Anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide, knows that it forever changes your life. It rocks your world in a way that no other death can. It leaves you feeling helpless, hopeless and completely lost. The emotions are overwhelming and the “why’s” and “what if’s” consume you. You are overcome with anger as you question how the person you loved could have left you here, alone, completely broken. You try and put the puzzle together, only to discover that pieces are missing. Grief after suicide is complicated. It takes you to a place where you have never been before. It can break you. It can make you question everything and everyone in your life. It challenges you and your abilities. It can take you to a very dark place. I know, because I experienced these overwhelming emotions in the aftermath of my father’s suicide. Although it took time, my grief journey has led me to a pretty great place. I feel guilty as I write that. Why? Because I have my father to thank for my happiness. Many of you may gasp as you read that last sentence. How can you be happy about something so tragic? I am not happy that my father ended his life. Not a day goes by that I do not miss him, and wish he were here. However, I learned so much about myself in the aftermath of his death. I want to share with you all, what I learned from my father’s suicide.
I know, we have ALL heard this before. Gets a little annoying right? It usually comes from someone who is married, or in a relationship. They clearly are not alone, and have no idea what it is like to be alone. Hey, it’s not our fault that we are constantly looking for someone else to bring us happiness. The entertainment industry has shoved this down our throat since we were kids. Enter beautiful princess, alone, waiting to be rescued by her charming, handsome prince. Sound familiar? It remains present as we get older and watch movies with lines such as, “You complete me.” Who doesn’t know this line? So it should come as no surprise that we are all looking for that person that completes us, makes us happy, pushes us to be better, takes away our pain, etc. What I learned from my father is that this person does not exist. Before you get depressed reading that last line, let me explain…
My father and mother got divorced when I was three. Sadly, he had three failed marriages after. I always believed that he left my mom because he blamed her for his unhappiness. He never admitted this to me, and sadly I will never know. Three divorces later, he found himself in the same place he was before. Sad, and alone. His last relationship prior to his death was with his high school sweetheart. I don’t think you ever get over that first love, and sometimes you even marry them. I truly believe that when he started dating her again, he thought NOW I will be happy. He had this belief that he had never found happiness because he was meant to be with her. I wish I could say he found his happily ever after, but we all know the end to his story. The mistake he made wasn’t from loving another; it was from not loving himself. So what exactly did I learn from this?
I learned that there is no such thing as a happily ever after, and guess what, THAT’S OK! Like I said at the beginning, the only person who can make you happy is YOU. I realized this in the aftermath of my father’s death. It is not the responsibility of my family, friends, or husband to make me happy. Sure, they should contribute to it, but ultimately, it is up to me to be happy. Seeking happiness from others is like chasing a moving target; you will never catch it. There is nobody and let me repeat, NOBODY, who has this much power. Trying to find someone to just make you happy, is impossible. It is an unrealistic expectation, and it is a heavy weight for someone else to carry. This leads me to my next lesson:
I put this lesson second for a reason, a very important reason. Why? Because, I truly had to learn the first lesson in order for me to learn the second. Just like I learned that you cannot look for someone to bring you happiness, you cannot depend on outside circumstances to bring you happiness. Again, it is all internal. So, I need to be careful when I explain this lesson, because I do not want to give the perception that external “things” can bring you happiness. Similar to above, circumstances cannot MAKE you happy but they can contribute to your overall well being.
After my father died, I had this overwhelming fear that I too would end up like him. He was 64 years old, and not fulfilled. He searched the world for something to fulfill him. He retired young, and spent a summer in Italy tracing our Italian heritage. He came back significantly heavier, with long hair and an earring. He appeared happy, but I think just distracted. Italy was great, but it was only a distraction. He still had to come back to reality. Shortly after, he moved to Santa Fe, where he studied hypnotherapy and explored various religions. Although a hippy at heart, he was a teacher and an engineer. But hey, we all have other passions! I can’t even say what happened next exactly, because there was so much. He bought land in Mexico, started flipping houses, took up yoga, and reconnected with old friends. I learned a lot from his quest to find meaning in his life, as that is what I believe he was doing. I learned to find happiness in today. So, when I say circumstances, I do not necessarily mean your house, your friends, your job, etc. Although if those are making you miserable, work to change them. What I mean by circumstances is the everyday ones. If you are sitting at home in a funk, change your circumstances. Go for a walk, call a friend, go sit in a coffee shop…change your circumstances. What I learned from my dad is that there is ALWAYS something you can do to change your mood, and to change your day. I am more grateful for the everyday things because of him.
I am going to try and not be annoying with this one…because I always hate when other people give me the old, “you have everything you need” line. Because, let’s be honest; sometimes we don’t! It is human nature to want more, or to think you need more. We live in a country where fortune and fame is consistently in our face. We often think that if we just had (insert your comment here) we would be happy. The problem is, then we get it and we still aren’t happy. Similar to the lesson before, this one comes next. I had to first acknowledge that others are not responsible for my happiness, and that I have more power over my circumstances than I think before I could understand this lesson. I have learned about the connection between circumstances and thinking, and I have found that we, or at least I, have given them too much power. The problem is this often drives us to make decisions that we later regret. It all comes back to looking for happiness externally rather than internally. My father did this throughout his life. Do I think this is what led to his death, no. But, I do think it contributed to the anxiety and depression he experienced. Because of my father I know look at things much differently. When I think that something is contributing to unpleasant feelings, I ask myself, “Is this something that needs to change, or is this something I need to change how I think about?” Often, it is how I am thinking about it that needs to be changed.
This sounds a little cold, I do realize this. But, it is true. Life isn’t fair. Bad things happen to good people and lives end before they should. What makes this even harder, is that there is no explanation for why these things happen. I do not know why I had to lose my dad, while others didn’t. Do I think this is fair? Absolutely not. However, it happened and it is my reality. Life isn’t always easy and if we let it, it will make us angry, it will make us bitter, it will make us cold. After the death of my father, I became that person. I was angry, bitter and cold. I blamed everything and everybody for my unhappiness. What I have realized is that life is about managing expectations. I cannot expect life to not bring me pain and sorrow. It is an unrealistic expectation. I do not think I realized this prior to the loss of my father. I often blamed others, and became angry when something bad happened. I look at the hard times differently now. For starters, I now know my own strength. I know how strong and capable I am. I look for the meaning in situations, both bad and good, because I do believe that everything happens for a reason. Finding that meaning has helped me find my own solitude and appreciate life in a greater capacity than I ever have before.
As I stated at the beginning of this post, it was difficult for me to put my thoughts into words without experiencing an overwhelming sense of guilt. It is still hard for me to acknowledge that my life has a greater meaning because of my dad’s suicide. Is this selfish? I do not think so. I believe that my father would be proud of the person I am today, and honored to have given me a life that he was never able to find. He searched the world for happiness, and was unable to find his peace and his purpose. Rest assured Dad, your search did have a purpose. It gave my life more meaning.
Thank you Dad.