Ten years. Ten whole years without my sweet dad. Without his laughter, his encouragement, his butterfly kisses and bear hugs. I have been really candid and open about the circumstances revolving my mom’s death, but I haven’t spoken publicly about the circumstances around my dad’s. Over the past couple of months, I have questioned that a lot. Why haven’t I tried to raise awareness through personal testimony on a matter that is affecting families at a shocking rate? The tenth anniversary of my dad’s death hit me pretty hard and I am ready to do my part in raising awareness in his memory.
First, I’d like to share a little bit about my dad. He was six-foot-somethin’, a tall mountain of a man who was my personal hero. He and my mom divorced when I was about five years old, but they continued to care about each other deeply for the remainder of their lives. Although they had more than their fair share of disagreements (like I mean they cut a piece of cake and took the rest for themselves), I am thankful that I still got to spend Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and other events with both of my parents when circumstances would allow. My mom always said that my dad was charming, and I would have to agree. He would do absolutely anything for anyone as long as he had the means to do so. That man was the goofiest man with the biggest sense of humor. I can still hear his belly laughs in my head as I reminisce over the good times we had. He loved the Cowboys fiercely (and took their losses too personally if I’m being real honest), sitting in the bleachers at car races (he got that from my grandpa), and loved to cook. He hand-wrote several books of recipes he either copied from magazines and cookbooks, or ones he created on his own. He loved to make his own spices from peppers grown in the garden he built and had dreams of opening a nursery one day. He was boisterous yet kept to himself at the same time. He was a real simple man, a true hippie. He kept his hair long and was often found in jeans that were cut into shorts and tees that were cut into tanks. He loved to fish, camp, and spend his days outdoors (which explains why he was about 35 shades darker than I will ever be, even on a good day with a spray tan). He was always the man behind the camera, but didn’t like to be in front. He was such a good writer, and even had a poem he wrote in his younger years published in a book. He was a crossword puzzle guru and loved a good sale. If he could purchase a tube of toothpaste 5 cents cheaper by purchasing in bulk, you bet your britches he was buying the whole shelf. He was an artist, a painter, loved to garden (that’s an understatement, actually; he lived for gardening… peppers were his thing), loved Lynrd Skynrd and any classic rock n’ roll, and loved his family with every breath he took. And he was so, so very loved in return. He has three children: myself, my older brother, and my younger sister who was born a few years after my parents separated. My youngest brother- although not his blood- was his fourth child at heart. He may not have gotten to “raise” his children in a traditional setting, but he has always been- and will always be- such a huge part of our lives.
Like every other human on the planet, my dad had his faults. He was an alcoholic, but tried with all his might to battle it through various rehabs all over the country. He sought sobriety groups and counseling as he tried to find himself again and again. My gracious grandparents would pick him up every time he fell down, and I know they carried the brunt of the stress of wondering what would happen from day to day.
I won’t go into specific detail about what happened the day that we lost him for the privacy of my family and respect of my dad, but I will highlight the important things. We were gathering for a Fourth of July celebration with family, which was out of the norm as we were celebrating the coming home of my cousin from Afghanistan. My dad was at one of his low points that day for various reasons (all of which would have been resolved over a good cry and a good sleep), and made a couple of comments that really concerned me. I knew that in a crisis, you are supposed to call the suicide hotline, so I did. They were closed for the holiday. I left a voicemail hoping that someone would return my frantic call to tell me what to do. It was decided that my dad would stay the night with me- I would try to keep him close and just spend the night laughing together and making all the bad things of the day disappear. Before we headed to my apartment, we encountered a young police officer. I walked up to his car and told him that my dad was suicidal, and pleaded for help. The officer grabbed his personal cell phone and called another police officer to come assist (I make note that he used his personal cell phone as he did not call the suicide complaint into dispatch, which would have prompted the Sheriff to come out for evaluation). They spoke to my dad for all of 5 minutes, during which my dad made jokes and thanked them for their service. Afterwards they spoke with me privately and commented, “I know you want your dad out of your hair to celebrate the 4th of July, but you can’t make false accusations of that sort.” Being practically a baby myself at 21 years old, I didn’t know what else to do. We drove to pick my mom up as she always had a way of cheering my dad up (who am I kidding; she had a way of cheering anyone up), and the three of us set off to my apartment as fireworks shot off around us. We all sat around telling stories, laughing a little, crying a little, and for those few hours everything seemed okay. Everything seemed great, actually, like all of the sadness of the day had completely resolved. Four AM rolled around and both of my parents were still wired with energy, fueled by stories of the past and witty, lighthearted jokes. I asked my mom if he could stay the night with her that night as I was too exhausted to stay awake to make sure he was okay, so I drove them both to her house. A long hug and one “I will see you in the morning, dad. I love you” later, I said goodbye to my dad for the last time. I had just fallen asleep about an hour later when I received the worst phone call of my life to date. My mom was on the other end, but you couldn’t understand a word she was saying. I didn’t know what happened, but I knew it was bad. An officer came on the line and told me to get there fast, that my dad had been taken away in an ambulance. After about 12 hours on life support, our family made the decision to let my dad go Home, on July 5th, 2009 at 6:15 pm.
On July 6th, my phone rang. It was a woman from the suicide hotline. TWO DAYS LATER. TWO. DAYS. She said, “I received your voicemail and wanted to make sure everything is okay. Is your dad around?” Silenced ensued for a solid 60 seconds after I informed her that he had taken his own life. Another call came in that evening from the Sheriff of the Arlington Police Department. You see, the police officers at the hospital took down my statement of what all occurred that day and noted that I sought help from the APD. This is where I learned that the young police officer I pleaded with for help on my hands and knees did not follow protocol. They did not follow the protocol that would have saved my dad’s life.
I write all of this to tell you that depression is all around you. There are people living in sadness in complete silence; the same people who put on a fake smile and a little joke here and there. We need to be an advocate for these people. We cannot (always) rely on the suicide hotline, we cannot (always) rely on the police department, and we cannot (always) rely on other professionals who are more equipped to handle such situations than a scared and desperate 21 year old girl.
I’d like to highlight an important piece in a conversation I recently had with someone who was concerned about the well-being of a friend: “They would not do that (suicide) because they love their kids too much.” My answer was pretty frank: my dad loved his children and his parents more than anything in the world, but we still lost him in the most horrific way. You see, in a twisted state of mind, suicidal individuals rationalize their thoughts and actions as an act of love. Let me explain: my dad would often say things like “you guys deserve better” and “I am sorry I am not a good father.” These statements were entirely untrue, but in his mind, leaving would make the world a better place for everyone he loved. That is so hard to even type out, but it is how he felt on his darkest days, and I absolutely hate that more than anything. The truth? The truth is that his death crushed me. Life as I knew it was completely over and even ten years later, I still miss him terribly. Sure, my mom held down the fort and kept me grounded, but a big piece of my heart was ripped out. The trauma of losing a parent is enough on its own, but to add suicide to the mix? The guilt, the regret, the sheer pain, the ‘what ifs,’ the ‘should haves,’ the intense sadness. It’s a rollercoaster that I will never get off of, even ten years later. The past decade has been so hard without him, and that’s what has led me to write this post.
My sister, older bother, and our families got together on a Friday, on the tenth anniversary of my dad’s death, and celebrated him. Together we cooked my brother’s favorite recipe (sour cream enchiladas) out of one of the cookbooks my dad wrote as Lynrd Skynrd played in the background. We ate on the dishes my dad was so proud to gift me when I moved into my first apartment, and the guys drank a tall-can Budweiser in his honor. My sister wore one of his t-shirts that had been cut into a tank, and of course it sported the American flag. As a veteran, he was so proud to be an American. It was a great day with great sadness. He should still be here, and we all wish more than anything that he was. Instead, I start here in giving his death purpose.
So many friends of mine over the past few years have lost their loved ones to suicide, and it seems like I hear stories daily of kids who take their own lives over bullying. It breaks my heart every single time and resurfaces those wounds from ten years ago that have never fully healed. So what can we do? How can we help?
Kindness. First, we need to stop assuming that the stranger at the grocery store who is loading up on shampoo for a good sale is having a great day just because he’s chatting away with you as he loads his cart. Same for that little girl who is knocking on your door selling Girl Scout cookies with a smile on her face. That nurse who is checking your vitals while boasting about her kids. That police officer who lets you go on a warning and tells you to have a great day. That teacher who hugs her students every morning on the way into the classroom. Depression is literally all around you, in every form, in every walk of life. Depression is not partial to those with addiction or obvious anomalies. Depression affects new mothers, fathers, preachers, wealthy businessmen, newlyweds, and even children– those whose lives seem “perfect” and seemingly un-awry. So lets start with kindness. You truly never know what someone is battling. Your act of kindness, however small it may be, may make all the difference in someone on the verge of wanting to end it all. I was at the grocery store a few weeks ago, and a stranger taught me something I will never forget. A worker had dropped a dozen cans of cinnamon rolls on the floor, and as they started rolling in every other direction, a man with a cart full of young kids stopped what he was doing. He said to his children, “Lets help this gentleman clean up. If you are ever in a position to help someone, help them. Be the good in the world.” I will never forget that. I’m always the first to offer a helping hand, so it’s not that he taught me to help a stranger in need. It’s the way he utilized a very small situation to instill kindness and compassion in his children. The way he made an easy clean up- one that the worker had already almost completely resolved on his own in a short 3 seconds- a big deal. You guys, that’s what it’s about. The little things…. they matter just as much as the big ones. You have opportunity for kindness with any and every interaction with another human being, and that may make all the difference. Lets teach this to our children.
Talk to your children. I have only been a mother for 2.5 years now, so I obviously do not have first hand experience in talking to your children about depression and suicide. But I do know that I will talk to my son very openly and in a way that his little mind will understand as time goes on. My parents never talked to me about depression or suicide, and while I understand why this topic may not have been on the list of things to discuss, I also wish it had been. In hindsight, I see a lot of signs of depression in my younger self. I grew up in a very loving home with a very loving family, but there were many times that I became so sad that I would hide in my closet and cry myself to sleep for no apparent reason. My mom and dad never even knew; this doesn’t mean that they were not diligent or good parents. The thing is, they were! But I hid it well. I didn’t understand it, so I didn’t talk about it. Eventually I grew out of it, but some kids don’t. Be open with your children. Talk to them about things that may be bothering them, even if it seems so small to you. A simple argument on the playground can be a crashing meteor in a child’s mind, and it’s important to give time and empathy in the little things just as much as the big. Along with teaching your children kindness, teach your kids how to recognize signs of depression in others and what to do in those situations.
Be relentless. I was not relentless the night I lost my father. I thought I had followed the right protocol and did everything I knew I had the power to do. But I should not have stopped until I got him help. This is one of the biggest regrets of my life. (Yes, yes, I know what happened was not my fault. But the regret is there, and the truth of the matter is that if I had been better equipped with the knowledge of what to do in these situations, things very well could have ended differently that night.) Use the suicide hotline. It is there for you and your loved ones in a matter of crisis. Typically they will speak with your loved one and/or offer you advice depending on your situation. If they are unavailable or have not offered resources that are appropriate for the situation, call 911 (NOT the non-emergency line). Standard protocol is that a mental evaluation will be performed either onsite or at the nearest hospital. Depending on the outcome of the evaluation, an involuntary 72 hour placement can be ordered for further evaluation. If your loved one is released but still unstable, try to obtain a mental health warrant ordered by the court (the process differs from state to state, and even within counties). If all else fails, keep your loved one in a room full of people that love them. Do not EVER leave them alone. Continue to remind them- even through the jokes and laughter when you think they have rebounded to a happy state- that they are loved, and that life would be so so so terrible without them. Take shifts being with them and watching over them as they sleep, and do not stop until you are 100% sure they are safe. If morning comes and their condition has not changed, start all over again until you get them help.
Do not be afraid to ask for help. If you find yourself in a dark situation, do not be ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it or seek help. As I mentioned, people in all walks of life are affected by depression. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; in fact, it is a sign of strength. The suicide hotline is a great resource if you are feeling lost in where to start. They will offer confidential support and advise you on steps to take to get you back to a healthy state of mind. Confide in someone close to you and ask them to be there with you every step of the way, and trust me, they will be. Because YOU. ARE. LOVED. You are so loved!
I can’t pretend to be an expert on depression, but I do know what it feels like to watch someone you love fall through the cracks of this epidemic and the system in general. And I do know what it feels like to live through a parent taking their own life and all of the grief and emotions that come with it that never end. In honor of my dad, I wanted open the door to talk to anyone who needs a listening ear or a shoulder to lean on. Lets be the change for those of us around us who feel lost. Be kind, talk to your children, be relentless, and do not be afraid to ask for help. Spread love in the world where there is already so much darkness.
If you believe your loved one is at an immediate risk for suicide, do NOT leave them alone.
Dial 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
In loving memory of David Wayne Rhoades (January 25, 1960 – July 5, 2009)