Lessons from a Suicide

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After my father died by suicide I spent years avoiding and running away from the pain and loss associated with his death. It wasn’t until I reached a turning point, a life changing conversation with a family friend, that I recognized I couldn’t run away any longer. Additionally, the conversation helped me see that perhaps there was something meaningful to uncover if I could find a way to face his death. That conversation and realization was the beginning of a journey to understand why my father died by suicide and what, if anything, could be learned from it.

This became my passion and personal research project. I made it my mission to meet with as many of my father's friends and family members as I could. One fo the first challenges I encountered was that his friends and family were spread out all over the place. Fortunately, I began my career as a professional bodyboarder and had the opportunity to travel extensively during that time. While I desperately wanted to come away from my research with an understanding of why he took his own life, I knew that I’d never know the complete story. That information and story died along with my father.

Over the years, I came to learn that my dad had some wonderful qualities. He had incredible willpower and determination. He was witty, funny, and charismatic. And at the same time, it became clear that many of his qualities did not serve him well. In some ways, he gave me a blueprint for how not to live—and in turn, how to live well from there. He became my greatest teacher.

I spent five years traveling and learning about my father. Eventually, I could boil down everything into four main lessons. The following is a synopsis from my book Ashes in the Ocean.

Lesson 1: Slow Down

One of the most prevalent themes that I heard from nearly every person I spoke with was how goal-oriented my father was. This tied right in with his intensely competitive spirit and his relentless and stubborn quest to be the best in whatever he was doing. Like most people, he set goals relating to many aspects of his life, including his finances, fitness, living situation, etc. Once the goal was set, he would put the blinders on and race toward it. He took what worked for him in competitive swimming and applied those same principles to life. He had been wonderfully successful in the water. In swimming, there is a singular goal in mind, to be first to the finish line, and that is accomplished by charging forward faster than anyone else. In a race, that is a very sound strategy. In life, however, it didn’t seem to translate so well.

My dad spent much of his life racing from one goal to the next. He raced forward, putting all his attention on the finish line and missing much of the scenery passing him by. Of course, planning things out and creating goals is useful and necessary. The issue, I came to understand, was how extreme my dad was in his focus on the goal and the future. He was using the present moment as a means for reaching his goal and nothing more. He wasn’t happy until he achieved his goal, and whenever he did reach his goal, that happiness or satisfaction was short lived. He was always on to the next thing. This was a great reminder for me to take time to appreciate the present moment, which of course, is the only moment we ever actually experience.

Lesson 2: Focus on Personal Growth, Relationships, and Helping Others

It became apparent that my dad placed a great deal of importance on his looks, physical ability, and financial status. My dad was, for the most part, very successful at what he did. He also happened to be a good-looking guy. From a young age, he was a successful swimmer and took great pride in his physical ability. He found financial prosperity in the business world. For a time, everything was going great; he had his looks, and he was young and wealthy.

Of course, life isn’t one straight arrow to the top; there are highs and lows, peaks and valleys. The problem arose when my dad experienced the natural ebb in the cycles of life. When he lost a lot of his money, he reacted to that as if it were a direct blow to his sense of self, which in his mind, it was. As he aged, his looks began to fade and he slowed down physically, and the same thing happened; it was a direct hit to his core identity. It was as if he needed his youth, looks, and money in order to be happy.

The issue wasn’t in the material things themselves. Money, good looks, and athletic prestige are wonderful things. The issue was that at his very core, my dad found his sense of self-worth (his personal value) in those extrinsic things, and because of that, he held on to them tightly. In his mind his wealth, societal status, and image made him who he was. Seeing the results of my dad’s attachment to and identification with material things and what happened when those things eventually faded or changed was a monumental takeaway for me.

Lesson 3: Both/And

Based on the information I had gathered and the stories I heard, it seemed my dad had an all-or-nothing type of mindset. For example, to him, winning was everything. He was only happy when he was winning, which he did most of the time. To him it was black and white: “You’re either a winner or a loser.” You were either on top of the world or in the gutter. He didn’t get the point of doing something unless he was the best. He certainly instilled this mindset in me when I was young.

Of course, life isn’t all or nothing, winning or losing, success or failure, black or white. There are many different shades and nuances. It’s important to be able to take various perspectives. Instead of either/or, consider approaching things with the mindset of both/and.

Lesson 4: Making Friends with Reality

My father’s lack of acceptance was another overarching theme that came up frequently. It manifested in a number of ways, but most noticeably in his vision of a future utopia and fighting with life when things didn’t go his way, or resisting the process of getting older. In many ways, his willpower and perseverance served him well: when it came to the determination to win a race, for example. It certainly served as a motivator to get better and to push toward his goals. However, there is a big difference between perseverance and non acceptance or stubbornness. Perseverance is defined as “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties,” and is useful and healthy. On the other hand, lack of acceptance and stubbornness is a resistance to change and doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. My dad spent a great deal of his life and his energy fighting with what is.

Toward the end of his life he was in bad financial shape, he wasn’t living in the home or location he had dreamed of, many of his relationships were strained, and he was getting older and slowing down physically. Things certainly weren’t going according to his plan. Instead of yielding and looking at other options, he put his head down and drove forward, as if he could change his situation through sheer force. As one of his closest friends described it, it was as if he had run right into a brick wall, and instead of lifting his head and looking for a way around, he kept charging forward trying to break through.

Reality is going to keep on doing its thing with or without you. Accepting what is beyond your control is empowering. I’m not saying to be complacent or to stay stuck in situations you don’t like and can change. Go after what you want and practice acceptance. In the long run, it’s much easier (and more peaceful) to make friends with what “is” rather than oppose it.

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When I set out on this journey, I began with the intention of seeking information and lessons that would help me from following in his fatal footsteps. In the end, I came to see that the lessons I learned were much more than ways to avoid suicide. They were reminders on how to thrive and live a fulfilled life.

 Boy and Hummingbird from  The Adventures of Enu . Illustration by  Blaze Syka .

Boy and Hummingbird from The Adventures of Enu. Illustration by Blaze Syka.