I remember it almost like it was yesterday. My husband Jon and I were on vacation in Florida after a blizzard had buried our Denver home in four feet of snow. We'd spent all day at Clearwater Beach, enjoying the sunshine, the ocean breezes and the warm water.
Late that night, asleep in our condo, I woke to a cell phone ringing. I stumbled into the living room just in time for the caller to be transferred into my voicemail.
My brother-in-law Paul wanted to talk to Jon. He said it was very important and to call him as soon as possible. Paul lived with Jon and me, so it wasn't odd that he'd call, but it was odd he'd do so at such a late hour. I called him back and he insisted I wake Jon. So I did and gave Jon the phone.
Jon took the phone, listened and then started swearing. I immediately thought something had happened to our house. He got up and walked across the condo, still swearing. I thought maybe something had happened to one of our cats at the house. Still swearing, he waved me away.
Something must have happened to someone in his family, I thought. I remember very distinctly trying to recall if anyone we knew was sick.
It wasn't the house, the cats, or anyone in his family. It was my Dad. At approximately 8:30 a.m. in Colorado, while Jon and I were heading to the beach, my Dad took his own life with a firearm. His roommate found him dead in her house that evening.
I heard myself say no. I couldn't focus. I couldn't think. I couldn't even understand what was happening, and even weirder, why did Paul call us? Turns out, my Dad's wife (they had recently separated) had gotten the news from the Denver Police Department and didn't want to be the one to tell me, so had tracked down Paul. My poor husband had to tell me that my Daddy, the light of my life, had ended his life.
Since that time, my life has been a mix of complete disbelief, denial, unbelievable anger, feelings of abandonment and betrayal, mixed in with an odd number of days that are almost completely normal. When I think back to that night two-and-a-half years ago, I can't believe I even made it through those first few weeks after he died. I can't believe I'm still the same person. Of course, I'm not the same person, but I can't believe this is my life. Most of all, I can't believe he's dead.
I can remember very clearly a conversation he and I had about six months before he died. We were sitting in the smoking section of a local breakfast place and I asked my Dad if he was thinking of suicide. "I could never do that to you, Margi," he said. "I know how hard it was on you when your Mom died and I know it would destroy you. I'd never do that to you."
My Mom had died of breast cancer when I was 11—almost 15 years before Dad and I had this talk.
Since Dad's death, I've returned to a normal life. Of course, it's a 'new normal.'"
Before my Mom, Dad was married to his high school sweetheart. They had a son together before that marriage ended in divorce. He also remarried twice after Mom's death. His first marriage after Mom gave me two younger brothers, who are a constant source of pride—and worry—for me now. They are 18 and 16 and I am not able to talk to or see them as much as I'd like. The 18-year-old just joined the Air Force—our Dad was in the service for 26 years and I just know he's beaming with pride at his son. The 16-year-old just had a birthday and lives in California with his Mom. Dad's second marriage after my Mom died was his last. They had "unofficially" separated and he was rooming with a co-worker.
About a year before he died, Dad had started having problems at work. I'm still mostly unclear about what transpired. I know there were accusations made and investigations run and he was ultimately fired from a job he had worked very hard at.
My Dad was a proud man. To have his integrity at work challenged, and eventually to be fired from a job he loved, was more than he could handle. He died two weeks after he lost his job.
There were some severe rifts between my Dad and his Dad until I think sometime in 1997. I think they were just starting to really get to know—and like—each other as grown men when my Grandpa died from emphysema.
Dad and his oldest son had been estranged most of my brother's life and now, when I look back on how I feel about Dad's death, I'm no longer angry at him for leaving me. I spent the first year being so mad at him for lying to me that day in the restaurant that I couldn't stand it. Now, for me, I just miss him. Until I think about my brothers. Dad and his oldest son were never able to repair their relationship. It makes me so angry to know that Dad wanted to fix it, but either chose not to or was unable to. As a father with his own family by this time, his son was also either unable or unwilling to fix it. So Dad died without his oldest son being able to understand how very much our Dad loved him. My oldest brother has three children now, none of whom ever met their "Grandpa Bob."
Then I think about my younger brothers, who were 13 and 15 at the time Dad died. Having lost a parent myself at 11, I understand very well that this death will affect them for the rest of their lives. The fact that his death was self-inflicted is a pain they may never fully understand.
Of course, they are strong young men and can certainly take care of themselves. It just makes me angry to know they no longer have Dad as a mentor and friend. It makes me angry to know that Dad's pride fell apart and he couldn't say goodbye to his sons. Then it makes me incredibly sad to realize that Dad couldn't see any other way out of his pain. He left a message on my home answering machine that morning. He said "Hey, kid, it's your Dad. I'm sorry, but I just can't take the pain anymore. Maybe this way I'll get to see your Mom and my Dad again. I love you. I'm sorry. Bye." My response at the time was, "I'm sorry? 15 years ago, we lost Mom and you promised me that it was 'you and me against the world, kid.' Now all you can say is you're sorry?"
Since Dad's death, I've returned to a normal life. Of course, it's a "new normal." Anyone who's ever lived through this knows there's no returning to life as it was before. There's a new normal now. I am now 29 and an orphan. I have my Dad's wife, I have my wonderful brothers and sister; I have my positively amazing husband and his incredible family. But I don't have any parents. And it's almost impossible for anyone to understand what that's like, unless they're an orphan too. Even then, losing a parent to suicide is a completely different ballgame.
I could not have predicted the extreme loneliness I've felt for the past two-and-a-half years. I can't put into words how I feel most of the time about it because it seems there are none. How do you explain to people who love and care about you that even though they're right there with you, you still feel alone in this world? How do you face your loving husband of four-and-a-half years and tell him you feel lonely even when he's right next to you? How do you explain to anyone that although you're chronologically almost 30, you're emotionally about 10 years old? I always was Daddy's Girl and I distinctly remember him telling me when I got married that he felt like he was losing his little girl. If he could have known that his death would make me feel even more like a little girl, maybe he would still be here.
Almost a year after Dad died, I went online and found several support groups for people who'd lost loved ones to suicide. I've dropped my membership from all of those groups, except one. In February of 2004, I found a Yahoo group called SCOLOS—Surviving Children of a Loved One's Suicide. At the time, there were 150 plus members around the world who had lost one or both parents to suicide. Some of them were children when their parent(s) died, some were adults. But they're all incredible people who just want to have a safe place to express those intense feelings that come with surviving the suicide death of a parent. Today, I checked the membership list and there are over 275 names. They formed a team for last summer's Out of the Darkness Overnight in Chicago. I was unable to make it, but I did participate in Denver's Out of the Darkness Community Walk in October. That was a phenomenal experience.
I lost my Dad to a disease called depression that I didn't even know he had. I knew he was blue. I'd seen him bummed out before and he always bounced back. We all have bad days, right? In hindsight, this clearly wasn't him being blue or bummed out. This was depression. I decided sometime after Dad died that he didn't kill himself. It might have been his hand that held the gun, but it wasn't his brain that told him to pull the trigger. It was his disease. It was something in his brain that had taken over and made him someone I'd never met before. This disease killed my father and I am bound and determined to do everything I can to fight it.
For four years now, in memory of my Mom, I've participated in breast cancer fundraisers, from the Race for the Cure® to the Breast Cancer 3-Day. I've walked over 400 miles and raised over $10,000 to fight breast cancer.
This year, I started in on depression and suicide. For the Out of the Darkness Community Walk, I raised almost $300, walked four miles and spent almost a full week completely entrenched in preparing for, talking about and participating in the walk. AFSP and Rebecca Saltman, the coordinator of the Denver walk, made it an amazing event to be a part of and I can only hope that Denver will be the site of another community walk in the future. It's a small start for me—$300 and four miles. But it will grow. I will fight this disease in loving memory of both of my parents, who I believe are still with me always.
Margi lives in Denver.