It’s been a year. My dad died by suicide on September 3, 2014, his 65th birthday. It’s taken me this long to say that out loud to more than a handful of people who didn’t already know this to be the case. I didn’t find out until September 5th which has been recorded as his death date on the death certificate. For me, those details further complicate an already complicated situation. As the one year anniversary approached, I dreaded the date(s). I dreaded the anticipation of the date(s) even more. The calendar seemed to drag on endlessly. I begged for October to come.
I was taken off guard this year when September 2nd felt harder than September 3rd or September 5th or August 11th (the last time I saw my dad) or September 12th (the date of his memorial service). September 3, 2014 was a Wednesday, which meant September 2, 2015 would fall on a Wednesday as well. For some reason the day of the week mattered more than the date on the calendar. That Wednesday, I found myself wondering about things that had never crossed my mind before. Wasn’t it ironic that I would be spending his birthday/death day in the same city where he’d been born sixty-six years ago? How did he spend his last day? Did he do something he enjoyed? Was it miserable? I spoke to my dad probably twenty minutes before he died. He sounded great. So much better than the shadow of himself he’d seemed when I’d seen him just three weeks prior. I now recognize that this was the very common sense of relief that washes over people when they know their pain will soon cease. The steady stream of questions that have been running through my mind for the last year were also present that day. What if I’d ask him to come stay with me or I’d gone to stay with him? What if I’d pushed him to try electroconvulsive therapy, check in to a hospital, or see a different psychiatrist? What if I’d said what I’d been thinking when we last talked and told him I was worried he was going to self-harm? What if? What if? What if? I know I’ll never get the answers to these questions, but that doesn’t stop them from coming.
When I checked the mail on the evening of September 2nd, I had a lovely letter from my mom (who’d been divorced from my dad for twelve years when he died) waiting for me. Thank God I still have her. A few months ago, I trained to become a remote crisis counselor for Crisis Text Line and spent the rest of that Wednesday evening doing my weekly four hour shift, talking to people who were struggling, overwhelmed, or just needed someone to listen.
September 3rd felt more like a celebration of my dad’s birthday than his death day, which I am so grateful for. I got an obnoxiously large sprinkle donut on my walk to work. I heard a man sneeze and laughed about how annoyingly loud and long my dad’s sneezing fits could be. I went to mass at lunch. I shared stories and pictures of my dad with my mom, uncle, and cousins. I got a manicure with my best friend. I raised a martini to my dad at dinner. I listened to as much Huey Lewis (his favorite band) as I could stand. I would have rather been doing (most of) those things with him, but all in all it was as good of a day as I could have hoped for.
I spent Labor Day weekend in the Phoenix area, my childhood home and the place where my dad died. I visited the memorial garden where his ashes are placed and found it comforting to have a physical place to go and spend time with my dad. I drove by the house where I grew up. I ate at some of our favorite places. I thought fondly of my dad cheering me on at volleyball and basketball games, quizzing me on vocabulary and spelling words, taking me horseback riding, giving me money to go to the mall, staying up with me until 3am as I finished a paper I’d left until the last minute, convincing him to pack me Lunchables, blue jello, and cake for lunch when my mom was out of town for a week in 4th grade, bringing home a puppy, rating my mediocre dives and handstands during the endless hours we spent in the backyard pool. It was bittersweet and cathartic. It was the right way for me to mark the milestone.
And now it’s over. Nothing magical has happened now that a year has passed, though I do feel much less anxious and that maybe I’ve progressed some in my grief. I’ve read that it can take as long as five years to integrate the grief related to the loss of someone to suicide. That isn’t a pleasant thought, but it does seem appropriate for how much I love and miss my dad and how shocking his death was. Now that I’ve relived the lasts with my dad and experienced the firsts without him, I hope I at least know the baseline for how this is all going to work moving forward. And I suppose that’s the most important part – moving forward.
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