My son, Jeff, was born on March 6, 1979 and I knew he was special from the day he was born. He learned new things easily and embraced learning and exploring. He was musically inclined and was very interested in mathematical challenges. He loved to travel and went to Germany with his high school German club. He graduated third in his high school class with High Honors and many college level credits. He was very structured in high school and did not get into any trouble. He went to the University of Florida under the Lottery Scholar’s program with a full academic scholarship.
After Jeff started college I began to think that Jeff might gay. I confronted him with this and it finally came out that he was. It was very brave of him to tell me as I was a retired US Air Force officer and I believe Jeff was scared that I would excommunicate him from the family if I learned this news. I told him that I loved him no matter what he was and sexual orientation was not an issue for me and his stepmother Chris. I did ask him an ignorant question. I asked him if he was sure he was gay. His response was “Dad, weren’t you sure of your sexual orientation when you were younger?” and “Dad, I would never volunteer to be a member of a group that was discriminated against.” He taught me that being gay was not a choice.
He did not receive this reaction from my ex-wife. She told him he was going to go to hell. Her religion had taught her that it was a sin to be gay. I felt sorry for Jeff because I knew that he would be hurt by his mother’s rejection, and I felt bad because I knew he would face other people like her.
Jeff’s grades and involvement in school activities in high school led me to believe he was doing okay mentally but now I believe he was in pain most of his adolescent years. I feel that he did not believe he would fit into the “real” world – the world where heterosexuality is considered normal. He thought he would not be accepted as who he really was.
Jeff was consistently on the Dean’s list at the University of Florida and I did not know he was in trouble until I received a call stating that he had attempted suicide and was at the University of Florida Shands Teaching Hospital in a coma. He ended up being in a coma for a week but they were able to save him. We then withdrew him from the University of Florida and brought him back to Virginia with us.
At that time we found him professional help and he was diagnosed with social anxiety and was put on medication. He was doing well and we talked him into enrolling at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. Two years later he graduated with a degree in Decision Science and Information Systems with Honors. He then found employment at the Census Bureau performing economic statistical analysis. While there he decided he wanted to pursue a career in Economics and enrolled in American University as a PhD candidate. In the meantime, my wife Chris and I had moved to Oklahoma as we believed Jeff was out of danger. Before his death Jeff traveled to Chile, France, Germany, and many of the United States.
I will never forget early morning October 11, 2005. I received a call from the Washington, DC police department notifying me that Jeff had taken his life. That information changed my life.
I had never imagined what happens to someone mentally and physically after a loved one has died from suicide. We had so many decisions to make but couldn’t function correctly. I believe I was in shock for most of the next year not being able to make decisions quickly or to remember things. The coroner stated Jeff was dead for two – three days before he was found and we settled on October 9 for his death certificate. I am not sure I remember most of the funeral except noting that a person with social anxiety had many close friends. I do remember some of my “friends” telling me Jeff would go to hell for his suicide. They are not friends anymore.
I received that call while living in Oklahoma and I often wonder if he would still be alive if we had stayed in Virginia. I think many families go through similar cycles of guilt. I do believe that if he had felt more accepted in the world he might still be around. Being gay is not easy and being gay with mental illness must be harder. I love and miss Jeff immensely and I think of him daily. I now believe that Jeff was depressed as well as having social anxiety and hid his disease from the rest of us.
About Dennis Tackett
Dennis Tackett retired from the US Air Force in 1992. He attended his first ISOS Loss day conference a month after his son Jeff died by suicide. At that conference he learned about AFSP and the Overnight Walks. He and his wife Chris have participated in an Overnight Walk yearly since then. He was a founding board Member of the National Capital Area Chapter of AFSP and held duties of fundraising chair and Survivor Initiatives lead. He participated in local AFSP events in northern Virginia including Community walks, Survivor Outreach Program, ISOS Loss day, and fundraising events. He became a member of the Survivor Council in January 2013 and currently chairs the Survivor Council Program Committee. He lives with his wife Chris in Cary, NC, where he serves on the board of our North Carolina Chapter, and works part-time for a small business in northern Virginia consulting to the government.