I knew my father was having a difficult time in life. It was so very unlike this man, whose smile warmed the hearts of perfect strangers, to see that smile so infrequently. But at the age of 50, having left his position as an accountant, he could not find a job in his field. There were challenges he was facing that he kept to himself, and the depth of depression that descended upon him was not fully known to those who loved him. That is until the day my mother found him in the garage having taken his life. My father had committed suicide.
I was a 23-year-old newlywed living in Nashville, Tennessee when I received the call. This was my daddy. The man that came to my aide when I thought there were monsters under my bed. The man that woke me up each morning for school by whispering through the door, knowing anything loud would make me throw things across the room. The man who forbade me from dating the hippie boys, finally giving up when he returned home from work countless times finding another one in our living room. The man that gave me away at my wedding, believing I had someone who would care for me well.
My husband and I packed, I know not what, then began our journey late the night of the phone call from Nashville to Northern Indiana. The ink darkness of the night wasn’t just in the sky—I felt smothered by it from all sides. Everything was surreal, as if I was living another’s life.
We arrived at my parents’ home the next day to a building filled with family. The house had been filled that way before with bantering and laughter in every room, but not on this day. As we parked in the drive, my older brother met us at the car. Walking toward one another, he reached out to me to simply hold me in his arms, nothing said, only tears flowed.
As my husband and I walked through the front door I had entered countless times before, my uncles joined us. One on either side of me, as if they were guarding their niece from the hurt they understood I was walking into. An arm was stretched around my shoulder as I was walked toward the sofa. I didn’t know what I wanted—to find answers, to get details of what happened…
What I really wanted was to go back in time. Looking into their eyes, with half questions on my lips, my tears continued to flow. They sat me down and answered as I found the strength to ask, “How did he do it?”; “Why didn’t we know?”; “What was he thinking?”
Truly, the responses didn’t really matter, as the questions had no acceptable answers; he was just gone. This didn’t have to happen. I didn’t even get to tell him goodbye. My new life had just begun, and he would not be part of it. It felt as if someone shot a cannon, and the cannonball had blown right through my core with no way to stitch up the gaping hole.
This Is the Phrase I Clung to in the Hardest Moments
The next three days were a jumble. My emotional pendulums swayed from anger, through emptiness, to grief, and then back again. I barely noticed that the church was packed for the funeral. I heard very little except a phrase that was repeated several times by the pastor, as he spoke kindly of my father, “Don’t mistake the man for the moment.” I clung to that phrase.
“Don’t mistake the man for the moment.”
Walking to our cars from the church, we joined the line that slowly made its way to the cemetery. Upon arrival, my mother, older brother, sister-in-law, younger brother, my husband, and I began one of the most difficult walks in my life: from the cars to the designated folding chairs where we would sit to complete the graveside portion of laying my father to rest.
Words spoken, final prayer said, and then we sat as friends and family filed by to extend their condolences before returning to their cars. I remember one lady, I’m sure well-intentioned, as she hugged me and exclaimed loudly, “Praise Jesus, he’s in heaven now!”
If the casket had not been placed between us and the gaping hole that had been dug, she would have been thrown in there. That was the last thing I wanted to hear. I didn’t want my dad in heaven; I wanted him here. I wanted him to open the door as I arrived for Christmas and to fall asleep in the middle of the living room after his Sunday meal. I wanted him to be the grandfather that would hold my children in his arms.
The hole that was formed in my core that weekend lasted through the entire year. Many nights I would awaken sobbing, my husband would simply hold me, knowing there was nothing he could say that would make a difference. There were days when I wished so desperately that I could pick up the phone and hear his voice. Knowing that would never be true again made me terribly angry.
Losing someone to suicide carries with it confusion, and almost inevitably condemnation… I should have known. I could have done something. Why didn’t he tell us? Did he think we wouldn’t understand his hurt? Did he think we couldn’t love him through his struggles?
There is a portion of the faith community that believes suicide doesn’t allow you to enter into heaven. They believe the choice made at that last moment ensures your entry is barred. Although I know that is not true, I have always wondered what satisfaction one gets from saying that to the family that is left behind. I heard it when my heart was torn, and so another layer of sorrow was added to my already paralyzing grief because of their callous disregard of my pain.
Years have passed and the gaping hole has healed. We named our first daughter after my father, Loren. The man he was and the life he lived deserved that honor. I determined I would never mistake the man for the moment, especially when I had so many other incredible moments to draw from. But, as in all of life’s heartbreaks, a scar remains. Yet what I know now is that scars don’t hurt, they simply remind, and that is a good thing.
I still miss my daddy these many years later. I miss his warm smile, his easy laughter. I still feel that there is a missing piece in our family because of the amazing man he was while he was here. I wish I could share my days, my dreams, and my accomplishments with him. I wish that he could have seen the life I have made. He didn’t meet my daughters, but one day he will.
It has been my prayer that I get to introduce them when we all land in that heaven where he now resides. That is my hope, that is where my confidence lies. I will once again see my daddy with that big smile and warm embrace catching up then. And know that the God who reached out with open arms when my dad chose to leave this world will do the same for me. He will remove all hurt or lingering questions and on that day replace them with pure joy.
In honor of Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, please refer to these trusted resources for mental health care:
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Institute of Mental Health > Suicide Prevention
- Mental Health First Aid
Don’t miss this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: What Are the Unexpected Gifts of Depression? With Melissa Maimone – 095