It’s been almost 10 years since I lost my dad to mental illness. It was unexpected, tragic, and complicated. My father battled with this invisible disease that we had no idea was eating him up inside. He lost this battle and the disease won after a very conflicting and tumultuous time in his life. His journey hadn’t always been easy, but he was a fighter and we were unsuspecting at the time that we lost him. It took me by complete surprise and turned my life upside down.
I didn’t speak to my dad for 7 years after my parents separated. However, 2 years prior to his death, after some healing for both of us and some maturity on my part, we both made the decision that we were going to work on reconciling our relationship. I must credit him in that he had always tried. Even throughout the 7 years apart, he never gave up on restoring our relationship.
During the time where we initiated this work, my dad asked me “what would it take for you to forgive me?” I told him that I just needed him to genuinely say sorry for some of the hurtful things that had happened during my parents’ divorce. He was quick to do this, and this is where the healing began.
We worked hard. Initially, it was just myself and him, but in time my husband, John, came into the relationship, and later we decided it was time for our children to get to know their grandfather. When I reflect back on this time, my dad seemed great, at times I’d even say he was joyful. He was recently retired and had pure adoration for his grandchildren. They filled him with so much laughter and joy.
In time he began a new relationship and eventually they would marry. My dad loved his retirement. He loved working outside and had worked hard to build his landscaping and stump removal business. Once he was married, he started to feel that he didn’t want to leave his new bride home alone, so he stopped working and taking on jobs and began drinking more frequently. Sadly, things went from bad to worse fairly quickly. It was a time of unease and turmoil. I’ve come to believe that this time, and some of the circumstances that came as a result of it, became large contributing factors for his eventual suicide.
The night of his death, he went missing. His wife had called me and said that she was unable to find him. I had some concern, he really had not been acting like himself lately, so I decided to draw on the life experience of my mother at this time and reached out to ask her if she felt he was okay. My mom and I agreed that we didn’t need to worry about the potential of suicide. We knew him well. He was not the type to give up. He was a survivor… a fighter! We both figured that he just needed some alone time and that he would turn up soon.
The following morning, I got up and entertained my usual routine, and then headed out to my job teaching French at a local elementary school. The Principal of my school, a woman who I will always be connected to, appeared early in the morning, during my first class, at my door requesting that I accompany her back to her office. I asked if I could wrap up the lesson to which she did not agree. She had the prep teacher already by her side ready to take over. I remember thinking at that moment that I must be getting fired, that this was bad, but I honestly didn’t know what I had done. Looking back, I realize what a difficult thing this must have been for my principal. To have to walk that long walk back to the office with me, knowing that she had to deliver some of the most difficult news that I would ever hear when we got there. This disease influences so many, not just the person who is suffering from it. When we finally reached the office, she had the terrible task of telling me that my father had passed away. I crumbled. I remember sinking to the floor and crying out from absolute pain. It is a moment that is burned into my memory forever.
From the various pieces of information I was able to recover from the incident, I’ve come to understand that my dad had spent some time that night in his beloved viper blue Chevy Nova, a car that I later restored and spent time healing in after his death. Days later I discovered a jump drive still attached to the stereo in the car and an ashtray that was just full of butts. My dad had always loved music, and he had smoked my whole life. I figured that he had spent his last moments listening to all his favourite songs and smoking his cigarettes. There was no note, at least not one that I found. This was always a hard thing for me. My counsellor turned this around for me and said that if there was no note that I was free to make up my own story about what happened. This was so empowering for me. I feel that on that evening he just made a decision that he was too much of a burden to the people he loved. The various circumstances that had confronted his life recently filled him with shame. He had worked so hard to rebuild the relationship with me and now found himself in a place of disgrace. My belief is that he just decided, in that moment, that it wasn’t worth it anymore. Life was no longer worth living.
Initially, after the shock, I found myself in a space of not being able to understand what, why, how… I had so many questions and very few answers. This period of my life was very difficult. We had worked so hard to repair our relationship. I found myself questioning why I wasn’t enough for him to stick it out? Why weren’t my children enough for him to make the decision that there was a reason to live?
I realized while cleaning out his house after he was gone, that my dad had been on antidepressants for years, but through the many years prior to his passing I didn’t know this. I had no idea that my dad was struggling with mental illness. In all honestly, to me he was always the picture of strength to me. It always seemed like he had it all together. Even back when my parents split up, everyone was so shocked because we had the appearance of the perfect little family.
The word ‘suicide’, the words ‘he killed himself’, the words ‘he took his own life’… these words are so hard to say because they are filled with such shame. I’ve now learned to say, and I honestly believe this, that my father lost his battle with mental illness. Others say that someone they loved ‘lost their battle with cancer’. I say that my dad lost his battle with mental illness.
After many years and a great deal of therapy, I’ve come to realize that mental illness is like any other illness. The stigma attached to this disease should not be there. I truly believe that it’s like a cancer of the thinking. Mental illness infects the brain and eats away at the thoughts and realities that we know to be true. It replaces them with untruths, and bad thoughts that must be fought and pushed down every day. It is an exhausting disease that often the person must fight alone. Unfortunately, there’s so much shame when it comes to mental health. The word suicide almost seems staining. It would have been easier for me to say that I lost my dad to cancer, or a heart attack when people asked me. But that was not my truth. Why did I have to feel ashamed about being honest? The effects of this disease are so far reaching. They go way beyond just the person who is ill.
With great gratitude to my counsellor, I’ve come to realize that the thinking of so many who lose their battle is diseased. People aren’t programmed to not want to survive, yet many (too many) get to a point where their brain tells them that they no longer need to be here, or that they aren’t good to anyone, or that they need to end their life. This thinking is a disease in itself. I don’t believe that suicide is a selfish act. I don’t believe that my father made a choice to leave me. He had no choice. The disease told him that this was his only choice and he believed that.
I went through quite a process managing all my feelings after my father died. At the time it happened I didn’t understand what to do. I threw myself into the work that was to be done. I was resentful for him making my life more difficult. I asked so many times “Why would he do this”? I was the Executor to his estate, and I was left to take care of all his affairs. It was an overwhelming and confusing time that was overcast by deep sorrow and loss.
It’s important for me to share with others what I have learned through this journey of healing after the loss of my father. My hope is that others will come to think of suicide in a different way. My dad’s lost battle with mental illness has helped me to reframe the way I think. My goal is to bring this to others so that more people can avoid going through what I went through. So that when someone asks, “what happened to your (dad, sister, mom, friend, etc.)?” those people don’t have to not know what to say or find themselves under cloud of shame. So that they don’t have to feel alone and not worthy of support in dealing with their loss. No one chooses to have mental illness.
It’s hard to lose someone you love, let alone lose someone to suicide. But when you add in not even being able to explain to people how you lost your loved one… to feel like if you say it out loud you will be placing shame even on yourself as a person, the loss is crippling. To deprive yourself of the support of others because you’re afraid of the stigma that will come with saying just that one word. I don’t want that for anyone.
I feel the biggest value in my story is the journey of my feelings and how I got through those. I had to unlearn the biases that had been implanted in my thinking for so many years and that wasn’t easy. My first ‘AH-HA’ moment took place 2-3 years afterwards. That was the moment I was able to reframe the way I thought about the suicide, but that was not where the battle ended. In the years that followed I continually had to re-tool my thought process. It’s now been 10 years and let me tell you that 5 of those showcased some pretty messy times. This experience had me questioning who I was, what value I had, and who else might leave me. It still creeps up some days.
The counselling was an integral piece of my recovery from this life event. My supportive husband that never gave up on seeing the best in me as a wife and mother was, and still continues to be a rock. I am so thankful for him. My children, being only 3 & 5 at the time of my dad’s passing, pushed me through the day to day. They needed me to keep going for them, and I needed them to just keep me going. My career as a teacher also helped me to keep focused and facing forward.
I want people out in the world to know that there does not need to be shame in losing a family member to mental illness. Mental illness, like any other illness is a battle that an unwell person must get up and battle every single day. On a particular day some people just can’t fight the battle anymore. They’re just too exhausted. They have no fight left in them.
My ultimate hope would be that one day you could say, “I lost my loved one to mental illness” just as easily as we say we lost someone to any other disease. I think people want to support others better in these situations, but they just don’t know what to say or how they can support. No one knows how to talk about mental illness and that needs to change.
As a teacher of grade 8 students, and a part of the mental health team at our school, I see an increase in the incidence of suicidal thoughts and suicidal activity in our young people. It’s heartbreaking. I’m passionate about changing the flawed thinking surrounding mental illness, not only because it’s affected me personally with the suicide of my father, but because I see the alarming trends in our youth. I want to be a part of the change. I see the complexity of this issue and the limited resources and knowledge that we have, and I think that we can do better. We must do better. I believe we all deserve better.
I still grieve the loss of my father. I miss having him to go to for advice. I miss his hugs. As I watch my boys grow and see the young man they are becoming, I grieve for them. Their grandpa would have loved spending time watching their sports and showing them how to build cars. They deserve to have had that experience. My choice to make something good come from this loss. To help others, to end the stigma, and bring light where there is darkness. This is my hope.