Last spring, during the annual rite of my birthday celebration, I was enjoying my favorite Italian dinner with dear family and friends. Yet as I was blowing out the candles, I felt a disquieting unease. The tension was much deeper than the growing awareness of new wrinkles around my hazel eyes. Suddenly, clarity came, casting a shadow over the gathering. Years had passed since I visited the cemetery or observed a grief anniversary. So it was a shock to realize that I am now the mid-life age my father had been when he died by suicide. This waypost has intense meaning and even brings a personal reckoning.
Memories of my father came pressing in, and the echo of his act resonated deeply. Going back in time, at my dad’s funeral, I prayed for his divine protection. I lingered over Psalm 121 asking spiritual grace for myself. My first meditations offered little or no peace. But over time, solace and acceptance began to prevail.
Still, emotional closure can be fleeting and elusive, particularly for children of parents who complete suicide. Now, unexpectedly, once again I feel lost, unmoored, and anxious. I contemplate ways in which we are alike. We have some similar strengths to celebrate as well as fragilities that leave me feeling vulnerable. How can I process this emotional milestone? In this arduous, taxing year, I will strive to retrieve the gifts that he shared with me as a young father.
From a Vibrant Life to Running on Empty
In my office, I keep a collection of old passports and mementos that are links to both physical and emotional journeys in my life. My very first passport provides a springboard for reconciling meditation. Inside I find a faded photo of my younger self smiling back through time. My name, the feminine version of my dad’s name Stephen, legally documents my identity. I’ve always thought that in sharing his name he wanted to continuously remind me of his early, vibrant world view.
When I was a kid, he loomed as a magical life coach who believed that life could always be rich and extraordinary. My dad created a psychological vision board with encouraging mantras for my sister and me to follow. He collected wise quotes and shared life-affirming poetry with us.
In the end, my dad had difficulty living out the vision board he created as chronic depression took hold. As my father grew older, he related to the hit song, Running on Empty, by Jackson Browne. He identified with lyrics that expressed burnout and futility. After he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, his vision board was cluttered with endless prescriptions and bar tabs that spiraled when he couldn’t find relief in the medications. Sadly, his psychological toolbox didn’t include talk therapy. Sharing with a professional counselor could have made a critical difference.
As his psychological condition worsened, we adjusted to a new normal, moving quietly through the house while dad slept. The routines that accommodated depression became safe and familiar. Yet my bright and resourceful dad held hope of reclaiming stability, so he consulted with doctors about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments or shock therapy. While he was awaiting the recommended treatments, I went to the post office to apply for that first passport. At the time, my parents were pushing me to explore European history and to venture beyond the claustrophobic confines of his depression. A photographer snapped my passport picture and asked where I was traveling. “France, on a class trip,” I replied with a fragile smile. Though I didn’t admit it, I worried about leaving home.
Before leaving for France, I tapped on his bedroom door to say goodbye. I promised to send postcards, one each day of the trip, and he pledged to walk outside and collect them from the mailbox. Our journeys then were vastly different; his focus on an inner journey, mine on the outside world. While my guidebooks had bright exciting photos, my dad kept a grim metaphorical travel guide of his own on his nightstand. Instead of highlighting enchanting palaces, his booklet described the ECT treatment and mapped the pathways of electrical impulses through the brain. The treatment would force seizures that mysteriously could lead to stability.
Soon, with bags in tow, it was time to go. Mom took me to the airport and left me in my high school French teacher’s care. Mingling there, not quite fitting in, I didn’t feel any real connection to my older travel mates, who had already graduated and were engaged in giddy conversations about starting college. As the plane took off, I wondered, Why do I have to take this trip? And why now?
A Gift from My Dad
After arriving in Paris, I struggled to keep up with my ebullient teacher as she sprinted down the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. Each evening, I filled postcards with carefree messages: “Mrs. DeWeese let us drink wine and I smiled back at the Mona Lisa!!” But I wondered if the treatment was working and if my dad still slept most of the day.
Yet I was 16, immersed in a place of wonder. The beauty of the wide Parisian boulevards took my breath away. My intellectual curiosity was piqued, and even rudimentary French helped me to navigate the culture. Caught in a rainstorm while picnicking at Jardin du Luxembourg, my schoolmates and I laughed as we streaked through the park to a sheltering gazebo. A new, rich world was discovered. One day late in the trip, I didn’t think of home at all. While boarding the plane for the return flight, I realized that I had forgotten to send my dad’s final postcard.
With this reflection, I close the passport stamped with official evidence of my physical journeys and end my meditation. Here lies a memory of my dad and one of the gifts of his wisdom that will sustain and guide me in the future.
Through the years, he experienced seasons of vitality, but he had difficulty managing the highs and lows of his illness. There may have been other elements to his pain: his distant, commanding mother or doubts about his own value and importance. Fortunately, treatments and medications have improved, and increased awareness of mental health issues prompts more people to seek help today.
I may always carry haunting questions with me. But there is one certainty: my dad never wanted my journey to end in darkness. After all, he signed the check that paid for my trip. If I were to write that last postcard now, I would thank him profusely for a gift that exposed me to a wider, vibrant world. In French, “ne jamais oublier” means never to forget. No, I haven’t forgotten my real inheritance.
If you or someone you love needs to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
More About Stephanie…
Stephanie Painter works as a freelance writer and has written a children’s picture book. Her articles have been published in parenting magazines, newspapers, and trade journals. She has a master’s degree in Counseling and works as a behavioral health consultant in integrated behavioral health.
Stephanie mentions Psalm 121 as a source of comfort for her after the loss of her dad…
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2)
Even when times are dark, God is right there ready to help us when we ask. After sin entered the world, God never promised us that life on earth would be easy, but he did promise NEVER to leave us or abandon us. He did promise to HEAL the broken-hearted. We ask you to consider turning to God now.
If you are a survivor of suicide loss searching for answers read, Why do People End Their Life by Suicide?
Photo Credit: Lonely Planet