Warning: adult language and trigger warning below.
It is a day that I could never forget.
On July 9, 1999, I was at my apartment in Yankton, S.D. There was a knock on my door and on the other side was my mother. She looked like she had seen a ghost. Just by her demeanor, I knew something was terribly wrong. I didn’t know if she didn’t feel well or if it was something worse.
Sadly, it ended up being a lot worse than just some flu or cold.
My mother directed me to my couch. She sat next to me and as soon as she placed her hand on my knee, I knew right there, that something tragic had happened.
Then she said it:
“Brian, your father has taken his life.”
I immediately responded without a sigh: “Mom, is he going to be okay?”
In retrospect it seems strange to ask, but I literally could not process what she had just said to me quick enough. How my mother told me that my father took his life left no room for survival but I never caught that.
“No, Brian, Jeff is gone.” She said.
I could tell she was heartbroken and shaken up. My mother and my father had been divorced for decades but it was no secret how much they still loved and cared for one another. That was proven by how often they would see each other throughout those decades…on-again and off-again.
In the past, my mother told me and my siblings that my father had always toyed around with the option of suicide.
“This time he followed through on his threat, Brian.”
Right then and there, my mother had broken the silence.
Anyone who didn’t know my mother and who didn’t know how often my father toyed around with the thought of suicide might have thought my mother was being very insensitive, showing that she didn’t care or that she wasn’t surprised by the call she had received.
But that wasn’t the case—that was just the hard reality of the truth that my father had always threatened to take his own life.
I really thought my father was too selfish to do such a thing. I thought he was too narcissistic to commit suicide. I couldn’t believe that he would follow through on his threats. No way, not suicide. I would believe his death more if he had been in some bar, opened his outrageous and sarcastic mouth and started a fight and ended up being brutally savaged by the outcome of the fight.
“How?” I asked my mother. Her hand was still on my knee.
“A handgun to the temple at his girlfriend’s house…” she paused and then she started to talk again. “He pulled the gun out right in front of her and pulled the trigger right there while she was across from him.”
My mind was racing more now. How could he possibly put another person at risk? How could he possibly cause another person to witness such a horrific act? Now that was my father. Not giving a shit about anyone but himself. Not giving a shit about another person’s feelings or how they would react or their safety except for what he wanted to do and for what he had planned on doing.
Kids and teenagers who are called names or shipped away from their parent’s home for being an outcast; people who have lost their jobs, families, finances, or who are going through strong negative emotional strains and depression; people who are constantly beat up, harassed and who are bullied…those people I can understand (even though it still isn’t right) thinking that ending their lives would be the only true relief.
In the coming years I would come to realize how wrong I was, how my assumptions stemmed from my own arrogance, and how I had no idea about the reach and the devastation of suicide.
We lived in Nebraska and by the time we arrived at my aunt’s house in Kissimmee, Florida my father had already been cleaned up and he had been held in a freezer for 10 days. We stayed at my Aunt Patty’s house (my father’s sister).
At the funeral my father looked very handsome and at peace lying in his coffin. I think it was the only time that I ever saw him at peace. I think it was the first time I ever saw him not angry, stressed out or furious over something. And that was because he was dead.
I couldn’t help myself but I had to see the wound. I had to see where he shot himself. Some people questioned why I needed to do this and I couldn’t provide an answer.
In hindsight, there was no reason I had to see the wound.
At the service, I leaned up against his casket and I started to look around. I didn’t touch anything or him except for his hands. I didn’t move him around or anything like that. After a few moments of looking around, I saw where the mortuary had concealed the wound.
It was to his right temple.
I figured I could handle this tragedy; I could help my siblings and my father’s siblings plan and make the funeral arrangements. I would ensure that my siblings, my cousin’s, and my father’s siblings were all comfortable and that they were all doing okay. I was tough, overconfident and completely unprepared for the long and painful road ahead of us.
What really broke me were the uncontrollable wailing cries of my father’s three sisters and from my very own older sister. They clawed at my soul and at my very own existence. I have tried, very unsuccessfully, for more than 15 years, to forget about them. I never understood that sound and I believe I will never understand those sounds on that day ever again in my entire life.
They mark a loss so deep and profound that words cannot describe it.
I remember looking over the Gulf of Mexico on the way home. That huge and long bridge that we had to drive over that had only the ocean water surrounding us. I was holding my father’s ashes in the complete darkness. Then it finally happened: a tear rolled down the side of my face.
I hadn’t cried at all until that moment!
So many years removed from that darkest day I read about suicides with disturbing frequency, especially during the holidays. My father had committed suicide just less than a month after his birthday. I know what it means for those families and friends to experience the aftermath of suicide.
Suicide does not discriminate; it promises a grand lie, an immediate peace for a soul in pain who will easily be forgotten (or they could become very easily forgotten about).
That could not be further from the truth. The years of hurt, suffering, second-guessing, the non-stop questions, why there was no note or explanation for us about his death, and doubt that stemmed from my father’s instantaneous decision are not the legacy he would have wanted or wished upon his children.
The irony is that so many people who have suffered through the pain of someone else’s suicide or have thought about it themselves have stifled their stories the same way.
I miss my father. Even 15 years later I think about him.
I will never presume to understand or will I ever be able to judge the mindset of someone capable of making such a decision. At first, I thought those who committed suicide were selfish, were fakes, and they were weak. They gave up on life. They took the easy way out. They were forever evicted from Heaven. Once again, I was arrogant and I don’t believe that 15 years later.
If there is a possible silver lining of losing my father it is that I have gained tremendously empathy for those walking through the dark times in their lives. I have this tremendous empathy for those people who are fighting mental illnesses like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar, anxiety problems, or schizophrenia,.
Working through the pain of my father’s suicide has shown me how little I know, that assumptions are frequently wrong, and that I would rather have the people in my life than agree or disagree with their politics, perspectives or life choices.
I have always wondered what would have happened if just one sibling of my father’s, if just one friend of my father’s, just one of my own siblings, or even if I had been able to reach out to my father in his darkest of times.
The bottom line is that in a world more “connected” than ever, far too many of those we call our friends, co-workers, congregation members, community leaders, neighbors and colleagues are alone and struggling to wake up the next day. Real relationships are messy, difficult and time consuming, but they give life so much of its value.
I cannot undo my father’s suicide, but I also will not allow suicide to thrive on my silence! I must continually tackle suicide and confront the dangers of it.
Suicide needs my continued response, not my continued silence.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Brian E. Splater
Editor: Renee Picard
Photo: Alex at Flickr