A year ago today, my parents’ number appeared on my phone. Gut instinct suggested it was bad news. It was.
When I arrived at their house 30 minutes later – the home where I grew up – three empty police cars ominously waited in the twilight hours on the normally quiet suburban cul-de-sac. The words my mom had spoken on the phone manifested before me in a scene that I can’t adequately describe.
Foggy, dissociative memories now punctuate the hours, days and weeks that followed. The detectives taking our statements; the making of funeral arrangements; the struggle to let my heart open up enough to write a eulogy that wasn’t loaded with anger and guilt; the outpouring of support (and shock) from friends and family.
A year ago today, my dad chose to end his life. While my mom was out doing normal mom things, my dad went into his basement workshop where he usually did normal dad things, and he shot himself. I can picture him doing it. That is the worst part. I know he would have carefully and methodically planned everything down to the last detail, as he did most things, but this time amidst a hopelessness that no one should ever have to feel.
The four-page note he left was lacking emotion and said surprisingly little about “why.” We will never know all the reasons for his choice, how long he was contemplating this or what finally made him do it. I wish we could have done more to help. I wish he would have let us help. I wish we had seen the warning signs. But he was perhaps the most stubborn person I’ve ever known. I suspect that no matter what we had done the outcome would be the same. Even in death it had to be his way.
This is not a eulogy. I did that a year ago.
This is not about my dad. This is about me.
Because everyone who makes this choice leaves a trail of devastation. They transfer their burdens to the ones they leave behind. Our choices are ours alone but those choices affect everyone around us. A hurtful word, an ignorant glance – even the smallest choices cause unseen damage. A choice like this? The damage is unspeakable.
A year ago today was the worst day of my life. Grief, even under normal circumstances, is complicated. This kind of grief is thicker than most. It is a fog that I sometimes feel will never lift. A year later, I won’t say my days are completely full of light, but out of the darkness my path is gradually clearing. As it clears I see that I, too, have choices to make.
Today I choose forgiveness over anger, compassion over guilt, acceptance over denial, and love over fear. Today I choose to live. I choose to talk about what happened rather than shrouding it in darkness. My dad did enough of that for all of us.
The memories of that day will always lurk under a low haze. I will forgive but I don’t think I can ever forget. I don’t think I should, any more than I should forget the other times. The happier memories that will always be crystal clear. The ones that make the haze easier to live with.
I will remember times like this day in the sun. A warm summer day in the Pocono mountains. It was the late 70s – a time that seems now to have been filled with so much innocence – or maybe it was just me before the world revealed its dark side. I can still feel that clean mountain water washing over us and hear our shouts of joy while we used that waterfall as a slide. I can still remember that moment of victory as we held on long enough for a picture.
Today I choose to hold on.
Today I will continue to make my own memories.
Today is also the first day of a two-week road trip through Arizona and New Mexico with a stop in Roswell – one thing I can cross off my bucket list. Dad would have loved that. He will never see the pictures or read my travel journals but someone will. And maybe my words and pictures will affect them the way that trip to the Poconos affected me. That innocence, fun and sense of wonder live in me still. I guess you would call it “hope.” The thing that Dad lost.
This year was a year of firsts. The first time I truly knew the pain of sudden loss. The first holiday celebrations without Dad. The first celebration of Dad’s birthday without Dad. The first Father’s Day without Dad. On that particularly difficult day I drove to the grave site alone. I got angry. I cried. I stared at the plot where his ashes are now buried. My soul became quiet and still, and in that moment I noticed the wind chimes and the trees and the sound the wind made moving through them and a clarity of thought rose up from that place of peace:
You can never know what is happening inside someone’s head and heart.
Sometimes you don’t know what’s happening inside your own head and heart.
Dad was more fragile than he ever let us see.
I am stronger than I ever gave myself credit for.
And perhaps most importantly: many people are more afraid of living than they are of dying.
Before last year I was absolutely certain nothing like this could happen. Not to our family. Last year I learned there are no absolutes. I could tell you now that I absolutely vow to live my life fully and without fear but really, all I can do is try.
All any of us can do is try.
For myself, for all others left behind, and for all those suffering in the contemplation of desperate acts, I wish to share what is said to be one of the Dalai Lama’s favorite prayers:
“May all beings everywhere plagued by sufferings of body and mind obtain an ocean of happiness and joy by virtue of my merits.
May no living creature suffer, commit evil, or ever fall ill. May no one be afraid or belittled, with a mind weighed down by depression.
May the blind see forms and the deaf hear sounds, may those whose bodies are worn with toil be restored on finding repose.
May the naked find clothing, the hungry find food; may the thirsty find water and delicious drinks.
May the poor find wealth, those weak with sorrow find joy; may the forlorn find hope, constant happiness, and prosperity.
May there be timely rains and bountiful harvests; may all medicines be effective and wholesome prayers bear fruit.
May all who are sick and ill quickly be freed from their ailments. Whatever diseases there are in the world, may they never occur again.
May the frightened cease to be afraid and those bound be freed; may the powerless find power, and may people think of benefiting each other.
For as long as space remains, for as long as sentient beings remain, until then may I too remain to dispel the miseries of the world.”
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