On December 19, 1999, I said good night to my dad for the last time. He had just dropped me off at my mom’s apartment earlier that evening. Over the summer my parents had separated, and when I started fifth grade that fall, I began alternating weeks living with my dad in my childhood home and my mom in her new apartment. Each night I would call whichever parent I wasn’t currently staying with to say good night before bed. I would even call on Sunday evenings, such as the evening of December 19, despite having just “switched” homes a few hours earlier.
Before hanging up that evening, I remember my dad giving me a reason for why I might not be able to get in touch with him the following evening—he said he had a meeting of some sort. I remember thinking it was odd, because he didn’t usually have meetings, but I had no reason to suspect my dad wasn’t being honest with me.
Sure enough, the following evening when I called, he didn’t answer. My mom let me stay up a few minutes late that night just in case he called back, because we had never missed a call. He never called, but I don’t remember being too worried about not hearing from him, since the night before, he had provided what felt like a reasonable explanation.
The next day, Tuesday, was my last day of school before Christmas break. I left school that day with a bag full of Christmas goodies that I couldn’t wait to show off to whoever was picking me up. I don’t remember who it was supposed to be, since, because of work schedules, my dad often helped pick me up during my mom’s week with me, but I am positive it was not supposed to be my aunt, who was the one standing at the end of the sidewalk waiting for me. I don’t recall what explanation she gave me for why she was there in place of either of my parents, but I remember immediately thinking back to my missed phone call with my dad the night before. I also remember the feeling in my gut that something was terribly wrong. My mom was waiting for me at my aunt’s house, and when I arrived, she explained that when my dad hadn’t shown up to work for two days in a row, his employer had contacted her. She had been the one to find him.
When I tell people that my dad died by suicide, the first thing people want to know is how. I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I hate this question so much. I’ll never understand the desire to know or want to discuss the method a person chose for ending their life.
“Why?” is always the next question. He didn’t leave us a note or an explanation. I remember my mom trying to explain depression and mental illness, in words that an 11-year-old child would understand, to help me comprehend what had happened. I remember her saying that he wasn’t thinking clearly, that something had changed in his brain so he wasn’t himself anymore. “Daddy wasn’t Daddy when he did this,” she said. I am forever grateful that he was thinking clearly enough to wait until I wasn’t home and wouldn’t be the one to find him. I’ll always wonder if he knew that night when we were on the phone. Had he already decided before he drove me to my mom’s that afternoon?
We found out after his death that he had seen a doctor and had been given medication for depression, as one might expect for a person going through a painful life experience such as divorce. But friends speculated that he hadn’t been taking the medication, since he had mentioned to them that he didn’t like the way it made him feel.
Looking back now as an adult, I see so much that my 11-year-old self missed. I can recognize now that my dad was not acting like himself those last few months. There is a lot of guilt in wondering: What if I had noticed back then what I can clearly see now? Could I have spoken up and gotten him help? Of course, I understand that I was far too young to hold myself responsible for not knowing. It is both comforting and alarming hearing that other family members and friends have since verbalized the same thing: looking back, they can see the cries for help, but they too were too late in understanding his pain.
A few years later a girl at school told me that my dad wouldn’t be in heaven, because “suicide is a sin, the breaking of the ‘thou shalt not kill’ commandment, and once you die you can’t ask for forgiveness.” I’ve heard similar arguments over the years since my dad’s death. I always think back to what my mom said to me on that day: “Daddy wasn’t Daddy when he did this.”
Several weeks before my dad’s death he had been invited by a friend to attend church with them. I remember going once or twice with him. While I often attended church with a school friend, this was the first time in my life either of my parents had attended a church. What seemed like an odd change in his behavior at the time now brings me comfort.
Losing a loved one to suicide left me with so many unanswered questions, especially regarding what would happen next for my dad. We later found out that my dad had sought out counseling with the pastor of his new church. This gives me hope that before his darkest moments my dad had begun developing a personal relationship with the Lord. While as an adult I have a deeper understanding of chemical imbalances and what happens in the brain when a person experiences depression, I don’t believe any of us can say for sure what that means for the salvation of a person who takes their own life. I find my peace in knowing that God is a fair and loving judge who knows my dad far beyond what I can ever imagine. I’m so glad that it’s God’s job, not ours, to determine who is saved in the end. Each day I do my best to leave it in His hands and choose instead to spend my time and energy doing what I can to reach those around me who may be facing a similar struggle, and help them to feel less alone.