Here is what I know: On September 20, 2014, after struggling with ever-worsening pain and addiction, my dad took his own life.
Here is what I don’t know: Why he thought this was the only solution.
The following eulogy, written by me, was graciously delivered by Rev. Carl Gnewuch during my dad’s memorial service at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in my hometown of Springfield, VA on September 29, 2014.
The sentiments are shared by my mom and brother.
I was blessed to have spent some time with you the night before you died. The last thing you said to me was how much you loved my recent blog writing. You even referred to it as “Pulitzer Prize worthy” and although I know you were exaggerating (as you were prone to do at times) it still made me feel like a superhero. In my heart, I always knew you were proud of me but this was one of those rare times when you said it out loud and it put a big cheesy smile on my face. You smiled too, but I saw pain and sadness in that smile that I had been sensing for a while.
There was so much of my writing that you didn’t read because I never shared it with anyone. In my personal journal, I wrote about your silent suffering:
- how I worried about you
- how I wished you would let us help with your pain
- how frustrated I was
- how I loved and cared about you
- how confused and scared I felt
What I didn’t fully realize was just how confused and scared you felt too.
Today, I will share these thoughts with everyone but I wrote it with you in my heart.
I hope it makes you proud.
It was no secret that our relationship was complicated. Many times, we didn’t see eye-to-eye. You were as stubborn as a mule all the way to the bitter end. I suppose I was too.
But none of us are one dimensional. And as much as we disagreed on so many things, we were blessed that, over the years, the happy times outweighed the difficult ones. We were similar in so many ways and much of what I like about myself, I owe to you.
You were one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known. Your dry (and sometimes silly) sense of humor was something remarked upon by everyone who knew you. Your silent, steady dependability and fiscal responsibility were always there and sometimes taken for granted by us. You taught me the value of education and a love of learning that will live in me forever.
You wore Old Spice way before the funny commercials existed, and I will always remember you mixing your special blend of Captain Black Gold and Cherry pipe tobacco, although I always thought it smelled better in the can than when lit.
We shared a curiosity of quantum physics and UFOs, often trading articles and emails on the latest discoveries. I clearly remember watching the original Star Trek episodes together. Those are still my favorite. You were always Captain Kirk to me then …strong and overdramatic with a desire to always do the right thing. I think we sometimes wished that science fiction was science fact, and later in life, at the dinner table shared by our family, our spontaneous quoting of dialogue from the movie “Dune” would put a look on mom’s face that said, “Oh great, here we go again.” She would roll her eyes at our after-dinner “burping contests” which you usually won, but I know you were secretly impressed with my ability to burp on command.
You took mom out to dinner every weekend as far back as I can remember. I think that made up for the irritating silliness, but our “goofing-off” times are what I will miss the most.
Through our countless family vacations, you instilled in me a love of travel and photography that fostered my independent and artistic spirit. When I was six, you took us on a long road trip through the Southwest United States. I remember the ancient ruins and cliff dwellings which jump-started my fascination with ancient cultures that continues to this day.
Every summer we vacationed in the Poconos with Grandma & Grandpa Lion, spending the whole week playing golf, tennis, Ping-Pong, shuffle board, billiards, riding horses, swimming in the falls, visiting the gem store, walking on the suspended bridge, and on and on. We went to Disney World, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and visited grandparents in New Jersey and Nebraska countless times.
I know that, as a child growing up in New Jersey, you enjoyed spending time at the “shore,” as you called it. That joy defined my childhood as well, since our own trips to the beach were some of our happiest. Almost every summer, we enjoyed a week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where you sported your infamous Hawaiian shirts. Everywhere you went, that blue tote bag you bought in Japan went with you.
This past week, between moments of sadness, guilt and anger, I have a recurring memory. You and I are sharing a raft in the hotel pool – sitting on it upright – trying so hard to balance and not fall off – laughing and splashing up a storm. That is such a happy memory for me but I can’t help thinking this is how we all feel in life sometimes.
Some of my first memories are of us at the ocean. It is where I go now when I need to have fun, or to think or to write or to work through my own pain.
When I was a child, you took my hand and walked me down to the ocean shore and beyond. I learned everything I needed to know about life right there.
- Always have someone looking out for you.
- Don’t swim out so far that you lose your way back.
- If you do drift too far off, yell for help.
- Wear your flip flops. You don’t know how many dogs have pooped in that sand.
- The view is vast. Don’t try to comprehend it. Just let the awe and beauty wash over you.
- Bask in the sunlight (okay, you didn’t teach me the sunscreen part but it was the 1970s – no one worried about that back then).
- You can’t see what’s on the other side. Don’t fear it. There is beauty in the unknown.
- If you try too hard to swim you will drown. Relax; surrender and you will float effortlessly on the surface.
- Seafood is yummy.
- When the big waves come don’t fight against them. If it’s just a swell, float over it. If it’s a breaker, dive under it. If you wipe out, get back out there and try again because when the perfect wave hits at the right time, you can use its power to find your way back to shore.
- Take breaks. Too much of a good thing can hurt you.
- There are things in the ocean that we can’t see. Jump in anyway because the reward is worth the risk.
Back at home, in your workshop, you helped me build tiny furniture for my doll house. You even wired it with electricity for the delicate light fixtures. You built that workshop in our previously unfinished basement with your own hands, along with a sauna, sunlamps and a darkroom. My friends still comment on the awesomeness of that basement today. You taught me how to take pictures, develop film and make prints, and that love of photography has saved my sanity many times.
There seemed to be nothing you couldn’t make or fix. Until now.
You weren’t the only one who found it hard to ask for help or express love out loud. I can count on one hand the number of times I said “I love you.” I never told you how much I admired the way you worked your way through school, and the important work you did for our country with the Navy Department until the day you retired. After that, every day was Hawaiian shirt day. I admired your sense of duty, as a citizen and a father and I always just thought you knew. I hope you did, in the same way I instinctively knew that you felt love and pride for me too.
You will live on through us. Our memories of you. Some beautiful. Some hilarious. Some painful. But all real. This is life and death. This is truth.
I love you, dad. And here I am still finding it hard to say the words out loud. I hope you are with us now and you can hear these things that we all so desperately need to hear from those we love.
I love you, dad. I hope your pain is gone and you have found peace. One day we will see each other again and we can stand together hand in hand immersed in the light of eternal love.
I will miss you, dad.
All my love,
Dear Cherished Friends and Family,
Dad and I shared an obsessive need for perfection. My first version of this letter was all about how flawless our life was. What a perfect father he was. What a perfect daughter I was. But dad always taught me to tell the truth.
Today is a day for compassion. Compassion for dad’s struggles. Compassion for our own guilt and grief.
We need to be present, not perfect. And in that way, dad is still teaching me valuable lessons.
Today we sit here in profound sadness asking ourselves why. But the more important questions are what and how. What do we do now? How to we carry on?
My dad, Philip Gabriel Lion, a brilliant, funny and strong man in so many ways, suffered in silence. Millions of others suffer still. It is almost impossible to find meaning in this tragedy but to all of you, his friends and loved ones, today I ask that we remember him with the imperfect truth, love and compassion that makes us all human.
When you go home, talk to each other. Laugh. Cry. Be honest. Be silly together. Tell your husband, wife, son, daughter, father, mother, friends …how much you love them. Tell them you are there for them if they need help. And if you need help, please, tell them that too.
When my family met with Pastor Carl this week he reminded us that we are never alone. That my dad was not alone even in his last moments and that he is not alone now. He has returned to the unfathomable ocean from which we all emerged, bathed in the Universal peace that transcends all understanding. May that thought comfort us and surround our memories of him with love and light.
Before sending the draft to Rev. Carl, I asked my family to review it. Mom replied with, “Absolutely perfect (but this is going to sound like dad – there are a couple of typos)!” Yes, it did sound like dad and yes, I fixed the typos …mostly.
I feared sharing such raw feelings publicly, but all doubt dissolved when after the service, one of my uncles hugged me, and with tears in his eyes said, “Thank you for reminding me who your real dad was.”
In dad’s memory, we have established the Philip Lion Memorial Fund
Proceeds from Memorial Funds benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the leading national not-for-profit organization exclusively dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy, and to reaching out to people with mental disorders and those impacted by suicide. To learn more about AFSP’s mission, research and programs visit www.afsp.org