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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.


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.
01/31/2017 at 11:05 AM
I lost my dad to suicide yesterday. I can not fathom how or why this happened. He was a strong, wonderful and caring man. He called me 6 days ago to talk about life, as we did often, he was my best friend and confidant. I loved my Dad more than words can say. I am 41 and he was 68, but the loss is so bitter that I take breaks even writing this to cry and express my emotions. I miss him dearly and already feel a huge hole in my world. I am at a loss. If i had just listened more when he called I would have been able to help.
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