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What losing my Dad 12 years ago taught me.
12 years ago today, I missed a call from my Dad.
“Hey Matt, I just wanted to let you know that I love you”
If I had been able to answer that phone call, that voicemail wouldn’t have been his last words, they would have been the start of a conversation that saved his life. My Dad was reaching out for help in his darkest moment, but there was no one there to grab onto.
I can only imagine the sense of despair and the feeling of hopelessness that my Dad was feeling. For someone to think that suicide is the best option not only speaks to their state of mind, but to the level of pain they’re feeling.
I believe that he thought he was making the best decision, but I refuse to believe that he was right. I know that if I answered that call, I would have been able to let him know he wasn’t alone, that things would have gotten better, and that his life is worth living.
I can’t change history, but I can learn from it.
I’ll never forget the moment he tried reaching out before that fateful moment. He told me he was struggling and when I asked whether he would see someone, he said he couldn’t because it would hurt his career.
It’s such a tragic thought that our society can have people who would rather take their lives than to share their pain. I know for a fact that I would rather someone share their pain with me over having to go to their funeral.
So why does it still exist? Why is there still a stigma around mental health that stops people from sharing their pain? We know that stigma disappears momentarily when we lose someone to suicide… so why does it continue to exist as time passes?
I don’t know.
If we acknowledge that a mental health stigma exists, by definition, we are acknowledging that parts of our community associate mental health with disgrace or shame. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s true.
It’s not just logically true, I feel it too. I wanted this article to be symbolic, where on the same day my Dad tried to communicate his struggles in his darkest hour, I wanted to communicate mine when I was feeling great.
But there was this little voice saying “nah you don’t need to say that”, or “mmm, that’s a bit too much info isn’t it?”. I feared that stigma when writing this article and I was scared about how it would be received… Which, makes it more important for me to do it anyway.
Losing my Dad to suicide, for lack of a better term, left a bloody big mark. Suicide as a concept is extremely difficult to reconcile. I’ll never be able to know the exact reasons my Dad made his decision, and there will always be that torturous ‘what if’ around that final phone call.
Losing my Dad to suicide has also made me afraid of it. It’s made me afraid that because my Dad was my role model, because I identify with him in many ways, because I’m his son, that I could somehow be destined for the same fate.
This is a tough bloody fear to sit with. Because when I look at my son, my wife, my family, my friends, my life in general… I know I don’t want to die. But I’m afraid to die via a means that implies an unwillingness to live.
Excuse the repetitive use of this word… but it’s bloody confusing.
It’s not confusing because I don’t understand it. It’s confusing because despite all the rational evidence I have at my disposal to square this fear away, it persists anyway. It’s almost as if losing my Dad to suicide has awoken an irrational part of my brain that’s finding it hard to go back to sleep.
I know this fear isn’t justified and I know it might always be there. I know that losing my Dad to suicide can have this type of impact… because I experienced the same thing with my Mum.
When my Mum was diagnosed with Cancer, it shook me. It shook me because I’d been rolling around the 9 years after my Dad’s death with this mindset that if I could do things to avoid pain, everything would work out.
So when I got a call from my Mum saying she had Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer, that mindset was well and truly shattered.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever had your belief structure challenged, but it’s a weird spot to be. Having the set of rules that have helped you navigate life being put under the spotlight and stress tested can leave you feeling lost… particularly if they’re disproven.
For about 3 months, my naturally optimistic mindset took a backseat and almost everything that came across my plate was viewed through a negative lens. And similar to that fear of suicide, because of my Mum’s diagnosis, I was afraid of being sick.
Indigestion… heart attack. Sore neck… swollen lymph nodes, so must be cancer, right? Upset stomach… you get the idea. Every bodily sensation I was aware of was run through the lens of “could this be something that means I’m sick?”
It was… sorry again… a bloody tough time.
Ultimately, losing both my parents has brought a fear of death to the forefront. Fortunately, I think I’m across it all and I feel as though I’m comprehending my struggle more and more as time goes on, thanks to some healthy habits.
Whether it be exercise, or being part of a family, a friendship group, or a community, these things have given me a stronger foundation. A foundation that’s given me the confidence to share my pain, so I’m able to work through what I need to.
I’ve shared my pain both privately and publicly. Fortunately again, I have an incredible wife who is painfully wise… because she’s always right... But I’ve also been fortunate enough to have Running for Resilience.
Having my struggles in the ‘public' domain has forced me to be honest with myself, and recently, writing about my struggles has forced me to engage with my emotions on a more consistent basis.
To me, sharing my struggles has had three unbelievably helpful benefits; it orders my thinking, it shares the load and frees up energy for more positive activities, and it can expose errors in my thinking
Sharing my struggles, in a kind of beautiful way, has also helped me maintain a relationship with my Dad.
When I was delivering my Dad’s eulogy, I recited a quote saying “to live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die”. Basically, it means that by remembering the loved ones we’ve lost, they will live on in our memories.
My Dad lives on in my memories but also in the lessons he taught me. Never let people know when you were right, always let them know you when you were wrong. Always look at how you could improve before you look at others. And now, through writing the Rag, he’s taught me one more lesson.
Never be afraid to share your thoughts, no matter how silly you feel for holding them.
I think it’s pretty normal to fear looking stupid, but I think it’s more stupid to keep our thoughts to ourselves and maintain a distorted view of the world. By sharing our thoughts, and in this case our struggles, we are allowing others to show us different perspectives that can help us.
I liken it to waking up every morning and spraying some WD-40 on the wheels of our bike because we hate squeaky wheels. Yeah sure, if we do that we’ll be squeak free, but one day our wheels will fall off and the pain will be far greater.
We don’t have to share our struggles publicly like this, and we don’t have to always go into detail. I once prided myself on being able to internalise my struggles and arrive at a healthy conclusion. But as I’ve kind of pointed out above, I was spraying a bit too much WD-40 on things and not looking after myself enough.
Point is, we’re all at different stages of our ‘resilience’ journey.
I didn’t jump from internalising to this straight away, it came with little steps, and I don’t know what your first step looks like, but I promise you it’s in the right direction. So if you feel like you need to share your struggles, know that you’re doing the right thing.
You’re not only helping yourself, you’re helping set an example for someone who needs it. Because on this day 12 years ago, my Dads decision was made because he felt like he had nowhere to go. If we had more people sharing their pain, he would have had a blueprint to follow, and I believe he would have been alive today.
To my Dad, I’m sorry for the pain you had to go through. Your death is not the end of your legacy, and it will continue to save lives from suicide. It’s already made me a better man and even though I wish you were still alive, I’m thankful for the lessons your life continues to teach me.
Just. Keep. Moving.
There are some other R4R Runners sharing their struggles and insights on how to overcome them. It’s not all doom and gloom, don’t worry, I actually think it’s quite optimistic because despite life’s setbacks, these people are making something positive out of them. They also write about some light hearted topics too, like Rugby, Music, and of course… Running.
I highly recommend you give them a read!
The Writing for Resilience crew (currently - new people are always welcome!)
Struggling - Benny A
Sobering Thoughts - Sammy
Running Rare - Timmy
The Milkbar - Nick
Peak 2 Soon - Fordy