“After you were born, your mother told me: ‘We’re just here to be memories for our kids.’”Cooper saying goodbye to Murphy in the movie Interstellar
I barely remember my father, and what “memories” I have might be manufactured, for all that I know. I suspect most of them are just impressions from photographs or family lore that took root and became my own. I was young when he died, and the years before that awful day were full of turmoil, which is known to make childhood memories foggy.
What I know is that my dad was mentally ill. Mom told me once that he’d sought psychiatric help, but whatever his doctor tried wasn’t effective. This was sixty years ago, when effective psychotherapy was rare. I now believe Dad was bipolar, a mood disorder that can be characterized by swings between dark depression and an unrealistic and unsustainable euphoria. When he was down, he drank heavily. When he was up, he gambled, spent money hand over fist, and disappeared on trips without warning, only to reappear without explanation.
His life spun out of control. His finances and relationships fell apart. He embezzled from his employer to fuel his need to spend money. And there came a point where the whole house of cards he was living in — we were living in — was about to collapse. Unable to find a way out of the messes he had created, he killed himself. I remember the aftermath of his death like it was yesterday, but I don’t remember him.
Suicide is a rejection of life, of love, of friendship and fellowship. It’s a rejection of hope and the possibility of redemption, of rescue. In the darkness of depression or the confusion of psychosis it can seem like the only way out. But that’s a lie.
At best, suicide merely transfers pain from one person to the community of friends and loved ones left behind. The suicide of one individual is experienced as an indictment against all who survive. It becomes an unspoken accusation that we were inadequate, that we failed the most basic duty of care that humans have for each other. Survivors live with a burden of guilt, that in the moment of greatest need they failed to prevent what should have been prevented.
I remember crying. I remember asking God why he had taken my father. I never got an answer. Eventually I stopped crying and stopped asking. My grief turned to emptiness, a good bit of denial, and ultimately, anger.
I loved my dad, despite everything. Children don’t really know more than what they experience. Whatever the chaos and dysfunction we lived out in our home, it was our normal, my normal, and when it was taken away by death, I felt like the foundations of my world had crumbled.
We learned how to be a single-parent family. Fatherless homes are not at all uncommon these days and weren’t unknown back then. But it felt like we were living under a stigma. I imagined people whispering about me, about us. Poor things. Their father killed himself, you know. I heard it was over some terrible secret that was hushed up. The oldest boy never says much. He seems troubled. Like father, like son.
I was troubled. I felt abandoned. I felt rejected. I believed that I had probably done something wrong, something that had prompted my dad’s suicide. Grief turned into self-loathing. Self-loathing turned into a darkness that made life increasingly unbearable and death increasingly inviting. Like father, like son.
I’ve had sixty years to live a fatherless life, sixty years to grieve, sixty years to ask unanswered questions of God, sixty years to study mental illness — to live with my own mental illness. I’ve found my way through to a better place, but I still grieve, after all this time. I still feel a powerful emptiness that sometimes drags me into the darkness. I feel cheated, I think. I feel defective, deformed by the experience of growing up fatherless. I moved into adulthood with assumptions about life, about relationships, about love, about myself that were completely false, but which took root because of my fatherless upbringing.
I was introduced to Jesus Christ when I was 16 or 17 at a time when everything was spiraling out of control. I had come to hate myself and my life. I found little joy in school or friends and I started making elaborate plans to kill myself.
But I decided to give God another chance. I went to a youth Bible study at the invitation of two Christian guys who I really didn’t know very well. I don’t know why I went, but once there, I was intrigued by the joy of the kids in that group. I was pulled in by the words of Jesus. I was made to feel loved and valued by the youth minister, a former Marine and jock who was as different from me as night and day, but who, it turned out, had himself been a fatherless child. We bonded. The remarkable words and teachings of Jesus infiltrated my mind and heart. They sounded true. They felt life-giving. I succumbed to hope and made the decision to put my life, present and future, into the hands of the Savior.
I drank deeply from the river of the Word. Hope grew inside of me. And in that Word, I found something I never expected: a God who calls himself our Father. God calls us his children. More amazing than that, God calls us his chosen children, his adopted children. He looks at us with love and invites us to join his family.
A year or so later, I wrote this poem.
Adopted Son Lonely, staring window-child, All your past in a tattered file. Look your best when someone calls, But footsteps fade in ancient halls. No one claims you, No one names you, Sitting-in-a-window-child. Distant, murmured evening song; Who can say where I belong? Who will take me as I am; Tell me why my life began? Someone take me, Don’t forsake me, Quiet, lonesome evening song. Tender, caring God above, Lived and died to prove His love. Took me as His very own; Promises to take me home. Hands extended, Life expended, Tender, caring God of love.
We are forged by the experiences of our lives, particularly the experiences we had as children. During childhood we develop the internal dogmas that direct us through life ever after. Some of those dogmas are true, others are lies. I used to believe that the only way to avoid being hurt in life was to avoid love. It turned out I was wrong. Love can be excruciatingly painful, but to avoid love is to embrace a life that’s empty, meaningless, as dry and dead as ash.
“I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”John 15:12,13 (NLT)
To love as Jesus loved requires us to live, first of all. We must choose life, not death. We must choose engagement, not hibernation. We must choose to push through grief and look ahead for the promise of a return to that overflowing joy Jesus talked about.
To love as God loves us is to reject narcissism and find meaning in a love that is focused on others, those who are like us and those who are different, those who are easy to love and those who are difficult, those who appreciate our love and those who reject it.
Mental illness has no quick, simple solutions. Faith is no panacea. We live with a new perspective about what’s true, what’s real, we live in a relationship with the living God, but we still live in the midst of tragic brokenness.
I’ve struggled with depression and suicidal thinking most of my life. Although my relationship with Jesus has given me purpose and hope, I still sometimes feel overwhelmingly unworthy, unacceptable, unloved, even ashamed. This seems to be the way I’m wired. But by faith in Christ, I know that God sees me very differently, and sometimes, that knowledge, that love, is able to push aside the darkness and let in a little light.
Good counseling and therapeutic medications have given me stability. God has given me a forever Father who loves me, who loves you, and who has made a place for us in his eternal family.
Mental health resources
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255, 24/7
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: https://www.dbsalliance.org/
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/Home
- Hope for Mental Health (Saddleback Church): https://saddleback.com/connect/ministry/mental-health-ministry
- “I Love Jesus, But I Want To Die” by Sarah J Robinson (video interview): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dp3NKPNVEEk&t=4s