The idea of paradox is not a radical one for most people. “Every rose has its thorns” we like to say, implicitly accepting that the good and the bad very often exist together, inextricably connected. But when we are faced with this concept in our personal lives, forced to look it in the eyes and wrestle with what it really means, we often struggle to make sense of it. Suicide loss is one such experience.
I lost my dad to suicide on March 14, 2017. My family and I knew that he had been struggling with his emotional and mental health, but it honestly never crossed our minds that he would take his own life. Although I was always very open and honest about his death being a suicide, I could not face the reality of his death for months. I ran from my grief and all the conflicting emotions I was feeling.
Father’s Day arrived just three months later, and I was adamant that I did not want to even acknowledge the day. I am a very sentimental person, a trait I inherited from my dad – every milestone and celebration is laden with meaning. To celebrate Father’s Day without my dad meant accepting that he was gone, something I was nowhere near ready to do at that point. For a long time after his passing, I used the word “father” when I talked about him. Somehow, “dad” was too personal, too familiar. It made it all too real that I was talking about my dad. The more formal term allowed me to put some distance between myself and the reality of what had happened.
That denial was closely tied up with feelings of guilt, another common experience for suicide loss survivors. Guilt comes up in so many ways, each more insidious and destructive than the last. Mine manifested as seemingly innocuous questions at first. Why didn’t I talk to my dad more often? Why hadn’t I seen the warning signs? After all, I had been interning as a therapist at that time – how could I have missed my dad’s struggle with suicidal thoughts while I was helping total strangers overcome theirs?
Pretty soon, those questions evolved into blame as I desperately sought someone, anyone, to hold responsible for the suicide. The most obvious choice, my dad, was gone. As part of my frantic grasping for some modicum of control in my now-shattered life, I turned the blame on myself. If I had just been a better daughter, if I had just been more attentive to my dad, if I had just been more sympathetic… maybe I could have saved him. I felt guilty celebrating Father’s Day because I had taken on a burden of responsibility that was never meant for me. It took me over a year to fully let go of this, though it still likes to rear its ugly head from time to time.
As the holiday approached, I was also struggling with feelings of anger and abandonment. The anger was perhaps the strongest, because it was a shell that protected me from having to face the other emotions that I couldn’t even name at that point and certainly wasn’t ready to deal with. I was still searching for an answer to why my dad had taken his own life, a question that I wouldn’t learn to relinquish until much later. I felt that my dad had abandoned our family, which just made it harder to want to celebrate Father’s Day. That sense of abandonment created more guilt as I tried to rectify my anger at my dad, my grief over his death, and my sympathy for how much he had been suffering.
Learning to wrestle with those conflicting feelings and allowing them to exist together was perhaps one of the most difficult experiences in the wake of my dad’s suicide. I have always been a very black and white person; I prefer when the world fits into very distinct patterns of good and bad. But suicide loss, and all the emotions and experiences that come with it, don’t settle under those labels very well. Like the rose with its thorns, guilt and anger and grief and love all exist together, interconnected and impossible to pull apart.
Subsequent Father’s Days have been a bit easier, though the day is never without some measure of conflicting feelings and usually a few tears. My brother and I eventually settled on our own way to remember our dad on Father’s Day, his birthday, and any other time we think of him. We’ve learned how to comfort each other with funny stories about Dad, how to make each other laugh as we recall some of his quirks or habits, and how to deal with the tears when they come. And we find little ways to feel close to our dad on those special days and the days in between – listening to the classic rock he loved, telling the “dad jokes” he was known for, quoting his favorite movies, and trying to replicate some of his best recipes.
This year, Father’s Day will be different again. In addition to my grandfather, I also have a new stepdad to celebrate. My stepdad has been one of the biggest, most unexpected blessings of my life, and I am so excited to celebrate with him with year. But while I look forward to this, I can also grieve the fact that there is a place for him in my life, an emptiness left by my dad’s death.
For several years of my childhood, my family would go camping and fishing in the Sequoia National Forest during the summer. My dad would wake us kids up very early in the morning to go fishing, when it was still dark out and everything was quiet. I didn’t even realize it until recently, but I have my dad to thank for my love and appreciation of nature, something he taught me by example from the time I was very young.
Last summer, my family returned to the forest to go fishing again, this time with my stepdad. It felt wrong at first to share this special place with someone else, almost like I was moving on and leaving my dad behind or replacing him. Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy, everything seemed to go wrong, too. I snapped my line three times, got it tangled on countless rocks and pieces of debris in the steam, and never once even saw a fish. Frustrated, I gave up for the day. As I was hiking back upstream, I came across my stepdad. He handed me his fishing pole and had me cast into the stream. Within seconds, I caught a fish, a beautiful rainbow trout. It seems like such a small thing, but in that moment, I suddenly felt the guilt I had been clinging to slip away. It was almost as if my dad was telling me that it was okay to continue on with my life.
I think of that story as a metaphor to represent my experience of adjusting to Father’s Day – and life in general – without my dad. I’m still learning how to balance the paradoxes that surround my dad’s suicide. For me, it means feeling sympathy for how depressed and hurt he was in the weeks and months leading up to his suicide, but also allowing myself to feel my own anger and hurt when those emotions come up. It means acknowledging his faults – he was human, after all – but also treasuring the countless wonderful memories I have of him. It means coming to terms with the fact that he died by suicide, but not letting his final moments crowd out how he lived and loved while he was alive. I cannot change how he died, but I can make sure that I honor his memory as I go forward.