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July 28, 2021

My Father’s Death Taught me How to Live.

I am a survivor of suicide loss. I lost my dad in August of 2011.

I spent my entire youth striving for my father’s affection and pride. It was an uphill battle, one I thought would never be won.

To my surprise, when I turned 18 and came out to him as a queer person, I was shocked to receive his acceptance. This moment forged a bridge between us to get to know one another in a real way, and to learn from one another in a way we’d never experienced. Though he was still my parent, he also became my friend.

Finally earning his love and faith in me made my life easier: I found confidence in myself that I’d never had. I had a new understanding that I was okay, even good, just as I am.

As my father aged, he became more able to express his love and pride in me. I opened up to him, too, and we could speak frankly with one another. There were many gifts that came in the short eight years we took on this kind of healing in our relationship.

When he died, the self-confidence I believed was my own died with him. Just like that.

We all know how death can jar us and bring our awareness to our own mortality. It changes our view of ourselves and reminds us that we are not as invincible as we perhaps thought just moments before. It shows us the—sometimes—terrifying impermanence of life on the physical plane.

Today, I know the greatest gift he ever gave me was through his death. His story of me was dead.

My very being was a projection I had enjoyed through his eyes. Without his belief in me, how would I be able to believe in myself? Without him on this earthly plane, who was I? It was exactly the wake up call that I needed to realize I had to learn how to do that for myself—achieve self-love and confidence that I could own, the will to find out who this person is, living in the world, going by my name.

A loved one’s suicide completely shatters our worldview. We exhaustingly go through the motions of days that blend together like some strange twilight existence. We go from having many voices of support, if we’re lucky, to the haunting silence a couple of weeks later. In this darkness, we cannot see ourselves.

Kenny White sings, “The thing about the heart that hurts the most is when you just can’t feel it break.”

And yet, something exists in the darkness. Rest. A softness, a grace. Though everything we believed is in fragments on the floor, something shimmers there. We start to put the pieces back the way they were but they no longer fit together the way we thought they did. We realize we’ve been given the chance to rebuild our worldview on our own terms.

So we begin to build.

There is no joy or sudden benefit in our unraveling. But after some time, we begin to see light here where we once couldn’t see our own hands in front of our eyes.

My dad’s death helped me forge a spiritual path. It isn’t the traditional path that I’d been taught by religious people and authority figures in my life. It is a somewhat jagged and circuitous route and yet somehow, a gentle path.

As I began to take these broken pieces of everything I believed and place them together, I began to see that learning to trust myself was a direct route to learning to trust a Higher Power. Forgiving myself gave me the grace to forgive others in a real, compassionate way. Learning to love myself gave me a greater capacity to love others, and I began to have more faith that there’s something bigger than me, a positive force on our world.

There are so many paths to spiritual connection. We’ve each walked our own way, sometimes with the benefit of good company and sometimes alone.

Many of our most difficult learnings have been through baptisms by fire. Complete burning to the ground before we could see any way forward. We may not always have to learn “the hard way,” but sometimes we do things a few times before realizing we can make a different choice. To stop in our tracks and go a different way, to find a different outcome, a better ending to the story.

Cobbling together my new beliefs and true values became a pastime for me but I quickly realized they were also a necessity. It meant life or death. I joined one piece to another and then stepped onto it gently to make sure it was strong enough to hold me.

Build.

Test.

The power and need for reflection became clear to me. Two pieces here, three pieces there, and then testing. Is this solid ground or is it built from what someone else told me to believe? About myself or otherwise? I learned that it’s actually a lot harder to trust myself than to do what other people tell me. It takes more courage, more discernment.

Using my intuition—what I had been conditioned to ignore—played a part. But if I was to truly listen to my heart, I would learn to accept that my heart doesn’t talk incessantly. Sometimes it was quiet and I would need to rest with it. In stillness. And wait.

Build.

Test.

Reflect.

Repeat.

For my whole life, I had been following rules just because they were rules and ending up places without knowing why I was there. But this new experimentation was continuously reflective—almost obsessively so—and little by little, piece by piece, I was beginning to trust my own footsteps. Suddenly, I had more insight into my whys.

With this blank canvas in front of me, for the first time in my life, I had the power to paint whatever I wanted there. I got the chance to be the author of my own life, whether it was to be a disaster or something meaningful.

Build. What are my values? Are they mine or someone else’s? Why do I believe in them?

Test. Do these values support every part of my life and existence?

Reflect. What does it mean to have this belief or value? How does it make me who I am?

Repeat.

I began to explore ways of really being with myself. I found a bridge to acknowledging my true feelings, all of them, for the first time in my life. I learned experientially the meaning of holding the joy and the grief at the same time. Something about it was intrinsic, perhaps waiting for me to uncover it.

I had Mondays and Tuesdays off from work. By Sunday evening, I could feel the tears beginning to come through as I held off the tidal wave of emotion that was behind them.

Monday mornings, I woke up, made my coffee and sat out on the balcony of my little apartment writing, crying, trembling, even screaming if that’s what I needed. I would write a script to myself. “What’s wrong?” I would ask. “I don’t feel like myself,” I answered. “What could help?” And I would write out what all my tools were: playing guitar, taking a walk, calling a friend. I listed all the friends that I knew would be able to listen and hold a little space for me. I returned to the list when I needed to talk but didn’t know who to call.

I began exploring genealogy. I expected it to be boring. Instead, it became a thread that shot through my present life. There was some comfort to be found in my formerly unknown ancestry and learning that my family moved to the United States to build a life lent me strength.

If they could do all that, start completely over with only the clothes on their backs, surely I could start from here. I started to see how cycles of abuse that have been passed down through generations in my family were changing. The silence, the stigma, the lack of love and therefore lack of ability for self-love that I believe informed my father’s ultimate giving up. Now, it rested on my shoulders to heal the rest.

Build. How does this piece fit into the home within myself?

Test. Can I live here, fully embodied?

Reflect. What does it feel like to be in this space?

Repeat.

I wrote letters to my father—mainly to fill in the spaces where I used to talk to him on the phone—and the letters became a semi-private blog so I wouldn’t censor myself. Most of my letters were positive, but I allowed myself the freedom to write about the frustration I was experiencing in the wake of his death.

I thought about how he might respond to events in my life. What he had endured and where he had prevailed.

I spoke openly about my experience. People in my life listened.

I often recall what Louise Hay said about willingness to change. Her book, You Can Heal Your Life, was pertinent reading at the time. She said not to focus on changing, that if you can begin to be willing to change, the changing begins to happen naturally.

I experimented with lots of modes of therapeutic programs. Neurofeedback, massage therapy, somatic experiencing, meditation. A whole new world of healing was opening up to me. I was beginning to color outside the lines and reach beyond the limits I thought were concrete. I began to feel a real connection among my mind, body, and spirit. It was a revolution!

Build.

My massage therapist used Reiki in our sessions and once had a vision of me doing this work with others. I began studying Reiki and self-treatments led me to recognize my own body’s messages in a visceral and authentic way.

I joined Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families to get to know my inner child and excavate early programming that kept me from my True Self. The solution of ACA is to become your own loving parent. The first time I heard those words, I could feel them in my bones.

Test.

I gained interesting insights around “surrender.” In so many ways, death brings us to our knees, literally into surrender because initially, there are no other options. Outside of this, the idea of surrendering our will can make us feel sick to our stomach. Our will has helped us to survive. How can we surrender it?

When we are focused on willingness, we make space for something besides our own egos and loosen up from control. This makes room for things to happen for us that we don’t have to force into existence. At least not alone.

Reflect.

I not only have cultivated a larger capacity for empathy for myself but also for others. Forgiving others is not nearly as difficult as forgiving myself.

My need to appease others has nearly dissolved. If I’m going to live this way, I know I’ll need to forgive myself for any actions. With that knowledge, there becomes little to forgive. Following my own heart becomes a path unencumbered by outside noise and ulterior motives from a false self.

Reflect.

The inner healing work I’ve done since my dad’s death has been generative and life-giving. It continues to make me more available to myself and to others. I am a better listener now for friends; I am more sincere with strangers. I allow people to be who they are, and when they show me, I believe them. I have more to give, and I know when my cup needs filling. My own healing informs all my interactions. My insides match my outside.

The interesting thing is that my father has felt right by my side through this process but as a companion rather than an external source of self-confidence.

No one is exempt from times of tragedy and suffering. We have all been through moments of complete darkness, perhaps right before the light.

If we pay close attention and make sure it is, in fact, our life we are living, we become empowered to make it great.

~

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