Family, Self

After His Suicide: The Fatherless Father's Day

After His Suicide: The Fatherless Father's Day

I was taking a shower when I heard a blood-curdling scream — the kind of scream you think only happens in the movies. It was supposed to be a relaxing Sunday morning, and instead, my brother barged into the bathroom, screaming that our father was dead. I thought it was a cruel joke, but my gut told me to get out of the shower anyway. It was my mother who had screamed. She was standing in the living room with two uniformed police officers, who looked very uncomfortable. They confirmed that my father was dead, and that he had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound earlier that morning. In one moment, life as I knew it had ended. I was 13 years old, bridging a rocky adolescence, and my father had just killed himself. 

What followed was a bleary mess of tears, accusations, discoveries, moments of strength, stunning episodes of bad behavior, grief, planning, and an endless stream of casseroles and cards and curious questions. It was January 1979, and my first fatherless Father's Day was just around the corner. It was easier then; we didn't have social media and hundreds of cable TV channels bombarding us with messages promoting ways to honor our idealized fathers. But the newspaper ads, radio ads, and store displays were still plentiful, and misery-inducing. Everything leading up to Father's Day was simply a reminder that I no longer had a father — that I was abnormal, and my family was so badly broken, it could never be repaired. 

The future held nothing but awkward moments. Here I was, a weird problem in art class, when everyone else was making a craft project for their daddies who liked to hunt and golf and fish and watch football. My father didn't do any of those things; he'd been depressed most of his life, as far as I could tell. And there would be no Father/Daughter dances, no protective dad scoping out potential boyfriends, no dad-led camping trips, and no one to give me away at my wedding.

Who am I kidding? I just told you — my dad didn't fit that mold. The truth is, our family wasn't so happy to begin with. His death was just another blotch on an already blighted landscape. I was an angry young woman, and our relationship consisted of fights, unmet promises, and too many missed events and confusing moments. I'd had trouble picking out a card for him anyway. No one makes one that says, "For my dad, who tries — sometimes — but doesn't do such a great job.'  They don’t make "I hate you" cards, so I had to make my own. And now I have ironic visions of one of those little championship cup statues that are a popular Father’s Day gift, emblazoned with the words "Worst Decision. Worst Dad."

After my father's death, men were scary. A big part of me believed — no, knew — that developing an emotional attachment to a man must absolutely lead to pain, abandonment, sadness, grief and loss. It's clear that my fears and worries impinged upon my ability to be in a healthy relationship for a long time. And although several decades have passed, I still feel little pangs of sadness and anxiety as Father's Day approaches. For some of us, Father's Day is a dreaded event. It brings up anxiety, sadness and longing. We didn't have a choice about our fathers. But there's always a choice in how one responds to tragedy.  

Suicide is the gift that keeps on giving, I've often joked. And it's true. You see, after many years, much therapy, and a really amazing grief group for people who have experienced suicide loss, I've transformed this event. It has become a gift, albeit a tragic one. There is humor in it, along with sadness, anger, relief and a host of other emotions. And it is at the root of my reinvention, having led me to change careers and become a psychologist and Certified Bereavement Facilitator in my late thirties. I love helping other people work through the stages of grieving, and I'm honored that I get to help them through their pain. Sometimes I wish I wasn't so very well-qualified to help people with father loss, but I'll be silently thanking my dad this Father's Day.