was gone.

I used an arbitrary calendar to gauge my grief and healing, which was a horrible thing to do. Grief and healing aren’t measured in years; they’re measured in steps and goalposts and milestones, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes us to reach each of those moments in our development. For some, healing might happen quickly. For others it might move at a snail’s pace, and for most, grief will actually occur in a non-linear pattern with ups, downs, more ups, more downs, sideways jaunts, and all kinds of inexplicable moments in between. There were hints of God’s “not yet” directive all throughout my life leading up to that night, but I didn’t take them because I didn’t want to appear weak. What a foolish, foolish trap to fall for.

Give yourself grace when you talk about your loss. For a long while after that failed attempt to speak about my Dad, I beat myself up over it. I looked at that attempt as a failure that would always haunt and plague me when I tried to make a difference in the world of suicide prevention. It was a moment at the podium that I didn’t think I could ever bounce back from.

But that was Satan’s distortion, not God’s reality.

Satan tells us that if we don’t get it right the first time, we never will. God, on the other hand, tells us that our failures are building blocks for something greater. On nearly every page of the Bible, you’ll find stories of individuals who failed and went on to do great things to build God’s Kingdom here on Earth, and it’s not the failures that God remembers. Instead, He remembers the moment that we bounce back. He remembers Paul’s ministry, not his crusade to kill early Christians. He remembers Peter as the rock upon which the Christian church was built, not the way he sunk like a rock while trying to walk on the water. He remembers Cornelius the Roman Centurion’s conversion to Christianity, not the atrocities he committed on behalf of the Roman Empire that led him to that moment. The men and women in the Bible show us stories of redemption, but there can only be redemption if there is first failure.

When we talk about our grief, our mistakes do not hold us captive. Oftentimes, it’s the actual process of talking through our grief and the way we feel that reveals where we are hurting. Deeply buried hurts and pains bubble to the surface when we talk, and if we don’t talk, those things stay buried but still hurt us without our knowing it. At times, I’ve talked about losing my Dad (namely to my therapist and those in my life who are closest to me) and came to new realizations about my grief, even if I didn’t articulate everything perfectly. There were things bothering me that I didn’t even realize until I mentioned them; and once I shine the light on them and speak about them, they don’t hurt as bad.

Just as there’s no timetable or manual that you have to follow when you talk about your grief, there also isn’t a set dictionary or writer’s guide that tells you how you have to talk about your feelings. As you begin to talk, be kind to yourself and understand that how you feel might not always come out perfectly. Let’s face it—if we all knew how to talk about our feelings perfectly, my Dad wouldn’t have suffered in silence from his depression. Learning to talk about our loss or our complicated and often messy feelings requires the failures just as much as it does the successes.

You don’t have to share your story with everyone, and you don’t have to share everything. After losing my Dad, I felt the need to talk about him and share his story with everyone I met in nearly every forum that I had; but I realized that it was not productive. I thought, foolishly, that if I wasn’t talking about my Dad, I was forgetting about him or failing to honor his memory. Wrongly, I felt as if I was disrespecting him in every moment that I didn’t talk about him.

As painful as it is for me to admit it, there are some people with whom I don’t talk to very often about losing my Dad. It sounds ironic to write this on a blog that is broadcast to the world at large, but I want to make the story available to anyone who can learn and grow from it. That doesn’t mean that I expect everyone to read it, or that I even expect everyone who reads it to learn from and grow from it. I know God will direct my Dad’s story into the right hands. I’m just the messenger; I’ll let God take care of the delivery.

Even though I don’t control the delivery, it also means that I am in control of the story itself, which is unbelievably reassuring in a phase of life that has felt very unpredictable because of my unexpected loss.

There are some elements of my Dad’s story that I don’t share at all. Those are precious, private details between a lost Father and a grieving son that will always be sacred to me. Setting boundaries on what I will discuss and what I won’t has been one of the most important techniques in sharing my story that protects my own mental health and grief. There are some moments and details, honestly, that are still too painful to relive, even six years removed from losing my Dad. So, I approach those areas with tenderness, and I try to realize that there is something really valuable about self-care when it comes to sharing our stories, especially when death and loss are involved.

And most importantly, I learned that God helps us get back off the mat after we are knocked down. I’m so grateful that, over time, God gave me the strength and encouragement to get back up from the blows that had been delivered after that first unsuccessful attempt.

I don’t remember how much time had passed in between—which in itself is an important reminder to not focus on arbitrary calendar markers when it comes to our grief—but I eventually felt the call to share my Dad’s story at an event I was hosting.

And this time, I heard God clearly saying “Now.”

The story I wanted to tell came to me with an unbelievable clarity, and it honored my Dad in the exact way that I had hoped to honor him in the previous attempt. I was fortunate that there were no cameras around to capture that first failed attempt, but I was beyond grateful that the cameras happened to be there the second time around (special thanks to my good friend Steve Colwell of TVHamilton for capturing this important moment in my life).

Looking back and watching that moment years removed, I still find imperfections—but those imperfections were perfectly honest at that particular moment in time, and I’m happy they are there. I’m happy that my story, in many ways, is still so similar, and I’m happy that in other ways, it has changed dramatically. It’s evidence that I’ve healed in many ways, and that I’m still healing in others. It’s a reminder that no matter how much we grow and change, there is still a firm foundation that God gives us which roots our souls firmly in His presence. I’m glad that God is happy with us where we are, but I’m just as thankful that He never wants us to remain in that same place forever.

And each day, I grow to appreciate more and more those reminders when God tells me “Not yet.”

Family at Joes Game with SB Logo LeftDad, Talking about your death has, at times, been unbelievably difficult because the pain of losing you is still so real. Every day, I want to honor you and the life that you lived here, and I’m grateful that, over time, God has given me the grace and power to do that in my own way. Dad, I want you to know that you are still so loved by so many. Your story is helping so many people. Your death is giving life to other people who are hurting and struggling, and no matter what I do, I’ll never forget you and the lessons you taught me. Each time I talk about you, I can feel your presence, and I know you are watching over me and guiding me. Dad, continue watching over me. Continue to give me that peace and comfort that only a Father can provide. In your life, you taught me everything I would need to survive in the aftermath of your death; and in your death, your memory is still teaching me daily. Your memory teaches me what it means to be a good husband, son, and friend. Thank you, Dad, for being a Father worthy of praise. I miss you more and more each day, and I am anxiously waiting for the day when we are reunited. Until then, seeya Bub.

“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7 (NIV)