So, here we go. I’ve had this whole thing that I’ve been through that people knew about, but it was still kind of a hidden part of me that I never really wanted to own. Something that I just wanted to push to the side because it wasn’t some grand adventure that belonged on my instagram. Or blog. Or frankly, in public in my eyes. But then Robin Williams died. Did I know him? Nope. But I knew my dad. And with that, I leave you with my story that I shared with a few people in September.
The brilliant Bob Goff once said, ” People don’t choose to be courageous, the just decide to not be afraid anymore.” So with that said, I have this story. Just like everyone else has a story, but only until the last few months did I really come to realize the immense amount of shame that I carried with it.
You see one morning my mom and brother showed up on the doorstep of my new home in Nashville with some news that immediately changed the course of my life. After years of battling a few health issues, bi-polar disorder and addiction, and struggling to keep a steady job, on August 22nd of 2008 my dad made the decision to end his own life. My world dramatically changed. I had settled into a new town with a new job and an internship in the music industry and new friends and was beyond thrilled for what I thought God was going to do in my life there. Minutes after my mom and brother told me what had happened I told my roommates, packed a bag of what I thought was clothes (turns out it was a lot of towels and t-shirts) and got in my car and drove what felt like the longest three hours of my life back to Lexington. I told who I could think to tell, but spent the majority of that time in the car asking my mom if what they had said REALLY ACTUALLY HAPPENED. And it had.
The days that followed were full of lots of family and friends and food and tears and food and tears. Have you noticed that everyone always brings food? I guess that when you’re that deep in grief you either feel absolutely nothing or every single possible emotion at one time, but either way you can still taste good things. We got to see a lot of different people who loved Jesus really well, come together over our family. I had friends on the other side of the world asking how they could pray and it honestly was the most beautiful picture of how I really think Jesus intends for us to carry each other.
I had always heard people talk about funerals potentially being a joyful thing, a celebration of a life. And walking into my own father’s I [SO] was not expecting that because I was really sad, but people showed up in droves. Like lines out the door droves. It was some outrageous number who came to tell my family over and over how amazing my dad was and how funny he was and how he had changed their life. And how much they loved us. During the service we had an opportunity for people to stand up and talk about how he had impacted them or just tell a funny story. You know that feeling when you’re talking to someone who’s gone through something that you can’t even begin to identify with and your mind just goes blank? Yeah. That one that makes you feel really uncomfortable – I had this anxiety in me that when the floor was left open with an invitation to speak that there would be that awkward moment where everyone looked at each other (or at the floor) and there would be the biggest awkward silence I’d ever experienced. But yet again, my anxiety was proven to be completely unwarranted. So many people stood up telling the same stories we had heard throughout the visitation. I remember sitting there, with emotions from pride to frustration to hurt to “Dad, what in the hell were you thinking?! Do you hear how loved you are?!
The first year was full of so many firsts…Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, football season. You see, Super Bowl was like Christmas in my family and my dad’s birthday happens to fall on February 1st, which always tends to be right around Super Bowl. Double whammy. And then there was my last semester of college and graduation. There were just so many things he should have been there for and he wasn’t. Year two I felt like I had a tight grip. Reality was settling in and I was having a hard time letting go. The second time around with all the holidays was weird and sobering. The first year my mantra was, “I just have to get through this.” And the second year I just kept thinking, “This really is how it is. He is actually gone.”
But after a couple years of therapy, having a mom that I’m genuinely convinced is a saint, a brother that could be a stand up comedian and some ridiculously amazing friends and family, those sobering moments still were happening (I mean, let’s be real, they still happen today), but their frequency was less and therefore my sanity was more. YAY! Finally. My new normal was becoming my reality. And I say new normal because I have come to learn that when you walk through something like this…such a sudden loss that comes completely out of left field…you are never the same. Things never really go back to “normal”. Whatever that is anyways.
Then in March of 2012 I got a call at work that one of my best friends dads had made the same decision as my dad. Cue: ALL OF MY EMOTIONS + a little sense of going into battle. I knew what was ahead of her. I knew there was anger and hurt and “why’s” and “where do I go from here’s” and so many other things. I will never forget seeing her that night and hugging her and thinking that God 110% knew what he was doing when he made us friends our freshman year of high school. For such a time as this.
As I’ve walked through the last year and a half with her, she has taught me so much. I have learned so much more about grief. Denial/Isolation-Anger-Bargaining-Depression and Acceptance. Those five steps, right? At least that’s how I’d gauged it before with my therapist. Sometimes I would go through all 5 in a month. Sometimes I go through all 5 in 60 seconds flat. Grief really knows no boundaries. But only after my dear friend’s loss did I realize that suicide grief was a whole different ball game. There were those steps, but those steps came with a lot of other questions that would not likely ever be answered this side of heaven.
Only was it a little over a month ago that I realized there was one emotion that had been silencing my story for the last six years. And that was that shame. That ugly little lie that what I was going through was unworthy of being known. That this experience that was changing the core of who I was and what I believed, was something that I needed to carry alone.
I have never had an issue talking about my dad since he passed away. I love it actually. Usually it’s stories that come with a lot of laughter. And sometimes tears too. But never did I ever want to talk about the fact that my dad died by suicide. For some reason, I carried so much shame in his decision. Perhaps it was because in the beginning I took his choice personally. Even though I knew in my head that it wasn’t my fault and he even confirmed this in the letter he left, there was still part of my broken up daughter-heart that didn’t get why we weren’t worth sticking around for. My head and my heart weren’t agreeing with each other. AGAIN – SO. MANY. EMOTIONS. I couldn’t organize them all.
And also, suicide just isn’t pleasant. No death is pleasant, for that matter. But suicide seems especially ugly. No one knows what to say. No one wants to talk about it. Or at least I had convinced myself of that. It seemed like a burden to share with people. Like I was laying something heavy on them when I told them the way my dad had died. I had bought into the lie and stigma that our society (and the church, for that matter) had put on to suicide and mental health. You see, I didn’t feel like anyone else should have to carry my burden. But you know who else believed that lie, my dad, Tom Herb. And I really do think, had he shared that burden, that my family’s story and mine would look COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
So now, I am refusing that lie and that stigma. People’s lives literally depend on it. I could feed you a million statistics right now about suicide and mental health that you’ve heard before and would likely forget the minute you finished reading this. But what I don’t want you to forget is that there is no shame in your story, just like there is no shame in mine. Don’t write the wrong one, I beg you. I was writing a story shadowed by shame and embarrassment. And God has no intent for you or I to walk in any shadows. There is hope. Even in the darkest of places where it feels so empty, there is hope. I literally got it tattooed on my wrist, as to not forget it. Because sometimes there are days when it’s really easy to. God can and will redeem you. He is taking my shame and giving me purpose. So, Whether you are sitting in that inconvenient grief of loss or you are struggling yourself – You are never too far.
He can and will redeem your story. He will restore dignity and strength in places that you thought were dead. “Do not be afraid” he says to us over and over again. “I have made you. I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” [Isaiah 46:4] He will take your hurt and turn it into something you could never imagine. Something that is actually beautiful. When he says he will give beauty for ashes, He’s not kidding.