Dad’s Lunchbox

Dec. 21, 2018- We often scoff at how people talk about a death. There are many articles about what is and is not appropriate to say, or what may or may not be helpful.  But if I don’t even know what to say, how can I expect someone else to?

On May 11, 2017, my dad killed himself. I wish there were magic words someone could say to instantly provide me with comfort.

Since his death, I find myself living an almost double existence. Some moments, I forget it all happened, because it feels as if nothing substantial in my day-to-day life here has changed, and other moments, I lay on the floor and sob.

Unfortunately, I had known this was a realistic possibility for a while. He battled depression, though most people didn’t know it. He loved talking about me and my siblings, was hilarious and kind, and enjoyed history documentaries and football.

He also had been an alcoholic for most of his adult life. He wanted to be better, I truly believe. He was such a good dad to me. When he and my mom divorced, it was incredibly difficult for him. Still, I never doubted for a moment how much he loved and believed in me.

I have playlists to listen to when I want to reminisce. Sometimes I’ll open up a notes app and write some random things – “that time we sang along to James Taylor,” or, “the way he talked about the soup from Sam’s Grille” – because they happened, and I’m the only one left who participated in those memories.

I write them down because I need to remind myself that the memories exist, and so did he.

For some reason, the hardest thing for me was throwing away his lunchbox. I kept thinking, “Who fixes their lunch for the next day if they are going to kill themselves? Who flosses their teeth, or pays their cell phone bill?” I sat there on the kitchen floor, holding the ham sandwich he had packed for himself that day, as if it could tell me why this all happened.

Eight months later, on the day before my birthday, my stepdad took his own life. He and my mom had celebrated their 25th anniversary in July.  He loved her so much. He was always so full of life.

His death is still a shock.  As we’ve had time to process, and to talk about the changes we’d noticed in him over the last few years, we believe he may have been dealing with early-onset dementia. Still, all the speculating about potential missed signs don’t make processing the loss any easier.

Neither my dad nor my stepdad left a note, but even if they had, it wouldn’t have made things any less painful.

There is not going to be some magical movie moment where it all makes sense. We searched through my dad’s house hoping to find something, anything that provided some simple explanation. But he’s just gone.

Sometimes, I feel like if I sat down and truly thought about what happened, I would never be able to get back up.

I often obsessively read about breaking news stories, major political events, or a new cultural phenomenon. I remember reading tons of political articles before I went home to visit, so my dad and I could talk at length about whatever was going on in the world.

After his death, all I found myself reading about was death and suicide. I read about perseverance, about continuing on, even when you don’t know if you can. I was looking for ways to help me get through this.

Everything I read seemed to amount to simple sayings, like, “tough times don’t last,” or “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” When you’re living it, it’s hard to believe things will ever get better. But this wasn’t a temporary problem I was having; it’s my new normal. I won’t “get over it.” But maybe I’ll learn how to live with it.

I joined a support group in January. It is amazing how healing it is to hear other people’s stories, and to know I am not alone in these feelings. We cry and comfort each other. The people in the group understand what I’m going through. I hate that we have all walked through this door, but I am so grateful for the support of the people on the other side with me.

My sister and I participated in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Philadelphia this year. Crossing the finish line to honor my dad and stepdad is a feeling I can’t quite name.

I can do it.  I can live. I can continue to accomplish things, and find ways to honor these men who meant so much to me.

They are gone, but more importantly, they were here.

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