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Blog: #mortem-patris

One year later

A year both slow and fast.

This week held four first anniversaries for me. Because we realized on a Tuesday that my dad had disappeared but we didn’t find him until that Friday after days of searching, the shape of the week is burned into my brain. We also have the calendrical anniversaries, where he went missing on the 13th and we found his body on the 16th (today).

It’s been an easier week than I anticipated. A thin layer of sadness spread over everything, yes, but I expected copious bouts of sobbing and generally not being able to function. Those expectations were almost certainly skewed; a full emotional repeat of the actual week wasn’t ever going to happen. Part of me also suspects that I’ve finished processing and have digested the tragedy into backstory, but I don’t have a good read on whether that’s accurate. What I do know, though, is that reading has been harder this past week; I barely eked out ten pages on Wednesday.

A few months ago I worked with someone on a collaborative art-related project that was due to be released next month. He had expressed interest in attending my art shows, so I emailed him near the end of last month to let him know about my I Lexi show at Writ & Vision. I realized this past Wednesday that I never heard back from him. He’d used his work email (the project was through his employer), so I wondered if perhaps he’d been laid off. I googled him…and immediately ran into his obituary. He’d been dead five days when I emailed him. Further digging revealed that he took his life. Oof. Sad and awful. That discovery cast an extra death-haunted tint on the day.

Last week I learned that my dad killed himself during National Suicide Prevention Week. I’m sure it had nothing to do with my dad’s choice of timing, but the irony is not lost on me.

As we gathered at my dad’s gravesite this week, I realized the typeface I used on the headstone (Literata) is the same typeface I use on my site. (Till the next redesign, anyway.) I don’t think I was conscious of that when I designed the stone; I was more concerned about choosing a typeface that was readable and had thick enough strokes for the engraving.

Here we are one year later and I’m still not done with the administrative side of the estate. Should get there in the next week or so, though. Crazy how long it takes.

Last but not least, thank you to all of you who’ve reached out this week to let us know you’re thinking of us. It’s meant a lot to us.

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Post mortem patris

Now that it’s been a bit longer (today marks four months since we found my dad’s body), a few more observations and thoughts, for anthropological interest:

  • We’re fairly certain he died the day he disappeared (the 13th), but the official date is the 16th, the day we found him. Turns out the medical examiner’s office here doesn’t usually do time-of-death estimations as part of autopsies. (Does it matter? No, not really. The outcome was the same either way, and in the end it’s just a number that washes farther out into the past with each new day.)
  • For a couple months I was waiting for the medical examiner to call and let me know the autopsy was finished. Turns out they were never going to call — I’d been misinformed. Luckily I happened to call them a few days after they finished the report, so we weren’t waiting excessively long for the cause of death.
  • Speaking of which, we got the official cause of death from the mortuary on November 18, two months post mortem. The final death certificates came a few days later. We can order a copy of the full autopsy report from the medical examiner’s office, which I’ve been meaning to do but haven’t gotten round to yet.
  • When the sad parts hit, I take comfort in consciously acknowledging that the mourning and the grief, however heavy, are a natural, necessary part of this process. They’re supposed to be here. I don’t particularly like being sad (especially in public!), but I also don’t want my dad’s death to mean so little to me that I no longer feel anything.
  • To that point, there have been fewer sad parts lately. I honestly don’t know if that’s because I’m slowly healing or if it’s just because my memory is a colander. Probably a mix of both. I occasionally worry that maybe I didn’t love my dad enough and that I should be more sad than I am.
  • My brain often tells me that my dad didn’t love me as much because I have almost no interest in business or sports, his two prime passions in life. I know this probably isn’t actually true, and that interest alignment isn’t on the same axis as parental love. I never thought about this when he was alive.
  • The searching-in-the-canyon dreams stopped a while ago, thankfully. I’ve had a couple dreams where I see him randomly and go up to him and say something like, “You’re dead! What are you doing here?!”, but my dreams are also notoriously meaningless and I know it’s not actually him, just my brain doing its usual regurgitation thing.
  • I haven’t felt his presence at all. No beyond-the-veil anything.
  • I’m glad most of my children knew my dad in person. Also a bit sad that my youngest won’t have any real memories of him. There’s enough photo and video footage to make up for it a little bit, maybe, but it’s not the same.
  • It took a few months before I finally threw away the bag of clothes my dad was wearing when he died. It was marked with a biohazard symbol and smelled of death, and I was too unsettled to ever open it. None of my siblings wanted it, either.
  • His car is still in my driveway, a daily reminder along with the canyon (which I still can’t not see every time I’m outside).
  • My doctor (whose sister took her life) said that immediate connections are statistically at a higher risk of suicide. I’m not at any risk myself, but I do worry more about other family members dominoing.
  • It all still feels surreal and distant, like we’re just between visits and any day now he’ll call me or show up at our door with more cookies. There have been a couple times, too, where my brain is momentarily convinced that he’s somehow still alive, that he pulled off an impossible disappearing act and is living a new life in New Zealand or Florida or something. The illusion never lasts long, thankfully.
  • At the very lowest points, I’ve felt that he abandoned us (his children). That he didn’t love us enough to stay. That’s rare, though. And I know it’s not true and that the depression was a parasite driving his brain, and who would expect a parasite to care about those left behind?
  • I’ve slowly been handling the administrative tasks. Opened an estate account. (At the bank, by the way, I learned that I had to have an EIN to open the account. Miraculously I was able to create one on the IRS site in a mere five or six minutes on my phone.) Closed other accounts. I occasionally check his email, though it’s so full of spam now that it’s pretty demoralizing.
  • Probate takes longer than I thought. Reading a summary of something is so much faster than living through it subjectively!
  • I was able to design the headstone myself, which was a relief since I haven’t exactly been inspired by most of the headstone typography I’ve seen. (So much extra tracking, and the typefaces usually aren’t great either.) It currently takes over a year for the monument company to fulfill orders. A bit longer than expected.
  • Given his age, my dad would most likely have died sometime in the next twenty years of natural causes. The fact of his absence currently doesn’t hurt as much as the awfulness of his method. I don’t know what it would feel like if he’d died of cancer or a heart attack instead.
  • I frequently think about how some — older people, primarily — have loss upon loss upon loss carved out of their souls. Parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends. So many goodbyes, so many layers of pain. Whew.
  • A few compatriots in suffering have shared their own stories of grieving and loss with me, and yet it doesn’t feel like an added burden at all.
  • When people ask how I’m doing, I still have no idea how to answer. (Having a two-month flareup of bad back pain hasn’t made it any easier.) I don’t fault the question, though. Someday I’ll figure out how to answer it again. In the meantime, apologies to those of you who’ve asked and have had to endure the awkwardness!
  • Though it might not sound like it given all of the above, I do feel like life is generally back to normal — yes, it’s overcast with occasional rain, but by and large I’m able to work and to be a husband and a father and to be an approximation of a normal, functioning member of society. (I can’t stop thinking, by the way, how infinitely harder this would all be if it had been my wife or one of my children.)

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The Doors of Death, based on a conference talk instead of a scripture (which is something I haven’t done much of yet). I like to think of this one as me talking with my dad.

The Doors of Death

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I Need Thee Every Hour II

I made this a couple weeks ago but haven’t posted about it here yet:

I Need Thee Every Hour II

When we were going through my dad’s things, we found a framed version of the original piece that he’d hung up in his office. That version was more representational than my more recent work, though, so I decided to do a more abstract, minimalist version in memoriam.

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Observations on grief

Some thoughts about my father’s death, in no particular order:

  • The past three weeks have felt like years.
  • Suicide is awful. That first late night especially, when we had no idea where he’d gone and all we had were the notes he left behind, the rain out in the darkness puncturing our hope, the spreading stain of fear in our hearts. I got maybe two hours of sleep that night.
  • Depression: also awful. My dad struggled with it almost all his life. I ache as I think of all the pain he suffered along the way. In the end, the cumulative weight was too much for him to bear, and it crushed him. I wish we’d been able to figure out a way to help him so we could have avoided this.
  • My belief that Dad is alive on the other side of the veil has been comforting. This is a long separation — till the end of my life, (which hopefully isn’t anytime soon) — but it’s not forever. Perspective helps.
  • I’ve often felt like I’m wading through muddy waters. Occasionally the path clears up for a bit, but then it gets murky again.
  • Another way of looking at the same thing: At the beginning I felt numb and listless and lost most of the time. Thankfully that’s largely gone away, but every once in a while it comes back for a little while.
  • During the first couple weeks, I tried to read but could barely get through even a couple pages a day (compared to my usual average of around a hundred pages a day). Since then I’ve gradually been able to get my fiction reading back up to semi-normal levels, but I’m still struggling with nonfiction. It slides off my brain. I imagine this will change in the near future.
  • Whenever I look at my front porch I’m reminded of my dad. During our Covid isolation, he would frequently drop cookies off on the porch and then stand back to chat with me from a distance. It happened often enough that we got sick of the cookies, but as an excuse to visit (not that we needed one) it worked well. I’m glad he stopped by as many times as he did.
  • A few days ago I noticed that when I step out my back door and look north, I can see the canyon where we found my dad’s body. It’s right there, staring back at me. (In fact, with the foliage around my yard right now, it’s basically the only part of the mountain that’s visible.) Turns out that part of the mountain is also garishly visible whenever I’m driving north in our part of town, a constant reminder now of those awful days of searching, hoping he was somehow still alive but feeling increasingly certain that at the end of our search we would find a lifeless, discarded body. Forever will that canyon — and by extension the entire mountain — be haunted in my mind, a cradle of sorrow. Perhaps time will heal it. I’ve found myself wondering how much worse it must be for those whose loved ones kill themselves in the same house.
  • It’s comforting to me to remember that losing a parent is something that billions upon billions of my fellow humans (including most of the older generation alive right now) have gone through. There is life after death, in several different ways.
  • Most of the time I abstract my dad’s suicide away so that I can function. Being able to set the thought aside if it’s not a good time to cry has been very helpful. I went days without crying, then listened to his last few voicemails and sobbed on the floor for a long while (alarming my kids who hadn’t really ever seen me cry before and who thought I was faking it). Audio and video recordings are the hardest — stark reminders that this man who once was a breathing, moving, talking person is now a few pounds of ash buried in the ground (the part of him that’s still here on earth is, anyway), and that he’ll never say anything new to me or to anyone else.
  • Beauty for ashes has new meaning to me now.
  • In the wake of death, there’s been so much connection to other people, and that is a wonderful thing, even if people feel like they don’t know what to say. (And even if they say the wrong thing, which doesn’t really bother me.) I know not everyone has a large network of support, though, and that breaks my heart.
  • I feel a mild amount of guilt for wanting my life to go back to normal (or at least as normal as possible given what’s happened).
  • Seeing father/child relationships (including my own with my children) keeps reminding me that I no longer have a dad on this planet. Off he went, through a one-way portal to another world, leaving a gaping abyss in his absence. I skirt my way around that abyss most of the time, but every once in a while I can feel it looming nearby, a flash of cosmic horror. (That said, my faith really is a foundation that makes all of this bearable.)
  • As I talk with others about the past few weeks, by the way, and also as I write this post, I wonder whether I’m overdramatizing any of this. Maybe. But I have to remind myself that this really is something truly horrible, something undeniably in the category of Really Bad Things that can happen.
  • I’ve frequently had mildly traumatizing dreams that I’m back at the canyon trailhead still searching for my dad’s body. I wonder how long my brain will take to finish processing that.
  • Designing the headstone and typesetting the funeral program was kind of fun, in a sad way.
  • Now that I’m dealing with the administrative issues that come with being executor, I’ve found myself wishing my dad had left an overview document for me: a list of all his accounts, insurance policies, bills, passwords, etc. Instead I’ve had to piece it all together from emails and texts and snail mail and his wallet, and even then I still don’t know if I’m missing something crucial.
  • After years of doing genealogy, I find it intriguing to be on this side of probate, with a father who died intestate like so many of my ancestors. I’m learning a lot.
  • As far as I can tell, the last time I spoke with my dad was almost a month before he passed. There were nominal reasons why we didn’t talk after that — Covid, other sicknesses, a work trip to Chicago, life — but they all seem hollow now. I wish we’d had some kind of contact in the week before he left us, a goodbye even if I didn’t know it was one at the time.
  • In spite of all the sorrow, I know that this too shall pass. In the end, death will have lost its sting and the grave its victory. I’m learning now for the first time, though, just how far off that end feels.

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My dad died this week. He went missing on Tuesday and we found his body in the mountains on Friday after three excruciatingly long days of searching.

It’s been awful, but in spite of the core-shaking pain and a whole lot of crying, I’ve felt at peace — even more than I was expecting. I am so, so grateful for Christ and his gospel, giving me hope that I will see my father again and that this is just a temporary separation. I’ve also been amazed to see such a massive outpouring of support and love from family and friends and complete strangers.

Over the last day or two I’ve felt I needed to make this new piece about my dad and all the people supporting him and my family on both sides of the veil. It’s called Taken Home:

Taken Home

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