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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.


07/03/2017 at 6:44 AM
Candi Watson
April 15, 2012... my 78 year old dad called me to ask what I was doing, said he was lonely & I once again offered him the opportunity to move in with me and my family. He mumbled something about it being too late & hung up on me. He had never ever hung up on me. I called back & he answered by saying he had to use the restroom. I made him promise to call me back. He never did & I knew. I knew in my gut & I called & called but there was no answer. My husband and I drove out to his apartment & met my brother there. I could not go into the room so my poor brother discovered him & it was violent, as he had used a gun. I will never be the same after that. It is the most soul crushing event & his death & the guilt I feel haunts my me. I just have to learn how to live one day at a time/ I have a wonderful husband of 26 years & 4 beautiful children who need their mom. I'm just not the same mom I was but I am trying. My dad wasn't perfect but he was a proud Marine who served in Korea & worked hard all his life to give us a good life. He deserved better than this & thinking of his last, lonely moments almost makes it where I can't breathe. The love, guilt, profound grief & bewilderment never go away. To know I'm the last person he reached out to rips my heart out of my chest/ if only I had said something differently then maybe things would have not happened that way, but I'll never know. I miss my dad every second of every day.
02/16/2017 at 9:46 PM
Lani Larson
I am crying as I read all of these. The pain, so intense. My father was the head substance abuse counselor at a private college where I live, and where I attended college myself. At home he was a fully functioning alcoholic and drug addict. Me, my mother and sister did a wonderful job of hiding the 'family secret.' After college I distanced myself from him (and my mother divorced him after 25 years of marriage, due to the abuse we incurred when the drugs changed his brain chemistry). Without knowing that since he had no one to 'manage' his disease he fell far and fast. About four years after graduation I got married. Five months after that I heard the news that my dad had died by suicide. The man who saved so many others from that same fate. Ten years later, I am now speaking at that same college about exactly what we went through. For it was at this exact place that this secret could never be shared. I knew I would never move along in my grief, if I didn't face that place. Is it hard? Very! Whenever I lecture, I feel like that naughty teenager spilling the family secrets and being disloyal. However, I know sharing this story will help me, and God willing, help others. At my Daddy's best, he was about helping others. I will continue his mission. For it is also here, reliving the pain when I go through the story, that I feel that deep guilt, which then appeases my need to have some sort of penance for missing his signs and for me leaving him. May God bless you all. By the way, this page stood out to me because i miscarried the one child that I could ever have before my hysterectomy, her name would've been Hope.
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