As an adult, you come to the realization that your parents won’t live forever. You hope they will be around when you get married, have children of your own, or just for daily advice. Life’s natural progression is that you, as the child, live longer than your parents.
What is not expected, though, is for your dad to lose a battle to PTSD and commit suicide in his early 50s, four months after you have your first child.
My dad was my hero, a natural leader, and generally a likable guy. He wasn’t perfect, but I learned how to be a leader and how to admit I was wrong from him. He was constantly teaching, whether at the firehouse or at home. After I got married, he continually asked when I was going to make him a grandpa. He would talk about spoiling his grandkids because that’s what grandpas do.
When Henry was born, my dad didn’t even hold him at the hospital. The man I knew and loved had been slowly disappearing since he retired from the fire department in 2012. What none of us realized was the battle he was fighting inside his own head. When we think of PTSD we think of soldiers, victims of abuse, those who have survived natural disasters. We don’t tend to think of our first responders—the men and women who serve as our police, fire, EMS, and dispatchers.
Yet, what my family has discovered in the four years since my dad took his own life, is that the suicide rate is terribly high in the first responder community.
Those first few months after dad died were some of the most difficult periods of my life. As the oldest of six kids, with two away in the Marines, I felt it was my job to take care of my mom. Her best friend was gone, her life altered in a way none of us had ever dreamed. She was going to retire soon and she and dad were supposed to be off traveling the world together.
My role was no longer just to be a daughter, I felt I needed to be the protector.
There were many days when we cried together. I spent countless evenings at her house with my 4-month-old. I was angry, mostly at dad. How could he leave us? How could he leave mom alone? I was irrationally angry at my siblings for being away, leaving my youngest brother and me at home to hold the pieces together. I was angry at God. Dad had gotten help. He had just completed his outpatient counseling. Why were our prayers not answered? I was deeply hurt. Did dad not love us enough to stick around?
I wish dad were around to give me advice, to give me a hug.
I wish he were here to see his grandchildren. He has two beautiful boys, one who is his spitting image. I look at my oldest and see my dad every day. He has his blond hair and bright blue eyes. I wish my dad were here to give me advice on what to say to my boys about Grandpa Chip.
The first time Henry asked where Grandpa Chip was, my heart broke. We were walking home from getting ice cream and we passed one of the fire stations where dad had worked. I cried that night for what my boys have lost. There will be no Grandpa Chip to teach them how to fish or build fires or to take them hiking. There will be no Grandpa Chip at sporting events. There will be no Grandpa Chip to sing to them or teach them about fire trucks.
I am dreading the day I have to explain how Grandpa died. I will not hide how dad died from my children. For now, they know Grandpa Chip was sick. They hear stories, and whenever we see a red bird, Henry says Grandpa Chip is visiting.
The anger subsides. The pain becomes more bearable. I have realized God is still with me.
So how do you cope? For my family, coping has been talking, learning, and teaching. From the beginning, we did not hide the fact that my dad committed suicide. I read part of his letter at his funeral. He had a mental health issue, and we as a family decided to do as much as we could to make sure no one else has to suffer the way we do. Mom began to research, and we created a nonprofit that focuses on educating first responders, their families, and the community about PTSD. We continued to talk about what happened to dad.
As a child, I will never stop missing or loving my dad. There will always be an empty place in my heart that cannot be filled. People say the pain of losing a loved one goes away. I disagree. We just learn how to grow around the pain. We choose to become stronger, using our pain as fuel to live life to the fullest because life is too short.