I find it ironic that as I sit down to write this and reflect on my journey, a line from Coldplay’s song “The Scientist” comes to mind; “Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard.” At times it’s almost unfathomable to me that this will be the 26th Fathers’ Day since my father’s suicide in 1990. At this point in my life I am three years older than he was at the time of his death, and yet when I think of him I still feel like a small child staring up at a giant.
The irony is that my father was a scientist, a brilliant man for whom so much in life seemed to come easily. He was a nuclear physicist who worked on nuclear safety and spacecraft technology while serving in the United States Air Force, and then later helped to write some of our nations earliest high-level radioactive waste standards. He also managed the Radon Action Program during his time with the Environmental Protection Agency. He was a man with many facets, a musician who played the saxophone and clarinet, avid sports fan, recreational athlete who loved tennis and basketball, collector of records, a Trekkie, and most importantly a husband and father.
Like so many families, mine is not the prototypical fit in a box situation. My parents separated when I was 8 years old, with my mother moving my sister and I back to her hometown of Albany, NY. My father remained in the Washington, DC area to pursue his career. The result was that he was not in my daily life as much as I would have liked, but he was always there. A large part of our relationship was spent talking on the phone, as I would only see him in person on holidays and over the summer.
He struggled with depression for several years, even seeking in patient treatment at one point. Even though I knew of his battle I never thought it was one he would lose. That’s one of the things I remember most about my dad, whenever you played against him in anything he never gave up and wouldn’t just let you win. In fact, in our ongoing tennis and basketball games I never beat him once. So on February 15, 1990, 5 days after my 19th birthday, when I was told he had completed suicide my world was turned upside down.
To say I dealt with my father’s suicide poorly would be to imply that I dealt with it at all. In retrospect I spent several years in a state of denial, unable and unwilling to deal with my feeling of loss, anger, abandonment and insignificance. Since my father was not a part of my daily life I was able to mask my true suffering from friends and family. In my mind at the time this was a sign of strength which in reality couldn’t have been farther from the truth. In actuality I was too afraid to reach out for help, afraid of what people might think and that no one would understand my pain. The only time I would let my sorrow out was when I drank, often brought on by holidays or other significant days.
Of all the holidays, I think Fathers’ Day may have been the hardest to face after my father’s death. Unlike other painful reminders, like his birthday or the anniversary of his death, Fathers’ Day was impossible to hide from. It felt like it was everywhere I looked on every commercial and in every store. Almost like it was mocking me, intentionally reminding me of what I had lost. It was of all days, the one when I felt most alone, trapped by the memories of the father I had lost and what might have been.
I wish I could tell you when things started to change, but at some point I came to the realization that tomorrow was never going to be yesterday, no matter how much I might wish it to be. To be honest, one thing that helped me immensely in my healing was having to deal with my own mental health issues, related to stress and anxiety. That experience gave me the strength to seek help, which allowed me to come to terms with my father’s death and the unresolved feelings I kept buried for so long.
Another thing that arose along my healing journey was a desire to celebrate my father’s life instead of mourn his death, and also to find a way to use my experiences to help others who have shared a similar loss travel an easier path. At that point I began volunteering with AFSP and shortly thereafter began fundraising for our local Out of the Darkness Walk. Over the past few years as a way to honor him and share his memory with others, I have started my fundraising on Fathers’ Day. Now instead of a day that I dread, Fathers’ Day each year is the start of something special.
One of the things I often thought about early on, and a question I hear frequently when I talk to survivors today is, when does this get easier? The only answer I have found is that it doesn’t, but I believe the way we get through it is by becoming stronger. When I say becoming stronger I don’t mean putting on a strong face and pretending to be all right, as I did for years. I don’t mean hiding your pain and suffering in silence. I mean finding to strength to cope, and the courage to ask for help when you need it. To share your feelings, and on this Fathers’ Day share your memories of your father. It is not an easy journey to travel, but remember it is one you don’t have to embark on alone.
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