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Loss of a Father

Only A Photograph

By Eric Marcus, the author of Why Suicide? Questions & Answers About Suicide, Suicide Prevention, and Coping With the Suicide of Someone You Know. Please visit him at www.whysuicidebook.com. He blogs at www.whysuicideblog.com. And follow him on Twitter @whysuicide.

It’s just a photograph, I tell myself, as I recover from the unexpected shock of seeing my long-dead father stare back at me from my computer screen. The misleading subject line of the email from Bob, my dad’s once-young protégé, read:  “Attached is your father’s portrait.” 

My dad painted and, after my parents separated in 1968, my mom offloaded his two dozen or so paintings to a couple of his close friends (I managed to rescue a few, arguing that the ones my dad painted of my brother and me belonged to us and weren’t hers to give away). So I thought that Bob, who had recently called to ask if I wanted one of the paintings Mom had given him—a portrait of a yogi—was sending a photo of the painting so I could decide if I wanted it. Instead, what he sent was a black and white portrait of my father that he shot not long before Dad overdosed and died in December 1970. My father was forty-four. I was twelve. 

Most of how I remember my dad is from photographs when he was in his twenties and thirties, when he and Mom were newlyweds and then later the parents of young children. There are very few photos of my dad from later in his troubled life, and nothing like the intense—and intensely sad—image on my computer. If you didn’t know that my dad suffered from depression and killed himself, you might think that he simply looked thoughtful and contemplative, which he was. But knowing what I know about his death—knowing what I can never forget as much as I would like to forget—I see sadness and heartbreak. His sadness. My heartbreak.

I’ve ticked off the passing years since my dad’s death with something approaching ritual every December 16, although since I marked my own forty-fourth birthday, I no longer worry that I’ll wind up killing myself too—which I’ve learned is something that children of a parent who takes his or her life often fear. And the pain of Dad’s suicide has long since faded from crushing and persistent to a simple (simple!) occasional ache. It does indeed get better with time, a long time.

But that photograph makes me more than ache. I see myself in that face, a face that I can see in my own, and Dad looks as sad as I feel when I think of him and what I lost. He’s a man I hardly knew, who died eight years shy of the age I am now, yet his absence still has the power to take my breath away and bring tears to my eyes when I look into his eyes.


08/17/2015 at 3:51 AM
To V... I am 58 years old, my 20 year old son is asleep in the next room, it is 2:25 am, my 16 year old daughter is staying with her mom tonight. I begin a great new job tomorrow morning at 9am. I couldn't sleep until now. You see, for the past three hours I have been reading sad and painful stories from survivors of father's who have committed suicide. You can probably guess why I am reading such things, why I cannot sleep, or why before starting a great new job I am reading this stuff, and worst of all, why harbor such ideations with my beloved son sleeping soundly just a few feet away. Anyway, long story short, I can go to sleep soundly now because of your last sentence. Specifically: "suicide is never the answer, that life is a beautiful thing with its sweet and painful moments" (I knew this, and in my sadness, regret, depression had forgotten it). THANK YOU SO MUCH for reminding me V. Guys like me forget that simple truth, Guys like me sometimes 'cannot see the forest for the trees'. Your sad loss, and kind and understanding words, and the words of many others, helped me immensely tonight. One thing I know... your Dad never meant to hurt you. He didn't. Had I done the unthinkable tonight, it would not have been to hurt my beloved children. I love them so much, adore them so much... yet am overwhelmed with pain and melancholy. And thanks to you... now gone. He didn't mean to hurt you. It is an inevitable, horribly unfair, and profoundly sad 'by product' of his pain. And hard to understand as it is... he didn't do it to hurt you. His pain, whatever the cause, finally overtook him. But... you helped save this Dad. Thank you V. To all the other letters and poems I read... you all have helped me tonight. Peace, Love, and Healing to you all. And Rest in Peace Dads, we are all so sorry, as we also know you are. We know you are a sorry. Remember Dads, these words of 'V': "Suicide is never the answer, that life is a beautiful thing with its sweet and painful moments".
08/08/2015 at 7:36 PM
My father killed himself last January, about a year and half after my estranged mother died. I'll never know why. Maybe I will discover some delusion about it that will keep me going. But I doubt it. That is, I'll keep going but this isn't going to heal. I don't know if I'm supposed to "find acceptance" or joy or whatever. My father's suicide is not going to uncover for me some deep mystery about life. His suicide is not bringing the family closer together. If anything family is more distant than usual. This family game of distance and pretending everything is ok predates his suicide. I can't blame them. I'm just like they are. Well, I was just like they were. I started trying to change that dynamic when my mother died. It didn't work. Nothing changed. if anything my attempts to change it added a new feeling to the dynamic: disappointment. I'm no stranger to disappointment in some aspects of life. It's painful but I always recover. But not from this. And then the roof caved in, my father shot himself. I do worry that I will kill myself just like him and just like his father did. It feels like some disease I'll catch if I'm not careful. I stay away from alcohol and other drugs with the exception of a recent and quite excessive consumption of pot. But it wasn't helping so I quit. Drugs aren't going to see me through this. There are a couple of people that keep in regular contact with me; usually in person but sometimes just on the phone. I'm grateful but it isn't helping. Last January my step mother (who raised me up since I was too young to even remember) said to me that now she knows something of what I felt like when my mother left my life - abandoned. I wanted to tell my step mother that she will never know what it feels like but why make it harder on her? She just lost the love of her life. I should have felt some empathy for her, some connection with her but....I've been down that road with her and it just never quite works out. I learned some new things. My father had tried this before. How many times I'm not sure. But it isn't important to me. He's gone and the last time I talked to him we fought. I couldn't understand why he kept trying to distance himself from me and I fought with him about it. Yes, over the phone, of course. The last time I saw him in person it was a year before he killed himself and I was very mean to him. I know this is not why he killed himself. I just wish the last time I saw him wasn't like that. I'm a lot like him in ways that I really like. But also in ways that I don't like. Some of that I have succeeded in changing for the better. I tried that find happiness crap the ego psychologists keep peddling. I guess they'll just tell me I didn't try enough and ha! I'll know I've tried enough when it works. I don't wonder why he killed himself. I have a pretty good understanding that I will never know. This pain is making it hard to maintain relationships. It's made it really hard to care about it either. I know that I can't cut everyone out. I know that's a sure way to really send me spiraling down. And I really really don't want that.
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