This Father’s Day, as with every Father’s Day, Facebook is going to become a cascade of carefully chosen, lovingly captioned dad photos. Many will be painted over with the static of age. A “dad bod” joke or two will worm its way in. And several posts will inevitably be dedicated to those dads that have passed, who aren’t here to share the day for any number of reasons, all of them heartbreaking.
In every instance, from dad bod to death, the “likes” will pour in. A disembodied click denoting everything from “lol” and “hot dad” to “cute pic” and “I miss him, too.” But whatever your social media dad-sharing platform of choice, you’re probably not going to see any smiling snapshots of a father who shot himself.
Just now, even just typing those first few sentences, I’m filled with an unspeakable, almost suffocating sense of dread. How do I describe the death of my father? Did he “kill himself”? Or “take his own life”? Neither of these sounds entirely truthful—and that’s why it’s been so hard to talk about the death of my dad, both now and over the last 11 years.
Two weeks before I turned 14, my father left the house after dinner, drove to a secluded area, stepped out of his car, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger. Until right now, I could have counted the number of people I’ve told those few details to on a single hand. Because you don’t talk about suicide.
Suicide is uncomfortable, it’s a downer. It makes people cast their eyes away, to the left, to the right—anywhere but at you. “Oh… I, wow. That’s really—jeez. I’m sorry.” They apologize. Their eyes dart back to you, pleading. Shit. Were those the right words? Did it go away? Are you broken?
Whether or not this is actually what they’re thinking doesn’t matter. Because as soon as the word “suicide” falls from my lips, the air becomes heavy, conversations strained, and all the negative space in my head fills with one, sinking thought: “They look so uncomfortable. Are they wondering what’s wrong with me?”
Suicide carries with it a devastating, near-crippling stigma that clings to those left in its wake—anyone left in its wake. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that even psychiatrists will “refuse to treat chronically suicidal patients, not only because of the stigma that surrounds it even in their profession, but because suicide is the number-one cause of lawsuits brought against mental-health treatment providers.” The very act of losing someone you love to suicide is shrouded in so many layers of guilt, trauma, and regret that it can take years to fully accept that it’s something that’s even happened in the first place.
So I avoid talking about my dad. At all costs. And I definitely don’t mention how he died. In conversations at parties, I’ll get a well-meaning, oh, what does your dad do? I smile and pretend not to hear. I walk away, distracted by something in the distance that makes me laugh. Haha, sorry about that; she can be so scatterbrained sometimes.
I’ve worked on this for years. It’s just one of the many tools in an arsenal that includes the “oh, wait, I just remembered…” subject change, the “wait, wait, what were you saying about…” back-to-you, and as a last resort, the “my dad died when I was a kid.” This one is dangerous. Because while most people will usually leave it at that, some are able to brave their way into the inevitable next question: “How?” And that’s when I freeze.
One on one, with someone I’m comfortable with, I don’t mind explaining—honestly, it’s a relief. “Suicide,” I’ll say. I brace myself. The aforementioned stammered apologies will follow a brief, stunned silence. “It’s really okay. I’m okay now,” I’ll say. This is mostly true. But these instances are rare.
Usually, casual background questions come from people I barely know. Often in group settings. And because I’ve found the topic of suicide to be a poor icebreaker, generally speaking, I panic. I sidestep. The longer I put off talking about it, the harder and weirder it feels when I finally (if I ever) bring it up. So it best goes unsaid.
Father’s Day is always difficult, of course, but in previous years, I could just refocus on my grandfather. My extended family’s Father’s Day get-togethers would usually center around him anyway. He’s a father. He’s family. It filled—or at least distracted me from—what was not there, the uncomfortable silence, and the questions. But my grandfather died a few months ago, and now, I find myself at a loss.
I can’t redirect. Can’t refocus my attention. And it terrifies me. Particularly because over the past few years, all thoughts of my father have become directly intertwined with thoughts of my sister. A little over three years ago, she also shot herself—something I’ve shared with even fewer people. And as I type those words, I am once again filled with that unspeakable, almost suffocating sense of dread. The same dread that slowly, painfully seeped out of me as I typed everything you just read above.
But in this instance, I know that feeling won’t go away quite so quickly. That takes time. If I’ve learned anything over the past ten or so years, cliche as it may be, it’s that loss really does get easier with time—imperceptibly and arduously, maybe (that part they don’t tell you). But I promise, it does.
I didn’t always believe this. I remember, hours after hearing about my father’s death, staring at a wall in my room and thinking that I’d never be fully, genuinely happy again. I also remember the numb fugue state that swallowed me in the months that followed, punctuated only by brief onslaughts of melancholic panic. These might hit as I watched a gun being fired in a darkened movie theater, as a friend would joke that they “might as well kill themselves,” or as I’d absentmindedly reach for my phone to call my dad. I’d be ripped back into reality and forced to remember for just a few minutes, but those few minutes were almost unbearable. Then, a few months later, the numbness began to wear off, and I was left to settle into a slightly dulled version of that same, occasionally unbearable reality.
For the first time, I began to understand the depression that my father had been so profoundly struggling with throughout his entire life. I never really thought much of it when he was alive—I was young and it was all I knew. But looking back with what I know now, all the signs were there.
We moved to South Florida from Dallas when I was eight, largely due to the fact that my dad didn’t get along with my mom’s family. Once in Florida, my dad stayed home to work as a makeshift day-trader—which, whether due to his mental state, the recession, or a general lack of aptitude, ended up costing my family nearly everything. He never made friends. Rarely left the house. And he would sit, isolated, in his darkened home office for most of the waking hours. He refused to attend therapy on any sort of regular basis, refused to seek real help. So he sank deeper into himself until it became too much to bear.
Unlike my father—and this can likely be attributed to the fact that I was 14 and didn’t have much of a choice, more than anything—I sought help. I went to therapy, my and my older sister’s emotional outlets of choice. My mother began dating, and my older brother, the most reserved of the four, worked through his issues with my father internally. Our methods may have been different, but we all did something.
Three years later, as I started my senior year of high school, my sister married the love of her life. My grandfather walked her down the aisle, which was both beautiful and heartbreaking to watch, but surrounded by family, seeing my sister smile, it felt like, perhaps, things could still be good after all. That we were all going to be okay.
Seven months later, my sister’s husband had a heart attack in the middle of the night and died. Our fragile world was, once again, shattered.
I was more like my sister than anyone, and closer to her than anyone else. Which is partly why it was so painful to watch her transform in the years that followed. To see her change from the brilliant, smiling, eternally optimistic person I’d grown up with into someone cloaked in pain, misery, and regret. In short, I was watching her become my father.
She went to therapy—extensively, in fact. But as happens with so many cases of chronic depression, as soon as she’d start to feel better, she’d stop taking her meds, living in a constant state of upheaval as she fluctuated between highs, lows, and lowers still. That is, until she wasn’t.
A few weeks after she turned 30 and two weeks before I graduated college, I got another phone call. My mom told me that my sister had shot herself. I hyperventilated, weeped, and bought a plane ticket home. We were down to three.
After reliving the worst period in my life for the second time, I did what had by then become almost second nature; I went back to therapy. Except that this time, something was different. What had previously been a slow—but steadily healing—sort of constant ache didn’t seem to be going away. Everywhere I went, the grief and trauma came, too. Pulling at me, tugging, reminding me of everything that had happened and all the reasons I didn’t belong. It was debilitating, and it was terrifying.
In my first bout of therapy, the subject of anti-depressants had been broached, but ultimately dismissed. It was still so soon after my father’s death, and being deeply sad was, of course, to be expected. We decided to wait and, thankfully, that sadness didn’t persist. But again, this time, things were different. So in addition to continuing therapy, I gave medicine try—anything to escape what had become our new, fatal family tradition.
Another month or so went by until one day, almost miraculously, I caught myself feeling happy. I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing, but I remember the feeling—and how foreign it felt. It was a brief, and I felt horrifically guilty for it, but for that small moment, I was unencumbered. And it felt spectacular.
Those all-too-brief spots of light slowly began to pepper my weeks, my days, more and more frequently until—and it wasn’t until just recently, really—they were no longer the exception. Not feeling terrible always and forever was, once again, the rule.
There are still those days. Days when I don’t want to leave my apartment, speak to other humans, when it feels like I’m drowning in memories and heartache to varying degrees. That’s inevitable. But now, those days hit me in wholly manageable, non-life-altering ways. And the distance between them continues to grow.
All this has happened to me in a relative cone of silence, at least from the outside world. I’ll talk to my therapist, of course, but suicide, depression—these remain things you don’t discuss in polite conversation. People paint you as damaged, defective in some nebulous way—largely because the topic is so often avoided. It’s a subject that is deeply, profoundly misunderstood. So instead, we say nothing.
And that is maybe the worst thing we could do. The deaths of my father and my sister certainly don’t define me, but they’ve played a huge role in shaping who I’ve become, who I am today. And it’s something I’ve desperately hid from people—even lied about on occasion, and it’s exhausting.
When I do tell people what’s happened, it’s uncomfortable to varying degrees for varied lengths of time, but the relief (once the anxiety and the discomfort of explaining have passed) is indescribable. I’m off the minefield. I’m no longer weighed down by the persistent worry of what happens if they ask about my family. It’s done. They know me. And we can move on.
That’s why I feel compelled to say that I’m okay now, and saying so feels more than mostly true. Just with these words alone—in making the active choice not to hide behind the shame and guilt that desperately clings to depression, to therapy, and loss—I feel freed. Absolutely terrified, sure. But freed. Because we may not talk about suicide—but we should.