by Amy Schmidt
It was February 11, 1981. That was the day my whole universe changed. I was 7 years old and I remember walking into the kitchen, seeing my mom holding the phone in her hand. Tears were streaming down her pale face, with what I now recognize as a look of shock and grief. I tried asking her what was wrong, but she quietly shook her head and shooed me out of the room.
My next memory is her sitting my 3-year-old brother and me down on his bed. Through quivering lips, she said she had something important to tell us… “Your daddy died today. It was a car accident,” she said. White noise filled my ears, it was hard to take a breath, and the crying that escaped me sounded like it was coming from some other little girl.
Although my parents had been separated on and off over the past couple of years, as he was living in Tennessee and us in New Jersey, I was very close to my dad, David Lawrence Sanders.
He loved my brother and me with every ounce of his being and we felt it. I just spent the holidays with him, my uncles, and grandfather. It was so hard to grasp that this person whom I last saw very much alive was not here anymore. It was surreal.
That feeling stayed with me for a very long time
I often thought what happened was just a dream; that I was going to wake up to him being alive and well. My mom and I talked about this later in life and she, who lost both parents at a young age, thought the same thing about her own parents when she was a child.
My mom and I flew down to Memphis for the services
So many people attended. Adults were hugging me with the most sad looks on their faces. It’s a look that when I see it, to this day, evokes feelings of anger. You know the look… tilted head, puffed out lips, arms outstretched. I remember being told it was ok to cry. Of course, it was! Yet, I was still struggling, feeling like this wasn’t really happening.
It wasn’t until they started wheeling his coffin down the center of the church that my little 7-year-old self really felt the end of his life, his death. As my mom and I walked hand-in-hand behind him, I broke away from her and ran after his coffin; as if by catching up to it, I could somehow stop them from taking him away forever.
Later in life my mom often talked about how watching me run down that aisle was one of the most heartbreaking things she ever experienced. Now, as a mother myself, I can only imagine how hard that was for her. I often wonder how she found the strength to get through losing a husband with two children to raise.
Especially once I found out how he had really died
My dad was a Vietnam veteran from a military family who finally settled in Memphis, TN. He was one of those people who made friends without even trying. He was a funny, all-around nice person, who marched to the beat of his own drum. He was the life of the party. I know because anyone and everyone who’s ever known him tell me this.
That’s why the way he died was such a shock to everyone.
My mom always ensured we never forgot him or all of his good qualities. She never stopped singing his praises. I only knew love from him, but I do remember him fighting some of his demons. From the time he came home from Vietnam he struggled with drug addiction. Experimenting with drugs was at an all-time high and finding help for anyone with an addiction was difficult, let alone a veteran returning from a war that no one seemed to want to be fighting.
I was 11 years old when a family friend told me my father died by suicide.
I confronted my mom. She tried denying it, but the pain on her face betrayed her words.
Everything I knew to be true about losing my father suddenly became untrue. She was trying to protect my little mind from understanding something adults couldn’t even process. It was like losing him all over again.
My grief was reset, and the process started all over again
I went through a plethora of emotions in the months following. One counselor told me it was ok to be angry with my dad for taking his own life and leaving us, so I went through a time of feeling angry. Deep down inside I wasn’t angry, I was sad. Sad for myself, sad for my mom, but mostly sad for my dad. Even at that young age I knew he wasn’t mentally well to have taken his own life.
In the years that followed his death, every holiday, birthday, and milestone was bittersweet. Especially as I entered my adult years when the milestones were more significant. Not having my father there to see me get married or meet his first grandson were particularly difficult.
I’ve always felt a void when it comes to emotional support. There have been many moments that I’ve wished he were here to lean on. Girls need their father in their lives. Although my mom did her best to play both roles, and I have an amazing step-father, the absence of my own father has and probably will always be felt.
In 2011 I was expecting a child. At a routine prenatal appointment, it was discovered there was no heartbeat. That was the second time in my life that I felt the breath knocked out of me and the anguished cries leaving my body did not sound like my own.
That evening I made a split decision and insisted I, instead of my husband, drive to the train station to meet my mother and sister. They were coming into town so I could deliver our stillborn daughter the next day.
In my overwhelming grief I decided I was going drive myself into the James River that night. I couldn’t do it though. I had two beautiful boys waiting at home for me and I couldn’t bear the thought of them living without me.
The recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain brought the raw emotion of losing a loved one by suicide to the surface again. It hurts my heart to know they both left behind daughters.
To their daughters, I have this message: their pain is not your pain. You will have moments where emotion will overcome you. Moments where you’ll wonder why… so many whys. Moments where you feel angry. Moments where you feel a stab in your heart during happy moments. Especially when you see features, facial expressions, or mannerisms in your own children someday that are just like the grandparent they never knew.
Please know that these are only moments. They will come and go. Our parents suffered from mental illness. They were sick.
You will likely see the adults around you go through different emotions that you feel. You will see guilt, anger, and possibly even divide among your family. Sadly, the pain your parent felt suddenly is passed on to the adults that were closest to them.
You will miss things about your parent that you wished you had bottled up somewhere. The sound of their voice (oh what I’d do to hear my dad’s voice again), their smell when they hugged you, the way they held your hand, and how their skin felt.
Lastly, if the darkness of this illness ever takes hold of you too, try to remember you are not alone. More people than you realize have fallen into the depths of depression.
Speak your pain and never be ashamed.
For our parents and every person out there feeling the invisible agony of this disease we must somehow find the strength to do this.
Note from Anne Moss: For those of you with young children dealing with a death by suicide by someone close to the child, I highly recommend this guide on how to tell children about that suicide. It is an evidence-based book with scripts per age group.