Twenty-five years ago, my dad committed suicide when he was 54. I was 19. Why? I demanded. Whywhywhywhywhy?
I was old enough to be aware but not yet wise enough to understand.
Three thousand miles away at college at the time, I'd talked to my dad on the phone the day before. Our conversation seemed typical: He'd urged me to do well in school, stay out of trouble, and be nice to my sisters (prompting the requisite eye rolls from me). Only later did I realize he'd been trying to say goodbye. "I may not see you for awhile," he said in closing, just before I put down the receiver.
A chaplain I knew from church came to my dorm room to deliver the news. She was like the grim reaper roaming our campus, tall and shadowy, with an expression on her face that I did not yet have the skills to decipher. I refused to make eye contact with her as she sat down next to me on my twin bed, held my hand, and told me my father was gone. Only she never said what had actually happened, just that my father had passed and there had been a "horrible accident."
Horrible accident. That's the phrase my mother used when I called her and the one friends and family quickly adopted to explain what had happened. It wasn't until I flew home and read the article on the front page of the morning newspaper that I learned my father had gotten up before dawn that Monday morning, retrieved a hunting rifle from the crawl space underneath our house, and shot himself in our laundry room. Horrible, yes. Accident, no.
Why would my father do such a thing? Everyone wanted to know. Was he depressed? Anxious? Did he simply have too much on his plate? Was there something else going on that we didn't know about? Did he think that killing himself in our laundry room might make the cleanup easier? Why on a Monday at 5 a.m.? Why on the day after Mother's Day? I didn't have any answers. The questions and speculations swirled around in my head for years.
I used to think that had my father been feeling suicidal in 1999 or 2009 instead of 1989, he would be alive today. He would have benefited from widespread suicide awareness, readily available information about the inherent health risks among men his age, and a plethora of anti-depressant advertisements on TV.
But now I'm not so sure. We still have a long way to go. According to the CDC, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans, and the rates are highest among people ages 45 to 64. Within that group, most are white men who live in the west, and firearms are the most commonly used method of death by suicide. My dad could have been the poster child for these statistics.
Like Robin Williams and the other high-profile men who have committed suicide before him, my father was well-known, well-liked, well-educated, well-connected, dangerously funny, and was at the top of his game. A successful physician, my dad seemingly had it all: a waterfront home, a thriving private practice, three bright daughters, and several leadership positions within the community.
Why, people would ask, would someone throw all of that away? Why leave the children fatherless? Why not stick around to see the daughters through graduations, first dates, or first careers? Why not be there to walk them down the aisle? Take your future grandchildren out for ice cream in your beloved speedboat? Why, especially if you were a smart and a well-respected physician, wouldn't you seek treatment for your disease?
Many wrongly assume that suicide is selfish, that it is a convenient escape for when things go sour. But here's the thing: I'm the selfish one.
I'm selfish because I want my dad back. I'm selfish to think that there's something I could have said or done that would have kept him around longer. I'm selfish to think that his love for us could have trumped his depression. I'm selfish to keep asking "why" when I know I'll never get the answer.
For years I had a recurring dream that went like this: I'd come up to a gorgeous white sand beach. Maybe it was Maui, maybe Mexico, possibly the Caribbean (all places I'd traveled to with my dad). There would be palm trees gently waving in the wind, sunbathers basking on beach chairs, and jovial vacationers chatting in small groups. Among them, I'd spot my father looking sunburned and happy, wearing his favorite terry-cloth hat and drinking a fruity rum cocktail with a tiny umbrella off to the side. At first I'd be thrilled to see him -- why wouldn't I be? He's alive! But then I'd piece it together: He's dead; he's leading a life of pure leisure in the afterlife; this is only a dream. And instead of being happy for him, I'd get angry. "Why?" I'd shout at my dad as he stood there sipping his drink. In every dream, though, he never gave me a response, merely a smile.
It took me awhile to decipher that smile. What did it mean? What was he trying to say? I couldn't see that the answer was right in front of me.
The answer is this: I got to enjoy my dad for 19 fabulous years. He was a loving dad. A generous dad. A dad who told hilarious dirty jokes, drove too fast, took me to movies at midnight, and sat on my bed with me and listened without judgment as I rehashed my childhood troubles. He understood me in a way that no man has ever quite understood me since. We're a lot alike, he and I, and I miss him deeply.
To continually ask "why" is to not only overlook the complexity of the disease, it also puts the focus on the wrong question. "Why" is like me being the toddler who crawls up on her daddy's lap and asks all the questions that don't have real answers.
Instead of "why," I need to instead continually ask "how." How, as I approach middle age, can I avoid succumbing to a similar fate? How can I best handle the stresses of modern life? How can I treat my own periods of loneliness and depression? This is what I believe my father was trying to tell me: It's my job to seek out solutions. Go to the beach often. Enjoy life, seek joy, and don't ever leave my family wondering.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.