This week is the anniversary of my father’s death. Although he died years ago, and I never really knew him, this week always reminds me that my life could have been very different. This year feels much different than any other year of him not being here because I’ve done the work to actively, and almost daily forgive him for not being here.
My father committed suicide.
It’s a tough topic to talk about, because I know it makes people uncomfortable. Heck, it makes me uncomfortable. The reality is that there are millions of people in this world who are surviving the suicide of a loved one. There are millions of people who suffer from mental illness (1 in 4 adults in any given year). There are millions of little girls who, like me, will grow up without a parent, due to this mostly ignored killer.
I get it, it’s not a “sexy” topic. There are no celebrities out campaigning for suicide awareness. There’s a stigma, because people truly believe that it’s a choice. Yes, suicide is a choice, made from the very bottoms of the depths of despair, but mental illness is not.
Here are some sobering statistics from the National Alliance of Mental Illness:
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. (more common than homicide) and the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 years.
Although military members comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population veterans represent 20 percent of suicides nationally. Each day, about 22 veterans die from suicide.
Adults living with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than other Americans, largely due to treatable medical conditions.
Mood disorders such as depression are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults ages 18 to 44.
Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.
What the statics can not show is the impact that mental illness has on the family. My family was forever changed when my father died. We are a much stronger family, but still a family with a pain that subtly taints every aspect of my life.
This year is different. I decided that I could no longer hold on to the anger I both knowingly, and sometimes unknowingly continued to carry with me. It was not longer a place I wanted to live. I thought I could continue to carry the guilt, shame and anger I felt with me for the rest of my life, or I could forgive him.
Forgiveness is hard when you feel like you’re missing out on the perfect life. It hurts when you see friend after friend walk down the aisle with her father, and you feel the knife of shame dig a bit deeper in your heart. You want to shout at the top of your lungs, “DO YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE”? Forgiveness is hard, but continuing to carry the weight of someone else's decisions seemed even harder.
I realized during the course of the last year that what I was really angry about was the idealized version of what I dreamed my life would be like if he were still here. That my family would be the modern day equivalent of the Huxtables. I would dream that were he still here, we would still be living in sunny California, and I’d be an actress. What I realized was, I was not mad at my father, I was mad at an alternate life that was never meant for me to live.
We all have alternate lives. Had we made one decision instead of another, the whole course of our lives could be different. So instead of holding on to a made-up life, I began to appreciate my real life more. My real life is the life I was meant to live for reasons beyond my knowing, but I was given the gifts of strength, resilience, and compassion that may not have been cultivated if my life turned out different. I was given the gift of a family whose unwavering support may not have been tested, and strengthen if my life had turned out different.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying I’m happy that my father died. I am saying that being thankful for the life that I have, with all the twist and turns, good and bad, allowed me to find it in my heart to forgive someone who broke my heart and changed my entire life.
The road to forgiveness is not pretty, and I don’t want to make it seem like it was just easy-peasy and wrapped up in a bow. It can be painful. There were many tears. There was screaming at the top of my lungs. Even as I write this, my heart is racing, and I fight back tears. It is a journey.
What an amazing lesson my father taught me, in fact it may be the most important lesson I have ever learned… Forgiveness. Even when it’s hard. Even when it seems impossible. Forgive for yourself, and learn to filter the other person’s actions through the lens of compassion and love. Your life will be better for it.
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness, know there is help and more importantly hope. National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.