When I spoke in public, I rarely stood behind a podium. I’m a roamer. I’m pretty animated and I like to have free range of the stage.
But on this particular day, I had never gripped a podium more tightly in my entire life. My knees were buckling and my legs felt weak, and I had a white knuckle grip on the lectern to prevent myself from collapsing. I felt like I could fall over at any moment because every time I looked down from that particular podium, I didn’t see the 500 faces in the audience.
Instead, I saw a casket. A casket which carried my Dad’s body.
It was Monday, July 29, 2013—the day of my Dad’s funeral.
I wanted to speak at the funeral, even though every physical sign told me that I probably shouldn’t. I hadn’t been able to eat regularly since finding out my Dad was dead. My nights were tormented with sleeplessness and nightmares, reliving the sights and sounds of that tragic day. A short time standing caused me to feel lightheaded. My body reflected the way my mind and my heart felt—everything was completely broken. But I knew I had to speak.
Since college, I had overcome a fear of public speaking that had once paralyzed me. In high school, I dreaded public speaking. My hands would shake and my voice would quiver. Thank goodness for Miami University and an amazing public speaking professor named Carol Shulman. She gave me the confidence I needed during each and every class, even entering me in a public speaking competition where I had to present to a jam-packed auditorium on campus. In my first year of college, I grew to love any opportunity to speak in public. It became my modus operandi. I loved it. I craved it.
But on this day, I despised it. I would have done anything to avoid it.
Even the best college courses in public speaking don’t always prepare for the magnitude of speaking at a eulogy—especially for a parent. I knew that, if our lives had played out naturally, I would someday have to pay tribute to my Father after he passed. But I never imagined I would be delivering his eulogy before I hit the age of 30. I imagined I would be old and gray (hopefully not bald like my Dad), delivering a tribute to a man who would live into his eighties or nineties. But life didn’t play out naturally. Everything about this moment was unnatural. Real life, but completely unnatural.
I knew why I was speaking. I wasn’t going to the pulpit in an effort to console people, because I was hurting too much myself to do that. I wasn’t going to the pulpit to answer anyone’s questions about why this had happened, because I was struggling with those same questions and still am today. I wasn’t going to the pulpit that morning for any reason but this—I wanted to honor my Dad. I wanted to tell him I loved him, even though he wasn’t there to hear it. I wanted to say thank you for all the times he had sacrificed for me and loved me when I didn’t deserve it. I wanted to say thank you to a man who had given me everything and who had exemplified every aspect of strong fatherhood.
My motivation was clear, but my notes weren’t. Actually, they didn’t exist. For better or for worse, I decided to go to the pulpit that day and speak from the heart. I attempted to sit down and map out my thoughts many times, but I just couldn’t do it. I would sob uncontrollably every time I thought about having to deliver his eulogy. It seemed impossible—mainly because I didn’t want to admit that I would have to say goodbye.
But how do you prepare to eulogize your Father? I might have been prepared if he had died at a ripe old age of natural causes, but in the blink of an eye at a beautiful season in his life, my Father was tragically and suddenly gone. I couldn’t prepare for his death, and as such, I couldn’t prepare for his eulogy. I’m not saying it’s easier to give a eulogy in particular circumstances—saying goodbye at any age is no fun at all. But I envisioned something like this happening many years down the road. I knew I would eventually have to say goodbye to my Dad—but not when he was 50 and I was 26. That just didn’t seem right. Again, it felt unnatural.
But deaths rarely seem right or natural. In fact, they usually always seem wrong. And they should. We should desire for Eternity. God has put that longing in our hearts. But in an imperfect world, we try and take horrible messes, with God’s hand over us, and turn them into something useful.
I hoped I would be able to do that at my Dad’s funeral.
Flanked by my cousins, I made my way to the front of the church. I walked up the carpeted stairs in the dimly lit sanctuary, with a chorus of sniffles behind me from the family members, friends, coworkers, and loved ones who had come to say goodbye and support my family. Everything in my line of vision seemed somewhat blurred. I didn’t feel like myself. I was living a life that was now mine, but my mind refused to accept it.
I was able to give a somewhat coherent eulogy, telling a few stories about my Dad’s humor and thanking the people who had loved him over his life and who had loved Mom and I when they heard the news of his death. I don’t remember much of what I said that day, but I do remember feeling like God was calling me to say something to the folks who had gathered to say goodbye to my Dad. I didn’t know who or what, but I knew there had to be people gathered in that church—just like my Dad—who were suffering from mental illness or depression but were just too ashamed or too embarrassed to ask for help. I didn’t want my Dad to have to be the sacrificial lamb, but I also didn’t want him to die in vain. Although I would have done anything to have him back, I wanted his death to be a reminder that mental illness is a really, really debilitating disease. And I wanted people to know that their fate could be different.
“Just talk,” I said. “If you’re suffering or if you’re hurting, just talk to someone. To anyone. You don’t have to suffer like this.”
It wasn’t profound, but it was heartfelt. A heartfelt plea to anyone sitting in those pews who, like my Dad had done for so long, put on a mask to try and hide their own depression, anxiety, and fear. I wanted those people to see a heartbroken family torn apart by a disease that can be treated but often isn’t. I wanted those individuals to feel compelled to fight back against the dark thoughts they might have. I wanted those individuals to live a different ending than the one that stole my Father.
Oftentimes, the best solutions are not the profound ones, but instead are the solutions that are so simple we often don’t do them. And when it comes to fighting mental illness, we all just need to talk.
We need to talk about how we are feeling. We need to ask for help when we need it—both from friends and professionals. We need to talk about what we are feeling, no matter how irrational, without fear of embarrassment or shame.
One of the best weapons in the fight against suicide is talking to someone when we are feeling suicidal. And although we know this and acknowledge its truth, it’s often much more difficult for us to live this out.
I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, and I’m not naïve enough to believe that had my Dad simply talked that everything would have been different. I simply don’t know the answer to that question, and I never will. But I know this:
It couldn’t have hurt.
It couldn’t have been any worse than how it ended.
It might have been different.
I pray that I never experience another tragedy as heartbreaking as the death of my Father because it has completely torn me apart. There have been sleepless nights where I can’t quit thinking of him, and sleep-filled days where I’m so paralyzed by hurt that I can’t function normally. There have been moments of regret filled with a desperate longing to talk with him just one more time. I miss him more and more every single day.
So today, and in everything that I do, I’ll honor the talkers. The people who aren’t afraid to come forward and say “I need help,” “I’m hurting,” or “I just don’t understand.”
People like Prince Harry. Yes, that Prince Harry—the royal one. It’s fitting that I’m writing this post as a Dateline episode plays about the death of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana. I remember watching the news coverage with my Mom when I was a young boy. I remember my Mom’s sadness, and I remember watching those two little boys at their Mom’s funeral—not knowing someday I would experience a similar pain of tragic and inexplicable loss.
Diana’s death was the impetus of a very dark period in Harry’s life—a period that has gone on for 20 years. Diana died 20 years ago when Harry was only 12. Now, at age 32, he’s just beginning to talk. But he’s talking nonetheless. And he’s inspiring millions.
A recent article in USA Today recapped an amazingly candid and recent interview when Harry began to talk about his own struggles with mental illness spurred by his mother’s death. Here’s an important excerpt from the article that I’d like to share with you:
“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well,” Prince Harry said. “And it was only three years ago — funny enough — from the support around, and my brother and other people saying that, ‘You really need to deal with this. It’s not normal to think that nothing’s affected you.'”
Harry said instead of processing his grief for The People’s Princess, he stifled his emotions.
“My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?” he shared. “It’s only going to make you sad; it’s not going to bring her back. So, from an emotional side, I was like ‘Right, don’t ever let your emotions be part of anything.’ So, I was a typical sort of 20, 25, 28-year-old running around going ‘Life is great’, or ‘Life is fine’ and that was exactly it.”
Harry said that when he began having the conversations he previously avoided he began to understand, “‘There’s actually a lot of stuff here I need to deal with…’”
“It was 20 years of not thinking about it and then two years of total chaos,” Harry recalled. “I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I just didn’t know what was wrong with me.”
Harry also revealed he’s “probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions” which he attributed to “all sorts of grief and sort of lies and misconceptions” that come with his royal title and public platform. He said during his trying years he began boxing, which he shared “really saved me because I was on the verge of punching someone, so being able to punch someone who had pads was certainly easier.”
During the interview, Harry said he is now “in a good place” and seemed grateful that he was finally able to process his mother’s death in a healthy way.
“… Because of the process that I’ve been through over the last two-and-a-half to 3 years,” he said, “I’ve now been able to take my work seriously, be able to take my private life seriously as well, and be able to put blood, sweat and tears into the things that really make a difference…”
I commend Prince Harry for what he’s doing, especially his founding of a mental health advocacy group called Heads Together. But more than the public work he is doing, I am thankful that he is vulnerable enough to share his own story. It’s making life easier on a lot of people, and it’s making me feel even more normal as I continue to grieve for my Father.
When you’re a Prince, I would imagine people of many expectations of you. Expectations of perfection. As a Prince, everyone’s eyes are constantly on you and they are expecting you to make the right step, every step.
But Prince Harry is giving the rest of us the freedom to make mistakes when we grieve. I’ve said it numerous times, but there’s no manual on how to grieve because everyone grieves differently. Because there’s no manual, there’s also a strong likelihood that those who grieve won’t get it right every single time. Prince Harry’s story proves that.
And he’s also proving that when we talk, we begin to heal.
Prince Harry’s story reinforces an important point that has helped me come to terms with my own Father’s death: Depression is an illness that can invade our lives at any point, even when things are seemingly perfect.
Imagine the life that Prince Harry most likely leads. As a member of Britain’s royal class, there’s never a concern about money. Want a vacation? You can take one. Anywhere at any time. Want to buy a car? Why stick with just one when you could buy 47? You have influence over anyone. Unmistakable power and fame. Every material thing that most people dream of is right at his fingertips. And you can walk around in a crown and no one will think you’re dressing up. They know you’re a prince. And I’m sure they treat you like one.
But in the midst of a seemingly happy existence, there is a level of grief and depression that invaded Prince Harry’s life because he bottled up his emotions. No matter what cultural definitions of happiness were met, “sticking his head in the sand” led to a place of darkness and inescapable grief. Depression, then, has a unique and extremely frightening way of clouding and contorting our lives into something that seems completely overwhelming.
That is, until, he began to talk.
Once he began to talk, he began to be freed from the tight grasp depression held on his life. The stranglehold was loosened. And it probably saved his life.
I don’t fault my Dad for his death—I never have. My Dad suffered from a terrible disease that took over his mind, clouded his thoughts, and made the worries of this life seem inescapable. I would never blame him for his death, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things I wish we could have changed about this experience. I would give or do anything to change the outcome of that fateful July morning. Chief among those? Just talking with my Dad in the hopes that he might talk when he needed help.
Whether it was fear of embarrassment or trying to attain an unattainable societal expectation of perfection, my Dad couldn’t bring himself to talk about his struggles with depression. He did exactly what Prince Harry has admitted to doing. He bottled up his feelings. He stuck his head in the sand. He felt that showing weakness wouldn’t have helped. And I hate that, in his final moments on this Earth, he probably felt more alone than anyone.
I wish there was more I could’ve done. And ultimately, I wish I had done more to encourage him to talk.
But now, I’m in an unfortunate but redeemable place. It’s too late for me to talk to my Dad and encourage him to talk. He’s no longer here. So, instead, I am trying my best to encourage others to talk. In a sense, it’s my way of trying to change the lives of others, since I can’t change my Dad’s. I may not have the influence of Prince Harry, but I’m not concerned with numbers here. If I can impact one person—just one person—and encourage them to talk with someone, it will all be worth it in the end. If I can change one life, I will have made the difference God is calling me to make. We will suffer, yes—but we are never expected to suffer alone.
My Dad’s funeral was over three years ago, yet I find myself saying the same thing now that I said that day:
About anything. And any feeling.
Because you matter. Your life matters. And you are loved.
But please, for your life and the lives of those who love you…just talk.
Dad, I wish each and every day that you were here with me still. I wish that I could hug your neck. I wish that I could ride in the truck with you. I wish, each day, that I could hear your laugh again. But more than anything, I wish I had done more to help you feel like it was okay to talk. I wish I had encouraged you, even forced you, to get the help that you deserved. In lieu of being able to tell you that now, however, I’m trying my best to use your story to save other people. I’m trying to do what you always did—help those who are down on their luck and need it most. Dad, you may not be here with me, but I hope you know that your story is making a tremendous impact. I can’t wait to just talk with you again. Until that day, seeya Bub.
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:3-4 (NIV)